Revisiting IFFR: Watching Indian Cinema in a European Festival

International Film Festival of Rotterdam. Photo: Facebook

The fiftieth edition of the International Film Festival of Rotterdam has come to a close in the last week. The festival programme was divided into two parts, ie. from 1st to 7th of February and 2nd to 6th of June. The festival is peculiar for its attentiveness towards the movements in the ‘third world’ and its inclusive acceptance of diverse productions from the non-European parts of the globe. This is an account of watching (mostly) non-European cinema at a European festival.

Here, the act of seeing itself becomes a political act since it becomes impossible to imagine an abstract act of seeing where the spectator and the spectacle (viewer and the cinema) as detached entities devoid of geographic-social-political attachments which inform and influence the work of art and the act of seeing.

There’s a famous short story by Indian-Kannada writer A.K Ramanujan. The story, which is titled ‘Annayya’s anthropology’ revolves around the life of an Indian youth who enrols in Chicago for studying anthropology. From the archives of the Chicago library, he finds an anthropological text which describes the ritual practices of India among the Brahmin community (a community from which he’s hailing), and to his shock and surprise, he finds the photographs of his mother and other relatives along with the descriptions.

This moment of realization where one realizes that his life or his actual premises are converted into objective disciplinary knowledge is remarked as ‘a a necessary stage in postcolonial self-knowledge’, by M.Madhava Prasad, a notable film theorist. This subject-object relationship, an essential by-product of the knowledge systems of modernity, is complex in various ways and its scope is beyond the limits of this article.

 While we contextualize this experience into the experience of witnessing/ viewing cinema from our premises from an international platform where the intention is to exhibit it to a ‘universal’ (read European) audience and to acquire a universal status, it becomes difficult to transcend the vernacular affinities to enable ourselves a universal status of seeing. It was evident while watching ‘Nasir’, which was premiered in the last edition of the festival and won the NETPAC award for Best Asian Film. But this time, it was interesting to note that the movies from India, whether it’s Ashish Avikunthak’s ‘The Glossary of Non-Human Love’ or Don Palathara’s ‘Everything is Cinema’, by acquiring a certain kind of universality in the themes which they were dealing with, the themes which revolve around the fundamental sensations of human beings, helps the vernacular act of seeing to appear more objective, by positioning ourselves from a rational distance/difference. But at the same time, it is also important to understand that this very act of seeing has its limitations along with a set of possibilities. It is the vernacular social relations and the political questions revolving around it which determine these possibilities as well as the limitations.  

‘Bela’ by Prantik Basu evidently exhibits this tension. It provides us a descriptive visual narrative of ritualistic practices and a grammatic texture and code of community existence, fragmented from the realities of an abstract nation. It signals an act of preservation, whereas we mentioned earlier, it becomes impossible to present a vernacular reality without the ‘museomizing’, ‘archiving’ tendencies. This tension exists throughout the well-shot, condensed documentary which was shot over the period of two years. Vinoth Raj P.S’s ‘Pebbles’, on the contrary, provides us with another dynamics of this tension in a different geographic setting, where the cinematic conflict is more ‘universalized’ yet tends to fall into the tropes of the questions of representation. Pebbles offers us a meditative cinematic experience, by presenting a universal question/tension while at the same time, rooted in vernacular affinities, whether it is the geographic setting or the cultural dynamics.

Ashish’s ‘Glossary of Non-Human Love’ presents a diverse question where the thematic continuously engages both with the modern question of the tension between humans and machines while at the same time, takes resort in the mythical solace of images and traditions. In Don’s ‘Everything is Cinema’, the theme is more universal in the sense that it deals with the very question of the act of seeing, gaze and perception. Yet, the cinematic in the work is presented as a response to Louis Malle’s 1969 documentary, ‘Calcutta’, where the narrator attempts to record his gaze, as a native, in response to the one that of westerners. In all these works, we can see the similar tensions mentioned earlier in various ways, where each work tries to negotiate with the vernacular and the universal to acquire a presentable universal character. It is important to note that most of these works become successful in doing so, and therefore create a new visual grammar from the ‘third world’.

Here in this process, the Rotterdam festival’s inclusive intentions acquire a concrete meaning rather than abstract ideal seekings. It is also interesting to note the gradual disintegration of formal categories in which we, as a spectator from the third world, place/locate ourselves to make an objective act of seeing possible. It is due to the universalization of capital, in contrast to the various post-colonial claims and hesitations to accept it as such. In this case, the conceptual boundaries which we draw to make an objective analysis possible gradually blur since the logic of finance capital and the market presents itself as a universal ethic/value system. Thus the experience of watching/seeing cinema, we can say, has transformed and is transforming.