DIFF Diary: Cinema’s Joyland
The writer, who attended the recent edition of the Dharamshala International Film Festival, gives us an insight into what transpired at the festival
The centrepiece of the recently concluded 11th edition of the Dharamshala International Film Festival—Joyland, Saim Sadiq’s Oscar contender from Pakistan—made for an unprecedented emotional experience. It left many in the audience at a loss for words, with a sense of hollowness accompanying the overwhelming sentiments.
Amidst the crushed faces, silent aches and barefaced sobbing, hugs of comfort and subdued claps, a lady vociferously regretted that no one from the film’s team could be present for the post-screening Q&A session to address their queries and take in the responses. VK Sharma, a local theatreperson, decided to speak on behalf of the audience, drawing attention to the simplicity with which Sadiq had addressed a complex patriarchal reality in his debut feature. A reality, which transcends borders and holds just as true for India.
Earlier the auditorium at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, the festival’s venue in Mcleodganj, had to be bolstered with additional mattresses, placed ahead of the front row of seats, to accommodate the swelling crowd that had queued up long before the show. A second screening at the very end of the festival also drew a full house. Incidentally, while the film played for the first time in India against the backdrop of the majestic Dhauladhars, it is yet to open in Pakistan; it releases on November 18.
Between endless debates—on the film’s handling of certain characters and relationships and the way it draws to an end—the experience of viewing it the second time, with a predominantly South Asian audience, proved to be a deeper and far more communal dive into the pain, heartbreak and tenderness at its core as compared to the shared sense of achievement that defined its premiere in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival earlier in May where it didn’t just mark Pakistan’s debut but also walked away with the jury prize and the queer palm.
The DIFF viewing reiterated the gender dynamics that leave one broken as much as healed and hopeful. The love story of Haider (Ali Junejo), the youngest son of the Rana family of Lahore, and the transgender dancer Biba (Alina Khan) has more to it than romance. Joyland is all about how patriarchy tries to destroy not just those who question it—an assertive woman, a man in touch with his feminine side and a vulnerable transgender fighting brutality behind a veneer of aggression—but also the men, who are its staunchest supporters and perpetrators. The ideals of toxic masculinity eventually undo the manliest. The film’s life force is the free-spirited Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), Haider’s wife who is more his friend and ally. Her unfortunate yet strong act of defiance is poignant just as it is liberating and empowering. Joyland’s contentious finale holds the promise of a positive transformation but one which must emerge from life’s many paradoxes and contradictions.
The act of extreme yet quiet feminine rebellion also marked the opening film of the festival, Ajitpal Singh’s Fire In The Mountains. About a couple, Chandra and Dharam, running a homestay in Uttarakhand, the crux of the film rests on their differing attitude towards the treatment of their physically challenged son. While Chandra is the voice of rationality, saving hard-earned money for his medical treatment, Dharam believes in performing the age-old religious practice of “jagar” to set things right. It’s an exploitative world and Chandra also finds herself at the receiving end of many humiliations. However, she finds a unique way to subvert the societal oppression from within which makes for a dramatic climax.
For a man born in Punjab, raised in Gujarat and based in Mumbai, Singh captures the language and nuances of the Kumaoni culture as well as the changes that are coming in through social media and the supposed developmental works. He is sharp in playing the idea of modernity in the backdrop, ironically underlining that this kind of progress may not quite be the right, sustainable road to be on.
It was the film’s first physical screening with an audience in India after opening at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2021 and doing the rounds of about 30 festivals. A moment acknowledged by Singh while disarming the audience with his humble request to point out the mistakes in the film. It’s confronting issues, aesthetic or otherwise, with one’s films that help one grow in the future, he asserted.
It’s viewing the film on home ground with fellow countrymen that made DIFF significant for many independent filmmakers who travelled from across the country—Kerala, Karnataka, Bihar, Bengal and, of course, Mumbai and Delhi. So did the film buffs.
One such film to play for the first time in India was Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s Once Upon A Time in Calcutta, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2021. It is as much about a city in decline as it is about relationships at crossroads amid personal loss and grief. It also shows the plight of the daily wagers caught in a chitfund scam. Drawing from real incidents and playing with real locations and spaces Sengupta paints a compelling picture of moral decrepitude aided with fabulous camerawork of Gokhan Tiriyaki, DoP of Turkish icon, Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
It’s not just watching films in the 450-seater TIPA auditorium or the two inflatable 100-seater theatres that has been the draw when it comes to DIFF, it’s also about a sense of community that the film fraternity is able to be a stakeholder in—be it heading out together for an early morning meeting with the Dalai Lama or the languid lunches at the many charming cafes dotting the town or at the stalls set up at TIPA’s Cinema Square. DIFF is all about an infectious, informal vibe, one that former bureaucrat and author NS. Madhavan, who travelled all the way from Kochi, likened it to the Locarno Film Festival.
