Thursday, July 26, 2007

Overheard at Cinefan; and moron categories

I was watching the Tunisian film Tender is the Wolf in one of the smaller auditoria and sitting within earshot were two talkative ladies who, going by their exchanges, had never once in their lives been exposed to the idea that bad things can happen in the world. To be fair, Tender is the Wolf is a claustrophobic film full of unpleasant goings-on and without a single likable character, but never before have I encountered such a high level of shock and moral outrage from film-watchers, expressed continuously. (It was like a heightened version of what happened at the Brokeback Mountain screening I wrote about in this post.) One or both of my neighbours must have uttered the phrase "This is so terrible!" at least 60 times. If they were characters in that Amol Palekar film, they would have intoned, "Life has ripped away our rose-coloured glasses."

Most idiotic remark of all: during a scene where a prostitute is being raped by a lowlife, there's a shot of the rapist thrusting away purposefully. And one of the ladies goes:

"This is so terrible! Why doesn't he STOP?!"

I felt like offering her a cookie.

In other news, here’s proof that I'm now a Cinefan veteran: I've been quoted in more stories about the festival this year than I've actually written. And one of them called me “Jai Arjun Singh, a local blooger...” Yay yay.

Having attended the festival since it began eight years ago, it’s good to see the growing sophistication of the event, and the increasing attendance. But a part of me remains ambivalent about the democratisation. Maybe it’s sour grapes: I first became interested in world cinema at a time when hardly anyone in Delhi outside of film students/scholars went to such festivals; certainly, no one else in my circle of friends or acquaintances was into such movies when I was growing up, which contributed to making my adolescent years very lonesome. (Your cue to go "Awww...") Also, options in this city were limited, and I had to put in a lot of effort to get access to such films: trudging regularly to embassy libraries to rent from their small collection of videos, keeping an eye out for one-column notifications in newspapers about a tiny "film festival” going on in some corner of the city. So I sometimes feel almost disgruntled about how fashionable “world cinema” has suddenly become, and how much more accessible it is to today’s generation, thanks to the DVD culture. (In my part-time office, colleagues regularly exchange discs of Kiarostami and Wong Kar-Wai films and discuss them as unselfconsciously as they would any Bollywood film. Which is good on many levels, but it also makes me feel odd in a way I can’t explain. Am probably being elitist/proprietorial.)

Anyway, on a lighter note, there are still many comedies of errors involving people who are newbies to non-mainstream cinema. These people span many categories, including the “how can they show such terrible things” types I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Other categories include:

The "No idea why we're here" category: these are the people who (as I imagine it) see the word "film" written outside the Siri Fort Complex, which sets off a vague buzzing sound inside their heads – and so, arms outstretched like the zombies in George Romero's movies, they stagger into the nearest hall without the slightest idea of what they are going to watch. Then they stagger out 10 minutes later, shocked out of their senses by the fact that the film was in black-and-white (and Japanese! And made in the 1940s!).

The "We're just here to jerk off" brigade: It sounds like a lazy cliché, but for the longest time the phrase "film festival" in Delhi was, for many people (including the policemen who do duty at Siri Fort), synonymous with "uncensored sex scenes". To an extent this has changed over the years, but it still occasionally happens that a sad-looking creature in the next seat taps me on the shoulder, gives me a meaningful look and says, "Bhai saab, iss phillum mein scenes hain kya?" (If you point out that all films have scenes, they scowl and emit noisome vapours in your direction throughout the screening.)

And, at the opposite end of the spectrum:
The ones who never expected to see any “scenes”: an extension of the first category. It's always stunning to see the confidence with which a conservative family strides in, hands linked together, for the 9 PM show of a film they know nothing about, convinced that it’s going to be along the general lines of Mary Poppins. A few minutes later they flee the hall sobbing, hands placed over the eyes of the teenage daughter who has learnt life’s grisly truths way before she was supposed to (the film was In the Realm of the Senses!).

