Film festivals are a competitive sport. I can’t believe I wasn’t told this before. I partly think this because of the particular situation at MAMI, where ticket bookings for the following day open only at 8am the morning before. It means, for one thing, you can’t always get what you want, which shouldn’t be a lesson I need to be reminded of at this stage of my life, but is regrettably so.
Mostly though, it’s the endurance of zapping oneself in and out of a litany of films that have just been strung together in accordance with screening protocols and film categories that make no sense to a certain viewer, who has long since wished for thematically-curated festivals over those peeled open along nation-state lines. Love is the worst competitive sport. Surviving the utter, bone-crushing sadness that accompanies spending a whole day in darkened cinema halls investing in alien worlds is only exciting if you don’t think too hard about it, and in any case, after a few days, I suspect you can’t. Badges out, heart—out. Like a match. A restlessness from waiting in line that only bloats through the day. Melancholia and practicality have never made for a good dressing, and they pair poorly when you’re trying to factor in slow/fast trains on the Western Line to see if you’re in the mood for a Bilge Ceylan—or something closer to home.
I barely recovered from two hours of inter-city travel when I found myself heaving in an overly air-conditioned PVR in Andheri ten minutes into Hong Sang-soo’s Hotel by the River. Entering the space of a film requires recovery time beforehand—a threshold between the screen and the world—and I bought myself none, because everything is expensive in Bombay. I realise now, of course, that I couldn’t have picked a better film to wade into the festival with because Hong Sang-soo’s meditative, meandering film about vulnerability and care between two young women, and a father and his two grown sons, all of whom happen to be staying at a snow-blown hotel by a frozen river, is a better endorsement for the luxury of keeping yourself warm than anything I ever saw at Zurich airport.
Zurich. It made entire sense that Roger Federer would endorse minimalist watches. The orange juice glittered needlessly. The local mobile network is called Salt. The rooftop of the airport is a sightseeing space. Mountains surround you like a goddamn film set. Everything looks like it should be CDG white, or wrong.
I thought of Zurich airport while watching Hotel by the River today, perhaps because Hong Sang-soo tracks the exact monochrome horizon where the physical comfort of friendship, or the solace of desperate, plain love dissolves into a human obstinacy for eeking out a mess from taking need itself too far. A poet father makes his older son jealous by discursing at length about how his younger son’s name was chosen with great care. It starts out as a moment of great frivolity, before settling into one of discomfort, because Sang-soo’s full-length shots—always keeping everyone accountable, documented—releases his older son into frustration. We all laugh; it’s funny. But the son’s fallen face continues to rankle. Soon, there are forlorn stuffed toys—white—on the table.
Or one of the women, who wears an oversized cowl neck jumper with white sleeves that hug her into the smoothness of the hotel bed when she lies beside her friend. The softness of the jumper is unbearable, I can feel it. Their conversations are restless and circular, the kind you have when you spend too much time in a strange, pristine room where you can only disturb the furniture of your feelings, with a person you love deeply but not enough—and not often enough. The woman’s jumper was cropped at her waist, a detail that stunned me, as it was only then that the margins of their respective self-preservation tendencies emerged. She couldn’t envelop her clever, caustic friend—her jumper wasn’t big enough, and neither was her heart. She could’ve been the face of a luxury brand, if her distaste for the world wasn’t so palpable. There is nothing clean or sparse about the mess of loving another person, even if capitalism does its best to convince you otherwise.
Later, the women put on long, black coats and go for a walk in the snow, and then again when they walk to a small restaurant near the hotel for dinner. They slurp from their bowls and argue about men. I stayed with them, watching, as though I were at a table nearby slurping my own ramen. Until I wasn’t anymore.
It was a day for transformative cinematography. I went on to a single-screen Bandra cinema hall—slightly distressed by the white marble floors and plush decor which, at one point, included hundreds of seemingly fresh blood-red roses stuffed into the walls of the hall—to watch Rima Das’s Bulbul Can Sing. I knew I was in Bombay when the filmmaker confessed, in an post-show talk, that she shot the film on her 7-year old Sony A7S and the cinema hall broke out in applause and low choruses of ‘wow’s.
That Bulbul can sing is evident—which I appreciated, as why must one watch one more film about a talented young girl who demeans and then recovers herself for the sake of plot—as is the fact that the film is as much a mood as it is a story about three teenagers in a small village in Assam, which is still difficult for me to grasp as the cinematography is simply overwhelming, in the most ordinary sense of the word. I can only summarise and remember the film in impressions; an effect that has so far remained for me the preserve of Chris Marker’s films and Frank O’Hara’s poetry, because the sequence of events, overpowered by images, begins to fail me. Take:
A dull red flower at the throat of a young girl
Cautious young hands sifting out the bark of a tree branch
A vermillion, stick-like insect being released
Circular, defocussed degree shots of a dangerous familial argument
Bulbul’s hip-length hair being gathered into a perfect bun by her best friend’s mother
A glance from Bulbul’s teacher that lingers for a second too long on the nape of her neck
A broken swing hanging limply from a tree branch on one end
Bulbul snacking candy by herself, lost in thought on the rocks by a river as the sky darkens overhead
Her gay best friend, the loneliest boy on earth, carving out a heart on a tree, his eyes narrowing over it, as a single white flower sits tucked on his ear.
The size of the embers bursting from a young girl’s funeral
Das’s film follows Bulbul and her two best friends, Bonnie and Sumu, as they navigate being teenagers in a world that isn’t fully ready for them, or their desires, or their joys. For so much of the film is about joy—long tracking shots of the friends chasing the rain, squeezing water out of their saris, waving sparklers through the streets on Diwali, huddled over a game of Ludo. Joy that is accentuated with spectatorship. A tally of synesthesia, without revealing itself to be one.
Bulbul Can Sing is a feast of intimately scripted detail and dialogue—not an indulgent line of dialogue nor a sentimental finish in sight—which is remarkable for a film that appears to have been largely unscripted, and improvised with an emphasis on character and mood-building alongside a community of children and teenagers, some of whom Das initially met for Village Rockstars. All the characters who emerge from the film carry it through to the end, right from the three teenage friends and Bulbul’s ageing father who continues to dream about a singing career, to the boys who bully Sumu and Bonnie’s affectionate mother. A note, though, on the flora-fanning that I remain struck by: there are enough memorable and genre-changing flower scenes in Bulbul Can Sing to put my beloved kaash flowers in Ray’s Pather Panchali to rest.
On the train home, I watched the sun turn back over Mahim. I could feel the tiredness bricking up in me. My eyes wouldn’t close; not-watching felt more exhausting. It’s only day 1, and my appetite is ruthless, but growing. The question of sadness in a film festival will persist, I expect. I can feel it biting its way back. This, I was told.