The first IFFI was organised by the Films Division with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s “blessings”, at a paltry budget of Rs 1 lakh.
India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with Indian and foreign film personalities after inaugurating the Delhi leg of the first international film festival held in January-February 1952. (credit: National Film Archive of India)
THE International Film Festival of India was born in Bombay in January 1952 but it was conceived six months prior in the Kashmir valley. The idea of organising such a festival of motion pictures, which would be a first for the East, was proposed to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru by Films Division’s then Chief Producer Mohan Bhavnani when he was visiting Srinagar for a political event. Bhavnani, a filmmaker trained in Germany who had made several silent films after his return to India and was appointed to head the Films Division after it was established in 1948, had recently returned from a visit to Paris where he had attended a meeting of Film Experts Committee of UNESCO and was toying with the idea to hold India’s own film festival.
In an essay written in 1983, filmmaker K L Khandpur has described how the decision to organise the first film festival came about. As per his account, he was shooting a documentary for Films Division (Facing the Facts, 1951) in Srinagar with his crew when, on a Sunday afternoon, Bhavnani- who was staying in a houseboat at Dal Lake – summoned him. Bhavnani was to meet the then Information and Broadcasting Minister R R Diwakar and Prime Minister Nehru, who was visiting Srinagar to speak at a rally organised by National Conference ahead of the state’s plan to hold elections for the Constituent Assembly in August-September that year, later that day.
Although the initial plan was to hold a ‘competitive film festival’ and the event was publicised such, the idea was later dropped after the International Federation of Motion Pictures Associations (IFMPA) objected to the prospect saying “only Venice and Cannes had been granted permission to hold competitive festivals” in that year. The festival was then categorised as ‘non-competitive representative show’.
Curtains went up on January 24 at the New Empire Cinema. I&B Minister Diwakar chaired the opening ceremony as PM Nehru, who was supposed to attend the event missed it due to some reason. It was a star-studded event with who’s who of the Bombay film industry attending it.
A total of 12 foreign countries had sent in their delegations to participate in the event. The largest among those was from USSR which had sent 13 members headed by Deputy Minister of Cinematography N Semenov, while Chinese had sent one with six members. The American delegation was headed by film director Frank Capra. Notwithstanding the Indo-Pak tension over Kashmir, Pakistan had sent a delegation consisting of actor Swarna Lata, director Shaukat Hussain headed by Sardar A Rehman.
The festival offered a bouquet of 40 international films and over 100 short films that were showcased, In Mumbai, the film shows were held at three open-air theatres that were erected at Azad Maidan apart from four other regular cinema houses namely the New Empire, Excelsior, Strand and Kum Kum. Among the films that proved popular among the audience were the Italian films Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948), Rome Open City (Rosselini, 1945) and Miracle in Milan (De Sica, 1951); Japanese film Yukiwarisoo (Minoru Mtasui, 1951); British short film Dancing Fleece ( Wilson-Reiniger, 1950,) Soviet war film Fall of Berlin (Mikheil Chiaureli, 1950) and Hollywood films The Greatest Show on Earth (DeMille, 1952) and An American in Paris (Minelli, 1951). Indian entries for the festival were Awara (Raj Kapoor, 1951), Babla (Agradoot, 1951), Patala Bhairavi (Ketiri Reddy, 1951), Amar Bhoopali (V Shantaram, 1951) among feature films and Adivasi (National Education and Information Films) and Lest I Forget Thee (Singh Brothers) among documentaries.
In Delhi and Madras huge road parades of Indian film stars and visiting delegates were held that received huge response from the crowd which, in Frank Kapra’s words, made Indian politicians realise for the first time “the power of Indian film stars”. In Madras, a friendly cricket match between film starts was held at Corporation Stadium of Madras where Raj Kapoor’s “deadly bowling” grounded the opposing team to much delight of over 15,000 audience members.
PM Nehru attended the inauguration of the Delhi leg of the festival and President Rajendra Prasad hosted the guests and Indian film fraternity at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Virchandra Dharamsey was a lad of 17 at that time. Now 84 and a well-regarded film historian, he recalls his experience of visiting the festival in Bombay. “In my memories, the first IFFI was like a fair. My interest in cinema has just begun at that time but I knew nothing about international cinema. I can hazily recall watching De Sica’s Miracle in Milan in an open theatre at the Azad Maidan. I also caught glimpses of several other films such as Japanese film Yukiwariso, (Italian) Rome: Open City and Bengali film Babla from the side without having to buy the ticket,” said Dharamsey.
