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9-min read

The overgrowing prominence of cinema at lit fests; a boundary overruled?

Koral Dasgupta | News18 Specials @KoralDasgupta

First published: March 29, 2016, 1:20 PM IST | Updated: March 29, 2016
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The overgrowing prominence of cinema at lit fests; a boundary overruled?

On January 8, 2016, a social media update by my favourite film personality Aparna Sen read, “Come & watch my film 'SAARI RAAT' starring Konkona, Rittwik Chaktaborty & Anjan Das on 14th Jan at Nandan. It is the inaugural film at the Apeejay Kolkata Lit Fest. It is the national premiere of the film. What delights me is that a lit fest is opening with a film! Talk about sister arts!”

True that. Literature and cinema are sisters. Just that, literature is the poorer sister in terms of revenue. Film makers earn a bag-full with every show; the scope for promotions are also plenty. Especially if it is a film by someone as huge as Sen, then it would draw eyeballs by default. In the worst case, even if the film tanks (God forbid), Sen would walk away with critical acclaim and people would still talk about it. On the contrary, most of the authors sulk in dark corners. There is only a handful who get crores from deals. Rest go back to the word files of their laptops, deriving organically a psychological pleasure from the magic world they weave with words. And yet, the little scopes of limelight that Lit Fests might bring them are shared between “sisters”!

Says columnist, author and screenplay writer (Hate Story 2) Madhuri Banerjee, who represents both worlds of books and films, “I think people are taken in so much by the glamour that they forget they would be just pretty faces if they didn't have a story backing them up. In USA writers are given much more credit than they are in India. And here, only when you are a famous writer like Javed Akhtar or Gulzar saab, you're called for Lit Fests. We forget that the ‘Lit’ in these fests stands for Literature. Let's call writers who stand for that word!”

Many of the best authors of contemporary literary space have confessed that a vast role is played by PRs and marketing gurus in making books successful. Nothing against these practices. After all, business evolves when two or more units coordinate and chase a joint goal. But every pro has a con. There are great books dying unnatural death and many worthless writers make hay since they had the resource to invest in PR. This affects the growth of audience as well. What is depressing, is that such writers whose literary works largely thrive on the PR push and not on the content, are called to grace the couches at literary meets while good works are ignored because they are not stamped as “successful!” Have we then given up on that complete “book experience” that was once so dear to us? Or are we, the audience, willing to hear someone out just because his books top the bestseller lists? Are we ready to worship authors irrespective of the content they generate or the minds they are capable of inspiring?
Author Kiran Manral, who is a common face in literary circuits, pours her insights. “I sense a certain kind of segmentation that seems to be occurring here. There is the tried and tested, the familiar names, the crowd pullers, the good speakers and so forth. For authors who are not known names or are just beginning their careers, it becomes difficult to get invited because unless they are backed or recommended strongly, they don’t get heard. I think a concerted effort by Lit Fest organisers to look for promising new writers and place them on stage is definitely the need of the hour and will greatly enhance the Lit Fest experience.”

That’s precisely the point. A platform that is supposedly meant to promote growth of literature, today calls the same old writers and film personalities to welcome glamour, but are quite inert towards new authors who are trying to make themselves visible. Where is the home-work to search and support promising and innovative story-telling? Shouldn’t the Lit Fests be promoting and encouraging growth of readership through panels celebrating and discussing diverse genres of writing? How can readership grow and minds open, unless new authors experimenting with style, technic, plots and genres and given their due space?

Sumant Batra, founder of Kumaun Lit Fest, explains the focus behind planning a festival for and with books and authors. “At KLF we have taken a conscious decision to invite speakers based on the demand of the subject matter of the session and not the other way around. We focus on content and not crowd pulling. Our panelists are a good mix of celebrated and emerging authors. Our attention is on speakers that can engage the audience. Selfies are collateral outcomes and not the goal, if you know what I mean!"
My critique for Apeejay Kolkata Lit Fest for premiering Aparna Sen’s film does not originate from any conservative insecurity. Of course launch of the book "Badal Sircar: Towards a Theatre of Conscience" was a face-saving grace to present the film in perspective with the Lit Fest. But I certainly do feel that the inaugural function of an event must stay rooted to the purpose of the event, rather than deviating right from the beginning. Cinema or music or other forms of art can come in as breathers; they can’t be the inaugural statement! Ever heard of a book reading session that begins or punctuates a film festival? That’s why I called literature the poorer sister of cinema. When the habits of reading and writing are decreasing at an alarming space, Lit Fests today are happy to celebrate the celebrities. Film stars and directors are generously invited to grace their panels, but they never think of calling film writers for whom the platform would be more appropriate. I understand presence of film personalities, even if they have nothing to do with literature, help in drawing crowds. But shouldn’t they at least talk about their writers, if not bring them along? Film writers face major exploitations in the industry. Hardly people know about them, even when their films are commercially and critically acclaimed. Why shouldn’t Lit Fests stand for them too, if they are including cinema as the sister art?

