The just-ended International Film Festival of India (IFFI) is certainly the oldest of its kind in Asia, and one among an older lot in the world. Of course, Venice, Cannes and Berlin are much older. And these are doing extremely well, even Venice despite the political interference. Why the last director of Venice, Marco Mueller, did a splendid job, but was asked to leave after eight years. But Cannes does not do any such thing; it allows its director to stay on and on. Gilles Jacob and now Thierry Fremaux are the classic examples of this.
But in India, impermanence is the only permanence. For years, the festival - run by the Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry - did not formalise Malti Sahay's position as director. And, three days before she retired, Sahay ceased to be acting director. What would you call this? Short-sightedness or cussedness?
It has not been very different for the present director, Shankar Mohan - who completed 25 years in the Directorate of Film Festivals, the organisation which is a wing of the ministry and which actually runs the 11-day event. His position as director was formalised only last year, although he has been sitting in that chair for several years now. And this so-called promotion of his came a year before he retires at the end of this December.
And now what? There have been advertisements in newspapers calling for a candidate for the director's post. Will they find a suitable person to run the event? An easier option will be to extend Mohan's tenure by at least three years. Most people who have followed the festival will agree that Mohan has done a good job. Master director Adoor Gopalakrishnan - whose 1970s Kodiyettam was screened at IFFI this year - has always felt that Mohan was by far the best bet for the festival. "I have seen IFFI grow under him," he averred. "Selections have improved and we now get to see much better cinema at IFFI than what we used to."
Malti Sahay - under whom Mohan worked for many years - mentioned this year that "there is not another person that I can think of who can easily replace Shankar". Cinematographer-helmer AK Bir, who chaired the Indian Panorama Feature Film Jury this year, also thought that if someone was doing a good a job and trying to get the festival on to a higher plane, he needed to stay on.
Of course, there were some who said that Mohan could have done better. But could he have, given the kind of handicaps and hiccups he had to face?
One of them has been the Ministry's refusal to give Mohan a free hand in travel plans. Now, the whole world knows that Cannes is the most important movie festival on this earth. But Mohan was not allowed to go to Cannes in 2013 and in 2014. While just about every festival director or programmer is at Cannes to select films for their festivals, Mohan is not to be found there.
Instead, we have Indian bureaucrats - three or four of them this year and also in 2013 - marking their presence at Cannes, spending public money. In fact, one of them stayed at a plush five-star hotel at Cannes - where the top Hollywood stars are put up!
And these bureaucrats know nothing about cinema. They are not expected to. So why ask them to go to Cannes? Why not Mohan? He could have certainly picked some good cinema from Cannes and scheduled them for IFFI.
Despite these constraints, Mohan has been putting up a decent show, has been managing to get a fairly good package. Which could have been much better, if Mohan had been allowed to travel more often to pick movies, and get celebrities over to Panaji. This year, IFFI had Iranian helmer Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai. Last year, the festival had Susan Sarandon. But IFFI could have got an Angelina Jolie or Steven Spielberg or a Ken Loach or a Keira Knightley.
In the end, one hopes that better sense will prevail. Mohan will be allowed to remain director for some more years. And with Goa finally being declared as the festival's permanent venue (it took 10 long years for this to happen!), some kind of continuity can be expected. Mohan must be part of this process.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran covered IFFI 2014 for Hindustan Times.)