Festival Report: The 2023 JIO MAMI Mumbai Film Festival
“Things are bad all over,” I thought to myself, as I left ceasefire protests in New York to attend a film festival in Bombay, India, whose recent news cycle included the political persecution of writer Arundhati Roy for a comment made about Kashmir in 2010 — indicating an opportunistically timed defense of occupation. India, too, agreed to send 1,000 workers to Israel as replacements for deported Gazans (before Indian trade unions refused in protest), and the country’s military remains Israel’s biggest arms client. All of this gave me a queasy feeling as I was thrust into the pomp of the JIO MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, an outrè affair presented by the Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image and title sponsors Jio Reliance, telecommunications company of the Ambanis, India’s richest family.
Indeed, Opening Night was held at the grotesquely marmoreal Neeta Mukesh Ambani Cultural Center — not a leap from Cannes’s Palais, but with less activity and more empty space — where a cavalcade of Bollywood stars and insiders, lead by the festival’s chairperson Priyanka Chopra Jonas, presented special awards, including career achievement recognition for the great Malayalam director Mani Ratnam and previews of the festival’s offerings on a stage fit for Oscar night (or Filmfare, India’s equivalent).
The Asian premiere of Netflix’s The Buckingham Murders followed the nearly two-hour ceremony. Set in the UK against the Hindu/Muslim riots that shook Leicester in 2022, the police procedural stars and was produced by Karina Kapoor Khan, a world-famous Bollywood idol who I remembered fondly as a diaspora kid from small town Michigan. An awkward ten-minute interview with Khan and the film’s director Hansal Mehta produced a circular exchange in which I tried to probe the film’s political underpinnings and they demurred. “I don’t make political films,” Khan told me, while Mehta, pressed to defend his dismissal of the film’s relevance to a crackdown on Muslims in India— though neither of us said as much out loud — finally offered, “I think it’s been exaggerated.” I thought of Roy and almost felt ashamed for my insistence but also that I was starting to learn something about how certain seemingly conscientious strands of Bollywood navigated the present moment. When Mehta alluded to Iranian film in defending the ability of artists to maintain integrity amid changing political situations, I thought, “Are things really getting that bad?” As to the film’s actual artistic merits I remain mum; Netflix has embargoed reactions until its (unspecified) release.
The festival’s lineup offered a rich cross-section of international festival hits, retrospectives and sections devoted to Asian film. The World Cinema section covered the heavies from Sundance, Cannes, Berlin and Venice, including American independents like Earth Mama, Kokomo City, and The Feeling That The Time For Doing Something Has Passed, plus some less expected titles like Thai filmmaker Patiparn Boontarig’s Solids by the Seashore and Nehir Tuna’s Dormitory from Turkey. Plenty of filmmakers were present for discussion; Chopra Jonas, Mani Ratnam, Luca Guadagnino, and jury members Mira Nair and David Michôd each presented Masterclasses in addition.
Having attended Berlinale, Cannes and the New York Film Festival this year, I drifted mostly towards the more unique Asian and Indian offerings, of which there were many. A new leadership team headed by Festival Director Anupama Chopra, Co-Director Maitreyee Dasgupta and Artistic Director Deepti DCunha introduced a number of ambitious changes from the festival’s last edition in 2019, among the most notable being the South Asia Competition, featuring 14 world, Asian, South Asian and Indian premieres in the running for a considerable cash prize. I was told that the festival’s physical scope had expanded too, with nine venues — primarily multiplexe s— spread across the city’s vast footprint (I would quickly learn that the best strategy was to pick one for the day and stick with it, or else risk up to two hours lost in unpredictable traffic).
Numbering over 250 films across over a dozen sections, one thing was certain: this would be the only chance for Bombay audiences to see most of these movies. While India’s theatrical releases require a government censor certificate of approval, hard to come by, there is greater leniency for films presented in the festival setting (they still require approval). Owing to the same law that provides these exceptions, all of the screenings at MAMI are free to attend. As far as anyone could tell me, arthouse cinemas are virtually unknown not only in Bombay, with its metro population of around 22 million, but the entirety of India with its 1.4 billion.
