A festival of documentaries, shorts and animation is the perfect place to uncover the unseen and the unknown. Thus frequent sightings of Jackie Shroff, the Mumbai International Film Festival’s brand ambassador, were par for the course.
In between screenings of documentaries on kite flying in Ahmedabad and mass murderers in Indonesia, there was Shroff strolling about with his manager and a couple of officials for company, releasing books, addressing press conferences, posing for photographs, genially smiling at everybody, dropping his pet word “bhidu” (dude), and showing up when least expected.
A dosa stall operator at Sophia College, one of the three venues for the festival, almost jumped out of his skin when Shroff, in his trademark blue jeans and a red bandana, appeared seemingly out of nowhere and made a request for a quick meal. The dosa flew off the frying pan, a small crowd of phone-wielding college staffers emerged, and Shroff sauntered off after obliging all of them. Did the dosa maker charge Shroff for the snack? Of course not.
Elsewhere, Shroff seemed to be just standing by, waiting to be summoned and added to an Instagram account. His unstarry demeanour and enthusiasm for a mode of filmmaking about which he gamely confessed to knowing little says as much about him as it does about MIFF, the largest such festival in the country.
A brand ambassador is the face of an event or a brand. What, then, was one to make of the still-handsome but undeniably weathered visage that represented MIFF to the cameras and guests? Should one have raided Roget's for suitable metaphors or simply remembered that the bi-annual festival is always full of surprises, some of which are so strange that they boggle the mind?
Started by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry-run Films Division in 1990, MIFF is that never-changing monument to the diversity of the documentary genre as well as the deeply embedded inefficiencies of the state-run enterprise. Every two years, the festival screens a mix of brilliant, disappointing and mediocre films from India and elsewhere and briefly provides dedicated practitioners with a much-needed platform to exchange ideas, trade filmmaking tips and conduct some peer appraisal. Like every government event, everything falls into place in a higgledy-piggledy pile in the end, and there is always cause for complaint. If the selection is stellar, the logistical arrangements are poor; when the selection is questionable, the organisation rolls out the red carpet.
Carelessness is one of the most predictable features of MIFF alongside wastefulness. Crores are splashed on trivial items, officiousness is a prized quality, and ceremony is an end unto itself.
Ever so often, the mandarins at Films Division will come up with a cracker-jack idea that has the potential of going either way. This year, the idea was to appoint a brand ambassador for MIFF, somebody from a world of popular entertainment far removed from the one MIFF’s denizens like to inhabit. Like so much else about MIFF, it cut both ways. The unforeseen element of razzle dazzle in a decidedly unglamourous festival caused purists to be horrified and MIFF regulars to shake their heads in dismay, even as first-timers were charmed.
“The question being asked is not, when is Jackie Shroff coming, but when is bhidu arriving,” said a press official at the media centre.
Shroff’s dedication to his temporary ambassadorship was remarkable. He spent hours where others of his repute would devote mere minutes, and even celebrated his 59th birthday at the event. The deep-voiced actor addressed a press conference on February 1, during which thoughtful Press Information Bureau officials, who have been keeping the media centre smoothly running, produced a birthday cake.
Shroff was in full flow at the press conference. “It made me feel so happy when students who are part of the workshops at MIFF greeted me this morning with ‘Happy Birthday to You,’” Shroff declared. “Yes, it is my birthday today, and guess what new step I took on this day? I attended a workshop on animation screenplay writing.”
Shroff also joked that while events such as MIFF were welcome to piggyback on his appeal, if it needed even more attention in the entertainment media, which considers events without film celebrities as non-starters, it should get bigger names, such as Amitabh Bachchan, or trendier stars such as Alia Bhatt or his son, upcoming actor Tiger Shroff. The festival has been an adventure, said the hunk, who first captured hearts with his rugged appearance and undeniable sex appeal in Subhash Ghai’s Hero in 1983.
“I have been attending sessions on animation, monetising YouTube, trailer cutting,” he told Scroll.in during a break as he awaited milk-free tea and brun maska. “I have watched the NABARD PSA [public service announcement] films, a documentary about Mizoram. I am finding my space and learning one day at the time – and already, the festival is getting over so fast.”