Unpunctual/clueless about how Time works: this is a generic category, not restricted to film festival-goers. It works like this: first, someone misreads the schedule, leading them to think that a film is being screened at 9.30 PM instead of 9 PM. Naturally, they then plan to reach at exactly 9.30 PM (because giving themselves a small window by reaching 15 minutes early would mean eternal damnation). Having failed to account for traffic, they will then reach the venue at 9.50 PM. There will be the inevitable stumbling blocks, someone will misplace a ticket or get into an argument with a security guard, which means they will enter the dark auditorium, noisily stumbling over everyone else’s feet, at 10.05 PM. Five minutes after they have sat down the lights will go on, because it was a 70-minute film and now it’s over.


  1. It's nice to see that Marriage hasn't tempered your humour or cynicism. I was almsot about to fall into the "Cubicle Laugher at work" category due to your post.

  2. "Is Phillum me scene hain". I am bending over with laughter at this observation -- rather fact. However this is the mindset of many Delhiites and more specifically rude 'Punjus'. Before anybody crucifies me for antagonising a particular community , let me clarify that I have found most of Delhi's rich Punjabis amongst the most uncouth and spoilt brats found anywhere else in 'Bharatvarsh's many states.

    Also if a movie has a lovemaking scene and is asthetically shot ,I am sure there are ways to appreciate 'erotica' than leering and making others watching it uncomfortable.

  3. Oh, that's exactly how I feel, about this whole democratization phenomenon, I mean. When I was a kid, I had just one other friend who had similar tastes in reading, classic films from the 30's to the 60's, music of that era etc... And now, I can't help but feel a twinge of annoyance when I hear all kinds of people suddenly wax eloquent about Citizen Kane, or quote PGW or Douglas Adams, or spout Beatles lyrics. Not sure why I have this nasty, elitist attitude towards this democratization thing...surely it's not right, and yet, there it is. Sigh.

  4. Thank God I work from home - so it was just TH turning around to see what was tickling me so much.

    Hey, don't grudge those of us who arrived late to the party (I don't mean the unpunctual category)... you could be glad you are not lonely no more :-D

    I'd better research the films well before I decide that the son is ready for some lessons in 'world culture'...

  5. I am one of those people on the other side -- the late comers. Growing up in small provincial towns, I had never imagined that one day I would be able to see all these classics.

    Still if you want there are so many ways even now to feel lonesome in one's eccentric tastes!

  6. What's wrong with democratisation?
    Without the DVD culture, I don't think as a student I would have access to as much world cinema. It also makes it possible for film clubs in colleges (I'm talking about Delhi Univ here) run by a small number of cineastes to bring these movies to a larger audience.

    And isn't declining elitism also a sign of a robust cinematic culture?...

  7. Jai,

    You forgot the category of obsessive-compulsive mobile phone users and they are not restricted just to film festivals they seem to be just about everywhere.

    There was this film club we had which had explicit rules about switching off cells inside the auditorium and yet you would catch people loudly giving instructions as to how to reach the auditorium and not just checking SMS'es but typing away as though Armageddon was on us.

    The best replay came from a lady who when asked why she was furiously typing away at her cell's key pad came up with "I wanted to know the time!!".

    Makes one wonder whether civilization existed before the advent of cell phones.

  8. btw, how did you like 'tender is the wolf'? also, contary to your experience of cinefan this year, mine has been of being surrounded almost completely (except at the 9 pm screenings) by professional filmwallahs (including film students, filmakers, etc etc)

