Telephone appeared in movies as an instrument that provided a multitude of narrative possibilities and also benefitted, in the initial days, from the portrayal in cinema as a desirable, aspirational commodity.
Both cinema and the telephone are modern inventions – the former about 45 years younger than the latter. During the early decades of the 20th century, the two tools interacted with and complemented each other as symbols of modernity.
Telephone appears in movies as an instrument that provides a multitude of narrative possibilities – as a herald of a plot twist, a conduit of the feeling of love, or as a device whose incessant ringing leads to tension-building.
Hindi films have had numerous songs featuring the phone as a tool connecting two lovelorn beings, crooning at each end (Recall: “Jalte hai jiske liye” from Sujata). In many crime thrillers of the 1950s, telephone lines unravel the tangled plots and help the film reach a happy ending.
The telephone, on the other hand, also benefited from such a portrayal in cinema – a mass medium with great influence – as a desirable, aspirational commodity providing a plethora of possibilities.
Hence, it is no surprise that telephone companies were among the most prominent advertisers in film magazines of the late 1930s and 1940s. The Bombay Telephone Company, which was established in 1925, issued regular advertisements to filmindia, the most prominent film magazine of the time, in its attempt to expand its subscriber base in Bombay, Karachi and Ahmedabad.
These advertisements had stars and starlets of Hindi film industry seductively holding the receiver to their ears, anticipating a conversation from the other end.
“Have you a telephone in your home?” asks this advertisement issued by the Bombay Telephone Company in the December 1938 issue of filmindia magazine. “If not you are denying the pleasure of communicating with your FRIENDS and running the risk of being unable to call the DOCTOR or FIRE BRIGADE in the time of need,” it says. The young model, lazily lying on the sofa, is holding the receiver in one hand and a glamour magazine in the other. The target audience here, clearly, is English-speaking, educated, urban and affluent Indians.
The context to this marketing strategy adopted by Bombay Telephone Company to prominently highlight the social use – the pleasure of communicating with friends – of the telephone along with the more obvious logistical function, is provided by a letter sent by Lord Willingdon in September 1934 to London. In this communication, Willingdon laments that a lack of demand for telephone service in India was slowing down the expansion of the service in the country, largely owing to high cost and inability of a large section of the society to bear it. Indians are making comparatively little ‘social use’ of the technology, says he.
BUT WHO IS THE GIRL?
The full-page advertisement, it appears, not only worked for the advantage of the telephone firm but for the young model too.
“Who is the girl whose photo we find in the advertisement of the Bombay Telephone Co.? Is she a film star?” asks a curious reader of filmindia R S Mudaliar, a Madurai resident, in the ‘Editor’s Mail’ section of the magazine two months later.
The response to Mr Mudaliar by filmindia editor Baburao Patel informs us that the girl is the new Wadia Movietone starlet Pramilla who was previously attached with Imperial Studio. Elsewhere, the magazine fills in that Pramilla is busy shooting for Wadia’s Jungle King, co-starring John Cavas and Maheru – the monkey. Pramilla, born Esther Victoria Abraham in a Baghdadi -Jewish family of Kolkata, would go on to bag the Miss India title when the inaugural pageant was held in 1947.
COLOUR QUEEN OF INDIA SAYS ‘HULLO’
Before starlet Pramilla, the telephone was being marketed – in similar full-page ads in filmindia – by Padmadevi, the silent film star. She had appeared in JBH Wadia’s stunt films, most notably Dilruba Daku (The Amazon, 1933) fighting with goons as a masked daredevil. Later on, in 1937, she was the heroine of the first indigenously produced colour film Kisan Kanya directed by Moti Gidwani and briefly earned the moniker of ‘Colour Queen of India’.
One of the advertisements featuring Padmadevi has an interesting warning: Never tap or touch the receiver rest. You will get a wrong number.
In the garb of the warning, it’s a tip – and an allure – to the prospective owners of the telephone, that taking home the device will afford them a hitherto unavailable possibility of making an unexpected contact with an unknown stranger – who could be as pretty as Padmadevi – whom the device may ‘accidentally’ connect you with.
While reliable statistics are not available on the number of telephone subscribers in India, as per a US Department of Commerce report, by March 1945, British India had 1,25,400 telephone lines, most of these operated by Indian Posts and Telegraphs Department, Government of India. In 1933, an international line between Bombay and London was also inaugurated, which was later suspended between 1939 and 1945, owing to security concerns during World War II.
