15th Kolkata International Film Festival – Overview

The 15th Kolkata International Film Festival showed a total of 170 films in ten auditoria across the city. The festival is effectively two events in one. The official delegates and guests can attend any screening. Consequently in the main auditoria (in the Nandan complex) only a handful of tickets for non-delegates are made available and most morning screenings covering the more prestigious titles are very difficult for non-delegates to obtain tickets. This ‘official’ festival has several sections and here are the 2009 choices:

Centenary tributes: Bimal Roy and Elia Kazan

Homage: Federico Fellini, Rogério Sganzerla (Brazil), Sembene Ousmane, Yilmaz Guney

Honour: Andrzej Wajda, Márta Mészáros, Caroline Link

Discovery: Nikos Panayotopoulos, ‘Encounter’ (various films), Mexico in Focus, Marquez on Celluloid, Remembering World War 2, ‘Passage through Darkness’ (various films), Children’s Screen, Experimental, Indian Select, Short Films and Documentary Films.

The entrance to Nandan a week after the festival. (Security was such that I couldn't take photos during the festival itself.)

There is also a general section entitled Contemporary World Cinema which includes some films also listed in one of the other sections above. Many of these films are screened in venues where tickets are available for the general public. Some films may also screen in two or three different auditoria. Ticket prices are very reasonable at Rs 70/- or less (under £1 sterling).

Several of the featured filmmakers were present, including Márta Mészáros and Caroline Link who discussed their own films as well as joining in the general debate about neorealism that was taken up in a session focusing on Bimal Roy, the Bengali director who later worked in Hindi Cinema and some see as the crucial figure in injecting ‘social’ concerns into Indian films. The principal guest at the opening ceremony was Mani Ratnam who was perhaps a little embarrassed by the intervention of Mrinal Sen, the doyen of Bengali filmmakers, who, speaking from the floor of the Nandan auditorium, condemned the festival organisers for demoting him from the platform. (I wasn’t there but the incident was reported in the local press which covered the festival most days.) Ratnam acknowledged Sen as a mentor and was probably a trifle bemused having flown up to Kolkata from shooting Ravana in Hyderabad. Also embarrassed was the local star actor Soumitra Chatterjee (best known in the West for his work with Satyajit Ray) who was chair of the festival.

Mrinal Sen addressing delegates at the opening of the festival (image from KolkataMirror.com).

The reason for Sen’s intervention was taken to be political by the local media. Sen has long been recognised as one of the leading figures in left film culture in India and the presence of West Bengal’s Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee on the platform at a time when the majority party in the state, the CPM (Communist Party of India – Marxist), had just been thrashed in local ‘bypolls’ was seen as provocative. Bengali film culture has long been enmeshed in left sectarian politics it would seem. Ironically, the Chief Minister spoke about “The world . . . threatened by international terrorism, global warming, military hegemony and other problems. The films have been chosen on the basis of their social relevance and aesthetic excellence”. I think that this is an accurate statement and it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to attend. Kolkata is about as far away from the glitz, glamour and popcorn of competetive festivals with commercial markets (i.e. Cannes, Toronto  etc.) as it is possible to get. The emphasis is on politics and aesthetics, still drawing heavily on the legacy of the Bengali intellectual and cultural heritage associated with Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen himself. This is clear from the Festival’s showreel, shown before each screening. The montage of images contrasts iconic scenes from Bengali films with contemporary footage of similar locations. The two most iconic images of Bengali Cinema that I recognised were the ‘train shot’ from Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955) and the symbolic railway buffers from Ghatak’s Komal Ghandhar (1961) which powerfully represent the partition of Bengal in 1947. I’m fairly sure that there are other Ray and Sen sequences in there as well.

