One of the most exciting possibilities that a movie festival throws up is the opportunity for debates, discussions and a free flow of ideas, apart from the sheer pleasure of watching world cinema. The ongoing 9th Chennai International Film Festival has introduced a forum this year, where speakers talk about – and answers questions from audiences on – various issues on cinema.
An issue that continues to puzzle Indian moviemakers is international film festivals and its relevance to home-grown cinema. Three speakers – Uma Da Cunha (principally the curator for the Toronto International Film Festival), Yogesh Karikurve (media consultant) and Deepti DCunha (India consultant for the Venice International Film Festival) – tried to demystify movie festivals around the world. There are some 3800.
A crucial area of the debate – also much discussed elsewhere and for long – was India’s poor or zero showing at some of the major films festivals, particularly Cannes. It has been years since an Indian work made it to the festival’s top competition. In fact, last year, Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan played at Cannes’ A Certain Regard, the first Indian movie in the festival’s official sections after many years.
And this is what Variety felt about it: “Earnest, predictable, conventionally crafted Udaan brings nothing new to the coming-of-age genre in this tale of a fraught relationship between a sensitive teen and his abusive, controlling father, which adopts the style of popular Indian melodrama. Needlessly drawing out every dramatic situation and shamelessly milking every sentiment, tyro helmer Vikramaditya Motwane overwhelms the pic's few truly touching moments… Aspiring more to Bollywood than to Satyajit Ray, pic boasts musical montages with treacly lyrics in the slots where Bollywood would sport large-scale production numbers. In spite of the widescreen format, most thesping and the overall look seem more suited to television soap opera”.
As long ago as 1994, Shaji Karun’s Swaham screened at Cannes, and the Variety reviewer said: Overlong and repetitive, this story of a widow grieving for her dead husband will have almost no commercial chances outside its home territory, and even fest outings may be difficult to achieve…. The film would fare better with considerable pruning. India isn't often repped in competition at Cannes, and it's a shame that the sheer length of Swaham makes it such a daunting viewing experience”.
These two reviews tell us in some ways why Indian cinema is being shunned, not just at Cannes, but in many other major festivals. If the pacing is just out of sync with modern times, the story, script and performances are just not up to the mark, conveying that Indian movie producers and directors are sadly out of touch with the rapid strides cinema as a medium is taking. It is a continuous process, a highly evolving process, that needs to be watched, understood and learnt from.
But I suppose in the face of a thriving home market in India – with cinema still the cheapest and, hence, the most widely patronised form of entertainment – helmers or producers are the lest bothered about their films doing the overseas festival circuit. There can be other reasons.
G. Dhanjayan of UTV told the panel that Tamil producers found it hard to get theatrical releases for their movies if they travel to international festivals, because they are then labelled “artistic” and, therefore, beyond the comprehension and enjoyment of the common viewer. So, he suggested that film festivals should not be obsessed with premiering a movie. They should allow home releases before festival openings. (Most festivals allow that, Cannes and Berlin too, with Venice sometimes making exceptions to this undoubtedly rigid rule.)
But Dhanjayan was being exaggerative. Azhagar Samiyian Kuthirai in Tamil went to festivals abroad and later made money in India’s Tamil Nadu through theatrical release. Umesh Kulkarni’s Marathi works were invited by many festivals across continents before it opened commercially and ran successfully in Maharashtra.
A film festival may also serve as an additional selling point. Indians realising this potential have in recent years begun to descend on Cannes. In fact, advertisements by Bollywood mandarins often talk of a movie having been at Cannes. What they hide is that the films were not part of the official Festival selections but the market.
There is a world of difference between the two. Anybody can register for the market, open a stall, hire an auditorium and show his or her movie. But getting a film into the festival depends on the selection committee, and no committee in any festival is going to accept a movie unless it of a high standard, on a par with the best in the world.
So, finally what really matters is good cinema. Nobody can stop it’s march, festivals too. If India has been more often than not unsuccessful in the selection process at Cannes or elsewhere, it is because the willingness to discover and learn and improve is seriously lacking in India’s movie-woods. Or, is the “chalta hai” attitude of Indians which they are notoriously famous for that is proving to be an impregnable wall between a film and a festival?
(Gautaman Bhaskaran has been covering movie festivals across the globe for 25 years)