Iffy event

Iffy event

Photo credit: JoeGoa Uk

Wherever you are on the planet, head towards the nearest large metropolis or holiday destination, and it is likely a short wait for the next 'international' film festival. But rewind sixty years, and film festivals were still a new phenomenon, with a handful scattered about, and those exclusively in Europe. Film festivals, like the Olympics and the World Fairs, were opportunities for countries to brand themselves as modern and display their excellence.

Inaugurated in 1952, the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) broke new ground as the first international film festival outside Europe, and the world's first travelling festival, a four-city feat of unequalled logistics. At a time when much of Asia and Africa remained under the yoke of imperialism, IFFI was a self-assured and meaningful assertion of the ability of a newly independent and formerly colonised country to enter into the fraternity of modern sovereign states. IFFI, in its imagination, form and reception, is shaped by the interplay through the decades of India's articulations of its place in the world and its own self-definition as a nation. The festival's current decline can also be traced to the gradual eclipsing of what is known as the Third World project.

The Third World project sought to accelerate the decolonisation process brought about by nationalist movements in the colonies and the weakening hold of the imperial powers. Just as the newly independent states wanted to have their say in world politics, there also surfaced a notion of a right to neutrality towards emerging power blocs and non-interference in domestic affairs. Central to this approach is an assertion of sovereignty as a counterpoint to the narrative-setting paradigm of the Cold War, a rejection that the West saw as either naïve, disingenuous or dangerous. As Himal contributing editor Vijay Prashad writes in his work on the Third World project, The Darker Nations, not only does the phrase East-West conflict 'distort the history of the Cold War because it makes it seem as if the First and Second World confronted each other in a condition of equality', but also marginalises the sovereign ambitions of the Third World. And yet, in the category of the newly independent countries (and the still colonised) was the coalescing of an eloquent counterpoint.

Parliament of cinemas
By 1949, India had already hosted two conferences on Asian relations; and through the early 1950s, Jawaharlal Nehru exhorted the value of Asian and African solidarity. Thomas Elsaesser, a film historian, has categorised the myriad shapes of film festivals through history, and the ambitions of the inaugural IFFI would seem to fit the earliest model of 'an ad-hoc United Nations, a parliament of national cinemas'. It was essentially a government affair meant to showcase to the world a country whose survival was held in serious doubt.

The government directly invited 42 countries to submit films, and around half that many were represented with 52 feature films (and over 100 in other formats). The diversity of countries whose films were included traversed the three 'worlds', and, curiously, the countries represented by delegations bespoke an agenda of internationalism with a tacit acknowledgement of the emerging blocs and lines of contentions (including India's own vexing issues with its neighbours): China, Czechoslovakia, Egypt, France, Pakistan, the US and USSR. Unique among the contemporary festivals, the entire package, along with the delegates, travelled to three centres of film production in India – Bombay, Madras and Calcutta – as well as New Delhi.

To go by the response of the audience, the festival was a stunning success. This is no surprise, perhaps, considering how many sections of India's population took to cinema despite the active disapproval of many of the elite. Nehru himself might have held suspect the popular cinema of his country, evidenced when he complained, in his inaugural speech, about 'too much melodrama' that took away 'the real drama of life'. A similar sentiment was evoked in the next festival, in 1961, after a long gap of almost ten years, perhaps prompted both by logistical challenges and the weakening solidarity among Third World countries. Vice-President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan inaugurated the festival with a plea to film producers to 'not cater to the tastes of the public but to improve them'. This tension between commercial and festival fare, censorship and art, would mark crucial debates in the history of the festival that rage on to the present time.

As much as in previous years, this festival included its ambitious travelling schedule and sold out theatres. In 1961, however, Satyajit Ray chaired an illustrious, almost unbelievable jury, including Andrejz Wajda, Mikhail Kalatozov and Lindsay Anderson to adjudicate its first set of prizes. The entry from Ceylon, the previously unheard-of Gamperaliya ('a delicate film which traces the decay of two landowning families') went on to win the jury prize, and Cuba went home with best short for Cyclone. That year's festival might have marked the height of IFFI's history, impressively programmed, well-attended and well-received.

