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Indian Film Festival in Florence offers strong openers

Florence -- Firenze -- the city of Dante, Michelangelo, Botticelli's Venus ... and also of the first and only film festival in Europe dedicated exclusively to Indian film! Officially called the "RIVER TO RIVER INDIAN FILM FESTIVAL OF FLORENCE, director Selvaggia Velo, explains that this appellation refers to the holy river Ganges in India and the local waterway, the Arno, which flows through this exquisite Tuscan city into the Tyrrhenian Sea near Pisa. So – how did such a festival get started here? -- explains Selvaggia: "I visited India as a tourist with my parents years ago and fell immediately in love with the country and the culture. On numerous successive visits I began to meet various Indian film people in Bombay and, based on these personal connections, decided that it was time to give this extremely important film industry an exclusive showcase in Europe and in my culture-intensive home town of Florence".
However, she continues -- our focus is definitely not on Bollywood, or the commercial Indian cinema, but more on the so-called "Art and essay films" by selected personal type filmmakers, of which there are also many in this vast sub-continent". Thus the opening night films were "15 Park Avenue" by auteur directress Aparna Sen, and "Amu", a first feature film by Shonali Bose, another young woman director.

The title of Aparna Sen's latest film, "15 Park Avenue", is an oblique reference to that most exclusive of New York streets where many of the wealthiest people in America used to have their private residences. Meethi, an attractive young woman who can be very charming and appealing in her lucid moments, suffers from extreme delusions and has been diagnosed as incurably schizophrenic, although for a time she was engaged to a sincere young man whom she called Jojo.
Jojo was aware of her condition but deeply in love, however, when her spells became too traumatic, the wedding was called off and he married another woman. Meetha has always been under the care of her much older, intellectual, and domineering sister Anjali. Anjali, herself a very attractive divorced woman of a certain age, supports the family, herself, her sister and their aged mother, by lecturing on Nuclear Physics and Quantum Mechanics at the local university -- (a nice touch attesting to India's highly advanced state in the theoretical sciences, of which there is precious little awareness in the Western world). A middle-aged academic colleague of hers keeps throwing himself at her feet, but Anjali has become much more interested in the white-haired psychiatrist, Kuman, who has been called in as a consultant on Meethi's difficult case and is more of an intellectual challenge to her. This is also a tricky relationship because Kuman is still committed to his own marriage, though obviously interested in the still very attractive quantum professorial Anjali. To complicate matters even more, Jojo who has been out of the picture for years with wife and young children, suddenly reappears to share in Meethi's delusionary world which has long been centered on the fixation of being happily married to him and living a number "Fifteen Park Avenue" in Bombay -- an address which doesn't exist except in her feverish mind --
During this chance meeting at a Himalayan mountain resort Mheeti fails to recognize him as her long-lost Jojo, but accepts his complicity in her dream world as she feels that everyone else is against her. In the strangely mystical ending of the address on the Monopoly board which is mistakenly mentioned as "Park Avenue" at several points in the film ...

There is actually much more to this picture than the cursory plot summary above might indicate, for the insights it provides into the lives of the contemporary Indian intelligentsia as well as for the depiction of the constant battle between cold rationalism and subjective emotionalism which is a leit motif throughout the film. The dialogue, especially in the first half of the picture, may sound excessively stiff and unreal to Western ears, but, apparently, this is the way westernized Indian intellectuals talk. Moreover, the Freudian analyses which take up much of the second half of the film, sound like a throwback to Hollywood movies of the forties when Freud was all the thing -- and makes it seem like the Indians of today are just now catching up on long over-baked Western psychology ... However -- and it is a big "however" -- whatever the trivialities of the plot from a jaded western point of view, it is the personalities of the players, the excellence of the acting, and the humanitarian warmth throughout which makes all else secondary. There are really two, if not three central figures: (1) Meethi, the disturbed young lady as portrayed by Konkona Sensharma, a talented actress who happens to be the daughter of director Aparna Sen, (2) the charismatic Shabana Aznim, who portrays the older protective sister and is one of India's leading older movie stars -- to see her is to understand why, and (3) "Jojo" -- the long-lost lover with an overweaning sense of responsibility, played by now 40 year old actor Rahul Bose, a favourite leading man of the director's and an unforgettable presence of every film he's in. Whether a striking piece
of work like this will ever be seen outside of festivals is an open question, however it seems to me that an enterprising American distributor could do very well with this pic because it has universal appeal and universally appealing performers.
The second film of the night, "Amu" by Shonali Bose, tells the fictional story of Kaju, a 21 year old Indian-American woman who was raised by an adoptive family in Los Angeles but returns to India to try to find out more about her real parents and family. What she finds out, among other things, is that her real father, a Sikh, was murdered by a mob of Hindoos in the orgy of anti-Sikh massacres which followed the 1968 assassination of Prime Minister Indira Ghandi (daughter of national hero Jawaharlal Nehru) by one of her own Sikh body guards. The central figure here is again the irrepressible Konkona Sensharma, who is apparently one of the big rising stars of the alternative Indian cinema -- where "alternative" means serious cinema as opposed to Bollywood and other mass entertainment currents in the massive Indian mainstream. Director Shonali Bose studied filmmaking at UCLA and has worked on film projects in New York.
This is her Indian film debut and a strong one it is.

Alex Deleon, Florence, December 10, 2005.

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