Back to basics: Azamgarh Film Festival nurtures love for cinema at the grassroots

Now in its third year, the festival was held at Azamgarh’s Sharda Talkies from February 26 to 28 February and screened a wide array of films

There is a certain charm associated with small towns. Often it is in these towns that we discover what true love for art and culture really is. Perhaps, there is no better way to experience this than watching a movie or a live theatre performance at Azamgarh’s Sharda Talkies—a dilapidated theatre renovated and brought to life by a young team of theatre and cinema enthusiasts—that serves as the venue to the 3rd Azamgarh International Film Festival.

Over the years, Azamgarh has produced cultural icons such Iqbal Suhail, Ayodhya Prasad Upadhyay, Rahul Sankrityayan, and Kaifi Azmi, among others, but for some reason the place hasn’t reaped the kind of benefits that one would expect.

Audience at the film festival Credit: twenty4Frames

Situated around 800 kilometers from the national capital, in the heart of Purvanchal, Azamgarh is still waiting for some much-needed attention and nurturing that’s been long overdue. Now, in recent years, the place has been in the news owing to a few film projects but it is mainly because of the efforts made by Abhishek Pandit and his team at Sutradhar that Azamgarh is witnessing a cultural renaissance of sorts.

Pandit’s exploits over the last decade-and-a-half have been instrumental in bringing Azamgarh back in the reckoning. Today, Sutradhar is hosting three annual festivals in Azamgarh: Theatre Festival, which is in its 16th year; Film Festival, which is in its 3rd year, and Literature Festival, which is in its debut year.

“All my work over the last two decades revolves around Azamgarh. I have always wanted to inculcate a strong culture in Azamgarh, whether one speaks of cinema, theatre, or literature. So my organization, Sutradhar, is committed to promoting the arts, starting right from the grassroots,” explains Pandit.

Azamgarh’s Sharda Talkies, a dilapidated theatre renovated and brought to life by a young team of theatre and cinema enthusiasts, serves as the venue for the film festival           Credit: Twenty4 Frames

But Azamgarh was just as badly hit by the lockdown like various other places in the country. “Everything came to a standstill owing to Covid-19, but our spirits were very much alive. And, so, as soon as we got the necessary permissions, we decided to go ahead with our festival schedule. To tell you the truth this really is a community event. Without the local support and the unconditional backing of friends and family it would be impossible to put this together,” adds Pandit.

The 3rd Azamgarh International Film Festival, which was held at Azamgarh’s Sharda Talkies from February 26 to 28 February, screened a wide array of films including Tauquir Ahmed’s Bangladesh film Phagun Hawa, Pablo César’s Indo-Argentinian film Thinking of Him, Yogendra Choubey’s Chhattisgarhi film Ganje Ki Kali, along with Hindi such as Baba Azmi’s Mee Raqsam, and Avinash Das’ Anarkali of Aarah. The festival also featured master classes and panel discussions. Some notable personalities visiting the festival this year included filmmaker Avinash Das, writer Nilay Upadhyay, senior journalist Chandra Bushan, film scholar Prakash K Ray, film producer Suraj Kumar, and screenwriter Imteyaz Hussein.

What makes Azamgarh International Film Festival different from other film festivals is the absence of any major corporate involvement. All those involved, right from the organizers to the curators to the participants, are the people who genuinely love cinema.

“In my opinion, the Azamgarh International Film Festival is a cultural movement against a particular stereotype that has been created for the city. Discussions on cinema along with screening of films, including regional as well as international, make it very unique.  I think such events should be held in every town and city,” opines Dr. Munna K. Pandey, who teaches Hindi cinema and drama at Satyawati College, University of Delhi.

Abhishek Pandit Sutradhar Credit: Twenty4Frames

A major attraction at the 2021 Azamgarh International Film Festival was a short film competition section comprising a four-member jury headed by Imteyaz Hussein. “Other than some very relevant feature films on a wide array of subjects, this year we have also started a short film section. And I am happy to share that a lot of the entries that we have received have some important messages to offer pertaining to various social issues,” reveals Prof. Mohan Das, one of the jury members.

The segment featured shorts such as Divya Dutta starrer Zuni, Sanjeeta Bhattacharya starrer Jama: The Muddled Thoughts of Ekanta Patel, Alok Pandey starrer KKKK… Kiran, and Vivek Singh starrer Raat Ka Suraj, among others. The Malayalam-Tamil short film Karuvarayin Kanavugal, directed by Sarath Sunthar, revolving around the theme of female feticide was adjudicated as the best film by the jury.

The three-day festival came to an end with the screening of Satish Kaushik’s Kagaaz which was also shot in Azamgarh. The film, starring Pankaj Tripath, Monal Gajjar, and Amar Upadhyay, is based on life and struggle of Lal Bihari Mritak—a farmer hailing from a small village in Azamgarh, who was declared dead on official papers.

“I think it is paramount that good cinema reaches the right set of audiences. Now, in its third year, Azamgarh International Film Festival endeavors to promote good cinema regardless of whether it is made regionally or internationally,” sums up Ajit Rai, noted art critic and festival director of Azamgarh International Film Festival.

(Cover: Credit – Twenty4 Frames)

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