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International film festivals and India

By Editorial Team • Published on December 10, 2008

At the same time came another blow for the Delhi IFFI. A Delhi IFFI jury headed by British director Lindsay Anderson in 1983 stated that films in competition did not merit the top award even though one of the films in competition–Bruce Beresford’s “Tender Mercies” (USA)–went on to win two Oscars

There are film festivals and film festivals.

The top film festivals of the world are the ones at Cannes, Venice, and Berlin. (Kieslowski before his death made one for each, “Blue” for Venice, “White” for Berlin, “Red” for Cannes and won accolades at two of the three) These three festivals have enjoyed the FIAPF (the international body governing film festivals) category I status for decades.

Two others that enjoyed the status that has slowly eroded in the past decades are the Moscow and Karlovy Vary festivals. Many Indians will be surprised to know that the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) once belonged to that august group and was recognized as a major event worldwide, in the late Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. Directors like the Italian maestro Luchino Visconti sent his film “The damned” and won the 1969 Golden Peacock in New Delhi. Luminaries decked various IFFI juries-directors Elia Kazan, Antonioni, Kurosawa, Bertrand Tavernier, Satyajit Ray, Ousmane Sembene, Lindsay Anderson, Humberto Solas Grigory Chukrai and actress Jeanne Moreau. It truly once enjoyed the prestige of a major world event.

The Delhi IFFI was patronized by Mrs. Indira Gandhi, a true film buff, and once India’s Information and Broadcasting Minister. The event gradually began to lose its sheen in the decades that followed as Mrs Gandhi became more involved in politics. There were other reasons as well-bureaucrats ran the festival without a clue about good cinema and the cold and misty early January slot awarded to the festival held in Delhi was not comparable to Cannes or Goa for Westerners who wanted to escape their own bleak winters. Further Delhi could not boast of a large audience that could relish a Kazan or an Antonioni. I recall an angry audience that paid for the tickets tearing up seats in Delhi’s Archana theatre during a Tarkovsky retrospective in 1979! Today if the Osian Festival in Delhi were to hold a Tarkovsky retrospective there could be a markedly different response thanks to increased awareness of international cinema in that city.

In the late Seventies, plagued by all these issues stacked against the Delhi IFFI, the event alternated with a non-competitive edition of the same Festival called “Filmotsav” held in cities like Chennai (1978), Bangalore (1980), Kolkata (1982), Mumbai (1984), Hyderabad (1986), and Trivandrum (1988). These experiments clearly indicated a knowledgeable audience existed not in New Delhi but elsewhere in India. It also showed that more important names preferred to visit these Filmotsavs than the Delhi IFFIs. Examples of luminaries included Roman Polanski, Yousuf Chahine, Tomas Alea, Emile d’Antonio, Carlos Suara, Krzystof Kieslowski, Souhel Ben Barka and Zunussi.

At the same time came another blow for the Delhi IFFI. A Delhi IFFI jury headed by British director Lindsay Anderson in 1983 stated that films in competition did not merit the top award even though one of the films in competition–Bruce Beresford’s “Tender Mercies” (USA)–went on to win two Oscars (best actor-Robert Duvall, and best screenplay-Horton Foote) later that year. This is a clear example of what is good cinema for some, not being so good for others. I recall asking Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who was part of that jury, on this surprising decision. Having interviewed Lindsay Anderson, I can have a fair guess how that jury came to that incredible decision. Anderson and Gopalakrishnan probably had very high standards-higher than the Oscars. The international credibility of IFFI was rocked by none other than its own jury.

Soon after a couple of other attempts at reviving the falling image of IFFI, the competition section was limited to Asia, Africa and Latin America-which effectively excluded USA, Canada, Europe and Australia. But could the event continue in New Delhi?

The think tank in Delhi wanting to bring Bollywood stars to invigorate the event opted for Goa as they felt the beaches and the climate of Goa would make the IFFI resemble Cannes in some way. From an alternate year event the Goa IFFI became a yearly event. The state government pitched in with federal government to make the event financially viable and even increase the tourist traffic. The Goa IFFI is still to relive the magic of early days of the Delhi IFFI because its officials have yet to realize that the list of Golden and Silver Peacock winners have not been included on the Internet Movie Database site (IMDb), while even the lesser Filmfare awardees are listed!

