The International Film Festival of India was yielded in Bombay in January 1952 but it was formulated six months before. The intention of organizing such a festival of motion pictures, which would be a beginning for the East, was suggested to Prime Minister Jawahar lal Neheru by Films Division’s then Chief Producer Mohan Bhavnani. Bhavnani, a filmmaker trained in Germany, had recently retreated from a visit to Paris where he had attended a meeting of Film Experts Committee of UNESCO and came with the idea to hold India’s own film festival.
Filmmaker K L Khandpur has narrated how the decision to organise the first film festival evolved. As per his reckoning, he was shooting a documentary for Films Division (Facing the Facts, 1951) in Srinagar with his crew when Bhavnani summoned him. “Bhavnani and I spent about 45 minutes and figured out that a sum of Rs 1 lakh would be adequate,” Khandpur, who later became Chief Producer at Films Division, wrote. “After some time when Bhavnani returned, he announced that the proposal for an International Film Festival had the blessings of the Prime Minister,” penned Khandpur.
Soon after, a plan was sketched to organise the five-week-long traveling event in Bombay and Madras, Delhi and Calcutta. A central organising committee was constituted under the chairmanship of retired High Court judge Sir Clifford Manmohan Agarwala with 10 other members including actor Nargis, directors V Shantaram, New Theatre’s BN Sircar, Wadia Movietone’s JBH Wadia and film producer from Madras S S Vasan. Weekly Screen announced the government plans to hold an international film festival in its September 21, 1951 edition.
Though the original plan was to hold a ‘competitive film festival’ and the event was announced such, the concept was later dropped following the International Federation of Motion Pictures Associations (IFMPA) objection on the prospect saying “only Venice and Cannes had been granted permission to hold competitive festivals” in that year. The gala was then classified as ‘non-competitive representative show’.
Curtains went up on January 24 at the New Empire Cinema.
￼The festival offered a bouquet of 40 international films and over 100 short films that were showcased, In Mumbai, the film shows were held at three open-air theatres that were erected at Azad Maidan apart from four other regular cinema houses namely the New Empire, Excelsior, Strand and Kum Kum. Among the films that proved popular among the audience were the Italian films Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948), Rome Open City (Rosselini, 1945) and Miracle in Milan (De Sica, 1951); Japanese film Yukiwarisoo (Minoru Mtasui, 1951); British short film Dancing Fleece ( Wilson-Reiniger, 1950,) Soviet war film Fall of Berlin (Mikheil Chiaureli, 1950) and Hollywood films The Greatest Show on Earth (DeMille, 1952) and An American in Paris (Minelli, 1951). Indian entries for the festival were Awara (1951), Babla (Agradoot, 1951), Patala Bhairavi (Ketiri Reddy, 1951), Amar Bhoopali (V Shantaram, 1951) among feature films and Adivasi (National Education and Information Films) and Lest I Forget Thee (Singh Brothers) among documentaries.
In Delhi and Madras huge road parades of Indian film stars and visiting delegates were held that received huge response from the crowd which, in Frank Kapra’s words, made Indian politicians realise for the first time “the power of Indian film stars”. In Madras, a friendly cricket match between film starts was held at Corporation Stadium of Madras where Raj Kapoor’s “deadly bowling” grounded the opposing team to much delight of over 15,000 audience members.
PM Nehru attended the inauguration of the Delhi leg of the festival and President Rajendra Prasad hosted the guests and Indian film fraternity at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Virchandra Dharamsey recalls his experience of visiting the festival in Bombay, “In my memories, the first IFFI was like a fair. My interest in cinema has just begun at that time but I knew nothing about international cinema. I can hazily recall watching De Sica’s Miracle in Milan in an open theatre at the Azad Maidan. I also caught glimpses of several other films such as Japanese film Yukiwariso, (Italian) Rome: Open City and Bengali film Babla from the side without having to buy the ticket,”.
Hollywood Director Frank Capra and actor Dev Anand, who entertained the director during his stay in Bombay as a film festival delegate.
After exhaustive research, interviews with over 300 prominent personalities including filmmakers, educationists, public representatives and journalists and studying memorandums submitted by over 250 important individuals, the committee submitted a report which called for widespread changes to improve its financial management and aesthetic quality of the films. The committee took the view that although the Indian film industry made significant progress on the technical aspects, it was lacking in content and the “medium’s potential for the education of the masses and nation-building” was not being utilised. The committee observed that for the Indian film, “the story remains a secondary consideration”, the play-back system is over-exploited, the dance sequences are used indiscriminately, the comedies “degenerates into the burlesque” and “hilarity and buffoonery is expressed through meaningless grins and gestures”.
Intercommunication with filmmakers from overseas and exposure to international films from Japan, Italy, France and Russia at the first film festival did shape the discourse around cinema in India. This was especially true with the aesthetic of ‘realism’ as advocated in the neo-realist films that came from Italy and were the most admired among the foreign lot.
Among those who were directly and admittedly influenced by Italian films they saw at IFFI 1952, was Bimal Roy who immediately embarked upon making Do Bigha Zamin (1953) promising himself that it would be “as start and austere and will be shot on location” like Bicycle Thieves. For the film, he largely chose his caste from IPTA actors as opposed to well-known film stars and shot a majority of the film in streets of Calcutta and a nearby village. There are many obvious thematic similarities between Do Bigha Zamin and Bicycle Thieves with streets of Calcutta replacing those of Rome and the land-plot standing in for the stolen bicycle in the Italian masterpiece.
It is well known De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves was behind Satyajit Ray quitting his job in the advertisement industry and deciding to make his first film Pather Panchali (1952).
“Thus within days of the festival, Italian neorealism provided a specific and concrete rallying point around what had been since the early 1930s an endemic Indian disavowal of popular cinema,” says film scholar Neepa Majumdar further arguing that the brush with neo-realism during first IFFI affected both the “parallel cinema movement” which developed in the with Ray, Ghatak and others but affected the thematic and artistic concerns of mainstream commercial products such as Booth Polish (Prakash Arora, 1954) and Footpath (Zia Sarhadi, 1953).
The festival was wound up in Calcutta on March 5 1952. As per a gossip column published in filmindia magazine’s April edition, the Films Division had earned a profit of Rs 7 lakh from the festival.
As per Dharamsey, the interest in world cinema that festival kindled among local Bombay cine-goers caused regular film theatres to play international hits (outside Hollywood) soon after the first IFFI. “I distinctly remember that months after the festival, Liberty Cinema ran Kurosawa’s Roshomon, De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear as regular shows,” he recalled. Despite the success of the first festival, Indians would wait for nine years for the IFFI to return with its second edition in 1961.
IFFI has since then come a long way. This year it completed its 50th year and was grandly celebrated in Goa.