In 1972, the festival's organising body went through a bureaucratic and ministerial restructuring. A separate Directorate of Film Festivals was formed which radically reorganised the festival. The festival committed to becoming annual, alternating between a competitive festival in New Delhi one year (IFFI), and a non-competitive festival the next, held on a rotating basis in India's film-producing cities. The latter, christened Filmotsav, brought attention to a variety of Indian cinema, developed a focus on trade and industry, and often had a strong component of Third World programming. Through the 1980s, Filmotsav was often perceived to outshine IFFI, and attracted festival scouts and critics. Increasingly, cities with strong film cultures continued to build on resentment to the Centre (that is, the federal government), while New Delhi's ability, as a city, to put up a logistically sound or well-attended festival deteriorated. The Filmotsav of 1988 in Trivandrum was so successful, following a particularly poorly received IFFI the previous year, that the question arose as to why the festival should be held in New Delhi at all.

The 1981 edition of IFFI is illustrative of the challenges that the competitive festival held. The regulations of the festival accreditations organisation, FIAFP (International Federation of Film Producers Associations), which ranked IFFI in the same category as Cannes and Berlinale, insisted that a film could only be entered and screened in one competitive festival in a calendar year. This meant that the early-in-the-year Indian festival suffered from a lacklustre selection, losing out on premières by, for instance, John Cassavetes, Andrei Tarkovsky, Alain Renais and Akira Kurosawa. Moreover, the organisers had to deal with the challenge of a fraying Third World polity, including having to juggle the submission by two warring countries, Iran and Iraq, accusations of 'going soft' on Soviet submissions, and outright rejecting the Egyptian entries as punishment for that country making peace with Israel (while accepting all Cuban entries). Most damning was Indian critics' seemingly racist treatment of Ghanaian filmmakers.

State and market
Several factors contributed to the decline of the IFFI over the decades, not least the decline of New Delhi as an adequate city for film exhibition. Foreign festival followers from the trade were enamoured by the Indian content over its international offerings, diminishing its value and sweeping its picks off to other sites. Srinjoy Chowdhury of The Statesman, observing the vanishing lines at the film festivals, pointed out that laxer censors meant the titillation of foreign films had been lost, even with ticket prices half of what is charged for commercial fare.

While the 1990s saw some impressive programming and guests, the rise of competing and highly successful festivals in other parts of India contributed to IFFI's reduction in stature. These included two important festivals in Kerala, as well as in centres of film production that hosted the Filmotsav. Moreover, audience members in New Delhi, in a post-liberalised India, began to turn away from foreign fare. As Prashad observes in Darker Nations, the success of the Southeast Asian economies 'dampened the enthusiasm for the Third World's exertion to transform the world order'.

By 2000, the death-knell to socialist commitments and Third World solidarity had long since receded as a central narrative for mainstream Indian political life. As an indicator of the embrace of neoliberal policies, the once staunchly left newspaper The Statesman complained in an editorial, 'Why can't I&B [the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting] simply leave the business of organising festivals to the private sector. If the latter wants, it will. If it doesn't, there won't be a film festival.' Completing this transformation was the permanent relocation of the festival to Goa in 2004, in a blatant attempt to imitate the Cannes model.

Goa serves in the popular imagination as a tourist beach destination, much like Cannes. Moreover, organisers can rely on stars from Mumbai's film industry, furthering the festival's embrace of the commercial. However, Goa is unlikely, on present showing, to be a panacea to IFFI's ills. The increasing embrace of commercial films that go on to fail both critically and at the box office will only add to the decline. That the festival is firmly in the embrace of commercial cinema was clear from the time it moved to Goa, when Amit Khanna, president of the Film Producers Guild of India said, 'The state must eventually wither away and let the Festival take its own roots.' While it might yet be too early to dismiss the prospects of the festival entirely – the most recent edition, held in November-December 2010, was considered quite successful – the poor programming of the past few years indicates that, without a broader social and political vision, IFFI will limp along as a second-rung festival.

Alston D'Silva is a Contributing Editor to this magazine.

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