Hulk. Smash! Big Hulk smash. Smash y It is always a pleasure to return to Sri Lanka. I was attending the second International Film Festival Colombo, that was held from November 6-11. At Regal Cinema, the queues went round the block in the rain — there is such a hunger for good cinema. The festival is organised by the Directors’ Guild of Sri Lanka. So, some of the nation’s finest directors — including Festival Director Asoka Handagama, Prasanna Vithanage, Guild president Vimukthi Jayasundara, and many others — thought nothing of personally chasing films and filmmakers, tackling films stuck at Customs, and even fielding calls at 2 am about an Iranian director stuck at the airport without the right visa. It was an unpretentious, heartwarming, totally DIY film festival.
Pushpendra Singh (left) and Yashoda Wimaladharma (right). Pic/Meenakshi Shedde
The opening film was Jacques Audiard’s moving film Dheepan, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The film is about a former LTTE soldier, a woman and a child in Sri Lanka, who form a fake family in order to seek asylum in France and start life anew. Yalini, Dheepan’s ‘wife’, played by Kalieaswari Srinivasan, a theatre actress from Chennai in her debut feature, gamely fielded questions after the screening. There was an Asian Competition section, Mosaic of New Sri Lankan Cinema, Adoor Gopalakrishnan retrospective, and more.
I had been invited to curate a package of Asian films, and ‘Essence of Asia’ had films from India, Iran, Russia and Kazakhstan, many of them award-winning films from the Cannes, Berlin and Venice film festivals. The lifeblood of a film festival is great films and great conversations. This needs hubs — cafés where people can hang out in between films for addabaji- discuss what they liked, hated or missed. As the directors couldn’t be present, Sri Lankan stars Kaushalya Fernando and Yashoda Wimaladharma graciously participated in the Q/As, sharing what they appreciated about the film with the audience, and kept the buzz going.
Over a post-festival lunch at the Cricket Club Café (whose menu offered Murali’s Mulligatawny, Ponsford’s Prawn), Asoka Handagama and I chatted about cultivating festival audiences. While he was delighted with the near full-houses for most screenings — the screenings were free — he wondered how many would turn up if they introduced paid tickets. I recalled a report saying that when Satyajit Ray died, thousands came to his funeral, but when his last film Agantuk was screened, the theatres were half-empty. I reflected on the irony of how film society movements and excellent cultural institutions like the Goethe Institut and Alliance Francaise, while cultivating long-term audiences for quality cinema, also unwittingly spoilt their audiences by showing them quality cinema for free, so now people are reluctant to pay money to see good films.
The opposite is true for masala films: filmmaker Boodee Keerthisena shows me the result of a Diwali bumper opening with Kamal Haasan’s Thoonga Vanam and Ajith’s Vedalam at his Cine City multiplex: rival Tamil film fan rowdy gangs have smashed his window panes and ripped steel sheets off his iron gates. No wonder the ticket queue entrance is a narrow passageway divided by steel spikes, with barbed wire coils overhead to keep unruly film fans at bay.
The high point of my Colombo trip was catching up with Saroja Siriwardene, whom I had first met in 1980 on a train from Matara to Colombo, then 21 years later when she visited Bombay in 2001, accidentally picked up a copy of the Times of India that had my article "Tree Musketeers’ and tracked me down. It’s a full Bollywood story. In 2014, we met again after 13 years, at her gorgeous hacienda-style bungalow in Colombo. This time, I stayed over again, and she had planned a surprise: a well water bath early morning. We had the house to ourselves, and the well was in a corner of her garden. It was gloriously Eden-like, drawing clean, fresh water from her fern-dappled well, bathing open to sky and breeze, in the cool privacy of a banana tree thicket! The water was still warm from the night before in the navel of the earth, and carried the scent of earth and moss. When I dressed and left, her dog Chloe came to say goodbye. Later, Saroja phoned me to say that after I left, Chloe refused her breakfast, and stood by the gate, wagging her tail, hoping I’ll return soon. Well, then I’ll simply have to.
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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