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Interview American

IFFI 2018 has been a disaster as it is run by cinema illiterates: Veteran film aficionado Abhijit Ghosh Dastidar

A regular at film festivals in the country, he has been attending the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), or the Filmotsav as it was called in those days, since 1982.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Avid film watcher and journalist Abhijit Ghosh Dastidar’s love for the movies began at an early age. A regular at film festivals in the country, he has been attending the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), or the Filmotsav as it was called in those days, since 1982.

Given his vast and engaged experience of tracking festivals in the country, we asked him about his observations on the ways in which festivals have developed before his eyes and his thoughts about IFFI in particular.

When did you start attending film festivals for the first time?

I have been sight oriented since age four. We used to live in central Calcutta and I started watching films with my parents, particularly English films. My father was a great student of English literature, so he would avoid the Bangla and Hindi films and go for the English films. With them, I started watching English films.

I went to a Protestant Methodist School and with the little bit of pocket money I had, I started buying tickets for myself and started watching films, sometimes even getting smuggled into ‘adults only’ films in those days [the 1950s and 1960s].

I kept this familiarisation of the eyes and the screen at a very early age so I could comprehend what cinema was. Then I got associated with the Film Society movement, at the Calcutta Film Society in 1967. I was 21 years old and I would be watching international cinema. Thereafter, I got into a job where I never pulled on well with any of my bosses so I was posted from one bad place to a worse place, which continued for 37 years.

So how did I sustain my interest in cinema? When leave was given, I would take off to Kolkata and lap off as many films I could and then in January 1982, the IFFI Filmotsav was conducted in Kolkata and I discovered that it was far easier to get into a film festival by being a press delegate than by being a filmmaker. So I started writing on cinema. Since then I am the official media — film/ theatre correspondent for Frontier English Weekly, which is the oldest and the last surviving English weekly from Kolkata. This has been non-stop.

I have been subscribing to Sight and Sound from London, Film Comment from New York, learnt French to understand cinema better so I subscribe to Cahier du Cinema and I dip into the film coverage in the New Yorker and when I am not watching a film, I am reading about films.

Unless you read about films constantly, you cannot maintain your film appreciation. You can’t just land up at a festival and ask, “Abhi kya picture dekhna hai?” [What film can I watch now?]. If I have decided to watch a film for two hours, presume that I have studied about that film for at least six hours. The study of cinema is as difficult as Physics or Mathematics.

Since you have been attending festivals dedicatedly for such a long time, in your view, how have festivals developed in our country?

It hasn’t developed. It runs on the brainwaves of just one or two individuals. In Bombay, it is running solely because Rashid Irani is in the selection committee. He has supreme knowledge of foreign language films. In Trivandrum, it’s running because of the efforts of Bina Paul. In Kolkata, it is running because of the efforts of the sales agents, who get you foreign films.

And what about IFFI?

IFFI this year has been a disaster because it has been run by cinema illiterates. The biggest crisis is, and you may agree with me, is that after you come out of [watching] a serious film, to talk about the film and share about the film is an experience… That doesn’t happen here and cinema is one of the most difficult to understand and the easiest to bluff your way aroun.

What, in your opinion, then should be the components of a good festival, for you, as a film aficionado?

Festivals in India are what is described as, festival of festivals — a great film which has not won any awards will not be entered here. It’s only films which have been screened and applauded in Sundance, South by South West, Berlin, Cannes, Venice, Toronto - so they pick up titles from these places. That way, a bunch of cinema illiterates are handing cut-outs and lists of films at Cannes or Berlin - what will they comprehend? That is the biggest crisis today of IFFI. They don’t have a think-tank. I mentioned the names for Bombay and Trivandrum but they [IFFI] do not have a think tank, so that’s what they need.

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