The recent Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival 2023 programme was packed with exciting debuts that announced the advent of directorial talents to watch. This top ten list isn’t, however, limited to first-time filmmakers alone. It includes two established directors – Asif Kapadia and Mostafa Sarwar Farooki. The former is represented by a film that, in terms of style and substance, if not in spirit, is a marked departure from his previous work; the latter by a personal drama that introduces him as an actor. These are our ten favourite “discoveries” at the 2023 Mumbai Film Festival:
And, Towards Happy Alleys
Debutante Sreemoyee Singh’s And, Towards Happy Alleys stood out in a line-up of fabulous documentaries at the 2023 MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. Equal parts lament and celebration, the 75-minute essay shines a light on the beauty and power of Iranian poetry, cinema and women sought to be hemmed in by a “claustrophobic totalitarian regime”. Piecing together fragments gathered over several years of filming, the Kolkata-based director crafts a delectably lucid, phenomenally perceptive portrait of a society grappling with curtailments of free expression, feminine desire and song. The poems of Forough Farrokhzad, the films of Jafar Panahi (and several others) and the courage and creativity of Iranian women in the face of decades of oppression form the spine of the Berlin-premiered film. Its strength stems from the way it sees and recognises light in – and at the end of – a tunnel of darkness.
First-time director Anais Tellene delivers an unusual and instantly charming story of a lonely, thick-set, one-eyed man of Cyclopean proportions who lives with his ageing mother in an outhouse of a stately French countryside mansion. His days are dull and monotonous – he hunts moles, plays the bagpipe in a local traditional music band and has a loveless affair with a postwoman. However, nothing is ever the same for him when the estate’s prodigal heiress (Emmanuelle Devos), a modern artist, arrives unannounced one rainy night. The strapping but emotionally vulnerable man, played by Raphael Thiery, becomes the sculptor’s model and muse. A film about art, love and the female gaze, The Dreamer is a true-blue oddity, an absolutely delightful contemporary fairy tale that appeals at multiple levels – from the simply visual to the deeply philosophical.
Kayo Kayo Colour?
A sensitive and illuminating depiction of the Muslim ghetto of Kalupur in Ahmedabad, Shahrukhkhan Chavada’s debut feature film, Kayo Kayo Colour? (What Colour?), played in the South Asia Competition section of MAMI 2023. Shot in subdued monochrome and with non-professional actors, the Gujarati film focuses on the disruptions that poverty, impulsive decisions and socio-political realities cause in a family where hopes and dreams clash with the harshness and hardships of existence. An unemployed man plans to buy an autorickshaw – getting a loan isn’t easy. His wife does not think much of the idea. Their daughter needs a 100-rupee note to buy a drink she cannot afford. The story opens out to bring in the man’s parents and his married sister, who has moved out to a middle-class apartment in another part of the city. Capturing the general in the particular, the minimalist Kayo Kayo Colour? offers nuances that are often lost in conventional cinematic excess.
In the South Asia Competition selection at MAMI 2023, the independent Marathi film by debutant Jayant Somalkar (co-director of the Amazon Prime series Guilty Minds) was shot in his own village with non-actors. It tells the story of a college girl who has her sights set on the state civil services exams but her cotton farmer-parents want to marry her off. Subjected to the humiliating ritual of being sized up and then rejected by one suitor after another, the girl not only feels the brunt of the indignity that society heaps upon women in the name of matchmaking and marriage, but also faces the threat of her personal aspirations being thwarted. Using understated and unfailingly effective means, the writer-director throws light on women trapped in a patriarchal system and crying out for liberation from the cycle of conformism.
A breezy ride through the dark alleys of a city where the fear of the outsider mixes with ingrained racism. The lethal combination makes life very, very difficult for Michael Okeke, a Nigerian student in the National Capital who hopes to land a corporate job and settle down in India. But branded a criminal and a cannibal, he faces discrimination and threats of violence at every bend. As matters spiral out of control, the African lad falls in with a shady godwoman who claims that belief is all one needs in order to thrive. Belief is exactly what Michael is desperately low on. Buoyed by a lively central performance from Sudani from Nigeria actor Samuel Abiola Robinson and great supporting turns (especially by Shantanu Anam as a garrulous and supportive neighbour), writer-director Dibakar Das Roy’s Dilli Dark is a wildly inventive satire that explores both the past and the present of India’s ungainly brushes with Africa and that, notwithstanding the film’s comic vein, is no laughing matter.
