BY DRISHTI RAKHRA
Telling someone that I’m from Bangalore is never easy. The statement of belonging always appears with a little bit of shame. My memory of Bangalore is not steeped in the sharp twists and turns of Kannada, it is not heavy with the experiences of going to landmarks like Lalbagh on weekends or eating breakfast at one of the many efficient darshinis of the city. My Bangalore is one that stayed restricted to my Punjabi home. My grandfather moved here from Sialkot, Pakistan, 7 years before the Partition of the country. Despite the move, he stayed true to his roots. We spoke many languages at home, right from Hindi to Tamil, with a small smattering of Kannada thrown in. You could live in different parts of the city and experience extreme linguistic diversities. Ulsoor offers you more Tamil, Koramangala perhaps a little more Malayalam. I knew of the city I was in, but my experience was limited.
After all of this, I got my first taste of Bangalore by chance, at the Bangalore International Film Festival (BIFFES, as it is more popularly known).
The film festival has seen thirteen editions since its inception in the early 2000s. It is usually scheduled in February, for about 10 days. It is an effort of the Karnataka government, with the CM of the state heading the organising committee. It started off much smaller, with many cinema halls across the city screening over 200 films from all over the world. The festival was screened in venues across areas like Whitefield and MG Road, lending itself to the city; so that if one wanted to, they could pop by any venue and find themselves in a different world.
However, for the last 5 years, BIFFES has been restricted to Orion Mall in Rajajinagar, just off the RR Nagar metro station. Bangalore itself is expanding, and consequently, getting more connected. The festival has adapted to that, focusing all of its attention at the PVR theatres in Orion. When I first went to BIFFES, an excited college student, I spent one week at this mall, making my way in and out of the cinema halls of PVR. More than the films themselves, I remember standing in line before the start of a film. Each hall would fill up on a first-come-first-serve basis, so you could never guarantee that you’d be able to watch the film you want.
The first film at the festival would begin at 9 am, and the last one would end after 10 pm. At any given moment, each person had 5-6 different films to pick from. We would be spoilt for choice. If you used every possible opportunity to watch a film, you might be able to watch about 20 films, which is only a fraction of all the options available. As you might imagine, most films would have to be carefully picked after extensive research. After the decision was made, you would have to find the audi of your chosen film and hope that you were not too late to get a seat.
The film-watching experience at a festival like this is different from going to a cinema hall otherwise. The entire hall opens itself up to you, and once you have watched enough films, other people at the festival become familiar faces. You are reminded that you live in a city, that you live amongst people who might think like you. So the decision of watching the film feels more like a collective one – the knowledge that you, and 100 other people like you, have chosen to watch the same film amongst the endless options available.
While standing in the queues here, I learnt more about the people of the city than I could have possibly learnt anywhere outside, especially within a small window of 10 days. Since the passes were not very expensive, you would find a range of people there. Right from very-well spoken men and women only conversing in English, to others in the city who spoke only Kannada. The Kannada spoken there became familiar to me, from simple conversations to the more complex ones that I would struggle to understand.
The variety of films crossed all the barriers of language, so very often you would find yourself in the position of having to wait in long queues. People loved the options they had. Here, I learnt how to identify good films. I learned to plan out my days such that I was able to watch as many films as possible. I learned the art of eavesdropping — noticing that most people didn’t buy food from the overpriced PVR cafe and that others picked only those films that would not be otherwise available on the internet. I learnt that the people of Bangalore who went to BIFFES also shared other spaces I’d been in, right from Rangashankara, to Alliance Francaise, to Bangalore International Centre. I learnt, most of all, that Bangalore is a city hungry for stories of many kinds; that those with the option to do it, would give up their days to sit in a cinema hall and watch people from around the world. I learnt what it feels like to be part of a larger group of people, all coming together for one purpose.
Since the pandemic began, BIFFES has been postponed twice. This year, it is scheduled to begin in March. If not for the delay, BIFFES would be beginning in a couple of weeks, with a large audience, all geared up to spend their days in the A/Cs of PVR. But this year, like the last, my fellow film enthusiasts and I will be waiting in anticipation, for BIFFES is a testament to the city that Bangalore is, and all that it can be.
Drishti Rakhra is a reader, teacher, and writer, in that order. In 2019, she completed her Master’s in English from Ambedkar University Delhi, and is currently an assistant professor at St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore.