“Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems – but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible. Suppose yourself in a large cinema, sitting at first in the back row, and gradually moving up, row by row, until your nose is almost pressed against the screen. Gradually the stars’ faces dissolve into dancing grain; tiny details assume grotesque proportions; the illusion dissolves – or rather, it becomes clear that the illusion itself is reality.”
― Salman Rushdie,
Mine is a complicated relationship with cinema. I am not, truth be told, one of those people who just loves to watch movies for the sake of watching movies. Movies are not my life, and I do not love them unequivocally. Simply put, the form is not enough for me to overlook content. There are movies I love, adore, revel in, and those I will watch over and over again until I find myself speaking along with the lines of dialogue and humming to the music. But these are few and far between. The sheer act of watching a movie is only as pleasurable for me as the story itself. I have studied movies, I write movies, but I am not, to be perfectly honest, an unceasing movie fan.
Mr. India, however, is. Part of this is rooted in his personality, of course, but I must say, his experience with movies growing up was intrinsically different from my own. And the movie reality of Mumbai is fascinatingly unique from any place I’ve ever been before.
Growing up, Mr. India would go to the movies, often every week, with his family. Together they would go to single-screen cinemas (I had…literally never been to a single screen before the age of 25) and watch the latest Bollywood mega-hits. The 90’s cinema of India is his playground, his childhood extra-curricular education, and still holds a special place in his heart. No matter how dazzling contemporary starlets are now, they will never rival the sirens of 90’s cinema for him (which I suppose is lucky for me, right, trims down the competition, although god help me if one of them makes a strong comeback…) Now, Mr. India has a deep love of movies, it’s true, after all, that’s what he loves to do, and while the other forms we learned together in school excite him, he returns to movies as you would a warm bed on a cold morning (I could really use a cold morning, MUMBAI!).
But it’s not just Mr. India, a self-admitted cinephile, whose relationship to movies is different from my own. People here, simply put, seem to love movies. Obviously not all people, of course, but Indians who love movies love them like you would a close friend. They talk about Bollywood stars as if they know them, cheering for their triumphs, defending their defeats, debating their shortcomings. Perhaps part of this comes down to the way personality seems to be tied up with talent, the way Indian actors have to sell themselves as people in a way I haven’t seen in other cinema cultures. Or perhaps it’s the fact the film is a great equalizer in a country as diverse and divided by language, religion, ethnicity and culture as India. India has one of the oldest film industries in the world, with Indian films dating back to the later 1890’s. The first movie to screen in Mumbai, then Bombay, came in 1896, and by 1899 The Wrestlers by H. S. Bhatavdekar showing a wrestling match at the Hanging Gardens in Mumbai became the first film ever to be shot by an Indian . It took about a decade for movie making to catch on, but by 1913 Raja Harishchandra a silent film in Marathi based on Indian mythology was screened. It was quickly followed by a silent film with Tamil subtitles in 1916. In those early movies , here is a fun fact, featured primarily. Apparently acting in films was far too forward (read: trampy) for good Indian Hindu and Musllim girls, so Indo-Jewish strumpets got all the cinema fame. By the 1930’s the British had gotten in on the game, supporting Kolkata, then Calcutta, as a cinema hub given that it was their capital in India, but they couldn’t shake Bombay’s love for home-grown Marathi favorites, and the Bombay industry continued to thrive, along with many other regional cinemas, each catering to their own areas while comfortably stealing plots from each other. The first Indian film to screen at an international film festival, Sant Tukaram, a 1936 film based on the life of Tukaram (1608–50), a Varkari Saint, went to Venice in 1937, where it was judged as one of the three best films in the world. In the first year of the Cannes Film Fest in 1946, first-time filmmaker Chetan Anand took home the Grand Prix for Neecha Nagar.
This is a place where cinema lives in the groundwater. People ingest it with their dal, it’s sprinkled in their spices. The term masala, meaning spice mix, is the one they use to discuss the “little bit of everything” films Bollywood is now so famous and famously mocked for, 4 hour epics of music, dancing, drama, revenge, comedy and costumes, suggesting that cinema here is to be ingested as well as observed.
There is no one language in India, there isn’t even a codification of dialects. Hinduism doesn’t have central tendencies and dogmas that are universal to all Hindus, and Hinduism is certainly not India’s only religion by a long shot. So in a sense, movies are a common thread, a shared experience that everyone can participate in, discuss, debate and delight in. There are so many things that can’t be discussed here, so many sensitive topics and ways to cause offense. In a land full of conversational landmines, movies might be the one safe space.
Although, just try criticizing some of the stars. I dare you.
