The International Film Festival of India (IFFI) is a lot like Anil Kapoor. Its pretensions to international stature don’t quite square with reality. The two of them belong to the same generation too: IFFI is 64; Kapoor, a little younger, at 59. There is no other reasonable reason for him to be the chief guest this year, although he gave intimations of how tired both their acts have become as he danced to the 1989 song Mera Naam Hai Lakhan at the opening ceremony, amid green props and garish purple smoke that seemed to have been dragged out of the attic of some forgotten theatre troupe.
It was in 2004 that the IFFI pitched its tent in Goa, with the Mandovi girdling the venues in Panjim, but this time the babus made sure that they blocked the beautiful, cobalt-blue view of the river by meticulously placing white panels along the promenade. The highbrow culturati were denied an easy glimpse of the floating casinos on the Mandovi: the Deltin Royale and the Casino Pride 2. Shekhar Kapur, who heads this year's international jury, said he was always convinced that Goa, “a place I love”, was ideal to host the IFFI: he recommended it to Arun Jaitley when he was a minister of state for Information and Broadcasting in the Vajpayee Government, “15-16 years ago”. But Kapur credits Manohar Parrikar for it, the then Chief Minister of Goa who shared his enthusiasm for the IFFI-on- the-Mandovi dream.
Twelve years is a long time for a festival to find its feet. But IFFI in Goa is neither national nor international. It does not get the best of world movies, the crowd-pullers that could draw a film lover from under a rock in some corner of the country, nor does it get a thumbs-up from the country’s young filmmakers, many of whom remain suspicious of the Government-run festival’s politics and designs.
That politics was starkly evident in the opening film of the Indian Panorama: Priyamanasam, pitched as only the third ever Sanskrit film, by Malayalam filmmaker Vinod Mankara. Why is a movie about Unnayi Warrier, a 17th century Kathakali dramatist in Travancore in southern Kerala, in Sanskrit? The other two Sanskrit movies, Bhagavad Gita and Adi Shankaracharya, had good reason to use that language, their themes drawing from and delighting in its gravitas, but it was terrible and needless in Priyamanasam. It was especially laughable when the film’s Malayalee maids in the palace coyly tell the bathing queen, “Oh this turmeric smells much better today” or something to that effect. As clunky direction met a script that was wondering what it was doing there, the real question was: O Rama, why is this movie in the Panorama at all, let alone opening it?
The only unreasonable reason could be that the promotion of Sanskrit as a language is a pet subject of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his cabinet as well as of the ruling BJP—and it fits into the Sangh Parivar’s Mera Bharat Was Always Mahan project. Priyamanasam might rank among the worst Panorama openers. No wonder half the theatre said “Aham gachami (I am leaving)” and walked out halfway through the film.
Some filmmakers alleged in closed circles and in hushed tones that its Opener status could be due to the influence wielded by a Malayalee director on the Panorama jury: Major Ravi, a former army guy who has made some chest-thumping army movies and is an enthusiastic Modi supporter. Ravi, however, denied these allegations: “Priyamanasam was unanimously chosen by the jury.” Isn’t it a bad film? “I agree that the film has its drawbacks, but it was selected because it was in Sanskrit, the language of origin, and its last scene— of characters asking the author, ‘Why are you leaving us?’—would touch every writer. There was no politics involved.”
Even the IFFI opener The Man Who Knew Infinity, a film about the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan by Matthew Brown, seems to have been bestowed that honour because it showcased an Indian genius—Mera Bharat Was Always Mahan, again—rather than any marked cinematic excellence.
Can you blame anyone for choosing to spend their mornings nibbling chorise, the Goan pork sausage that is as beautiful and bloody as the best Tarantino movie, rather than at IFFI?
The footfalls have fallen this year. The numbers given by the Entertainment Society of Goa are revealing: on the fifth day of the festival, there are only 3,669 confirmed delegates, compared with around 7,000 last year. The number of people who have shown interest has also declined considerably: if 13,000- odd people applied in 2014, only around 8,200 bothered to do so this year (of these, 6,890 applications were approved). “We have to check if this is because the price for the delegate pass has been hiked—from Rs 300 last year to Rs 1,000. Still, these are numbers just a few days into the 10-day festival. It could pick up,” says C Senthil Rajan, director, Directorate of Film Festivals. There is another curious thing that IFFI should look at: of the 3,669 delegates, about 70 per cent—2,543 of them—are from Goa, although you will be hard-pressed to find many at the festival unless, of course, a Konkani film is showing. Where have the Goans with these passes gone? The ordinary Goan is largely missing at IFFI, unlike at film festivals in Kerala and Kolkata where local attendees make up quite a crowd. You board a bus that goes past the road in front of the festival and ask your fellow passenger about IFFI, and you are likely to get a quizzical smile. “Is it good?” a woman asks me. “Does it show classics?” a teenager inquires.
At IFFI, the Goans are followed by delegates from Kerala—347—which accounts for the constant chatter in Malayalam in every corner, mostly among people with beards (there are more men than women at the festival, and more people who are 35-plus than 20-something.) Nearby Maharashtra has 327 delegates, followed by Tamil Nadu with 126 and Karnataka with 107. Even the added attraction of Goa’s beaches has failed to bring in delegates from north and northeast states: there are 14 from West Bengal, 34 from Delhi, three each from Bihar, Uttarakhand and Rajasthan, seven from Assam and two from Manipur. How national is this festival?
