“One is my brother and the other is not is the thinking of a narrow-minded person. For those who are broad-minded, liberals, or noble people, the entire world is one big family.” This translation from the Maha Upanishad is part of the vision statement of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), established in 1952 and held annually in Goa. Unfortunately, the IFFI directorate seemed to have momentarily lost the nerve to uphold the spirit of broad-mindedness and tolerance reflected in these uplifting lines. When faced with the threat from right wing groups such as the Janajagruti Samiti (HJS), which had vociferously demanded that a documentary directed by the celebrated painter M.F. Husain be withdrawn, the IFFI's organisers, in a Pavlovian response, deferred the screening of the film. They also came up with a dubious explanation for their action. The IFFI director, Shankar Mohan, said legal technicalities (an apparent reference to the court cases against Husain that a HJS memorandum had drawn attention to) would be examined before a final decision was taken on screening. But what law could have possibly prevented or interfered with the screening of a documentary produced by the Films Division of the Government of India — one that was good enough to win the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival? Not surprisingly, the abrupt cancellation of the scheduled screening was widely perceived as a re-run of 2009, when the Husain documentary was withdrawn following threats from the very same quarters.
To their credit, the IFFI's organisers acted quickly to reverse course. To have buckled under the threat would have been unpardonable. After all, the Goa film festival is jointly conducted by the Union Ministry of Information & Broadcasting and the State government; and the director of IFFI is appointed by the central government. In other words, it was not as if the HJS was attempting to sabotage the screening by threatening a few vulnerable individuals or a weak organisation. Like the news media, cinema creates its own space for free expression. An important reason for an organisation such as IFFI to stage film festivals is to promote cinema as a vehicle for encouraging reflection and debate on a variety of social issues. Withdrawing the film would have been tantamount to encouraging those very groups that forced Husain to flee India by threatening his life and liberty and by filing a slew of venomous complaints against him. Fortunately, IFFI did the right thing in the end by declaring it would go ahead with screening the film in the face of the threats — a decision that sends a timely message against cultural bigotry, obscurantism, and moral vigilantism.