'Divides More Than Unites': Indian Film Festivals & a Shrinking Space of Dissent

Emergence of liberal arts spaces in South Asia for political messaging indicates a warped system.

Indian Cinema
7 min read
Hindi Female

"A film festival run by the money collected from taxpayers should treat them with dignity as a basic minimum," Archana Ravi, an illustrator from Kerala told The Quint  one of the two detained by the Goa Police on 27 November for what they claimed to be a 'peaceful protest' staged against Sudipto Sen's The Kerala Story that screened as part of the Indian Panorama Section at the 54th International Film Festival of India (IFFI).

Ravi is one of the several accounts at IFFI which hinted at the anomalies in the nine-day long festival.

IFFI is organised by the National Film Development Corporation of India Ltd (NFDC), Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India in collaboration with the State Government of Goa through the Entertainment Society of Goa (ESG) and the Indian Film Industry.

Responding to the above incident, a senior official from ESG who does not wish to be named, told The Quint that it "takes two to tango".

No Space For Dissent?

Ravi and the other attendee Sreenath wore a meme that touched a raw nerve with the director who was present at the film's red carpet event. It read: "Sudipto Sen: The Kerala Story. Source: Trust Me Bro."

Emergence of liberal arts spaces in South Asia for political messaging indicates a warped system.

The meme donned by Kerala Duo Archana Ravi and Sreenath.

Photo: Special Arrangement

Soon after, an argument broke out regarding the figures quoted in the trailer. These were the number of women who disappeared from Kerala and were converted to Islam.

Citing reports from fact-checking site Alt News, as Ravi countered Sen, he defended, saying he never claimed the numbers to be strictly "32,000" which were in fact, "50,000 or more". He also asked her if she had watched the film or been to Kerala for that matter.

The duo was then called to the police outpost at the ESG complex where they were reprimanded for "spreading hate" and "harassing other delegates" and threatened that they would be blacklisted if the meme wasn't removed immediately. Both their cell phones, IDs, and delegate cards were confiscated on the spot and they were taken to the Panaji Police Station.

"The IFFI officials were mute spectators all along when we were quizzed and detained," Ravi said.

The Quint reached out to Director Sudipto Sen who commenting on the matter, said, "The tale of three women, as shown in the trailer, is merely representative of a sizeable lot who faced manipulative conversion," adding that he is ready to have a conversation on the condition that one has watched his film.

Does that make the prestigious forum "anti-dissent"? NFDC jointly with ESG told The Quint that thousands who attend IFFI every year have the liberty to express freely. It was only upon receiving public complaints who thought the duo was disrupting the atmosphere, that the office had to intervene and inform the cops when they refused to 'settle down', adding that the police action was not within their purview.

Not just IFFI, the arrest of three delegates who staged protests at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) last year on being denied seats they had reserved created a stir and became the talking point for if film festivals are turning into 'autocratic spaces'.

Behind the Selection of Films That Are Screened

"It's a political decision not to watch The Kerala Story. Our aim was to simply strike a dialogue but most bystanders were too afraid to ask," Sreenath, a documentary filmmaker himself, told The Quint.

Turns out the duo wasn't alone as others took to social media to condemn the screening of a film which stirred massive controversy for making exaggerated estimates of women who were lured into joining the Islamic State (IS) group. The film had received backlash from several quarters for its 'propagandist and Islamophobic' content, following which its YouTube trailer descriptor stood revised from 32,000 to just 3, reports suggest.

In 2022, Israeli Jury head Nadav Lapid's critical remarks on Vivek Agnihotri's The Kashmir Files created buzz on social media and eventually, the Israeli envoy to India had to step in and apologise.

"This just goes to show how powerful these people are," Sreenath remarked, adding that this year, the organisers played it smart by lining up both propagandist and progressive films such that it becomes puzzling to separate the wheat from the chaff.

For instance, a Palestinian movie titled A House in Jerusalem had its festival synopsis look different from its IMDb version as the former didn't mention the identity of a lead character as 'Palestinian'. One of the 10 films nominated for the ICFT – UNESCO Gandhi Medal Award globally, the origin country found mention only in the PIB Press Release issued by the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting.

Emergence of liberal arts spaces in South Asia for political messaging indicates a warped system.

