Did India deal differently with Muslim refugees after Partition?

One way to get answers to these questions is to leaf through the communications shared between key actors discussing the issue of rehabilitation of refugees.

ATIKH RASHID

AS the imbroglio over Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) continues, claims and counter-claims made in support and opposition to the Act have caused a great amount of confusion and polarisation in Indian society. The episode has raised some fundamental questions about the nature of Indian state, its commitment to secularism and its relationship with religious identity.

Notwithstanding the extent of confusion caused by CAA debate, the crisis of the present moment cannot be greater than the one faced by the Indian government and people in the immediate aftermath of partition that cleaved a country into two on the basis of religion.

In that period of unprecedented chaos and communal ebb, the nascent government was faced with the responsibility of rehabilitating Hindus and Sikhs who came to India from Pakistan; and a large section of Muslims who decided to stay back in India but were pushed out of their houses due to violence.

Although India had decided to build a secular polity under the leadership of its founding fathers, could it observe that principle in practice as it was taking baby steps as an independent nation born amid the mayhem of partition? Could it look at its Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims with the same eye and address their issues with same urgency? Was the treatment of Muslim minority in India contingent on how Hindus and Sikhs were being treated in Pakistan?

One way to get answers to these questions is to leaf through the communications shared between key actors discussing the issue of rehabilitation of refugees.

Let’s start with a letter written by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to then Chief Minister of Assam Gopinath Bardoloi that Prime Minister Narendra Modi cited earlier this month (February 6) while justifying his government’s decision to enact the CAA. According to Modi, in this letter (written one year prior to Nehru-Liaquat Pact) Nehru clearly asked Bardoloi to differentiate between a ‘refugee’ and a ‘Muslim immigrant’ while dealing with them.

“This is for those who say we are doing Hindu-Muslim and dividing the country,” said Modi while ‘quoting’ the letter. “Remember what Nehru had said – aapko sharanarthiyon aur Muslim immigrants, inke beech farq karna hi hoga and desh ko in sharnarthiyon ki jimmedari leni hi padegi. (…You will have to make a distinction between refugees and Muslim immigrants and the country will have to take the responsibility of rehabilitating the refugees),” Modi said in his speech.

Modi speaking in Lok Sabha. (Source: LSTV)


What did Nehru’s letter say?


The letter was written by Nehru to Bardoloi on 4 June 1948 after the Assam government expressed its unwillingness to accommodate refugees pouring in from East Pakistan. Although Nehru did not use the exact phrasing used by Modi while quoting him, it appears from the following two paragraphs that the government adopted different approaches towards the two groups – Muslims who were trying to return to their homes in India and Hindus from East Pakistan coming to Assam.

“I’m surprised to learn that you feel yourself helpless in dealing with the influx of Muslims into Assam. As you know, we have a permit system as between Western Pakistan and India. I do not think there is a permit system in regard to Eastern Bengal and Western Bengal and possibly no such system exists in regard to Assam either. I think you should discuss this matter with Mr Gopalswami Ayyangar…”

“About the influx of Hindus from East Bengal, this is a different matter entirely. I am told that your government or some of your ministers have openly stated that they prefer Muslims of East Bengal to Hindus from East Bengal. While I, for one, always like any indication of a lack of communal feeling in dealing with public matters, I must confess that this strong objection to Hindu refugees coming from East Bengal is a little difficult for me to understand. I am afraid Assam is getting a bad name for its narrow-minded policy.”

This is not the only such communication that hints at or overtly displays a differential attitude towards these two groups of refugees. There are scores of letters shared between ministries which shows that while there was no official policy to favour rehabilitation of Hindu, Sikh refugees over ‘displaced’ Muslims, the contingencies created by large inflow of refugees from Pakistan and communal upheaval caused by partition manifested itself in a situation where taking active interest in rehabilitation of displaced Muslim families became unpalatable to many within and outside the government – especially after Mahatma Gandhi’s death barely five months after the independence.

Shortage of houses and properties to allot to incoming Hindu and Sikh refugees from West Punjab was one major topical reason for the eruption of violence against Muslims in various areas in north India as refugees from Pakistan getting accommodation became contingent on Muslims vacating their houses and migrating to Pakistan. Similarly ‘stories of violence’ brought in by refugees and resulting ‘reaction’ against local Muslims made it impossible for them to continue to live peacefully in their houses or to return to their homes if they had shifted to camps. This, in-turn, pushed the government to unofficially adopt a policy to discourage Muslims who wished to return to their homes in India – especially if they had migrated to Pakistan during the violent months.

