International film festival – killer of good cinema at home ?

Labour of Love

One wonders what makes Indian filmmakers, veteran, new, would-be and has-been, rush with their films to the next international film festival to screen their latest film. Does this augur well for their films back home? Or, does this add to the glory of the film in the shape of the lovely branch that frames the name of the festival it has been chosen for screening or has already been screened? Maybe, the prizes offered would help them get producers for their next film?

One really has no clue because the way the home audience perceives a given film differs vastly from the way a foreign audience, even an educated and enlightened international jury perceives the same film. So, as Girish Karnad reportedly said many years ago, there are directors who make films aimed directly and sometimes exclusively for international film festival and directors who are content with the home audience watching their films and raking in enough money for their next film..

Films targeting international film festivals follow a formula and a stereotype that may differ from mainstream films but there is a formula all the same though of late, genres, budgets and formulae are getting blurred leading to both positive and negative consequences for the film. The director of a recent film Shunyota (Bengali) with demonetisation as the subject said he had entered his film at 68 international film festivals across the map. But the Bengali audience was deprived of watching this very important film because it was taken off the theaters within one week.

What is so attractive about showcasing a film at an international film festival and drawing zero audience at home?

Most of these festivals have now been reduced to commerce and chutzpah and the glamour of stars walking the red carpet in their designer best and have lost the sheen of good cinema drawn from across the world for screening. The best example of course is Cannes. Cannes is literally an ego-trip for stars and filmmakers from Hollywood and Bollywood and Indian regional cinema. But as a critic, if you wish to be seen and photographed with some of these celebrities, according to a journalist friend who makes the trip every year, you need to shell out a neat Rs.2 lakh towards entry fees, registration, boarding, lodging and travel. The moot question is – can you afford it? Even better – should you afford it at all?

Do Bigha zamin

Critic Nigel Watson says, “Cannes began as a small festival in 1946. For a few years, it was possible to bump into and interview stars along La Croisette. Now, it gets up to 50,000 visitors and world-wide TV coverage. Though its awards are still respected, partly because they do not always go for the obvious, it does now depend more on Hollywood stars to appear to appease the mass audience.”

Most Indian films showcased in Cannes do not get even a theatrical release in India. Why then, are filmmakers so desperate to take their film to Cannes? The shift of focus of all prestigious film festivals from the promotion of good cinema from across the world to drawing glamour and celebrity to attract the media, the rich and the famous has taken away the excellence of most of these international festivals.

Compare the top winners at Cannes in recent times with Mrinal Sen’s film Kharij that won the Special Jury Prize in 1983 at Cannes and you will get the slant. Nominated for the Golden Palm, the film fetched Mrinal Sen the award for the Best Screenplay and Nitish Roy won Best Art Direction at National Film Awards in 1983. He adds that in 1998, Bruce Willis came to Cannes to screen for an invited audience of critics a work-in-progress of Armageddon. The audience laughed at what was meant to be serious drama. Willis, comment was – critics didn’t matter because no-one read them anyway!

Miss Lovely

Ashim Ahluwalia’s first narrative feature film, Miss Lovely, was premiered at the Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section in 2012. The film followed the tragic story of the Duggal brothers between 1986 and 1993 who produced sleazy sex-horror films and share an intense and mutually destructive relationship. Though the film bagged two National Awards the following year – the Special Jury (Feature Film) and the Best Production Design Awards, it left the audience cold and the theatres empty during its very brief run in Indian theatres. Miss Lovely is not a film that will remain archived in memory or at the National Film Archive.

Court (2014) examines the Indian legal system through the trial of an ageing folk singer at a Sessions Court in Mumbai. This directorial debut of Chaitanya Tamhane — a writer and director — premiered at the 71st Venice International Film Festival in September 2014 and won 19 awards at various film festivals including the Best Feature Film award at the 62nd National Film Awards in 2014. It was raved universally by critics but had a very weak run in the theatres.

Asha Jawar Majhe (Labour of Love), Aditya Vikram Singh’s debut directorial without dialogue premiered at Venice Days, a section which runs parallel to the Venice Film festival, and bagged the FEDEORA award (Federation of Film Critics of Europe and the Mediterranean) for Best Young Director. In Abu Dhabi, the film received a Special Jury Mention in the festival’s New Horizon section. Aditya Vikram Sengupta won the Best Director award at Marrakech International Film Festival too. The film was also screened at the Busan International Film Festival and the BFI London Film festival. But its home release vanished from Indian theatres without a whimper

Mrinal Sen's Kharij

If one goes through the list of Indian films that has won accolades in the past, the qualitative difference between Do Bigha Zamin and say, Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se (1998) will show the metamorphosis of approach, treatment, form of expression and content of the film. Do Bigha Zamin (1954) was nominated for several international awards and on the prestigious Prix Internationale at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival. Dil Se won the Netpac Award at the Berlin International Film Festival 1999. Dil Se was not a commercial hit by Mani Ratnam’s standards who is one of the most successful mainstream filmmakers in the southern parts of India.

The Lunchbox (2013) directed by Nilesh Batra with a unique storyline, a minimalistic approach and just three main characters, not only won the Critics Week Viewers Choice Award at the Cannes Film Festival 2013 but was also India’s official entry for the BAFTA. But its commercial run in Indian theatres went without even a murmur. The number of film festivals now runs to approximately 3,500 every year. But only a few are known through the prestige they have gained through history and the rest are anonymous, faceless and unheard of. One journalist informs us that one festival is held in tent screenings on the pavements of a European city and most Indian films screened at these festivals never ever hit a single Indian theatre.

But the directors do not seem worried. The fact that they can advertise and promote their film with that ‘prestigious’ olive branch framing their film’s nomination to different festivals is enough to fill their shallow egos. The poor producer is left in the wild to wring his hands in disappointment with the false promise that he will never step into production again! Does not matter if crowd-funding is there or the producer is only toying with films as a side business and his main business is bringing in the cash flow anyway!

  • Written byShoma A. Chattterji

    Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has 20 published titles, has won the National Award twice and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rotary Club of Kolkata Metro. She has done her post-doctoral research on cinema and has juried at national and international film festivals over time


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