Report: Stumbling upon gems at MAMI 2023
Even those who attend the film festival alone can enjoy the buzz of being part of a temporary collective of people hungry for stories and emotions
When you live in a city like Mumbai, there is so much to explore and experience that you often put off things for later. Then, one day, you realise that you have taken all that for granted unlike people from other parts of the country who flock to this place because of what it offers.
That’s how I felt at the 10-day Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, which opened on October 27. Organized by the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image since 1997 and curated by Anupama Chopra, the event is affectionately known to all as MAMI. This was my first time at the festival and I came away dazzled by the sheer volume, quality and range of what was made available to cinephiles.
While some people were heard complaining about the distance between the venues, I thought it was a terrific idea to have a decentralized festival with screenings not only in Colaba and the Bandra-Kurla Complex but also at Juhu, Ghatkopar, Malad, Andheri and Goregaon. This allows people from so many different locations to participate in the festival without fretting over the number of hours they might spend to commute to a venue and back.
It was good to see that the organizers had picked venues that made it possible for wheelchair users to access the screenings comfortably. Paying attention to such details, apart from the curation, is what makes a festival inclusive and memorable.
Really, being at MAMI is a bit like going to a lavish lunch buffet. The smart thing to do is to get a quick overview of what’s on display, zero in on a few things that call out to you, and proceed to relish them without worrying about missing out on the other goodies out there. How else can you not be overwhelmed with premieres, retrospectives, masterclasses, tributes, restored classics, special screenings, panel discussions, and multiple other event categories?
I decided to focus on watching as many films as possible instead of queuing up for Priyanka Chopra and Kareena Kapoor Khan, who show up on Instagram reels in all their fabulousness with amazing frequency, and might possibly be on yet another season of Koffee with Karan. Bollywood stars have no qualms about being fashionably late, and I don’t have the patience.
The most captivating film I watched was Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, directed by Anna Hints. It put the spotlight on the smoke sauna tradition in Estonia, which is listed in UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The documentary has women sharing closely guarded secrets with each other in the dark, intimate and comforting space of a sauna. As the clothes come off, layers of shame and guilt are unravelled and they talk about menstruation, pregnancy, coming out, sexual violence, cancer, and mortality. They discuss loved ones, complicated relationships, and burning desires. The camerawork is empathetic without being intrusive, respectful of the bodies up on screen.
Another documentary, Close to Vermeer by Suzanne Raes, is a fascinating journey into the world of art historians, museum curators, and art collectors who love the work of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Before the largest Vermeer exhibition in the world is mounted at the Rjiksmuseum in Amsterdam, they try to figure out whether a particular painting attributed to the master was actually made by him or by someone else. One of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age, Vermeer produced a luminous body of work but no self-portraits, letters and notes have been found. This leads to disagreements between the experts, and obviously much drama follows.
I liked the filmmaker’s portrayal of how people get caught between the rigorous demands of academic scholarship and personal adoration for an artist’s work. She also highlights the tact required to navigate cultural institutions with big money. They are meant to serve the public but are controlled by human beings who want to feel important.
Babak Jalali’s moving feature, Fremont, revolves around an Afghan woman working at a Chinese fortune cookie factory in the United States. She used to be a translator for the US military in Afghanistan but had to leave her family behind in Kabul after the city was recaptured by the Taliban. Building a new life presents its challenges. She is unable to sleep. Though she just wants some medication, a mental health professional helps her process all that she has been through. Charming, tender and funny in unexpected ways, the film refuses to look at the protagonist through the patronizing lens of pity. She wonders if it is alright to dream, love and have fun when fellow Afghans in Kabul are still suffering. The answer is, of course, yes.
It was hard not to think about thousands of undocumented Afghan refugees who face the threat of being deported from Pakistan, which is struggling with an economic crisis. At the same time, I thought of the Afghan cricket team bringing joy and pride to Afghans scattered all over the globe with its brilliant performance in the ongoing ICC Cricket World Cup. Like them, the Afghan woman at the fortune cookie factory wants something to look forward to.
Jaione Camborda’s The Rye Horn, which features a woman protagonist trying to fashion a new life for herself in less than favourable circumstances, is set in 1970s Spain when abortion was illegal. A doula in the Galician countryside, who uses an infusion made of a fungus found in rye ears to facilitate childbirth and induce abortion, finds that a pregnant teenager she had helped is dead. This doula is now being sought out by authorities. She escapes to Portugal with the reluctant help of a smuggler who abandons her but finds support in a sex worker who wants to hire a babysitter. The doula has a place to sleep but she needs to pick up farm work so that she can earn. When she discovers that she is pregnant, the promise of a baby lights her up with hope.
After watching a lot of emotionally intense films, I was looking for some comic relief and Michel Gondry’s The Book of Solutions was perfect. Set in France, the film is about a director struggling to make a film out of the extensive footage that he has shot. He has only a vague notion of what he wants, so it is difficult for his teammates to figure out how to help him to realize that vision. The producer, who has put in all the money, is least concerned about the director’s need for creative freedom. All he wants is to get the film out and screen it.
The young filmmakers and film students in the audience could relate, so there was much applause and laughter in the theatre. That made the experience of watching it even more pleasurable. It is true that even if you go to MAMI all by yourself – like I did – you can feel the buzz of being part of a temporary collective of people hungry for stories and emotions.
Among the Indian films, Rahat Mahajan’s The Cloud Messenger, Varun Grover’s All India Rank, and Soumyajit Ghosh Dastidar’s Flowering Man struck a chord with me. Mahajan’s feature, shot at The Lawrence School, Sanawar, is a dreamy philosophical tale of lovers connected across lifetimes infused with Kutiyattam, Theyyam and Kathakali. Apart from classical art forms, it draws on mythology, literature and philosophy to spin a lyrical narrative about human longing and desire, the fear of death, and the quest for transcendence.
Grover’s All India Rank tells the story of a boy from Lucknow whose father compels him to sign up with a coaching centre in Kota and ace the entrance exam for the Indian Institute of Technology. The boy has absolutely no interest in being an IITian but the father’s dream of financial prosperity and social mobility leaves him stuck with other aspiring IITians.
A beautifully-made feature, it engages with issues plaguing the Indian education system with a light and sensitive touch. Grover has packed it with late 1980s and early 1990s nostalgia, weaving in references to films like Mansoor Khan’s Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Yash Chopra’s Darr, Kundan Shah’s Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, and Lawrence D’souza’s Saajan.
Flowering Man, on the other hand, is a short film about a daughter’s attempt to come to terms with the transformation in her father through the metaphor of a flowering plant. It urges the viewer to think about coming out as a kind of blossoming where a person gives birth to a new self. This is a refreshing change from the metaphor of a closet that queer people break out of. There are many films about young people seeking acceptance but few about parents who long to be understood when they do not have a vocabulary to speak about gender and sexuality.
MAMI is a great opportunity to stumble upon such gems, which do not get mainstream theatrical releases or make it to OTT platforms because decision makers have fixed ideas about what will sell, and what people want to watch. There is room for all kinds of stories, and there are enough people in the world who like being surprised and acquiring new tastes.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.