Sanyukta Iyer (MUMBAI MIRROR; April 10, 2017)

Champaign is a city in Champaign County, Illinois, United States of America. It is a four-five hour drive from Chicago, 200 km west of Indianapolis in Indiana and home to approximately 85,000 people as per the 2014 census. The University of Illinois with its sprawling grounds is a significant landmark in the campus town. Many of its alumni have settled in the vicinity, founded start-ups and also triggered off Fortune 500 companies like Dow Chemicals, IBM, State Farm, Sony and Intel.

The city is also known for the Art Theatre Co-op which since its inception in 1913 has been screening critically acclaimed independent and foreign films. There's also the historic Virginia Theatre, a 1525-seat theatre dating back to the 1920s, with ornate, Spanish Renaissance-influenced interiors, an opera stage and an elaborate Wurlitzer pipe organ. Every year, between March and May, the theatre hosts late author-critic Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival aka Ebertfest. For the rest of the year, it doesn't have a daily show schedule, but several special screenings and live performances every month.

After his death, on April 4, 2013, a life-size bronze statue of Ebert was unveiled in front of the theatre during the Ebertfest on April 24, 2014. In April 2012, Nawazuddin Siddiqui visited Champaign on Ebert's invitation and stayed with him and his wife, Chaz, for eight days. “And that was my greatest international affair,“ he reminisces. Over to Nawaz:

Come, live with me
I've travelled the world because my films have been screened at international film festivals and it's been wonderful walking the red carpet abroad. But my most cherished memories from my journeys has not been in big, buzzing city, but in a small village called Champaign, wohi peena wala... Interesting name, isn't it?

Every year, Roger Ebert (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Film Criticism) would hand-pick twelve films from across the globe for his Ebertfest, which continues to take place every summer in Champaign. He would pick up the phone and call the who's who of Hollywood to speak at the festival and no matter how big the star, he would immediately fly out for Roger saab. He was the greatest film critic in the world and he was the man who had introduced the thumbs-up for film reviews. Many Indian critics try to copy his style even today.

For the 14th edition of the Ebertfest, he had especially selected ­ Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi's drama A Separation, and Prashant Bhargava's debut film, Patang, in which I had acted. Giving the film the rare rating of four stars, he had described it as, “Patang flies as free and colourful as a kite.“ He did not review Bollywood movies but he was an updated man, in sync with every film coming out of India and touring the festival circuit. Indian films were constantly on his radar.

He loved Patang so much that he invited me to come and live with him for a few days. He said I was “a natural“ and I still think it was the greatest compliment ever. He lipsynced pre-recorded speeches on stage. In one he spoke about Patang at length. I still smile when I think of all the wonderful memories I have with him.

Look, who's talking
There is not much to see in Champaign. It is a chhota sa gaanv and I went to university for a walk. I also walked around the city and met a lot of new people. At one particular lunch at Roger saab's home, there were other guests too ­ Michael Shanon (actor-musician from Revolutionary Road) and Paul Cox (prolific Dutch-Australian filmmaker). We only discussed movies.

Since Roger saab had throat cancer, he could not speak or eat food. There was a steel plate in his neck. He would write on a piece of paper and a machine would say it in a voice. We spoke a lot like this, but not once did I feel like he was impaired. In fact, I was more comfortable talking to him than I have ever felt. His wife would often join us, and they were very hospitable.

A summer to remember
I watched Citizen Kane with Roger saab and it felt like watching it for the first time. I had watched it years ago in drama school and wanted to become an actor. Roger saab and I decoded the film for four hours. He'd done a voice-over for the film, it was magical.

We watched another film too and I learnt how to really criticise and appreciate a film. Roger saab explained the layered and nonlinear narrative forms, uses of lighting, how a chair suddenly becomes too big, unusual camera angles, sound techniques borrowed from radio, deep focus shots, and long takes. I understood everything. There were no language barriers.