The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Leafing through Locarno

The flight to the festival was marked by a delay and the stay by a hectic schedule. Yet when the film drew a shower of applause, it washed away all problems

in a sense, Locarno started at the Chhatrapati International Airport in Mumbai. Security check done, my mother and I were waiting like good children for the crew of Swiss Air flight LX 638 to arrive, without whom we would be in a slight spot. The feeling of bonhomie that develops among fellow passengers, in the wee hours of the morning, is touching. Airports and waiting rooms are a great leveller that way. Two hours and an empty stomach later, passengers were listlessly wondering whether they were in the comic refugee camp of their nightmares. But we were not alone. My mother and I were overjoyed to meet other Locarno bound passengers: Ansu Sur, director of Nandan, Abhijit Mazumdar, a Mumbai- based journalist, Shabana Azmi, and Gerson Da Cunha, were just some of the members of the illustrious Indian Summer at Locarno, which included Om Puri, Ismail Merchant and Nandita Das among others.

We waited for so long that soon Locarno seemed like a distant dream. On a rather surreal note, every quarter of an hour, the just-about-audible PA system announced that “the crew would arrive in 15 minutes” and that “refreshments are being served on the left”. My mother and I, sitting opposite each other, looked frantically to our respective lefts and looked back at each other, blank. Everywhere we looked there were only pale-faced passengers. Eventually, a makeshift stall serving flat, lukewarm cola in little paper cups, was spotted right at the other end of the waiting room. By this time, our fragile grip over time and space was completely destroyed. Needless to say, when the crew finally walked in, there was a standing ovation. Now there was a guarantee that we would be sitting for another 14 hours to reach our destination.

In Locarno, people speak Italian, French and German. We spoke Bengali, Hindi and English. Nevertheless, film enthusiasts find ways to communicate. One medium is, of course, the visual. There were the promised hills, meadows, green fields, blue skies etc, but the eye was also bombarded by the ubiquitous leopard print. Locarno is mainly a tourist destination and not a residential town. The festival, which is the second oldest after Venice, is the highlight of the tourist calendar. So when the festival rolls around, the whole town has this one motif: the black and yellow leopard print of the Golden Leopard, which is the grand prize of the film festival. All the shop displays, public walls, restaurant table-mats and unsurprisingly, taxis were in big yellow and black splotches. The competition was on!

Fifteen films from all over the world in competition, several films in video competition, an Indian Summer, a retrospective of Allen Dwan, Roberto Rossellini, Michel Legrand, the Piazza Grande screening. And only six days to take it all in. Six days which passed in a whirlwind. Though ma and I had vowed to watch as many films as possible, especially the ones in competition, between all the running around, press conferences and putting up posters, we ended up catching barely three or four. Having been with ma to the Moscow International Film Festival in 1990 and the Cairo International Film Festival in 2000, I remembered the hectic schedules involved. That was a completely different experience altogether, as she was a member of the jury. In festivals the jury equates to royalty. Being in competition, however, is a completely different thing. It has its own thrills for sure and its own adrenaline-pumping tension.

One of the first things we did upon reaching was put up posters. Though the festival is most hospitable and looks after its guests very well, the publicity of your film is your own headache. So, armed with posters, flyers and one Swiss student-volunteer, Thierry, Rupali Mehta, our executive producer, and I would scout the walls of the little Swiss town. A great excuse for sightseeing. Never have I indulged in such shameless self promotion! I was well tutored by Rupali. “Mr and Mrs Iyer, Saturday, 2 pm, Fevi” was our common refrain for the next one week. Let me explain. The Fevi, which was the official hall for screening films in competition, has a seating capacity of over 2,500 people. Not being used to these semi-stadium-halls, we were naturally quite apprehensive about the audience our film would draw. The ‘Let’s Talk’ team, a film in video competition (directed by Ram Madhwani, acting: Boman Irani), was more than supportive. Whenever we ran into each other, instead of the usual “hi, hello”, we greeted each other with: “Sat, 2 pm, Fevi'” It worked for us.

In the midst of publicity and PR, we had to find time to look pretty for the various press conferences. Also, hectic schedules mean work or watch films through out the day and party hard through the night. Parties are basically where the PR takes place. So though you might wear your jeans in the daytime, at night the saris have to be pulled out, ironed and accessorised. Then there was the question of weather. There were so many conflicting reports. The internet said it would rain and be cold, friends said it was like Mumbai winter and Rupali, who had gone ahead, sent an SMS to us which we completely misread, as one is wont to with SMSs. As a result, we were prepared for unpredictable weather at the best of times. It was bright and sunny most of the time, but on the day of our screening, it poured. The internet as usual, won hands down — it rained and boy, was it cold!

At the Fevi, however, the credit goes completely to the film-loving people of Locarno and not our cheap publicity gimmicks. I regret not having photographed the queues outside the hall. It was completely full and we couldn’t have asked for a better audience. I know I cried, but I’m a sentimental fool. What surprised me was that I wasn’t the only one. I remember Shabana coming up to my mother in tears, to congratulate her; I remember the usheress who escorted us out of the hall, weeping. There was a blur, of hugging, of smiles, photographs and autographs being taken, congratulations and applause. The audience started to clap at the end of the movie and continued right through the end credits and end title song.

When ma and I walked out of the hall holding hands, it had stopped raining.

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