Nandita Das has travelled to a number of film festivals. She was on the jury of the Cannes festival in 2005 and at Karlovy Vary in 2007. And she often visits the Toronto International Film Festival.
But Nandita had never been to the Telluride Film Festival -- a small gem of an event, held each year over the Labour Day weekend in Telluride, a former mining-town and now a ski-town, located 9,000 feet above the sea level in southwest Colorado. The Telluride festival -- held a week before the much larger event in Toronto, also heralds the beginning of the fall film season in North America, showing a small selection of films -- Hollywood and international -- a number of which end up creating the buzz for the Oscar season.
"People in India have not heard about this festival," Nandita told me a week before she flew in a tiny plane to the highest air strip in the world in Telluride. She was right, even though two of India's leading art-house film personalities -- Om Puri and Shyam Benegal have been honoured in Telluride. And the festival has been frequented by other Indian film and media personalities -- from Mira Nair (two of her films Salaam Bombay! and The Namesake were shown here) to the late Ismail Merchant, Salman Rushdie and even his ex-wife and Top Chef host, Padma Lakshmi.
"What a place... loving it," Nandita wrote to me in an e-mail one day after she arrived in Telluride. And while speaking before the world premiere of her directorial debut, Firaaq, she told the audience that Telluride was the "true film lovers' festival."
Nandita's Firaaq -- a moving account about the lives of a group of individuals, one month after the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat -- was very well received at the festival. The film had four sold out screenings and Rushdie was present to introduce her, the film and give the background information about the riots to an audience that was mostly oblivious to the dark spot in India's recent history.
Telluride is a tiny town with only one functioning movie theater, and so the festival organisers convert a high school auditorium, a middle school gym, a convention center and even a Mason's Hall into high tech movie theaters, with stadium seating and Dolby sound.
It is also possible to literally bump into celebrities at the festival. And so Nandita was often seen on the town's main street, Colorado Avenue. She was on a panel 'Dream Makers: How Does a Story Dictate a Film's Style.' She also participated in a conversation with the British filmmaker Danny Boyle, who brought Slumdog Millionaire, his interpretation of Bollywood cinema, to the Telluride festival.
By all counts Slumdog -- with Anil Kapoor and Irrfan Khan -- was a big hit at Telluride and was on the top of the favourite list of a number of people I talked to. Based on the novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup and a script by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), Slumdog is an entertaining story about two young Muslims brothers, who become orphans during the post-Babri Masjid demolition riots and then rise out of poverty by taking divergent routes -- one becoming a criminal and the other an honest kid. The film's backdrop is the hit television show Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
I talked to Boyle as he stood in the line for the early morning screening of Firaaq. He said he knew Bollywood cinema well, having watched everything from Taal, to his favourites -- Black Friday, Satya and Company, long before he committed to making Slumdog. He added that he loved the extremes in Mumbai, and enjoyed the filmmaking process in the city.
"As they say in India, I have made the film dil se," Boyle said earlier, as he introduced the film at its world premiere screening.
Telluride festival goers are notorious for being strongly opinionated. They are patient -- the festival forces you to stand in lines, in the hot sun and freezing rain. And they talk about films they like and especially the ones they disliked. This is the only film festival where the programme is not announced in advance. A few years ago, someone referred to Telluride as the Crying Game of film festivals -- after the acclaimed film by Neil Jordan that boasted of the ultimate secret. And yet the festival goers buy the all-access pass -- currently priced at $680, knowing that they will not be disappointed with the selections they are offered.
I liked both Firaaq and Slumdog Millionaire, but this year we were also treated to some other very special films. First-time British filmmaker Steve McQueen (he is a black filmmaker and shares his name with the late Hollywood star) has made a harrowing film Hunger that portrays the lives of IRA prisoners in British jails, and the famous hunger strike of Bobby Sands. Hunger is a very violent film -- a lot of people walked out of the screening that I attended on Saturday morning. But this is an artfully made film, with very powerful and almost lyrical violence -- especially the internal violence that Sands inflicts on his body while he is on hunger strike. Hunger has a distributor and should run in art house theatres across the US later this year.
French novelist Phillipe Claudel also brought his directorial debut I've Love You So Long to Telluride. The film stars the remarkable British actress Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient) in the role of a woman with a mysterious and tragic past, who comes to stay with her sister's family in a small town in France.
Scott Thomas has been acting since the mid-1980s, and there is an Oscar buzz building around her performance in this film. She is well liked in Hollywood, and if last year's Oscar race is any indication (France's Marion Cotillard walked away with the best actress trophy for her performance in La vie en rose), Scott Thomas has a good chance of being recognised by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
In praising Scott Thomas, Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal wrote that her 'performance is absolute perfection -- sometimes hooded, occasionally ferocious, often unshowy (and not at all showy about being unshowy).'
Finally in the midst of the nearly 40 programmes -- including documentaries and masterpieces from the silent era, one film clearly stood out -- an Israeli animation film, Waltz with Bashir. Just like last year's Persepolis, which was nominated for the best animation film Oscar, Waltz with Bashir is film for grown ups, dealing with issues of guilt and repressed memories. Written and directed by Ari Folman, the film explores a horrific incident during the 1982 Lebanon war when Christian Phalangist supporters attacked the Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila and massacred civilians. Israeli soldiers stood outside the camps, but did nothing to stop the killings.
Waltz with Bashir will also open in theatres later this fall. In introducing the film before a late night screening, Folman acknowledged that he had lived with this personal story since 1982. Similarly the film will haunt the viewers and stay with them for a long time.