(This write-up appeared on the indianexpress.com on June 10. Find it here.)
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)
REVIEW: Netflix original docu-series Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer tells the tale of a publicity-hungry murderer who likes a good chase.
The enduring notoriety that the Zodiac killer — who terrorised Northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s — continues to enjoy even after 50 years of the series of incidents, is not so much because of his gruesome crimes but that he turned them into a game. A game that he played with the police and public at large in full media glare.
The Zodiac killer, whose identity still remains unconfirmed, not only succeeded in forcing news dailies to publish his handwritten letters and cryptograms, but his goals of seeking meet with newer successes with every documentary, feature film or media article that appears on the scene, years after the original crimes.
About four decades later, in 2010, a 28-year-old from Toronto, Canada, sets out to achieve a similar goal, using the same methods, but via a different medium: the internet. Luka Magnotta’s criminal deeds and a hunt launched by a group of ‘internet nerds’ is the subject of the latest Netflix mini-series Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer. Directed by Mark Lewis, it was released on Netflix last week. In this three-episode docu-series, a failed show business aspirant Magnotta adopts ways and means which are eerily similar to the Zodiac killer. He acquires notoriety by committing gruesome crimes and using the internet to spread the word about his ruthless methods. He deliberately drops clues for those looking to hunt him down and makes the chase a story in itself.
The documentary starts in 2010, when Magnotta posts a video on the internet, which shows him killing two cats by suffocating them using a plastic bag and a vacuum cleaner. This attracts the attention of animal lovers who launch an online hunt to catch the cat-killer. Egged on by the attention, Magnotta proceeds to repeat similar atrocities on cats and posts them on the internet. While the angry internet-sleuths take this as a challenge, Magnota is aware of this ‘manhunt’ by a small group of internet nerds and he chides them and misleads them by dropping clues in each of his videos. The US-based amateur internet-sleuths — most prominently Deanna Thompson aka Baudi Moovan and John Green — who observe Magnotta’s behaviour pattern over a period and worry that he may soon graduate to more serious crimes. They also approach the Canadian police to warn about Magnotta but the latter doesn’t show much interest.
In 2012, Magnotta takes the next logical step. He murders a young man, a 33-year-old computer engineering student from China, and releases the video of the gruesome act online. Magnotta then dismembered Lin’s body and mails his severed feet and hands to the headquarters of Canada’s Conservative and Liberal Parties — wrapped in silk paper with suggestive poems written on the inner side. At this stage, the police get involved and the case then turns into a full-fledged international manhunt as Magnotta flees from Toranto to Montreal, Paris and finally to Germany.
Use of social media platforms including Facebook, YouTube and portals in the deep web are an inalienable part of Magnotta’s crime design. He carefully choreographs his entry into the scene by putting videos pertaining to cruelty to cats — thus violating the ‘Rule Zero’ of the internet that ‘You don’t mess with the cats’.
Murderer Luka Magnotta’s story is also a tale of what happens when a criminal mind obsessed with gaining fame meets cinephilia. As is revealed in the mini-series, Magnotta, a failed actor-model, draws his inspiration for the crimes depicted in movies. His choices of aliases, profile pictures for fake social media accounts as well as cities where he commits the gruesome crimes, come from some of the most well-known Hollywood crime films, such as Basic Instinct (1992), American Psycho (2000) and Catch Me If You Can (2002).
In the film, Magnotta comes across as a “narcist extraordinaire”, who yearns for Jack the Ripper-level attention of the public and the media. In this pursuit, years before he embarks on the cat-killing misadventure, he creates fake rumours about him dating a female serial killer and fools newspapers into publishing the stories of his denials. Later, when he makes the ‘snuff videos’ they are full of homages to other serial killers — historical or fictional — either through visuals or references.