  9. JW, I am a little mixed about your views on the democratization. My experience watching non-commercial movies in Calcutta in the 80s & early 90s has been very much like your's. Thanks to my father, I became aware of such movies in Calcutta at a very young age. But USIS & the local Calcutta film societies were a very closed group. British Council was expensive. In Presidency College in the early 90s some friends & I managed to revive our film club & get some good movies from the Film Federation & Archives folks to show. Later in the 90s I moved to Delhi & depended on a very unreliable public transportation system to get to Sirifort or IIC or the French Embassy from my home in Noida. And once you got there, there was no guarantee that you could get in. It totally depended on the mood of the guards. I have made many trips to these places & come back disappointed after hanging around the gates for up to an hour after the movie started pleading with the powers to let me in. There are many war stories, which warrant something in my own blog :-) But basically, my point is that it was VERY DIFFICULT to watch good movies. And that is why I had only a handful of friends with tastes in movies similar to mine. But now, there is a much wider proliferation of movies thanks to DVDs & so the audience has grown too. I try to think it is all for a good cause. More people wanting to watch non-commercial movies = more distribution of such movies. But I feel the guys today have got it much easier than us. They never paid their dues like we had to. I wish I was born 10 years after I was :-) But then again, in the US where I have been living the past 7 years, I find myself waaay more aware of non-American (& usually, even classic Hollywood) movies than most people I know. Except for a handful, they don't know about these movies. Maybe it is the crowd I hang out with :-) But they know more than me about bad 80s movies, TV shows & (for some strange reason) Chinese martial arts movies. We never bothered with these back in India. Maybe, God forbid, we were too intellectual for our own good?

    Apologies for the long post.

  10. Ghost of TTG: very possessive about humour/cynicism. No silly social institution will take those away from me.

    Vaibhav: I didn't say there was anything "wrong with democratisation" in an overriding sense, I simply said I feel personally ambivalent about it in this case - probably because of sour grapes/general insecurity. It could be a version of a thought process that has defined human attitudes for so long: why should kids today have what I didn't have in my time?

  11. Alok: I didn't mean to imply that I've lost those lonesome feelings and now live in a comfortable bubble where everyone around me discusses "eccentric" films. In fact, these days the feeling of discomfort/being cut off is often heightened - especially when I see people discussing a foreign film that they've seen in isolation, without having any context of the director's career (or without being too interested in cinematic history in general).

  12. Nightwatchmen: happily, and strangely, there hasn't been much problem with cellphone users at the last 2-3 editions of Cinefan. On the rare occasions that a stray phone does go off during a screening, people lose no time in hissing the offender out of the auditorium.

    Anuj: didn't think too much of it. Would have liked to be able to tell people airily, "Y'know, I saw this great Tunisian film the other night" (because that's a sentence I haven't spoken yet), but just didn't find it very involving. Loved a couple of individual shots though, like the ones at the railway tracks.

    Tipu: thanks for that comment. Lots I can relate to there, and it clarifies some of the stuff I left out - like the "never paid their dues" bit.

  13. Oh I am at the other end of the spectrum (with respect to you). My parents would love watching these arty (realist and subtle and slow) movies when my brother and I were kids. The halls used to be empty and I remember just moving around trying my best to ignore the big screen. Probably it doesnt say much about my tastes but as kid the only movie I could watch would probably have Shummi Kapoor in it.
    Then I lived with my uncle's family for a bit and he had a habit of turning on movies on TV, which would bound to be hard to stomach, and leaving the room. I would wonder into the living room and often find myself staring at something that was so disturbing that I would spend the rest of the night trying to get the scenes out of my head.

  14. Neha: just to clarify, I didn't watch anything but mainstream Bollywood (and the very lowbrow mainstream Bollywood of the 1980s) until I was around 13. Also, the films I'm talking about in this post aren't necessarily "arty (subtle, realist, slow)".

    And don't knock your tastes because you liked Shammi Kapoor films!

  15. In other news, here’s proof that I'm now a Cinefan veteran: I've been quoted in more stories about the festival this year than I've actually written. And one of them called me “Jai Arjun Singh, a local blooger...” Yay yay.

    Hahaha. But at least he didn't call you 'Jai Arjun Singh, a local booger', no?

  16. CCC: or "blooper". We remain grateful for small mercies...

  17. Poor guy who asked about scenes. Our local newspaper would often try and make movies like "Police Academy" sound saucy with captions like "Exciting, sexciting fun."