Why has IFFI failed to make a name for itself despite being the oldest film festival in Asia?

Although it has been around for 67 years, the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) lacks an identity of its own. In the late 1970s, efforts were made to distinguish IFFI on the world map by establishing it as a forum for the cinema of the developing world, but the plan was soon abandoned.


Every year about 2000 film festivals are held across the globe. Also, every year, scores of new ones come onto the scene and same number, or more, disappear into oblivion. Considering this, marking 67 years of existence and celebrating 50 editions is not a mean feat for any film festival. Therefore, it is a cause of pride for India that the state-funded International Film Festival of India (IFFI) successfully held its golden jubilee edition in Goa which concluded on Thursday.

But this shouldn’t be a cause of contentment. Is it not bothersome that IFFI, born in 1952 when it was the first such event anywhere in the East, doesn’t hold a place of prestige on the global film festival map? In fact, within Asia it is not counted among the most important festivals, despite being the eldest in the room, and much younger festivals – such as Busan International Film Festival which started in 1996 – acquiring greater importance in the international circuit.

In recent decades, state patronage has not been an issue. The Union Government and State Government of Goa (since it was moved there in 2004) have been putting in big money into the annual event. For the last 4-5 years, as much as Rs 20 crore is being spent on each edition by the two governments. The prize money given to winners at IFFI is also big – much higher than those given at several most prestigious film festivals in the world. Despite all this, IFFI is failing to click globally.

The reason for this failing, it appears, could be that IFFI has failed to create an identity for itself which will help it stand apart from the rest. In the highly competitive world of film festivals, IFFI doesn’t hold a promise to provide to the foreign filmmakers, international press and cinephiles, something that they will find nowhere else.

Perhaps, this is the reason that apart from invited (and paid for) foreign guests, the international community has turned its back on the event. In recent years, there have been no efforts to work on this identity lacuna. The focus, instead, has been on pomp and show that has started to put-off even the local film lovers.

Efforts to give IFFI a third world identity

It’s not the case that the organisers of IFFI were always blissfully unaware of its ‘identity’ lacuna. In fact, in the late 1970s when IFFI was still holding its early editions, the then festival director took steps to help IFFI develop a distinct personality. IFFI walked on that path for a couple of years but strayed soon with changes in priorities of the parent ministry.

Raghunath Raina, a bureaucrat belonging to Indian Information Service (IIS), became the Director of Film Festivals (DFF) in August 1978 and took upon himself to create a place of prominence for IFFI on the global festival map. His belief was that IFFI will gain importance on the world stage only if it offered something unavailable elsewhere.

Former Director of Film Festivals (DFF) Raghunath Raina (third from the right) receives for foreign guests at Delhi airport during 7th IFFI held in January 1979. Credit: National Film Archive of India.

To achieve this goal, he planned to turn IFFI into a prominent forum for ‘third world’ cinema which would attract films and filmmakers from developing nations from across the world. As per him, if IFFI could hold such a promise, it would attract international delegates and the press by providing an opportunity to them to “keep abreast with trends in the cinemas of the people constituting 2/3rd of the world population”. He did make the efforts in that direction during 7th, 8th and 9th editions of the festivals held between 1979 and 1981 when he headed the DFF.

National Film Archive of India. Former Director of Film Festivals (DFF) Raghunath Raina (third from the right) receives for foreign guests at Delhi airport during 7th IFFI held in January 1979. Credit: National Film Archive of India.
“My concern was not only to organise a successful and interesting festival but also to imbue it with a distinctive character of its own,” Raina wrote in an essay ‘IFFI-An Introspective Study’ included in the book ’70 Years of Indian Cinema’ published in 1984. “There had often been talk of a third world bias (between 1979-81) but this was largely an expression of intent. I clearly saw that if the festival became a forum for the third world cinema, it would acquire a personality and importance of its own. As such, it would also fit in with the country’s role as a founder-member of the non-aligned movement and as a leading protagonist, of the aspirations of the developing nations,” he wrote.

