Toronto streets are littered these days with stars. Not the celestial, but the earthly kind. With the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in full swing, major bigwigs from Hollywood and other entertainment hubs have descended upon the city and since 10 days now, Toronto has not gone to bed at its usual slumber time. The mega-city is alive and awake with movie screenings that run into the wee hours, red carpet madness and wide-eyed fans.
Apart from the movie-watching mania and the paparazzi’s celebrity mobbing, this year’s TIFF — which is the launching pad for movies in North America — includes a spotlight on Indian filmmakers. The 10-film list of releases by Indian filmmakers include issues set in political/ethnic backdrop of Hindu-Muslim conflict in Born To Hate, destined to love and a compelling drama, Shahid, based on the true story of a slain human rights activist who was recognised as a forceful voice against Mumbai’s intercommunal violence of the 1990s.
In these current times of bloody conflicts and food shortage in half the world and with the other half steeped in debt and struggling to survive, it might seem somewhat heartless to indulge in movies. But cinema these days is not just about entertainment but a powerful voice used by artists for positive change.
The film capturing everyone’s attention this year at TIFF is Midnight’s Children. Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta is the courageous lady who has brought Salman Rushdie’s film to the silver screen in collaboration with Rushdie, who has written the screenplay himself.
I caught the first press screening of the movie and was later lucky enough to grab a few moments with the cast and the grand man himself. Rushdie, I must say, seems a much milder and genial form of his earlier self. He brushed off my query of whether he expected any backlash from Pakistan or India from this release saying, “the book has been around for too long for people to get ticked off now!”
That’s perhaps true. But watching — in big screen format — the series of unfortunate events that have littered Pakistan’s history since its inception was rattling. The first coup of 1958 which set the precedence of the other military take-overs, the ugly war of 1971 and the hatred which has festered between the neighbours who would do much better if they lived in peace and harmony came across as a lesson in history.
Salman Rushdie might be a resented figure amongst many, but we cannot deny that Midnight’s Children is perhaps one of the most skilled works of literature (hence, the multiple Booker prizes to his credit!).
Mehta’s screen depiction is dazzling as it focuses on the visual delights of Kashmir and the opulent lifestyle of the rich Muslim families in pre-partition and immediately post-partition India and Pakistan. The screenplay deftly stays clear of any controversial religious nuance that Rushdie has inserted in the book. The cast includes a versatile selection from across continents — Shabana Azmi playing the matriarch, Indian TV star Ronit Roy (Mihir from the Star Plus soap) playing Saleem’s father; Bollywood actress Shahana Goswami as his mother; Anupam Kher as the Kashmiri landowner Ghani and Bollywood child actor Darsheel playing to perfection the young Saleem demonised by the voices in his head. All performances are award-worthy and contribute to turning the movie into a powerful and profound metaphor to be understood by the common man.
The second Pakistan related film also making waves is The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The western press is all over director Mira Nair’s production of British-Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid’s novel. Touching on the subject of Muslims in America in the post 9-11 scenario Hamid’s protagonists deal with the subject of fundamentalism, terrorism, the American corporate dream and the reversal to one’s roots. While the film is spectacular, the subject is not unique and one wonders why Shoaib Mansur’s Khuda Kay Liye on much the same theme and made just as brilliantly did not receive the North America nod. Mostly because our Ministry of Information is devoid of the sense to promote our artists who only make it to the world stage if they have a different coloured passport. No reward for the weary national heroes in Pakistan whereas the Indian Ministry bends backwards to project its talent to the world. On the other hand, we celebrate coups and bad governance!