The Kashmir Files row: IFFI jury chair’s comment was about the film’s artistic merit, not its content

    The remarks made by Nadav Lapid, the jury chairman of the recently concluded International Film Festival of India at Goa, about the Indian film The Kashmir Files, raises disturbing questions about the film and the festival. While commenting on films that were included in the competition section, he expressed his concern about The Kashmir Files. He thought it was “like a propaganda, vulgar movie inappropriate for an artistic competitive section of such a prestigious film festival”. This comment has triggered a series of responses for and against him and the movie.

    The damning comment by a respected filmmaker and jury chairman says a lot. Lapid was making this observation representing the jury consisting of eminent filmmakers whose very mandate is to evaluate the films. What else is expected of a responsible jury but such honest and open evaluation of the films? Isn’t his duty to the spirit of cinema and to an illustrious film festival to speak honestly?

    Another disturbing aspect is the polemical response of a large section of society to the comment. There is a category error here: While talking about the film, Lapid was commenting upon its artistic merit — as to whether or not it is a work of art worth being considered in the competition section of a prestigious film festival in terms of its aesthetic quality. The idea of “quality” or “merit” of a work of art is, of course, a very slippery one. Though such judgements are subjective, they can be discussed in discourses on art in aesthetic terms — the very idea of a jury and the process of judgement are based on it. This is a jury of peers from the domain who are knowledgeable about the field and capable of free and fair judgement. Lapid’s mandate as a jury member was to judge and comment upon the artistic merits of the movie rather than its political in/correctness — which is exactly what he did, sharply and passionately. In doing so, he was upholding the jury’s mandate and also being true to himself, the spirit of cinema and the festival. An international film festival owes its reputation to the values and concerns it upholds, which is reflected in its programme content and organisational intent. There has been a lot of criticism about the selection process for the festival, but no one knows who is answerable or to whom one should complain or appeal. After the unplanned and hurried merger of all national film institutions into the National Film Development Corporation, and the dissolution of the Directorate of Film Festivals, the mystery regarding who actually runs IFFI remains unresolved. All this naturally gets reflected in the priorities and packaging of content which, in turn, lead to embarrassing situations like this. This comment, in fact, is a stark reminder to the festival authorities about the philosophy of the festival and an appeal to rethink the process of film selection.

    It is unfair to criticise the jury for commenting on a film based on its artistic merit by using categories or arguments from a totally different domain. In this category confusion between artistic merit and political opinion, aesthetic perception and vested interests, what is lost is art. Art is something that does not lend itself to the whims of the status quo or political exigencies. It is based on far deeper concerns and understanding about aesthetic imagination. So, it transcends both the expectations of the popular and also the woke. Art unsettles fixed identities and rigid notions, and dreams about other modes of being and radical futures. Art does take sides — for justice and peace. It looks beyond boundaries and borders of all kinds. So, judgements about art are not about assuaging or justifying something or the other, but to keep on interrogating the given, the accepted, the taken-for-granted things, and to open up our imaginations to diverse experiences and possibilities of life.

    Lapid’s comments too come from such an artistic urge and political responsibility, as his own words testify: “I feel comfortable to openly share this feeling with you since the spirit of the festival can truly accept critical discussion which is essential for art and life.”

    The writer is a film critic and documentary filmmaker

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