The most eventful thing on the first day of the ongoing 15th Mumbai International Film Festival was that a film was not shown. The film in question is In The Shade of Fallen Chinar, a 17-minute short-length documentary. It is about the students of the University of Kashmir who express their voice of resistance through art. It was among the 3 films that were denied screening permission at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (IDSFK) last year, presumably for its subversive content.

Like IDSFK, which is organised by the Department of Cultural Affairs, Government of Kerala, MIFF is also a State-run festival; it is organised by the Films Division, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. It isn’t as surprising as it is perplexing, then, for MIFF to shortlist the film, only to deny it a screening again, for the same reason — for not having a censor exemption certificate. The film is in MIFF’s National Competition (short documentary) category. Does it mean that the jury, which has selected it, operate independently of what the Ministry deem fit to be shown at a film festival? If so, does that make In The Shade of Fallen Chinar, despite not being screened at the event, eligible to win the top prize?

In the 2 days I spend at the festival, I hear about the many problems of MIFF – it ends on 3 February . Most filmmakers agree that, even with over 400 titles, the MIFF line-up isn’t the most accurate representation of the best work in documentary, short and animation films of the last 2 years in the country. There are dated films in the list, important titles are missing. The screening schedule is overcrowded, leaving no time for filmmakers to interact with the audience.

Unlike most festivals in the world, each film gets screened only once at MIFF. The venue at the Films Division complex, with its state-of-the-art screening facilities, open spaces, and a palatial-looking National Museum of Indian Cinema(yet to open to the public) in the backdrop, is lovely. But for an international film festival, which happens once in 2 years, it looks eerily empty; Manish Desai, Director of MIFF, 2018 and the Director General, Films Division, tells me that there has been more registrations(2300) than the 2014 edition(2000). According to many filmmakers, the festival will be a lot more accessible to the people if it spread itself over a number of venues in the city, as it used to be in the past. It doesn’t feel as much a festival for filmmakers and film lovers as the Government’s idea of a film festival. Documentary filmmakers don’t have a choice; its one of the few platforms they have and it’s the one with the biggest prize money — doubled to Rs 10 lakh this year.

Most filmmakers agree that even with over 400 titles, the MIFF line up isn’t the most accurate representation of the best work in documentary, short and animation films of the last 2 years in the country.  

Some filmmakers, I speak to, find the idea of the ‘special package’ of films from Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast ridiculous; the banners of these packages are demonstrated, in the website and venue, with pictures of rhinoceros, tea gardens, tribal dance, a man rowing a shikara. “It’s a sham,” says Rohit James, a first time filmmaker from Kerala, whose short film is playing at the festival.

There is a feeling that the more political films have been sidelined. “Where are the films by political filmmakers, people who are raising the difficult questions?” says Sarvnik Kaur, who has co-directed Soz: A Ballad of Maladies along with Tushar Madhav. The film is about how the people of Kashmir, historically oppressed under different regimes, have told their stories through art. In one scene from the film, MC Kash, a hip hop musician, says that, it struck him one day that he has written many songs and not one of them is about anything ‘normal’. “I could write about nature, it’s beautiful. But how many people are hiding in the mountains, how many bodies have been fished out of the Jhelum?” he says. It’s reassuring to see the SozA Ballad of Maladies run to packed auditorium. I had attended a panel discussion, earlier in the day, where the topic was “Is anti-establishment still the only legitimate form of documentary filmmaking?”; a couple of panelists had said things like, “It is trendy and fashionable to make films on political subjects”.

A VR film booth at MIFF, 2018

There is a nice buzz in the venue around evening; there are queues, for tea, outside the washroom; it feels like a festival. The Cinema Travellers pulls off a full house; before the film starts, Shirley Abraham, the co-director, reads out an excerpt that likens the act of communal watching to the ancient Greek concept of collective dreaming. We’d spend the next couple of hours looking at the big screen looking at people looking at the big screen. But the spell cast by The Cinema Travellers is disturbed by the news that 2 Pakistani filmmakers, whose films are playing at MIFF, have been denied a visa. Why invite the filmmakers if they are, ultimately, going to be denied a visa? And given its a Government-run festival, why not intervene in the visa clearance process?

There are many questions that hover around MIFF, but the one that persists is about In the Shade of Fallen Chinar. Filmmaker RV Ramani, in the open forum, appeals for a clearer explanation from MIFF; films don’t need any censor approval to play in MIFF, says Ramani who has attended in every edition of the festival since its inception in 1990. Anand Patwardhan, who I see at the venue in the evening, says he wants to meet the directors of the film — Fazil NC and Shawn Sebastian. Having bumped into them several times during the day, I meet them again at the dinner party, thrown by the festival, at the Catholic Gymkhana, later that evening.

They look surprisingly relaxed, and less complaining about the festival than one’d expect. Fazil and Sebastian, both from Kerala, met when they were studying at the University of Hyderabad. The film they are currently working on chronicles a project by a DJ from Chennai who has created a soundscape based on his stay in a village in Assam. They tell me about the experience of living there for 10 days, where they drank homegrown rice wine and smoked tobacco grown in the backyard. Fazil and Sebastian seem to have a healthy detachment from In The Shade of Fallen Chinar. They had uploaded it on YouTube in 2016, soon after they had completed the film. At the time of writing, the film had 99,000 views; by the time it is read, it’d have crossed a lakh. For every time a state-run festival denies the film a screening, it would have inadvertently helped it reach more people that they’d wished had seen it.

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