The success of Don’t F**k With Cats lies in turning this story of a cumbersome online pursuit into a compelling, binge-worthy thriller. The three-hour, mini-series has the energy and tension of a gritty high-octane action thriller — although most of the ‘chase’ happens within the bedrooms of Baudi and Green. Such a story, with a lot of information and little movement, holds the risk of being boring. However, The Cats… is also a triumph for the audio-visual medium and cinematic language as the director succeeds in making static elements such as still pictures, computer screens, web-pages become, in a way, mobile on the screen to complement the fast-paced plot.The documentary builds interest and manages to keep it at a high level as the protagonists engage in tedious work of analysing videos posted by Magnotta, frame by frame, checking the digital footprint left by him and even geographical peculiarities of the household items visible in the videos.
Although the film is about violent crimes, the gore is largely omitted. This has been achieved by making the characters describe the videos, instead of the showing them directly to the audience.
Towards the end, the mini-series poses a question to its protagonists: did the internet-sleuths who chased Magnotta from his first video until the day he was finally nabbed, feed his narcissism to the point that he had to go forward and perform one outrageous act after another? Perhaps they did. But have we, as viewers, who are intrigued, disgusted, impressed, outraged or shocked with Magnotta’s deeds, fallen for his design? Every click on the ‘play button’ must be bringing a smile to Magnotta’s face as he counts his years in prison.
Upcoming Marathi biopic Anandi Gopal traces the life of India’s first female doctor Anandibai Joshee, her whimsical husband and their journey together
IN 1878, when Anandibai Joshee was 14, she gave birth to her first and only child. The baby lived for 10 days. This was five years before her departure for New York to study medicine, the first Indian woman to do so, at Woman’s Medical College in Pennsylvania. According to Caroline Healy Dall, who wrote her biography, the death of the infant sowed the seed for her wanting to become a doctor.
“A child’s death does its father no harm. But the mother doesn’t want it to die,” she wrote to a friend. Anandi had married Gopal Joshee when she was nine, left for USA when she was 18, and finished medical studies at 21. She died a year later in Pune at the age of 22.
Healing Touch A photograph of Anandibai Joshee The story of this brief but extraordinary life, the story of Anandi and her “eccentric” husband who went against the family, society and financial pressures to take the banned journey to “Christian land” and achieve what the couple desperately wanted, has attracted the attention of storytellers. There are two biographies, including Healy Dall’s that was published two years after Anandi’s death in 1886, a novel and a play depicting fictionalised versions of her journey. Now, the story will make its silver screen debut with Sameer Vidwans’ directorial venture, Anandi Gopal.
The Marathi film, which stars child actor Bhagyashree Milind as Anandibai and Lalit Prabhakar as Gopalrao Joshee, covers the story from their marriage, the ups and downs in their journey in India and Anandi’s travel to the US and her studies at the medical college.
Vidwans says that the short life that Anandibai lived was full of events and drama even before she left for the US. Gopal worked in the postal department and was transferred often; hence the couple had to travel and shift towns several times. She was born in Pune, grew up in Kalyan and then shifted to Kolhapur after her marriage. The couple then lived in various cities including Alibaug, Kutch, Serampore and Calcutta. In each of these cities, they faced many troubles as Gopal insisted that his wife is educated.
“I was very interested in the way their relationship changed over the years. When they got married, he became her parent, looking after her and educating her. As she grew into a young woman, they became lovers, and with her education and growth as a person, they bonded as friends. I have tried to portray this delicate equation between them,” said Vidwans, who started his career as a theater director and later shifted to cinema after doing a course in screenwriting from Film and Television Institute of India. He’s known for romantic comedies such as Time Please (2013) and Double Seat (2015).
He says that finding locations that would suit the 19th century setting of the film required a lot of research and legwork. The team also had to research other aspects such as language as well as songs, clothing and especially, the lighting as the film is set in pre-electricity period when houses were lit with oil lamps.
“We shot the film at 10-12 different locations in India. The US scenes were taken in Georgia. Considering that the Marathi used at that time was very different to today’s, we decided to have a mix of the two so as to avoid a disconnect with the modern audiences,” said Vidwans.
While it’s quite imaginable the kind of struggle that Anandi and Gopal faced while taking the bold step, Vidwans said that he considered that conveying the “inner struggle” of the two while fighting the external wo
Healing Touch Director Sameer Vidwans rld as an important challenge for the film.
“It’s true that she died at the cusp of starting her career for which she and her husband fought an obsessive battle. But despite her young death, she inspired many other woman to take up the profession such as Rukhmabai who became a doctor in 1894,” said Vidwans.