Learning lessons from the past Partition Shortage of houses and properties to allot to incoming Hindu and Sikh refugees from West Punjab was one major topical reason for the eruption of violence against Muslims in various areas in north India.


‘The Housing Problem’

How the government’s inability to provide roofs over the heads of the refugees became a cause for violence against local Muslims can be elucidated with the example of the situation in Delhi.

As per numbers cited in various contemporary reports, within a week of the Independence an estimated 130,000 refugees had arrived in Delhi from West Pakistan. (The total Hindu, Sikh refugees which came to Delhi after partition has been estimated at 5 lakh).

In his fortnightly report (submitted in September 1947), the then Delhi Commissioner Sahibzada Khurshid pointed out that the rains of Hindus and Sikh refugees which came to Delhi brought with them “harrowing tales of loot, rape and arson”, “gained the sympathy of co-religionists in Delhi” and started “retaliatory” attacks against Delhi’s Muslims. The report has been quoted in The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia by author Vazira Zamindar.

It was estimated that about 20,000 Muslims were killed in the violence in August-September 1947 in Delhi. This caused panic among the Muslims who shifted out of the houses and started gathering in places such as Purana Qila, Nizamuddin, Humayun’s Tomb and Jama Masjid to find safety among fellow Muslims. These camps, which by all accounts held refugees in abject conditions, were guarded by ‘special police’ squads made out of Muslim civilians. From here, a big chunk left to Pakistan – some with the intention to settle there and others hoping to return after the situation became calm enough to come back to their houses in Delhi.

Empty houses left behind by the departing Muslims – those who went to Pakistan as well as those who shifted to camps within the city – became a point of contention. The Hindu and Sikh refugees felt that the houses should be allotted to them as they had left behind all they owned in Pakistan and in many cases tried to occupy the homes with force. In some cases where security personnel provided protection to the houses, the communications sent by local authorities show, the mobs would come in hundreds and tried to encroach the houses. This continued for several months after the arrival of refugees had thinned down. Details of how these attacks would happen and how it was becoming difficult for security agencies to guard the vacant houses can be gauged from a report sent to Sardar Patel by Superintendent of Police, Delhi City about once such incident that happened on January 4, 1948 when a group of about ‘100 women supported by thousands of refugee men backing them” tried to occupy vacant houses near Phatak Habash Khan. The police had to use tear gas and lathi-charge to disperse the men and women.

“This lawlessness will never abate unless necessary arrangements are made for the allotment of the vacant houses. If this lawlessness prevails, there’s every possibility of a general flare-up in the city. Refugee men and women are very desperate and are bent upon occupying the vacant houses at any cost,” reads the report by Superintendent of Police, Delhi city.

To deal with this issue, the government extended the evacuee property legislation, which was originally formulated to deal with population exchange in Punjab. According to this legislation, the ‘property’ remained in ownership of ‘evacuee’ – say, Muslims who left the houses during violence – but a custodian was appointed to look after them who had powers to temporarily allot the houses to refugees to provide immediate housing. Later on, the government adopted a policy that no ‘non-Muslim’ occupier would be evicted from the temporary accommodation until an alternate house is provided to them.

“In effect, Muslims who had taken shelter in camps could not return to their house if they had been occupied, even after the riots and murders had stopped,” write Vazira Zamindar in The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia.

In such a situation, the government functionaries thought that it was best to discourage Muslims who had travelled to Pakistan during the violence and wished to return to India, from making the journey for fear of inviting the ire of the refugees and general Hindu, Sikh population. This worry was clearly articulated by Sardar Patel in a letter that he wrote to PM Nehru on May 2, 1948 while discussing the recrudescence of activities of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

“The return of these Muslims, while we are not yet able to rehabilitate Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan and are unable to return any of them back to Pakistan, would create considerable discontent and dissatisfaction not only amongst the refugees, but also amongst the general public, and it would be this discontent which would again be the breeding ground of communal poison, on which activities of organisations like the RSS thrive,” wrote Patel in this letter. To regulate the movement of Muslims wanting to return to India, the Indian Government had started a stringent permit system in July 1948.

jawaharlal nehru Jawaharlal Nehru (Photo: Indian Express Archives)

‘Relief system not conditioned to look after Muslims’
The communication between PM Nehru and officials with the Relief and Rehabilitation Ministry also points to the difference of opinion among national leaders on the issue of rehabilitation of Muslim refugees and if the matter deserved any special attention of the Indian government.

