Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Feedback on the International Film Festival of India

The International Film Festival of India (IFFI), the 45th edition of which concluded its ten-day run in Goa on 30 November, allows each delegate a maximum of three tickets a day. The 28 films I saw have left me dizzy with cinema.

I saw only a fraction of the films on offer and missed Leviathan the Russian production that won the Golden Peacock. As most of those at the festival also missed the film, perhaps the IFFI organizers could think of a special screening of its award winning films at next year’s festival? Or conclude each festival by special screenings accessible to all delegates?

The official feedback form asked delegates to identify positive and negative aspects of the festival. In particular it wanted information on what could be done to make IFFI a world class event. The positive was definitely the rich diversity of the films. I would like to highlight in particular a cricket centered Malayalam movie, 1983, a world class production at once funny and warmly humanistic.  (Another, Swapnam, that could have been a ferociously funny black comedy succumbed to melodrama.)

The negatives are all nitpicking complaints that could (unfortunately) be made of any Indian event:

1. Insanitary conditions: The eating arrangements at the Inox complex and at the Kala Akademi were fly infested. The consolidation of garbage at the Inox entrance gate resulted in a decidedly non-world-class aroma. The Kala Akademi men’s washroom lacked soap and some of the stalls were not clean.

2. Q etiquette: IFFI attracts a sophisticated set of Q jumpers. They don’t just resort to force majeure as the hoi polloi do but pretend to be deeply involved in conversation/reading/meditation as they edge forward. The more brazen casually attempt to join a line near its front. If someone pulls them up, they appear astonished. The line goes all the way back?! Who would have thought! In one line I had a fat man behind me who seemed oblivious his stomach was acting as a bumper. In another the man behind me had no sense of personal space and when I elbowed him away, sidled up the other side and tried to get ahead.

4. Early leavers: At every show there were people who left before the films concluded, often disrupting entire rows as they did. A special breed of early leaver is the one that seems to think getting to the exit is a competition. Its members obviously have no appreciation of film and often seem to lack even a basic understanding of content: their departure is often set off by the nature of the music in the soundtrack. They are prone to miscues and then stand in front of the hall like so many sheep, staring up at the still unfolding story.

5. Cell phone rudeness: People routinely ignored the request at the beginning of every show that mobile phones be turned off or put on silent mode. At every event phones rang and people carried on conversations despite the irritated responses of their neighbours. At one show a teenager near me had the phone out during the entire show, and when she was not involved in conversation, was checking mail and playing games.

As for program content, I think the festival could do with a new element to bring into focus the meta-text of the audiovisual medium. I tried to raise this matter during a lunchtime panel discussion but met with blank incomprehension. That was not surprising given our general state of post-colonial zombiedom.

Let me explain.

Most Indians seem blissfully unaware that our cultural/intellectual environment is heavy with propaganda meant to subvert nationalism and foist acceptance of Western dominance. Our so-called “elite” mass media have been systematically suborned to that end, as have key figures in television, cinema, sports and advertising. Items:

  • The use of the demeaning term “Bollywood” to describe the world’s largest film industry is illustrative; it has been popularized and sustained by our comprador English medium mass media.Fortunately, Amitabh Bachan in his excellent opening speech noted that he did not like the term. (Unfortunately, he then went on to refer to the "Indo-Aryans" coming to Goa.)
  • Some of our A-list film stars have actively sought to revive and sharpen provincial/communal identities the British created to divide and rule India. Their prime provincial targets have been Tamils and Sikhs. Shah Rukh Khan has not only targeted Tamils, his “I am a Muslim and not a terrorist” mantra has spread the idea of the victimhood of the entire community, the tried and tested first step to its political manipulation. (The technique was invented and perfected by the British over the last 800 years, beginning in Ireland.) The Owaisi brothers and al Qaeda/ISIS have now taken his project in hand and the first trickle of Indian youths into the nightmares of the Middle East has begun. Meanwhile, SRK has joined the ranks of the richest actors in the world.
  • Advertising agencies also contribute to the creation of provincial identities with television commercials using thick provincial accents that serve no rational marketing purpose. The most recent examples have been commercials for Red Bull (the energy drink rumored to cause male impotence) and Chola insurance.
  • Sania Mirza’s “new glamorous avatar” as a television instructor giving “James Bond lessons” on ways to a “woman’s heart” is featured in the latest India Today, perhaps the most overtly comprador magazine in India. Her on-air appearances in that role emphasize the tart like qualities of “Bond girls" and recall the insulting “Octopussy” contribution of the franchise to the image of Indian femininity. (I wonder if Sania Mirza, who certainly does not strike me as a bimbo, has thought through the impact of what she is doing on less fortunate Indian women struggling to maintain their self-respect and safety against heavy odds.)
  • The unstinting flow of praise for Attenborough’s Gandhi, a finely honed piece of British propaganda shows a complete lack of awareness that it obliterates the truth of what happened in the final phase of colonial rule in India.
  • There is general lack of awareness that the British manage "Brand India" globally. For example, Slumdog Millionaire and Midnight's Children cast India's improving global image into the mould of colonial stereotypes the British created. I haven't seen the new film on the "worst industrial accident" that killed thousands at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal in 1984, but can bet it will give no credence to the reality of British-sponsored terrorism that was the most probable cause of the gas leak.
  •  People are also oblivious that television images carry a heavy emotional/cultural content and shape global perceptions of India. For instance, the image of the two girls in Badaun, supposedly raped and left hanging from a tree, packaged into one potent cocktail the India-associated ideas of caste brutality, gender violence, open defecation and police ineffectiveness. According to the reports carried by our "elite" media, the girls were raped because they had to go out at night to defecate in the fields, and their bodies hung from the tree for 12 hours -- an image that made the prime time news around the world -- because all the constables in the local police station were drunk. According to the just released CBI report on the killings, none of that was true. The older of the girls had a long-standing relationship with the prime accused, a police constable. Her cell phone shows she had over 400 conversations with him. On the night of the murders, she called to ask him for money and they planned to have sex. The CBI says the girls committed suicide because a relative discovered this. (I don't buy that for a second. Everything the CBI report unveils supports my theory that the girls were killed for money, and that they were left hanging from the tree to create an image that would wipe out the hugely positive one of the majestic transfer of power in New Delhi.)
All this points to a dire need for greater Indian awareness of the politics of mass media. If people in general understand that Indians collaborating with foreign interests are no different from the traitors of the past who profited from helping enslave the country, national security would be materially enhanced.

IFFI should develop a program element to raise awareness of the subliminal political/cultural messages of audiovisual media.

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