THE FIRST THING I HEAR IN THIRUVANANTHAPURAM is a Kim Ki-duk joke. A Malayali goes to Seoul and is wandering the streets of the South Korean capital. But no one seems to know where the famous filmmaker lives. Tired and disheartened, the Malayali is about to give up when he sees a house bearing the sign “Beena Paul has blessed this house”—and he knows his search has come to an end.
If that seems a bit hard to decipher at first, worry not. Like the film festival that spawned it, the joke depends on a sensibility that’s simultaneously international art-house and merrily, irrevocably local.
It requires you to know who Kim Ki-duk is—an art-house director whose films often bomb at his country’s box office, but who is internationally renowned for his alternately savage and lyrical cinema (his Pieta won the Golden Lion at Venice this year). It also requires you to know who Beena Paul is—the Artistic Director, since 2000, of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), a woman of remarkable foresight and enthusiasm. It assumes you know that Beena Paul curated a hugely popular Kim Ki-duk retrospective at IFFK as far back as 2005, making him a household name in the state. And last but not least, it assumes (an ability to appreciate the irreverent marshalling of) local knowledge: many Christian homes in Kerala have a sign outside proclaiming ‘Jesus Christ has blessed this house’.
The religious metaphor has its place in the joke, too. The IFFK, whose 17th edition will run from 7 to 14 December 2012, is the largest secular festival in a multi-religious state. Every December, Kerala’s rather sleepy capital city, Thiruvananthapuram, plays host to what is arguably the most widely attended film festival in South Asia, with screenings in many theatres witnessing such a massive press of people, especially in the initial days, that people constantly joke about the IFFK-as-pilgrimage. “The first film I went to last year was at Ajanta, and the crowd outside was just a mob. People were mock-chanting ‘Swamiye Ayyapo’—because it felt like being at the Sabarimala temple,” said Praveena Kodoth, an economics professor at Thiruvananthapuram’s Centre for Development Studies.
The numbers are impressive. Last year’s festival, held from 9 to 16 December, had 9,232 registered delegates. “If you include media-persons, officials and guests, the number of people registered came to over 11,000,” says Beena Paul Venugopal.
But what makes the IFFK remarkable isn’t so much the numbers as something else—a popular enthusiasm for world cinema that, far from being limited to the post-liberalisation English-speaking metropolitan elite that tends to dominate film festival audiences in other urban centres, seems to cut across class. The most obvious (but also most far-reaching) sign of this wide-ranging interest is the fact that the festival handbook, as well as the daily free newsletter brought out during each IFFK, are bilingual. In the case of the handbook, section headings and introductions are in English, but each film synopsis is provided in both English and Malayalam. Venugopal is full of stories about running into festival regulars who come from all walks of life: auto rickshaw drivers in Malappuram, or Thiruvananthapuram nurses who take leave for IFFK. “The funny thing about Kerala is that… a film festival is not only judged by the quality of the films or the people who attend or even the press it gets,” Venugopal said in an interview published in 2011. “It is judged by whether it was a popular success, whether it was a people’s festival.”
IT’S ALMOST DE RIGEUER FOR FILM FESTIVALS in India to feel like mass secular rituals: theoretically open to everyone—but requiring truly religious commitment from the elect. My first film festival experience was the 27th IFFI, held in Delhi in 1996. I was 19: a wide-eyed world cinema newbie willing and able to watch films from 9 am to midnight. But in the sarkari India in which I came of age, getting an IFFI delegate pass to the Siri Fort complex required you to prove that you’d been a film society member for over five years. So I began that IFFI watching as many films as I could at the ticketed public screenings, being enchanted by Wim Wenders’ Lisbon Story at Regal, mystified by Carlos Saura’s flaming flamenco romances at Plaza, and—to my eternal shame—failing to stave off sleep during Theo Angelopoulos’ stately Ulysses’ Gaze at Priya. Things were going well enough until the afternoon I skipped college to go watch Sai Paranjpye’s Papeeha at Sheila, a cinema near the Old Delhi Railway station that I had never been to before—for good reason, it turned out. When the lights came on in the interval, I found myself alone in a hall full of men—Sheila regulars who made it rather clear that a female presence in the theatre was potential compensation for the disappointment of Paranjpye’s tame romance.
Daunted but indefatigable, I called a friend whose aunt was a high-up at Doordarshan, and begged her to share a delegate pass for Siri Fort screenings. Over the remaining days of the festival, my friend and I became experts at passing the card discreetly to and fro through the Siri Fort railings, confidently striding past suspicious guards, as well as occasionally charming small-time government employees within the hallowed gates into giving us an extra pass or two from the stacks they clearly weren’t using. It was all rather fun, of course. But my memory of that IFFI—and the equally sarkari affairs I’ve attended since, in Delhi or Goa, where IFFI has been housed since 2002—is bittersweet. Youthful triumph at having beaten the system is coupled with the sad realisation that the system was one that enthusiastic film-goers inevitably had to ‘beat’.
