Last year was a defining moment for Indian cinema — it completed a whole hundred years. This January the Indian film industry will cross another significant milestone. On January 24, 62 years ago, India organised its very first international film festival. This was a first not merely for India but for the entire Asian subcontinent.
The first International film festival in the country was planned as a six-week mobile film fair organised by the Films Division of the Government of India. The festival after two weeks would travel to Madras, Delhi and Calcutta spending one week in each of the cities. As many as 23 countries accepted the invitation to attend the festival. Exhibiting a spread of about 40 features and 100 documentaries from countries across the world, the film festival was touted to be a ‘picture goers’ dream come true.
For a nascent democracy, the festival in many ways set the agenda in terms of the discourse cinema in India was to take. Censorship and the functional purpose of cinema as an art for instance were recurring themes through the festival.
Jawaharlal Nehru who was unable to make it for the inaugural ceremony in Bombay sent an official message. He urged the film industry to “introduce artistic and aesthetic values.” He cautioned against the promotion of popular films which were often, “sensational or melodramatic or such that make(s) capital out of crime.”
R.R. Diwakar, Minister of Information and Broadcasting, inaugurated the festival in Mumbai. Efforts were made for educational halls to be set up to acquaint guests with the development of the film industry in India and its leading personalities. A large garden at Azad Maidan to host foreign delegates was set up. To ensure the rest of the country did not miss out on anything, the All India Radio broadcast the entire event with running commentary at 6:15 PM on 244 and 48.7 metres.
The welcome in Madras was as much a spectacle. Launched in the open air theatre in Congress Grounds, Teynampet, the ceremony was graced by the Governor of Madras, and the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, P.V. Rajamannar. Elaborately decorated lorries were paraded through the city. Six theatres were to screen an array of films between February 7 and 14. The only regret which C.M Aggarawala, chairman of the Organising Committee, confessed to was the cancelling of certain English films due to the unexpected death of King George VI of Great Britain. Writer R.K. Narayan in a report in The Hindu testified to packed houses. The winding queues outside ticket windows of theatres for films distinctly foreign left him heartened, yet perplexed.
To ensure that the festival remained inclusive and the public was not left alienated by the unfamiliar, an ‘exhibit shooting’ was organised on two evenings. Essentially a staged demonstration of a film shooting, the scripts in Tamil and Telugu were developed quickly so that it could be relayed on subsequent days. Popular Tamil actor T.R. Ramachandran and iconic director K. Balachander played the clapper boy and director, respectively, in these performances. The attempt to demystify the medium is telling in sheer novelty it must have embodied at the time.
The Chinese delegate headed by Wu In-Hsien for instance promised that he would take steps to ensure that both the countries shared their films with each other for lasting peace.
Mohamed Fathy Bey representing Egypt was remarkable in delivering on his promise of guaranteeing that Indian films find a regular release in the country. Soon after he returned to his country a mission of Indian technicians were invited to visit Egypt and study the latest development in film craft.
The festival also compelled the Indian film industry to look inwards and reflect. An editorial in The Hindu for instance chastised the industry for its relentless production of melodramas and musicals and its unwillingness to experiment. The restrained treatment and poignant humanism of Italian films were held up as totems to emulate.
However, not all films were applauded with such vigour. Films from Russia, China and Eastern Europe were scrutinised with a gaze of suspicion. While technically sound, these films were seen as perpetuating propaganda. The governments of these countries, the editorial argued, produced films with the motivation to rouse its audience into action. Democratic nations including India found it necessary in this context to articulate its disapproval.
However, the debate on censorship complicated the narrative. Foreign films which were screened in the festival were, interestingly, not subject to any censorship. N. Sitaraman in a symposium held at the YMCA Esplanade in Madras denounced the practice of film censorship pointing to the arbitrariness of the law.
In an otherwise sanctimonious conversation about the representation of sexual imagery on screen, Dr. Vinicio Marinucci, the Italian delegate, infused a refreshing tone with his irreverence. When asked how the Italians responded to explicit movie scenes, he stated, “…they took it very well.”
Censorship was not merely an issue of legal arbitration within nations. Entire countries often filtered the films its citizen could view. American films were rarely screened in Soviet Russia. When S.S. Vasan questioned the Russian delegate, M. Semenov, why this was so, he caustically replied that Russia didn’t believe in producing ‘dirty’ entertainment.
On March 7, the international film festival came to a close in Calcutta. R.R. Diwakar deemed it a stupendous success and declared that the film festival was the Film Division’s most distinguished achievement. “Over a million and a half in the country watched” around 150 films from across the globe.
The perception of cinema would never be the same again.