When Cannes gave Pather Panchali the award for the Best Human Document and Venice confirmed the long-term impact of what was meant to be a trilogy by giving the Golden Lion to Aparajito, there was a sense of satisfaction that Indian cinema had become part of a new social and artistic consciousness in world cinema. In India, too, the trilogy was said to have ushered in a modern approach even in the simple narrative style that Satyajit Ray had adopted, which influenced filmmakers cutting across cultural barriers. There were festival experiences for Indian films before the Apu films had arrived but the real excitement consisted of the global recognition and chain of events that followed Ray&’s work. That mattered more than the ritual of a festival participation.
The distinctions between the films that made it to the different categories were clearly defined, although one award-winner could well be picked up elsewhere for purely academic purposes. It would involve the presence of the director to make the experience more meaningful. There were old festivals like Locarno and London that, over the years, have offered a meeting point for the new generation of filmmakers. There were also a growing number of new festivals that became happy hunting grounds for directors belonging to the New Cinema.
Beginning with Mrinal Sen and Shyam Benegal, who represented aspects of Indian reality that left a strong impression abroad, there were young directors like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Jahnu Barua, Jabbar Patel and Gautam Ghose, who became voices of young Indian cinema that began to be regularly heard.
For quite a few years, the Directorate of Film Festivals under the Union ministry of information and broadcasting had taken up the task of selecting and sending films abroad. Those were the early years of the Indian Panorama and the growing number of festivals that had the conventional trappings of annual get-togethers sought entries from India as part of an effort to get a cross-section of work from different countries. Some had a special focus that still exists — short and documentary films, short fiction, first works and subjects relating to particular aspects of life.
Obviously these are smaller events, though some, like Shanghai, provide incentives to young directors emerging from film schools and universities that are quite attractive. But as the number grew and there appeared to be a desperate effort from Karlovy Vary to Cairo, and from Tokyo to Toronto to grab new films, a new culture of festival participation became visible. This is often reflected in the title cards of new films released in theatres. The number of festivals in which the film has been entered is proudly displayed as a kind of endorsement of its merit. The sense of disillusionment is often quite painful.
This is because of two developments. The DFF&’s role has, for all practical purposes, been wiped out and directors in their own interest have been scouting for the right contacts to get their films selected in at least one of the major sections. This gives their work some kind of credibility and endorsement when they are not at all sure about how local audiences will respond to an offbeat idea. It is the participation that matters more than the performance in terms of an impact that should, in the case of the best films, survive the superficial exchanges over a few days of fun and games.
Some festivals are now seen to have appointed agents in different countries, including India, to brief them on possible entries. But, essentially, it boils down to finding the right person at the right time in order to claim a privilege for a film regardless of its immediate or archival value.
All this is not quite as disturbing as the occasional attempt to grab the elusive mantle of a “world master” with work that the director is perhaps not so keen to put into the public discourse. It is one thing to seek the most rewarding channel to a Hall of Fame that a festival creates only for itself. It is something else to be accepted within one&’s country and abroad as a master who leaves a trail of cinematic ideas that automatically touches the sensibilities of millions.
One such aspiring “master” survives in the limited circle of festivals and awards, his surrealism and his visual devices. A festival participation is only a small part of the contribution that the filmmaker can make to successive generations of filmgoers. History confirms a true master, not the strategies often applied by uninspiring means to achieve limited objectives.