Notes on the 2023 MAMI Mumbai Film Festival

This was the first time since I started attending film festivals that I did so without the baggage of having to juggle between work and the fest. As some of you may know, I’m on a short career break.

Luckily, this was also the first year in my experience that the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival (MFF), now under new management, ran for 10 days, giving me more time to indulge and watch more movies. It usually runs for a week.

A Fest for the Young

I’m sad to report that my MAMI festival experience this year was subpar, especially when compared to how I expected it to be. Of the 10 days, I could only attend 8. Even in those 8 days, I was not able to watch the average of 4 movies a day that I had originally planned to. Part of that had to do with my age, or perhaps my lack of fitness. I’m not a fan of using age as an excuse but my body seems to have a different opinion.

Queue outside Regal Colaba during MAMI
Regal at Colaba always has the longest queues during MAMI

In 2017, when I first attended the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival and 2018 when I also underwent training at the Young Film Critics Lab, I had a lot of energy, agility, and flexibility to move around and shuttle between the venues. As you may know, the MAMI festival takes place across half a dozen venues spread across the Mumbai suburbs and town. Back then, it was normal for me to start my day in PVR ICON, Andheri, go to INOX, Ghatkopar or PVR, Kurla for the afternoon show, and then go back to PVR, Juhu for an After Dark screening. Using local and metro trains, rickshaws, and my feet, I could do this and not break sweat. I enjoyed it even, a factor that definitely influences my love for attending film festivals, including queuing up with like-minded cine enthusiasts for screenings.

Steps taken during MAMI
I walked about 13k steps on the final day of MAMI fest

Yet, this year, it all felt like a trek. I was forced to skip the French 4-hour documentary, Menus-Plaisirs: Les Troisgros, on day 8 because it was scheduled as a 10 AM show in a faraway place called Malad. It was near impossible for me to reach the theatre 30 minutes before the screening, something that the fest mandated it, using public transport. And even if I did, it was not possible to do it after booking tickets for the following day’s show, which starts at 8 AM and ends in about a minute and a half before all the online tickets are sold out. At the MAMI MFF, you have to book your screenings a day prior.

Having skipped that first film of the day, my body took charge and it was decided that I’ll skip Devashish Makhija’s Joram and Alice Rohrwadcher’s La Chimera too scheduled for that day, thus marking my maiden no-show day at the fest. Day 9 was also a no-show as I had my Toastmasters meeting.

Even on the days that I did attend, I could see myself huffing and puffing after catching that running fast train from Thane or climbing through an escalator like an idiot to increase my chances of getting a seat in the metro. Incidentally, this was the first time at a film festival that I experienced my body coming in the way of my aspirations. Maybe it has to do with my mental state right now (which is in the dumps lately), because at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) and the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) in 2022, I was fitter as a fiddler. I remember for IFFI I walked the five kilometres between the main venue and my Airbnb in Panjim, a city with hopeless public transit support. In one occasion, I even had to brave wild street dogs at every curve of my path. I saw it as an opportunity, really.

MAMI Mumbai Film Festival opening film at NMACC
NMACC is a solid theatre but not ideal for movie-watching because of its retractable, non-reclining seats

I’m not saying film festivals are only for the young. Otherwise, who will explain the 30-odd seats earmarked for senior citizens at MAMI 2023?! I’m just saying that me facing movement issues was the most pregnant theme for me this year at the fest.

An Eclectic Mix of Movies

Now that I’ve described the overall mood of MAMI 2023 fest, let me move on to the best part. That is, this year’s curation of films.

MAMI 2023 had an amazing mix of movies, if I consider the 19 titles I watched, excluding three shorts I was forced to catch as part of the After Dark presentations (horror or thriller films scheduled post 9 PM). I didn’t really mind the shorts and I loved how MAMI joined a feature film with a short to encourage viewership. Short films generally are snubbed by everyone, sometimes including their respective crew too. I first saw this style of amalgamated screening at IFFI 2022, where I watched a sweet little Tamil short called Little Wings, which was attached to the screening of Ariyippu.

Must watch films at 2023 MAMI Mumbai film fest
My original watchlist for MAMI 2023

I avoided films about current affairs (read wars) because I did not want to spoil my mood. I know it’s unempathetic of me, but I had my dose in IFFK 2022 where every forth film I caught was about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Recurring themes in the films I watched include cancel culture, loneliness, filmmaking jest, whodunit, crime, and coming-of-age. The sole documentary I watched, Close to Vermeer, ended up as one of the best I watched at MAMI 2023. I have a newfound love for the enigmatic Johannes Vermeer now. Until I watch a documentary on Rembrandt.

Rajat Kapoor at Sohrab Handa premiere
Rajat Kapoor at the premiere of Everybody Loves Sohrab Handa

Here’s a list of the feature movies I watched at the 2023 MAMI Mumbai Film Festival in the order of how much I liked them, starting from my favourite:

  1. Aattam
  2. Dream Scenario
  3. Close to Vermeer
  4. Perfect Days
  5. The Book of Solutions
  6. Late Night with the Devil
  7. Fallen Leaves
  8. Agra
  9. Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person
  10. Anatomy of a Fall
  11. La Chimera
  12. Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry
  13. Kennedy
  14. Kodiyettam
  15. Hun Hunshi Hunshilal
  16. Monster
  17. Everybody Loves Sohrab Handa
  18. Raging Grace
  19. Return to Reason

The shorts:

  1. Sweet Juices
  2. Dead Enders
  3. Mermaid
An After Dark presentation at MAMI 2023
After Dark is perhaps the best segment at MAMI MFF

I didn’t walk out of any film this year, which says little about the films because I rarely walk out. Still, I saw the maximum walkouts this year for Hun Hunshi Hunshilal (1992), which is sad because it’s a terrific satire with some obnoxious musical bits. I had no idea it was a musical but I dug how there was a 30-minute homage discussion on its choreographer, Navroze Contractor.