Admittedly, more open-access models do exist. The one I know best is the Osian’s Film Festival of Asian and Arab Cinema, earlier known as Cinefan. Founded by Aruna Vasudev, the festival started out as open as well as free of cost. Having experimented with 20-rupee tickets a few years ago, Osian’s has now settled on a one-time registration system that gives anyone who wants one a free delegate pass to the whole festival, which is now housed in the Siri Fort complex. For anyone with memories of the artificial bureaucratic scarcity of the ’90s, the pleasure of this is palpable.
Unlike the privately-funded Osian’s, attending the IFFK is not free of cost. Delegates must sign up and pay a registration charge of R400, but this princely sum gets you a pass to eight marvelous days of film screenings, five shows a day. And somehow the fact of having paid that delegate fee seems to give people a nicely proprietary air. Even more radically, the festival has no ‘main venue’ reserved for VIPs or the press. Unlike Siri Fort in its IFFI days, or the Nandan complex in the contemporary Kolkata Film Festival, there is no privileged space that remains closed to regular delegates. Instead, IFFK screenings are spread across 11 different single-screen theatres in Thiruvananthapuram, all open to anyone with a delegate pass. Most wonderfully, whether the screening is of a Robert Bresson classic from the 1960s, a cutting-edge Turkish film or a controversial new Malayalam one, the theatre is almost always full. And if it isn’t, well, at least one can be sure that it isn’t because the passes have all gone to the undersecretary’s sister-in-law.
INDIA IS A CERTIFIED FILM-MAD COUNTRY. We make more films than the next three countries—the US, Japan and China—combined. Our count of 3.3 billion theatre admissions a year (2008) was higher than the combined total of the next nine biggest film-producing countries. To be obsessed with cinema in India is a fairly unremarkable state of being. But whether it is the consumption patterns of first-day-first-show film-goers, or the even less rational activities of our various fan associations, most kinds of Indian film mania exist in tandem with a commercial film industry.
But an obsession with film festivals—and with the sorts of films that are screened at film festivals—has no media machine to back it, or to exploit it commercially. In a world in which cinema as industry seems to have achieved a permanent victory over cinema as art, the film festival junkie seems to be the lone remnant of a cinephilia seemingly untainted by the market.
The first International Film Festival of India (IFFI) was held in 1952. IFFI was part of the national cultural pedagogic project—creating an audience for ‘good cinema’ from across the world, as well as displaying the sort of Indian cinema the state wished to encourage, in the Indian Panorama section. In an era before digital technology and the internet had made access to all kinds of cinema as easy and cheap as it is today, the international film festival was about access. It was the crucible in which the modern Indian film-goer could form his cinematic tastes, expand his horizons beyond commercially released films. And to the sex-starved Indian viewer, it was a potential feast of uncensored nudity and sex.
But by this reckoning, in the era of the internet, in a world overrun by DVDs, torrents and YouTube videos, the film festival ought to have outlived any purpose it may have served. Instead, new film festivals seem to be mushrooming all over the country: not just in the metropolises—Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi—but also Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Patna.
Most remarkable of all is Kerala, a relatively small state that sustains not one but three annual international film festivals: Thrissur, which started in 2006, Kochi, which began in 2004, and the largest and oldest of them, the IFFK, which started in 1996.
The IFFK wasn’t originally located in Thiruvananthapuram. It began when a few people that Venugopal describes as “enlightened bureaucrats” got together and decided to screen some films in a Kozhikode theatre in 1996. It was the huge success of those Kozhikode screenings, and the further momentum created by the IFFI travelling to Thiruvananthapuram the year after, that motivated the Kerala government to create their own film festival. Initially run by the Kerala State Film Development Corporation (KSFDC), the festival later came under the auspices of the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy which was established in August 1998.
But the festival that existed between 1996 and 2000 was different from the current IFFK in two important ways: one, it travelled between Kozhikode, Kannur and Thiruvananthapuram, and two, it was not based on a system of open registration.
It was only in 2000 that Adoor Gopalakrishnan, arguably Kerala’s most globally known filmmaker, became Chairman of the Chalachitra Academy and took the decision to give the festival a permanent home in Thiruvananthapuram, as well as to make it open to anyone who registered and paid a nominal delegate fee: at the time, R100. “Before... the practice was to dole out free passes to a fortunate few who had the right political connections. The film society members and those who were genuine lovers of cinema could hardly get entry into the screenings,” Gopalakrishnan said in an email interview. “[Now] all genuine delegates could get legitimate entry.”