Helping out at this year’s Mumbai International Film Festival has brought me closer to Indian Cinema culture than I ever thought to be. I went from someone who had seen a handful of movies featuring casts and crews with unpronounceable (to me) names, to diving headfirst into a community of Indian (and world) cinema enthusiasts. Luckily, though, instead of being treated like a pariah for not knowing one Khan or Kapoor from another, the staff of the 17th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival are a tolerate jovial bunch (or as they say here “quite jolly”) and view my ignorance as a pitiable state from which I must be lifted out and shown the bright sun of Bollywood’s brilliance. So far, it’s been a mixed bag. But I do think there are some amazing films at the festival, so if you are in town and want to catch it, it start today and goes through the 5th, and my picks are below.
And if you, like me, are in more of a friendship with movies than a die-hard love affair, don’t tell the Indians you know. Their love, like their movies sometimes, is never-ending.
- Thithi: When a 101 year old womanizing misanthrope dies in a tiny village in Karnataka, his son, grandson and great-grandson must perform the rituals of death, including a large and expensive wake-like Thithi (as recommended by an astrologer), providing a gorgeous, generous and starkly smart slice-of-life into rural India.
- Angry Indian Goddesses: The world is not a kind place for women, but at the very least, women can be kind to each other. And kick the world’s ass.
- The Club: A vicious examination of the sexual crimes of the Catholic church told through the story of a group of monks and nuns living in a home at the edge of a town in Chile, who have been sent there because of their questionable behaviour.
- Driving With Selvi: From being forced to marry at 14 to escaping her abusive husband and ending up in a women’s shelter, this could be the story of a victim, but instead it’s a documentary 10 years in the making about a survivor, Selvi, who takes control of her life behind the wheel of a taxi, becoming Karnataka’s first female driver.
- Mia Madre: An Italian film about family by someone who isn’t Fellini. You owe it to yourself.
- Dheepan: Sri Lankan immigrants form a makeshift family in order to immigrate to France, but are forced to form real bonds in the face of their new reality.
- 45 Years: 40 years of marital bliss are threatened when an old love’s body is found, perfectly preserved, in an Alpine crevasse. Don’t you just HATE when that happens?
- Song of the Sea: An Irish children’s movie with luminous animation and splendid use of Gaelic mythology. Selkies, beasties, mermaids, it’s a party.
- The Assassin: A martial arts film set in Tang China. I don’t know why are you still reading thing and not in line for the movie right now.
- Cities of Sleep: Either the Dehli tourism board’s worst promotional film ever, or a searing documentary about poverty in India’s capital through the lens of where the homeless can sleep. You decide!
- Risk of Acid Rain: Just one of those man-living-small-life wakes up, begins again, hitches a ride to Teheran and starts anew movies. Like you do.
- Neecha Nagar: India goes to 1st Cannes Festival. India wins 1st Cannes Festival. Literally no one in India watches this film afterwards. Now, you can.
- Two Friends: This charming French film about friends, a convict, and the love triangle that develops between them looks hilarious and lovely, the way french films always seem to do. Talented Gallic bastards….
- Heavenly Nomadic: This luminously shot gloriously framed movie is Kyrgyzstan’s Oscar offering, which is a little awkward, given that most people don’t know Kyrgyzstan is a real place.
- Interrogation (Visaaranai) was the first Tamil film to screen at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival, and it looks to be a hard-hitting adaptation of a book written by a driver who, when arrested at 17, faced police atrocities. This is one of those movies you watch and then book a vacation to Italy instead of India.
- Chauthi Koot (The Fourth Direction) based on writer Waryam Singh Sandhu’s collection of short stories of the same name and set in militancy-era Punjab, seems like the kind of thing you take a date to and then realize you’ve made a huge mistake, but there you are, watching a movie about post-Operation-Blue-Star Punjab. Life.
- Nachom -ia – Kumpasar (Let’s Dance to the Rhythm) Goan Jazz is like Latin Jazz with an Indian edge, and this movie celebrating the Goan music industry of the 1960’s looks like a deliciously fun, heartbreaking and toe-tapping Walk The Line meets Strictly Ballroom meets India, and never when home again.
- From Afar: A lovely melancholy film about an older gay man who cruises younger bucks for companionship and the surprising relationship he develops with one of his conquests, this Venezuelan film won the Venice Golden Lion this year. Far From Heaven indeed.
- Taxi: Iranian censorship is no match for Jafar Panahi, who will literally make a film in his apartment or in a cab to escape the repressive ban on his art. So for every hipster hanging out at home talking about the movie they want to make, see this, and then go out and DO it.
- He Named Me Malala: I think this is a movie about some high school kid, so it’s like Mean Girls with a Nobel Peace Prize, maybe? I don’t know, I wish I could figure out who this girl is though, she looks really familiar….