The best reason for expanding the 24th Kolkata International Film Festival is the need to prepare the ground for the silver jubilee next year. The event has grown over the Last few years but the question that may be asked is how many more celebrities are required on stage to make it more attractive.
Stars as they undoubtedly are, they are best seen in the company of their international counterparts on an occasion such as this. Majid Majidi, the Iranian director who has visited the city in the past, should be a big attraction, more so after Beyond the Clouds, which he shot in Mumbai.
A large contingent is expected from Australia, the focus country, perhaps led by Philip Noyce, a retrospective of whose work is planned. If other international delegates are present at the inauguration, they are best seen sharing the stage and their ideas with Amitabh Bachchan, Soumitra Chatterjee, Shah Rukh Khan, Jaya Bachchan and others who have been associated with both a popular and discerning response to Indian films that now claim markets in the West.
Festivals have the specific objectives of giving audiences access to the best films made during the past year and opening new markets for films that have claimed recognition. To that extent, the Kolkata festival still has some way to go though there can be no doubt that the Last few years have seen a visible spurt in public response at least on the opening day. Whether that response has been extended to greater appreciation of films entered in the different sections is a matter of debate.
Nevertheless, the festival has made a definite effort to break new ground. An international competition offers rewards that are, by all accounts, more attractive than anything offered elsewhere in India. Whether the films selected this year from Turkey, Hungary, Romania and France represent the most interesting work done in those countries also remains to be seen.
But Kolkata offers the Indian directors, including the maker of Tarikhfrom Bengal, a great opportunity to participate in an international competition with an international jury as well. The revival of competitions in different sections — Indian languages, Asian countries and short films — has been the best means of drawing attention from other parts of India and abroad at a time when several states have festivals of their own.
Thiruvananthapuram claims a strong presence in the global sphere with a large number of celebrities from abroad thronging the festival every year. Bengaluru offers the additional attraction of shifting the event to the Mysore palace grounds on the last few days. Kolkata’s long-standing reputation has consisted of a concentration on good cinema.
To that extent, attention will be focused on entries in the contemporary international section — regarded as the cream of the festival. There will be a focus country, retrospectives and tributes. But eventually the festival will be judged by films received from the most creative sources, the most talked about directors on the international circuit and, of course, the selections from Cannes, Berlin, Venice and other festivals.
Whatever the results of that effort, Kolkata has witnessed growing participation of the local film fraternity. It may not have scaled the heights of the Mumbai film festival but the enthusiasm of both the industry and young debutants can hardly be missed. The centenary of Bengali cinema is an occasion to be celebrated but it remains to be seen how effectively this will be done through screenings, debates and exhibitions.
The recent selections for the Panorama in Goa suggest that Bengal has reason to be pleased with what newcomers like Arijit Singh, who now manages both music and direction, and Arjun Dutta have achieved in their first films —Saand Abyakto. Their presence in the Kolkata festival would have added another dimension to the excitement but they reflect the aesthetic consciousness that has gripped newcomers in this region who find cinema to be the most effective medium for expressing themselves.
This is also reflected in the short and documentary section that is crammed with pleasant surprises and fresh ideas in films like Ladakh Chale Rickshawala. The surge of enthusiasm in Kolkata is evident in the rush of entries in this section that comes with attractive rewards as well. In much the same way, visitors would be looking for more splendid discoveries in Bengal that have perhaps travelled to festivals abroad but are yet to be tested back home. Equally pleasing from Kolkata’s point of view is the possible revival of the sparkling memories of Narasingh and Gulabi in Satyajit Ray’s Abhijanmade 56 years ago when Soumitra Chatterjee and Waheeda Rehman are scheduled to keep a date at the Netaji Indoor Stadium.
This should be one of the best gifts of the centenary celebration. Ray himself had never regarded the film as one of his major works and, in fact, had been persuaded to direct it after it was said to have been started by someone else with the master agreeing to stand by as scriptwriter and mentor. The final work has moments with both stars that are unforgettable. A return to those magic moments on an occasion when they can share a treasure-trove of experiences may well be one of the high points of the centenary celebration. In any case, the stage has been set for another carnival.