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Siraj Syed


Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 

 

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IFFI Goa 2017, XVII: Films and ratings

IFFI Goa 2017, XVII: Films and ratings

For the first time in many years, I decided not to write while the festival was on, and catch-up on as many films as possible. Of course, I did attend two Open Forums and two dinners, but that was about all that kept me away from watching movies. That, and my inability to wake-up early enough to catch the morning screenings.

Here’s a brief description of the films I managed to catch, and their ratings on a scale of 0-*****. A few were insufferable, and I had to walk out at some stage (at least 30 minutes after the beginnings), so they are mentioned, but not rated.

1. Beyond the Clouds *** (Opening film)

Majid Majidi’s sojourn on a territory charted in their own ways by Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay) and Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire). It does not stand well against his best works, and why should we make allowances for the fact that Iranian Majidi has made an Indian film for Indian audiences, dwelling at length on Mumbai’s underbelly, what with drugs, prostitution, jails and hospitals? One also wonders about the casting of Bengali director Gautam Ghose as the molester who remains comatose for half the film.

2. Thinking of Him *** (Closing film)

Argentine Pablo César makes a co-production with an Indian company on a rare chapter in the life of Rabindranath Tagore. To put it into context, he weaves a 2017 track in colour that takes place in his native country, and cross cuts with the Tagore visit to Buenos Aires some 100 years ago, in B&W. In an attempt to avoid tropes, he delineates an elaborate matrix on education and educators in the juvenile delinquent homes of Argentina, and thereby makes the link tenuous, till it jells in the end.

3. Beats Per Minute (Walk-out)

Long live the Jury that gave it two awards, Best Picture and Best Actor, Male.

4. Racer and the Jailbird **1/2

An outlaw falls in love and conceals his true identity from his beloved. Beaten to death theme, with some slick thrills and heists. And then it slides into Love Story, with two added dimensions: the macho gangster is mortally afraid of dogs and the woman has cancer. Her boundless and sublime love for him is irrational.

5. Village Rockstars ***1/2

Hype can be counter-productive, as in this case. A good film about life of a bunch under-privileged pre-teen children in Assam, the annually recurring floods that keep wreaking havoc, and the kids’ fascination with being a rock band with, thermocole cut-out instruments. Class and gender bias is gently woven in.

6. Women of the Weeping River (Walk out)

Not much is known about the Muslim majority region of Mindanao in the Philippines. What I saw was just two families in a land feud that included regular murders. Failed to hold interest.

7. Breath **1/2

In the late 70s, a little girl lives in a fantasy world. Her father is an asthmatic pick-up driver. Meanwhile, a revolution is brewing in Iran, which will depose the Shah, and bring Ayatollah Khomeini to power. A striking opening shot, which is also the closing shot, but with a heart-rending twist, is one of the few redeeming factors of this film. Very Iranian in subject and execution, it does not meet the high standards set by quintessential Iranian films.

8. In Blue ***

Exploring the mind and soul of a broken woman can come-up with irrational but highly sentimental content. Contrasting the lives of a Dutch air-hostess who has given birth to a dead foetus with that of a young Romanian man who is deep into the abyss of drugs, conmanship and male prostitution, the film makes a mist unlikely couple, where sex is not part of the relationship. Sensitively handled and convincingly portrayed.

9. Life Beyond Me (Walk out)

Interesting premise of a woman trying to abduct her son after her separated husband’s death, where nothing really happens for 30 minutes. The film was beyond me.

10. Love Me Not ***

Few films at IFFI 2017 could boast of a plot with such a masterful twist. Ostensibly about surrogate motherhood, the film turns out to be a plan to swindle a few millions. Casting is perfect, meant to mislead with the face ‘masks’. Towards the end, it becomes a prolonged sadistic saga, designed to deliver justice to one partner in crime while the other goes scot-free.

11. Loveless ***1/2

A favourite at the Mumbai Film Festival, Loveless has been brought to India by the former director of MFF, Srinivasan Narayanan, who had three films in IFFI 2017. Though Russian, it highlights mainly Western phenomena of what a loveless marriage, divorce and remarriages can do to offspring. Who knows, such loveless, desensitised, materialistic societies might soon spread to Asia and Africa too! Bleak and dark, it has a moral that hits your senses like a velvet coated sledge-hammer.