“We want more people from metros and abroad. For starters, we have to release the programme schedule at least 10 days before the festival,” says Ameya Abhyankar, director of tourism in Goa. The screening schedule was not ready even on the second day of the festival. “We want the serious-minded film community to come to IFFI,” adds Abhyankar.
Most up-and-coming filmmakers, however, prefer to hang out at the Film Bazaar at a nearby hotel rather than at IFFI. Organised by the National Film Development Corporation, the Film Bazaar focuses on ‘discovering, supporting and showcasing South Asian content and talent in filmmaking’ and on collaborations between South Asian and international film makers. Says Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, who just won the Kerala State Award for Best Director for the movie Oraalpokkam (which was rejected by the Panorama last year): “I trust the neutral and impassioned voices at the Bazaar, not the politics in IFFI.”
Sujay Dahake, whose movie Shala won a National Award for the Best Marathi Film, was at IFFI, waiting in the queue to buy tickets for Enclave, a film about a young Serbian Christian boy in an enclave in Kosovo, surrounded by angry Albanian Muslims. Children in movies are no longer of Majid Majidi’s heaven; they are children of hell, wielding and selling guns, refugees crossing seas and land in search of a home. Whether it is Serbia’s Goran Radovanovic’s Enclave or Kosovo’s Visar Morina’s Babai, it is about children who have lost their innocence, children who have almost become adults. As we speak about Enclave, selected for the Montreal and Moscow festivals and now Serbia’s official entry for the Oscars, Dahake says, “I would want my films to be premiered at Cannes or Venice, not here. The IFFI is a government festival. I don’t want the IFFI to say my film is good. I want Cannes to say my film is good. The IFFI should get out of Delhi hands if it has to grow.”
If you question Anil Kapoor about his global stature, he might point to Slumdog Millionaire. Like Kapoor, IFFI was saved by the touch of Oscars—and Amos Gitai. Halfway through the festival, as this piece is being written, tragedy is averted by a handful of movies that are also entries of various countries to the Best Foreign Language Film category for the 2016 Oscars. They include Mustang from France and Labyrinth of Lies from Germany, apart from Enclave and Babai.
Two wonderful films were on women: Mustang and Much Loved. Luminous, fable-like Mustang is the first film by Turkish-French woman director Deniz Gamze Ergüven. Five young sisters, their manes flowing, challenge the diktats of patriarchy and religion in a village in Turkey—and snatch their freedoms. Much Loved, by the male director Nabil Ayouch, is banned in Morocco. Four prostitutes in Marrakech, bruised and abused by men, Arab and European, find a happy spot by the beach for a brief sunlit moment.
Radovanovic has made only his second feature film since Ambulance in 2009. In between, he made six documentaries in six years. “I couldn’t do fiction,” he says, “What was happening around me was greater than anything I could imagine.”
The importance of documenting grim reality was brought to sharp relief by one man from Israel: Amos Gitai with Rabin, the Last Day. It was premiered at the competition section of the Venice Film Festival in September. Gitai looks at the murder of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 20 years after he was shot dead at a public rally at Kings’ Square in Tel Aviv. Gitai’s docudrama brings interviews, archival footage, re-enactments and the report prepared by the commission set up to probe the assassination to reveal a country swept by hatred and extremism. He shows right-wing Israelis incensed by the Oslo Accords, which Israel had signed with the Palestine Liberation Organisation for peace in the region, and rabbis cursing Rabin.
“I made this film as a citizen rather than as a filmmaker,” in Gitai’s words. “I wanted this particular film to be close to reality. Every word in this film is based on documents. Because I knew I would be criticised heavily by the right-wingers back home in Israel and I wanted to have my answers ready.”
After Rabin’s death, Gitai had made a documentary on post-assassination Israel. Why did he go back to Rabin after two decades? “I think it is important to remind ourselves that there was this man who fought for peace. Ideas are important, not machine guns. Even in these dark times, we have to hold on to that idea, we have to keep the hope.”
Rabin was one of the most political films, with Gitai pointing a finger even at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “He was part of the elements that incited [people] against Rabin. I think he has a lot to answer for.” Does peace still have a chance in the Middle East? “The Middle East is not divided into angels and bastards. They are on every side. Men and women of goodwill have to move beyond the barriers. Only then can they create a better Middle East. [The region] needs regimes that respect the rights of women, of minorities. Look at Iraq or Syria—the minorities, Christian minorities, are becoming extinct. It is important to have this vision of a Middle East that respects the different peoples of [the region].”
Gitai has been feted at festivals internationally and in India. And he has some suggestions for IFFI. “I would make it more substantial in terms of content. I also think there should be more interactions between the filmmakers and the public, the Goans. I would like to speak to students, even schoolchildren. Recently I went to Naples. They did a big premiere of Rabin, but they also invited me to speak to children in a poorer area of Naples where one of my earlier films was shown. The questions were really interesting. I think it is important to sensitise the next generation.”
Gitai says he might make a film on India. “The French actor Isabelle Huppert wants me to do a story on the Jews who came to Goa. So maybe that will happen.”
Meanwhile, something unexpected did happen. What sustained exposure to IFFI could do to a filmmaker was painfully evident at every screening: Shaji N Karun’s signature film for this year, which preceded every show, had two peacocks flying on a carpet against a blue sky. It just made you wonder each time: is this the same filmmaker who saw a monsoon in the tears of an old father in Piravi?
That was way back in 1989, incidentally, the same year that Anil Kapoor was dancing to My Name is Lakhan.