This is apparent from the following letter that Nehru wrote to Mohanlal Saxena, who was the Minister for Relief and Rehabilitation at the time, on May 19, 1948 requesting him to appoint a special officer to look after rehabilitation of Muslim refugees.

“Who is responsible for the Muslim refugees in Delhi, Ajmer, Bhopal etc, that’s to say, the Muslims who went away temporarily and came back, often finding that their houses had been occupied by others or allotted to others?… Somebody should be responsible for all this as well as for actually helping such Muslim refugees as require help. We cannot confine our help to non-Muslims only. Obviously, it is the business of the Relief and Rehabilitation Ministry. I am told that there is no financial provision for this. I think there should be some provision, whatever it might be. I think also that a special officer of your Ministry should be in charge of this Muslim refugee problem,” wrote Nehru.

In another letter to Saxena on May 31, 1948, Nehru said that each case of a Muslim refugee “is kind of a test case for us about our bona fide” although, conceding that there may not be too much sympathy for these Muslims among government officials.

“The fact is that our whole organisation has been built up with the view to helping the vast mass of Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan. It’s not conditioned to look after Muslims whose cases stand on a somewhat different footing. It may even be that there is not too much sympathy for these Muslims among government departments or outside. We, as a government, however, have to pay some special attention to such cases because each one is a kind of a test case for us about our bona fide,” wrote Nehru.

These attempts by Nehru to give special attention to Muslim refugees were opposed by the Relief and Rehabilitation Ministry. Saxena responded by saying that this would amount to “short-circuiting” the judicious process which may expose the government to “severe criticism from the displaced persons”. Mehr Chand Khanna who was an advisor to the Ministry (and himself a refugee from Peshawar) also objected to the proposal saying India was dealing with Muslim refugees and their properties “too leniently” and that appointing a special officer for them would be “circumventing the law”.

‘The Tightrope’

Although India has avowedly decided to walk on a secular path, the contingencies created by partition and the resultant migration complicated the situation. Uditi Sen writes in Citizen Refugee: Forging the Indian Nation after Partition that the Indian leadership had to walk a tightrope between various contradictory notions of national belonging. According to her, underneath the ‘secular polity’ announced publicly, the primacy of Hindu belonging took roots aided by lack of clearly defined citizenship legislation in the initial years.

“When public policy is read in conjunction with private correspondence, it becomes clear that the refusal to clearly define the contours of the partition refugee allowed the government of India to rest or to various bureaucratic means to prevent Muslim migrants from entering ranks of the refugees. … This allowed a pragmatic validation of the primacy of Hindu belonging in India to flourish beneath public assertions of a secular polity that did not discriminate between Hindu and Muslim citizens.”

A film festival is born: Story of IFFI’s origins 67 years ago!

The first IFFI was organised by the Films Division with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s “blessings”, at a paltry budget of Rs 1 lakh.

Nehru at National Physical Laboratory after Inaugration of IFFI Delhi

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)

ATIKH RASHID

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.

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Weekly Screen announcing the government plans to hold an international film festival in India in its September 21, 1951 edition. (Credit: Screen)

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.

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Actor Suraiya with Hollywood director Frank Capra who headed the US delegation to first IFFI. (Photo Credit: Films Division)

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.

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An open-air screen erected for first IFFI at Azad Maidan in Mumbai (then Bombay). Photo Credit: International Film Festival of India)

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.

Do-Bigha-Zamin
Still from Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen.

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)

What happens when ‘eyes and ears’ of the government become its mouths?

Is the right-wing echo chamber – comprising of ideologically aligned corporate media and BJP’s overbearing presence on social networks – affecting Modi government’s ability to see the truth?

