An international film festival was still a novelty when India decided to hold one in 1952. In fact, the first International Film Festival of India (IFFI) held in January-February 1952 in four (now metro) cities was the first such event held anywhere in Asia. The festival which starts this week in Goa will be celebrating its 50th edition this year. There were only eight international film festivals in the world at that time and all of them were in Europe, including the oldest in Venice.
Organised by Films Division, with active interest from then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, IFFI’s first edition was elemental in exposing Indian filmmakers and audience to world cinema. Not only did the Italian neo-realist films that were screened — like Bicycle Thieves (1948) — directly influence Indian filmmakers like Bimal Roy to make films like Do Bigha Zamin (1953), it gave a fillip to the “film societies” movement through urban centres, eventually resulting in state-backed film institutions such as Film and Television Institute of India, Federation of Film Societies of India and National Film Archive of India a decade later.
So, when India, then a recently decolonised “third-world” country, announced its plans to host an international film festival, it led to varied reactions from within and outside the country. Among these, and most curious of them all, was the American response.
Apparently, the US authorities suspected the festival was a “communist shenanigan of some kind” and sent a delegation to “uncover” the conspiracy and hinder its success. Those were the initial years of the Cold War and both the USSR and the US were trying to influence the non-aligned countries in their favour to nullify any political or cultural influence exerted by their rival superpower. According to film historian Amrit Gangar, both the superpowers had an eye on newly independent India and IFFI 1952 provided a useful platform to somehow influence the India’s global-political stance. He says, “Only a few months prior to IFFI, an Indian film delegation was in the USSR where it had received a grand reception in the presence of the well-known Russian filmmaker Vsevolod Pudovkin. Soon after IFFI ended, Indian film personalities like Nargis and Raj Kapoor were invited to the US where President (Harry S.) Truman met them at the White House.” Significantly, among the 12 visiting delegations, Russia’s was the largest, with 13 members, headed by then deputy minister of cinematography N Semenov.
The responsibility to head the American delegation fell upon celebrated Hollywood director Frank Capra, known for films such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and It Happened One Night (1934). Capra wrote a detailed account of how this assignment came to him and how he successfully completed it in his autobiography, The Name Above the Title (1971).
In December 1951, Capra writes, he received a call from an officer of the US state department informing him that the US ambassador in New Delhi needed Capra’s services and wanted him to travel to India for a few weeks.
“Frank, listen. Chester Bowles, our ambassador to India, is worried. He thinks he smells a rat in the International Film Festival of the motion pictures that Indians are holding in a week. Bowles thinks the festival is a communist shenanigan of some kind, but he doesn’t know what. Here’s where you come in,” Capra quotes the official as saying, adding that the ambassador had specifically asked for Capra as he wanted a “freewheeling guy” to take care of American interest on his own. “I want Capra. His name is big here (in India), and I have heard he is quick on his feet in an alley fight,” Bowles had apparently told the officer.
At this time, Capra was in the midst of a personal challenge as well. Only a few weeks ago, the US army had denied his security clearance to participate in a top-secret conference pertaining to warfare technologies, after finding some “derogatory information” on him. This essentially meant that the American establishment was questioning his loyalty to the country. This deeply hurt Capra, who got busy in trying to clear his name. When the proposal for the India tour came up, he proposed that he would only go to India if his name is cleared. His wish was met, and he embarked on the journey. He was to head the delegation, with Harry Stone of the Motion Picture Association of America and Floyd E Brooker, the audiovisual expert as members. All three were briefed by the US state department officials with instructions to Capra: “Just play it by ear, Frank, and report to Ambassador Bowles.”
As Capra records, for several days after his arrival in Bombay, he groped in the dark about what he was expected to do and what “the communist conspiracy” was. Since Ambassador Bowles was on a trip to Nepal, Capra couldn’t discuss “the matter” with him to get clarity. When Capra approached other US officials based in India, he found that they were as clueless: “When you find out, tell us.”
On his fifth day in India, Capra met Baburao Patel, the boisterous and boastful editor of filmindia magazine, who said something about the festival which gave Capra a “hint of what was bugging Bowles”. Patel reportedly told him that IFFI was a plot by communists in the Indian film industry to open doors to Russian films which were being kept out of the country by censors as these films were “too political and inflammatory”. “So local film Reds hatched the festival idea to ensure showing of dozens of Russian and Chinese films” in four cities as an appeal to the people of India to “breach India’s film barrier using the festival as a Trojan horse”, Capra wrote in the diary, published in the autobiography.
What Capra did not know was that Patel himself was an anti-communist worried about an imminent “communist takeover” of India. “A blind man can see that our country is going to have a Red future unless the democratic forces and institutions in the country take active and aggressive steps,” Patel wrote in an editorial published in the April 1952 edition of filmindia. Patel was also mighty displeased with the idea of the festival. Throughout filmindia’s coverage of it, he called it “International Fools’ Festival”.
Having thus received a “confirmation” from Patel, Capra gave an ultimatum to the festival organisers that in case of any “pro-commie” speech at the festival, he will “leave, taking along all the American films and holding a press conference to explain (reasons) of my leaving”. Throughout his Bombay and Madras stay, he tried making speeches asking the filmmakers to guard themselves against “totalitarian system”. He complained about the Russians to Indira Gandhi knowing fully well that “it would get to the Prime Minister”. Capra would meet Nehru when the latter inaugurated IFFI’s Delhi edition. “Charming, simple man. Could be the most important man alive today,” Capra noted in his diary.
This anxiety about the communist ploy, sometimes, took hilarious turns. On one instance, when the guests were to visit Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial at Raj Ghat, the flower wreath that Capra and his colleagues had ordered turned out very thin. Capra was convinced that “the Reds had bought them all up”. According to his version, the American delegation then devised a plan to “outsmart” communists by taking along two of Gandhi’s grandchildren (through Capra’s recent acquaintance with Devdas Gandhi). The plan worked — the event got great publicity. That day he noted in his diary: “This should kill the Reds”.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi, one of the “grandchildren” who visited Raj Ghat with Capra, was seven then. “It seems incredible that anyone could be as naive as to think, say and do what Mr Capra sets down. It all seems like something out of Alice In Wonderland,” says Gandhi.
Capra though, wrote in his autobiography, when Ambassador Bowles returned, he was “pleased with his report”.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘A Plot to Unravel’