IFFI 2019: In its 50th year, script for India's premier film festival has turned more dramatic than a mass entertainer 

Ashish Mehta

Nov 22, 2019 20:31:46 IST

Kumar Sahani and Mani Kaul. Autumn Sonata and Stalker. Winter sun and Siri Fort, chai and pakoda. Those were the idyllic, charming times the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) has witnessed. As it celebrates its golden jubilee with the 50th edition beginning on Wednesday (20 November 2019), its script has turned more dramatic than a regular 'masala film'.

Bollywood and its regional siblings, who back then did not have to bother about the IFFI, have taken over the festival. The inaugural ceremony is a star-studded soiree with the likes of Amitabh Bachchan and Rajnikanth (also the recipient of the ICON of the Golden Jubilee award at IFFI 2019). The host of the event? Karan Johar. Special attraction? The 50th edition promises to “enthrall the attendees and countless others with a cultural spectacle, a performance on the thematic of fusion music by noted music singer and composer Shankar Mahadevan and his band, who will bring alive the rhythms of India juxtaposed with international beats,” according to an official release.

The golden jubilee of the country’s premier film event is a cause for celebration — and, some purists would add, also of introspection.

Fifty years ago, the world of cinema was starkly albeit simplistically divided in so-called commercial films and art films. One rarely betrayed any attempt at art, and the other rarely attempted to befriend masses. The small exception was the ‘middle-of-the-road’ cinema of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee and Sai Paranjape, which sought to bridge the gap, and aimed to please both the mass and the class.

 IFFI 2019: In its 50th year, script for Indias premier film festival has turned more dramatic than a mass entertainer 

Scenes from IFFI 2019, the 50th year of the event. Images via Facebook /@IFFIGoa

One kind of cinema had little reason to seek any help from the state. It could rely on the commercial equations, go by the formula, and depend on the masses to queue up at the box office. Of course, only a handful were successful and a large number of films blew money; but the world of business had its ways to adjust. Some mavericks in the tradition of Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor and Ramesh Sippy found ways to enrich cinematic experience within the confines of commerce.

The other kind, however, had the numbers staked against it, and needed all the support from the state and society to survive. The film festival, along with the film society movement, was the main intervention from the government in promoting art films. When a film by Saeed Akhtar Mirza would have no chance to be screened anywhere except in a theatre or two in one or two metros and that too for barely a week, the festival would provide a platform for the film and the audience to come together. The selected films under the ‘Indian Panorama’ then travelled around the country, reaching out to more audiences.

Even if the audiences walked out of, say, Kamal Swaroop’s Om Dar-B-Dar in 15 minutes, Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala and similar “accessible” works reached out to more and more people. (Doordarshan too chipped in, and many have first-person accounts of giving a chance to Basu Chatterjee’s Ek Ruka Hua Faisla and telling others what they missed out.)

Moreover, the festival also provided an opportunity to connoisseurs to view some of the best movies from around the world made over the year. Film societies would then make a selection and screen some of them in their cities. Critics, students and aficionados would have a chance to interact with auteurs and discuss films at length — often at the usual venue of Siri Fort in New Delhi, in the lawns, in wintry haze of a Bergman or Tarkovsky movie.

Several factors have conspired to make all that the stuff of nostalgia.

The TV channels arrived in the early 1990s, making available a fair degree of quality world cinema to wider audiences. That spelled 'The End' for the film society movement. The multiplex theatres brought new commercial equations, making it viable to host somewhat experimental films in small screening hubs. This enlarged the space for the middle-of-the-road cinema, and sometimes even an outright ‘art movie’ found ample audience. When Ship of Theseus could attract a sizeable number of people to buy tickets, the more viewer-friendly Holi and Khandhar just got the timing wrong.

The spread of word of mouth for such films was speeded up by the expanding internet access. The internet, DVDs and on-demand streaming created the ideal platform for all sorts of viewers to get all sorts of films.

Meanwhile, ‘liberalisation’ has upped the profit motive. The funding for arts has dwindled. The National Film Development Corporation (NDFC), that bankrolled the whole art film movement, is no longer what it used to be. The market is dictating its own terms — and it is not always bad, often it throws up qualitative works that push the horizons and seek new expressions. A film festival, then, is bound to become more of a bazaar for distributors.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan is right in complaining against inclusion of mainstream films in IFFI. True, Chak De! India does not need a festival platform.

But maybe, all is not lost. IFFI seeks to achieve some balance by also screening the likes of, say, the much-talked-about Gujarati film, Hellaro.

The festival director at the Directorate of Film Festival, Chaitanya Prasad has said in the official release: “The kind of programming done [for IFFI] is a homogenous balance between the old narrative and the contemporary. There are some engaging ‘Master Classes’ and ‘In conversations’.”

The bitter fact is also that the whole age of Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, Gopalakrishnan and G Aravindan, Kaul and Shahani is over.

Purists of course won’t be happy. I am not happy. I can’t even say, “We will always have Siri Fort”.

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Updated Date: Nov 22, 2019 20:31:46 IST