BERLINALE UNBOUIND: A Tango, and those Bolly-Jolly Berliners

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BERLIN, Feb. 10 — You would think all the cheers and stomping and paparazzi pandering at yesterday’s Berlinale press conference was for Daniel Day Lewis or another export from Hollywood, but in fact it was for Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan. With a fan club that clearly extends beyond Indian shores, Khan was in town to promote his mega-budget musical Om Shanti Om, directed by top Bollywood choreographer Farah Khan and billed as the most expensive Indian production ever made. It’s a candy-colored, adrenolin-injected and gloriously over-the-top tribute to the memory of 1970s Bollywood sari musicals, starring Khan as wannabe young actor named Om who dreams of stardom and the love of a Bollywood screen goddess. He gets them both, of course, but not before the entire inventory of Bollywood’s wardrobe and set departments, not to mention busloads of musical hoofers, have shamelessly expended themselves in telling his lavish tale.

The most absurdly spectacular scene finds the evil husband of Om’s beloved goddess burning a palatial building to the ground with our heroine trapped inside. Om himself expires moments later, only to be revived after the movie’s “interval” (yes, there are still intermissions in Indian cinema)by the haggard old plot twist of reincarnation.

Sound wacky? Om Shani Om certainly is, and if you can survive all the mugging and melodrama that’s happily dished out by Khan & Co., you’ll be rewarded by a 9-1/2 minute foot-tapping finale that features a who’s-who of Indian Bollywood stars (31 in all) dancing up a storm, or at least a mini-monsoon.

At the public screening I caught, which was packed with Bolly-jolly Berliners, I felt like a complete Bollywood philistine as the crowd whooped and cheered at the entrance of each Indian star. Who were these actors, anyway? Except for Khan and one or two others, I hadn’t a clue. And it didn’t matter, because the show is campy and ludicrous blast. If only Bollywood could tickle America’s funnybone as it has Berlin’s, we’d all take Hollywood a little less seriously.
Maybe in another lifetime.

Like Om, the performers behind the nostalgic documentary Café de los Maestros embrace their audience with a passion, but this time it’s the deep and abiding passion of the now-aged master musicians behind tango’s golden age of 1930s and ‘40s Buenos Aires. Some of these national treasures have been performing for over 70 years, among them great singers like Juan Carlos Godoy, Anibal Arias and Lagrima Rios. Also given some delicious screen time is legendary bandoleonist Oswaldo Montes and the composer Gustavo Santaolalla.

Throughout the film, which culminates in a performance by a stage full of living masters at Buenos Aires’ Teatro Colon, there’s an abiding joy that pours out of their eyes and voices, but it’s carried on the back of a deep, lonesome sadness expressed through the tango’s lyrics and music. You feel it and hear it in the soulful singing of Viriginia Luque and Lagrima Rios (who passed away since the making of the film), even in the way a weathered pair of hands dances across an old bandoleon’s buttons. You could call it nostalgia, I suppose, but composer Santaolalla took pains to point out at the press conference that there was more to it .“I have nothing against nostalgia, but the passion is not only in looking back but looking at how vibrant and alive this music still is today.”

Still, it was a bit sad to see so many of the old masters gathered on the stage of the Berlinale press room with barely a handful of journalists to greet them. Santaolalla spoke for all of them when he noted that “the tango is inseparable from identity – who we are and where we are going. So we have to know where we come from, and tango is part of this blood of ours.”

Today, that “blood” has changed since the arrival of the tango nuevo of Astor Piazzolla, a talent who Godoy, for one, saw as “distorting the style of tango” and leading to a struggle for the survival of the old music that continues today. Added Santoilalla, “Everything before Piazzolla sounds old, and everything after him is seen as new, yes. But that’s a problem of Argentina’s historical changes, as well as our musical changes. Today, our country is filled with young people dancing tango” — a phenomenon the camera visits as it weaves through city squares and clubs where both young and old share in the dance. “This movie tries to unit the great master of tango with the youth of today.”

Café de los Maestros is passionate enough to give new blood to audiences of any age, thanks in part to another maestro behind it, Walter Salles, the producer who was also behind Motorcycle Diaries and Central Station. Salles wasn’t at the press conference – he was suffering from a fever and had to stay home. But he, along with attending producer Lita Santic, were thanked for their help in ushering forth not only the movie, but ultimately a book, an album and a DVD of the maestros’ reunion and music, to be released later this year. Now that’s news that everyone can dance to.

I didn’t get a chance to see the Iranian film here in competition, Song of Sparrows, but I I couldn’t resist catching the press conference. I’ve been an admirer of its director, Majid Majidi, ever since I saw his Children of Heaven, which in 1998 became the first Iranian film ever to be nominated for a nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar. The film tells the tale of an ostrich farmer who leaves his home for the city and, in his ensuing quest for money, estranges his own family. Like other Majidi movies, children play a big part in the story. “The name of my movie is really a paradox, since, after all, sparrows don’t sing, ” noted Majidi. “But they’re small and delicate and adapt to their surroundings, just like children. And so the name becomes a symbol for these kids.”

That’s fitting, since Iran itself is a very young country, demographically speaking: 70% of its population is under the age of 25. Majidi’s movies also feature an unsparing and naturalistic look at rural life, so it came as no surprise when the director revealed that one of his great influences has been the work of the Italian neo-realist directors: “Especially De Sica and Fellini,” Majidi enthused. “Their movies have made a fantastic impression upon me.”

Berlinale Unbound is sponsored by Atalantic Travel (Travel ATT)

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