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Package for the connoisseur

The Mumbai Film Festival, which featured some great movies had many high points and bright moments. The screenings also drew audience in large numbers, observes UMA MAHADEVAN.

ANOTHER YEAR, and another Mumbai film festival has come to an end. "We cannot stop living, regardless of the violence around us", says Shyam Benegal in the introduction to the festival catalogue. And so, fortunately for film-lovers, the fourth international film festival, organised by the Mumbai Academy of Moving Images (quaintly called MAMI for short), was held, as every year, late November. This is the best time to have the screenings, with Mumbai's fleeting winter having just commenced.

In some cities, you would probably have found people lugging their sleeping bags to wait in line, or pitching tents in the grounds of the Chawan Centre, where the application forms were available.

It has been much easier in Mumbai, where, despite the very real presence of Bollywood, a festival like this does not really draw huge crowds. But this year it was a pleasant surprise to see a large number of film students as well as the general public attending the screenings. You had to stand in line for some of the more popular films but no fear, you would always get some place to sit — if not in the prized back rows, then at least on the aisles.

The IMAX Ad labs complex, which had devoted four screens to the film festival, was the hub of the screenings. The IMAX complex is comfortable, glitzy, fully air-conditioned, equipped with cafeteria, video games and the assorted things that keep children busy. I did miss the open outdoor spaces, the fresh air and the sea view at the NCPA complex where the festival was centred in earlier years — but once we began rushing from one hall to another, Tata and the Chawan Centre being the other screening centres, the proximity of the IMAX did become convenient. Nevertheless, setting aside all these cribs, off we went to IMAX, equipped with egg sandwiches, biscuits and two bottles of water (because IMAX has mostly Coke, caffeine and Shock). And it was already crowded by the time we reached. Not only film professionals, students, media and devoted film-lovers, but assorted celebrities — from Yash Chopra to Gautam Ghosh, Soni Razdan to Reema Lagoo, Joy Sengupta to Prem Chopra — were present. While film students touched Yash Chopra's feet, one noticed Vijay Tendulkar waiting for one of the screenings. The festival, which brought together 145 films from 30 countries, many of which are the first films of young film-makers, held several pleasant surprises for film-lovers.

Not least of all, the extra day by which the festival was extended, affording an opportunity for many to see some of the films they had missed earlier. We avoided the opening Bruce Willis starrer ``Bandits'', preferring to see, instead, the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of Henry James's ``The Golden Bowl''. We saw Uma Thurman in what I think must be her most impassioned performance to date. Kate Beckinsale, with her peaches-and-cream delicate looks, was a perfect contrast to Thurman's more mature role.

``Monsoon Wedding'' was the closing film, though the film was scheduled for release in Mumbai the very next day. Then there was the Ritwik Ghatak retrospective, bringing the masters most intense films from ``Meghe Dhaka Tara'' to ``Jukti Takko Aar Gappo.'' Indeed, the other three retrospectives were also excellent — Hungarian film-maker Peter Bacso, especially with ``Oh, Bloody Life,'' Japanese film-maker Junji Sakamoto (``Face'', ``Knockout'', ``Scarred Angels'') and French film-maker Alain Corneau (the period work ``Tous Les Matins du Monde'', and crime thriller ``Police Python 357''). And the focus on Iran, with heartwarming works by veteran and emerging Iranian directors, including Abbas Kiarostami (``And Life Goes On'') and Majid Majidi (``The Father'').

Among the other films that went down well with the audiences were, the delightful Australian film, ``My Mother Frank,'' by Mark Lamprell, about a mother who enrols in her son's University; Huo Jianqis's ``The Postman in the Mountain,'' about the postman and the rural community that he serves; the lovely Bhutanese work, ``The Cup by Khyentse Norbu''; Gurinder Chadha's ``What's Cooking?', a boisterous tale of multi-culturalism, California style; the interesting ``Ek Je Aache Kanya'' by Subrata Sen, featuring Aparna Sen's daughter, Konkona Sen Sharma, in the cast (so what if its copied from the Alicia Siverstone debut ``Crush''). Ismail Merchant's entertaining Carribbean period piece, ``The Mystic Masseur'', filmed on V. S. Naipaul's first novel of the same name, was also shown but at an entirely new venue, the New Empire cinema.

Govind Nihalani's ``Deham'', based on Manjula Padmanabhan's play, was also among the more interesting films of the festival. And one film that I definitely regret missing is ``Mitr- My Friend'', directed by Revathy.

The festival also honoured Bombay cinema greats. While the lifetime achievement award was presented to Dilip Kumar, the Kodak Award for technical excellence in Indian cinema was given to celebrated cameraman, V. K. Murthy, whose partnership with Guru Dutt in films like ``Kaagaz Ke Phool'' and ``Pyaasa'' are the stuff legends are made of. Screening schedules, which came late in the day, were often in short supply, leaving it to viewers to tell each other about the not-to-be-missed screenings of the next day. Last minute inclusions were even more annoying than exclusions, because one could not plan what to see. The brochures and the catalogue had typos and spelling mistakes. Under Ghatak's ``Jukti Takko Aar Gappo'', for instance, Saonli Mitra was listed as Sonali Mitra. Inclusions of films like ``Lagaan'' and ``Fiza'' were unnecessary for Indian audiences, though I suppose the foreign delegates would have found them useful. And what were films seen at last year's festival doing here again, like Rituparno Ghosh's ``Bariwali''? But these small cribs do not matter when there were so many high points in the festival. I do not mean only the great films, but also the bright moments even in the middling films.

At the screening of Piyush Pandya's lightweight but thoroughly entertaining ``American Desi'', not a single seat was left empty, and rows and rows of viewers chortled away at the antics of the ABCD and his desi friends. At the screening of Gnana Rajashekharan's ``Bharati'', which the confused festival announcer introduced as a biological epic, though the film was uneven, the small audience was struck by Sayyaji Shinde's fiery portrayal of the complex life of the poet. And of course, after Ritwik Ghatak's classic, ``Meghe Dhaka Tara,'' with its electrifying Rabindra Sangeet, a slow, sustained round of applause from the audience began in the cavernous Tata theatre and almost everyone had tears in their eyes.

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