Tumult of Images
Facets of Film Festival `98
By SHASTRI RAMACHANDARAN
A country producing the largest number of films in the world ought to have the largest audiences too. India has no dearth of films that stir passions and filmstars who can whip their audiences into a frenzy. Cinema is an enduring affair -- classless and casteless, cutting across all barriers -- which holds in its thrall millions and has produced cult figures and fan clubs. It is perhaps the only country which has a temple built in honour of an actress.
Yet the magic of the moving image on the big screen, which can create and change fashions, politics, parties and governments fails when it is festivalised. The 29th International Film Festival of India in Delhi was another reminder of this sad fact. IFFI'98, like the ones that have passed on before it, was, in many ways, much the same: undefined content, unstated purpose and lacking in character with the familiar mix of films that are good, bad and from everywhere.
Glitz and Glamour
Where IFFI'98 differed from the earlier extravaganzas was that it lacked even the glitz and glamour associated with film festivals in the past. Free of any fever or distinct flavour, there was none of the stampede, which is a festival `must', triggered by reports of 'hot' films; none of the jostling to catch a glimpse of a famous film-maker, an actor or actress; none which was a `must-see' or a festival find by critical or popular acclaim; and none of the rush that cinema halls anticipate with excitement.
Some years ago, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct and Ketan Mehta's Maya Memsaab drew milling crowds, panting to catch at least snatches of the films. The miles of celluloid unspooled during IFFI'98 was treated as just another happening with even the accredited media folks and delegates not feeling compelled to take in as many of the 200-odd films as possible during the 10 days at the Siri Fort complex. Elsewhere in the city, it was cheerless business for the theatres, which ran even excellent films to virtually empty houses.
If the film festival is to be more than a programme of dutiful viewing for delegates and critics, it should be popularised with much more public participation. The minimum needed for this is a campaign to motivate the public and not only through publicity and posters. Banners with the IFFI'98 logo which "welcomes the delegates" did little more than advertise the fact that Coca-Cola was the sponsor.
Our myths were made up of Coca-Cola and PhDs during the earlier decades of `socialist' (under)development. A few lakh rupees from a soft drink sponsor on the one hand, and a clutch of cerebral films for the "intellectual" on the other is a sure way to make the festival fizzle out. In the age of the market, when countries like India are still figuring out how to cope with the currents of globalisation, success has to be planned for with good money that is well spent. In a poor country, a film festival is not a luxury, but a poorly organised one that does not match popular expectations certainly is. To have so many films and so few to see them is depressingly wasteful.
What this calls for is a commitment to excellence, a bias for quality rather than an unviewably large number of films, competent organisation and savvy marketing. Any commitment needs a driving core and film festivals cannot be an exception. The Directorate of Film Festivals (DFF) can deliver if it is allowed to and enabled with the mandate, finance and facilities it needs for a world class event. Its focus should be unwavering, and not diverted by having to desperately seek sponsors and other sources of funding on the festival eve as it had to do this time.
When independent India took the first steps towards promotion of the arts, Nehru's government set up various academies -- for literature and for performing and plastic arts. But when it came to films, Nehru was at a loss. Hence an enquiry committee, under S K Patil, was set up. It was on the suggestion of that body that various institutions, such as the film institute and the archives in Pune, Hindustan Photo Films, and the Film Finance Corporation which became the NFDC and the national film awards came into being. The first film festival was held in 1952 but this most important, and now annual event, has grown without any foundation, infrastructure or direction.
As Mr P K Nair, former director of the National Film Archives of India, observed these institutions did some good work initially, but somewhere along the way they got bogged down and lost track of their original objectives. So today, the audiences are there, the films are there, but what is not there is the networking to bring the films to the audiences.
There has been no institution set up exclusively for this activity, of making the festivals a popular forum for the public at large, despite the promise of profit. As a government department, the DFF is severely constrained. While the festival remains the monopoly of the government, the DFF has to seek funds, support and cooperation from the film industry for the festivals. The Union government should either foot the whole festival bill or leave it entirely to others who can manage the funds and the fare. The fact that Mumbai, Calcutta and Thiruvananthapuram have their own film festivals has not only taken away some of the IFFI's shine, but has also shown that these can be better organised on a smaller scale with superior quality without much help from the Union government.
The festival needs a distinct character and a compelling one at that. Recent IFFIs have shown that a Wim Wender, a Godard or a Coppola in the `Cinema of the World' section are not a greater draw than, say, Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa in the Indian Panorama and other Asian films. The Asian competition section in IFFI'98 is a good start, as film-maker K Bikram Singh says. After the heartening response it drew, especially at commercial screenings, this needs to be developed and could be rewardingly enlarged as an Afro-Asian competition.
The Asian competition section, which started as one for women directors, has now acquired a wider platform and it has enormous potential given the splendid films from Iran, China, Japan, Israel, Burkina Faso and Guinea Bissau that were screened this year. It is a pity that some of the more exceptional ones, like Xie Jin's The Opium War and Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven which would have been commercial hits failed to do so for want of adequate publicity.
In launching an Asian competition section, the DFF is onto a good thing. It should now sharpen this focus to make the IFFI in Delhi a showcase of Asian, and sooner rather than later African, cinema that will be unrivalled in festivals elsewhere.
If IFFI is not to become just another film fest but a major event, a class apart from those in the other Indian cities, then the DFF should begin preparations now instead of waiting for the predictable paucity of funds and hitting the panic button in December. Next time the Polish director Krzystof Zanussi is asked why he has not brought his latest film to Delhi, he should have no reason to say that it would be better appreciated in Calcutta.
© 1998 Bennett, Coleman & Co Ltd
© 1998 Matrix Information Services Limited. All Rights Reserved.