Vintage Logotype Etsy Banner (2)

Narendra Modi-led BJP Government is known for meticulous strategizing and ruthless execution. This was at display in August last year when it made the big move in Kashmir by stripping the state of the special status granted by Indian Constitution. It pre-empted any possible fallout in the volatile region by suspending the internet and telephone lines, arresting thousands of leaders – including BJP’s own former allies – and moved over 35,000 troops in addition to about 3 lakh already placed there. A curfew was imposed in the entire region. While all these ‘measures’ came under fire from a section of Indian civil society and international media, they did help the government in containing protests and clashes leading to loss of lives to a great degree, something that was subsequently paraded as an ‘achievement’ and ‘sign of normalcy’ by the government.

Considering this, it is intriguing to note the way the government was caught completely off-guard in the aftermath of the passing of Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 in the Indian parliament last month. The government failed to foresee the biggest resistance on the streets that it has faced since 2014 and was clearly taken aback with the scale and the spread of the protests. It took a few days before it could come up with a coherent response and devise a scheme to tackle this uprising.

What could have led to the government to miscalculate the impact of its CAA move on ground? By Home Minister Amit Shah’s own admission, the government ‘erroneously’ believed that the move, which for the first time sets a ‘religion test’ for Indian citizenship, wouldn’t have any consequences on the streets outside the northeast of India.

Was it the complacency that had set in considering mild, confused response its previous ‘big ideological moves’ evoked from political oppositions and liberal elite since it returned to power with an empowered mandate in May 2019? Or was it the belief that this mandate was an endorsement by majority of Indians for its ‘Hindutva agenda’? Since the protests broke out on December 15, it has increasingly become clear that a large section of Indians – especially its young – are fiercely against India stepping away from its secular path. What could have blinded the government to this disillusionment among the aspirational youth which was a large factor behind Modi’s rise in 2014 over Modi choosing ideology over the economy?

The other end of the echo chamber

Much has been written about how a media echo chamber created by ideologically partisan journalism outlets and algorithm-driven social media platforms affects citizens’ ability to make an informed opinion about what’s happening around them by increasingly filters the information, sending the citizen-audience only the information that they consume favourably and thus stratifies their opinion which may be in variance with the truth. Thus, it creates communities which are increasingly insulated from differing narratives being consumed by other communities similarly caught in their own echo chambers.

This phenomenon and its impact on democratic processes have been thoroughly discussed by media scholars. However, the focus mostly remains on how the echo chambers affect the citizens and their ability to make informed choices. The seemingly ‘irrational’ or ‘unexpected’ choice made by people in United Kingdom when they voted for Brexit have been cited as an example.

But what happens when the other end of the democracy, the government, is ensnared in an echo chamber? The current government in New Delhi provides an excellent case study of such a scenario. Over last six years, the government has created an echo chamber around it which comprises of a pliant broadcast media, a virulent social media army that has the ability to hijack every online narrative and a coterie of yes-men’ that surround the decision-makers. This system, which was actively spawned, nurtured and exploited by the government for a while now, makes it believe that everything is right with the government and agents of the wrongs have to be looked for and found elsewhere -in the opposition, among the ‘Muslims’ or, most conveniently, in Pakistan. Inside this echo chamber, every decision by the government enjoys tremendous support when, in reality, it may not be the case. The fact that it has an extremely centralised set-up, with only two persons namely PM Modi and his trusted lieutenant Amit Shah, holding all the powers makes the government more susceptible to fall into such a trap.

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A protest against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) outside Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune. Photo by Arul Horizon

The state of India’s broadcast news media – especially Hindi news channels which have the largest reach – is well-known. Barring a few exceptions, the news channels have willingly turned themselves into the propaganda arms of the government. This control over broadcast media has paid the government dividends – the ability to set the narrative, the opportunity to discredit the critics, to divert attention from its failures and, most of all, as an instrument to build a larger than life image of Narendra Modi. In the imagination of Indian broadcast media, Modi is an omnipotent, incorruptible, self-less crusader against all things evil. He’s no less than superman and hence every move he makes is no less is worthy of being hailed as ‘masterstroke’. This dominance of pro-establishment discourse on corporate broadcast media has pushed the critical voices to the margins.

