Have been going for some of the screenings at the ongoing European Union Film Festival (schedule here if you’re a Delhiite: it’s on till Friday) and most of it has been good. For starters, the Siri Fort Auditorium authorities have been a lot more polite and pragmatic than on past occasions (some of my earlier rants here and here). They aren’t doing silly things like not allowing cellphones in – the guards simply instruct everyone to turn the volume down, and astonishingly it appears to have worked: in the four screenings I’ve been to so far, only once have I heard a phone ringing in the hall, and even that was cut off almost immediately.
At the festival inauguration on Friday a profoundly bearded Vinod Khanna, looking like a yeti in a smart suit, made a short, impromptu speech about his days as a film student: “I’ve never learnt as much about other countries as when I was watching movies from around the world in the early 1960s.” Barbara Gräftner and Andrea Nürnberger, the director and lead actress respectively of the opening film My Russia were also present and quite thrilled to see how appreciative the crowd was. I sometimes scoff at much-too-earnest film festival types waiting around for hours outside auditoria discussing films in the most portentous ways, but these events can be very charming in small doses. I enjoy the bonhomie, the small-scaleness of things, and the fact that most of it is free or nominally priced (just a couple of days earlier I’d had to back out of a multiplex screening where tickets had already been booked online – which meant Rs 300 thrown away. It didn’t make me happy). There are no tedious preludes to the screening of any of these films, no long-winded commercials. One of the staff members simply comes up to the stage at exactly the right time, makes a quick and tentative introduction (invariably mispronouncing names) and then the screening begins, just like that.
Of course, there will always be little annoyances: an old man will definitely start snoring loudly in the row behind you exactly 10 minutes after the film has begun, and at every second screening a scruffy, sweat-soaked creature will turn to you and ask meaningfully, “Bhai saab, iss film mein koi scenes hain?” These things are as inevitable as the loud boor on the flight demanding a whisky with soda every 15 minutes. But you learn to take these things in your stride.
It helps when the films are good. I loved Kolya, which won the foreign-language film Oscar in 1997. Had heard of it before (in part because of an apocryphal story from that time, about Shah Rukh Khan being woken up and told that his film Koyla had won an Oscar!) but I wasn’t prepared for something so powerful and moving. It’s set in Russia-occupied Prague in 1988 and the central character is a middle-aged lothario named Louka, a professional cellist who agrees to a temporary “marriage of convenience” with a Russian lady seeking Czech citizenship – Louka, struggling under the weight of numerous debts and holding down two jobs, goes along with it because he badly needs the money. But then the woman rushes off with her lover and Louka, who’s a bit of a misanthrope, finds himself in charge of her five-year-old son Kolya. The story is about the development of the relationship between him and the boy, and how the initially unwelcome responsibility reveals a side to his character even he was unaware of.
Storywise and themewise this is well-trodden territory, but Kolya’s handling of it is brilliant throughout. This is a film that has many balls in the air at once – it has things to say about the parent-child relationship, about how we define/restrict ourselves by our nationalities, about how terrifying the world can seem to a small child – but it never strikes a wrong note or loses its focus. There is gentle, perceptive humour in the way Louka (previously one-trackminded when it came to women) asks one of his sexual companions for help in telling Kolya a bedtime story on the phone; and in the boy’s interaction with Russian soldiers manning tanks out on the street. And the ending, which might have been embarrassingly mawkish in many other hands, is handled with restraint, sensitivity and even optimism – there is a strong sense of having seen a character evolve. (The film never brings the politics of the time and place into the forefront but one of the last shots also seems to point to the birth of a new country.)
Other films seen: La Femme de Gilles (the tone of which reminded me of some of Claude Chabrol’s work) and Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvy, which I’ll blog about later if time.