The peacock at Panaji

Print edition : January 14, 2005

"WILL he, won't he, will he, won't he?" The echoes were all around. Would Union Minister S. Jaipal Reddy announce Goa as the permanent venue for the International Film Festival of India (IFFI)? This question dominated the proceedings at every function in IFFI 2004 (November 29-December 9), and was hotly debated in foyer and lawn. After snubbing the pleading Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar with a curt "it cannot be decided so quickly", Reddy finally offered a crumb amidst thundering applause on the last day, "Yes, Goa will be the IFFI venue in 2005".

Many hardened scribes were won over by the balmy Goan air and smiling ambience, fewer hassles over security, and courtesy all around. Even the ushers guided you in to a film screening with "Hope you enjoy the film". Anything lost was sure to turn up at the security room. However, the high cost of accommodation and local transport and the difficulties in finding transport back at night dampened some.

Between the venues, however, the State had thoughtfully provided time-saving bus and autorickshaw services for the delegates (over 4,000 this time, a record). Only once did this writer meet with rudeness over transport arrangements - after a late night get-together organised by the distributors of the closing film "Alexander", at the Taj Aguada - the official festival hotel.

The venues? The Charles Correa-designed Kala Academy was perfect for conviviality. Bordered by the Mandovi river, it had jetties for boat rides, lawns for chats over tea, and surreptitious feni. Mohanakalyani (Lalgudi Jayaraman), Khamas (Mandolin Srinivas), Purya (Ravi Shankar) and Pahadi (Hariprasad Chaurasia) cooled the gentle breeze. The pressroom was a vast improvement over its Delhi counterpart. The Academy's auditorium is too small for the opening and closing ceremonies though, leading to confusion and heartburning.

At the inaugural, Dilip Kumar tied himself in knots in chaste English and chaster Urdu, and Aamir Khan remained silent behind streaming hair and curling moustache. The late-starting, long-drawn inaugural glittered with the welcome inclusion of masala magic. A.R. Rehman played with his orchestra, and Kisna debutante Isha Sharwani performed breathtaking gymnastics. The crowds melted when Mira Nair's opening film Vanity Fair began.

At the closing ceremony, too, viewers vanished out of Alexander in batches. As the Greek warrior started pillaging Persia, it was time for the Iranian Golden Peacock winner Asghar Farhadi (Beautiful City) to walk out.

The projection was excellent at the brand new Inox theatres. True, some films had to partly slice off heads to show the subtitles. "Not our fault," technical chief Alok Tandon explained. "For those films we didn't get any information about the kind of lens to be used," he said. The sound was uniformly good.

No doubt, Goa was thrilled with all the national and international attention, and determined, as Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar put it, "to make the event so wonderful that it will be impossible not to grant Panjim permanent venue status". The Chief Minister is a hero to Panjimites. "He bulldozed his way through mountains of red tape and had all these roads laid, bridges built, traffic cleared, in record time," said taxi driver Ramakant who sums it up as Parrikar magic ("Ye sab Parrikar ka kamaal hai").

The Chief Minister was seen everywhere in the venue - hobnobbing with delegates, scattering television sound bites. "IFFI would turn Goa into Cannes, boost tourism," was the refrain.

Film critic Derek Malcolm (The Guardian, London Evening Standard) a part of IFFI for over 30 years, though enjoying Goa as much as anybody else, has his doubts. "I don't think IFFI can bring tourists to Goa. Nor is it a festival of Bombay superstars. To run an international festival you need faith in world cinema as opposed to Bollywood and Hollywood."

A picture of "Mother India" Nargis on his shoulder bag catches the eye. "From a promoter of Indian films in France," laughs film writer Yves Thoraval, and adds: "Foreigners come to Goa to sunbathe and swim. You need a paying public for an international film festival to take root and grow." Archivist P.K. Nair is blunt. "Any place in India is good for IFFI provided it has a film culture of its own. Goa doesn't. You can promote tourism with a film festival, but the films must be chosen for that purpose, it can't be done with IFFI."

Undeniably, however, Parrikar's show was spectacular. From Dabolim to Panjim, Goa at IFFI time was strung with orchids and lights. Bulb strands hung from every street lantern. An evening boat ride showed a fairyland of starry revels on the curving coastline. By day, the streets were ablaze with floats - a resplendent peacock, IFFI's symbol, stealing the show. Cartoon characters stopped to chat as they strode past on stilts. From temporary stages lining the streets, live bands blared music, old and new. Mime, juggling, magic shows, fire-eating, painting competitions for children, all drew their share of votaries.

Crowds hid the sands on Miramar Beach where a giant screen played masala fare every evening, from The Gladiator to Dilwale dulhaniya le jayenge.

Singer Remo Fernandes, who had them stamping and swaying on the last day, screamed that a government which does not have the money for health and education should not "take its citizens to the movies"; locals complained about the closing of the Aldona Bridge to hold a State party; activists grumbled about every kind of pollution, office-goers groaned over closed roads and crawling detours, but the general spirit was one of glee.

"How can Remo criticise the festival? He is a Goan, no? Shouldn't he be proud of Goa becoming world-famous?" was the reaction of cabbie Roland Fernandes, who went out of his way to help festival visitors.

Buying balloons on the street for her brood Martha Gomes stopped to say, "All cities want IFFI, but we got it, didn't we? So little problems we can put up with." No, Martha is not interested in films from countries she does not know. ("Croatia? Where is it?") But she likes the glory of getting national attention.

"Every day they're showing Goa on TV," says another street stroller. Many out on the shady Campal street agree that they do not want to see the festival films. They have not heard of the Konkani film Alisha to be premiered at the festival. However, "This year Amitabh Bachchan came, Shabana Azmi came, also Aamir [Khan]. Maybe next year we have Shah Rukh [Khan] and Salman [Khan], and Aishwarya [Rai]. Also Hrithik [Roshan], no? He's just too cute." All film stars like Goa, they add in delight. "Don't you?" they beam.

Sound bites from Bollywood support them, from Yash Chopra to Vidhu Vinod Chopra, from Shabana Azmi to Konkana Sen-Sharma, who feel Goa is the best place for IFFI. Foreign film-makers from Argentina or Israel say "Goa is like heaven". The ecstatic Brazilian announces it is better than heaven, for "It's like home!"

The Hollywood film-maker Lawrence David Foldes (Finding Home) declared that in no festival across the world had he ever been so well-treated and looked after. There were a few stranded foreign delegates like Lasses Skegan, a director from Oslo, who had a tough time over his hotel room and accreditation. Derek Malcolm was given a club class air ticket by the festival authorities, but no one in Goa knew who he was or where he should go. Senior scribe Amita Malik was struggling with transport problems.

However, with so much going for IFFI in Goa, it may be best to wait and see how "Parrikar ka kamaal" works next year.

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