I began my post-Opening Night festival with a retrospective screening of Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Kodiyettam, a Malayalam-language hallmark of India’s New Wave or “Parallel” cinema movement. The film follows a hedonistic villager’s journey to responsibility from aimless idler, ending with a (dubious) suggestion about the empowering value of honest work. Released the year after India’s dictatorial spell known as The Emergency, the film comes off as an allegory about a newly independent nation’s complicated path to stability.
It’s interesting to note that many of the best contemporary Indian movies have also been in the Malayalam language, marking the continuity of one of India’s strongest regional cinemas. My favorite of the year, Don Palathara’s Family, was sadly absent from the festival lineup, owing, I was told, to premiere-status drama. Another of my favorite contemporary Indian filmmakers, Amit Dutta, debuted a crop of new short films that animate (literally) traditional Indian religious artworks in varying and novel ways.
A welcome discovery at the festival was Gurvinder Singh’s Trolley Times, an invigorating documentation of India’s 2020 farmer protests, which saw tens of thousands march to the nation’s capital in opposition to three corporatist farm laws passed in September of that year. The film is split into four chapters charting a group of farmers’ journey from their village to New Delhi, the response of those in the village when they were abruptly arrested, and their subsequent homecoming. Singh’s expansive framing conveys the scope of the protests while direct addresses to camera emphasize the righteous fury of the farmers’ complaints. It was certainly striking to hear a farmer bemoan India’s transformation into “Ambanistan” while sitting in a theater at Jio World Drive during the Jio MAMI festival.
Since my last visit to India, it had apparently become law that every movie screening be preceded by a rendition of the national anthem. While this law was later repealed by the Supreme Court, the multiplex chain that hosted a majority of the festival’s screenings had chosen to continue observing the practice. Although it remains illegal not to stand when the anthem is played, I was admittedly jarred by the enthusiasm with which most individuals expressed their nationalist zeal. So much so that I eventually found myself running just a few minutes late to every screening. At one point near the end of Mani Ratnam’s masterclass presentation, the anthem was apparently cued accidentally — a CGI flag waving proudly onscreen — and prompted those present to stand. When the music was cut off halfway through, the crowd remained standing and finished the anthem a capella.
This observance felt especially out of place preceding certain screenings, such as Anand Patwardhan’s The World is Family. Patwardhan, whose films have charted excesses by India’s government over the last several decades, took a more personal — but no less political — turn with his latest, fashioning archival camcorder footage of his aging (now deceased) parents into a powerful essay on the legacy of India’s independence movement and the country’s partition. Patwardhan’s family was originally from a city in current-day Pakistan; their house, a hub for independence activity, still stands, now as a hospital. “I’m glad it became something useful,” he tells the genial hospital director, on an organized visit meant to promote friendliness between Indians and Pakistanis. An old neighbor reminisces, recalling a particularly entertaining tale of Anand’s mother, as a child, ripping a reverent garland from a portrait of King Edward II at school.
Lest these reminisces be taken as a fresh call to nationalism, Patwardhan takes pains to compare India’s independence movement to the 2019 protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, which targeted Muslims for deportation.
Only two filmmakers at screenings I attended mentioned Gaza in their Q&As. Patwardhan was one; the other was Miko Revereza, who would soon be the first to pull his film out of IDFA over their condemnation of the anti-Zionist phrase, “From the river to the sea.” Revereza’s Nowhere Near fluidly captures the nebulousness of life as a non-documented citizen on occupied land, and watching it in India while bombs fell on Palestine provoked many parallel thoughts about the exclusive and necessarily disenfranchising status of citizenship — what it represents and who its weaponized against.
Rounding out my admittedly narrow focus was Indi(r)a’s Emergency, a rote but riveting documentary about the lead-up to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Machiavellian invocation of emergency powers from 1975 to 1977 (Gandhi was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister). These 21 months of despotry saw the arrest and torture of thousands of political rivals and dissidents — including former independence fighters — and the cruel, blundering reign of Gandhi’s idiot son Sanjay who, although he held no official political position, commanded a gaggle of cronies in the execution of his vision for India, best remembered by police terror and a vast program of forced sterilizations. Director Vikramaditya Motwan’s play of archival footage and animated sequences ends as a warning against the cult of personality that enabled Indira and Sanjay. Thankfully, there are no comparable populist figures in India today.
Editor’s Note: The original posting of this article misstated the director of Indi(r)a’s Emergency. The director is Vikramaditya Motwan.