Through the Prism of Time

By Pickle  November 22, 2019

Starting its life as a launchpad for non-mainstream Indian filmmakers who sought global breakthroughs, the Indian Panorama section of the International Film Festival of India has come a long way, as the art-commerce divide became more apparent with every passing decade. Here is how the Indian Panorama section story has evolved when looked through the prism of time and relevance
By Saibal Chatterjee

The Indian Panorama, in many ways the flagship segment of the International Film Festival of India, served a specific larger purpose that went beyond its stated goal of assembling the best films made around the country in the course of a year. Since its formal introduction in 1978, the section aided international festival curators in identifying the films that they wanted to pick for their programmes.

Until the 1990s, the Indian Panorama served as a launchpad for non-mainstream Indian filmamakers who sought global breakthroughs. Many a director, from Satyajit Ray and Adoor Gopalakrishnan to the present generation of independent filmmakers, have benefitted from the exposure it has facilitated. However, in the last 15 years or so, the overt Bollywoodization of Indian cinema has altered the parameters of both the Panorama and the way that curators from across the world approach films made in the world’s most prolific movie-producing nation.

In the early years of the Panorama, the art-commerce divide wasn’t so visible. Even before the birth of the section, in 1961, the second edition of IFFI, the selection of Indian films saw Satyajit Ray (Devi) and Rajen Tarafdar (Ganga) rub shoulders with K. Asif (Mughal-e-Azam) and Raj Kapoor (who produced and starred in Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, directed by the showman’s cinematographer Radhu Karmakar). Also among the Indian films that were screened in 1961 was Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anuradha, that year’s winner of the National Award for Best Film.

By the 1970s, however, the distinction between commercially-oriented movies and artistically inclined films became sharper in the light of the emergence of the parallel cinema movement. In Filmotsav 1984, held in Mumbai from January 3 to 16, the films that made the Panorama cut belonged to only one side of the creative divide. Gems like K.G. George’s powerfully feminist Adaminte Variyellu (Malayalam), K. Balachander’s political satire Achamillai Achamillai (Tamil), Kumar Shahani’s Tarang (Hindi), Govind Nihalani’s Party (Hindi), Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Mukhamukham (Malayalam), Saeeed Akhtar Mirza’s Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho!, and Goutam Ghose’s Paar (Hindi) dominated the selection.

This was a particularly fecund phase for the newfangled New Indian Cinema. The composition of the Panorama made it worthwhile, therefore, for programmers representing the major film festivals of the world to make the trip to India to handpick the latest and the best. To take the 1984 Indian Panorama as a case in point, Party, Mukhamukham and Paar cemented the reputation of the respective filmmakers. Paar was selected by the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Unesco Award and fetched the lead actor Naseeruddin Shah the Volpi Cup.

Panorama, for festival spotters , quickly became the go-to source of great Indian films. Until the mid-nineties the segment kept throwing up films that attracted curators from the world over

Interestingly, the same year saw a trio of strikingly original films from the mainstream Hindi film industry make the Panorama grade – Amol Palekar’s Ankahee, Mahesh Bhatt’s Saaransh and Prakash Jha’s Hip Hip Hurray. It was an outstanding selection of 25 films – probably one of the best in living memory, not the least because even the Mumbai industry seemed to have moved to a space in which filmmakers were beginning to bridge the gap between what was commercially viable and what was artistically valuable.

The trend continued through the 1980s. The next few years saw the induction into the Panorama hall of fame of films such as Bhabendra Nath Saikia’s Agnisnan (Assamese), Prakash Jha’s Damul (Hindi), Ramesh Sharma’s New Delhi Times (Hindi), Aparna Sen’s Paroma (Bengali), Govind Nihalani’s Aghaat (Hindi), Kumar Shahani’s Khayal Gatha (Hindi), Bharathi Raaja’s Mudhal Mariyadhai (Tamil), John Abraham’s Amma Ariyan (Malayalam), Mani Kaul’s Mati Manas (Hindi), G. Aravindan’s Oridathu and Chidambaram (Malayalam), Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, Shyam Benegal’s Susman (Hindi), Nabyendu Chatterji’s Chopper and Parashuramer Kuthar (Bengali), Jahnu, Barua’s Papori and Banani (Assamese), Mrinal Sen’s Ek Din Achanak (Hindi) and Satyajit Ray’s Ganashatru (Bengali). Several of these films began their journeys from the Panorama and successfully travelled around the world, enhancing the global profile of Indian cinema.

