BUSAN, South Korea — Like Sunny, the buoyant Indian held captive by vigilante Pakistanis in the movie Filmistaan, Mumbai-born director Nitin Kakkar paints one of today’s touchiest political scenes in broad strokes. Sunny is a struggling Bollywood actor from India until he joins an American documentary crew as an assistant director, only to be mistakenly kidnapped by vigilante Pakistanis. (“There were supposed to be two Americans in the car!” the underling desperately pleads to his boss, a.k.a. Pakistani with biggest turban.)
Sunny is driven in the trunk of a car to a tiny Pakistani village near the Indian border, surrounded by yellow sand and brown shrubs as far as the eye can see. He wakes up confused: “I’m in Pakistan?” His captors are incredulous: you couldn’t tell? “How could I tell?” Sunny retorts. We eat the same food, he says; we wear the same clothes, sing the same songs, speak the same language. It looks exactly like India, like home.
Through jail cell bars, Sunny passes the time by singing, dancing and making goofy faces, imitating famous Bollywood actors to entertain the village children and generally existing in a state of denial about the seriousness of his situation. One audience member, during the post-screening Q&A, aptly compared lead actor Sharib Hashimi’s performance to Roberto Benigni’s in Life is Beautiful, which is fair not only because of their characters’ similarities, but also because Hashimi’s charm carries the film through its entire two-hour course.
The film’s most beautiful and laugh-out-loud moments are when Sunny tries to manipulate his surroundings by merging his beloved film-world with the real world: at one point, he plays director, producer, cinematographer and actor to his own hostage video, desperately crying on camera one moment, yelling “Cut!” in the next.
Like Sunny, the director, Kakkar, likewise can’t seem to (or doesn’t want to) grasp the messy details of the hatred between Pakistan and India. “I don’t believe in countries,” Kakkar confirmed during the Q&A, all but dismissing inevitable political reality. In the film, the Pakistani villains glare coldly at anyone who talks back to them, and, when challenged, proudly proclaim that they are doing “God’s work”, then point their guns to underline the point. They literally shoot first and ask questions later. The biggest-turbaned baddie does an excellent job of looking painfully unamused for two hours, but his role doesn’t call for much more.
And then there are the villagers themselves—peaceful Pakistanis who sing during weddings, cook delicious food and show sympathy to the young Indian. Sunny discovers a new best friend in a local who is a passionate film buff and professional DVD pirate, and they confide to each other their insecurities about wanting to affect movies as much as movies have affected them, by becoming filmmakers, actors, anything of significance. They want to engage in this magnificent world, but have no idea how. In this way, too, they are small-time players in way over their heads, unable to affect real change, their fates at the will of stronger, more powerful men.
Filmistaan succeeds as a movie about the magic of movies, with their power to unite audiences who breathlessly take in the sights and sounds of another world; in the film, it’s best manifested when the villagers crowd around an old TV to silently watch bootlegged copies of famous Indian films. In these moments, Filmistaan is right up there with the beautiful Cinema Paradiso, Scorsese’s recent Oscar-winning Hugo or Woody Allen’s classic The Purple Rose of Cairo.
The film’s problem is that it sheds this perspective in the last act, evolving into vague political statements and weak cries for sympathy and global understanding. And even though it’s totally bogged down by slow-motion montages of villagers crying or dancing, and ultimately ends about 20 minutes too late, its final moment—a desperate, fleeting escape from reality—makes an impressive image that’s bound to stick.
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