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Kolkata People’s Film Festival 2024: Precious Spaces

By Sudipto Sanyal

Poster wall, with 10th Kolkata People's Film Festival printed in the top right corner.

Courtesy of the Kolkata People’s Film Festival

Two days before the 10th edition of the Kolkata People’s Film Festival (KPFF) began, India roiled in a frenzy of celebration. All the agencies of command and control announced the January 22 consecration of the Ram Mandir—the enthronement of the Hindu deity Rama in his alleged birthplace, Ayodhya—as a day for pomp and self-congratulation. Many states declared it a public holiday. The building of the Ram Mandir in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh on the devastated powder of a 16th-century mosque, the Babri Masjid, which was dismantled brick by brick by Hindutva mobs in 1992—a friend once called this destruction one of the most fissiparous acts in the history of independent India—marked the psychic normalization of a supposedly secular democracy into a so-called Hindu Rashtra, a nation for and of Hindus. Multiplexes all over the country livestreamed the inauguration ceremony at cut rates and with free popcorn. 

KPFF, organized by the People’s Film Collective, took place later that same week (January 24–28) in southern Kolkata at Uttam Mancha, an auditorium for theater and music named for Uttam Kumar, Bengal’s greatest movie star. In a neighborhood remarkably free of the identikit saffron markers of the New India, 39 documentaries and feature films, mostly from India and South Asia (and one from as far as Norway), were screened to a packed hall, with almost all the filmmakers in attendance and participating enthusiastically at post-show conversations and panels. Everyone was acutely aware of the national fascistic lurch that provided the sociocultural context for the festival. 

KPFF wears its politics on its sleeve: the words “Stop Genocide! Free Palestine!” implore you in large letters from the published program, and even the fiction films (about a third of the selection) were clearly political. They ranged from familial interrogations of discriminatory citizenship laws (Arbab Ahmad’s Insides and Outsides [2023]Jatin Parveen’s Firefly [2023]) and the forlorn dreams and bitter realities of labor (Megha Acharya’s Miles Away [2023], Nishtha Jain’s The Golden Thread [2022]and Renu Savant’s The Orchard and the Pardes [2023]) to conflicts between the heart and the state (Ilakkiya Mariya Simon’s A Letter to Lanka [2023]; Habibur Rahman’s The River of Partition [2023]; Basque filmmaker Manu Gómez’s Nur and Abir [2021]about two Gazan children and their dream of swimming in the sea; and Bho Thet Htun’s The Forgotten Hands [2023], which uses real Myanma refugees to reenact the junta’s terrorist attacks), and so much more.

The festival has gained a reputation throughout India for showing political work that counters the rise of our ethnoreligious state. “This festival is much more public facing and inclusive than others I’ve been to,” a young filmmaker named Yuva gushed to me. “The films they show here, films exploring our social reality, are rarely shown on such nice screens anywhere else.” Yuva had arrived by train from Chennai, a journey of at least 28 hours. He was promised accommodation at a friend’s but was desperate for fresh lodgings because his friend had had a medical emergency. I half expected him to duck out in search of new digs, but he was there all five days, attending almost every screening.

The beating heart of KPFF is its emphasis on documentaries of the most eternally relevant kind, and its refusal to disavow the implications and responsibilities of cinema in our present moment. “Cinema must raise questions and give joy. Cinema must affirm life,” said one of the organizers, Dwaipayan Banerjee, at the inauguration. “Cinema does not need to be used as a tool. The only thing cinema must do is stand against hatred.” 

To this end, a retrospective titled “Docs That Mattered” honored five films that have left indelible prints in the sands of independent documentary cinema in India. Falling firmly in the life-affirming category, Kamlabai (1991), Reena Mohan’s formally inventive portrait of Kamlabai Gokhale, the first woman to act in Indian cinema, demonstrates the sheer lo-fi adventurousness of documentary filmmaking in a country where documentaries are hardly ever screened at commercial theaters. Eschewing talking heads or the standard form of chronicle, Kamlabai films an 88-year-old Gokhale living alone in Pune, lame in one leg, blind in one eye, yet bursting with mischief and joie de vivre. Now reflective, now profane, her line reading undimmed by the passage of decades, Gokhale is riveting on screen, and Kamlabai ultimately does what few works of biography manage: with both humor and compassion, it coaxes the essence out of its subject and onto the screen.

When it was made more than 30 years ago, Kamlabai was also a testament to the solidarity that a genuinely collaborative arts scene can foster. Fellow documentarian Rakesh Sharma (whose Final Solution, a 2004 film about the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in the state of Gujarat, was banned by state censors in 2004 and given a National Award two years later) scrounged archival clips of Gokhale from the state broadcaster Doordarshan. The 16mm camera used to shoot the film was borrowed from Anand Patwardhan. 

“I now consider festivals as a form of media,” the editor of this magazine wrote a few years ago, “with their activities to be read like media productions.” To include KPFF under this rubric would have to acknowledge that it is one of the few examples of nonhierarchical collaborative media extant in India, a production mounted entirely free of corporate or state sponsorship, and which runs on the support of its audience and devotees alone. A donation box at the registration desk was made up to look like an old projector. On its side was Woody Guthrie’s famous slogan, “This machine kills fascists.” Many of the big names attending the festival waived their stipends and organized travel and accommodations on their own. For the 2019 festival, the writer Arundhati Roy sent over a hundred signed copies of her books for the festival’s little bookstall. Unlike a lot of other such events, where big names parachute in for their own screening or talk and then jet off again, everyone made it a point to stay every day for screenings.