The 1990s, too, were exceptionally productive in terms of quality. The year 1992 had Goutam Ghose’s Padma Nadir Majhi, Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Tahader Katha, Sudhir Mishra’s Dharavi and Jabbar Patel’s Ek Hota Vidushak. All these four filmmakers had already emerged as mainstays of India’s parallel cinema movement and their films continued to surface repeatedly in the Panorama in subsequent years.

The Indian Panorama, a section that is made up of both features and non-features, opens global avenues for films made by veterans and newcomers alike

In 1995, among the films that were part of the Indian Panorama were Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen, which enjoyed unprecedented success on the international festival circuit after premiering in Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes the previous year, and Rituparno Ghosh’s Unishe April, a National Award-winning film that heralded the advent of a remarkable new directorial talent. They represented two sides of the spectrum – one was a gritty, disturbing drama set in the Indian hinterland, the other a sharply chiselled, expertly scripted mother-daughter tale buoyed up brilliant lead performances.

No wonder the Panorama, for festival spotters, quickly became the go-to source of great Indian films. Until the mid-nineties, the segment kept throwing up films that attracted curators from the world over. Few went back empty-handed such were the riches on show. However, the game has since changed drastically and the major festivals are now given to employing their own methods to select films. On many occasions in the recent past, new Indian films have been discovered by Cannes, Venice, Berlin or Toronto before making their way into the Indian Panorama and imprinting themselves on the minds of the domestic audience.

One notable example of this is Gurvinder Singh’s critically acclaimed Punjabi-language film Anhe Ghore Da Daan (Alms for a Blind Horse). It premiered in the Orizzonti section of the 68th Venice Film Festival (2011) and then travelled to the BFI London Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and the Busan International Film Festival. Leading festivals on three major continents embraced the film with great enthusiasm. Anhe Ghore Da Daan played in IFFI (as part of the Panorama) only at the end of 2012, picking up the festival’s Golden Peacock for the Best Film – one of only three Indian entries to bag the prize (the other two: Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh and Goutam Ghose’s Moner Manush).

It may be time for the Indian Panorama to reinvent itself and regain the position of pre-eminence it once had. It certainly hasn’t lost its relevance because despite the growing dominance of star power it still manages to yield slots to small films that address important issues and themes

Or consider the two Indian titles that played in the 2015 Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard – Gurvinder Singh’s sophomore Chauthi Koot and Neeraj Ghaywan’s debut Masaan. Both films won National Awards in 2016 – the former for Best Punjabi Film, the latter for Best First Film of a Director. But neither of the two was found worthy of being part of the Indian Panorama.

The cycle of major film festivals – Cannes, Toronto, Venice, Berlin, Busan,
Rotterdam – now impacts how Indian films travel around the world. Each of these festivals has its own prism to watch films through. So, what is likely to appeal to the Venice selectors may not make quite the same impact on the curators in Cannes or Toronto. So, the younger Indian filmmakers, the smarter ones among them at any rate, know exactly which festivals are likely to warm up to their films and therefore they take a route that bypasses the Panorama.

It may be time for the Indian Panorama to reinvent itself and regain the position of pre-eminence it once had. It certainly hasn’t lost its relevance because despite the growing dominance of star power it still manages to yield slots to small films that address important issues and themes. All it now needs to do is reactivate its international connections. The way the Panorama can do it is by plugging into the global scene without losing its local essence. There has got to be a greater inclination towards artistically adventurous films with the power to travel beyond the confines of the culture they are rooted in. A tough ask, yes. But eminently within the realms of reality.

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