Due to how the films were scheduled, there were a lot of overlaps and limited screenings this year. I hope MAMI follows IFFK’s scheduling style where it mentions how many screenings a particular film will have throughout the festival. It helps people like me who plan all our days prior to the start of the fest to ensure a smooth sail.

I could hear a lot of people cribbing about the schedule, not to mention the poor communication surrounding the opening and closing films and the blind schedule for the final two days. As a result, I could not catch over 30 films that were part of my watchlist. Some of those notable titles include:

  • The Buckingham Murders
  • All India Rank
  • The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed
  • Paradise
  • Afire
  • Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World
  • Daaaaaali!
  • The Monk and the Gun
  • Dug Dug
  • The Beast
  • Follower

Though, any film festival goer has to make do with sacrifices. I can still experience the fatigue that set in from day 7 of the fest, which I’m going to tackle by watching some of these titles on VOD. The classics and older titles are available on YouTube. Here’s a handy guide on how to do this.

Kodyettam restored at MAMI
I watched a restored classic (Kodiyettam) at MAMI

Q&A Sessions

I love attending question-and-answer sessions after movie premieres at festivals. They give you a lot of new information about the film, the crew behind it, as well as the filmmaking process. It’s one event that I rarely miss, sometimes even if it means missing another film. (I’m kidding.)

This year, I only attended 2 such sessions, one each for Everybody Loves Sohrab Handa and Agra. Rajat Kapoor didn’t say much but Kanu Behl had a lot to talk about the film and how it was made. It’s because I attended the Q&A that I know why the film is titled so. It’s because the city is also known for its mental hospital.

I wish there were more sessions this year.

Kanu Behl at the premiere of Agra
Kanu Behl during the Q&A session of Agra

Where’s the Management?

MAMI 2023 had a faceless management. I usually happen to see the festival director and other people related to MAMI hobnobbing with the fest goers but I didn’t see any of them this year. A fellow fest goer told me that all of them were likely holed up at the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre (NMACC), the hub of this year’s fest, as a way to ensure that the fest stays elite and important. Interacting with mere fest participants wouldn’t matter to them. There was a lot more going on there that casual festival goers like me were not privy to. I realized this when I met Kalpana Nair from IMDb India for a chat. It was the first time IMDb was part of any film festival in India.

Whatever the case, the new management have some work to do if they hope to make the fest more inclusive. I think by keeping the cost of delegate passes INR 1,500, the idea may have been to ensure only the most interested people come in. In 2019, the last time MAMI had a physical fest, the entry fee was INR 500.

Though, the most disappointing bit for me this year was the apathy towards press folks. They were not given the festival kit and the reason quoted was that press folks were anyway getting the festival pass for free, so why should they fret over a tote bag and a diary. I get it, but I did not like this idea one bit. They could have kept the press badge not free and let us show off that cool bag. Like both IFFI and IFFK did in 2022. Not even the catalogue was provided to us. What am I gonna use to collect dust in my shelf now?

There were no stalls selling festival merch either this time. I remember I had bought a small Jio MAMI-themed notebook in 2019 from Infiniti Mall, and I was almost expecting to buy one of the two tote bags they were giving out to delegates this year. Even in IFFI 2022, I bought a cool fridge magnet from one of the many stalls installed around INOX Goa in Panaji. Guess I’ll have to do with some Netflix merchandise while I rewatch old MAMI classics. I believe the opening film, The Buckingham Murders, will premiere online on Netflix, so there’s that.

Not a Festival Anymore

One reason why I love attending film festivals is because they’re devoid of censorship or nationalist practices. To my dismay, that was not the case this year. Every single screening opened with the national anthem and at least two films used censored copies for the screening which meant you had to sit through the anti-smoking disclaimer twice.

Though, I was a bit surprised that two people in front of me for La Chimera did not stand up during the anthem. Never seen that happen in a cinema hall before.

The worst part of this year’s festival was the chitchatting during the screenings. I don’t think there was a single screening where I did not hear people murmuring. Sure, loud talking was dealt with shu-shus and occasional admonishment, but the general state of affairs was poor. Even when two or more chit-chatters were politely asked to shut up, they would for a few minutes and then go back to it.

I think the growing need to pass comments or opinions on what’s happening on the screen, provide commentary to a companion who is finding it hard to keep up with the plot, or just blatant ignorance that one is watching a film in a public theatre and not at the comfort of their home is the cause for this. Usually, this tribe of people are very argumentative and if you find yourself asking them to stop talking, you’re more likely to be handed back your request. I also noticed this arrogance in the queues where two people outside Regal Cinema, Colaba kept talking with passersby and thereby holding up the line. One of them even had the audacity to suggest that I should walk ahead, and then proceeded to walk ahead herself.

Looks like I have more to complain about MAMI 2023 than praise. But this is my honest take on what went right or wrong at this year’s much-anticipated Mumbai Film Festival. I haven’t talked much about the schedule fiasco or the overall handling of the fest, but if you ask me if I enjoyed the whole shindig, I will have to say yes.

There’s something pleasurable about creating a watchlist, planning what movies to watch and when, setting up an alarm to wake up early and book the screenings, wear the delegate badge and shuttle between the venues, and watch the best of contemporary cinema and classics on the big screen. It’s an experience unmatched by anything else for me. And for that reason, I will attend it next year too.

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