Some bright spots

Published : Feb 07, 1998 00:00 IST

The 29th International Film Festival of India, which concluded in New Delhi recently, failed to reflect the best and most innovative work being done in Indian cinema.

AT the 29th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) that was held in New Delhi from January 10 to 20, the Chinese film from Hong Kong, The King of Masks , won the Golden Peacock in the competition section for Asian films. The Iranian entry Paper Airplanes , directed by Farhad Mehhranfar, won the Silver Peacock.

The Assamese film Adajya , directed by Santwana Bardoloi, won the Silver Peacock of the Jury award. Of the 16 films that competed in the Asian category, there were only two Indian entries - Adajya and Govind Nihalani's Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Ma .

The Indian Panorama, which offered a meagre 13 films, was largely uninspiring. The sole exception was the Bengali film Dahan, which explores the loneliness of three women who become involved in an incident of sexual assault. Director Rituparno Ghosh projects the 'resistance' of the three women while attacking the misogyny in the Bengali middle class. There was a section in the festival that paid homage to film-makers Chetan Anand and Basu Bhattacharya, who died in 1997. There was also what appeared to be a hastily put together package of films under the foggy rubric of 'Nationalism in Indian Cinema'.

Rajan Khosa's Swar Mandala , which depicts the passing on of a musical legacy, was another Indian film that was being talked about. However, it was featured in the Cinema of the World category because it was funded by foreign producers. Many delegates wondered why neither Dahan nor Swar Mandala was chosen for competition, and why the distinction went to Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Ma and Adajya .

Adajya is adapted from an extraordinary story of three unconventional widows, of whom Giribala is the most transgressive. Despite its powerful moments, Adajya is an amateurish endeavour. As Bardoloi's first film, Adajya's weaknesses are understandable. Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Ma, Nihalani's adaptation of Mahasweta Devi's story, is ponderous, dialogue-heavy and tiresome. Not satisfied with turning the 36-page story into a two-hour film, Nihalani adds his own epilogue to the original story. Coming from a respected and senior film-maker like Nihalani, the outcome is embarrasing.

Most delegates would agree that the festival largely featured mediocre films that hardly represented the best of the last two years. Worse, the better films in the festival often eluded delegates because of inadequate information on screening schedules. The main festival brochure was not available to delegates until January 16, by which time half the festival was over. The daily schedules only carried the titles and little else; very often not even the year of release was mentioned.

International film festivals are also meant to familiarise delegates from abroad with the best and most innovative work done in the host country. This particular festival did not do much to enhance anyone's understanding of Indian cinema. Part of the problem lay in the insistence of the Directorate of Film Festivals (FFD) on segregating the so-called good cinema ('art films') from the so-called bad cinema ('commercial films'). This often boiled down to the use of inane criteria such as the presence or absence of songs in a film. For instance, a significant film like Prakash Jha's Mrityudand was not part of the festival. Mrityudand is a good instance of a commercial film crossing over to the league of middle-of-the-road cinema. Also, it is far more emancipatory in its feminist politics than either Dahan or Adajya. It is said that Mrityudand was sidelined because of the fact that it had songs. Song sequences are an integral part of the popular film culture and to censor Indian cinematic tropes in an Indian festival betrays poor judgment.

Moreover, the art-popular discrimination was applied only to Indian films. Hollywood was present with the best of its worst in the form of Tomorrow Never Dies, Rainmaker, Copland and the highly forgettable Wings of the Dove. The truly cutting edge or avant garde of U.S. cinema in the last two years was predictably absent from the festival.

IN the Cinema of the World section, there were also packages focussing on 'Recent African Cinema', 'Iranian Cinema' and 'Cinema from Sarajevo'. The surprise of the festival was a retrospective package of about 25 films representing the oeuvre of the Polish director Andrzej Wajda. A retrospective of the Spanish film-maker Carlos Suara included films such as Flamenco, Carmen and Taxi. The festival opened with a Suara film, Pajarico.

Les Voleurs

The self-righteous 'seriousness' of the Indian Panorama could pick up some instructive insights from Iranian cinema. Iranian films, which were decidedly the most popular 'package' in the festival, show the way towards meaningful cinema despite poor infrastructure, poor resources and the most difficult censorship norms in that country. For this very reason, Iranian film-makers have sought out different story-telling strategies, which are both poignant and funny, intense and playful.

The film that captivated audiences most was Children of Heaven by Majid Majidi. This film is about a boy who wants to come in the third place in a contest so that he can win a pair of shoes for his sister. Nane Lala and Her Children was yet another delightful film whose protagonists are children. The best known woman of Iranian cinema, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, came to the festival with five of her films, including, Foreign Exchange, Canary Yellow, Nargess and the highly acclaimed The Blue-Veiled.

