April 01, 2020
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A Jury On Trial

Shut out from the Indian Panorama, Mumbai filmmakers cry foul

A Jury On Trial

SHEILA Whittaker, director of the London film festival, obviously loved what she saw. She personally handpicked Amol Palekar’s latest venture, Daayara (The Squar e Circle)—the commercially-oriented, song and dance-adorned domestic version, preferring it to the short, 103-minute, cut-to-order international print—for this year’s edition. And what’s more, she picked up Palekar’s last film, Bangarwadi, too. A rare Indian double bill at a fete that matters.

Whittaker isn’t the only one who seems to be impressed with Palekar’s new work. Daayara has been on the road ever since it emerged from the lab. World premiere in London, inaugural US screening at Hampton, loud ovation in Toronto, Canada—Palekar’s complex but conventionally narrated tale of a folk singer-dancer (Nirmal Pandey) who specialises in female roles, and in the process discovers that he is more at ease as a ‘woman’, is turning out to be a hot favourite at festivals worldwide.

But not in India. Daayara will not be part of the Indian Panorama section at the 28th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) beginning in Thiruvananthapuram on January 10 next. The 11-member Panorama jury, which met in Delhi in mid October to watch about 70 films and cull out the best of Indian cinema, did not find Palekar’s off-mainstream cinematic essay quite up to the mark. "Too convoluted, too formulaic", was the jury’s verdict. But, not unanimous. The panel was split down the middle, with several members insisting that Daayara should be included. In the end, the negative view prevailed. One reason cited was that Daayara, in the manner of a Mumbai potboiler, has routine musical interludes. "Why should that be held against any film? Sardari Begum has been selected despite its songs," argues one jury member on condition of anonymity. The Mumbai industry is up in arms.

Naturally, Palekar isn’t amused. "If my film was found unfit for selection," he told a national daily soon after the Panorama list was made public, "the quality of the films that have made the grade should make India proud. The future of our cinema is fantastic." The mock-serious jab was not lost on anybody.

Daayara, of course, is in good company—a clutch of ‘heavyweight’ films authored by ‘big’ names have failed to make it to the Panorama this year. The selection process, a contentious rigmarole at the best of times, brings regional divisions to the fore. South is pitted against North, East against West, masala peddlers against non-mainstream campwallahs, jury members against chairman, the Directorate of Film Festivals (DFF) against everybody.

This time round, the exercise generated more heat than ever before because the jury, headed by veteran Manipuri director Aribam Syam Sarma, could find only 14 films for the Panorama, while as many as 21 slots exist. The Panorama is a showcase designed primarily for the handful of meaningful films that are made in the country but are rarely seen on the mainstream distribution circuit. The message is clear: there simply aren’t enough good films. This year, at least one jury member felt that only four or five entries deserved to be selected. But since that would have been an embarrassment for everybody, the list was stretched to 13. Adoor Gopala-krishnan’s Kathapurushan was selected because it won this year’s Swarna Kamal for the best film.

Among the other films in the Panorama are three in Bengali and two in Malayalam: Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Lal Darja, one of the few films that got in without any debate, Raja Mitra’s Nayantara, Moloy Bhattacharya’s Kahini, Jayaraj’s Dasaadanam and Sibi Malayil’s Kanakinavu. There are two films each in Kannada (Girish Kasaravalli’s Kraurya and Rahat Yusufi’s 16mm Nairas -hya) and Assamese (Bidyut Chakravarty’s Raag Biraag, which will open the Panorama screenings in Thiruvananthapuram, and Santwana Bordoloi’s Adajya). Shyam Benegal alone has two films—The Making of the Mahatma (English) and Sardari Begum (Urdu). The one major bone of contention this year is that the Panorama has only one Hindi film, Santosh Sivan’s Halo. A Marathi film, Arun Khopkar’s Katha Don Ganpatraonchi, whose inclusion was resisted by a section of the jury, brings up the rear.

Like Daayara, several of the films that were thought to be automatic choices were summarily rejected. Given the names that figure in the list of also-rans, that’s certainly a trifle surprising. "There was no difference of opinion on the rejection of Gulzar’s much-publicised Maachis," says a jury member. "It was unanimously felt that the storyline wasn’t convincing enough." Gulzar’s response has been characteristically cryptic: "They’ve made a mistake."

But the jury doesn’t agree that it erred in rejecting either Maachis, or all the other talked-about films that have met the same fate—Basu Bhattacharya’s Aastha, Govind Nihalani’s Sansodhan, Aparna Sen’s Yugant and actress-turned-filmmaker Madhabi Mukherjee’s Atmaja. It is clear that no particular region has any reason to feel discriminated against. "It is always sad when a reputed film-maker’s work has to be left out," admits a key member of this year’s jury. "It is no aspersion on the standing of the filmmaker. It’s only an opinion on an individual film." While the views of the chairman do carry a lot of weight, every jury member has a say in the final decision. "No arbitrary, unilateral decisions can be taken. Every selection and rejection has to be approved by the entire jury. So there’s no question of any personal bias," says Calcutta filmmaker Nabyendu Chatterjee, who was a member of the jury this year.

Kumar Shahani, Malayalam filmmaker P.T. Kunji Mohammed and Kathak danseuse Uma Sharma were also part of the jury. Ali Sardar Jafri had to drop out because of a heart ailment. Similarly, litterateur Sunil Gangopadhyay and film director Saikat Bhattacharya couldn’t make it to Delhi on account of the short notice they were given. Kumar Shahani was co-opted halfway through the process when it dawned on the DFF that the Mumbai film industry was going unrepresented on the jury.

But Shahani is no lover of technical glitz. So a whittled down Panorama is what delegates and critics attending the 28th IFFI will have to settle for. The jury’s decision, as a DFF official asserts, is final.

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