I was looking forward to it. The selection of films was sumptuous, and most were being screened twice, enabling me to catch even those that clashed. And I had just moved back to Madras and was re-entering the snob circle I was proud to be a part of.
This was also my first film festival in Madras. And that was why the experience was so baffling. You see, in London and Delhi, where entry into film festivals is even cheaper, the audience is what Madras bashai terms “costly” – bleeding heart liberals, fiery anarchists, laconic philosophers, aspiring novelists who won’t admit they’re writing books, and cartoonists who call themselves illustrators.
So, when I headed to Woodlands after fifteen years – well, could be twenty – I had a happy thought bubble populated by kurta-clad, jute-bag-toting, Osho-slippered intellectuals sipping tea and nibbling samosas as they contemplated the parallels in Haruki Murakami’s writing and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s filmmaking.
The experience that would unfold over the next nine days is less of a blur than a descent punctuated by distinct stages.
Stage 1: “Oh, Bertolucci!”
I’ve never found much difference between watching films on the big screen and the small screen, unless you go up really, really close.
When all we had was television, I preferred going to the cinema because there was just one annoyingly long break during which my mother would kill all our appetites for soggy home-made sandwiches by asking each of us repeatedly whether we had to use the loo, as opposed to fifteen minutes of toilet-cleaner advertisements every ten minutes on TV.
When VCR entered our lives through an NRI uncle, I preferred watching movies at home, because there were no breaks, and you could rewind if someone yelled.
When torrents came into my life, my laptop and I gazed into each other through most new releases.
When press screenings came into my life, I started delighting in the one statement in The Dreamers I could relate to. I’m too lazy to look up the quote and sound like it was important enough for me to memorise or recall offhand at 1.30 am, but it spoke of “insatiables” as the people who sat closest to the screen, as if to receive the images before they were beamed to anyone else, and to take them in large, because they get smaller and smaller as you go up the rows, until they end up stamp-sized in the projectionist’s box.
Watching The Mill and the Cross in the fifth row from that impossibly wide screen at Woodlands, I knew I truly understood the essence of that sentiment.
Stage 2: “Different face...hero sister role...looking...”
I would discover a species in the course of the festival – “Astant Die-ructor”. Their role in the film industry is ambiguous. It seems to include scouting for cast members, finding petrol bunks while hunting for locations, fetching the heroine tea, running to the hero with all his mobile phones, advising the underlings of the cinematographer, and discussing shots with the director.
As I was turning my nose up at yet another lift that refused to arrive at Citi Centre, I was approached by an Astant Dieructor (AD).
AD: Madam, cine awr-teest?
AD: Madam, actually, naan Astant Dierector. Oru padathukku vandhu...
Me: I’m sorry, I don’t speak Tamil. (Yeah, that’s bollocks. I do.)
AD: Madam, no problem. Actually...different face...looking...hero sister role...you acting? (Bollocks. I should have known hero sisters and heeroyines who don’t speak Tamil fit perfectly into the scheme of things in the Tamil film industry.)
Me: Uh, no.
AD: No experience requiring, madam.
Me: No, sorry.
AD: Madam, give phone number madam. Die-ructor calling.
Me: No, sorry.
AD: Madam, just talking, madam.
Me: Oh, ok. Thanks.
AD: Madam, number, madam.
AD: VIP number you have-aa, madam?
AD: Thank you, madam.
Five hours later, I had asked a friend from theatre whether “different face” was meant to be a compliment. He laughed and said it was meant to mean that the Astant Dieructor was an intelligent man making an intelligent film.
Two days later, I had asked four people whether it was meant to be a compliment. They all laughed.
Three days later, I was looking at the mirror carefully.
Stage 3: “I’ve seen you around.”
I don’t know whether it’s about networking, or about finding a soul mate, but random people approach you when you try to look like you’ve just hopped off a UFO and are figuring out why people in this planet talk to each other.
“Excuse me, you came to collect pass at ICAF fifteen days back-aa?”
“You came to collect pass at ICAF fifteen days back-aa?”
“I don’t remember the date I collected the pass.”
“It was fifteen days back. I was at the office to get my pass. I saw you.”
“Oh, I see.”
“You are cine artisteest-aa?”
“Then, just like that you are coming-aa?”
Stare back calmly at bewildered look. Stare back calmly at awkward smile. Watch as it latches on to the next UFO arrival. Phew.
“Excuse me, for who you are waiting?”
“You are waiting for someone?”
Yeah. Prince Charming. And ah, there you are! “I don’t understand.”
“I said, ‘You are waiting for someone-aa?’”
“Yes. I’m waiting for the ushers to open the doors.”
“Oh, hahaha. I am waiting also.”
Return to the movie schedule.
“Can I see what movie next?”
Get a sudden phone call, and walk off quickly with the schedule, saying, “Hello? Sorry, signal is really weak in here, I can’t hear you...”
Phew. Waiter’s gone. Go back to old spot. Look at schedule. Look up at the doors to check whether they’ve opened. What the hell is that face in my face?!
“Uhmmm...sorry...I don’t remember...uhh, do I know you?”
“I’ve seen you around.”
“At this festival.”
Extends hand – “Hi.”
Clutch the schedule with both hands – “Hi.”
“What’s your name?”
“Because I’ve seen you around, and I want to know.”
“Okay, you don’t want to know?”
“I do know my name.”
So that’s what foreign films do. Jeez!
Stage 4: “My fawther ees feelm is been screened.”
“You are cine arteest-aa?”