Written and directed by design entrepreneur-turned-filmmaker Sumanth Bhat and produced by Rakshit Shetty, Mithya follows the eponymous protagonist, a school boy struggling to come to terms with the death of his parents and a move from Mumbai to his maternal aunt’s home in Udupi. Transplanted from familiar surroundings, unable to read and write Kannada and unsure of what the future holds for him, the boy is buffeted by worse when relatives squabble over his custody. Matters come to a head. He faces the threat of ending up in a shelter home. Somewhat over-plotted but consistently moving, Mithya delves into questions of home, friendship and new bonds in an alien setting where the boy’s past constantly intrudes into his present as he attempts to move on. That is obviously easier said than done because what is lost never ceases to haunt.
An examination of how patriarchy and moral expediency play out in ostensibly progressive circles, first-time director Anand Ekarshi’s Malayalam film Aattam uses the world of theatre and its practitioners to present a piercing commentary on the place of women in male-dominated spheres. The only woman in a drama troupe accuses a male member of sexual misconduct. A meeting is convened to discuss the complaint at the behest of the lady’s boyfriend, a married actor on the verge of divorce. Even as a clear consensus eludes the men, the prospect of a foreign tour and its financial benefits clouds their judgment and talk of a compromise begins. A seemingly open-minded, gender-sensitive bunch of men waver and retreat into old habits and questionable ways of thinking. Aattam has a sharp sting in the tail
Tahira Kashyap Khurrana’s directorial debut, Sharmajee Ki Beti, is a lively and unpretentious ensemble dramedy about five disparate women, including two 14-year-old schoolgirls, finding their way in an urban, middle-class society that expects them to perform their expected roles without rocking the boat. Although each one of them is driven by distinct impulses, these women are ballsy enough not to let the men around them (none of them is an ogre) stop them in their tracks. Sharmajee Ki Beti is a vibrant and good-humoured tapestry of stories and experiences that sets it apart from the spate of women-centric films that the Mumbai industry has produced of late (Dhak Dhak, Thank You For Coming, Sukhee). A coaching centre teacher (Sakshi Tanwar), a neglected homemaker from Patiala (Divya Dutta), a promising cricketer (Saiyami Kher) and two girls (Vanshika Taparia and Arista Mehta) share the same surname but follow different paths to salvation in a buoyant film that has enough steam to be able to paper over its occasional narrative creases.
One of the biggest surprises of MAMI 2023 was a film that sort of flew under the radar and took a degree of serendipity to “discover”- Oscar-winning English director Asif Kapadia’s Creature, a filmed dance performance packed with delights of movement, ideas and political thrusts. English National Ballet dancers perform a concept by Bangladeshi-British choreographer Akram Khan and Kapadia’s recording of it adds up to a fascinating, haunting and evocative wordless film that leaves a lot to the imagination. Inspired by Georg Buchner’s seminal play Woyzeck and echoing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Creature uses bafflement as a tool of hypnosis as it probes the dynamics of power and exploitation in a rundown Arctic research centre where a man-made creature is used as a guinea pig for endurance tests. It explores the condition of an outsider in a setting where nothing is allowed to be in his control. Creature is a marvel.
Something Like An Autobiography
Another odd one out in a list of debut films is this latest work from the combative and much-admired Bangladeshi filmmaker Mostafa Sarwar Farooki. In his most personal film yet, Farooki (debuting as an actor here) stars opposite his wife Nusrat Imrose Tisha in a slightly fictionalized drama about the couple having a baby after over a decade of marriage. In Something Like An Autobiography, the personal and the political overlap in a remarkably telling a manner. The film is about motherhood, celebrity, society, political power, abuse of authority and freedom of expression. Tisha is a seasoned actor and she delivers a brave, uninhibited performance. But it is Farooki who is the surprise package. A thorough natural, he never seems to be acting.