The West Bengal government might not be reaching for its gun every time it hears the word culture, but state-sponsored functions certainly generate a lot of acrimony. The Fifth Calcutta International Film Festival which got under way last week was, therefore, foredoomed. With filmmaker Gautam Ghosh distancing himself from the official sponsors and censor authorities protesting against high-handedness, the inaugural mood was hardly festive.
The director of Antarjali Jatra and Paar skipped the opening Press meet. His excuse being, "I was informed of this very late." And he was the Festival Committee chairman. Ghosh told Outlook: "It left me no alternative, as newsmen were bound to ask me about the activities of the non-functioning committee and what would have been my reply?"
According to Ghosh, the bureaucracy had virtually taken over the festival. "I was given to understand that the festival committee would supervise everything, with the state government playing a subsidiary role. However, the festival is dominated by officials with little knowledge of films."
Equally stinging was the reaction of the local Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) which approves what gets shown. The state information department, sponsors of the fest, was fighting a running battle against it. Last year, CBFC people were not among those invited to attend the proceedings. The unrepentant minister for culture and information, Buddhadeva Bhattacharya, said, "We are not aware of who is a member of which organisation. Too bad if some get left out."
The CBFC, in its turn, hit back. In a letter to A. Sur, director of the festival and an officer of the information department, its members pressed for an invitation. The clincher was that unless the authorities responded, the local CBFC would stop previewing Bengali films and without its certification their screening would be impossible. "Let Ashim Dasgupta and Bhattacharya decide what they want to do," said an irate member.
The authorities buckled. In a token gesture, four complimentaries were sent to the CBFC. Said Supriya Chatterjee, a member on the CBFC advisory panel: "Local officials said they would cancel some invitations to accommodate us. We only wanted an entry to the inaugural, not free passes for the shows. We will discuss their attitude with the higher authorities and I will not attend the inaugural."
State information secretary A.K. Deb, in a ritual denial of the serious charges levelled by the award-winning director, told newsmen that Ghoshs allegations were not valid. "There was no reason to think that the festival committee was bypassed," he said. Festival director Sur insisted that Ghosh was very much with the organisers, notwithstanding a small misunderstanding which the media was overplaying. Film critic Swapan Ghosh also said, "Ghosh could be overstating things. Last time, many felt that he had dominated the proceedings a little too much."
Says Ghosh, explaining the uniqueness of the Calcutta festival: "These days, one has to be performance-oriented because festivals have become competitive. Why should someone send their best films to our festival unless he is convinced of its worth? We dont market it properly. Certainly our crowds are our strength, even foreign delegates admit it, but that alone cannot sustain a major festival."
Average film-goers sympathise with Ghosh. Says film buff Aniruddha Roy: "We have to spend hours together for a ticket to one of the shows at some far-flung hall. Yet, the central hall at Nandan remains the exclusive preserve and haunt of government officials, their over-decorated wives and relatives."
The loss in public sympathy is understandable. The state government does not shine in its conduct of even scheduled functions. The list of its official misdemeanours, inefficiency and ineptitude is endless.
Even well-wishers of the government have suggested that these matters be left to more competent agencies and if need be, with the private sector. But nobody, it seems, is lending a serious ear.