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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for 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. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



MAMI inaugural screening: 104-minute wait for 104-minute film

MAMI inaugural screening: 104-minute wait for 104-minute film

Organisers of the Jio MAMI’s 18th Mumbai Film Festival (MFF) with STAR chose actress Konkona Sen-Sharma’s directorial debut film, A Death in the Gunj as the opening film. In a continually perplexing schedule, the opening film, for the last couple of years, is not screened on the opening day, and not even at the inaugural venue. This year, the inauguration ceremony was held at the restored Opera House cinema.

Located at a place known by the cinema, Opera House, it was a theatre that hosted non-film performances including operas, once upon a time. Built in a vertical, boxed style, it was ill-suited for cinema screenings, but the premium seats gave a good enough view. I grew up in the neighbourhood, and my first memory of seeing a film was at Opera House (the ‘Royal’, a derivative of its London counterpart, was never used, probably because the British had left by then). Actually, it could still justifiably use the moniker 'Royal', because it was run by royals of Gondal, in what is now Gujarat

The film I saw was a classic, Do Ankhen Barah Haath (Two Eyes, Twelve Hands), about a jailor who tries to reform six hardcore criminals. It was produced and directed by the legendary maker V. Shantaram, and released n 1957, when yours truly was all of five years old. Since it ran for 60 weeks, it was dubbed a diamond jubilee hit. Subsequently, I saw many films there, including Beti Bete and Naya Qanoon. Considered ideal for 'family social' films and tear-jerkers, it played host to many silver jubilee and golden jubilee films. Rajesh Khanna, who was a Superstarduring the 60 and 70s, had two major hits running 200 metres apart, Aradhana in Roxy and Do Raaste in Opera House. Shutters were downed in 1993, and it is a full twenty years since anybody has seen a film at Opera House.

When it was announced that MFF would hold its opening ceremony there, I was really keen to rekindle my memories. But I had not anticipated what I should have, given the recent track record of the MFF organisers. MFF, currently headed by a film-critic as Director, has a strict policy when it comes to events like inaugurations, closing ceremonies or receptions of any kind: only VIPs are allowed. Never mind if you happen to be a critic or film journalist, however senior; you have to be on their VIP list to get invited. Else, you should be a cameraman. Video-cameramen have the big advantage. Visual glamour is waht they are interested in. I do not belong to any of these classifications, so no show! A journalist colleague, who has come all the way from Kolkata to attend MFF as an accredited media-person, had never seen or heard about Opera House. He went to the function, on an impulse, but, obviously, was not allowed to enter. Having travelled some distance, he merely got to view the grand edifice from outside. That was 20 October, and that was how MFF was flagged off.

We, mere mortals, headed for our chosen venues on the 21st, when screenings began. Many of us chose Regal, another relic of the British era, because it is a single screen cinema with a large capacity, and the opening film was to be shown there, at 7 pm that day. “I can’t invite you to the inaugural function, but do come for the opening film,” were the exact words of MFF in-house PR person, Anisha SenGupta Yanger. Sure. I would like to see A Death in the Gunj, but what if this too was restricted to ‘VIP’s? I asked her to let me know whether my Press badge would suffice/I would be able to book a seat on the BookMyShow website/I would need her good offices to enter the auditorium. Still waiting for her reply.

Meanwhile the BookMyShow staff on duty at Regal revealed that about 80-90% of the approximately 1,200 seats at Regal had been blocked by the festival management, and the remaining 10-20% had been offered by BookMyShow to those who had logged in early, so there was no chance of my getting a seat. I impressed upon him to take a fresh look, since it was already the afternoon of 21st.October, and maybe, just maybe, he could find a seat for the show, which was supposed to start a few hours later. Luck was on my side, for once, and I got a seat.

Now, foreseeing and fearing a mad rush, I queued up at 6.20 pm, along with about 300 others who had reserved seats (entry is thrown open to other badge-holders once those holding reservations are accommodated), and was seated in the balcony, by 6.45 pm. Apparently, the show had been rescheduled, from 7 pm too 7.30 pm. Patience, patience! I spotted Anisha, and said Hello to her. Courtesy don’t cost nothing. She nodded back, and that was that. After that, the disciplined audience’s patience was tested to the limit, as the film rolled only a few minutes before 9 pm.

No, there was no technical issue. Traffic in Mumbai is a curse, but try telling that to the delegates and media-persons who shuttle from venue to venue. The organisers were probably waiting for Konkona, and possibly other VIPs, to arrive. Nobody waits for more than 15 minutes at any international festival. In fact, protests start getting vocal after 10 minutes. I cannot recall a single occasion in 40 years when there was such an extraordinary delay. Full marks to the endurance of the film-buffs at Regal that day of reckoning. But did we deserve this? Finally, Konkona was presented, and she briefly introduced the film.

Konkona is the daughter of Bengali/Hindi/English actress-director Aparna Sen and science author and journalist,n Mukul Sharma. Aparna’s father was the distinguished film-critic, professor, film-society veteran Chidanand Dasgupta. Konkona started acting at age 4, and won the Best Actress National Award for the English film Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, directed by her mother. Ranvir Shorey, her husband of five years (since separated), is playing a central character in Gunj. And the story is by Mukul Sharma. With such redoubtable credentials, and with an eulogising introduction, she just had to give us a great film. Did she?

Honey Trehan and Abhishek Chaubey have produced the film, which has a chèf’s special recipé type of casting. Based on a real incident turned into short story, the 1979-set drama is set in McCluskieganj (or Gunj, local for area), a former Anglo-Indian settlement in Jharkhand (then undivided Bihar). 'A family outing takes an unexpected turn with the disappearance and death of one of the guests'. And guess what? Konkona was born in 1979!

Here s a short summary of the films I have seen so far. Reviews might take time. Could manage eight full-length productions, and one 25-min short, in three days. Not a good score. Traffic jams ensured I missed Death in Sarajevo. The Gunj Marathon cost one film for sure. A short bout of illness kept me out of two more. The count should have been 12, at least, discounting the short.

Obviously, I have my work cut out for the next four days.

·        A Death in the Gunj: ***

·        The Road to Mandalay: ** ½  

·        Swiss Army Man: *** ½

·        The Neon Demon: * ½

·        You Are My Sunday: *** ½

·        Apprentice: **

·        The Golden Wing: *** 

·        Sing (short): ** ½

·         Mango Dreams: **


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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 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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