12. Murder on the Orient Express ***

Everlasting in its appeal, this Agatha Christie murder mystery sticks to straight story-telling, with allowances only for the occasional flash-back when Belgian detective Hercule Poirot unravels the mystery. An all star cast helps, and actor-director Kenneth Branagh is in full control. The suspense apart, you will find some breath-taking visuals. Who killed Johnny Depp? Motive is the key, and there are motives galore.

13. The Nile Hilton Incident **1/2

Prostitution, murder, corruption in low places and politics of the dirtiest kind are in focus in the Egypt-based film (produced by Sweden, Denmark and Germany), and we all have read of the turbulent times the country has seen in the last decade or so. Some clever twists come at the right time to lift this tale above a routine murder mystery, but a lot of it is predictable. At 110 minutes, it is a bit long.

14. The Other Side of Hope ***

Migrants are again the subject of Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki. He gets you hooked with his first frame and offers you his trade-mark dead-pan black humour, albeit in small doses. One is not aware of the actual immigration procedure in that country, but writer Kaurismaki has penned it so well that it will be difficult to think it is any dissimilar. Apart from a couple of co-incidences that appear contrived, there is harmony in the way the ragtag bunch of ‘multi-nationals’ runs a restaurant.

15. Pomegranate Orchard ***1/2

Like Loveless, there is materialism and selfishness at the core of this film from Azerbaijan. Your heart goes out to the old man and you cannot but empathise with his daughter in law. Indeed, there are as many good human beings in this film as there are villains, but alas, all the good ones are on the losing side. Stellar performances and a wonderful location add to the merits.

16. Razzia ***1/2

Not to be confused with the name Razia, the film’s title is a corruption of the Arabic word Ghazia, which means raid. Since the film is set in Morocco, and in French, r is often pronounced as gh, Razzia here stands for raid. Disjointed in narration, it goes back a couple of decades in time to set the tone, when an idealistic teacher in rural Morocco is forced to use Arabic, while the students only understand the Berber dialect. The teacher chucks his job and moves to Casablanca, as does his beloved, a widow, who could never trace him, and now runs a ladies’ secret dance club. Many other tracks run parallel. The film is nothing, if not bold, and also reminds you that not one frame of the all time classic Casablanca was shot there.

17. Redoubtable ***

Paradoxically, the lead character in redoubtable, the cult film director Jean Luc Godard, is forever in doubt on almost every issue that concerns his films, himself or the politics of his time. Not a complete biopic, the film centres round Godard’s romantic affair with Anne Wiazemsky, who also acted in his films, during the height of the socialistic/Maoist upheavals in the France of 1967-68. Since no serious cineaste in India could dare find any fault with his films (most of them reached us in the 70s, through the Film Society network), it is interesting to see that in this film Godard is self deprecating and often critical of his own work.

18. Shelter ***

With Mossad calling the shots in his political thriller, Eran Riklis digs out his John Le Carré and spins a cat and mouse game. Germany, Israel and France have produced while the proceedings are in English, Hebrew and Arabic. You never know who is double-crossing whom and how safe is a so-called safe-house. Golshifteh Farahani plays a Lebanese woman supposedly on the run, for unclear reasons, while Neta Riskin is her handler agent. Nice pair.

19. Wajib ***1/2

Nazareth is holy for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. And in one cinematic day, the director paints a picture of the whole town and its inhabitants, a list that includes those who have moved on to other countries. It’s a divorcee school-teacher’s only daughter’s wedding, and his son comes from Rome to join the event in the Israeli occupied territory. As the two go around distributing invitation cards, a composite post-card is painted, of love and loss, unity and division.

20. Licence to Kill **1/2 (28 years ago, in 1989, that might have meant ***)

One Timothy Dalton caper I had missed. Q (Desmond Llewellyn) has a major role, for once, but the disappointments were Robert Brown (as M) and Caroline Bliss (as Moneypenny). Not bad on their own, they suffered by comparison with Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell. This would be the last Bond film for both. The title is not from an Ian Fleming novel, a first. John Glen does a fifth as director, also his last. Robert Davi makes an unimpressive drug-lord.

