An Elitist Culture

Aspects of Film Festival

Bibekananda Ray

‘‘…(Movies) should introduce artistic and aesthetic values in life and encourage the appreciation of beauty in all its aspects.’’ —Jawaharlal Nehru
(in a message to the 1st International Film Festival of India, 1952)

Why should a film festival in a democratic society be distant to, say, a rural labourer's wife or daughter, who sells home-grown vegetables or rice on the sly, to see a movie in a local hall? What do the millions of cine-goers who sustain and enrich the film industries, get out of them, in return? Why should those who make or mar Shahrukh Khans and Amitabh Bachchans, keep away from film bonanzas? Why should over 72 people in a 100, who live in villages, be fed only with the gruel of B-grade movies and seldom any better? True, they are not debarred from seeing any, but they shy from the glitz and glamour of film festivals, held in capital cities. Will not a gawky rural woman, queuing for g ticket to see a festival movie, be an incongruity? This makes the present format of festivals elitist and distant to common people—aam aadmi.

From the very first in the world at Venice in 1932, film festivals had excluded laymen, although films were made for them. No authority in the West or East did ever think of taking festival movies to ordinary cine-goers, who may not like to see many of them, but no festival should ignore them. Some film writers say, ordinary viewers need to know film aesthetics to appreciate good movies. Do they really? Without such knowledge, did they not weep over the woes of Apu in Ray's trilogy, or wives' remorse for straying away from their husbands in Charulata (1964) and Ghare Baire (1985), or over the soul-search of the atheist judge finally seeking God's mercy for having killed his first wife to wed another in Prabhat Mukherjee's ' Bicharak (1959). A great film, or any other work of art, does not demand any special ability in viewers.

Like still photography, cinema and radio, film festival came to India from the West. Founded by Count Giuseppe Volpi, the 1932 Venice Festival was the first in the world. There was none for next 14 years; in 1946 three were held in Cannes, Locarno and Karlovy Vary and next year, two more in Edinburgh and Yorkton (North USA). Melbourne and Berlin (now the world's biggest) hosted their first festivals in 1951; five yegrs later, Toronto festival started. The first festival in Asia was held in Mumbai in 1952 for 10 days, two years before Japan, held it's first in 1954. Presently, some 3000 film festivals are held across the world, recognised by the Paris-based International Federation of Film Producers' Association, or FIAPE, launched in 1933.

India's first festival was the brainwave of a film bureaucrat. Mohan Bhavnani, then Chief Producer of the Films Division got it in a house boat on Dal Lake, while overseeing the shooting of a documentary. He worked out a budget for one lakh rupees and rushed to Union Information & Broadcasting Minister, R R Diwakar and through him to Prime Minister, Nehru, then in Srinagar. Mumbai was chosen as the venue to involve the Films Division's staff, infrastructure and the local film industry. It was non-competitive and held from 24th January to 1st February 1952 in New Empire cinema. Later, the participating movies rotated to Chennai, Thiruvananthgpuram, Delhi and Kolkata. Nehru sent a message, saying, inter-alia, "The film has become a powerful influence in people's lives. It can educate them rightly or wrongly"; he called upon the film industry to keep this ideal before it and "encourage good taste and help, in its own way, in the building up of the New India. "The festival was a splendid showcase for 40 features and about 100 shorts from 23 countries and the UNESCO. Foreign features included classics like De Sica's ‘Bi Cycle Thieves’ (which inspired Birnal Roy to make Do Bigha Zameen and Satyajit Ray to make Pather Panchali in neo-realist style), 'Miracle of Milan', 'Open City'—all from Italy, 'Yukiwarisoo from Japan,' 'An American in Paris', 'The River' (USA) and 'The Fall of Berlin' (USSR). Delegates from 12 countries included Pakistani playback singers, Noor Jehan and Gulam Haider and the US director Frank Capra, whom Washington had sent to spy on the six-member Chinese delegation. The second festival, also non-competitive, was held in New Delhi for a week from 27th October 1961. Competition was introduced from the third in 1965, held in the capital for 14- days from 8th January, but non-competitive festivals continued under a new rubric, called Filmotasava, held, biennially, by rotation in Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai from 1975. The last Filmotsava was held in 1988 at Thiruvanantha-puram; from next year, it merged with IFFI. In 2006 the IFFI's venue moved to Goa, a pale shadow of Cannes, from Thiruvananthapuram. An Indian Panorama section was added in 3rd IFFI in 1965, in which selected features and shorts, made in the previous year, were showcased. Goa festival, held in Panaji and Margao with their fabled beaches, exotic food, local brew (feni) and call-girls do regale foreign delegates, but not all India's own producers, directors, writers and buffs can afford to travel so far and live there for 10 days. Goa is also not a film-making city to have adequate infrastructure.

