I remember the film was Vittoria de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. I still recall that the impact it had on me, akin to a sudden shaft of sunlight engulfing my heart. I was captivated, enchanted by evidence of what art could accomplish. Its universal commentary on the human condition, its lyrical portrayal of love, and the light it shone on timeless philosophical questions.
With the ardour of a devotee, I sought out the best of international cinema during my undergraduate years in Delhi, scouring newspaper notifications for screenings in the cultural centres of embassies. I joined my college’s Cine Club, and went from embassy to embassy requesting them to loan prints to screen at college. One winter, in the early 1970s, a rare International Film Festival was organised in Delhi. Friends still recall many years later how I would stand in line outside Regal Cinema in Connaught Place in my trademark baggy sweaters and corduroys, wrapped in blankets from 4 am to buy tickets.
After college for several years, world cinema slipped out of my life. Not because my fervour was any less, but because opportunities dried up. I followed college with some years of personal searching and wandering in rural India, and then many years in the IAS serving in small district towns. The only films I could see in these years were from Bombay. But I still remember travelling on a few occasions by bus more than 24 hours if I heard that a sub-titled film by Kurosawa, Ray or Bergman was being screened in a city nearby.
In the early 1990s, when posted to the IAS Academy in Mussoorie and charged with training freshly recruited civil servants, I was convinced that cinema would prove the best vehicle for the most important life lessons that I wanted to share with my young friends. It was still before the digital age, and I needed to get bulky celluloid prints shipped from the Film Archives in Pune where I found a wonderful collaborator in the legendary archiver PK Nair. The list of films I imposed on my students included what continues to be my favourite film of all times, Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard. A more eloquent meditation on poverty, loss, illness, healing, love and idealism I do not know of.
I began after this to visit international film festivals which by now had become much more commonplace in India – in Bombay, Delhi, Goa and Trivandrum. Since I started writing occasionally about films, and Shyam Benegal and others made a few films based on my stories, I got invited sometimes as a delegate and once on a jury. I rarely could make time for the full duration of any of these festivals, but would steal a few days watching four, even five films each day, bleary-eyed but my heart full.
A very special birthday gift
Knowing all of this – my enduring love-affair with international cinema – this April when I turned 60, my wife and daughter plotted a very special birthday gift for me. A ticket to the Venice Film Festival, the oldest, the most iconic of all the world’s film festivals.
I was touched by their thoughtfulness, but still gracelessly resisted and grumbled initially. I can’t take off so many days from work, I said. "Bah!" was my daughter’s response. It would cost too much! "You aren’t supposed to comment on the cost of your birthday gift" my wife scolded. It then turned out that I could reap my first advantage of turning 60: Venice had a special season’s ticket for persons above 60 (and below 26) for only 150 euros. The conspiracy of circumstances facilitating my passage to Venice further thickened when by sheer coincidence I was invited for a lecture to that part of the world just around the date the festival ended, therefore there was much less to spend on my travel as well. My thin resistance crumbled and I finally agreed. At work, when I announced a little shyly to my young colleagues that I was taking 10 days leave to watch films in Venice, I remember the expressions on their faces. Scepticism, surprise, amusement, affection, bemusement.
As the days approached, I found myself looking forward to the festival more and more. For a lover of cinema, Venice was like a pilgrimage. I learnt that as far back as in 1932, the Venice city administration resolved to organise what was to be the world’s first film festival. Even earlier, from 1895, the Venetian City Council arranged the Venice Biennale, show-casing some of the best of international art, contemporary music; theatre, architecture, and contemporary dance. It was fitting that cinema, arguably the foremost art-form of the 20th century, was now included, and became soon its most visible segment. Films were screened in the island Lido, mostly in the historic venue of the Palazzo del Cinema.
It was in Venice that the great films of Italian neo-realism were screened which were to influence cinema the world over, including in India. It was here that Satyajit Ray’s international reputation was confirmed when India won its first Golden Lion in 1957 for the second film in Ray’s Apu trilogy Aparajita (The Unvanquished). It was here that the world discovered Kurosawa when he took home to Japan the Golden Lion in 1951 for Rashomon. It was in Venice that many new talents were discovered, confirmed, celebrated and minted, names which would straddle world arthouse cinema for decades: Godard, Dreyer, Bergman, Penn, Pasolini, Bresson, Bellocchio, Truffaut, Rossellini, Carmelo Bene, Fellini, Antonioni, Cassavetes and Cavani.