The boutique, intimate film festival with the motto “Bringing Independent Cinema To The Mountains” was founded in 2012 by filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam to platform films that had something significant to say, a social, political, or human point to make. After a gap of two years, when it had to go online, the 2022 edition proved to be a winner bringing the best of indies together. For a four-day festival it had a huge package of 80 films from 32 countries this year. Sarin says they got a record number of submissions this year and many had to be turned down for the lack of enough screening slots.
From Natesh Hegde’s Pedro to Prasun Chatterjee’s Dostoejee, from Gurvinder Singh’s Adh Chanani Raat to Irfana Majumdar’s Shankar’s Fairies to Abhinandan Chatterjee’s Manikbabur Megh. Almost every indie celebrated over the last year got programmed at the festival.
The most significant, however, was the incredible set of documentaries. Payal Kapadia’s poetic yet political A Night of Knowing Nothing which, through letters to an estranged lover, and hours of gathered footage, pieces together a document on recent students’ protests in India. Writing With Fire, Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s film on the Dalit women behind the Khabar Lahariya newspaper, the first ever from India to be nominated for Best Documentary Oscars, drew a huge crowd and a standing ovation. As did Shaunak Sen’s lyrical Sundance Grand Jury prize winner All That Breathes about two kite-saver brothers of Delhi—Nadeem and Saud.
A similar call for delicate balance and co-existence with nature, in the face of environmental degradation is echoed in Shishir Jha’s Dharti Latar Re Horo or Tortoise Under The Earth. An emotional tale about a couple in Jharkhand losing their child to uranium poisoning while the spectre of displacement from their homes and forests looms large, Tortoise works with local folk tales, songs and myths to build a unique lyrical narrative that draws from the tribal rhythms of life.
Gentle pacing, calm frames but a restlessness simmering underneath also marked the works of Achal Mishra and Parth Saurabh who, like Jha, come from the town of Darbhanga in Bihar. Mishra’s Dhuin (Mist) and Saurabh’s Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar (On Either Sides of the Pond) that played at the festival haven’t just created a new aesthetic and artistic paradigm to identify Darbhanga films with but the process of shooting them has also helped set up a viable cinema eco-system—a bunch of local actors, technicians and crew—previously lacking in the provincial town.
Expectedly, the workshops and conversations with filmmaker Anurag Kashyap and lyricist-writer-comic-filmmaker Varun Grover were packed to the brim. As was the short fiction film segment curated by filmmaker Umesh Kulkarni, a regular at DIFF who has his prized seat fixed at the favourite Tibetan Kitchen restaurant.
What was specially heartening was the unexpected success of a film like Ritesh Sharma’s Jheeni Beeni Chadariya. Through parallel tales of a street dancer and a weaver, Sharma presents a social picture where the delicate warp and weft of religion, class, caste and gender are facing the danger of coming undone. The film, which has travelled to several festivals after its premiere in Tokyo, resonated so much with the crowd that a second show had to be organized and Megha Mathur with her searing performance as the dancer Rani, deservedly walked away with a lot of attention and accolades.
In keeping with the sub-continental camaraderie and community building, the festival came to an end, with Abdullah Mohammad Saad’s Rehana. The Bangladeshi film which premiered at Cannes in 2021, is about a professor in a medical college (an electric Azmeri Haque Badhon, who will be seen soon in a Vishal Bhardwaj film) who while trying to balance the many roles of daughter, sister, mother in life, decides to take a moral stand and fight for justice for a student exploited by her teacher.
The festival's last day was also marked by the screening of Bani Singh’s Taangh (Longing). It is about the daughter of Nandy Singh, a member of the post-Partition Indian hockey team that defeated England to win Gold in the London Olympics in 1948, trying to retrace the moment in history that had been so integral to her father’s life. The documentary shows her going on the journey that unwittingly takes her to the heart of the Partition and its aftermath and to a fellow team member of Nandy Singh, now residing in Pakistan. An ode to friendships that might get sidelined or forgotten but survive the march of time, Taangh profoundly capped the emotional chord struck earlier by Joyland.
The festival has made some of its films available for viewing online till November 13 at online.diff.co.in