I wish a ghost would come to me and tell me to do something…something difficult. Dangerous.
Sanju, Shakespeare Wallah
Through this festival, I only managed two films a day. I say ‘only’ because I see folks averaging 20-25 films during a festival, but that’s difficult to do if you have to travel for 6 hours a day, like I did. And it’s difficult in general. Two films did feel like a lot at the end of each day. My emotional scalp peeled at the edges; the pleasure was shored up against an overpowering exhaustion and an infiltrated vulnerability. But I was aware, too, that the immersion I sought from four films a day was amiss. The allure of festivals for me is less the newness and topping/tailing of a filmmaker’s oeuvre—although it is partly that—and more just the comfort of being in one cinema hall after another, gulping in film after film, unrelated, scattered. I want that too. Maybe someday at TIFF. Maybe Cannes.
I watched, on the last day of the festival a restored print of James Ivory’s 1965 film Shakespeare Wallah, a complete marvel of a film. Think about the collaborators: Satyajit Ray with music, Ismail Merchant as producer, James Ivory and RP Jhabvala as writers, Subrata Mitra—best known for his work on the Apu trilogy—as cinematographer, Jennifer Kendal/Kapoor on costume, and Madhur Jaffrey, Utpal Dutt, nearly all of the Kendals and one very special Kapoor as the main cast. By the end of the opening credits, I was charmed.
Shakespeare Wallah narrates the love story between Lizzie Buckingham (Felicity Kendal), a theatre actress, and Sanju (Shashi Kapoor, resplendent). The Buckinghams and their (largely Indian) Shakespeare troupe travel across post-Independence India performing at schools, palaces and theatres. They’re not as much in demand as they used to be; Lizzie’s father Tony Buckingham (the very talented Geoffrey Kendal) mourns the (supposed) setting of the British empire as all his colonial friends/family leave but his wife Carla (Laura Liddell) insists that India is their home even as she wants a better life in England—Stratford, tellingly—for Lizzie. Sanju, meanwhile, falls easily for Lizzie without giving up on his occasional affair with Bollywood actress Manjula (Madhur Jaffrey), eventually placing the brushtrokes of his relationships on the older, broader—complicated but—binary canvases of white woman/Other woman, theatre/film, art/money, and indeed, Shakespeare/bollywood. I don’t know if Vishal Bharadwaj has watched Shakespeare Wallah, I hope he has for his sake, but I would love for him to remake this, instead of approaching the last tragedy left untouched on his repertoire of adaptations.
For a film that leans heavily on nostalgia for the British empire, Shakespeare Wallah is ridiculously moving because it boldly and continually undercuts that very nostalgia. The film treats Shakespeare as the focal point of all encounters but the affair between Lizzie and Sanju questions the cliches that have always trailed old Shax. His verse is powerful but can it overpower the power dymanics between a chic Indian man and a poor English—but English, regardless—woman? The troupe has always performed at schools in the hills, manned by Indian men with Oxbridge accents who say things like, ‘Now look here, old chap’, but there’s suddenly no room for the players to do more than one performance. Tony Buckingam muses on the fading plight of Shakespeare but with blackface on, fresh from a performance of himself as Othello, an ironic scene that reveals the profound colonial grip on Indian theatre and education. Manjula is stirred by Lizzie as Desdemona, but uses the emotional climax of the play to make her presence known, thus disrupting the on/off screen resolution—thus disrupting, in all her Othered glory, Shakespeare. Shakespeare is not quite a means to an end, but he becomes a colonial placeholder on which the premise of the film—the place of a white British actress in newly independent India—hinges. Ultimately, the head that lies uneasy in the film is not postcolonial India but Britain, for whom the last wrench of colonial dominance is a crownless bard.
When I walked into the art deco Liberty cinema at Marine Lines hours later for my last MAMI film, I was amazed. That I’d never been, as far as I could remember, but also just at the cinema itself. There’s so much I loved about watching a film there, as I told someone later, including the gentle lighting, the fact that you have to get your popcorn before you go in—I will never forgive how multiplexes have created and monetized in-film service at the expense of attention spans—and the way the exits are designed around the single screen. The film is what you depart with, and at this point in my cinema-going experience in Bombay, that’s all I want.
I showed up there to watch Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White. By the time I’d settled in, I had been staring at the lush copper curtains draped over the screen and starting to feel a bit dozy. Sure enough, 20 minutes into the film, I dropped off, and when I awoke it had only been 6 minutes but it did feel like a lifetime, and the cloudy, metallic aftertaste of a brief nap coloured the rest of the film.
I was not unhappy about this. It’s not quite the Kiarostami thing, but my dulled subconscious only heightened the sensuality of Ash, which is one of the most elegant and devastating films I’ve watched in a long time. It tells of the long journey of a young underworld couple, Qiao (Zhao Tao—unforgettable, unforgettable) and Bin (Liao Fan, quietly capable) whose story begins in Datong at the turn of the millennium. Qiao is sassy, funny and unafraid. She wears a chic bob and slips into lamé with a self-possession that eventually evolves into heels and the blackest of leather coats. She silences a room full of men messing about with Mah-jong, snaps the plug on her drunken father’s rants over radio with silent compassion, and pulls Bin’s unlicensed gun out for him when he’s in trouble—the last of which lands her in jail for five years when she refuses to reveal whose gun it is. When she leaves jail, she seeks out Bin to pick up where they left off. What follows is the brutal unfolding of an affair in which one of the two is always missing.
What I recall about the film now, other than the sombre landscapes of rural China and Zhangke’s technicolour ability to expand claustrophobic interiors, is Qiao’s willingness to thrust herself into the world with her contours intact and shining. It was strange to watch a film without steeling myself for a woman’s death. I worried for her happiness instead. Qiao would be fine, more than fine, have you seen her take on the world? But her desires are unnoosed from the moment she steps on screen, and there is nothing the world fears more than a woman who knows exactly what she wants. In a scene that made me weep on the train afterward, Qiao—freshly released from prison, wearing the most unsettling pale yellow shirt—steals a man’s motorbike as he tries to proposition her during a downpour, and speeds off on it in search of Bin, arms withholding the weight of a wet brown jacket, eyes glazing over as the dark rain plasters her face. Something that burns at such a high temperature must be pure, she told Bin earlier, in what feels like another cinematic life, as they stood facing a dormant volcano. Qiao is comet-tailed, her compulsion to surge ahead of her desire streaking the film ablaze as her people watch, circling her at a distance.
The last film did not feel like the last film, and the day of the film festival did not feel like the last day. I don’t know what a last day is meant to feel like but I did expect a sense of closure. Never having to wear that ridiculous lanyard again—although, since they scanned it to let you in, it was the first time a lanyard had ever proven to be useful in my life—and not having to awake early enough to catch a slow website at 8:01am before the booking traffic picked up. Not having to ever go to either PVR in Andheri again. Being in unplanned proximity to those unreal sunsets over Mahim and Cotton Green, heralded by the head of the train snaking over bridges. In spite of knowing that all these facts combined with my own tendency to myth-make commonplace events as though they then assigned a greater worth to my cosmic existence, which is easy to believe of films anyway: catharsis, I did not find.
Just as well. If this week taught me anything, it’s that turning off all the lights in your room and your phone, and turning on your laptop so you can watch a two hour film uninterrupted should feel just how watching film after film felt in cinema halls. Difficult and dangerous.