I have been to all the major and minor international film festivals in my time. Cannes, Berlin, Kaelovy Vary, Moscow, Montreal, short films at Krakow, just name it. First as a film columnist and mostly as a member of the international federation of film critics, FIPRESCI. The first international fest I covered was the inaugural edition of the International Film Festival of India (Iffi) in Bombay in 1952, rushing with Dilip Kumar, Zohra Segal, Bimal Roy and Chetan Anand — all eager students of the cinema — to two to three cinemas a day. So I am in a position to say that Indian festivals are very different from others round the globe.
Take the opening. In Cannes, film buffs queue outside the main cinema to see the stars walk up the red carpet. the French government gives material assistance, but leaves the creative bit to the film professionals. In Moscow, Kalovy Vary and other Eastern European countries, foreign delegates were presented at the opening. In Berlin and Venice, the mayor made a one-sentence speech of welcome, so did the director of the festival and the guest of honour of the festival — a foreigner, usually American, took a brief bow. But not in India.
We have many variations of the opening. But one thing remains constant: long speeches by the I&B Minister, the secretary, the joint secretary, representative of the industry, forget the foreign guests. The speeches, together with diverse items following, take us to the interval. The opening film starts after the break — after the politicians, bureaucrats and their relatives, who have been occupying the front seats to see the Indian stars — have left.
But all this while, there is no sign of the foreign delegates. Mercifully, the cast and director of the award-winning Romanian film, which opened Iffi 2007, were at least present on the stage. But I remember an occasion at Iffi, when I found a foreigner wandering around helplessly. When I asked if I could help, he replied: “Yes please, I am a member of the jury”. One needs a telescope to find foreign delegates in the audience, let alone on the stage.
Not that we discriminate. Once Sharmila Tagore, a member of the jury, was stopped at the gate and she came back the next day only after profuse apologies. For it is only in India that Shah Rukh Khan is made the guest of honour. It should be a foreigner, of course. But then, we always think in terms of desi stars and mass audiences, the film buffs come last. But before the foreign guests.
But it was not always like this. The first Iffi had Frank Capra and Vsevolod Pudovkin as guests. Chetan Anand invited Pudovkin to his shack in Juhu but, characteristically, they forgot to arrange transport for Capra and he had to walk from his hotel to Raj Bhavan for the governor’s tea party. But after some periodic intervals, Iffi took brilliant shape: the towering presence of Satyajit Ray lent strength and prestige to Iffi. The first festival, with a jury headed by Ray and several international celebrities, gave the first Golden Peacock to an Asian film, Sri Lanka’s Gam Peraliya by Lester James Peries, who went on to serve on the jury at Cannes and was some years ago was given a lifetime achievement award by India. Those who now act as if they discovered Asian-African cinema need to be reminded of this.
Iffi attracted the most giant figures and one year I did a panel discussion with Kurosawa, Antonioni, Elia Kazan and Satyajit Ray. To begin with, the competitive films were mostly from the Eastern bloc and they carried off the top prizes. The real reason was that they were State-sponsored and did not need commercial success as much as independent cinemas from other countries. Winning an award in India is not the same as winning one at Cannes or Berlin, because no one bought foreign festival films for commercial release in India. Even now, only NRIs and smaller Eastern-style countries show interest in the market and the Indian cinema takes care of itself abroad. So foreigners who want to sell their best films are not interested in India. Even cutting down the competition to Asia, cinema has not helped.
The second drawback has been the lack of expert management of Iffi. It is no use expecting some government official to become a film expert overnight and acquire enough prestige to lift a telephone to invite a foreign celebrity. It is obvious that Iffi needs a creative wing and separate management wing. I cannot help but recall that wonderful occasion during the Emergency when someone imaginative in the I&B Ministry decided to send one film expert and one manager to foreign countries to choose films suitable for the Indian festival.
At the risk of name-dropping, I must mention how I had the privilege of being sent to Argentina, Brazil and Mexico to choose films for Iffi. Shyam Benegal was sent to West Asia and Europe to select films, with similar happy results. But for this kind of initiative, the festival needs an authoritative director and a proper expert committee and not the sort of very mixed bag which now operates to take care of the creative film side. One also needs trained experts to look after management. Also, such problems as censorship are not understood by I&B bureaucrats. It is a condition of international film festivals, as laid down by the accreditation body FIAFP, that films at international festivals cannot be censored, yet a short film festival had to be pulled out in Mumbai with protests over censorship and we have had problems this year too.
I would like to suggest two names to indicate the sort of film festival director we should have to gain universal respect: Shyam Benegal and Girish Karnad. And perhaps Gautam Ghose, all experienced abroad and highly respected internationally.
Yes, Iffi has been taken away from Delhi and the chaotic dominance of politicians and bureaucrats, who all demand free passes. Iffi has moved to a more photogenic, peaceful and quiet place like Goa. But it still woefully lacks the infrastructure, a cultural climate for film buffs and more and better accommodation for delegates before it can fulfil its ambition of becoming an Indian Cannes. Its proximity to Mumbai has been its biggest threat. If the government and industry provide material support and the festival gets a filip from real experts on festivals, Goa can still do it. But only good management and a creative wing free of government interference can do it. But it can be done. But not if it is overwhelmed by Bombay’s starts at the expense of foreign ones.