The TFSA festival was a surreal experience. Perhaps it was the selection of filmsbeing screened; perhaps the direction that a frank conversation steered the imagination towards
grey Saturday afternoon went into technicolour (yes, Dali) for those attending the Travelling Film South Asia festival, which concluded recently at Olo Junction. The skies were overcast late into the afternoon but the threat of more rain was not enough to keep the film enthusiasts away, at least not with a festival in town.
Hosted in a quiet studio space right in the heart of the city, the 25th edition of the three-day festival featured a line-up of films curated from around South Asia, interspersed with workshops and panel discussions. It was curated by filmmaker Farjad Nabi.
Attending the festival was a surreal experience. Perhaps it was the selection of films being screened; perhaps the setting or the direction that a frank conversation held over a shared ashtray steered the imagination towards; perhaps a bit of each.
Whatever it was, it lent a dream-heavy effect to the air, evoking feelings similar in nature to those one gets when dried-up flowers inadvertently slip out of a long-forgotten journal.
The festival began late in the afternoon with an interactive workshop titled Reframing Visual Representation of Women, Victimhood and Violence, conducted by Pawas Manandhar. In this session, held in the Olo’s gallery space, the participants discussed the implications of projecting gender violence through a sensationalist lens. Alternative, more intersectional and gender-sensitive mediums for depicting stories were also discussed at length with a focus on regional art. At the end of the session, the participants were shown a short video with the purpose of further crystallising the takeaway that filmmakers always have the choice to make use of symbolic devices to sensitise the audience to various stories and draw their attention towards marginalisation.
The short film consisted of testimonials by survivors of domestic abuse, peppered with images and close-ups of everyday artifacts that became the instruments of violence. An image of a belt with the voice of a survivor in the background was enough to drive the point home that filmmakers should avoid depicting violence in ways that, in effect, serve to normalise it.
After the session ended, it was houseful in the hall where Moon on the Man, a documentary directed by Indian filmmaker Prince Shah, was screened. The reaction it garnered from the 20-somethings was perhaps more unsettling than the feature-length film set in Mumbai. Moon on the Man follows banter between two friends, Asif and Wadood, as they pick apart the story of Praklawn, an eccentric 79-year-old man who tells them he is a lot of things. This boisterous, good-natured old man is followed about by the team with a camera in tow as he pops tall claims. Praklawn claims that he was a freedom fighter in 1947. Later, he says, he was ‘discovered’ by Guru Dutt and became a songwriter. He also claims that he was an apprentice to a famous Hollywood director.
As the film progresses, it becomes painfully apparent that Praklawn is suffering from a mental illness. Asif and Wadood continue to disagree, with Asif claiming that Praklawn is lying. Praklawn is eventually joined by Sailesh, another homeless man the filmmakers meet in the streets.
Sailesh, we are told, used to be a child actor. Now he’s on the streets. The discourse between Asif and Wadood is directed at understanding what constitutes reality for different people. Their conversation, for the most part, borrows from the age-old philosophical debate around Cartesian skepticism. At one point, Wadood even alludes to the brain-in-a-vat experiment.
Kanak Dixit, a founding member of the Film South Asia, said, “In Nepal, we still refer to anyone who is leaving the country as a ‘Lahori.’ We have a historic association with Lahore. In colonial times, people who wished to be recruited [into the British army] went to Lahore. That association has persisted over time. Regardless of where one is going when they’re going abroad, we still call them Lahori.”
What was truly disturbing was the way the on-screen ramblings of Praklawn and Sailesh were met with a round of guffaws by some people in the audience. At some point, this display of insensitivity became quite irritating.
While Moon on the Man sets out to ask some relevant questions, the only question it left with me in its wake was about the portrayal of mental illnesses by the filmmakers. Should intimate accounts of people suffering from mental illnesses be aired in front of a global audience? More importantly, what methods are employed by filmmakers to obtain the consent of those being filmed?
Thankfully, the screening was followed by a brief tea break. A conversation about Toni Morrison blossomed over a shared ashtray and a sugar-frosted cookie taking away some of the weight that the last watch had left. Camaraderie developed spontaneously as we sat on a wooden bench on the lawn, waiting for the next screening. It developed in a way that can only develop between two women, both of whom fully understand what Morrison meant when she wrote, “Lonely, ain’t it? Yes, but my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t that something? A secondhand lonely,” in her second novel, Sula.
After this welcome break, Olo’s dalaan was the spot to go. Next up in the lineup was Gaine, a 25-minute long Nepali short film that focused on the life of Pashuram, a folk musician who lives in the scenic hills of Bhojpur. Pashuram speaks about his experiences travelling on foot with a sarangi.
After the film concluded, Kanak Dixit, one of the founding members of the Film South Asia, took to the podium. Speaking of the historic ties between Kathmandu and Lahore, he said, “In Nepal, we still refer to anyone who is leaving the country as a ‘Lahori.’
“We have a historic association with Lahore. In colonial times, people who wished to be recruited [into the British army] went to Lahore. That association has persisted over time. Regardless of where one is going when they’re going abroad, we still call them Lahori,” he said.
Iqrar Nama [The confession], an Indian feature film directed by Priyanka Chhabra, was definitely a highlight of the festival. In it, partition refugee Charandas Bangia recounts his experiences, supplementing the anecdotes with transcripts, documents and property deeds, evidence of his pre-1947 existence.
Bangia hails from Faisalabad [then Lyallpur]. He had to leave his ancestral home during the partition riots and moved to Amritsar shortly afterwards. The old man identifies with his collection of documents; official letters, academic certificates, degrees and other official papers. As he shows those to the world and offers his own meandering account of events, the documentary brilliantly captures the confusion and mayhem that ensued.
In a tactful stroke, the documentary engages with themes of loss, displacement and exile while putting the affected right at the centre of the story.
Unlike some other movies set around the partition theme Iqrar Nama gives agency to the narrator. In it, the documents and transcripts exist in parallel with oral history. It explores the tension between what is written (or archived, in colonial-speak) and what is remembered. The tension between these facets also directs the viewer’s attention towards all that slips through the cracks, is erased and forgotten.
In Iqrar Nama, Bangia’s story is narrated alongside that of another refugee who comes to Karachi from Lucknow. This sense of belonging and un-belonging is also touched upon in the story of Deewanay Maulvi Sahib, a man so fond of Lucknow that he never really leaves it, even as he has to leave the metropolitan in 1947. The two narratives weave together synchronously, delving into grief, loss and displacement.
Other films, especially those by emerging Pakistani filmmakers, were also screened during the festival. These included Shikaaf Bar Noor by Tabish Shargo and B for Naoo by Roohi Kashfi. Among other entries were three Pakistani short films, titled Udeekan, Rest in Paper and The Secret Life; and the Indian short film, The Heartbroken Lover.
The writer is a staff member