Unfortunately, I was unable to register for the festival – I naively thought I would be able to do this from the UK, but then discovered that the festival website didn’t work and the email address was inaccurate. Consequently, I arrived in Kolkata not knowing if I would see anything. On the day before the festival, the hospitality director provided me with a programme and one ticket for a delegate-only screening and I worked out how to buy tickets for the public screenings of ‘Contemporary World Cinema’ films. I eventually saw the following films which I’ll try to cover in separate posts:

The Unburied Man (dir. Márta Mészáros, Hungary

Ploning (dir. Dante Nico Garcia, Philippines 2008)

My Marlon and Brando (dir. Huseyin Karabey, Turkey 2008)

Winter in Wartime (dir. Martin Koolhoven, The Netherlands 2009)

Landscape No. 2 (dir. Vinko Mordendorfer, Slovenia 2008)

Black (dir Pierre Lafargue, France 2009)

Songs from the Southern Seas (dir Marat Sarulu, Kazakhstan/Russia/Germany/France 2008)

The Contemporary World Cinema selection was, I think, well chosen with at least 41 countries represented (some were co-productions so possibly more than 41). I chose films mainly on the basis of the time slot and what was showing in the Rabindra Sadan – a large 900 seater auditorium used mainly for live theatre but converted for the festival – situated adjacent to Nandan. I found all the films interesting in different ways. Most of the films have been widely seen at other festivals, but Kolkata’s USP is placing them together in such a way that their political/cultural elements become more noticeable. I also appreciated the chance to watch films from countries I know little about, having never seen films from these countries before, i.e. Philippines, Slovenia and Kazakhstan.

Several of the films shown have already opened in the UK and are included as separate entries on this blog, e.g. Skin, Katalin Varga and Cherry Blossoms. The opening film was Mark Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (UK 2008) which I chose not to see on its UK release on the basis of its trailer. It has actually done quite well around the world but I was interested to see that the press coverage in Kolkata outlined the hostility of some some Holocaust survivor groups towards the representations in the film. Here it kicked of the ‘Remembering World War II’ strand.

Individual reviews to follow.

4 responses to “15th Kolkata International Film Festival – Overview

  1. My apologies for the delayed response.

    That was a truly wonderful introduction to the 15th Kolkata Film Festival. Being a Calcuttan (or) Kolkatan by birth and at heart, it always feels good when someone writes nice things about it. And saying good words about the film festival is, in a way, applicable to the city itself, for the simple reason, as you’ve so aptly pointed out, politics & aesthetics (arts) are the 2 defining parameters for the city in general, and the educated Bengalis in particular.

    Yeah, it would have been really nice to meet up. I didn’t get to see many movies this time due to certain personal commitments (watched a meagre 2). While you watched the movies mostly at Rabindra Sadan, while I chose, as I’d done last year, New Empire for my film viewings. In fact there were a couple of places near my workplace (which is located at Salt Lake, if you got to hear the name), however I chose not to see movie there as returning home would have been difficult from there.

    And speaking of Nandan, it is one of my favourite places – I regularly watch movies there. It is reputed for its screening of non-commercial movies in general, and good Bengali movies in particular. In fact, last Friday I watched the latest movie by Sandip Ray, son of the legendary Satyajit Ray. And yes, as you observed, ticket prices are very reasonable at single-screen theatres in Kolkata.

    Do let me know if you plan to visit the city next year.

  2. And by the way, how was your stay at the city? Did you get to savour authentic Bengali cuisine & sweets?

    • The food was great and, yes, it was interesting to taste real Bengali dishes. As you probably know, most of the chefs in ‘Indian’ restaurants in the UK are actually Bangladeshis, but they usually just make something to suit the British palate. I was impressed by the quality of the fish and shellfish on offer in West Bengal. More about the trip will emerge over the next few posts. My hotel was quite close to Nandan, but I did find the New Empire eventually. I hope it’s better inside than it looks from the street! I’m afraid I didn’t make it out to Salt Lake City. I bought several DVDs in the Oxford Bookshop plus the re-issued biography of Mrinal Sen and I’ll write about those as well.

  3. Wow, some beginning to the fest…

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