Just before the clock strikes midnight, a world of cinema opens at TIFF

Photo courtesy: TIFF
For 10 days every year in September, close to midnight, they gather in downtown Toronto, queueing up outside one of the screening venues of the annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Once they’re in, all bets are off. “The audience is loud, they’re wild, they’re ready to have fun. The movies don’t start until midnight, so it’s a late-night kind of wild experience. They like to be shocked,” says Cameron Bailey, artistic director and the new co-head of TIFF.

Bailey is describing the loyal audience of TIFF’s “Midnight Madness” section — a rollercoaster of thrills, spills and kills, which always starts at 11.59 pm. The more ghoulish and grotesque it is, the better.

TIFF, one of the world’s top film festivals, is both a film trade and audience-focused event. And Midnight Madness has consistently proved to be among its most popular sections since it was rolled out three decades ago to provide a platform for unconventional and edgy cinema. “It has grown to become a section that many people assume is a horror film section, but it has always celebrated alternative culture, subversive cinema, movies that are unpredictable, little bit wilder, little bit more rock and roll,” says Peter Kuplowsky, the programmer of Midnight Madness. “The 10 films that are in this programme (see box) represent where genre cinema and exciting action, horror, science fiction, [and] martial arts filmmaking is at.”

Photos courtesy: TIFF
It has also proved to be a trendsetter, with the Cannes film festival adding a similar segment after TIFF. There are also now several smaller film festivals around the world dedicated to horror or genre films. 

This year, Midnight Madness will have its first ever Indian feature, with the world premiere of Vasan Bala’s Peddlers, to TIFF, says he is thrilled to come back to Toronto to show his film to “one of the best film-watching audiences in the world”, and is especially happy to be part of Midnight Madness. “I think it accurately puts out what zone the film is in. It kind of conditions the viewer already,” Bala adds.

For TIFF, and Kuplowsky, it’s the result of a long search. Kuplowsky, a veteran viewer of Indian cinema, always believed a genre film out of India would be just the ticket for a Midnight Madness audience, with its mix of action, drama and spectacle. He was also looking for a martial arts film to add to his lineup this year. “Martial arts movies are definitely popular in the programme, so when I heard that there was an Indian production that was in the spirit of a Hong Kong martial arts film, I was very excited,” he says. 

Bailey, a long-time programmer of Indian films at TIFF, adds, “There’s a growing body of great genre cinema that’s got this incredible energy coming out of India, and it’s distinct from what you might see coming out of Hollywood or European genre cinema.”

Photo courtesy: TIFF
Bala’s film is about a young man born without pain receptors, who learns how to function and cope with his condition by watching martial arts films. The director’s introduction to the subject came through a friend who told him about a boy he knew who never needed anaesthesia during his visits to the dentist. 

Delving deeper, Bala found that congenital insensitivity to pain, or CIP, was an actual medical condition, not the freak phenomenon it’s often portrayed to be. But it also offered cinematic potential, and coupled with his passion for making a good, old-fashioned martial arts movie, he had found his next project.

Despite all the technology now available to action filmmakers, Bala says he chose to go back in time. “I consciously tried to make it the way they [movies] were made in the 1970s and ’80s. The way things were shot earlier, it wasn’t very shaky, not too close to the action. They would shoot it a little wide and you [could] see all the action that used to happen,” he explains. “So, it’s going back to simple hand-to-hand combat and brawling, and kind of exploring basic aesthetics of action — minus the cables, minus the extravagant stunts, minus everything that’s happening right now.” 

The film, produced by Ronnie Screwvala’s company, RSVP, features two newcomers, Abhimanyu Dassani and Radhika Madan.

Photo courtesy: TIFF
The context and characters may be Indian, but Kuplowsky is convinced his audience will relate to the film easily. “This is a movie that I think is very entertaining, irreverent, satirical,” he says. “It’s a movie that’s constantly in conversation with the history of cult cinema, both Indian, Chinese martial arts cinema, American B-movies and action movies. It’s a big love letter to the types of movies that the Midnight audience loves.”

At TIFF, Midnight Madness is almost mainstream, with its fair share of world premieres, red carpet receptions, devoted fans and big stars who are often featured in this section. This year, for instance, actors such as Monica Bellucci and legendary “scream queen” Jamie Lee Curtis are part of the line-up in Halloween, respectively. Indian American actor Kal Penn was in one of the Midnight Madness films three years ago.

“Genre films often are a great opportunity for actors to sometimes not take themselves as seriously — not [being] condescending to the material — but as a fun opportunity for play,” Kuplowsky explains. “I also think actors, even the really big ones, love action movies, they love horror films, so they love the opportunity to be in one.”

With all its manic energy, Midnight Madness is still only a small part of TIFF, which is considered a good predictor of the Oscar awards. In recent years, films like 12 Years a Slave have gone on to win the Oscar for Best Picture after winning the People’s Choice award at TIFF. This year, too, the glittering stars will be back in town and on the red carpet, but for the most enthusiastic audience at TIFF, the most exciting time is always one minute to midnight.

The 43rd Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6 to 16, 2018

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