Irrfan Khan was supposed to be here with us at IFFSA this year. But this extraordinary actor, my beloved and glorious friend and muse, is in a dogged and feisty war with his health at the moment.
I know him well and I know that life for him is interlaced with the light and dark, gesture and rhythms and flow and the possibility of grace that cinema celebrates. If his performances affirm anything, they affirm ardour and high-spiritedness. They affirm vivacity and the delight to not only simply live, but to have the nerve, imagination and force to expand life, to bring new fire and vitality to life as might a hawk as it allows the wind to open its wings beyond the furthest sense of its fortitude.
Irrfan Khan’s performances also show us that this journey – beyond what we think is our resoluteness, beyond what we believe is our endurance – is possible because the imagination and force to expand life traverses as much within us as outside of us. This reciprocity between us and others is, of course, impossible as long we judge each other with self-serving values.
Every gesture of this actor, instead, celebrates an interweaving of questions, respect for nuance and the ability to transform ourselves and our ways of looking in relation to the forces that life throws into our path. Always in relation, denying our own easy self-righteousness, while also brushing aside all fears of becoming suddenly vulnerable to the brute forces of our time. This is an actor who challenges our easy classifications of what it means to be human; he opens us to the deepest challenge within ourselves – how much will I give up of my conscience in the face of fear? I believe this actor has never allowed any kind of demagogue to limit or define him.
Irrfan Khan cannot be with us this year, but his values, the principles of his art are the foundations on which we have built the festivities at IFFSA this time.
As we all know deep in our intestines, we live in a time of constant threat of violence. From the moment we awake in the morning and pick up the newspapers, switch on our TV or radio, we are awash with an uncontrolled dread as to what blast of news is going to shred our being today. And, damaged as our consciousness is by this threat of violence, what is just as unnerving are the questions it raises about ourselves and our society, our civilisation. We can’t but help asking ourselves that given the malignant and demagogic socio-political ethos of our time, was it not of our making? If our society is no longer affronted by the massacres and rapes, bullying and exploitations they trigger, then who amongst us can hide from the frightening question about his own conscience?
And we are aware that this ethos of brutality has, despite ourselves, in some nook of our nervous system, stepped on our first instinct to dissent. We are aware that our every objection, our every protest leaves us vulnerable to unexpected lashbacks. And we know so many amongst us who have allowed their fear to shut themselves up in silence.
This year, though, at IFFSA, we look around ourselves and are heartened, in fact, emboldened again and vitalised to see so many filmmakers from South Asia creating works of raging disagreement and protest, works free of fear. Works seething with challenge and questions. Works that directly confront all kinds of demagoguery and works that seek to rouse and reanimate the indignation and conscience of their audiences.
Within this context, it’s a privilege that IFFSA will screen Roya Sadat’s ‘A Letter to the President’, Afghanistan’s Oscar entry this year. The film presents a determinedKabul police chief, who is sentenced to death after accidentally killing her brutish husband. In order to save herself, she writes a letter to the president. It is distressing to see how an act of violence by a woman against her husband fiercely turns almost all the men she knows and has worked with, the men of her community as well as those in the government against her. A corrosive misogyny pervades all levels of the social system, and it’s not so difficult to see that this inequity is not only to be found in Afghanistan.
It is just as alive and toxic in Saral Kumar Sasidaran’s ‘Sexy Durga’, which follows an eloping couple’s pursuit by a cross-section of threatening and lustful men through one night. There was an effort to stop screenings of the film by various forces with a fierceness that is still disquieting and does not bode well for the future of Indian independent cinema.
This brings us to Devashish Makhija’s ‘Ajji’, that bitterly and scathingly looks at not only the lack of courage on the part of authorities faced with other powerful forces, but lays bare how this failure of nerve can befoul authority and, perversely, transform it into a force as malignant and pitiless as any beast. In these circumstances, what are the choices of a victim? Certainly this is one of the pivotal questions of our time, and this film’s unequivocal answer to the question is bound to be like the twist of a knife in the moral fabric of any viewer.
