Stills from Yousry Nasrullah’s Door to the Sun, Johnny To’s Sparrow, which is the opening film at the fest, and Wong Kar Wai’s My Blueberry Nights, the centrpiece at the fest, which I can’t wait to watch because of Norah Jones “pillowy lips and ringlet-framed saucer eyes” as she plays Elizabeth, a morose New Yorker who splits the big city to get over a crappy relationship.
Osian’s-Cinefan is all set to stir it up, again. Come July 10 and the spotlight shifts on cinema and it’s showtime for cinebuffs. The tenth chapter of Osian’s-Cinefan: Festival of Asian and Arab Cinema, to be held at the Siri Fort auditorium and Alliance Française in New Delhi, will put on the celluloid’s platter over 150 films as well as some short fiction films, which are part of the new attractions, which will be screened over 10 days. The fest celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. When it started its journey way back in 1999, it was a tour down cinematic lane which was only set to grow as the Indian audience lapped up the kind of cinema shown at the fest. Latika Padgaonkar, joint festival director, who accompanied Aruna Vasudev (editor of the Asian film quarterly Cinemaya and the brain behind the annual fest) on this journey, recalls: “When we started, we had just 30 films as part of the fest. Though it’s a small figure, it seemed to us really huge. Now, when we think about it, it seems nothing compared to what we are doing at the moment.” Latika adds that it was “wonderful” having a lady with a vision like Aruna with her knowledge of cinema, especially Asian cinema. “It’s because of her that we were able to present the festival every year,” says Latika. Initially, the fest was faced with the financial concerns. “It was a question of money. However, we got constant support from the Delhi Government and Tata Tea. And the fest was presented by NETPAC (Netwrok for the Promotion of Cinema),” informs Indu Shrikent, the joint festival director.
When Cinefan tied up with the Osian’s, the scale of the festival changed. Osian’s vision of a great cinematic culture and its infrastructural base in the country, as spelt out by its chairman, Neville Tuli, came into play. And the beginning was made in that direction with making the festival “independent”, completely free of sponsorships.
Osian’s Film House, formed in the wake of Osian’s acquisition of Cinefan and Cinemaya in 2004, set some exciting targets for itself. And, every year, it is setting out to achieve those targets which range from a meeting of minds, building infrastructure for art and culture to film financing and production. “It’s a power struggle,” Neville draws the battleline, speaking in the context of Hollywood films vs Asian and Arabic movies. And it’s a struggle that will continue till “the Hollywood monopoly is broken”.
For those in the organising wing of the Osian’s Cinefan, cinema is a preoccupation that takes pride of place. Selecting the best of cinema from Asia and Arab countries is not easy, after all, considering the cinematic surge in the region of late. Indu elucidates, “We take a lot of trouble over the selection of the films. As a team, we all travel right through the year to festivals across the world. We do a lot of networking required. Also, because of the journal Cinemaya, we are knowledgeable about Asian and Arab cinema. We know the films. We know the directors. We are aware of the kind of cinema each country offers as we follow the growth of cinema there. We are always on the lookout for films.” However, Indu explains, Osian’s also keeps “our Delhi audiences in mind whom we have nurtured over the years”. She says, “We have given them a kind of cinema which they have learnt to appreciate now. These are high-artistic, quality films. So, we haven’t compromised on that in any way. We have only expanded. Every year, we add something new. Like this year we have the short films.”
According to Latika, the festival is given a different identity every year, according to “what is happening around us or certain new insight we may have on how a festival can be given a shape”. Like last year, Osian’s-Cinefan celebrated the 150th anniversary of the war of Independence with films made on the subject. Part of the festival’s identity this year will be a new category: In-tolerance. “The idea is to give space to the new films that deal with violence. 21st century seems to be fairly intolerant. Intolerance is taking newer and harsher forms. And filmmakers are responding to it in features and documentaries. They are concerned and it’s coming out through their cinema,” says Latika.
