How welcome is the 'Bollywoodisation' of India’s film fests?

The opening ceremony of the Kolkata International Film Festival in the city of Ray-Sen-Ghatak bordered on the inane, according to many

The Kolkata International Film Festival's 29th edition is on from 5 to 12 December (photo: @Official_kiff/X)
The Kolkata International Film Festival's 29th edition is on from 5 to 12 December (photo: @Official_kiff/X)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

How pertinent is the presence of Bollywood A-listers, or the practice of promoting their new releases, in the country’s esteemed film festivals during this time of the year? It’s a question that begs to be asked again after a rather farcical opening ceremony of the 29th Kolkata International Film Festival (KIFF) on Tuesday, 5 December. 

Barely 10 days earlier, Arvind Sinha, a Kolkata-based documentary filmmaker and jury chairman of the non-feature segment of the Indian Panorama section at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) 2023 in Goa kicked up a storm about the so-called 'Bollywoodisation' of India's film festivals. In a hard hitting interview to the Times of India, the multiple Swarna Kamal winner said taxpayers’ money should not be used to create launchpads to promote the films of someone like Karan Johar, given the resources at his disposal.  

Expressing strong reservations about the manner in which opening ceremonies of such festivals are conducted, Sinha said: ‘’Its opening isn’t, or wasn’t, supposed to be a copy of popular or frivolous award programmes, which are a dime a dozen in Bollywood and elsewhere.’’ Strong remarks these, given the global reach the Mumbai film industry enjoys as the largest producer of films on an annual basis. 

However, the obsession to stage a grandiose opening ceremony, it seems, is universal in India — be it a film festival or the Indian Premier League, though the template varies according to the occasion. KIFF, for instance, has regularly welcomed the likes of Amitabh Bachchan and his wife Jaya, Shah Rukh Khan, the erstwhile ‘brand ambassador’ of Bengal, and a few others over quite a few years now at the behest of chief minister Mamata Banerjee. 

The cast may have changed, but the template remains —with bhaij aan Salman Khan as the marquee guest this time along with Trinamool Congress MP Shatrughan Sinha and his actor daughter Sonakshi, and veteran Anil Kapoor churning out the clichéd ami tomake bhalobashi (I love you) in broken Bengali. Salman’s attempts at humour, mercifully, didn’t quite have the intended impact on a packed Netaji Indoor Stadium when he said that over the years, he thought the name of the festival was actually KISS and not KIFF. 

All this brings us back to the moot question: does Bollywood actually need to take over time-tested film festivals of the country? ‘’I have nothing against Bollywood stars coming over as guests, since it has produced some of the finest actors of our industry. The problem lies elsewhere: cinema is ultimately a directors’ medium, but tell me, how many celebrated filmmakers visit the festival in Kolkata now as they did in the past?’’ asked Sanjoy Mukherjee, a renowned film scholar associated with Jadavpur University's Centre for Film Studies.   

There is a counterpoint to this view, which holds that the current ruling dispensation wanted to bring in a spirit of celebration around the city during the festival, rather than limit it to being an ‘intellectual exercise’ in the confines of the Nandan complex. Point taken, but there is no denying that the exercise has been missing the wood for the trees, with many thought-provoking cinematic efforts forced under the radar over the week. 

Just ponder this — have we made enough noise about the fact that there will be a special section on internationally celebrated filmmaker Mrinal Sen to mark his 100th birth anniversary?

There is a backroom team of veteran filmmakers, bureaucrats and film enthusiasts who have been working quietly to curate films and themes — such as putting together a tribute for British auteur Lindsay Anderson, who would also have turned 100 this year. But they, and the outcome of their efforts, remain largely confined to the same backroom. 

Meanwhile, here’s a toast to the festival of cinema in Kolkata! 

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