Odd cinema

At the recently held Bangalore Queer Film Festival (BQFF), I pushed and shoved and battled with strangers for space to sit. The main auditorium was jam-packed. Never mind that the aisles were already full; people streamed in anyway, and when I went outside for a break, I discovered the café tables were full, too.

Inside the auditorium, at a screening of the popular Malayalam film Ardhanaari, people hooted, screamed and cat-called. Ardhanaari is a precious oddity: a melodramatic, full-on commercial film set without apology in the hijra community. At one pivotal juncture, when the transgender protagonist Vinayan hunts down an errant male hoodlum and proceeds to beat him to a pulp, I worried that the audience would self-combust with excitement.

Now in its fifth year running, the BQFF is India’s oldest continuing queer film festival, and among the largest. Kashish, Bombay’s equivalent filmic extravaganza, is staged at a mainstream multiplex and draws slightly bigger crowds. The atmosphere was electric. Over three days, thousands of people came to watch films and performances from around the world, as well as populate the lively parties that followed in each day’s wake.Happily enough, I was one of the four jury members this year, which meant I got to watch everything there was, sometimes more than once. Bol, Shoaib Mansoor’s excellently produced Lahore drama won the award for Best Feature, though why it didn’t appear in competition last year was unclear. The only other film from next door in competition was Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Transgenders: Pakistan’s Open Secret, similarly made about a year ago.

The feature film category was weak, especially against the documentaries and short films on view, some of which were outstanding. Naturally, there were plenty of really earnest and really terrible home movies, too, most of them produced right here in Bangalore. But they were more than made up for by How to Survive a Plague, David France’s stirring archive of the early fight for AIDS treatment in the United States, or Na Sua Companhia, Brazilian director Marcelo Caetano’s deceptively light fable of fleeting encounters and lasting love, or even Lonely Walls, a shocking tale of a father-son relationship gone wrong, from the experimental Indian film maker Rohan Kanawade.

Any festival worth its name has to have at least one film that is admirably incomprehensible, and this year at BQFF, that film was Mondomanila, from the burgeoning stable of the Filipino digital savant Khavn De La Cruz. Mondomanila, or: How I Fixed My Hair After a Rather Long Journey — to call it by its name — is not for the faint-hearted. Featuring a relentless parade of rodents, deaths, dwarves, circus clowns, and a pair of Sapphic twins (who, for good measure, also happen to be dwarves), it’s the kind of film that makes your average Takashi Miike body count seem like wholesome family entertainment in comparison.

I watched it in awe — and I think my molecules rearranged themselves in the process. Mondomanila won an award, too — a ‘Special Mention’ in the Direction category. I was captivated by its grittiness, its fulsome rootedness and its totally out-there strangeness. And strangeness is a lonely category, not just in alternative cinema from South Asia, but in South Asian cinema at large. As much as I appreciate the clean editing, perfect design and restrained performances that characterise Bol, it is still somewhat by-the-book; a film that is less interested in blowing your mind than simply changing it.

If the BQFF had been staged 34 years ago, I know exactly the film that would have blown my mind then. In 1979, the legendary Rangeela decided to try his hand at direction. For his début venture, he fashioned a script out of one of Shaukat Thanvi’s lesser-known novellas, Khuda na Khwasta. The film he made was the epochal Aurat Raj. It did well at the box office, but not well enough to secure a foothold in eternity. It is quite likely that this incomparably strange feat of feminist fiction would have stayed put in the vault of cinematic history, were it not for the loving ministrations of the

In the Pakistan of Aurat Raj — or Shaukat Thanvi, or Rangeela — a group of disgruntled women set off a bomb that switches gender roles. Then on, they are in charge: twirling their cigarettes, whipping errant men into shape, and generally, enjoying being on top. Dwarves are involved. In one memorable sequence, a piteous man in a burka, on the run from a gang of vengeful women looks to his female saviour. “I used to be Sultan Rahi”, he sobs, and the wonderful thing is that the man under the burka is indeed Sultan Rahi, the actor who would shortly cement his reputation as the nation’s strongman that very same year in Maula Jatt.

I want to say the film is subversive, but honestly, it’s just thoroughly enjoyable. In the end, of course, it all turns out to have been a dream, and order is restored in the land. But the dream life lasts two and a half hours, and it’s a better life, devoid of the usual hysterical camp and pitched at a singular level of comic sincerity. It’s also a better film. How odd — or how entirely appropriate — that the definitive subcontinental queer film should have been made in a time when the word had no parlance at all.

by Achal Prabhala
Source – The Express Tribune