While IFFI has lost its sheen, other film festivals over the past decades have emerged trying desperately to reach the stature of the top three-Montreal and Toronto from Canada, Locarno from Italy, San Sebastian from Spain, Mannheim from Germany, Sydney from Australia, Sundance from USA, Sao Paulo from Brazil, Havana from Cuba. The latest kid on the block is the Dubai festival which is definitely not short on funds.

Apart from IFFI, FIAPF has now given its approval to at least two other Indian international festivals the Kerala International Film Festival and the Kolkata International Festival, the former being a competitive festival and the latter a non-competitive one. I guess the Osian and Mumbai festival are also accredited to FIAPF. Other International Film Festivals are sprouting in Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore, jostling for space and recognition.

What is unfortunate for India is that no Indian film has made the competition grade at the top three festivals in recent years. Indian films get shown at these events but only “out of competition”. The Indian media often fail to make this distinction. The Indian festivals in Goa, Kerala, Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi (Osian) and Pune could help reverse the trend by introducing contemporary Indian filmmakers to the ever-changing trends and the raising the bar of quality to match the quality of the best in Asia if not the world.

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7 Responses to “International film festivals and India”

  1. Anirban says:

    *Kolkata

  2. Bikas Mishra says:

    Thank you for this brilliant post, a timeless piece! worth bookmarking for reference.

    You are right Delhi has changed now. I don’t know if Tarkovsky will still be welcome but Wong Kar Wai definitely receives a packed house.

    Like all Sarkari initiatives, IFFI suffers from a lack of focus. While it’s eager to bring in Bollywood glitz to the festival, Bollywood doesn’t know how to react! And film society people consider it a festival of/for Bombay wallah and fail to identify with it.

    You will be surprised to know that Catherine Deneuve participated in this year’s festival but nobody knew about it till the time she actually arrived. I’m sure, people would have flooded the venue just for a glimpse of her. It’s sheer ignorance on the part of the organizers that mar the event.

  3. Amit Om says:

    It is certainly a case of negligence on our part and allowing the red tapism to ruin something worth. Y cant we bring back the earlier standards and lobby for it.

  4. Jugu Abraham says:

    Saurabh, only a handful of journalists in India covered film festivals diligently and with adequate knowledge of good cinema in the English media in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. There was Mrs Amita Malik for the Statesman and Khalid Mohamed and Iqbal Masood for the Times of India. Gautam Kaul, IPS, also wrote on the subject in various newspapers. My articles were spread over various Hindustan Times group publications, and other magazines like “The week” and “This Fortnight”. Both Mrs Malik and I interviewed dozens of these illustrious filmmakers for All India Radio and I guess they might still be preserved. Our interviews were aired on a A.I.R. Delhi Programme called Our Guest Tonight that followed the 9 O’c;lock evening news. TV had not taken to covering serious cinema in those days. IFFI itself has some historical documents on its current website but they are not comprehensive. I can clearly recall Alain Resnais’ “Providence” winning a Peacock in the early Seventies. So did Lester James Peiries of Sri Lanka for his “Grasshoppers”. The Film Festival Directorate should collate this information together and ensure that websites like IMDB lists all the winners of IFFI and our national film awards over the years.

  5. Saurabh says:

    thanks for sharing ur experiences… i wonder if such developments are documented anywhere … plz post those of ur old interviews and any discussions with directors.. wud be very nice…

  6. Saurabh says:

    These are the initiatives that somebody outside the public sector has to take… I dont think in India there is custom of preserving and disseminating information like this.. for ex, recordings of your interviews on AIR… they should all be pulled away from their dusty offices and digitized… websites are pathetic.. they have no standards and looks like 19th century websites… atleast this year NFAI has taken a big step of digitizing most of its films..

  7. Ramnath Shinde says:

    One reason why IFFI did not succeed is that its choice of films was lifted from other film festivals. This is not a surprise as government officials are not known for their love for cinema. I recall meeting an official who wanted to invite Fassbinder to IFFI in 2002 !

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