Wednesday, February 20, 2013

India International Film Festival Tampa Bay 2013: Planes, Trains and Autorickshaws; Gattu; and more

This past weekend, it was that time of year again: film festival time!

That’s right: another year of the India International Film Festival Tampa Bay. I actually enjoyed the selection of films this year much better than last year, even though I didn’t get a chance to watch Vishwaroopam, which I had been looking forward to. But as is typical of South Indian films, there were no subtitles. An all-too-familiar disappointment. If it were feasible, I would start learning Tamil and Telugu right away just so I could watch movies I want to see!

But anyway, on to what I did see:

Planes, Trains and Autorickshaws
Three American sisters who grew up in South India as daughters of a Methodist missionary return after 50 years to remember and rediscover the land of their childhood.

I don’t often talk about documentaries (here or anywhere) so forgive some of my blind searching for what to say and describe about this one.

The three sisters — Sheila, Sylvia and Sandy — will remind you of your aunts. Or at least they reminded me of mine (and my great-aunts).

But theirs is less a trip through nostalgia than I expected. The sisters seem to encounter more that is completely foreign to them than familiar. It’s a mark of passing time, yes, but even in situations where the sisters would seem to be in a familiar setting, they verbally express familiarity while still seeming put out of place, like tourists who know the country very little indeed.

But even if their rediscovery seems to leave a bit to be desired, their family’s history in India is entirely fascinating. The sisters’ father, J.T. Seamands was a missionary, but more importantly, he was himself the son of a missionary: E.A. “Tata” Seamands, who built thousands of buildings across South India and has schools and churches named in his honor. Tata Seamands, who returned to India from the U.S. as an old man and died there, buried in Bangalore, seems to have been influential in establishing the Methodist church in South India, and the sisters encounter pastors who say, “We are here because your family was here.” That is pretty darn cool.

I wondered if the religion aspect of the film would come on too strong, but it really doesn’t, aside from a momentary discussion about feeling oppression in a Hindu temple.

And the sisters discover more than the still-standing testaments to their family’s missionary work. They also discover some of the many trials of modern India. The area around where they attended school (Kodaikanal, in the mountains of Tamil Nadu) is polluted and the town has a problem with illegal hotels. And in Belgaum, Karnataka, the parsonage and church grounds where they grew up are part of a land dispute or an attempt to seize their land.

Overall, it is a very touching story about family history and trying to reconnect with the past.

Orphan and street-urchin (if you will) Gattu flies kites in Roorkee, Uttarakhand, dreaming of being the king of the skies as he gets kicked around by everyone else day-to-day (including the uncle he lives with, learning the junkyard business). But a mysterious kite called Kali rules the skies, cutting everyone else down. Determined to win, Gattu infiltrates the local school so that he can use its roof to do battle with Kali on more equal terms.

This street-kid is in many ways frighteningly similar to Kipling’s (eponymous) Kim (without all of the racial and ethnic complications and ambiguity). Versatile, friend of everyone, a skilled storyteller (read: liar), a spy/secret agent in his own right. But Gattu is far more rooted than Kim — he has a father, of sorts, in his uncle Anees Bhai — and on a more direct mission.

And more importantly, Gattu chooses to like school much more readily than Kim does. He’s so determined to get there and fit in that he not only steals the uniform to get into the school, but he eventually steals books from other students. He can’t read or write, but he’s fascinated by the concepts of science and with wonder takes them to the other street kids. It is embracing learning with the innocence that only a child — even one who flagrantly lies, steals and manipulates — can possess.

The film is full of wonderful moments of innocence, touching moments of sorrow and great laughs in an excellent mix.

It doesn’t hurt that the child artist himself is adorable and quite the actor. He could teach Bollywood heroines a thing or two. (And I wish he would.)

And as is typical of children’s fiction, adults are villainized and overly harsh for the majority of the film, though they turn out all right in the end. Every adult in the film is exacting and demanding from Gattu or other children: Anees Bhai, the headmaster, the school clerk, the tailor, the kite-shop owner, kids’ parents.

But by the end, when Gattu is crying in an alley, Anees Bhai — who has been searching for him to punish him for not doing his work — comforts him and tells him everything will be all right. When Gattu confesses to fooling the school and leading the revolt of children onto the roof, the headmaster graciously decides that Gattu has fulfilled the school motto of “truth always triumphs” and so he must be admitted to the school, though he’s illiterate, a thief and unable to pay school fees! (This also after the other children have been beaten for their roles in the caper.)

Sum total, Gattu is adorably touching, if you don’t mind an all-too-cheesy resolution.

Though short films are usually not my favorite because they tend to be inevitably not-so-well-done, they are typical film fest fare, and I actually found several things to enjoy in the bunch that I saw this time.

Jana Gana Mana: A group of street-kids chases the school bus and hangs around outside, watching with confusion as schoolchildren sing the national anthem while saluting the flag. They are, in fact, beaten away from watching by the fence. So they construct their own flag and try to mumble out some words to the anthem. Of course, everyone stops and joins in. This is followed by a plea to educate all the kids because they are our future. I really had little patience for this one (no one really wants to be preached at in an all-caps placard after a short film), especially after seeing the same concepts portrayed so much more expertly in Gattu.

Sidekick: A 3D animated tale about a battle of the wills between a farmer and a donkey! Such an odd addition to the typically overserious fare found at film festivals, but it was quite hilarious.

Larry Brought Lemon: A “shit happens” movie. With a hilarious Indian cabbie. And a very touching protagonist who goes to great lengths for his incredibly bratty son. It’s that simple.

Shaya: A refugee family from Pakistan finds it hard to transition to life in Los Angeles, where street thugs harass them and steal their food. While the film is very well-made for a short and incredibly haunting, it ends in a startlingly abrupt way that almost ruins it and leaves it feeling unfinished. In terms of story, it has no “falling action” or true resolution to the conflict.

Daadi: Once a film star, Daadi is now an old woman living out a simple life in a nursing home and remembering the golden days when she starred with Shashi Kapoor. She’s visited by her flippant and somewhat annoying granddaughter, but overall, Daadi is a lovable, well, daadi figure. She’s clearly the best actor in the film and incredibly likable. But the film does get a little weird when Daadi’s dead husband shows up to remind her that she should not care about material things (she had been fretting over the loss of her earrings that he gave her and she never took off).

Ehsaas: A couple of middle-age divorcees meet via and have a date in which they rehash the pain of divorce. Effectively carried by that one painful conversation, the awkwardness of this film is pervasive and will make you very uncomfortable watching it, but it does have a fantastic twist. The pair turn out to be divorced from one another and attempting to repair their marriage.

Now that it's taken me several days to finally finish compiling this post, I realize how sad I am that film festivals only come once a year. :(

(Here's my post on last year's festival, if you're interested.)

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