Notes from a festival: Tales of conviction
In this series of columns, the writer, the entertainment editor of the organisation, will be reflecting on the films being shown at the 51st International Film Festival of India in Goa
A human can be capable of seemingly impossible deeds when armed with great levels of conviction. A young man can kill with impunity; an old woman can perform astonishing feats of agility. Pratiik Gupta’s Shantabai is the short story of the eponymous 85-year-old woman, who is determined to keep alive the legacy of her Dombari community by performing street circus acts like tightrope walking and juggling, well into her old age. It’s a film that asserts that age, really, is just a number. You see this especially when the elderly Shantabai does acts that should be thought impossible for someone of her age. She balances herself on a bottle, she walks on a tightrope, she places a baby at the edge of a stick and holds it up for the world to see. It's all astonishing, and a reminder that we are hindered only by our fears.
Her persistence with the Dombari tradition is born out of her conviction that such practices must not be forgotten. It’s dogged belief in the value of a tradition that’s dying a swift death. She understands that not everyone can do what she does, and even if the world may not be able to appreciate what she’s doing or value the entertainment of her act, she needs to keep soldiering on. Alongside her impressive acts of agility, we also get the story of a strong woman who did not let spousal abuse or abusive crowds ever get in the way of her job. We also hear a small anecdote that serves to remind us of those who toil quietly for cinema without any real recognition, when Shantabai speaks of having performed circus acts for films featuring actors like Dharmendra and Sridevi. Ultimately, it’s a film that speaks of human resilience and what our bodies can be capable of, if only our mind was willing.
Unreasonable amounts of conviction can also cause people to unleash undesirable acts, like extreme acts of violence, for example. This can be seen in the Iraqi film, Haifa Street, which was screened in IFFI on Saturday. This is a film about the ruins of Baghdad, a film whose events occur in a two-mile lane called Haifa Street that is at the centre of much violence. It’s a film that’s also notable for winning the Best Film Award at the Busan International Film Festival. At the heart of this story is a disturbed man who uses his sniper to deadly effect and stops any potential rescuers from reaching the body of a man he has ruthlessly put down. This is a man possessed with cold conviction, and sharp eyes that remain undistracted even by swarming flies. It’s a film set in Baghdad, so, naturally, there’s a bit of coverage on American involvement as well. But ultimately, it’s all about conviction, the sort that can fell bodies, or elevate human achievement, like can be seen in the ten-minute documentary, Shantabai. Your conviction can serve both light and darkness. What do you choose?