The controversy-ridden International Film Federation of India (IFFI) was officially declared open Monday evening, in the presence of key members of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, Bollywood, and other film personalities.
A glittering ceremony took place at the Shyam Prasad Stadium in Taleigao, about 20 minutes from the state capital, Panjim, which also functions as the main venue for the 9-day-long extravaganza.
Hundreds of local Goans, tourists, journalists, and sundry festival guests descended into the stadium where Shah Rukh Khan was the chief guest, while actors Radhika Apte and Rajkummar Rao compered the event.
Khan spoke about dissent at the opening ceremony. "Sometimes, we dance along with the film. At other times, we get angry, disturbed or agitated. That exactly is the magic of storytelling, a magic which has the power to touch all our senses and in doing so, actually binding us together. The essence of storytelling is incomplete, if there is no story listener. And I believe that storytellers and story listeners are, or at least should be, like a family."
Back at the red-carpet, the question on the minds of the assembled press was one: isn't it a bit ironical to celebrate cinema in a glitzy ceremony when actors and filmmakers are being blatantly issued death threats, when the ministry organising the festival has dropped 3 important films, despite being selected by the jury, and when there's a general culture of fear that's taken over the creative industry, thanks to fringe groups almost having a free pass in holding filmmakers at ransom?
The condemnation, or rather the lack of it, from the artistic community was more telling than any comment probably could.
A conspiracy of silence, monosyllabic responses, and reluctant one-line remarks, monopolised the red-carpet.
Musicians walked away mid-way, producers absolved themselves by distancing their role in the controversy, and actors maintained a diplomatic stand even as Smriti Irani, Minister of Information & Broadcasting (I&B), sniggered inside the auditorium, at one point saying, 'Rajkummar, I would like the whole country to know that you made fun of Irani — a minister — which shows what a tolerant government we are."
Rao had made a joke, drawing connection to Smriti's last name and Irani filmmaker, Majid Majidi, whose film, Beyond the Clouds opened the festival.
HuffPost India was at the red-carpet and we asked every person who walked the red-carpet about the current climate of fear and governmental over-reach, stifling of freedom of expression, and about the ongoing Padmavati row, where the makers had to postpone the film's release after multiple threats from the Karni Sena (the makers have called it a 'voluntary' decision)
When asked about the Padmavati row, producer Boney Kapoor on IFFI red carpet said, "Padmavati is, well, not my film." Great way to show solidarity.— Ankur Pathak (@aktalkies) November 20, 2017
AR Rahman at the IFFI Red Carpet, when asked about the Padmavati row, "Sorry." Walks away. "i will let you know..." well done, Mr Rahman.— Ankur Pathak (@aktalkies) November 20, 2017
Ashwini Iyer Tiwari, the director of two critically-acclaimed films, Bareily ki Barfi and Nil Battey Sanata, chose not to respond to the question on Sexy Durga and Nude being dropped. Tiwari is also part of the steering committee of IFFI 2017.
Ashwini Iyer Tiwari, director of Barely ki Barfi, and who is part of IFFI's steering committee, on S Durga and Nude being dropped: "I don't want to say anything on that."— Ankur Pathak (@aktalkies) November 20, 2017
As of today, the Kerala High Court passed a decision, asking IFFI to screen Sexy Durga, overruling the Ministry's decision.
Despite repeated pleas, producer and former Disney head honcho, Sidharth Roy Kapoor, walked away, choosing not to respond to the media.
Dangal director, Nitesh Tiwari, also walked past.
Rajkummar Rao, who appeared on the red carpet after the ceremony was over, did not take any questions from the media.
Vishal Bhardwaj, who was present at the ceremony as he's written the dialogues for the opening film, Beyond the Clouds, didn't respond to questions about the Ministry arbitrarily dropping Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's Sexy Durga and Ravi Jadhav's Nude. When asked about freedom of expression being under threat, he said, "No, I don't want to say anything. I am here to attend the film festival."
Talking about the Padmavati row, Bhardwaj said:
"I stand with Mr Bhansali." Vishal Bhardwaj on Padmavati row.— Ankur Pathak (@aktalkies) November 20, 2017
Actor Shahid Kapoor, who features in a key role in Padmavati, spoke at length about the controversy.
He said, "I don't think there is anything in the film that is unacceptable or not in good taste. Eventually, Padmavati will come out in full force. Our Constitution says that you are innocent until proven guilty. Same should be extended to Padmavati, it should not be considered guilty even before people judge it."
When this reporter asked if the systematic attack on Padmavati could have been possible without the complicity or the tacit support of the government, Shahid said, "I can't answer all your questions. If we do not get the certificate, then I would feel very demotivated. But we're in the process of procuring it right now."
Majid Majidi, the Oscar-winning filmmaker of Children of Heaven, who has made films in times of great unrest in Iran, said:
Majod Majidi, a filmmaker who has made films in a very trying environment, on the current environment of censorship: "It is happening all over the world. An independent voice shouldn't be choked."— Ankur Pathak (@aktalkies) November 20, 2017
"Even if a government tries to suppress a voice and contain it, artists will always find an outlet to put their work out," Majid Majidi on the rising censorship in India.— Ankur Pathak (@aktalkies) November 20, 2017
Prasoon Joshi, the current chief of the Censor Board:
When asked what's the point if celebrating cinema at a film fest when the idea of cinema is in itself under threat, Prasoon Joshi said, "there are many people who don't get to watch international films, fest is for them, as for Padmavati, we need to stop being angsty."— Ankur Pathak (@aktalkies) November 20, 2017
He went on to say, "Due process is being followed. Talks are going on. We need to sit and reach a consensus which all parties agree upon."— Ankur Pathak (@aktalkies) November 20, 2017
Criticising the way actors of Padmavati have been threatened, Nana Patekar said, "Their language has been inappropriate, and I hope nothing like this happens. See, everybody takes creative liberties when it comes to making a film. People can get offended by it or not, but it is my responsibility as a filmmaker that I don't hurt anybody's sentiments. But here, commenting on the film, or objecting to the story without watching the film is totally wrong."
The strongest comment came perhaps from upcoming actor, Ishaaan Khatter (Beyond the Clouds), who said:
Young actor Ishaan Khattar perhaps had the 'bravest' comment. "I don't believe art should be suppressed (in the manner it has)". On S Durga and Nude being dropped from IFFI, a fest where his film, Beyond the Clouds, is premiering.— Ankur Pathak (@aktalkies) November 20, 2017
He then proceeded to walk in for the ceremony, saying, "Right now, I want to focus on my film which is opening the festival."
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