Therefore when I flew into Venice in early September 2015, for the 72nd edition of the Festival, 83 years after the first film was screened on the terrace of Hotel Excelsior on the island of Lido, it was with all the veneration of a pilgrim.
We settled quickly into the flat in Venice that my daughter had hired online, learnt the ways to travel to the venue of the festival at Lido, picked up my film passes, and then I allowed myself to surrender to the thrall of the curated films lined up at the historic screening venues. I slipped easily into the routine of changing a tram, bus and then water taxi to reach the venue by 8.30 each morning, travelling one and a half hours each way. Stepping into the water taxi, I recalled the iconic black and white pictures of a young Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa travelling together on a similar water taxi to the festival which would celebrate their talents.
Before each show, I joined often serpentine lines of patient spectators. People stood waiting for 30 minutes to an hour before each show; still sometimes were turned away. I have never seen thronging audiences who loved and cheered films from far corners of the world as much as I did in Venice, matched possibly only by film audiences in Kerala. Most viewers were always strikingly elegant in their dress. There was also star-gazing crowds at the red carpet: I would find hundreds of young people sitting patiently for hours around the red carpet venue awaiting brief glimpses of the stars who would walk past, smile and wave.
Even though I was not visiting as a tourist, it was impossible not to fall under the sway of the magnificent city of Venice. Even the clichés of the canals, the gondolas, the houses which open not into streets but waterways, the music on the streets, the grand churches, all could not fail to enchant you. A friend had thoughtfully gifted me a copy of John Berendt's City of Falling Angels when he heard I would be in Venice, and this prepared me better for the magic and mysteries of the historical city. I read that Ray had described the city as "fantastic", comparing it to Benares, both "photogenic" cities organised around water with ancient layered histories.
We were told that on most days, there are twice as many tourists in Venice than its residents. In today’s globalised world, tourists look, act and spend in identical ways in every corner of the planet. Being tossed in a swollen river of tourists never works for me. But my daughter found online the promise of a walk to by-lanes of Venice forgotten by regular tourists, and I took a morning off from watching films to join my wife and daughter and 40 others for this walk. Our guide took us to the Jewish ghetto where Jews were locked in after sundown for centuries, showed us humps on street-corners built to prevent muggers from hiding, walked us through the fruit, flower and vegetable markets, and introduced us to the many influences of architecture which coalesce in its churches, and the histories of plague, enslavement, invasions, migrations, commerce and art which make up the colourful tapestry of a city which is truly, authentically magical.
But there are other stories of Venice as well. During the days of the festival, newspapers the world over carried pictures of the body of the little Syrian boy washed ashore in a Turkish beach as his family was trying to flee to Canada. In Venice we would pass scores of Bangladeshi and African young men at every street-corner trying desperately to sell cheap and gaudy Chinese toys, trinkets and selfie-sticks to passing tourists, and could not help wondering how much they could possibly earn in a day, where they lived, whether they were documented, and how much they could save to send home. We passed many women, head covered, crouched for many hours with forehead pressed to the ground, begging from the throngs of tourists, and wondered about their stories. Stories of immigrants surfaced often in the films I watched at the festival – their loneliness, the desperation of their struggles for survival and the oppression of authorities.
The first Tamil film ever selected for the competition, India’s Visaranai (Interrogation) directed by Vetri Maaran was a particularly visceral and harrowing account of four homeless Tamil migrants in Andhra Pradesh arrested and tortured for a crime they never committed.
I was also struck by the large numbers of dark and brooding films in the festival this year about troubled adolescence and youth, drugs, petty crime, violent sexuality, brittle relationships and lack of purpose. These were films from every part of the world – Europe, Africa, the Americas and Asia – suggesting a global crisis of youth the world over. There was also the enduring staple themes of world cinema – love, loss, sexuality, politics, war and crime.
The days passed too soon. I left the historic Grande theatre after the last film I watched, a particularly affecting Latin American film on loneliness and longing which haunted me for days after. I joined the line for the water taxi sailing back to the city. As I stood on the deck of the boat, and watched the brilliant orange of the setting sun reflect on the cobalt waters, I wondered how I had stayed away for so long.