WHERE’S INDIAN CINEMA?
While Osian’s continues to bring together a delectable pot-pourri of the best productions from countries like China, Hong Kong and Japan, besides the Arabic feast on celluloid, Indian cinema seems to miss the limelight at the fest. The festival directors argue that the submissions from Indian filmmakers are not that “exciting” considering the kind of awards Osian’s now has for them. “We would have been happier if there were some more submissions,” says Latika.
Possible reasons of Indian filmmakers giving a miss to the fest could be many. “Their release dates might not coincide with the fest or they may have some other compulsions. But those who aren’t keen to come to the Osian’s and instead go to other international film fests forget that if they show their films here, they will have the support of the Indian audience,” argues Indu.
One of Osian’s regular features, Infrastructure Building for Minds and Markets (IBM²), brings “a unique array of seminars and debates to discuss issues, analyse trends and explore the future of creative and business aspects of cinema.”
IBM², this year, will “focus on the models and processes of ‘Institution Building’ with special focus on the Osianama, the unique cultural complex being built by Osian’s, on the one hand and Writing and Cinema on the other.”
This helps in developing the much-needed critical faculty for cinema. If you have been following film criticism, you would know the kind of writing that passes off as film criticism. Latika says, “It’s not that we don’t have good critics. In IBM² this year we’ll discuss film criticism and what passes muster as criticism. Also, what kind of space do newspapers have for film criticism? Is there any space for serious criticism at all or do we fall prey to certain objectives that the newspapers have or a particular style of writing that they want. While some newspapers give criticism the kind of space we are happy with, there are some newspapers which give less and less space. We would like to discuss with those who write as to what do they have in mind when they write in a particular way.” Besides, there will be also discussions on novels in adaptation and screenwriting.
Hope it’ll turn out to be a good brainstorming session for those who long to see good writings on cinema.
The fest celebrates the significance of the number 10 on its 10th anniversary. The films, in the section, “explore the manner in which cinema has navigated the narrow alley between censorship, transgression and pleasure throughout its history.”
The festival, along with the annual award for writing, will bestow Osian’s lifetime achievement award for contribution to cinema, on the eminent filmmaker Mrinal Sen. The writer’s award has been renamed the Aruna Vasudev lifetime achievement award for writing on cinema and will be conferred on Jose ‘Pete’ F. Lacaba from the Philippines. Osian’s-Cinefan has also announced over Rs 1 crore in prize money for its competition sections and lifetime achievement awards. The winners of the lifetime achievement awards will be presented Rs 800,000 each.
One of the highlights of the fest will be the unveiling of the scale model of the Osianama, Osian’s flagship cultural complex in Mumbai to be opened in mid-2009, which will house two screens and a a large debating house for discussions on cinema.
The fest, which pays tribute to the Egyptian novelist Najib Mahfouz with four films — two from Egypt and two from Mexico — will have one entry from Israel too: Syrian Bride, a human drama with a backdrop of explosive “socio-political” conditions in Israel.
Talking about cinema in the Arab countries, Latika holds that production there had declined and is only now picking up. This also applies to Egypt which was once the powerhouse of cinema in terms of the number of films made as well as the extent and the quality of its influence on the Arab cinema. “Even though the production there is small from what we have been seeing, it is fairly rich. They come to us both in the forms of submissions and suggestions. We just look for good cinema and there is no particular thematic or narrative interest. We just see that the films meet the quality standards of the fest. And mind you, it is fairly sophisticated cinema,” informs Latika.
According to her, the Arab countries present a fairly mixed picture, both in reality as well as cinema. “They deal with a variety of themes and situations, which present the complexity of any culture,” says Latika.
As for the fest, it only shows us the diverse complexities of cultures expressed through the medium of cinema. And in doing so, it is also engaging the best of minds from the world of cinema. Osian’s-Cinefan is becoming bigger and better every year. And that spells good news for the movie buffs.