Apart from the annual international festival at Goa, held this year in Margao from 20th to 30th November 2013, organized jointly by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the State Government, at least 13 more are now held in (the year of start) Mumbai (1990), Kolkata (1995), Thiruvanantha-puram (1996), New Delhi (1999), Cochin (2001), Chennai (2003), Puri (2004), Patna & Trissur (2006), Hyderabad (2007), Jaipur (2009), Ahmedabad (2011). Some of them are specialised too. Ahmedabad Festival showcases only short films from South Asian countries. Puri festival invites film-makers and producers whosoever wants to, to show their films to the assembled crowd. Thiruvanthapuram exhibits both foreign and regional films. New Delhi festival is called Osian's Cinefans Festival of Asian and Arab cinema; Cochin showcase is called Syne International Film Festival and that in Thrissur (Kerala) VIBGYOR International Festival of Short and Documentary films. From 11th to 25th October, this year, Japan held two weeklong Indian film festivals (IFFJ) at Tokyo and Osaka to provide a common platform to good movies of both countries and promote them in Japan. Not all of the Indian movies that were awarded abroad have been seen by film writers and buff, let alone aam aadmi. Few know that five feature films were awarded abroad before Pather Panchali (1955). Venice awarded Sant Tukaram (Marathi) by Damle & Fattelal in 1937; Cannes gave the 'Golden Palm' to Neech Nagar (Hindi) by Chetan Anand in 1947. It also awarded Amar Bhupali (Marathi) by V Shantaram in 1952 and Do Bigha Zameen (Hindi) by Bimal Roy in 1954. Karlovy Vary awarded Babla (Bengali) by Agradoot in 1952; Venice screened Devaki K Bose's Seeta (Bengali) in 1934.

Nehru encouraged making of offbeat movies; he was moved by Pather Panchali and patronised its maker. So did her daughter, Indira as Information & Broadcasting Minister and then as Prime Minister from 1965. She wanted Ray to make a film on Emergency (1975-77), but he declined, saying he was a 'bad propagandist'. But for her green signal to R K Karanjia, then heading the Film Finance Corporation, founded in 1960, to help promising offbeat film-makers, the genre, nourished from 1955 by Ray, Ghatak, Sen, Benegal, Aravindan and Adoor (among a host) would not have blossomed. Its successor, National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), started in 1975, carried on the trend with bigger budgets and produced over 300 movies mainly in the offbeat genre. In public imagination, India's film festivals were showcases of offbeat movies from all regions—the so-called 'better cinema', which everybody might not have liked, but enormously admired because of their global reach. The slow encroachment by Mumbai's mainstream cinema gradually eroded this image.

Film festivals are meant to be windows to world's best cinema. In India, they were so in the beginning, but gradually under various pressures and constraints, the ethos have been diluted. While they used to be inaugurated by celebrities like Jawaharlal Nehru (1952), Indira Gandhi and the juries were headed by cine stalwarts like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, the 42nd and the 43rd editions, held in Margao and Panaji in Goa in 2011 and 2012, were opened by two Mumbai mainstream superstars Shahrukh Khan and Akshay Kumar, respectively. The juries are no longer headed by distinguished film-makers or writers, like Ray, Sen, Shyam Benegal and Adoor Gopalakrishnan. This shows, how the IFFIs have been hijacked by the mainstream Hindi cinema. It began modestly after Raj Kapoor's protest against its exclusion in his inaugural address in Mumbai Filmotsava in 1984 and has been complete in the last 29 years.