21. Skyfall ***1/2

That’s the name of Bond’s parental home in Scotland, and a place he detests. Daniel Craig and Javier Bardem (not his best outing) battle it out, when the latter, a rogue British agent, is out to destroy MI6 and kill M (Judi Dench). Ralph Fiennes is in the cast too. 23rd in the series, Skyfall has been followed by Spectre (2015), and another Bond adventure should be out next year. Q, played by young Ben Whishaw, and Moneypenny, played by black actress Naomie Harris, return after earlier castings in same roles. It is quaint that Moneypenny, a regular Bond figure since the beginning, is formally introduced to him in Skyfall.

22. The Sacrifice ***

It was Stalker at MFF, and it is the Sacrifice at IFFI—the Andrei Tarkovsky (restored) pilgrimage is complete. Solaris has already seen by millions decades ago. Ambiguous dialogue, apparently vacuous statements that lead to philosophical discussions and a string current of (Christian) religion are found in all three, but never as strong as in the sacrifice. A mysterious child who needs to be protected, and a man’s sacrifice of life and property, in the hope that the sacrifice will stop war. As usual, not easy viewing.

23. Bahubaali 2-The Conclusion ***

What? I watched James Bond and Babubaali at IFFI, where one goes to see films that are not easily available/accessible? Yes, I did. And I watched one more regular commercial Hindi film. Mind-blowing in terms of Chinese/American superhero flick SFX and CGI, this one is rooted in mythology and legend. That you can see artificial figurines as army-men in several shots takes a few points away. Add to that an obvious lifting of the plot from the Manmohan Desai film DharamVeer, and some more points are lost. Prabhas, Rana Daggubati, Anushka Shetty, Ramya and Nasser ham it to the hilt, when not swaggering. Nasser makes a suitably hideous villain.

24. (The State v/s) Jolly LL.B. 2 **1/2

A sequel, with no direct connectivity, the film has Akshay Kumar in the role done by Arshad Warsi. It is incredible that the Indian judicial system at the small town level in the state of Uttar Pradesh could be this bad, but I know many who will swear that it is even worse. As a qualified lawyer, it makes my blood boil. Now, as a film-critic, it is easy to see Huma Qureishi, Saurabh Shukla and Annu Kapoor slide so easily into their respective roles. There is a ‘straight in the face’ message of great import here: we do not need terrorists masquerading as holy men, but we also do not need communal-minded police officers carrying out encounters of the innocent.

25. Khynikaa (Walk out)

I did not get it. Believe me, I tried hard. But makers Amartyya Bhattacharyya and Swastik Choudhury, I will defend your right to make films that you want to. The selection jury saw merit in Khynikaa and included it in the Indian Panorama, and so might some audiences.

26. Pihu ****

Her real name is Myra, while she is called Pihu by her family. Vinod Kapari, who had earlier worked in TV, cast her in this outstanding effort when she was two, and it took all of two-and-a-half years to film it. Pihu’s mother has committed suicide in a small town in Uttar Pradesh, even as her father is on the way to Kolkata. The gas burner is on, and the audiences will have their hearts in their mouths, as they applaud and pray for the little girl. When asked by this writer, Kapari expressed unawareness of the world’s first one-actor film, Yaadein, made by Sunil Dutt in the 60s, but said that he learnt about it much after Pihu was on the way. Easily the best film of IFFI 2017.

27. Xhoixobote Dhemalite **

Writer-director Bidyut Kotoky’s heart is in the right place. And his heart has place for theatre, media, effects of the civil and armed unrest against foreigners/outsiders in native Assam, the desire to see the world through the eyes of his little daughter and hope that one day he will become the unobtrusive but kind and almost mythical grand-father that he gets Victor Banerjee to play in the film. While the children’s play and the grand-father’s visit become high points of emotional drama, the rest of the narrative does not hold as much attention. Some flashback cuts are used as standard technique, to show passage of time, and not to build up excitement. Possibilities not fully actualised.

IFFI Goa 2017 flagged off on the 20th of November, with the inaugural film screening that evening. On the 28th, films were shown till about 1 pm and the closing ceremony was held in the afternoon. The closing film was screened late that evening. Let’s count these two days as one screening day, which leaves us with seven ‘screening’ days. Journalists were allowed to watch up to five films a day. Theoretically, I could have seen 35, and I know a few die-hard aficionados who did see 35. I, for my part, managed 27. To remind you, I am unable to catch the first show (starts at 9-10 am) due to sleep/insomnia issues. So, my target was 28. Managing 27, two dinners and two panel discussions as well, I am not too disappointed.

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.


Bandra West, Mumbai

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