“You are cinema actress-aa?”
“You are viscom student-aa?”
“How you are at cinema lovers festival? Just a lover-aa?”
“Medam, you look like faariner.”
“Where you are coming from?”
“No. Where I calm from, you aehsk?”
“Teh-raan. In Ee-raan.”
“Iran? You are coming all the way from there-aa?”
“Because my fawther ees feelm is been screened here.”
“Your father is fillimmaker, medam?”
“What is his name?”
“My fawther ees name is Majid Majidi.”
“Oh!” Furiously whips through schedule, and says in an awed whisper, “Oscar-nomination he got?”
“Medam, what is your name?”
“Can you give autograph?”
“Sure.” Scribble ‘Best wishes...’
“No, medam. Write in Arabic!”
“Yes, medam, please write in Arabic itself.”
“But I don’t know Arabic.”
“But your father making Arabic fillims only, no?”
“No. Farsi. I write in Farsi, is that okay?”
Write ’alif. Then? Squiggle. Dot. Three squiggles. Two dots.
“Thank you, medam. Nice meeting you.” Extends hand.
Touch hollow of neck. “Khodafez.”
Stage 5: Supaporn – and no, that’s not a Thai actress.
Life got better when I began to bump into a friend from the theatre circle. Let’s call this friend ‘Movie Partner’ (MP). We decided to coordinate the movies we watched. So, we watched Tree of Life, The Mirror Never Lies, and then had this conversation.
MP: Have you seen an Austrian film?
Me: No. I mean, The Sound of Music doesn’t count, no? Because I’ve seen that 600 times, I think. But, seriously, no. There’s one on today – Tag Und Nacht.
MP: Day and Night? Hmm. (Flicks through the synopsis.) It doesn’t seem to have much of a storyline. Basically, these two girls...
Me: No, no, don’t tell me, I want to go in blind.
MP: Okay. But there’s such a crowd for this one. And it hasn’t been nominated or anything. Maybe these people came in through word of mouth?
Me: Hanh, must be a good movie then.
Five minutes into the film:
Me: At least the women here have normal figures. Doesn’t make you feel inadequate. Uh, well, more like too adequate.
Seventeen minutes into the film:
MP: Are they just going to keep having sex with men in women’s clothes?
Fifty minutes into the film:
Me: At some point, they have to bring in a story, no?
One hour and ten minutes into the film:
MP: I’m going to go look at shoes.
Me: Uhmm...I usually find it hard to walk away in the middle of a film.
MP: Well, everyone’s too hard to walk in this film.
Me: But there has to be some story, right? I mean, even Belle de Jour had...I didn’t like that film much, which apparently means my taste in film is bad, but...
MP: Anyway, you let me know how it goes.
End of the movie:
MP (on the phone): I’ve just left. Are you still there?
Me: Yeah. It just got over.
MP: So it was a saami padam, huh?
Me: Well, you know, I think they decided to mess with a festival audience, so they took a porn flick, shot three extra scenes, changed the music from ding-chucka-ding-chucka-ding to opera, and screened it.
MP: So, they just kept having sex?
Me: When they weren’t high, yes. No, wait, when they were high too, yes. Anyway, I’ve always wanted to watch a porn flick in a theatre.
MP: Good for you.
Five hours later:
Ma: So, how do you know what the music in porn flicks is like?
Brother 1: She’s right, ma. It is like ding-chucka-ding-chucka-ding.
Ma: How do you know?
Brother 2: Ma, we’re men. It’s normal. But she...uhhh...
Ma (puzzled): And you’re not even a feminist. Why’re you interested in porn?
Me: I wouldn’t put it that way, really.
Brother 1: So, what’s this film called?
Ma: Why? Are you going to download it?
Brother 2: Duh.
Stage 6: See-through saris and sequined slippers
I have a lot of those. No, not really. I have a few of those. By Tam Brahm standards, I’m considered shapely. So people gift me those, or pass on the ones they’ve been gifted to me because they think I carry it off better than they do. They’re usually right – it’s all relative.
I got to wear them during some of the events.
At those events, people didn’t talk during the film.
At those events, people sipped coffee from china – in lowercase – and nibbled on starters.
At those events, people discussed commentary on religion by an atheist director.
I went home happy.
Stage 7: Ma has the final word
Ma: These cinema festivals show those art films, no?
Me: What is an art film, according to you?
Ma: The ones where people keep walking.
Me: Like what?
Ma: Satyajit Ray. A man keeps walking in all his films.
Me: Which film of Ray’s have you seen, Ma?
Ma: Something in which a man keeps walking.
Me: Was it Utpal Dutt? Does he sit in a football field with some schoolkids?
Ma: No, I don’t think it was Utpal Dutt.
Me: Okay, was he young or old?
Ma: You think I remember his face?
Me: Okay, does he marry Sharmila Tagore? And does he go pick up his son?
Me: Do two kids keep running through fields and looking at a train? This guy wears a poonal.
Me: Do they keep focusing on the feet of two guys who kidnap a kid?
Me: Is he walking inside a train, and having tea with Sharmila Tagore?
Ma: No! What’s your obsession with Sharmila Tagore?
Me: Okay, does he sing really badly at first, and then sing well?
Me: Why’re you laughing?
Ma: You see how many films there are in which a man just keeps walking?
Me: Ma, come on. That’s like saying Shivaji Ganeshan kept walking in all his films. And you love those!
Ma: Well, at least he sang when he was walking. These people just keep walking quietly. What’s the point? (Shakes out her newspaper.)