If there was ever a strong case for getting governments out of the business of running international film festivals, the Government of India has just made it stronger—by embarrassing the nation before the world through the inclusion of the controversial movie The Kashmir Files in the competitive section of the just-concluded 53rd International Film Festival of India (IFFI).
When the much-admired Israeli filmmaker who was serving as the Jury chairman of the International Competition section of IFFI, Nadav Lapid, said he was “shocked” and “disturbed” by the inclusion of what he described as a “vulgar” “propaganda film” in such a prestigious event, it was the Government of India—the film’s biggest boosters that ought to have been ashamed.
It's widely known that “The Kashmir Files” which seeks to depict the terrorist uprising in the Valley that led to the killing and forced emigration of Kashmiri Pandits, has received official and unofficial backing from the ruling party and its minions in the film establishment, since it serves the purpose of fomenting the Islamophobia that some in the Sangh Parivar are happy to promote.
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The film was publicly endorsed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a number of Union Ministers and granted a tax-free status by most BJP-ruled states. Its crude message serves the ruling party’s agenda of communal polarisation in our divided polity.
Several screenings of the film which was released in March, are reported to have ended with the audience baying for Muslim blood and clamouring for “revenge” against the atrocities depicted in the movie.
Lapid, addressing at the closing ceremony of the 53rd edition of IFFI in Goa, summarised the jury report and added these words: “I want to thank the director and head of the programming of the festival for its cinematic richness, the diversity and complexity…There were 15 films in the international competition — the front window of the festival. Fourteen out of them had the cinematic qualities…and evoked vivid discussions. We were, all of us, disturbed and shocked by the 15th film, ‘The Kashmir Files’. That felt to us like a propaganda, vulgar movie, inappropriate for an artistic competitive section of such a prestigious film festival.”
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Lapid is no journeyman filmmaker. He is a writer-director whose 2011 debut film “Policeman” won the special Jury prize at the Locarno International Film Festival film that year and whose “Synonyms” won the Golden Bear award at the 69th Berlin International Film Festival in 2019.
Lapid’s 2014 film “The Kindergarten Teacher” was featured in the 2014 Cannes Film Festival’s International Critics’ Week, whose Jury Lapid was invited to join in 2016. His latest feature film, “Ahed’s Knee” (2021) shared the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year.
Speaking before a number of dignitaries, including Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting Anurag Thakur as well as prominent actors such as Asha Parekh, Ayushmann Khurrana and Rana Daggubati, Lapid explained: “I feel totally comfortable to share openly these feelings here with you on stage since the spirit that we felt in the festival can surely accept a critical discussion which is essential for art and life.”
Lapid would have hoped his remarks would be taken in that spirit, but he underestimated the pettiness of our government and the extent to which our ruling party is identified with the film and its message.
The forces of intolerance promptly marshalled themselves in defence of the film. Thakur immediately retweeted a statement from the sole Indian jury member, director Sudipto Sen, saying Lapid’s remarks were “completely his personal opinion."
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The Israeli Ambassador to India, Naor Gilon, who as a good envoy knows well the wishes and preferences of his hosts, was quick to take offence at his compatriot’s stance. “In Indian culture, they say that a guest is like God,” he tweeted to Lapid. “You have abused in the worst way the Indian invitation to chair the panel of judges at @IFFIGoa as well as the trust, respect and warm hospitality they have bestowed on you.”
His assumption was clearly that the government of India would be offended – itself an embarrassing admission of the extent to which ‘The Kashmir Files’ is seen as the government’s vehicle to promote its favoured political message.
If confirmation were needed, this edition of IFFI also held a special screening of “The Kashmir Files”. Vulgar propaganda is just what the government wants but it discredits our country’s reputation for making and promoting serious cinema.
Governments can run film festivals if they stay away from interfering with artistic decisions that involve cinematic judgements which politicians are not qualified to make.
The International Film Festival of Kerala, for instance, though it takes place under the auspices of the state government and is always inaugurated by the Chief Minister himself, has built up a serious reputation for featuring the very best in world cinema.
It is run by the Chalachitra Academy, itself always headed by a filmmaker of repute, and ministers play no role in deciding who to invite or what to screen.
IFFI, sadly, has been much more directly under the thumb of the Union Government. Showcasing a tawdry propaganda film, merely because it serves the government’s political agenda, undermines the reputation of the festival and of India itself in the world cinema community.
The Government of India may even have thought that getting an Israeli to chair the jury would guarantee a friendly reception for the film, since Israel is itself battling Islamist terrorism.
But a world-class filmmaker knows what is good cinema and what is not. The BJP government doesn’t.
(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a third-term MP for Thiruvananthapuram and award-winning author of 22 books, most recently ‘The Battle of Belonging’(Aleph). He tweets @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)