Despatches from Mumbai Film Festival 2023

Audiences with Mira Nair, Luca Guadagnino and Priyanka Chopra Jonas put the icing on a vast programme of South Asian and world cinema at Mumbai this year.

15 November 2023

By Lou Thomas

The Monk and the Gun (2023)

Away from the din of the city’s honking cars, buses and tuk-tuks gridlocked in routine late-autumn temperatures of 35°C, this year’s Mumbai Film Festival offered a formidable line-up of intriguing regional features and a smattering of masterclasses, in addition to an impressive greatest hits selection of 2023’s world cinema. Amid the whopping 250-film programme curated by festival director Anupama Chopra and her team, the festival presented 40 world premieres, 45 Asia premieres, and more than 70 South Asia premieres across 10 days – plenty to pique the interest of jaded festival habitués.

Of the South Asian film highlights, Darjeeling-born Bhutanese director Pawo Choyning Dorji’s The Monk and the Gun contained moments of winningly dry humour and several narrative surprises. Against the backdrop of Bhutan’s first democratic elections in 2006, the eponymous monk (Tandin Wangchuk) is ordered by his Lama (real-life Lama Kelsang Choejey) to acquire a pair of guns in time for a mock election in their village two days hence, while an American collector scours the countryside for one that might make him a tidy profit. Initially seeming to be a well-worn story of country-folk naivety and the ostensibly civilising effects of modernity on a rural area, Dorji’s follow up to his debut Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (2019) is a smart and satisfying watch. Bhutan’s entry for the International Feature Academy Award, the film won the IMDb Audience Choice Award at Mumbai, having already bagged prizes at festivals in Rome and Vancouver.

A trio of features located in or with an emphasis on neighbouring Nepal were among the most interesting at the festival. Nepalese director Nabin Subba’s A Road to a Village tells the story of basket-weaver Maila (Dayahang Rai), in the remote eastern Himalayas, whose seven-year-old son Bindray has his head turned by sunglasses, rap music and TV when a new road to town connects their family to a new world of culture. Though uneven and sentimental in parts, Subba’s piece is thoughtful and has plenty of heart.

Writer-director Fidel Devkota’s feature debut The Red Suitcase is an altogether more enigmatic and elliptical piece in which a delivery driver (Saugat Malla) leaves Kathmandu airport and travels to a mountain village for two days, while another man wheels the titular suitcase to the same location. Devkota’s film, which debuted at Venice Film Festival, is a subtle and eerie drama whose tone recalls the mysterious work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and which highlights problems in the dangerous world of migrant labour – particularly relevant in Nepal where up to 30% of GDP is thought to comprise money sent home by workers based in other countries.

The Red Suitcase (2023)

The strongest of the three films, Diwa Shah’s debut Bahadur the Brave, is set in Nainital, a town in north-east India 30km from the Nepalese border. Another story about migrant labour, this one focuses on cunning if hapless labourer Hansi (Rupesh Lama) and his brother-in-law Dil Bahadur (Rahul Mukhia). At the height of the Covid pandemic, the pair live in a tin shack with other labourers, taking odd jobs where they can. Non-actor Lama’s performance is particularly assured, a portrayal of a man who often lacks common sense but is wily enough to survive. An immediate, occasionally funny and tragic story, Shah’s film benefits from a sharp clarity of expression.

Screening as a world premiere in the South Asia competition, writer-director Dibakar Das Roy’s fast and frantic Dilli Dark was a big hit with audiences. Set in New Delhi, it’s a darkly hilarious crime comedy about a Nigerian MBA student named Mike (Samuel Robinson) who deals drugs to fund his further education. A boisterous, crude and energetic film that tackles racism, poverty and class in modern India, Dilli Dark is full of edgy urban life and was among the most entertaining films I saw here.

Rather more grim than Dilli Dark was Agra, Kanu Behl’s second feature, which debuted in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section earlier this year. Mohit Agarwal plays Guru – a sexually repressed loner who hallucinates having sex with a rabbit – who is living with his vicious, unhappy mother Vibha Chibber and sharing a house on the floor below his father and his second wife. Though Agra is named for the city most famous for the Taj Mahal, we never see that famed monument, instead moving between the unhappy family’s claustrophobic home and a seedy internet café where Guru eventually fulfils his barely contained desires with Priti (Priyanka Bose). Coming a few scenes after Guru had tried to rape his cousin, and making a change from scenes in which he masturbates in a toilet while using a dating app, we feel an uneasy relief at his success.

More sophisticated than Dilli Dark and Agra was Rotterdam Film Festival favourite Joram, playing out of competition in Mumbai. This excellent thriller sees Dasru (Manoj Bajpayee) go on the run when his past catches up with him while he works at one of Mumbai’s many construction sites. Writer-director Devashish Makhija’s fourth feature tackles class, political and legal corruption alongside the push and pull of urban financial gain versus the peace or otherwise of country life.

Joram (2023)

Jury head Mira Nair was on hand to deliver a lengthy and revealing masterclass discussing her entire career, from Mumbai stripper documentary India Cabaret (1985) to breakthrough hit and feature debut Salaam Bombay! (1988) – which was shot in slums only a few miles from where Nair spoke – via her Golden Lion-winner Monsoon Wedding (2001). Nair was keen to impress her love of location shooting – “My life and my pulse is the street,” she said. Among fun tidbits we learned that Nair and Spike Lee shared an edit suite in New York City when the latter was cutting She’s Gotta Have It (1986), and she also revealed her delight in hearing from Denzel Washington that she had coaxed “the most vulnerable performance he had ever given” from him in Mississippi Masala (1991), showing in Mumbai in an immaculate restoration.

In his masterclass, Italian director Luca Guadagnino chewed over the making of Call Me by Your Name (2017), Suspiria (2018) and Queer, his forthcoming William Burroughs adaptation starring Daniel Craig. Waxing lyrical on his experiences directing actors, Guadagnino had his rapt audience in peals of laughter. “Every actor is a machine of vanity,” he told us. “I love their fragilities. I love the fact the world collapses on them. I want them to be looked at and I love to look at them.” Asked exactly how he coaxes performances from his stars he explained: “I think you have to find ways of micro-managing them without them knowing you are micro-managing them.”

Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra Jonas drew the most frenzied, adoring crowd of the festival’s masterclass speakers. Though her talk perhaps lacked the substance of Nair or the mischief of Guadagnino’s, she was understandably greeted like a returning hero with the fame of her many Indian hits now bolstered by parts in English-language blockbusters such as The Matrix Resurrections (2021). Next year she’ll be seen in a key part in Heads of State alongside Idris Elba and John Cena. That said, Chopra Jonas had a good line in humble patter that Guadagnino may have approved of. “We are vessels as actors,” she said. “We stand on the shoulders of 200 people, at least. We’re given too much credence because our faces are on posters. Acting is mostly waiting.”

Of the more than 100 world cinema features playing Mumbai, top picks included Justine Triet’s superior courtroom drama Palme d’Or winner Anatomy of a Fall, Elene Naveriani’s terse Georgian character study Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry and Babak Jalali’s marvellous Jarmusch-esque tale of an Afghan woman in California, Fremont. A quiet, stately paced study of loneliness and romance, it has a hopeful spirit matched by few other films this year.

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