Hellaro is a celebration of colour and cause. It’s enjoyable if you can ignore the shortcomings.
FOLKTALES provide good fodder for cinema. The tales have an inherent strength which has helped them survive for centuries. They also do not have a claimant author clinging to the content and commanding ownership. In the Indian context, where filmmakers have to ensure that the film includes certain ‘must-haves’, which will enable it a commercial life, the folktales also provide a flexibility in adaptation that would otherwise be difficult to secure in case of a celebrated work of literature.
Hellaro, directed by Abhishek Shah, which has brought laurels for Gujarati cinema by winning the industry’s first ever Golden Lotus at National Film Awards, is a folktale adaptation which tries to tick all the right boxes. This is something that has helped the film’s first-time director secure rave reviews, two national awards as well as a special mention at the recently concluded International Film Festival of India (IFFI).
Hellaro, which in Gujarati means ‘a strong gust of wind’, takes its plot from a popular folktale from a small and forgotten region of Gujarat — the sandy and solitary Prathand in the desert of Kutch, close to the frontier with Pakistan — and turns into a cinematic feast with vibrant visuals and overtly melodramatic ebbs and flows. In the process, however, the folktale that the film draws its story from is retained only in its bare frame.
The plot follows a group of upper-caste women, who are living in an extremely patriarchal and suppressive system, and are barred from doing garba — the Gujarati folk dance — owing to a superstition that it would anger the village deity, who ironically is female. As the women suffer this injustice silently, enters a young, semi-educated and rebellious girl Manjari (played by Shraddha Dangar) after she is married into the village. During the daily ritual of fetching water from a far-off pond, the women discover a wayward, low-caste drummer (convincingly played by Jayesh More) who agrees to play for them at Manjari’s request. Although reluctant initially, the women join the dance and this becomes their secret routine during the daily trip to fetch water. As the crime is discovered and punishment is suffered, the women manage to retain their right to garba, not because of a change of heart on the part of men but as it’s discovered in the climax of the film that as women dance the goddess ‘blesses’ the village with rains.
The plot of the folktale, Vrajvani No Dholi (Vrajvani’s Drummer), is considerably different. Here, a handsome but ‘low-caste’ drummer walks into a village and starts beating his drum in the square. The sound is so enchanting and irresistible that women drop their chores, gather around the drummer and start dancing. The men find nothing wrong in this until a jealous priest turns one of the men against the dholi, pointing to his caste. The man kills the drummer, and as the beats stop, the women smack their heads with their bangles and kill themselves as if to atone the sin.
The film plays down the caste aspect of the story and reduces it to a sub-plot. Instead writer-director Shah invents the theme of women’s rebellion against patriarchy and suppression as the rallying point of the film. For this purpose it has to introduce the ban on garba, although, in the folktale, there’s no embargo on the dancing of women. This new plot works fine too — the changes can be ascribed to Shah being, confessedly, a ‘feminist’. But the apparent success of the screenplay, the bland characterisation dampens all the fun that the plot holds promise for. Bhaglo is a man with sympathy for women’s cause because of his regular trips to the city. Like most men in the village, Manjari’s husband is an incorrigible misogynist, who believes in violating his wife than loving her.
Such characterisation and overt melodrama takes the film closer to the aesthetics of the one strand of the Indian art-house cinema of ’70s and ’80s. One is reminded of Ketan Mehta’s Mircha Masala (1987) which, although doesn’t specify its setting, is based in the same desert of Kutch. In fact, the setting, structure and sartorial choices of its inhabitants, the ritual of fetching water from a far-off water body, hints that it’s the same cinematic village that we have seen in Mehta’s film.
The film’s most celebrated part — its meticulously choreographed dance sequences — is also the most problematic one. The sequences designed by the celebrated Gujarati choreographers Arsh and Sameer Tanna, who have previously worked for Bollywood blockbusters Ram Leela (2013) and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) — reduce the women’s brief interlude from the repression into a spectacle for the viewer. The group wears colourful chania-cholis and does synchronised dancing. It is done in a way that it is agreeable to the camera, to the extent that the vessels dropped by women in the sand arrange themselves in symmetric form at the edge of the frame. It makes one wonder if the women are dancing for their freedom from patriarchy or to the enslavement of the camera.
