The International Film Festival of India (Iffi), into its 46th edition this year, is in a strange predicament. The FTII students’ struggle only brought into sharp focus the contradictions it is mired in. During the last few years, and especially since its migration to Goa, many film lovers have observed that Iffi has been increasingly pandering to the tastes and styles of Bollywood, under the delusion that an international film festival like Iffi requires Bollywood stars to add charm to it.
This gradual makeover of Iffi is evident in its selection of content, themes, events, programmers, guests, etc. One major attraction of Iffi was its consistent commitment to third-world cinema. It had featured some of the most outstanding films and filmmakers from Asia, Africa and Latin America. But in recent years, the shift has been evident — one finds European-Hollywood films and “masters” occupying centrestage. This is in tune with trends in the international film festival circuit — now run by individual programmers, curators, foundations and global production and marketing agencies. This is also the fallout of the post-1990s scenario, with the market usurping the cultural space and leadership vacated by the state.
Earlier, the films that made their way into the international festival circuit were selected or nominated by some state agency or similar cultural departments. This arrangement, despite its bureaucratic preferences and statist imperatives, ensured a fair representation of films. They were not solely determined by commercial tastes, and had some semblance of a national representation.
Since the 1990s, with the retreat of the state from cultural patronage, private agencies, museums, programmers and curators, apart from production houses and marketing agencies, have captured the international film festival circuit. They spot, project and celebrate the contemporary “classics” and “masters” from various countries and cultures. This is not a random affair of pick and choose, or a fair competition, but a deliberate filtering process where certain kinds of preferences and expectations rule the roost. Most crucial are the clout of global production houses and marketing agencies.
The pull factors gradually begin to develop into an aesthetic of their own, prompting curators and programmers to fall in line, and even filmmakers from the margins to follow certain political ground rules and experimental patterns. In this unequal cultural exchange, festivals like Iffi don’t have much of a say but are forced to pay the prescribed screening fees to procure films in the circuit. It would be relevant to see the balance of trade in this exchange between third-world countries on the one hand, and Europe and the US on the other. In both ways, we are on the losing side: We get their films to our festivals paying fat fees, whereas our films get a pittance.
The million-dollar question: When is Iffi, which brings the best of the eurocentric world to us, going to take Indian cinema to the world? With almost half a century of experience, it’s time Iffi took the initiative in packaging, curating and marketing quality Indian films (not Bollywood).
The other striking thing about Iffi this year was the cold response to the FTII strike. There were protests by students and filmmakers like Saeed Mirza, R.V. Ramani, Dhritiman Chatterjee, etc. But one would have expected filmmakers, critics and cineastes to join them in solidarity with the FTII struggle and against the growing cult of intolerance. Not even the open forums witnessed a token protest. On the one hand is the panic of a Goliath-like Iffi establishment vis-a-vis the Davids of the FTII, showing how effective a popular struggle is. On the other is the disarray within the “parallel” streams of cinema in India and the gradual erosion of the raison d’être of the festival, taken over by commercial interests. So the malaise is eating into our body cinematic from all sides. Staring at cineaste citizens are obvious, but very hard, choices.