Although there were many average films in the Cinema of the World category, the ones worth a mention include The Hanging Garden (Thom Fitzgerald), Welcome to Sarajevo (Micheal Winterbottom), The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan), Gaach (Catherine Berge), Between Marx and the Naked Woman (Camillo Luzuraga) and others.

A running theme of several films in this section was the violence, both real and representative. Assassins by Mathieu Kassovitz is a graphic and visceral study of violence, which despite its rivetting imagery, has little more to say than that television is to blame. In the wake of films such as To Die For, Cable Guy and Natural Born Killers, Assassins is yet another 'image-blaming' exercise.

Wim Wenders' The End of Violence takes up the same theme, but with less graphic violence. Wenders weaves a narrative about a hotshot Hollywood producer, Mike Max, who becomes embroiled in real violence while producing his latest venture "Seeds of Violence". His co-protagonist, Ray Berring, sits surrounded by a mega panopticon through which he monitors the city for violent acts in order to reduce crime. Yet a crime takes place and Berring misses it. Later he manipulates the screen image to discover the crime only too late. Recalling Antonioni's Blow-up, an accidental image caught on camera gradually reveals a sinister plot. Despite clever touches, this film is not among Wenders' best.


THE French film Les Voleurs (The Thieves), directed by Andre Techine, is interesting. The film opens with Justine, a little boy, waking up to realise that his father is dead. Among the mourners is his uncle Alex, who hated his father. As Justine's narrative builds antipathy for Alex and sympathy for his dead father Ivan, the film jumps over to the antagonist's perspective. A rigid and inflexible cop, Alex enters into a kinky sexual relationship with Julliette, who has been, along with her brother Jimmy, friendly with Ivan. Julliette, who bonds sexually with Alex despite mutual hatred, is romantically and sexually involved with Marie, an older teacher at the university. While gradually disclosing the events that led to Ivan's death, the film explores the intricate relationship between Alex, Julliette and Marie. Alex, whose greatest failure is human relationships, is eventually exonerated by Marie's trust. She leaves an unpublished manuscript for him, one that she had written with her student lover Juliette. Catherine Deneuve puts up a moving performance as Marie.

Another noteworthy film was Wong Kar Wai's Happy Together, which is inspired by Manuel Puig's The Buenos Aires Affair. While Happy Together might disappoint those who are familiar with his earlier work, the film stands out for its stunning visual style. The film evokes a mental landscape of loneliness and anxiety through the 'painting' of a desolate and dystopian cityscape. The love-hate passions and reunion of the two lovers could well be a metaphor for Hong Kong's 'reunion' with mainland China. Wong Kar Wai won the Best Director award for this film at Cannes in 1997.

I am curious to know what Godard would think of Wong Kar Wai. In his complex and self-referential Forever Mozart, Godard expressed a grave discomfort with 'degenerating' audience taste - one that craves for quick sensual pleasures through films like Terminator 4. While the film cannot be reduced to such a reductive reading, Godard is clearly in self-imposed exile from contemporary film culture. In an interview in 1995, Godard said that he could not comment on younger film-makers as he hardly saw their films. "In the rare occasions that I have met them, with one or two exceptions, I had the feeling I was younger or dumber than they were. Not as a man, but as a film-maker." Coming from the enfant terrible of the French New Wave, this attitude is tired and ironical.

Conversely, Ingmar Bergman of Sweden seems invigorated by the cinematic legacy of the past and the present. Voices of Bergman by Gunnar Bergdahl is a long interview with Bergman. At 78, Bergman watches at least one film a day every summer in the outhouse that he has converted into a private theatre. He discusses the work of young film-makers in Sweden and outside with as much enthusiasm as he recalls a film from his childhood, The Phantom Carriage by Victor Sjostrom. Wild Strawberries was Bergman's tribute to Sjostram (who played the main protagonist) and his film.

While Godard's cynicism and disillusionment is an important caution against unthinking film-making, Bergman's enthusiasm is essential for film festivals, which are as much about films as about film culture.

Along with tributes to the legacy of film-makers in the form of retrospectives, film festivals should also include the most innovative and iconoclastic of new film praxis. The FFD has a lot to learn from documentaries and experimental films from all over the world. There were hardly any documentaries or experimental films at IFFI '98. The Indian documentaries included in the Panorama were pushed to the Films Division auditorium, miles away from the main venue. The FFD's irrational and outdated contempt for video (manifested even in the festival pass distribution policy) will marginalise good work, more importantly it will put the medium over the mind.

Shohini Ghosh teaches at the Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi.

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