That said, the praise and recognition that the film has received is likely to reinvigorate the Gujarati film industry. What has been achieved by the team, in a respectable but small budget of Rs 2.5 crore, is no small feat. Hellaro is a celebration of colour and cause, and it’s an enjoyable film if you are ready to ignore its many shortcomings.
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.
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.
Playing live music for silent films may not be new, but what marks UK-based pianist and film academician Jonny Best apart is his spontaneity.
It’s Friday night in Goa and the Kala Academy auditorium, where the 50th edition of International Film Festival of India (IFFI) is being held, is full to its 950-seat capacity. In the audience is one seated closest to the stage. That’s Jonny Best. He is there to make the Russian film Battleship Potemkin (1925) audible. Best, a pianist and scholar of silent films from the UK, will play live music as an accompaniment to the film. He insists that he’s not a film composer but a “improviser”.
The festival this year has a special section in which silent films are screened with live music. These include Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929).
“In contrast to music composition, live music for silent film is all about spontaneity. A film composer can revise his work and reach for perfection but an improviser has to respond to the moment. The beauty of playing live is that it is always imperfect and non-repeatable. If you make a mistake, you have to forgive yourself and move on,” says Best.
Best began performing improvised piano accompaniments for silent films in 2014, taking part in the masterclasses at the silent film festival, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, northern Italy, in 2015. A year later he founded the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival, where live-scored silent films were screened in cinemas, theatres and village halls across the historic county in northern England.
Armed with a PhD from University of Huddersfield Music Department, Best is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a member of the Royal Musical Association.
Jonny Best, Jonny Best musician, silent films, best silent films, entertainment news Jonny Best He doesn’t necessarily research about the film or plan his music. His homework is restricted to preparing a mental image of the plot and the order of events. Sometimes, he watches the complicated scenes in the film and makes mental notes. “If I plan the music, then the performance becomes me trying to remember what I had planned. My best performances have come from being in the present, just like the audience,” he says.
Among the three films for which Best played at IFFI, each one was handled differently. For Battleship, his notes build up the angst as the ship workers are unfairly treated in the first half, while in the second half the piano strings evoke the spirit of a revolution as they rise in mutiny. In Blackmail, on the other hand, Best tried to build an air of suspicion to go with the milieu of the thriller.
Playing live music with silent films is not a trend or new. In fact, silent films were often accompanied by live orchestra in the early days. In fact, many films have live music written for them. In India too, cinema palaces screened short films and features accompanied by a string band in the first decade of 20th century. “It’s true that everything I do imposes a certain reading of the film upon the audience. I think there’s a responsibility that’s involved in the job and one has to play the music with tremendous respect for the film. I’m, in a way, the audiences’ representative, offering shape to the film,” he says.
A short film by the students of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), And What is the Summer Saying, was selected for the recently concluded Berlin International Film Festival. The students talk about the non-fiction form and the possibilities it offers.
TALKING of love has never been easy in India. It’s more difficult for women. As one travels away from urban centres, to smaller towns and villages, it almost becomes a taboo. A short film made by the students of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) captures the expression of love and longing in a remote village that must only be conveyed in whispers. The 23-minute film, And What is the Summer Saying, which was screened at Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) that concluded last week, is set in a tiny village nestled in the Sahaydris where humans and forest co-exist as amicable neighbours.
The film, which calls itself a documentary, is far from true to its generic convention. It comes close to the tradition of experimental filmmakers such as Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) and Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), and London-based Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea (2011) and What Means Something (2016) — films that trade the borders of fiction and non-fiction filmmaking.
This is the third film made by the team, comprising Mayank Khurana as cinematographer, Shreyank Nanjappa as sound designer and Ghanshyam Shimpi as editor, helmed by Payal Kapadia as director. Their last project Afternoon Clouds was the only Indian film to be screened at Cannes last year.
The audio emerges as a primary storytelling device in the short film, with the soundtrack giving sound and words the space to create meaning.
According to Kapadia, non-fiction filmmaking is an open form which concedes a lot of space for experimentation. “You can use a lot of devises because it is not necessarily narrative filmmaking. We look at documentary in narrow terms but its only difference from fiction is the approach. While making this film I was like a scavenger, looking for many stories and finally selected a few that made sense to me, and created a sense of a whole,” she said.
