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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. 



MFF 21, 2019: Fernando Meirelles’ Masterclass

MFF 21, 2019: Fernando Meirelles’ Masterclass

Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles took a master class on the fifth day of MAMI’s 21st Mumbai Film Festival. Best known for his globally acclaimed and award-winning films such as The Constant Gardener, City of God and Blindness, the director was speaking after the screening of his 2019 biographical comedy-drama titled The Two Popes, starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce.

Festival Director Anupama Chopra presented the Excellence in Cinema Award (International) to Meirelles, who received a standing ovation from a mesmerised audience that had just been watching his latest masterpiece. Accepting the award, the film-maker said, “The festival is growing with each passing year, and is becoming a reference for the world. But I think that the world must get to see more Indian films. Your society is very self-sufficient with films, you guys make your own films and watch them yourselves. You should share your films!”  

Though Meirelles deals with delicate issues, he tries to instill hope in them as well. As most of his films showcase the harsh truths of the world, laced with empathy, Chopra opened the masterclass with a quote from The Two Popes, “The truth is vital, but without love, it is unbearable.” Does the director follow his process by design? To an extent, yes, he has been following his path for a while now. But today, the film-maker said, he has become a pessimist, and is not too hopeful about the future. “I tried to be hopeful. But due to this climate crisis our future is in danger. So, I like to make films that bring hope, but also inform and show parts of the world to the audiences and tell them where we are heading,” he explained. Given that his next project with Netflix addresses the issue of climate change, Meirelles is now obsessed with the burning issue of our times. “The more science you read; the more you will get scared. I have read too much!” exclaimed the filmmaker.

Having studied to be an architect, Meirelles draws a comparison between the two distinct, yet creative, worlds of architecture and cinema. For him, an architect and a director both have a vision that then needs to be translated into tangible work. Engineers and technicians help them beautify the process and bring their creative vision to life. “Architecture has made me sensitive to spaces and given me a sense of how to shoot, move actors on the set.”

Working on TV commercials was another steppingstone toward his film-making career. “Though I never saw myself fitting in the advertising world, having worked on thousands of commercials was the best schooling I could have had, early on in my career.”  This is when Meirelles learnt to use out of the box techniques, like flying cameras, crazy camera placements and last-minute improvisations. Now, more than ever, Meirelles trusts his intuition and instinct over anything else. That is how he knows what will work and what won’t work in a film or a scene. “Listening to my irrational side more than the rational one is more important for me now,” he said.

On why he agreed to work on The Two Popes and City of God, given that he had initially refused both projects, the film-maker said, “What drew me to The Two Popes is Pope Francis’ politics and not his religion. Like him, I also see the world as one and do not believe in nationalism--the new wave in the world. Additionally, I like movies that talk about issues that affect the world, and not just one country.”

Meirelles does not believe in telling the actors what to do in front of the camera. He likes to let them create with liberty. His process begins with understanding theirs and then working on those terms. “You have to play his/her game,” said the director, who successfully achieved the task of filming veteran actors Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, whose acting methodologies are strikingly different from each other. While Hopkins likes to be well-prepared months in advance and does not prefer on-set improvisations, Pryce is always game for impromptu changes to his lines. “It’s like blending Classical music with Jazz,” explained Meirelles.

Fernando follows this not just with the cast, but with the crew as well. On his decades-long association with his DOP César Charlone, the director said that he treats him almost like a co-director. “We know each other very well. We don’t have to talk much on the sets. Before starting work on any film, César and I sit together for two weeks and decide what we are going to do scene by scene. That is a good process for me.”

The masterclass concluded with the director explaining how he is working toward saving the planet both personally and professionally. While his farm in Brazil is now being converted into an agro-forest, his next project with Netflix will help him showcase the issue of climate change and the need for a change in our attitude to it, to the world. “I will keep trying and trying till the end,” he signed off.

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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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