As part of his plan, in 7th edition of IFFI held in 1979, he invited Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene to head the international jury – a first for an African filmmaker at IFFI and a deliberate attempt was made to include a record number of third world films in both competitive and documentary film sections. Also, a symposium on ‘Cinema of the Developing Countries’ was held during the festival where African filmmakers criticised India’s policy of exporting films to fellow developing countries without importing any from them. India, they alleged, thus was following a policy of cultural imperialism much like the USA.

Raina continued his attempt in this direction in the 1980 festival (Filmotsav) held in Bangalore and 1981 when it returned to Delhi as a competitive festival. In fact, he had proposed that the international competition at IFFI should be reserved only for films from developing countries. The government’s hesitance to do this shelved this plan. Soon after the government at the centre changed, and the responsibility of organising the next edition of IFFI was handed over to National Film Development Corporation (NFDC).

In the essay mentioned above, Raina laments that his aim of giving a special identity to the IFFI remained unrealised and the festival has suffered subsequently due to this.

“Many elements of the Nehru dream have withered away; others remain only in form. The Indian (film) festival is one of them. It will continue to be so unless it is given an identity and is organised by people with a commitment to the film promotion and a passion for cinema,” wrote Raina.

IFFI is losing its patrons

Data obtained by The Indian Express from Entertainment Society of Goa (ESG), which looks after the logistical part of the festival organisation, shows that IFFI hasn’t only failed to attract international crowd, but it has been losing even its local patrons in recent years.

As per the data pertaining to delegate registrations for IFFI between 2007 and 2018, the number of delegates coming for IFFI went up from 2007 to 2014 but has since seen a sharp decline until the recent edition where, perhaps due to the hype of 50th edition, the numbers have somewhat improved.

International Film Festival of India Golden jubilee edition of International Film Festival of India concluded in Goa on Thursday. Credit: International Film Festival of India.
IFFI’s 2007 edition had attracted 3,713 delegates -including those from Goa and outside – which increased with every passing year and reached 10,054 in 2014, highest in recent past. However, in 2015 only 6196 delegates attended the event and the number came further down in 2016 to 5261 and slid further to 5020 in 2017. In 2018, the number improved marginally to 5214. Although officials number for the 2019 edition – which concluded on Thursday – are not yet available, the organisers said that around 6300 paid delegate passes and 1000 free student passes were distributed. The number is considerably lower than the 2014 count of 10,054.

Officials with Entertainment Society of Goa (ESG), the Goa Government unit responsible for organising the festival along with DFF, are hoping that this number would go up with their efforts to add more venues and experiments with online ticketing. “With more convenience, the delegate count will increase in future editions,” said Subhash Phal Dessai, Vice Chairman, ESG.

Can appointing a ‘Creative Director’ help IFFI?

Raina, a bureaucrat himself, had blamed the lack of a ‘sustained vision’ and IFFI’s bureaucratic setup or the festival’s failure to develop a personality.

“…The absence of a sustained vision on the part of the authorities and the vagaries of a system that grants hegemony to transient, generalist bureaucrats over people with a commitment to and expertise in film promotion, never gave the IFFI a chance to develop a distinctive personality of its own,” he wrote.

Rain’s comment remains true even after 35 years. In its present organisational setup, the Festival Director is a bureaucrat who occupies the post of Director of Film Festivals (DFF) for a maximum period of three years. He/She may or may not have any background in cinema before he occupies this post. And more often than not, even if he gains some expertise on the subject– in case he’s genuinely invested in the festival’s future – he’s out of there. The steering committee of the festival, which has a mix of bureaucrats, filmmakers and politicians, is appointed afresh every year and hence can’t think beyond the upcoming edition. A look at the names of filmmakers on the committee makes it apparent that, in a majority of cases, their political views seem to have played a key role in the appointment process rather than their potential to contribute to the event and its future.

There has been a long-standing demand that IFFI should get a ‘Creative Director’, someone who would have real expertise in film festival organising, cinema and who could provide a sustained vision to the festival by holding the position for a longer duration. However, there has been no progress on that front. In fact, the issue was discussed this year too at the first meeting of the steering committee held by Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar. The minutes of the meeting, obtained by Express using Right To Information, show that the suggestion was turned down after a member pointed out that “DFF is competent enough to look into creative aspects and the idea of a Creative Director may not be necessary.”

It appears that the beneficiaries of the present setup do not want it to change although it is costing the festival dearly.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s