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Film fest goes pop
For 16 long years, the Kolkata International Film Festival (KIFF), the second oldest in India, remained the exclusive preserve of Left intellectuals and politicians and, thus, high-brow but drab. But last year, when the tsunami of poriborton swept through Bengal and swept away the Left, it became inevitable for the character of this festival also to change.
And change it did, by shedding its dreary image and embracing the glitz and glamour that it had long been denied with glee and gusto. The staid inaugural ceremonies gave way to colourful extravaganzas featuring top names from Bollywood and Tollywood. This ceremony was itself shifted out of the statecontrolled 'Nandan', another mini-bastion of those with Left intellectual pretensions, to the bigger Netaji Indoor Stadium. And the beedi or Charminar-smoking jholawalas who treated the KIFF as their exclusive domain have now been crowded out by the hordes of aam aadmi flocking to the festival.
And this is what has got the goat of those who believe that KIFF should stick to its dowdy self. Veteran Bengali actor Soumitra Chatterjee has now emerged as the most vocal among them. Earlier this week, Chatterjee slammed the swanky inaugural ceremony of the 18th edition of KIFF attended by the likes of Big B and King Khan by dubbing it "crass" and "senseless". Chatterjee, who had been a permanent fixture at KIFF when his friend (former chief minister) Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was Bengal's helmsman and had given the opening ceremonies of the last two editions of KIFF the miss, was clearly riled by the presence of Bollywood stars like Shah Rukh Khan and his Jab Tak Hain Jaan leading ladies Katrina Kaif and Anushka Sharma. He also found fault with the stadium being the chosen venue of the inaugural ceremony, arguing that KIFF "is a film festival and not a circus".
Chatterjee's sentiments are being echoed by members of the Left's culture vultures. "Giving prominence to film personas whose films barely ever make it to film festivals within and outside the country lowers the image of KIFF. Commercial success doesn't reflect cinematic excellence and a film festival should be about showcasing cinematic excellence. For its first 16 years, KIFF built up its reputation in international circles as a cerebral event far removed from the mindless glitz and superficial glamour of many other film festivals. But since last year, the festival is being devalued, " says a veteran cinematographer and member of CPM's culture clan who did not wish to be named.
Last year, KIFF was inaugurated by Sharmila Tagore in the presence of SRK. The year before that, at Nandan, cinematographer Ramananda Sengupta inaugurated the festival in the presence of Chatterjee, Mrinal Sen, Tarun Majumdar, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and a host of other Left or Left-leaning personas. The preceding year, Mani Ratnam lit the inaugural lamp. In 2008, Mrinal Sen did the honours while in 2007, Shyam Benegal was the chief guest at the inauguration.
But the glamourisation of KIFF does find widespread support. "Mamata Banerjee has popularised it by getting popular actors involved in it. It has gained mass appeal since last year, " says theatre personality Arpita Ghosh. Renowned stage director Bibhas Chakraborty says that shifting the inaugural ceremony out of the restrictive confines of Nandan has popularised the festival. "Instead of a few hundred people, the event is now attended by tens of thousands. A film festival, like any other event, belongs to the people, " he says.
Mamata aide and transport minister Madan Mitra contends that during the Left regime, KIFF was a political event promoting Left ideology. Buddhadeb's speeches at the festival's inaugural ceremonies were highly political in nature, he points out. "Our leader has popularised the festival, but not devalued it. Look at the list of critically acclaimed films being screened this year, " he says. He has a point - after the colourful start, KIFF 2012 was all about serious cinema from across the globe: 160 films by 38 renowned film directors from 62 countries. Mamata has managed to increase KIFF's glamour quotient, but also maintain its intellectual quotient.
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