Last week, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued a new list of members who would work in the Preview Committee to select fi lms for the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) held annually in Goa, in November.

In the past seven decades, the creation of, and the announcement of members of this preview committee never made the grade of being news worthy for extensive reporting. Now it seems in future one could show more interest in this annual ritual, to perchance dig out a scandal or gossip on its composition.

In organizing any film festival, involves a series of human activities which span a period of time consuming routines. The longest duration of continuous work exists with the process of selection of films which would be shown in any such film festivals. As soon  as the event is announced, avid film producers, distributors and amateur film makers all queue up to attempt to get their wares get selected.

A selected film in a festival adds to its market salability. For it has already competed for its mark of quality from a collection of over 6000 film titles submitted before the preview committee of such festivals. The market value of such films can increase from 15 percent to a level of 50 percent depending  in which festival the film was entered  for selection and competition. European films entered into Cannes Film Festival notch up their sale value  to the highest possible levels if they go past the filter of the preview committee of this festival. Fortunes await the film producer and film director if their film is selected for the competition section that means today,  sharing company with about 21 films made in that year against a total entries of about 8000 films worldwide. India has been failing in this category in recent years to get a slot for its huge film production, which have lacked artistic qualities meeting world standards of film excellence.

The work in preview committees is back breaking. Members must first find time to see each film entry for assessment in a small dark screening hall meant for the purpose, and decide on its merit. This is to be done for at least four films a day with no breaks for rest, and extended over a period of normally two months or 60 days. This reporter has been associated with the work of previewing films for IFFI and other major film events in India, since 1971 and seen over 14,000 films submitted as entries, (forget the films seen as personal interest in the market or in film societies meetings), and can vouch that the ‘pleasure of seeing hot films’ disappears in such exercises by the fourth day is over and ploughed through about 40 films in a week long sittings running from 8 a.m to 7 p.m daily.

Therefore it became necessary to have preview committees consisting of more members to first compensate for the drop outs which always occurred around the fifth day of screenings, or members falling ill due of mental exhaustion. But cinema is a fatal siren which attracts the initiated into its snare and in India, the myth of ‘uncensored films’ available in festivals, has led many persons to attempt to get into these film preview committees.

Essentially, the complete work of seeing films  to select the best amongst the  worse applied, is done by a set of film ‘junkies’ numbering not more than six ( five is the quorum) and out of  about 21 members listed in any such committee. Originally this work was done gratis, but it was realized that some compensations needed to be given to those who were selected for this work. So besides  tea and biscuits, lunches were added, and dinners if you please, for longer endurance sessions; then official conveyance was  added which was  found not practical in some cases so travel cost was reimbursed and finally a film viewing fee was  kept  for those who recorded their attendance in such preview work.

Film preview work is highly technical though this becomes apparent only for the uninitiated once he enters the dark room. The member is not assessing the entertainment content of the material offered for assessment. The member needs to assess the artistic creativity of the film maker, and of the other departments of film making mainly camera work, film editing, screenplays, and actors’ performances. No member need to be impressed with the money invested in the film under assessment. For example,  three decades ago a film made in 16 mm gauge, poorly enlarged(blown) to 35 mm gauge, grainy in clarity, poor in sound recording, yet with a powerful theme and honesty of purpose and made by a woman doctor of India, who had never handled a movie camera before, won a top award in IFFI. This lady doctor remained a one film wonder thereafter.

The member in the selection process must also have a solid background of film viewing in international cinema, undertaken reading of film trends, and on new talent. Indeed the purpose of film festivals is to discover new artistic talent, something presently lacking in IFFI. It is here that the latest exercise by Min. of I&B has created its own news for those who are in viewing of cinema and making of films in India.

This year the Directorate of Film Festivals moved a file in May, recommending a list of senior film critics, and films makers resident in NCR of Delhi, for the anticipated three months screening exercise. Film entries received, had swelled in numbers touching nearly 900 film titles. This list normally has about 15 names and the Directorate leaves the remaining six vacancies to be filled by the Ministry ‘experts’ in film. As bad luck would have it, the Ministry of I&B had its entire film lineups of officials who had no idea on IFFI and how it worked. That included, Director (Film), Joint Secretary (Film) Adl. Secretary and Secretary of the Ministry. The new Minister appointed holding additional charge, Smriti Irani, is a former TV artist with no background of being remotely associated with international film festivals or of film journalism.

The original list of preview members had been approved in the Ministry by the former senior Minister, Venkaiah Naidu before he demitted office to enter the election fray for the selection of the post of Vice President of India. The preview committee had commenced its work in June and run through about 146 film titles before calling in a halt for some unknown circumstances. In the Ministry the Minister was changed and new officials also took charge. Coincidentally one lady of influence found her name missing in the preview panel and was making the rounds for her inclusion. In all this turn of events, the file seeking approval of her name, landed on the desk of Smriti Irani and the new Minister wanted to know who this lady was and what was ‘IFFI’. No one could explain the ministerial query. Irani, was learnt, now got an inkling of the existence of this preview committee and its mandate, and in one stroke she wanted Naidu’s entire choice wiped out clean and replaced by her choice of names.

Irani ordered a new set of names seeking entry into this Committee for the past one year and they were found in the offices of the Regional Censor Boards. She reportedly filtered in the choice to BJP favorites and signed  a new list of preview members trashing out the list which was at work for already one month and more. Thereby creating a mini crisis.

The new list now available on the website of the Ministry, featured names which never found themselves on any international film forum. Most of them were minor film critics and makers of short films or had made one feature film, but most of them were avid supporters of Irani and her parent political party.  Film afficiadoes countrywide fumed at the turn of events, for here was now a replacement preview committee midway through its labors, being reassembled whose technical background on the subject matter for consideration was fully questionable. We do not propose to nitpick names assembled in the latest context; suffice to say, the whole bunch of personages with the exception of five out of the new forty names have questionable qualifications suited to the important job. This is happening now frequently in the working of the new national government.

Presently we are questioning the morality of the exercise. A junior minister in the Union Cabinet sets aside a decision of her senior most colleague without even batting her eyelid, and  seeks replacements even less suited to the job. The decisions of the ongoing preview committee now become suspect. What about the international repercussions of this turn of events when the Directorate had sent out letters of confirmation of those selected films which would be called for their formal screenings during the IFFI. And again, would the decision of the old committee be reviewed again, and what would be the case of members being paid for their labors and other fair compensations.

It is learnt, the new 40 member committee is to assemble in two parts in Mumbai and New Delhi and be asked to see films on-line and then vote individually. In this new exercise the rights of representation of other film producing centers have also been ignored partially. Political convenience has replaced intellectual niceties.  Thrown overboard is also the time honored practice of holding in- house discussions within the committee to discuss the merits and demerits of the film under preview. The programs on offer, in the new setup in IFFI promise to be a below par set of films promised for their screenings in Goa when the event takes place. You are warned now!

The author is a veteran film historian, and National Awardee film critic and author, associated with IFFI since 1971. Trade Magazine