On the virtual front, the social media sphere remained BJP’s stronghold for several years starting from the build-up to the 2014 general elections. It caught on to the social media phenomenon much earlier than the rival political parties and built formidable machinery. Although others have since closed in, BJP continues to dominate the narrative to a great extent and uses it as a handy tool to spread its messages through a cobweb of ‘troll’ accounts and social media influencers. Its machinery is so well oiled that it controls the Twitter trends – indicating most discussed topics of the time – at will. A recent example, and embarrassing for BJP’s social media team, of this was when it trended a phrase with a spelling mistake #WeSupportCCA instead of CAA, the acronym of the recent Citizenship Amendment Act, with over 13,000 tweets mentioning the erroneous hashtag. These trends are intended to make the citizens believe what’s the mood of the nation. In the process, the government also seems to have taken them for the truth, forgetting that these are manufactured by its own internet army. This unquestioning, fervent support from media anchors, solidarity from prominent personalities from sports and cinema and validations with millions of posts and hashtags on social media platforms provides a confirmation – although fallacious – for the Modi-Shah duo that the path on which they are taking India enjoys overwhelming support.

Evidence? Look at the language.

The way the government and the BJP reacted to the CAA protests also provides us with some evidence of how its judgement of the situation is coloured by the echo-chamber. It also shows how Modi-Shah and their confidantes use the arguments and vocabulary from the right-wing echo-chamber. The strategy that the government came out with to tackle the protests -after initial days of bafflement- was to portray the protests as ‘violent riots’ (when, in reality, violence happened only in a fraction of them) and terming the protesters as stooges of the opposition parties or people who were misled by them. These ‘arguments’ were not fresh when they came from the government officially. The pliant media channels were running these for days before Modi made them but hadn’t worked as protests grew in their spread and size as anti-CAA, anti-NRC chorus swelled.

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Across India university students have staged numerous protests against CAA as well as Modi Government’s handling of the agitation with an iron fist. (Photo: The Indian Express)

The mistaken belief that these counters will work seemingly came from television studios and social media ecosystem, where they could be seen as working. In fact, in his December 22 speech at Ramlila Maidan, his first address to the nation since the protests broke out, PM Modi pushed the same two arguments to discredit the protest. The vocabulary he used was also the same being peddled by the media to discredit the protests. He urged the people to not listen to ‘Urban Naxals’ – a term governments friends in the corporate media and its faithful warriors on social networks use to describe the liberals and left-leaning intellectuals of the country – and that they should no listen to “Congress and its friends” or ‘Mamata didi’, whom the prime time anchors had been attacking for “misleading the Muslims”.

Only a few days later, Home Minister Amit Shah told the party supporters at a Delhi rally that it was time that the ‘Tukde Tukde Gang’ of Delhi – a term used by pro-establishment media students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and those who sympathise with them – is taught a lesson. In fact, after the violence in JNU, the defence that the government put also was straight from the social media where BJP followers tried to argue that the violence was a ‘left-conspiracy’ to assaults own boys and girls to blame ABVP. Union Information and Broadcasting Minister questioned how activist and psephologist Yogendra Yadav reached JNU main gate “within 10 minutes of the violence breaking out” and hinted that the violence was staged. This claim, blatantly inaccurate as Yadav later showed, was clearly picked up by Javadekar from the right-wing cyberspace. Being a minister, he could have used the government machinery to confirm the timeline but he chose to rely on the social media for information.

Of eyes and mouths

In a democracy, the media is often referred to as ‘eyes and ears’ of the government. It would serve the government’s purpose better if the ‘eyes and ears’ provide it with the genuine picture of the situation in the country rather than telling the government what it wants to believe.

The usage ‘eyes and ears’ derives from a Persian intelligence service called ‘eyes and ears of the king’ established by Archemedian figure Astyages. The members were supposed to closely observe the society, prevent insurrections from the oppressed subjects and investigate evils in the society and report to the government. This information would help the ruler to rule.

In a democracy, there are no kings but, as Benito Mussolini once described it, is ‘a kingless regime infested with many kings’. These ‘many kings’ of democracy needs a functioning media to sense the mood of the voter-citizens, perhaps, much more than the kings of the olden times, as it’s the citizen-voters who make ‘the kings’. However, the pliant, pro-establishment media, of the kind that dominates Indian broadcast scene today, forgoes the role of being ‘the eyes and ears’ of the government but has morphed into its mouths, those which talk only the language approved by its masters. The social media is either looked at as a statistical tool to prove that the mood of the nation overwhelmingly favours all its decisions or is used to silence the critics.

