Tame fare at the festival

Print edition : November 08, 2002

Despite the many redeeming moments, bureaucratic inefficiency and controversies ensure that the 33rd International Film Festival of India turns out to be a tepid affair.

WE will not be cowed down by terrorism and this film festival will be a resounsding success," announced Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj at the opening of the 33rd International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in New Delhi.

Usually held in chilly January, the event was shifted this year to early October and it did not take much beyond bureaucratic inefficiency to ensure that the festival was a rather tepid affair. The Director of the Film Festival, Deepak Sandhu, had assumed office just a month before the event and the lack of planning was evident. Deflating the expectations created by India's powerful showing at this year's Cannes festival, IFFI 2002 provided sparse pickings in terms of both the films shown and the platform it offered to filmmakers and prospective buyers.

The film festival had to cut corners, with a budget of Rs. 2.75 crores, shared between the Directorate of Film Festivals and the Delhi government. The Directorate received considerable flak for its outdated and arbitrary selection of foreign films. Anwar Jamal, the director of Swaraaj - The Little Republic said that unlike other film festivals, the IFFI selection procedure ensured that the festival got stale fare. "Why can't we get the latest foreign films? The unnecessary focus on retrospectives ensures that no attempt is made to get contemporary, ground-breaking films. The Directorate needs more autonomy and a competent group of curators," he asserted. However, Deepak Sandhu countered the criticism by clarifying that 10 out of the 66 films that featured in the festival were made in 2000 and as there was no IFFI in 2001, it was natural to choose these films.

Despite this controversy, the festival did feature a variety of offbeat films in the Cinema of the World section. The Russian film Letters to Elza directed by Igor Maslennikov, which won the IFFI Golden Peacock award, is a lyrical meditation on womanhood. The Silver Peacock award for the most promising Asian director went to Iranian filmmaker Reza Mir-Karimi for Under the Moonlight, a brave, critical film that probes the relevance of religion in a conflicted culture.

The seven versions of Devdas screened during the festival were testimony to the enduring fascination of this story of thirst, denial and desperation. As Anwar Jamal pointed out, it is interesting to notice how the material shifts shape in different contexts from the bare-boned simplicity of P.C. Barua's 1935 version to the market-driven opulence of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's 2002 blockbuster.

The retrospective homage on Marcello Mastroianni was kicked off with I Remember, Oh Yes I Remember, a rich, funny documentary made by the actor's companion in the final 22 years of his life, Anna Maria Tato. The tribute also featured some of the legendary actor's finest cinematic classics such as La Dolce Vita, I Compagni, Divorzio All'Italiana, and Ginger E Fred.

The Indian Panorama section was described by Deepak Sandhu as the `jewel in the crown' of the film festival. Among the 20 feature films and 11 non-feature films that were included in this section, several made their presence felt with their verve and originality.

Aamar Bhuvan, the defiantly `apolitical' film by Mrinal Sen, is the story of the bond between a woman, her husband and her ex-husband. The film seeks to affirm the magic of the ordinary in a bigoted world. Buddhadeb Dasgupta's Manda Meyer Upakhyan is a film about a girl trapped in a brothel. Described by the director as ` a celebration of life', it transforms the sordid story-material with moments of odd gentleness and possibilities of escape, like an old couple finding shelter and the occasion of man landing on the moon.

Among the other highlights of the Panorama was Revathy's directorial debut Mitr - My Friend (which shared the Special Jury Award with Egyptian film Asrar El Banat). The film tells the story of an Indian woman in America struggling to reconcile her sensibilities with those of her daughter and her husband. The identity crisis of the Indian diaspora is a familiar theme. The small-budget American Chai flogs the same idea, in a humorous way, even as its young director Anurag Mehta debunked the term `American Born Confused Desi', as he felt that `most kids just learn to straddle both worlds', and live with the richness of their dual culture. Award winning entries such as T.V. Chandran's Danny and Girish Kasaravalli's Dweepa were also screened as part of this section.

One of the most emotionally charged moments of the Panorama section was witnessed at the screening of Mani Ratnam's Kannathil Muthamittal, the story of an adopted child searching for her real mother, set against the huge, raging ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Mani Ratnam, in the interactive session that followed the film, presented a spirited defence of the so-called `popular' film. "I have always believed in bringing serious sensibilities to mainstream cinema," he said when a visibly moved Colombian delegate congratulated him on the delicacy and emotional power of his film, and the way it showed up the meaninglessness of conflict.

Despite these redeeming moments, there was general consensus that the IFFI was crying out for an infusion of some imagination. Several prominent filmmakers such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan spoke out against the festival's bureaucratic trappings that repress creativity and initiative. Anwar Jamal agreed that the film festival needed to be busted open. "If you don't take any initiative, you avoid controversy that is how bureaucracy functions" he said, with reference to the evident lack of spirit that marked IFFI 2002.

Vinod Sukumaran, who won the National Award for the best debut non-feature film, acknowledged that the festival did facilitate networking. Madhur Bhandarkar, the director of Chandni Bar, said that the festival was a wonderful way for him to understand different aspects of his craft: "You get to meet so many actors, technicians, you watch so many films." He said that he was "thrilled" that Mani Ratnam, who "has been a film school of sorts" for him, was watching his movie. However, several filmmakers expressed the grouse that the hospitality period had been cut down to four days, which limited meaningful interaction between members of the film fraternity.

For the first time, IFFI 2002 made an effort to showcase Indian cinema for a global market. As film-maker Ketan Mehta railed at a press conference, "the largest film industry in the world, employing the largest number of people, is responsible for less than 1 per cent of the world market those are obnoxious figures." Sushma Swaraj also emphasised the need to plug Indian films abroad aggressively and said that the value of film exports might cross Rs.900 crores this year. Rajesh Das of Eros Films, the biggest distributor of Indian films in the overseas circuit, said that his firm was looking to expand into non-traditional markets such as China, Japan and Egypt. He believed that the film bazaar was a step in the right direction.

However, the bazaar itself turned out to be a damp squib. China has expressed interest in the television rights for 15 Indian films and may well be the most exciting emerging market, according to the National Film Development Corporation. The Indian Exporters Association, a body of over 170 producers, said there had been signs of interest from a few Chinese and Mauritian buyers. However, nearly all of them also admitted that there were not too many concrete offers and that the bazaar had failed to live up to expectations. A representative from Planman Life, an independent production house, said that the bazaar was a great idea and could be enhanced with more dedicated planning and more "market-savvy publicity".

Despite the administrative glitches, there were glimmers of hope for a better festival. For example, the open forums addressing questions such as literature and film, artists' rights and censorship and other issues initiated lively, mind-stretching debate between artists, critics and other delegates.

The public screenings, in sharp contrast, failed to generate enthusiasm. Said Adheer Som, a festival regular who attended most of the screenings at the Paras theatre: "There were about 10 to 15 people in the movie hall. This was definitely a flimsy showing even compared to, say, the 1997 IFFI. Except the standard Godard-Truffaut stuff, most of the films were very uninspiring." Kamod, a film student from Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, also confessed that the festival was "a massive disappointment".

Confronted with so much criticism from people passionately involved with cinema, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry and the Festival Directorate would do well to get their act together and connect better with artists and audiences. Freeing the festival from the shackles of bureaucratic planning and control might, perhaps, be the first step in this direction.

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