So after much hype (courtesy our friends Namrata Joshi, Aseem Chhabra and others), a few of us finally ended up joining them this time at the 3rd edition of the annual Dharamsala International Film Festival, up in the beautiful township of McLeodganj- and I’m happy to report that it did live up to the buzz, and I can’t wait to get up there again next year. It’s an excellently organized festival- with helpful signs all over town to guide you, autos hired to take you up to the main venue TIPA (Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts) and a wonderful, warm team of volunteers, some of who travel from various parts of India and the world to be part of this joyous little celebration of cinema up in the mountains, in a town without a single cinema theatre.
Clearly, the common thread among many of the films shown at DIFF was that they belonged to the genre I will call ‘cinema of social unrest’- and from what I hear, this was the case the year before as well. So there are many documentaries as well as fiction features about social and political movements, revolutions, human rights violation and conflicts of land, culture and identity. This feels especially apt considering Dharamshala itself is a place where you can distinctly feel the angst of displacement and the forced refugee status of Tibetans under the gentle, tranquil atmosphere of the town.
This year included a fairly interesting selection of films (you can check out the list here) as well as some interesting retrospectives, curated short film packages and masterclass/Q&A sessions with filmmakers such as Rajat Kapoor, Hansal Mehta, Gitanjali Rao, Q and Umesh Kulkarni. I’m afraid I did not manage to catch a whole lot of them- the main drawback of having a film festival in such a picturesque location is that you are conflicted whether to spend your time watching films or savor the sights around, not to mention visit all the charming cafés and eateries in the area. Still, here are a few notes on some of the films I did catch at the festival:
Avinash Arun’s debut feature is a gorgeously evocative and poignant film about friendship, loss and the resilient ability of children to deal with disappointment, displacement and even death. Killa is clearly a very personal film, and is shot and crafted with great love and sensitivity. It also features some unforgettable, textured characters brought to life with amazingly natural performances from Amruta Subhash, Archit Deodhar, Parth Bhalerao and a wonderful ensemble of young actors. This is yet another strong contemporary Marathi film about children, and definitely the one with most finesse out of the ones I’ve seen. I must mention here though that I haven’t seen Umesh Kulkarni’s acclaimed Vihir yet- interestingly, Avinash Arun cites Kulkarni as his mentor and a strong influence.
BRINGING TIBET HOME:
Bringing Tibet Home documents the deeply emotional and often funny story of New York-based artist Tenzing Rigdol’s audacious art project to reunite exiled Tibetans with their land, quite literally. After his father dies with his last wish of setting foot in his homeland unfulfilled, Tenzing decides that if Tibetans can’t return to Tibet, he will bring Tibet to them by smuggling 20 tonnes of native Tibetan soil to Dharamshala for a one-of-its-kind art installation. It was especially moving watching the film in Dharamshala- though it did also really make me ponder about what makes land itself so important to human beings. Maybe because I’ve never quite had roots anywhere, soil to me just feels a little overrated… ‘it’s just tiny little rocks.’
This shattered my heart and blew my mind to bits. Jehane Noujaim’s The Square is the most devastating film I have seen in a long time and easily the best one I saw at Dharamshala. The film puts you right at the heart of a revolution inside Tahrir Square, with young, common people spiritedly fighting a fascist and fundamentalist regime in Egypt, spilling their blood and guts out for the hope of a brighter, free future even as they come to the crushing realization that courage and idealism aren’t enough to win their war against oppression. This is absolutely essential viewing- the auditorium was filled with tears and goosebumps in the end and the applause didn’t stop till the credits had finished rolling.
(PS: Also spotted in the documentary- Aida Elkashef from Ship of Theseus and a Vikramaditya Motwane doppelganger. I kid you not- the resemblance is uncanny. See if you can spot him. 😉 )
Director Hany Abu-Assad cleverly sets a gripping tale of love, deceit and betrayal against the Palestine-Israel conflict. The film borrows sparingly from Romeo and Juliet and Othello to give us a heady mix of socio-political thriller and Shakespearean drama- and while a comparison might be a little unfair- I can’t help feel that Omar blends the two a lot more seamlessly and effortlessly than Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider, which of course is very good in its own right. Adam Bakri gives a superbly charismatic performance as the protagonist- though admittedly, it’s hard to take your eyes off him anyway considering how jaw-droppingly good he looks.
TRUE LOVE STORY:
Filmmaker Gitanjali Rao showcased a great set of Indian and international animated shorts curated by her at DIFF (including her marvelous Printed Rainbow), and ended the session with her newest film True Love Story, which screened at the Cannes Critics’ Week section earlier this year. The film, originally scripted to be part of a feature film (alas, no one wants to fund quality animation films in India) begins as a homage to masala movies which is both affectionate and hilariously tongue-in-cheek- but in the end reveals itself to be a sharp social satire, using a real-life tragedy that made headlines a few years back (the court case is still on) to brilliant, scathing effect. The film is a visual and aural delight with its colorful evocation of Bombay’s sights and sounds through Bollywood tinted glasses, and hopefully it will make its way to a wider audience soon. And I hope some producers funding ‘indie’ films (which more often than not, turn out to be sub-par) see the potential in this medium and back Ms Rao’s extraordinary talent and bring more of her singular, unique vision to the big screen.