In the film, a honey-gatherer who depends on the jungle, to earn his living, enjoys an intimate relation with the jungle and those who inhabit it. The wilderness that engulfs the village in the night is captured in quiet, still visuals which let the soundscape of the film do most of the talking. The audio emerges as primary storytelling device with each layer serving a purpose. The whispers carrying sentiments of tenderness stand out.
Nanjappa, the sound designer, says the aim was to make the audience feel the wilderness. “Although dialogues and words can give information, they might not always help in conveying feelings.We meticulously designed the soundtrack giving sound and words the space to create meaning and unfold its effects on the viewer.”
There’s no piece to camera, a prominent feature of the documentary form, with exclusive reliance on voice recorded during intimate, informal chats. The fact that the crew was mostly male, didn’t help in making the women open up about matters of love when on camera.
“Considering the circumstances and the time that I had at my disposal, I remained an outsider. Even with the way the film is framed, there is always a distance. At one point in the film, one of the women weave a song with my name in it, telling me to dance. As if, I as a filmmaker too, am being led somewhere down a rabbit hole,” says Kapadia.
The director and some of the crew members have returned from Berlin where the film was screened multiple times, among other films in the ‘Berlinale Short’ that dealt with issues of gender and sexuality. “We had quite an interesting response. But I think most people outside are not completely able to fathom the extent of the issues here. For a woman here, to even openly say ‘I love you’ is so difficult. I cannot claim that the film was able to make people understand the issue but it definitely opened up an interesting dialogue,” says Kapadia.
The team is now working on their next film, which will be their final project at FTII that deals with the “impossibility of love”. The film tells the story of two scientists, who are trying to investigate the effects of climate change in the Western Ghats, and a woman who remembers her love affair when she was a teen.
Marathi filmmaker Gajendra Ahire, winner of many national and state film awards, has made 44 films so far. He talks about his beginnings, what drives him to make films at breakneck speed and his latest film Pimpal.
In an article written on him in 2011, the author compares director Gajendra Ahire to American director Roger Corman and controversial Japanese filmmaker Koji Wakamatsu in terms of their filmmaking speed. The only Indian name that comes to mind is of Priyadarshan, who has made over 90 films in three decades. Apart from this aspect, there are no similarities between the international directors or Ahire’s Indian counterpart.
While the majority of Priyadarshan’s work can be classified as “comic potboilers”, Ahire’s films are grim, probing and often offer a heartbreaking take on social realities in contemporary society. His characters — always fully developed and well-crafted – pose questions that are not only uncomfortable but often brushed under the carpet.
For Ahire (48), the question — “Why do you make so many films?” – is an easy one to answer. “Because that’s the only thing I do. I like the high that filmmaking gives you. I’m not doing anything else. I am not sitting in a bar sipping booze. I’m not involved in any other business. All I’m doing is writing films and making them. Fortunately, I have people around me who are helping me make them.”
He takes a pause as if he has made his point, only to add, “To tell you the truth, making a film doesn’t give you fulfillment. You always feel that something was left out. That feeling of anxiety, sense of incompletion leads you to another film. This chain doesn’t stop. It makes you work in a loop; that’s why I’m doing movie after movie.”
In early 1990s, when he was 21, living in Mumbai with his family and a graduate in Marathi literature, he left his home to escape the pressures of finding a job and settling down. “There was no point living there and continuously fighting with them,” he says. He then lived on the streets for several years guided by the protagonist of Arun Sadhu’s novel Shodhyatra, who also leaves his home to find the meaning of life.
During these two-three years, spent on the street — going places, doing odd jobs as a daily wager such as a cleaner, he came face to face with life and its realities. The people that he met and admired during this period and the situations which he lived and observed, often inspire the characters and plot lines of his films.
It was at the age of 23 that he wrote his first play for commercial theater. It was successful and opened doors for him for more plays, television serials. “You can’t replace vivid life experiences with observations or reading or imagination. It wont work if you say, ‘Let me go out and see what’s happening on the streets’. You would have to go through the process of life which gives you experiences that accumulate within you like honey drops. They will eventually come out in your work,” he says.
Despite being 44-films-old, Ahire feels that finding a producer for his next film is “as easy and as difficult” as it was for his first film, Not Only Mrs Raut. “It’s only your work that will help you get a producer. Although Mrs Raut didn’t get a release, people came forward to produce my next film because they saw the potential. It’s same even now. Anumati (2013) gave me Postcard (2014) which helped me get a producer for The Silence (2016), which then helped me get a producer for Pimpal (2017),” said Ahire.
