Dubai International Film Festival 2017 curtain raiser: Irrfan Khan bags Honorary Award
"I’m not good at remembering names, I sometimes forget my own name, and I don't care about awards, unless they are genuine," says Irrfan Khan, while accepting his Honorary Award at the opening night gala of the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), on 6 December.
In India, we are familiar with the awards chukker and the politics behind many of them, but without explaining the context, he startled everyone here, including his adoring fans. Buzz is that he has four bodyguards in Dubai; not an avatar we are familiar with, but that's what stardom brings, we guess.
Cate Blanchett (Carol, Elizabeth: The Golden Age), Sir Patrick Stewart (Star Trek and X-Men franchises) and Egyptian writer Wahid Hamed (the Yacoubian Building) were the other film talent honoured with awards at the ceremony. A little earlier, Sonam Kapoor had sashayed on the red carpet in an elegant white jacket casually thrown over an all-white gown.
It is great to be back at the festival for my eighth year here. The winter air is crisp, and the festival headquarters, at the beachside Madinat Jumeirah hotel complex, nestles in extravagant splendour. You need an abra (traditional boat) to go from reception to the restaurant for breakfast.
The 14th DIFF festival boasts 140 films from 51 nations. There is a strong Indian and South Asian presence here.
Anup Singh's Song of Scorpions, Dipesh Jain's In the Shadows and Piyush Panjuani's 5 Rupyah (5 rupees), are the Indian films that are screening here. Iranian master Majid Majidi's Beyond the Clouds, shot in Bombay, is also a highlight of the programme. There are two more strong films set in Pakistan: Sarmad Masud's My Pure Land and Iram Haq's Hva Vil Folk Si (What Will People Say?), a Norwegian film set in Norway and Pakistan.
Anup Singh's Song of Scorpions stars Irrfan Khan and the ethereal Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani (About Elly, Paterson, My Sweet Pepper Land). The story is a typically Anup idea: a scorpion bite is fatal, unless a "scorpion singer" can 'read' the scorpion's song in the victim's pulse, and sing an antidote song that will neutralise the poison. Frankly, we don't mind this conceit, because it has the superb Khan and Farahani — with Waheeda Rehman — along with lush cinematography in the deserts of Rajasthan.
Dipesh Jain's In the Shadows stars the talented Manoj Bajpayee, Shahana Goswami, Ranvir Shorey, Neeraj Kabi and the wonderful discovery, Om Singh. It is a compelling psychological drama set in old Delhi, of a disturbed man who keeps hearing voices, and how this connects with his childhood experiences. It is an Indo-UK-German coproduction, made by Jain, who is based in Los Angeles. Bajpayee is outstanding as a man who has withdrawn into his own world, and the young Om Singh brings an unexpected depth to his character.
We don't get to see enough of Shabana Azmi on screen (apart from her activism), so Piyush Panjuani's 5 Rupyah, a children's film, is welcome. Set in the Himalayas, it is an adaptation of Munshi Premchand's short story Idgah, about a small boy Hamid's (Yohaan Panjuani) Id gift to his grandmother.
Majid Majidi's Beyond the Clouds features Ishaan Khattar (previously known as Shahid Kapoor's half-brother) and Malavika Mohanan. It is a moving story about the power of forgiveness: can one be compassionate towards the family of the person who destroyed your own family? With Majidi directing, we know where the answer is headed. With music by AR Rahman, the film has been shot in Mumbai — cows ambling on the streets, laundry flapping at a dhobi ghat, and all. It is an Iranian Slumdog, but elevated by Majidi-style redemption.
Pakistan has vaulted into another league this year, with films by directors of Pakistani origin living overseas. Sarmad Masud's My Pure Land is Britain's entry for the Oscar for best foreign language film, while Iram Haq's What Will People Say? was at the Toronto film festival. Sarmad Masud is a British director of Pakistani origin. His My Pure Land, based on a true story, is about teenage sisters in rural Pakistan, who take up guns against land-grabbing goons. The film offers powerful images rarely seen in Pakistani or even South Asian cinema: the girls are not cool, urban types trained in karate, but rural teenagers in shalwar kameez forced to take up guns to protect their family home.
Iram Haq's What Will People Say? is a Norway-Sweden-Germany coproduction, shot in Norway, Sweden, Germany and India (with Rajasthan standing in for Pakistan). It is a compelling film about the Pakistani parents (including Adil Hussain) of a teenage girl living in Norway, who are horrifyingly conservative, with their daughter paying a heavy price.
Other international highlights of the festival include opening film Scott Cooper’s Hostiles, starring Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike, and closing film Star Wars: The Last Jedi, starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Adam Driver. There's also Rob Reiner's Shock and Awe (on journalists who uncovered the unsubstantiated claims by President George W. Bush, leading to the 2003 invasion of Iraq), Haifaa Al Mansour's Mary Shelley and David Batty's My Generation, starring Michael Caine. We are certainly spoilt for choice.
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin and Dubai Film Festivals, National Award-winning film critic and journalist.