This failing of the ‘eyes and ears’ to do its function will invariably lead to a disconnect between the government and the lived reality of the citizen; the drive of the former and the needs of the latter. In a functioning democracy, this is bound to end badly for ‘the kings’ of the time.

Hunting an Internet Killer

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.

ATIKH RASHID

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.

Deanna Thompson aka Baudi Moovan


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.

A long journey

Upcoming Marathi biopic Anandi Gopal traces the life of India’s first female doctor Anandibai Joshee, her whimsical husband and their journey together

Andandee’s picture from Caroline Healy Dall book ‘The Life of D r. Anandabai Joshee: A Kinswoman of the Pundita Ramabai’

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.

A still from Sameer Vidwans’ film Anandi Gopal

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.

Colour of patriarchy

Hellaro is a celebration of colour and cause. It’s enjoyable if you can ignore the shortcomings.

The film’s most celebrated part — its meticulously choreographed dance sequences — is also the most problematic one.

ATIKH RASHID

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.

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.

ATIKH RASHID

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.

Shape of silence

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.

ATIKH RASHID

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.

All hat, no cattle: Goa promise to build IFFI Village before 50th edition still on paper

Over the last few years, the state’s successive chief ministers have been promising to ready ‘IFFI Village’ before November 2019 when the 50th edition of the festival is scheduled. Information obtained by The Indian Express using RTI shows that there has been little progress on ground.

ATIKH RASHID

FIVE years after it announced a plan to build a permanent complex to host the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) and with the event’s golden jubilee just a few weeks away, the Goa government is yet to award a contract for the Rs 1,100-crore ‘IFFI Village’ project, according to information received by The Indian Express in response to an RTI query.

Entertainment Society of Goa (ESG), the state government body which is a co-organiser of IFFI and has recently been entrusted with the IFFI Village project after another government body (EDC Limited) failed to make significant progress, has said it can start work on the project only after IFFI is over.

Over the last few years, the state’s successive chief ministers have been promising to ready ‘IFFI Village’ before November 2019 when the 50th edition of the festival is scheduled.

While organisers have said they are expecting over 10,000 delegates for IFFI’s golden jubilee edition, it’s not clear where they will be accommodated as the existing infrastructure has a capacity of 2500. Also, the availability of the biggest venue, Kala Academy, has come under a cloud due to structural issues. The state government is now looking at the possibility of hiring single-screen theatres near the venue.

The 50 acre plot allotted for the project in March 2016 has seen no work since.
IFFI Village, a convention centre planned to be built on DBFOT basis (Design, Build, Finance, Operate, Transfer), was touted to end the trouble delegates go through due to inadequate seating capacity.

The 50 acre plot allotted for the project in March 2016 has seen no work since

IFFI, the oldest film festival in Asia, started in 1952. Until 2003, it was hosted by different cities every year. It finally found a home in Goa after the festival was organised there in 2004. Goa was made IFFI’s permanent host in 2014 and as per an MoU signed between I&B Ministry and the state government, one of the key responsibilities of Goa government was to “develop and construct a permanent festival venue having a seating capacity for around 12,000 delegates/invitees and other support facilities for organizing opening and closing functions including film screenings”.

Soon after a permanent venue was announced, the Goa government said potential locations for ‘a new convention centre to host IFFI’ have been identified. On March 31, 2016, the state cabinet allotted a 50-acre plot in Dona Paula. In September 2017, then Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar appointed EDC Limited, a state government undertaking, as a special purpose vehicle for the project and set IFFI 2019 as the deadline.

Documents inspected show there has been little progress since.

The request for proposal for the project was prepared only in December 2018 and presented before the ‘Empowered Committee’ headed by then CM Parrikar. A tender inviting bids was floated on January 28, 2019, only to realise that there was a legal glitch in the contract as the state’s Additional Solicitor General Atmaram Nadkarni pointed out that in the current format, the government may end up losing ownership of the land to the prospective concessionaire. This led to issuance of several corrigenda — six till July 2019 — with the last one pegging the bid opening date at October 28, weeks before the 50th IFFI.

In September, the Empowered Committee under current CM Pramod Sawant decided to take away the project from EDC Limited and hand it over to ESG, the government body set up for organising IFFI in coordination with Directorate of Film Festivals, Government of India. This led to EDC withdrawing the request for proposal.