“It would not be easy in Delhi anymore to have events like this,” began Roy in this year’s In Conversation talk, titled “The Assault on Meaning: The Challenges of Being a Writer Today.” She went on to express her admiration for KPFF’s “non-funded nature” because of its resultant independence. “During the period of privatization and globalization and structural adjustment, we saw how the NGO-ization of everything […] began to put an end to all kinds of people’s movements. Everything became funded and playing to what the funders wanted.  [...] All the best activists ended up working for NGOs, and today it’s all been shut down with a switch.” 

Roy was speaking shortly after a screening of Deepa Dhanraj’s What Has Happened to This City? (1986), an almost lyrical examination of politically orchestrated riots in Hyderabad in 1984 that, in retrospect, seems prophetic in its representation of the political playbook of the Hindu right. In her postscreening conversation, Dhanraj wondered how we might reread the film today. “At the time, we were looking at it as a Hyderabad story, as local history,” she said. “But the language [of incitement to violence] is the same today, it’s the same saffron stories today.”

“This festival respects its audience and creates the psychic ambience necessary to watch serious political documentaries,” the documentarian and activist Meghnath told me over filter coffee and vada at the Hotel Homely Raj. Right next door to the festival venue, the little restaurant had become a de facto symposium space between screenings, and every table was host to little groups of filmmakers and fans hunched over in animated conversation. Two of Meghnath’s own films were screened: Development Flows From the Barrel of the Gun (2003), an essential record of the Indian state’s pan-Indian brutalization of Adivasi communities in the name of economic development; and his new film, In Search of Ajantrik (2023)which revisits the shooting locales, in the tribal belts of Jharkhand, of the great Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik (1958). In the process, it uncovers, almost incidentally, the complex forms of violence wrought by Indian modernity on more traditional, folk forms of life, custom, and language. 

It is impossible to escape the festival’s rootedness in community, both geographic and artistic. In Search of Ajantrik’s credits, for example, thank two of the festival’s organizers. Soon after the lights came on at the end of Patwardhan’s The World Is Family (2023), a deeply personal memoir of his own family and its role in India’s freedom movement, and a chronicle of national political transformation masquerading as home movie, someone in the audience stood up and announced the arrests of 11 people protesting for a ceasefire in Gaza at the Kolkata Book Fair, which was running parallelly in another part of the city. Many young people rushed out to make their way to the police station to help the protesters.

Fittingly, Patwardhan is no stranger to disturbances. Exhibitions of Ram Ke Naam (1992), his examination into the prehistory of the Babri Masjid demolition, have been contentious for years. Many counter-programmed screenings were forcibly shut down in various cities on January 22 by fascist goons. In a few cases, the organizers of these screenings, and not the armed “protesters,” were arrested. While introducing the film’s screening at KPFF, Patwardhan asked the audience if they’d already seen the film. Almost the entire auditorium raised its hands; people had shown up, essentially, in solidarity. Rather than talk about the film, Patwardhan went on to suggest tactics for more screenings: “You should not be afraid to show this film, because, unlike some of my later films, this actually has a censor certificate. Remember that these are all illegal arrests.”

During the Q&A after Roy’s keynote, a recent graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India described the events of January 22 on her campus, where a small function memorializing the Babri demolition was vandalized by violent Hindu activists. A Manipuri filmmaker then spoke about the near–civil war (a conflict that no longer makes the headlines) currently being waged in her northeastern state. An old-school communist took the mic to rant about “The System.”

Any or all of these incidents might be viewed as disruptions at most film festivals around the world; at KPFF, they are welcomed. “The real strength of documentary cinema in India has been its audience,” Sanjay Kak insisted during his talk, titled “Where Do We Find Our Public? Documentary Film in the Present.” (Kak’s Red Ant Dream [2013], which bears heartbreaking witness to certain Indigenous and revolutionary movements that the Indian state has been trying to crush for decades, was also screened in the retrospective program.) “The making of our films is inseparable from the making of our audiences. A documentary does not simply bear witness; it needs a clear indication of authorship to open up a conversation between its authors and its public. [...] And sometimes, an audience will shelter a film [when the state won’t].” At a time when the “symbiotic relationship of the documentary ecosystem is under threat,” a festival like KPFF, where interesting films are screened in a professional manner to packed halls amid potent discussions, has become even more important. 

“The Indian documentary in some ways is at its most visible on the high table of the international docu scene,” Kak observed, “but this keeps the Indian audience out of the picture.” Since India’s ethnomajoritarian turn, “there is no notion of the public sphere anymore.”

But the shape of things to come can also spark hope. “The political documentary in India has a wonderful future,” Patwardhan pointed out to ironic chuckles, “because there’s so much material. And everything gets recorded.” 

KPFF ended with a performance from the Bengali musician Moushumi Bhowmik—“Songs of These Drowning Times”—accompanied by filmmaker Sreemoyee Singh. (Singh’s And, Towards Happy Alleys [2023]about poetry and censorship in Iran, had been a high point of the festival). Both the inaugural and concluding events included readings of poetry by Refaat Alareer, the Palestinian teacher vaporized in a bombing by the U.S.-backed IDF.

“These,” Patwardhan told a misty-eyed audience that broke into applause when the end credits to The World Is Family rolled beside an image of the decidedly secular Preamble to the Constitution, “are very precious spaces for us.” In a country fast losing its soul, it felt like he wasn’t just speaking for documentarians anymore.

An audience sits in a theater, watching a film being projected.
Courtesy of Kolkata People’s Film Festival

Sudipto Sanyal is a writer from Calcutta who lives in Bangalore. His work has appeared in, among others, The Economist’s 1843, Mekong Review, PopMatters, and The Smart Set.