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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



9th Jagran Film Festival, Mumbai: The Post, A Star is Born and Maassab make it worth the wake

9th Jagran Film Festival, Mumbai: The Post, A Star is Born and Maassab make it worth the wake

Dainik Jagran, which means ‘daily wake’, is a leading Hindi language newspaper of India and the group also owns the popular tabloid, Mid-Day. Its 9th film festival was held across 18 cities and came to Mumbai on the 27th of September, playing through the 30th. Held at four screens of the suburban multiplex called Cinépolis (formerly Fun Republic), it suffered from many technical and scheduling glitches but offered two gems that made it worthwhile: Steven Spielberg’s The Post and the Indie sleeper, Maassab.

I had for company my colleague at the Ramesh Sippy Academy of Cinema and Entertainment, lecturer Anirban Lahiri, and from the host group, journalist Smita Srivastava. Anirban teaches cinematography while I teach communication skills. Smita chaired a discussion on Indian Independent cinema, while another journalist, Parag Chaphekar was in the chair for a discussion on Indian Horror films. After the Independent cinema discussion, I was happy to meet an old friend, director Anil Sharma (Shradhhanjali and Ghadar fame), who was on the panel, after 35 years. Anil used to write radio programmes for Mr. Ameen Sayani before turning director, and I used to co-ordinate the recordings. Anil carries his years well. We promised each other that we would meet again soon, and catch-up. Smita’s hospitality meant a cup of hot tea, the only time this luxury was offered gratis.

On the first day, we managed to see two films, having finished our lectures at 4.30 p.m. in the Mumbai University’s Vidyanagari campus, at faraway Santa Cruz East. One was the world première of The Lift Boy (India, director Jonathan Augustin) and the other was A Star is Born (USA). The Lift Boy has an off-beat subject and some brilliant performances while A Star is Born is a tear-jerker in the blockbuster mould, based on the earlier hit of the same name. Remember Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand’s version (the third, 1976)? Directed by Bradley Cooper, it is mounted on a huge scale and chronicles the story of a couple, Cooper and Lady Gaga, who are both song-writers, musicians and singers, and how the man’s jealousy/self-destruction and the woman’s ambition tears them apart. Both are worth watching.

I went in to see Once Again (India) without realising that I had seen it just a month ago, and it all came flowing back with the first frame. You can’t really blame me when the title is something like Once Again. But I was not keen on watching it once again, so I quietly left, leaving Anirban to go it alone, while attended the session on Horror films. One of the films discussed there was Lupt, which is being released later this week and will have its press screening on Thursday. The discussion made me more eager to watch it.

Then came the big disappointment. Late Kundan Shah, immortalised by his feature Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (loosely inspired by the French comedy Pas de Problème), had made a film called Bonga while a student at the Film and Television Institute of India. It was a black and white diploma film, with no dialogue, but an irritating all pervasive and constant music sound-track. A satire on various genres of American cinema, as seen from the 30s to the 60s, it did no justice to the man who was yet to carve out a reputation for himself.

An even bigger disappointment was the feature, Karim Mohammed (India), a film that explored the plight of Kashmiri Bakarwal (shepherd) community through a child in the eponymous movie. It was amateurish and shoddy, and deserved no place in a film festival that claimed it offered “less noise, more substance”. Karim Mohammed was only noise, no substance, prompting a walkout by yours truly. Thus ended day two, for me.

Day three began with the discussion on Indian Indie Cinema, followed by the Japanese Eriko, Pretended (Akiyo Fujimura). This was about a small time actress whose sister dies and she heads back to her from Tokyo to her home in the hinterland. Back home, she discovers that her sister was professional mourner (remember Rudaali, on the same subject?) and has a son from an unnamed father. How these two facts change her life for the immediate future, and, perhaps, for all time, was the development of the narrative. Told in a slightly dispassionate style, the film can qualify as just above average fare.

Maassab was the real discovery at the fest. The name is a corruption of Master and Saahab, meaning Teacher Sahib. In the interiors of India, there are thousands of government-run schools, which, either do not have, or teachers, or staff, and when they do, education is the last thing that is imparted on the premises. Proxy staff runs the establishments, with neither teachers nor headmasters/principals being the original ones who were appointed. Appointees pursue other professions, while their nominees pose as the real ones. Mid-day meals, provided free by the government, are contracted out to persons who pay bribes and, in turn, the contractors serve food that is unfit to eat, but the hapless children have to grin and eat it. Into this walks and idealist who has chucked his high-paying Indian Administrative Service job and wants to make a difference. It is partly formulaic and partly propaganda, but you’ve got to give it to the maker, Aditya Om. An entirely unknown cast turns in performances to rave about and the experience takes you completely by surprise.

Some surprises were in store on the last day too. Trippy Trip (India) was an unpleasant surprise, being a horror mystery series of which only the first episode was shown, running into 53 minutes. It had barely three minutes of horror and the rest was just inane build-up. Fan of Amoory (UAE) deals with a pair of young boys who steal a vehicle and drive it themselves, perhaps to meet their idol, footballer Amoory. I say “perhaps”, because I had escaped by the time the police stated interrogating them.

First time around, Vodka Diaries (India) made viewers wait over 90 minutes, after which I gave up and left the auditorium. Technical glitches were to blame, we were told. Nothing new at the 9th Jagran Film Festival! Delays of up to one hour were common in many cases, whether it was a film or a non-screening event. When it was shown, it replaced Village Rockstar, which had been confirmed just a few days earlier as India’s entry to the Oscars. This rubbed quite a few patrons the wrong way. I was not disappointed at the change in schedule, because I had seen Village Rockstars, but what disappointed me was the richly mounted letdown called Vodka Diaries. Yes, it is a psychological thriller, but you cannot take audiences for a ride by showing reality and the ramblings of a sick mind as parallel tracks, without identifying them. What a waste of the talent of artistes like Kay Kay Menon and Sharib Hashmi. Hashmi, though, manages to add some credence to his character.

The Post (USA). The Washington Post. The Pentagon Papers. The leaks. Richard Nixon. And the brave team of publisher Katharine Graham. The old magician Steven Spielberg, now 72,  has not forgotten any of his tricks. While he repeats four times collaborator Tom Hanks after a Bridge of Spies (2015) as Editor-in-Chief Ben Bradlee, he brings in another powerhouse actor in the shape of Meryl Streep. After seeing the film, you will have little doubt that the events of the 40-50 years ago unfolded exactly in the way shown, although so many creative liberties must have been taken. You have Nixon with his back to you and a sound-track that has to be his original voice, so many TV clips, including Walter Cronkite and a sweeping canvas that makes the film compulsive viewing.

Four days is too short a period for a film festival. Six days is the bare minimum recommended. Also, with so many personnel in the event management crew, better co-ordination, better utilisation of the slots and better announcing was expected. A brochure was sorely missed, obviously a cost-cutting exercise. But any kind of booklet or brochure, that gives information about the films, the selection committee and other details, is de rigueur at such events. One can try to find these details online, but nothing like a hard copy of these documents. Jagran does not call itself an ‘international’ film festival, so one cannot complain that there weren’t too many foreign films. I hope the 10th will be bigger and better than the 9th.


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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