As per the request for proposal, the project is to be undertaken in two parts — the first comprising mandatory deliverables such as theatres to screen films, multi-level car parking and other facilities. The second includes setting up commercial buildings such as hotels. While the first part is expected to require an investment of Rs 350 crore, the second is estimated to cost Rs 750 crore.

The project plan includes a total of 11 auditoria in the ‘IFFI village’ with a total capacity of 8600 seats which will comprise of one large multipurpose hall of 6000 square meter area with a capacity to host 5000 persons, a multiplex with six multipurpose auditoria having a total 1500 seats, one large cinema theatre with 1000 seats, another theatre with 500 seats, two more with 250 seats each and a virtual reality (VR) cinema hall with a capacity to host 100 persons.

At present, IFFI infrastructure in Goa has a cumulative seating capacity of just 2,539 seats at three venues namely Kala Academy, Inox Multiplex and Maquinez Palace. With an average of over 5000 delegates registering every year to attend the biggest film festival in India, this often causes a lot of trouble, disappointments and ruckus during the event as delegates have to wait in long queues to get into the threatres. Kiran Ballikar, Managing Director of EDC Limited said, “It has been decided by the empowered committee to hand over the project to ESG. They will take the project ahead.”

Subhash Phal Dessai, BJP MLA and Vice-Chairman of Entertainment of Society of Goa (ESG) which is responsible for logistical side of IFFI, said that the delay has been caused due to EDC’s lack of experience in handling such projects.

“The state government asked EDC to implement the project as ESG was seen as a cultural organisation with no expertise to implement such a big project of over Rs 1000 crore. However, EDC is a financial institution and also doesn’t have the relevant experience to implement such a project which is essentially a construction project. They don’t have a team of engineers. This lack of competence and interest in the project on part of EDC has delayed it,” said Phal Dessai.

He said that the ESG is presently busy in oganising the 50th IFFI and any work on ‘IFFI village’ project will only be done after the festival is over.

When asked about the plans to deal with problems that organisers may face due to delay in completion of ‘IFFI village project’ and additional footfall of delegates and invitees that 50th IFFI is expected to attract, Phal Dessai said that ESG is planning to increase auditoriums to accommodate more delegates.

“We are in touch with three additional theatres and if the need arises we may use them as well during IFFI 2019. Of these, two are close to the existing venue and one is slightly far. We will make a decision regarding engaging these for IFFI in future meetings of the steering committee. Although there are some structural issues with Kala Academy, the Chief Minister has reviewed the situation and we will ensure that it’s safe enough to host IFFI screenings,” said Phal Dessai.

STATE Govt claims panchayats planted 1.7 cr trees in Pune Division, no evidence for 87% per cent plantation

Field visits conducted by The Indian Express in 20 villages in Sangli, Satara and Kolhapur Districts, showed that that most Gram Panchayats had “distributed” the saplings they were asked to plant. Many couldn’t show the locations of planted saplings.

A resident of Bramhanal village shows a wilted sapling that he said died as the village was submerged in water for days.

ATIKH RASHID

While the state government is claiming to have not only achieved but exceeded the target of planting 33 crore trees in the state as part of the three-month-long ‘Green Maharashtra’ drive — which ended on September 30 —a substantial part of the evidence to support this claim is missing from the state Forest department’s portal. Information shows that gram panchayats — which as per government claims planted 8.64 crore saplings — have not uploaded geographical tags and pictures to support the plantation numbers. In Pune Division alone, Gram Panchayats have not uploaded geo-tags and photographs for as much as 87 per cent of purported tree plantations.

The state forest department had created a special portal to monitor the tree plantation across the state by over 59 agencies. It was made mandatory for every agency to geographically tag the plantation sites and take pictures of the site and the saplings before and during the plantation, to ensure that the plantation has indeed been carried out.

According to the government website, 34.54 crore trees have been so far planted in the state with geographic tagging and the target has been surpassed with a 104.68 per cent plantation.

