MCN Columnists
Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

Dispatches: Marrakech International Film Festival: I

From Chicago, it’s two planes, then you’re in Casablanca, and then one more plane, and then? You’re in Marrakech. Travel to the 11th edition of the Marrakech International Film Festival went smoothly, from hometown dusk to stark Casablanca sun to sudden nightfall in Marrakech, and with Morocco in the same time zone as Paris, jetlag didn’t strike… immediately.


The guest of honor of last year’s tenth anniversary was Francis Coppola and John Malkovich headed the jury: much philosophical conversation rippled through coverage of the event. What did this edition promise? The opening night events that I was just late enough to miss included an introduction of the jury at the red carpet premiere of Moroccan production The Rif Lover, by Narjiss Nejjar. The wide-ranging jury, who would be making more appearances, included Serbian director Emir Kusturica, Jessica Chastain, the Philippines’ Brillante Ma. Mendoza, Romania’s Radu Mihaileanu, India’s Aparna Sen and French actress Nicole Garcia.

But the more gripping tale was arriving from the square in the medina, alongside the souks, in Jamaa el Fna, of Shah Rukh Khan’s introduction to a public showing of My Name Is Khan. A publicist showed me video shot from the wings of the stage with a cell phone, of Khan doing signature dances in front of the crowd. The crowd went wild. Khan went wilder. How many people? Sixty thousand is the estimate. 60,000! Bon soiree, Marrakech!


Afterwards, Khan spoke to a handful of journalists in a small, dimly lit room across the road from the largest party I had yet to witness at a film festival. Looking none the worse for wear in a neat white shirt and trim black vest, he took a seat behind a desk alongside the superb French-to-English translator and fetchingly tossed his full black hair.

“I live for this,” he said of the booming reception in the Jamaa el Fna. “I’ve been doing this, actually, for twenty years.” Khan listed countries where he and Indian film have gotten an increasingly warm reception in recent years: “Suriname… Morocco… Poland… Germany.”

“Not to sound self-important,” he said quietly, “but I would be surprised if they were not here.” What would he like to do on his brief trip? “What I’d like to do is sing in the streets of Morocco!”

Does he have Hollywood dreams, a woman in the front row asked, leaning forward with her oversized microphone? “I’m a very simple guy from a small town,” he said, signaling to check if it was all right to light a cigarette. “I don’t know even I even know how to act, honestly. I’m 45, 46 now. I don’t know if they need a 46-year-old actor… Hollywood, they have great 46-year-old actors already.

“I just want to make an Indian film the world will watch. I only want to make people smile.” Khan exhaled. “It would be a sense of achievement to be in any other cinema other than my own. Just to act. Even in my bathroom! I want Indian cinema to be world cinema. And when I say, ‘the rest of the world,’ I don’t mean America. I mean, the rest of the world.”

How long will he continue, another questioner asked confidentially, breathlessly? “As long as I look as young as I look.” He said that an actor’s job is to collaborate, not to lead, that great roles offer the opportunity for great performances. “You give me a role, I’ll make it a dream world.”

He took the third or fourth signal to move along. The room was scented by Khan’s cigarette smoke as reporters gathered around in the dim, moving to pose for photos even as handlers worked to move him away. He struck classic postures, listening to the tumbling, adroit translation. A flash: a photo. That world-class smile. Another. Another.

Outside, crisp cold starlight, and across the road, the opening night party. We’re somewhere in the desert outside Marrakech. At the entrance, there’s one variation on the many portraits of King Mohammed VI, this one casual yet poised. (The King sponsors the festival along with his younger brother, His Royal Highness Prince Moulay Rachid, President of the International Film Festival of Marrakech Foundation.)

Huge tents are pitched outside the palais of the night. The music, covers of pop songs you’d be happy to hear at a wedding or karaoke, is loud, the food is plentiful, oysters, prime rib, pyramids of Moroccan patisserie, there’s drink at several bar stations. The music seems familiar to everyone in the pulsing room, lip-synching the rule of the moment.

Smoking seemed more encouraged than merely allowed, with plumes of cigar smoke backlit by bright, colored beams of light. A woman with a platter of berries passing by was a vision, only to be fulfilled by her floral perfume. Words like “panoply” and “cavalcade” fall from the sky. This has the potential to be Preston Sturges on the sands, in the best possible way. I saw people I know, including a couple who have been to Marrakech before. I shared some things I had scoured from a fistful of guidebooks.  It would take a couple of days still to understand the contrasts of culture as well as the film programming ambitions of the festival overall.

Then as the first flush and tingle and disorientation of shifting time zones hit, I was full into the twenty-first century in Marrakech, culture crash, not clash, as a scrum of flash and bodies trundled-bundled forward, urging Shah Rukh Khan past adoring ranks of Moroccans. What is it? Love, admiration, adoration… and the potential for inadvertent annihilation.

My new acquaintances toasted the ruckus with champagne. From nearly a day in transit, to exuberant secondhand stories of Khan celebrating in the Jamaa el Fna, to the pinpoint starlight and the Big Dipper in a disorientingly strange spot in the sky, to Khan’s quiet modesty, to the starlight again, it was a head-spinning start to the week to come.

Photos by Ray Pride. Shah Rukh Khan at Jamaa el Fna courtesy MIFF.


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