Pushing even further, Hansal Mehta’s ‘Omertà’ presents the beast itself, but with a sagacity and thoughtfulness that is certain to leave numerous explosive devices deep within our nervous system as well as our conscience. ‘Omertà’ presents a protagonist who believes he and his community are victims and is determined to exact retribution from all he considers are guilty of the terror against his community. This, of course, is the raison d’être of all vengeful forces and it will be illuminating to see how this film questions and develops some of the premises of ‘Ajji’ and raises new, painful questions. As in almost all Hansal Mehta films, it’s breathtaking to see how the actor, Rajkummar Rao, transforms himself into the film’s implacable moral force, and, as always, with such adroitness and discernment that even the character’s pitilessness is unable to blur the human being that he is at the same time.
The theme of revenge and patriarchy’s multiple ways to manipulate women and its bloodlust when challenged recurs in Bornila Chatterjee’s ‘The Hungry’. The lust for vengeance destroys the loved ones of both antagonists. All that is left is the glimmer of blood and torn bodies and wretched hearts in an empty mansion.
Dipesh Jain’s ‘In the Shadows’ is about a man living closed in his house, watching the world through video cameras, his imagination roiling with the foreboding of something horrific to come for him. His fears have locked him within himself, but when he believes an injustice against a child is being perpetrated, he is ready to fight both his own dread and also the indifference and heartlessness of his society to find and bring succour to the child. Here, there is a solicitude for others and a courage that, in its own way, initiates and expands upon the conjectures of both ‘Ajji’ and ‘Omerta’.
The festival’s opening film, ’The Song of Scorpions’, by Anup Singh, with Irrfan Khan, questions the very instinct for vengeance. It is a tale about a defiantly independent tribal woman living deep in the Rajasthan desert. She is learning the ancient art of healing from her grandmother, a revered scorpion-singer. She heals all kinds of ailments, including scorpion stings, by singing. However, she is poisoned by a brutal treachery that sets her on a perilous and mystical journey to avenge herself and find the song that will heal her. Only, when it’s time for her to avenge herself, she seeks to heal rather than kill. I hope this film will continue the provocative debates initiated by the films I spoke about earlier.
‘Doob – No Bed of Roses’ by Mostofa Sarwar Farooki is about two hostile families who, after the death of the man they had both been warring over, come to realise that memory can often overcome the violations of the past, and that what we choose to remember can heal, redeem and reconcile. This film offers a far-reaching, if melancholic, colour to the debates above.
And, then, there is Ere Gowda;s tale of secret desires, ‘Balekempa’. A gentle tale of a gay man and his wife accepting each other’s foibles and yearnings with simple, unspoken solicitude. The film’s compassionate mindfulness, tender affection for and understanding of human desires and idiosyncrasies opens us to the vision of another world that can exist without violence.
And, finally, the festival’s closing film, ‘Village Rockstars’, by Rima Das, is an eulogy to childhood dreams and determination. Set in a small village in Assam, this is a tale of a young girl’s spirited application to scrape one rupee after another in impossible circumstances to buy herself an electric guitar. The film gently and with good-humour celebrates dissent through persistence and strength of character. The village might dictate how a young woman must dress and behave, but its obvious from her defiant face that she has her own idea as to how she’ll live her life.
There is more at IFFSA; films like ‘The Boy with a top Knot’ bring to our programme this year a celebration of a more benevolent world. We are also deeply humbled and privileged that we’ll have the opportunity to screen various films by local female survivors of mental health. IFFSA, under its corporate responsibility mandate, is proud to bring a day-long programme of talks and panel discussions alongwith these films in collaboration with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Canada’s largest mental health education and research and care organisation.
In addition, IFFSA will offer music performances, parties, workshops, master-classes with Anurag Kashyap, Hansal Mehta, Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, Roya Sadat, and the other exciting new voices of Indian cinema.
Intensity, gusto, vivacity and expansion of life are the rallying cries of IFFSA this year. Join us and let our affirmation of life vibrate and fly across mountains and seas as a healing energy to Irrfan Khan!
My very best wishes to all,