My personal experience of the seventh edition of the Cinefan Festival of Asian Cinema began on a bad note, with the discovery that the India Habitat Centre was not on the list of venues this year, and that the Siri Fort Auditorium would be the hub of operations.
Many of my friends were equally dismayed. Over the years, through experiences of numerous film festivals and other cultural events, we've come to think of Habitat as a friendly, welcoming place (where entry is easily obtained and one can loll about studying screening schedules undisturbed) and Siri Fort as a cold, bureaucratic one.
Our instinctive reaction that this didn't bode well was borne out by some of the things that happened on the first two days. Visitors, many of whom didn't have their own vehicles, were disallowed from carrying cellphones and bags into the auditoria, with no provision for leaving personal possessions anywhere safe.
Rude guards scowled, made sarcastic comments that went well beyond the call of duty, treated visitors like vermin and went to ridiculous lengths to stop people from carrying even pens into the halls. And, mind you, I say all this from the vantage point of the Relatively Privileged: I might not have been in the league of the many special delegates and Page Three types who thronged the festival, but I was a journalist bearing press accreditation, with the option of calling up one of the organisers if something went very wrong.
I can only imagine how much worse it must have been for regular movie-lovers who didn't have any clout.
As the festival progressed, however, an unanticipated shift in mood occurred. The security started to get its act together, and organisers turned the 'professionalism' knob a couple of notches to the right. Consequently, as more and more things went right, it became possible to be graceful about the things that didn't. It became possible to say, with a shrug, "Oh well, some screw-ups can't realistically be avoided at a huge event like this."
Reluctantly, I had to admit that one of my original peeves -- the loss of IHC as a venue -- had turned out to the festival's benefit. As Cinefan grows -- and it has been growing significantly, especially after being taken over by Osian's last year -- what it needs more than anything else is a consolidated centre for operations. On this year's evidence, Siri Fort, with its four auditoria, could be that centre.
Outside of the actual screenings (around 115 films), there were more events by way of seminars, lectures and training programmes this year than in any previous edition, and with practically everything within walking distance, Cinefan 2005 acquired something of the festival (while not necessarily festive) spirit.
The satisfaction of leaving one hall after a film finished, poring quickly over the screening schedule and then just jogging -- rather than driving -- across to another hall, or to the media centre, or for a lecture, had a charm all its own.
It's easy to skimp on giving credit where credit is due but, in the final analysis, the good outweighed the bad -- not least in the actual quality of the films.
Let's hope the improvements continue, for with the IFFI having moved to Goa, Cinefan is more important than ever for Delhi's cultural circuit. Let's hope, also, that steps are taken to make the festival as accessible to the regular movie-lover as it is to influential socialites or molly-coddled journalists.
The Satyajit Ray retrospective was a godsend to many of us who have distressingly few opportunities to see the great man's films on the big screen. The selections were impeccable, with five of Ray's finest movies covering the spectrum of his career -- from the iconic 'song of the little road' Pather Panchali to the children's classic, Sonar Kella, and the modern parable of upward mobility, Seemabaddha.
The dozens of film posters on display in the foyers got two-thumbs up! Apart from ensuring there was always something to do between screenings, they contributed immeasurably to the mood of the festival and sent most of us into spasms of nostalgia.
The lifetime achievement award to Donald Richie, the great film scholar/historian, and author of valuable books on Japanese cinema, including The Japanese Film: Art And Industry and The Films of Akira Kurosawa, was well deserved. Richie gave an elucidating lecture on "notions of Japaneseness in film", though unfortunately this was in one of the smaller auditoria.
Some glitches you can live with -- they come with the territory and usually smoothen out with time. But others are so avoidable you felt like tearing your hair out in frustration -- like the scheduling of a 2 hour 15 minute film in a 2-hour slot just before the festival's centrepiece, Pather Panchali (and in the same auditorium), when it was known that enormous crowds would show up. The predictable result: long queues waiting outside the hall for over an hour, with an equally large number of people watching the preceding film inside.
We're grateful for Osian's boss Neville Tuli's contribution towards making the festival's marketing more savvy, and for raising money through auctions, but he'd do well to keep himself offstage.
Tuli's speeches at the opening and closing ceremonies were littered with rabble-rousing banalities like 'Take pride in your nation and be prepared to pay for your art' (as he disclosed that tickets would have to be paid for from next year onwards), and 'If we want to be leaders of the world, we need to make more sacrifices.' Whatever.
The decision to award the best film prize in the Indian Competition section to the poorly scripted Nisshabd left many of those who'd seen the film more than somewhat perplexed. But well, you know what they say about film festivals and awards...