In every country, wherever they are held, film festivals acquired an elitist and awesome character. When sponsored by governments, as in India, they drain the State exchequer; cine stalwarts and foreign delegates who attend are given free passage and stay in luxurious hotels on State expense. Shows are free for delegates and free pass-holders. Inebriated with movies, film-buffs hop from one hall to another, surviving on junk food and drink. Uncensored entries attract young buffs and men and women, seeking vicarious pleasure. All these are beyond the ability and taste of lay cine-goers. Therefore, how can India’s film festivals be accessible to common people, as the Chief Minister of West Bengal wants? Her regime from 21 May 2011 held two, carrying on the practice by the Left regime which held the first in 1995. Her predecessor, Buddhadev Bhattacharya was a film buff and spent evenings in Nandan, the cine complex, blessed and named by Satyajit Ray. She shifted the inauguration venue from it to the NSCB stadium, but neither changed the fare, nor the current IFFI practice of having the Festival opened by mainstream celebrities and ts emphasis on 'hit' movies. Foreign and 'Indian Panorama' films were screened this year in the city's 13 theatres; the inaugural was graced by Shahrukh Khan, Amitabha Bachchan and Kamal Hassan.

How can the 20th edition, next year, redeem the Chief Minister's pledge to take film festival to aam aadmi? The format of Indian film festivals is nearly the same as that of Western bonanzas; there is very little Indian, except the garlanding of invitees on the dais, lighting of lamps by them; Television channels cover the inaugural, the interviews of foreign delegates but do not air any foreign or Indian entry. The Chief Minister's desire is praiseworthy for a democratic government, but merely inviting 'King Khan' and 'Big B' to grace the inaugural and holding it in a spacious sports stadium will not take it an inch nearer to lay people, intent on seeing good movies. Skewed thinking prevails among the State's film bureaucracy and decision-makers too; few enjoy or appreciate offbeat or 'independent' movies. Though they do not admit in public, they soak in mainstream movies and deem them good cinema. A national awardee confessed that although she praised offbeat movies in writing, she really enjoyed mainstream super-hits. The Chief Minister of West Bengal adores 'King Khan', makes him (unnecessarily) the State's 'brand ambassador' and invites him to open, or address, the gathering with platitudes, but this kind of attitude will not take Kolkata film festival to common people. One objective of an Indian film festival should be to make people aware of the glorious past of their regional cinema; no edition since 1952 did it. Makers, producers and viewers marvel at and eulogise the bold themes, stories, technical gloss and new trends of foreign entries, but few emulate them in their next movies, lest they should flop.

How can Festival movies truly reach common people? If regional and national TV channels air outstanding festival entries, or forgotten regional classics, watchers can see them. Single-copy foreign entries cannot be circulated to many halls; therefore, TV is the only medium for the masses to see them. The present format need not be changed; only it has to be expanded to reach many more eager viewers. In West Bengal, for example, the government can ask the Bengal Motion Pictures Association, or the Eastern India Motion Pictures Association, to collect prints of India's own film classics and circulate them to selected urban and rural cinema-halls for screening them on subsidized tickets. This could be a complex and difficult exercise, but once developed, it will be easier in subsequent years. When national politics (e.g., of Sonia Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal) is trying to reach aam aadmi, why should not millions of cine-goers and watchers who provide grist to the mill of India's huge film industry and sustain it in many ways get their due from film festivals? With a little imagination, effort and cooperation of the industry, regional and national classics that mesmerised elders and outstanding global sensations can be shown to the mass for a week or more to recharge the run-down people's pride in their century-old and the world's largest cinema.
[The writer contributed to the International Dictionary of Films & Film-making, published from London & Chicago, to ‘Sight & Sound’ and authored ‘Conscience of the Race : India’s Offbeat Cinema’ 2005]

Vol. 46, No. 31, Feb 9 - 15, 2014