IFFI Synopsis of 'A House in Jerusalem' vs IMDb Synopsis

Photo: Special Arrangement

Another film Mandali which depicted the challenging lives of Ramlila artists had members of the audience allegedly chanting 'Jai Shree Ram' at its screening. Cut-outs of Lord Ram from the movie RRR were also put up at various parts of the theatre halls which to many, postured "saffronisation of democratic spaces".

Speaking on the matter, NFDC told The Quint that no such incident has been brought to their notice, and otherwise too, it is impossible to control public reaction.

This begs the question of what exactly entails the selection process for these films. When The Quint reached out to Shyam R Raghavendran, who handled the Indian Panorama Section at IFFI this year, he said, "Any Indian film which has completed production or censored by CBFC between 1 August 2022 to 31 July 2023 is eligible for submission, the final selection of which is in jury's hands."

Anti-Caste Poetry Censored From Publication

Delhi-based illustrator-columnist Siddhesh Gautam aka @bakeryprasad on Instagram known for bringing Ambedkar's ideas to life in his artworks didn't see it coming when his proposal for a column around Dalit Author Vishnu Surya Wagh's poem 'Secular' was scrapped last minute from the festival's official publication due to 'creative reasons'.

The poem which didn't fit any one box spoke to the artist's own lived experience of his caste identity being scrutinised at all times.

However, for Siddhesh, this wasn't the case from the get-go. "Vivek Menezes, the magazine editor shared an anti-caste vision which encouraged perspectives such as say, invisibilisation in cinema. He was quite receptive towards my ideas which inspired an allyship," Siddhesh told The Quint why the decision came as a surprise, adding that it is only steps like this that convert a democracy into a 'police state'.

He later shared the translated poem and illustration on his Instagram page which received an overwhelming response.

Film School Students, Professionals: 'Made To Feel Like Outsiders'

Seven sound designers from Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI) – a reputed film school in the country – were invited to assist in the sound recording of the films being made by the contestants of "75 Creative Minds of Tomorrow" – a Ministry of Information and Broadcasting initiative to "identify, encourage and nurture young creative talents from across various aspects of filmmaking."

Once the group landed in Goa on 20 November, things seemed to go haywire as they reported mishandling, coordination, and communication issues with the hospitality team. From accommodation and transport woes to delays in printing ID cards and reimbursement, they brought forth several grievances in their official communication mail to the NFDC.

Aman Parikh (name changed on request), a sound professional, mentioning the "48 hours filmmaking challenge" told The Quint, "Me being the only sound guy in the team, I had a tight schedule for my deliverables despite which, basic recognition seemed a tall ask."

Saptak Sarkar, a final year student at the institute who received his return ticket to Kolkata less than six hours before onboarding his flight, told The Quint that this was just one of many instances of mismanagement, recollecting how the bags and T-shirts distributed during the opening ceremony which were taken away later left them embarrassed.

Not just these sound designers, such an approach was also flagged by those attending the 'Film Bazaar' – a global film market event where either someone was asked to vacate a pre-booked seat for an "important reservation" while in some other screening, one did not even get to sit on the floor of the theatre hall due to authority protocol.

Responding to the matter, NFDC told The Quint that the partnership of SRFTI is of utmost importance to IFFI, which is working towards addressing some of the concerns raised, as of the date of filling this report.


Are Film Festivals Posing As Socio-cultural Gatekeepers?

A film festival opens doors to art, independent and world cinema posits an opportunity for the general audience to access, consume, and discuss movies all at once. However, experts say there has been a discerning shift in how such spaces are being perceived especially in South Asia in the last two decades.

"The mushrooming of film fests across and within cities as a cultural phenomenon merits assessment in terms of its genuineness," Shoma A Chatterji, a veteran film critic, told The Quint. Chatterji, also a jury at the 29th Kolkata International Film Festival (KIFF) supports cinema for people bereft of authoritative intervention.

There is also the emergence of liberal arts spaces such as a film festival used for political messaging which is indicative of a warped system that divides more than it unites, said film critic and curator CS Venkiteswaran.

He added, "Internationally, film festivals are getting increasingly privatised and in India, we are unequivocal witnesses to majoritarianism seeping into the selection and awarding processes which is at odds with the idea of 'non-alignment' we long stood for."

Then, what becomes of the future of film festivals? "With the rise of OTT and alternative content platforms, there is a pressing need to create context and emerge as engaging spaces permissive of shared social, political, and cultural predicaments," noted Venkiteswaran.

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