PIFF Screenings: The Politics of Representation

The crowd at the City Pride, Kothrud - the main venue at the PIFF, 2016
Pune International Film Festival is a little low-profiled compared to MFF, IFFI, IFFK and KFF. Although the festival turned fourteen this year, the kind of programming it goes through, and the publicity it attracts, despite the Maharashtra Government's tag making the PIFF as the only official film festival from Maharashtra, could not be great.

The PIFF is suffering from anaemia. The media presence is negligible. But, the PR group handling the PIFF is as cordial as MAMI, and definitely millions of years ahead than the IFFI where misorganization and wrongly placed glamour are more important than the films themselves.

The PIFF is the film buff's festival. It is not less easy to watch latest world releases, or State premieres, today on the big screen, for the common non-filmmaker cinephiles in India, than it was fifteen years ago. Film festivals have turned to alternative vehicles of business. A part of the industry makes cinema for festivals. They announce, proudly on facebook and twitter (and now on WhatsApp groups) how their films reached Cannes. There was a short reminder on Dear Cinema itself, written by none other than Bikas Mishra, busting the myth of so many Indian films going to Cannes. The short film center accepts any entry, against a standard payment, unless it is pathetically amateur. You, me, anyone may shoot anything like a skit on our cellphone and send that to the short film center at the Cannes. They will accept the entry. That does not mean any such Canne invitee should be celebrated by Variety and Hollywood Reporter. But, that is what such Indian filmmakers expected. This is what goaded Bikas to write that reminder. (While I could not find the relevant article by Bikas, in the now defunct Dear Cinema, here is another similar observation by another writer.)
However, a more creamier part of the industry really makes films for the big festivals. Last year quite a few films were celebrated, or won awards, at some major film festivals. That does not show that India, with its many cinemas, has stepped ahead anywhere beyond its Ray-Ghatak and the subsequent Indian new wave days, or beyond the popular Tapan Sinha-Rutuporno Ghosh or Mani Rathnam days. We do not yet have a language to express our contemporary existence. Ray developed such one for his time. Ghatak did, with a sociologist's eye, to find a route around the question how civilizations, or the human civilization as a generic process (if it is at all), must develop (or, progress) only at the cost of a series of evictions. The YUKT filmmakers, in the 70s, experimented in the changing political scenario of India. Aravindan figured out some cultural history specific routes to the myth construction across India. But, Indian cinema aped a certain Hollywood finesse, by aping itself countless times in the mirror. In the end, we are left with films which echo the kinds of crisis play that India already saw in the 1970s or before.

We do not have Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Lav Diaz. May be India's socio-political-economic existence did not change at all in the last forty years. May be we are following the eternal loop - the myth of the eternal return - through our daily ruminations. But, is that true? Are we such stagnated? There could be a Thai new wave, two decades after the Iranian one. Even China has deviated largely, if not by hundred eighty degree, from its 90s filmmaking styles - Zha Yuan's Xiang Wou (The Pickpocket, 1996), Zhang Yuan's Mama (1990) or East Palace West Palace (1996), Lou Ye's Suzhou River (2000), Wang Xiaoshuai's The Days (1993) - that challenged, in conscious ways, the filmmaking and film relishing practice dictated by the Chinese State, and raised the notes of freedom of individual expression. Those dissenting voices helped in shaping today's Chinese society, with the germ for future improvement. The result of their filmmaking practice bring fruits after two decades. The next generation enjoys the result. Today's Chinese State is even more stringent at times. But, today's citizen's are more aware of their basic rights, their freedom as individual, and the concept that the State exists because of the individual, and the group's survival and freedom, and not the other way.

In India, the scene is actually not different from the erstwhile 90s China, where it was illegal to enjoy anything not officially stamped by the State. We have several different interpretations of governance and obedience. Corporations mould our tastes. If we dare enjoy something, which is too much deviating from the official, normative, strains of enjoyment, we run the risk of social and political estrangement - ostracization. 

In one word, we are brainwashed, by the existing political ideology and its perpetrators, to guarantee the sustained survival and regeneration of the status quo. It does not matter if the status quo is right wing HIndu or Islamic fundamentalism, the centrist policy of the injection of social security and invisible corporatization, or the left dynamism stratified as monolith slowly leading to cruel dictatorship or plutocracy. 

Cinema can both instill these ideas, or oppose their functionality by showing how they brainwash a whole generation by keeping most individuals unaware. Accordingly there may be two types of film festivals, or criticism. One in favour of the power and corporations, and the other against them.

There is almost no film festival, or criticism, or popular discussion of the latter sort, in India. The PIFF is still comparatively independent in this regard. This is the only film festival, I have come across in the last five years, that gives more importance to the normal delegates, who flock in the halls at the price of their wallet or time, to catch the collective  cinema expressions from around the globe, than the VIP or the Press. That is how it should be. 

However, the programming of the festival, the films shown and the arrangement of those across the screens and the distribution over a day, is as problematic as it is anywhere else in India. The concept of curation is just not there in the Indian film festival circuit. We tend to repeat films, randomly, from other major film festivals, without showing any sense of pattern for our choice. What is worse is that we have come to accept this as the norm, and the only way of organizing a film festival. 

Film festivals, and indeed anything related to cinema - its production, distribution, exhibition, enjoyment, reading cultures through it, taking socio-economic-political decisions based on such readings, survival of the current and the future generations, and the revelation of different levels of freedom and their relation to the existence of the collective - are political expressions either in thought or in action. The moment some filmmaker, or film festival organizer, or film activist, denies any compulsory link between cinema (or, entertainment as such) and survival politics, s/he shows her/his unquestioned obedience to the group(s) in power. This chosen faith in the mainstream politics is not an apolitical stance. This is a dangerous social position that supports the status quo irrespective of its left, right or centrist dogmas, thus making the society stagnated. This is exactly the working pattern of religions (if we take either of two etymologies of the term.) There is a word for such functionally blind faith in the status quo - Reactionary.

The line up of films screened in the PIFF, 2016, does not show any conscious politics of representation of our contemporary problems, and the socio-economic-religious politics behind them. In other words, the PIFF is as bland and  reactionary as any other film festival in India.

In the following article, let us look at some of the films shown in the PIFF in the first three days.

Readers, please feel free to share your views/opinions in the comment box below. As always your insightful comments are highly appreciated!

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