Film writer Jyoti Kapoor (‘Daawat-e-Ishq’ and others) takes a rational stand. “The internal journey of all writers is the same. The self-doubts are the same, the fear of rejection is the same and the chances of getting exploited are the same. We all tell stories, just for different mediums. We adapt each other’s work all the time. We are but two sides of the same coin. We need to interact more, have more academic discussions, find ways to collaborate and learn from each other. So yeah, screenwriters should belong in Lit festivals as much as authors should belong in Film Festivals. We need such platforms to share our work with each other.”

More recently, Lit-O-Fest, Mumbai organised a panel discussion with the director and star cast of the film ‘Aligarh’. The film revolves around a Gay professor; the panel discussion was themed as “The Right to Live with Head Held High.” Shockingly the panel did not include the writer of the film, Apurva Asrani, who is a crusader for the same cause. When asked, the organisers said that Eros International didn’t introduce Asrani; else he would have been included in the panel. Asrani, though has a different story to say. “A bunch of straight people discussing gay rights! That’s the biggest joke. They dropped me at the last minute and I knew this isn’t about the cause; it’s about stars, publicity and photo ops. Besides, whether they had me or not, why didn’t they have proper Gay representation? Activist Harish Iyer in the panel was completely outnumbered by the straights.”

Many film writers nurture a very self-respectful stand on being included in Lit Fests. Bluntly they voice their sentiments in declaring that if the inclusion of cinema in Lit Fests in about the glamour connection, then that isn’t what they can offer; their profession is more about making others look glamourous and that form of art is more of a self-battle to survive and sustain.

Lyricist and screenplay writer (ABCD, Om Shanti Om, etc.) Mayur Puri talks about Gujarat Literature Festival he attended this year for a session themed on 'Film is the new literature'. “My experience was fantastic. 80% of the speakers in the festival were authors. They called us because the theme was such that it kind of made sense that screenwriters talked with book authors and audience.” But his take on inclusion of film writers in Lit Fests differs. “About writers facing exploitation, yes, we are underpaid and overworked but that's a sociological problem. Lit fests are a celebration of literature not a customer care department of society where we should go and register complains. How are lit fests going to help us? They are organised to help budding writers and a privileged audience that likes to dabble in liberal arts? We don't clean the mess in our own houses and want to complain to the panchayat. That's what is wrong with film writers. Of course producers and stars will try to bully you. That's the nature of their job. What is our job? To stand out grounds and not do what we don't believe in. I refused to work on 32 films last year after the success of Happy New Year & ABCD2. But that doesn't matter. You can choose to not give in to bullying and you can choke to write what you want. But we are too scared of saying 'no'. I think only writers, from whichever world, can change how their profession treats them. If you expect others to give you more money and respect suddenly, that's an irrational expectation. We got to earn it. We have to make the producers and actors realise what value we bring on the table. No Lit Fest is going to help in this regard because producers don't come to Lit Fests and actors are just face value to such events. They don't take it seriously and neither does the audience take an actor's presence at a Lit Fest seriously.”

Story and screenplay writer Pubali Chaudhuri (‘Rock On’, ‘Kai Po Che’) voices the same thought. “I've not attended any Lit Fest in recent years to know what really goes on at one. If celebrities are invited for footfalls or eyeballs, then it's of no special surprise that film writers would not be included in the list. Film writers are not crowd pullers, their work is. That apart, the authorship of a film is at best collaborative and at worst competitive. The director helms a film project as she rightly should. So her contribution is a lot more recognisable. Some of the directors being invited at literary events are writers themselves and I suppose that's a gesture to indicate the overlapping lines between literary writing and screenwriting.”

When the film ‘Bajirao Mastani’ was marred with controversies, actor Priyanka Chopra went on record in an interview with Barkha Dutt, to remind that the film is an adaptation from a book called “Rau” written in Marathi by N.S.Inamdar and that no one objected when the content of the book lavishly described the Maratha ruler’s romantic obsession for the Rajput warrior princess! Yes, association with films, directors and stars bring a visibility which may have otherwise gone unnoticed. And this only endorses the same thought with which I began my arguments. Are Lit Fests losing their focus to bank upon the visibility that help “sell” their event by rooting in for celebrated film professionals and largely restricting themselves to “been there done that” authors? Wouldn’t true book lovers and authors expect these platforms to uphold a fair representation in favour of the spirit and art of good story-telling?

The debate has just begun!

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