The Indian Express examined the tree plantation data uploaded on the Forest department’s portal for five districts of Pune division and found that while it has been claimed that gram panchayats in five districts — Pune, Sangli, Satara, Kolhapur and Solapur — have planted a total of 1.7 crore saplings, the panchayats did not provide any evidence for the plantation of as many as 1.49 crore trees (87.65 per cent) that they purportedly planted. The sites of these plantations have not been geographically tagged and pictures depicting preparations for the drive (such as photos of dug pits) or those taken during the plantation drive have not been uploaded, raising questions if these trees were indeed planted.

As per the data, in Pune District, the government claims that Gram Panchayats planted 42,33,227 trees. No evidence (geo-tagging, pictures) has been provided for 26,65,687 trees. In Solapur, the government says it planted 29,39,747 trees, but no evidence is uploaded for 27,79,747 trees. In Sangli, where the Gram Panchayat plantation claim is 22,18,170, no geotagging has been done for plantation sites where a total of 18,68,039 trees have purportedly been planted. In Kolhapur, where the Gram Panchayat is said to have planted 32,93,590 trees, the portal has been updated with no evidence for as many as 32,78,135 trees. In Satara, the government claim is 43,24,488 plantation via Gram Panchayats but evidence for only 550 sapling plantation has been uploaded with no geo-tags or pictures for rest 43,24,938 trees.

When reached for comment, Maheep Gupta, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and co-ordinator for plantation drive by Gram Panchayats, told the reporter to speak to Chief Conservator of Forest (Pune) Vivek Khandekar.

Khandekar said the anomaly could only be explained by the gram panchayats concerned or zilla parishad officials of the districts in question.

“We merely provided a platform for various agencies to upload the data and the pictures, geo-tags. If they did not upload the pictures and geo-tagged the plantation sites, only the gram panchayat officials or Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of zilla parishad concerned can provide an explanation. All I can talk about is the trees planted by forest department in Pune circle,” said Khandekar.

The Indian Express spoke to gram panchayat officials in about 20 villages in Pune, Sangli and Kolhapur and asked them about the drive and reasons for failure to upload the pictures and geograhpical tags on the portal.

According to them, the target given to each gram panchayat this year (average target per panchayat was 3,200) for tree plantation was “too high” and due to lack of funds for the drive, officials chose to “distribute” most of the saplings among farmers and school children asking them to plant them at home or farm. They said that planting 3,200 trees would have required about “Rs 70, 000 to Rs 1 lakh” for hiring machines to dig the pits and pay wages to labourers for planting the saplings. “The Forest department has made no arrangements for grants towards this expense. It has to be borne by the gram panchayat. Most of the gram panchayats have very little revenue and can’t spare the money for this scheme,” said a gram panchayat office bearer at Palus taluka in Sangli district.

“We had planted about 50 trees in the primary school premise. Rest were given away to farmers and school children,” said a gram panchayat official at Kanwad village in Shirol taluka of Kolhapur district.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a Forest department official said that gram panchayats were not supposed to “distribute” the saplings but to plant them. “We have several other schemes and departments that are involved in distribution and sale of saplings. This scheme is about planting the saplings and to ensure that they survive,” said the official.

Kolhapur, Sangli among top performers in Pune division


Though Kolhapur, Sangli districts were in news for devastating floods in August, but according to data provided by the government on the portal, they were among the top three districts in Pune revenue division (along with Satara) to have achieved 100 per cent tree plantation target.

According to the portal, Kolhapur planted 1.13 crore trees between July and September 2019 (100.47 per cent of its target), Sangli planted 75.23 lakh (104.06 per cent) and Satara planted 1.26 crore trees (101.65 per cent) during the same period.

Forest department officials said that since the plantation drive started on July 1, it was possible that the plantation was done before the floods wreaked havoc in the districts in the first week of August.

Residents of several villages in Shirol taluka of Kolhapur and Palus in Sangli — where the floods caused worst devastation — said that even the “50 or 100” saplings that were planted in their villages before the floods by gram panchayats were either washed away or wilted afterwards as they were submerged in water for several weeks.

At Bramhanal in Palus taluka where 17 people had died during floods after a boat carrying rescued villagers had capsized, local residents said that 50-odd trees that the gram panchayat had planted have either disappeared or wilted after floods.

“The water was 15 to 20 feet high. All the houses were submerged. The saplings that were planted by the gram panchayat and were not washed away, have wilted,” said Arvind Chougule, a resident of Bramhanal.