The Film Enquiry Committee Report
Among the factors that led to the organising of the first IFFI including PM Nehru’s own interest in art and culture, an important one was the report of the Film Inquiry Committee that was submitted to the government exactly three months before the Srinagar meeting between Bhavnani, Diwakar and Nehru. The inquiry committee was headed by S K Patil – former member of Constituent Assembly of India and who later become Mayor of Bombay – and was constituted in 1949 to, among other things, suggest “what measures should be adopted to enable films in India to development into an effective instrument for promotion of national culture, education and healthy entertainment”. Among the members of the committee were filmmakers V Shantaram and B N Sircar.
After exhaustive research, interviews with over 300 prominent personalities including filmmakers, educationists, public representatives and journalists and studying memorandums submitted by over 250 important individuals, the committee submitted a report which called for widespread changes to improve its financial management and aesthetic quality of the films. The committee took the view that although the Indian film industry made significant progress on the technical aspects, it was lacking in content and the “medium’s potential for the education of the masses and nation-building” was not being utilised. The committee observed that for the Indian film, “the story remains a secondary consideration”, the play-back system is over-exploited, the dance sequences are used indiscriminately, the comedies “degenerates into the burlesque” and “hilarity and buffoonery is expressed through meaningless grins and gestures”.
In fact, the motive of the government to ‘reform Indian cinema’ by exposing the Indian filmmakers to better cinema traditions elsewhere in the world was evident in the message Prime Minister Nehru sent for the inauguration of the festival. Effectively rebuking the Indian filmmakers, he said in the message: “India, I’m told, is the second biggest film producer in the world, coming only after the United States of America. This quantity production is impressing, but I would like to lay stress on quality. I hope that the Indian film industry, which has made such great progress in the past, will make every effort to improve the quality of films also.”
First IFFI’s influence
Interaction with filmmakers from abroad and exposure to international films coming from Japan, Italy, France and Russia at the first film festival did influence the discourse around cinema in the country and also nudged filmmakers to experiment with the medium. This was especially true with the aesthetic of ‘realism’ as espoused in the neo-realist films that came from Italy and were the most appreciated among the foreign lot.
Among those who were directly and admittedly influenced by Italian films they saw at IFFI 1952, was Bimal Roy who immediately embarked upon making Do Bigha Zamin (1953) promising himself that it would be “as start and austere and will be shot on location” like Bicycle Thieves. For the film, he largely chose his caste from IPTA actors as opposed to well-known film stars and shot a majority of the film in streets of Calcutta and a nearby village. There are many obvious thematic similarities between Do Bigha Zamin and Bicycle Thieves with streets of Calcutta replacing those of Rome and the land-plot standing in for the stolen bicycle in the Italian masterpiece.
It is well known De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves was behind Satyajit Ray quitting his job in the advertisement industry and deciding to make his first film Pather Panchali (1952). (Although he had watched the film during his six-month stay in London in 1951, much before it was shown in Calcutta as part of IFFI).
“Thus within days of the festival, Italian neorealism provided a specific and concrete rallying point around what had been since the early 1930s an endemic Indian disavowal of popular cinema,” says film scholar Neepa Majumdar further arguing that the brush with neo-realism during first IFFI affected both the “parallel cinema movement” which developed in the with Ray, Ghatak and others but affected the thematic and aesthetic concerns of mainstream commercial products such as Booth Polish (Prakash Arora, 1954) and Footpath (Zia Sarhadi, 1953).
The festival also gave a fillip to the film society movement in India – by creating interest for world cinema among the locals and making the job of those who ran the societies easier. “Above all, the first IFFI which sourced films from various diplomatic missions in India, opened up a new avenue of sourcing films, almost free for the fledging film societies,” wrote VK Cherian in his book India’s Film Society Movement: The Journey and Its Impact.
The festival was wound up in Calcutta on March 5 1952. As per a gossip column published in ‘filmindia’ magazine’s April edition, the Films Division had actually earned a profit of Rs 7 lakh from the festival.
As per Dharamsey, the interest in world cinema that festival kindled among local Bombay cine-goers caused regular film theatres to play international hits (outside Hollywood) soon after the first IFFI. “I distinctly remember that months after the festival, Liberty Cinema ran Kurosawa’s Roshomon, De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear as regular shows,” he recalled.
Despite the success of the first festival, Indians would wait for nine years for the IFFI to return with its second edition in 1961.
(This essay was originally published in The Indian Express on November 23, 2019)