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Cannes 2024: FTII’s Maisam Ali On His Debut Film In Retreat As India’s First-Ever ACID Entry

A still from In Retreat

New Delhi:

Maisam Ali, who learnt the ropes at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), is going where no Indian director has gone before – to ACID Cannes, a section that has been showcasing and promoting independent cinema since the early 1990s.  

The delicately crafted, steadfastly minimalistic In Retreat, Ali’s fiction feature debut, is the first-ever title from the world’s largest film-producing nation in the ACID Cannes selection. It is one of nine films in the section’s 2024 programme.

“I was hopeful that someone or other in France will take a liking to my film,” says Ali, who was born in Iran, where his physician-father worked for the public health service before returning to Ladakh when his son was eight years old. “My short films have screened in small French festivals in the past.”

Nothing, of course, could have been better for Ali than a world premiere in Cannes, where his FTII batchmate Payal Kapadia’s All We Imagine as Light has secured a slot in the main Competition, the first Indian film to do so in three decades.

In tone and texture, In Retreat represents an inimitable vision and an original voice. It is far removed from all those Ladakh films that we usually see. Struck by the stark natural splendour and cultural uniqueness of the place, they stop well short of capturing the region’s true essence. Not so Ali’s film.

In Retreat probes the ventricles of Ladakh’s heart instead. “I wasn’t looking for pretty images,” says Ali. “I wanted to show the interiority of the places that I have personal memories of.”  

ACID (Association for the Diffusion of Independent Cinema) is a collective of filmmakers that helps directors, French and international, find distribution in Europe. The 77th Cannes Film Festival runs from May 14 to 25.

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In Retreat is an understated 75-minute drama about a man who returns to a mountain town that he left many years ago. It examines the notions of belonging and not belonging from the standpoint of an individual whose wanderings and absences have created a chasm between him and what was once home.

Has the unnamed In Retreat protagonist been drawn from personal memory? “Yes,” says Ali. Years ago, he adds, he heard snatches of the story of a similar person who came back after being away for a long time. “He visited my father’s clinic and reminisced about his grandfather’s store in the old market where my family had a photography shop back then. The memory of this man stayed with me.”

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It took the shape of a larger fictional story. Says Ali: “I imagined the man walking around, running into people and making small talk.” The returnee in his film, who is late for the funeral of his brother, is reluctant to step back into the house. “He keeps postponing his return because he feels that no purpose will be served by his arrival,” adds the filmmaker.

Ali refers to the logline of In Retreat to throw some light on the man’s psyche. It reads: “a person (who) has returned home but decides to stay outside in the shadows of the night”.

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“My relationship with home is always ambiguous,” says Ali. “Home is where you find comfort but home is also a place where your boundaries begin building up.”

He refers to a line that the protagonist speaks: from outside, the house looks nirdosh (innocent) and bhaavuk (sentimental) but inside the house there is no beginning of hope nor an end (na ummeed ki shuruat na khaatma).

“That is my relationship with home,” says Ali. Who is family and who is not? That is indeed the question that In Retreat explores in ways so subtle and intricate that it raises more questions about one’s moorings, pretty much in the manner that the goings and comings, and the delays and the dilly-dallying, of the central character do.

After spending the first years of his life in Iran, Ali was in school in Ladakh. I have been out since after Class 10. I graduated in Delhi (from an engineering college) and then lived in Pune and Mumbai. “I don’t have a home,” he says. “I am here and there.”

Ali says that his love for cinema arose from the discourse around realism in filmmaking. “Can we really capture time? Something is here right now and is gone the very next instant. For a man with a movie camera, that poses an insurmountable challenge,” he says.

Cinema’s struggle to grasp the ephemerality of beings, experiences and moments is what attracts Ali to the medium. To the mention of Bela Tarr, he adds several more names – Bresson, Ozu, Tarkovsky, Kiarostami. “These filmmakers inspire us to push the medium as far as we can,” he says.

Ali’s cinematic credo is amply reflected in the way he utilises lead actor Harish Khanna. “My idea of an actor,” he says, “is that he is a person, a being. I do not like people acting (and thereby expressing) in front of a camera. I am more interested in what you are hiding.”

Concealment, he implies, is of greater value than revelation in the craft of acting and in the making of a film. “You should get a sense of things by watching somebody in front of the camera,” he says. In my brief to the actor, once I was sure of the character’s being, pauses and rhythms, I spoke mostly about matters philosophical and thematic.”

Talking about the austere but striking sound design of In Retreat, Ali is dismissive of the wall-to-wall musical accompaniment that marks films and shows on streaming platforms.

“Every line of dialogue is underscored by music. The process of creating sound (as a distinct element of a film) is as good as over,” he laments. “For me, the detailing and texture that sound adds to a work is of utmost importance.”

Ali’s alma mater, FTII, has a big presence in Cannes this year. Besides his and Kapadia’s films, a student from the institute, Chidananda S. Naik, is competing for a prize in La Cinef, a section for entries from film schools, and FTII alumnus Santosh Sivan, one of India’s finest cinematographers, is the recipient of the 2024 Pierre Angenieux tribute.

How important, to Ali’s mind, is film school education? “As children, many are told that their handwriting is bad. But it is your handwriting that defines you. That is one of the things that I learnt at FTII. My artistic journey began there because of my teachers and because of the atmosphere at the institute,” he says.

If you are conceptually strong, rules and techniques are not as important as the fundamentals, asserts Ali. “What rules do we need for making films? We all have memories and dreams. We know that language all across the world we all dream,” he adds.          

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