Film festivals are passé. They are no longer what they used to be when nouvelle vague was the craze among those who loved good and serious films. Today, film festivals have become marketing devices. It is doubtful, for instance, if the Cannes film festival, where Satyajit Ray won his first laurel, would now screen a film like Pather Panchali. Or more important, would Ray, if he had been alive today, have sent his film to a festival where topless models draw more attention than movies' The exception to this general observation, at least in the recent past, has, of course, been West Bengal. Here the annual film festival has become a part of Calcutta’s socio-cultural calendar. Like the book fair and sundry other events or non-events. What is even worse is that the film festival in Calcutta is directly sponsored and subsidized by the state government. And one of its principal advocates has been the chief minister himself. Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is a lover of good cinema and he promoted the film festival with a good deal of fanfare and pride. There was no explanation ever given for the spending of taxpayers’ money on a film festival. The only answer on offer was the comment that art needed to be supported. This observation glossed over the simple fact that movie-making is also an industry which should be able to stand on its own feet.
But Mr Bhattacharjee has changed his mind this year. He has decided to reduce the West Bengal government’s monetary involvement in the festival. The estimated budget for the festival is Rs 96 lakh. The government will only pay Rs 25 lakh out of this. Mr Bhattacharjee has also noted, very reasonably, that since film-making has been recognized as an industry, it should generate its own funds and bear the expenses of film festivals. The reduction in the state subsidy is the first step in this direction. Another step is the introduction of a delegate fee. This will be a token amount, but is a first and can be expected to be raised in the future. One can only applaud Mr Bhattacharjee. He has been remarkably quick to understand the logic of economic reforms and the meaninglessness of subsidizing ventures like film festivals and art film complexes. This is a bold step since film-making has a long lineage of government support in West Bengal. Even Pather Panchali had received government funding and that support had no basis since the then chief minister, B.C.Roy, did not even see the rushes. He gave the money, for purely personal reasons, to Sukumar Ray’s son.
Mr Bhattacharjee’s transformation may surprise many but The Telegraph welcomes many of his decisions since they fall in line with what this paper has been arguing for in its editorials. This is particularly true in the context of film festivals. Sponsoring the latter should be nowhere on the West Bengal government’s agenda. Next year, it should even stop the Rs 25 lakh it has committed this year. That money can be much better spent in other sectors, health for example. Mr Bhattacharjee faces an uphill task because he has to fight a mindset and a host of vested interests grown fat on government patronage. He has made a beginning which could well mark the end of the ancien regime in West Bengal.