Shroff has been making the daily trek to the six-day-long festival’s southern Mumbai venue from his home in the north of the city, killing the in-between hours at a sea-facing guesthouse on the top floor of the Films Division’s premises. Dressed in a white shirt with a few buttons undone, grey trousers, a blue floral-patterned cap and sunglasses that hid his deep-sunk eyes, Shroff fit in as naturally as a bhidu at a snooty art opening.
There’s no need to read too much into Shroff’s presence at MIFF, according to him.
“I am not searching, I am drifting,” he declared. “I merge.”
Agreeing to be a mascot for a documentary festival is in keeping with everything he has done in his career till date, he said. This includes playing street toughs, dutiful brothers, police officers, gangsters, freedom fighters, and alcoholic husbands and fathers.
“It’s been like that ever since I entered the film industry – I have been taking it one day at a time,” he said. “The past is gone, Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, all the king’s men could not put him together again. I am breathing every breath I like to smell.”
The gnomic statements, the insouciance, the informality that is both natural as well as practised – Shroff is really being himself. He famously grew up on the wrong side of the posh Walkeshwar neighbourhood in Mumbai, and his everyman image on the screen endures. The people taking selfies with Shroff were school and college students and low-rung FD employees and ushers and watchmen at the venues, thrilled to bits at their sudden encounter with a celebrity who does not behave like one.
The idea of roping in Shroff is Mukesh Sharma’s. Given additional charge of the Films Division after its charismatic head, VS Kundu, stepped down after his three-year stint ended in 2015, Sharma is also juggling stewardship of the Doordarshan Kendra in the region apart from handling DD Sahayadri and keeping the revenue stream flowing for Prasar Bharti, the public broadcasting agency that governs Doordarshan. Sharma knew Shroff from before, and thought he would be the perfect candidate to draw attention to MIFF.
“Over the years, documentaries have come to occupy their own world,” Sharma said. “Publicity is one of the missing parts of the festival. We needed somebody who could bridge the gap between the commercial and the mainstream. Jackie is also a good friend, and he has done a lot of non-profit work for thalassemia patients and street kids. I told him we could not pay him and it would have to be gratis. He agreed, but also said he did not want to be a rubber stamp ambassador.”
Shroff has approached MIFF to the best of his abilities. “I agreed because I was approached well ahead of time and I was free at the moment,” said Shroff, who will next be seen in the upcoming sequels to Housefull and Jism.
Does his interest in the logistical aspects of filmmaking mean that he will produce a film some day? “No, no chance, I can’t handle production,” Shroff said. “Maybe PSAs, I would like to appear in PSAs.”
Sharma’s choice of Jackie Shroff as brand ambassador is not so unusual when you consider that several filmmakers have tried to rescue him from his street-smart ruffian persona over the years. They have cast him against type in a variety of roles, and have helped him challenge criticism of his limited acting skills. Vidhu Vinod Chopra gave Shroff one of his most indelible roles in Parinda (1989) as a gangster who turns against his boss to avenge the deaths of his brother and sister-in-law; Ram Gopal Varma perfectly cast Shroff as brooding superstar Raj Kamal in Rangeela (1996). In Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Tamil feature Aaranya Kandam (2011), Shroff was mesmerising as an impotent underworld don from Chennai.
Shroff seems game for anything, just for the chance to stand in front of the camera. “I’m the same actor, it’s about what you get out of me,” he pointed out. “I’m a horse, it is upto my jockey and my trainer to lead me into the race. I was called staccato and wooden and then came movies like [Mahesh Bhatt’s] Kaash, Parinda and [Priyadarshan’s] Gardish. People started seeing a different Jackie. I need my director and my technician. I am me. You cast me and you mould me.”
The face and the voice need to be backed, adds Shroff, and Films Division has done a good job of showcasing their mascot, ignoring the horrified looks on the faces of veteran documentary filmmakers who know that MIFF needs vision and better organisation, rather than Bollywood blood, to realise its full potential.
You know what? “It’s not the end of the world, man.”
With that, Shroff tucks into some more bun maska. India’s very own Big Leboswki has to do the rounds again. The camera phones are itching to be pulled out. The parsing of the world’s problems must continue, but duty beckons the rumble that mumbles.