Every year in November, Kolkata hosts its International Film Festival. It is a strange event. The following are a series of half-truths about it, none of which are original.
The delegate card (which lets the holder watch all films at all venues) is a repository of gloating rights. It is available to more than 500 people. But the ones holding it are insiders of the secret cult of the cinema conscious. The trials of obtaining a delegate card are many and consequently not everyone who applies can have one. One must first prove lasting loyalty to the Festival by standing in queues which stretch from Nandan to the Academy. Once obtained, a delegate card must be worn around the neck at all times even if you are on the metro from Garia, on your way to the festival. It gives the holder the sought-after purpose in life – he is no idle lover who frequents Nandan to pass his time, he is a toothless intellectual who was once assistant director to Ritwik Ghatak and is now propped on his neo-realist walking stick; he is the genius student who has red eyes, lives in distinguished poverty and cannot put his smoke down; he is the soap star who is looking for someone to recognize him so he can turn his face away in a blaze of fame; he is a director in the making; he is Jean Luc Godard himself. He belongs to the brotherhood of the ‘Cinema Bojhey’, as opposed to the ‘Festival Dekhte Eshechhe’.
Right before a film is screened, every delegate card holder poses a life threat to another. And if the film is Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, there is a chance that a few people who had the bright idea of ‘keeping seats’ for friends who are to arrive later, will suffer a sad and public death. While standing in line before films, one must speak loudly about
(a) the representational quirks in Latin American films,
(b) the stupidity of the selection committee that resulted in a certain film of a certain director being screened instead of another film that the complaint has already watched but would have like the people to see
(c) how a very famous director is showing signs of going crazy in all his new work. (This is actually spoken affectionately only for those directors to whom you are personally attached and whose work you know only you understand)
(d) the people who have queued up to purchase tickets for the films being screened at Rabindra Sadan and that their ignorance of cinema is a blessing in disguise as it exempts them from the ordeal of these seven days,
(e) in which direction you are going to run upon entering the hall and that every one of your companions are to follow you if they wish to get a seat.
But all of this is if you fall under the motherly title of ‘a student of cinema’. The true old timers of the festival never speak. They stand silent with enough boredom on their faces to convince you at first glance that this is a ritual they have been practicing since the day Satyajit Ray shot a scene with kashphool and a train. They are pyramids of patience and clutch at their jholas with a faraway glance, they are silent in their rebuke of young queue jumpers, and their laptops at home are downloading a film which they will watch at night after having sat through all five films at the festival. You cannot fool them with your loud knowledge of Antonioni’s filmography. Beware of the sad smirk that escapes their laconic freeze if you are heard talking about the French New Wave as if it happened yesterday.
During a film, there are two associations of people who make their presences audibly felt. The first are the ones who enjoy living on the edge and therefore do not turn their phones off, resulting in the IPL music suddenly blaring during a poignant close up of Juliette Binoche’s eyes. The second are those who have appointed themselves to ensure that the members of the first association die a social death when a phone rings. The second cult is a stronger and more united front and its members, tired of bearing the burden of the moral conscience of the entire ‘serious’ cinegoing fraternity, fall asleep during films. It is said that their hostility towards ringing phones is primarily due to the fact that their sleep is disturbed by the sudden polyphonic intrusion and not because of their love for films, but it is also said that Truffaut disapproved of Panther Panchali.
After a film, you can stand up, push everyone, and leave immediately to join your friend who has been standing in front of Nandan III for the next film, or you can sit down and watch the end credits roll till the very end. Once outside, you must first drink tea, remark lightly on the needlessness of the nude scenes in the film, and then suffer ignominy if you decide to ask fellow tea drinkers the fatal question of ‘Did you like the film?’ Upon recovery, you must go back to talking about the abovementioned (a), (b) and (c) and consult the delegate-card-holder’s second privilege: the festival schedule, for the next film that you are going to watch. On the way to the next screening, wave to that friend who is also a ‘delegate’ but who has not budged from his seat on the sunny grass. Tell him about the old man who started snoring on your shoulder and woke up with a gasp on hearing a gunshot fired by Takeshi Kitano. Be sure to emphasize on ‘old man’, so he does not know that it was you.
Of course, the reason that this is Kolkata’s very own, deeply personal festival is not the films or even the city's many people who love cinema, it is for the couple who came to the crowded screening of Haneke’s Amour , fought for their seats, and while munching on peanuts loudly complained that the film was ‘very slow’.