The changing face of Kolkata International Film Festival

As the Kolkata International Film Festival gets set to take off, NH attempts to trace its fascinating journey and checks out whether the changes are value additions or merely glossy add-ons

Kolkata International Film Festival
Kolkata International Film Festival

Monojit Lahiri

Change – it has been repeatedly said – is the only constant and why should the revered & celebrated Film Festival of the nation’s culture capital be off its radar? But first things first ...

Did you know that India’s affair with the Film Festivals kicked off at Kolkata’s world-renowned cricket arena, Eden Gardens?!

Hey, how, when and why did the youngest art form sneak into the park? It’s like this. Before the first International Film Festival of India [IFFI] was inaugurated by our late PM, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, a touring festival (that was part of the edition) travelled to Delhi and Kolkata, presumably because the list of films were suggested by the Calcutta Film Society spearheaded by Satyajit Ray, Harisadhan Das Gupta and Chidananda Das Gupta. The event was memorable because it was for the very first time that Kolkata witnessed the magic of neo-realism through films like Bicycle Thieves and Open City Home.

The eminent Hollywood director Frank Capra had come down and was said to have been zonked by the city’s zest for life and love for cinema. He was quoted to have said that “I was deluged with garlands at the airport and it took me an hour to move on! Bengali people are quite different from the rest of India. Like the Irish, they are emotional and sentimental”. Critics of that time believe that the biggest impact of that Eden Garden event was Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen. “The raw reality that was shown in many of the Kolkata-based scenes – rickshaw pulling etc – were clearly inspired by Bicycle Thieves. Ray’s Pather Panchali came much later.” This was in 1952.

It was in 1975 that Kolkata hosted its first non-competitive IFFI edition. 1982 was a repeat under a new banner, Filmotsav. In 1990, as the momentum continued, the late, great Satyajit Ray in his speech stated that despite the city’s “potholes on the street and out-of-order telephones, the enthusiasm for cinema remains unchanged.” He lauded the “indomitable spirit of the people of Kolkata and a film complex called Nandan.”

The heat was on. Cinema-crazy Kolkata was off and running. Come freezing cold in winter or blazing heat in summer, the line for tickets remained endless – for festival fare and other quality releases. The 25th edition of IFFI was held in Kolkata in 1994 made especially memorable because of Italian maestro Antonioni’s trip to the festival. With time, several internationally acclaimed directors graced the festival scene – Zanussi, Paul Cox, LItten, Jean – Claude Carriere, Panahi – and the Kolkata edition was commonly acknowledged as a showpiece event, where only the best of the best featured.

A celebrated critic once suggested that most good movies are about the style, tone and vision of their makers. A director will strike a chord in your imagination and you will be compelled to succumb and seek out his/her other works. Directors soon become like friends. One film-maker is delighted by the shamelessness of human nature, while another is charged by the lurid possibilities of religious guilt. Yet another celebrates individuals in a nation that suspects them, while another is astonished by things some do to be happy. Some champion the struggle of man’s spirit against the physical facts of the world while another creates images that hint at guilty dreams. Sooner or later, every true lover of cinema arrives at the feet of the Japanese master Ozu and understands that ultimately movies are not about moving – but being moved.

Over the last decade however (under the new government) Veterans believe that the KIFF has moved away, distracted, it’s essence, corrupted, diluted and transited from classy to massy. Forever inviting Bollywood’s resident legend, Amitabh Bachchan as Chief Guest and a host of dazzlers, it appears to celebrate the gloss n’ glitz of showbiz rather than focus on lighting a candle on the altar of quality cinema that has no boundaries, is impervious to star dazzle or box office compulsions and remains committed to capture a moment of discovery and make it immortal.

Supporters of this new move however disagree and insist that it’s about moving with the times and changing with the needs, being more pluralistic, inclusive and democratic. Phase out the earlier us v/s them tag, arthouse v/s commercial divide. Short films, Documentary and Bengali film sections have been introduced to expand the Programme-base along with lucrative prize money. All this, suggests fans of this thrust, is to blend art with commerce that connects with the common man and delete the intimidation and cultural inferiority factor experienced earlier by lesser mortals. Point is: Is this all-embracing gesture good or bad for the basic vision and mission of KIFF?