Talking about Pimpal, his latest offering which won the Sant Tukaram Best Marathi Film Award at the recent Pune International Film Festival, Ahire reveals that the story, about the loneliness of a 70-year-old widower in Pune, whose kids are living in the US, came from his son, Chintamani. “He told me this story some years ago. I was surprised that a 17-year-old was talking about the psychological state of a 70-year-old man. The film is about the roots of an individual and how he struggles to cope with the fast-changing world. It’s also about happiness which, in these days, has become virtual. This happiness has no colour, smell or shape,” he says.
Kulkarni, the maker of contemporary Marathi classics Valu (2008), Deool (2010) & Vihir (2009) on exploring the non-fiction genre and his latest documentary, titled Kumbh, which chronicles the biggest gathering of humans.
SINCE his very first feature film, Valu (The Wild Bull, 2008), filmmaker Umesh Kulkarni found his own audience base across Maharashtra and beyond, which only grew with his subsequent films — Vihir (2009), Deool (2011), which he directed, and Masala (2012), Pune 52 (2013) which he produced. But it’s been a long break for Kulkarni since his last release as director Highway (2015), which did not do too well in cinemas.
So where’s this filmmaker who turned the tide for Marathi films in the late 2000s, which were facing both aesthetic and commercial challenges, with Valu? Apparently, Kulkarni (42) is immersed in exploring new possibilities that have opened up in the non-fiction genre. He has spent the last two years making a documentary on the Kumbh Mela and is in the process of making another on the Wada culture in old Pune. At the same time, Kulkarni has also launched a documentary film club with the help from artist Raju Sutar and National Film Archive of India (NFAI), with an aim to showcase best works from Indian non-fiction filmmaking tradition to the general public.
“In 2009, I had made a documentary for FTII called Three of us. It was shown at several international festivals including the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IFDA), which the biggest festival of documentary films in the world. While visiting the festival to present my film, the exposure to non-fiction form opened an entire new world to me. It was there that I realised that feature films and documentaries are not two separate, distinct forms with fixed boundaries. The way films are being made internationally, the boundaries between these two genres are getting merged and filmmakers are trying to explore the area that lies in between,” says Kulkarni, adding that some of the documentaries that he watched at the festival influenced him and left a lasting impact.
Back home, he observed that while India had a certain tradition of non-fiction filmmaking, there were no avenues for these films, with filmmakers struggling with the release and screenings of the films. “In many countries, there are festivals dedicated to non-fiction films, in some places there are television channels exclusively for documentaries. In India, although we had filmmakers like Mani Kaul, Shyam Benegal and others making documentaries and the Films Division funding a great number of them, there was very little exposure to the common public,” says Kulkarni. The film club, he adds, has recently screened Kamal Swaroop’s Pushkar Puran (2017), the first-ever retrospective of Amit Dutta in India, as well as non-fiction work by Mani Kaul.
Meanwhile, Kulkarni also started working on his own non-fiction projects. Kumbh, which he finished recently, was shot over several years chronicling the biggest gathering of humans. The film was selected at IDFA, New York Indian Film Festival and Kerala International Film Festival (KIFF).
“Kumbh is not a conventional documentary, as it tries to explore the space in the margins of fiction and non-fiction. I am at present also working on another documentary on a wada in old Pune where my grandma used to live. I have spent many days of my childhood there. Now, all the families that used to live there have shifted to their own apartments. I’m trying to explore the texture of life that the wada offered to its residents and how it has changed,” says Kulkarni, adding that he has decided to make a documentary or short film between every two feature films.
While he’s following his changing interests, doesn’t he feel that it may take away his fan base which may rather like him to stick to his flair — comical realism with a social message. “As an artist, I feel that I have to keep trying to find newer ways of expression. An artist can’t be a toy in the hands of the audience. If I continue to do what I have been doing, then I become too predictable and it gets boring. Also, we should give an opportunity to a different art form to get established. It may take some time as had happened in other cases such as Impressionism in painting or short story in literature. People resist, ridicule at first but later they accept if the movement has its merits,” says Kulkarni.