Ex-FTII student and filmmaker Judhajit Sarkar takes first strike, with all guns blazing! “Any resemblance to the earlier version – eighties and nineties – is a coincidence! KIFF has been trivialised and made into a mela, tamasha with a dumbed-down hungry for – software TV channel dumbos running after any random TV/film actor hanging out at Nandan! The earlier focus on cinema with a capital C has been hijacked by Bollywood and Tollywood glamour with most personalities coming to KIFF to be seen, interviewed and offer the fake doctored crap people want to hear! Checkout how many of the stars or audiences stay back to watch the curtain raiser/opening film once the hoo-haa of the glitzy inauguration is over.

What a fall was there, my country men! I mostly stay away, going only for some select films. Brilliant orator, debater, filmmaker and Dean of SRFTI, Ashok Vishwanathan is next and appears ambivalent. “Well, these aren’t the nineties and hence you can’t do a Yesterday Once More refrain. Things change. Perspectives and compulsions change. I think that KIFF has retained its basic spirit – screening quality films, local and global – but in deference to the times has affected some structural shifts. When you consciously make it massy, there are bound to be consequences regarding the profile and image of the festival & alongside views from critics & supporters. Comes with the territory. Have Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto, etc retained the earlier vision in letter and spirit? Not possible. Sure, I do sometimes miss the earlier intensity of the more-informed festival-wallahs, but we live in nano-second times where instant-gratification rules and digital is king. So, considering this environment, KIFF is at least a week long cultural Oasis. Vishwanathan however wishes that the choice of film personalities from other parts of the country, are better selected. Instead of glam dolls and cardboard hunks, from Bollywood why not get the culturally and more evolved types like Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee or Mamooty and Mohanlal? A mix n’ match of the arthouse and commercial could provide the balance to maintain the status quo.

Veteran film critic, Saibal Chatterjee brings his evolved take to the table. While he agrees that the flavour and complexion of the KIFF is no longer what it used to be, he believes that it is the packaging that has changed, not the product. “I think the true-blue oldies of the deadly serious film buffs hate the dramabaazi that accompanies the inauguration and closing of the festival events with a bevy of stars, on parade. However, you are at liberty to miss/ignore it and cut to the chase – the films. That has certainly not been compromised. Local, Indie, global, Docus, Short films ... they are all there. Small-time film-makers love being invited here because of a knowledgeable and appreciative audience & more importantly, thumping prize money! So, at the end of the day, its Buy one, Get one free. The entertainment mela & tamasha is free, while the movies remain great.” Chatterjee winds up by asking the critics to chill. “We live in crazy times where everything has gone topsy-turvy with a slap headlining the Oscars! So, my advice is to dismiss, overlooking ignore the sizzle and focus on the steak! It’s just as delicious as it was.”

Internationally respected filmmaker Gautam Ghosh (Chairman, Film Selection Sub Committee) wraps up the debate, in style. He takes Chatterjee’s pitch forward and assures us “that ultimately it’s audiences who lends resonance and meaning to any film festival and on that count KIFF’s basic vision and mission remains totally on-target: Be it World Cinema, Indian section, short and Indie films, the menu remains exciting.” As for the inaugural and closing hoopla with the Bollywood stars, “it was a conscious decision by the new government to open these two events to the public & give it a touch of glamour that connects with the masses.” I don’t see any problem with that. This aspect has coloured even the most sacred of A-lister Festivals like Cannes, Berlin, Venice. Market forces cannot be ignored. As it stands, KIFF will showcase 104 feature films and 59 short films & documentary films from 40 countries with Ray’s Aranyer Dinratri screened on the night of the inauguration, April 25, is way ahead of IFFI which has been trivialised beyond all measure and where style trumps over substance and Showbiz rules!”

So here comes KIFF 2022 – Lights! Camera! Action!

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