Over the past decade, the IFFK has become a festival renowned for its overflowing aisles. “Watching a film [here] is a pleasure and a privilege… [especially if] you are watching a film in competition that has been selected by a learned jury,” said KB Venu, a Malayali televison commentator and IFFK regular (and the originator of the Kim Ki-duk joke with which this piece begins). “The theatres are not big enough to contain all these people.” And we’re not talking small theatres here: the IFFK is held across 11 single-screen theatres that are both large and characterful. There is Ajanta, dense with the smell of rose petals, and with a pedestal fan that whirrs incessantly; Sreekumar, with a treacherous set of stairs in its balcony; the twinned Dhanya (big) and Remya (small); and Sree Padmanabha, for whom becoming an IFFK venue has been crucial in regaining the respectability it had lost as a soft-porn theatre in the ’90s. (Sree Padmanabha went all out in 2011, creating a two-minute laser display that played before each festival screening. The effort won it the ‘Best Theatre’ award.) Despite the size of the theatres, people sitting on the floor, or on the stage directly beneath the screen is par for the course.
So what makes the IFFK, in KB Venu’s alliterative phrase, “so popular and so populous”? What accounts for the tremendous popularity of world cinema in Kerala? How is it that a subtitled film from Poland or Nigeria or the Philippines, that in Delhi or Mumbai would at best attract a niche audience of upper middle class world cinema enthusiasts with a sprinkling of film school students and media professionals, draws such a large and mixed crowd in Thiruvananthapuram?
PRETTY MUCH ANYONE YOU ASK THIS QUESTION to points first to the particularity of Kerala’s social and political history, and the state’s vast educated middle class. Since 1957, the state has been ruled by democratically elected Communist governments who have carried out substantial land reform and methodically invested in mass education. Kerala’s overall poverty rate fell 36 percent between the 1970s and 1980s, dropping to 10 percent (rural) and 9.6 percent (urban) by the 1990s. By 1981, the general literacy rate in Kerala was 70 percent—almost twice the all-India rate of 36 percent. (Today, at 93.91 percent, it is the highest in the country by far.)
But it was the popular cultural movements of the post-independence years that were really important in shaping Malayali middle class tastes: the massive Library Movement, with PN Panicker founding and heading the Kerala Grandhasala Sangham from 1947 until it became the Kerala State Library Council in 1977; the popular Theatre Movement, spearheaded by the Malabar Kendra Kala Samithi and the CPM-affiliated Kerala People’s Art Club; and most importantly for our purposes, the Film Society movement.
The first film society in Kerala was Chitralekha, formed in Thiruvananthapuram in 1965 by Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Kulathoor Bhaskaran Nair. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, having just returned to his home state after earning a diploma in film direction at the Film and Television Institute in Pune, first established Chitralekha as a film cooperative. But he soon realised that Kerala had no audience for the kinds of films he wanted to make, and the Chitralekha Film Society was born. The society would send for film prints from the National Film Archives of India in Pune, and show them on a 16mm projector. As Gopalakrishnan remembers in KR Manoj’s documentary 16mm, their first screening, held at Sreekumar (theatre of the treacherous staircase) was of György Révész’s 1962 Hungarian film Land of Angels: a fairly generic portrait of the urban poor on the outskirts of Budapest.
In January 1966, the 5th All India Writers’ Conference was held in Kerala, and the literary stalwarts who were involved—M Govindan, CN Sreekantan Nair—asked the young Adoor to organise a film festival of world classics in ten districts. The plan was to start a film society in each town where the festival was held. Within five or six years, Kerala had 25 film societies. By the mid-1970s, there were more than 100: “the largest number of societies in the whole country, beating even West Bengal”, Gopalakrishnan said.
Crucially, unlike in other parts of India, the film society movement in Kerala extended both throughout the state and across a wide cross section of society. “Membership of these film societies was not restricted to the urban bhadralok as in other parts of the country,” writes film critic CS Venkiteswaran (the use of the word ‘bhadralok’ clearly implicating the biggest ‘competitor’ in alternative film culture, West Bengal). The wider geographical distribution of film societies in Kerala, Mumbai-based film scholar Ratheesh Radhakrishnan argues, has to do with the fact that Kerala’s middle class is itself not concentrated in big cities. There is also the fact of linguistic access enabled by basic literacy in English: a very large proportion of Kerala’s population can read English subtitles.
But what made the film society movement resonate so deeply with the Malayali middle class? T Muralidharan, who teaches literature and film studies in Thrissur, suggests that the films shown by film societies, often concerned with poverty, suffering or existential angst, communicated directly with a youthful, educated middle class that was coming of age in a moment of great social transformation. “The feudal system had been completely broken down, and there were a lot of people who were educated but had no jobs,” says Muralidharan. “As someone who joined college in 1976, I can say that my generation, with no hope of jobs, found a hugely fertile ground in poetry writing, theatre groups and film societies.”
The first ‘alternative’ film Muralidharan watched was in his hometown of Irinjalakuda. It was Mrinal Sen’s National Award winning film Chorus (1974), a not-quite-realist depiction of 30,000 applicants arriving in Calcutta to apply for 100 jobs that have been advertised by a particular company. “Before long I was watching Battleship Potemkin and Pather Panchali,” said Muralidharan, laughing, quite aware that the films he is naming are perhaps the most sacred in the film society canon.
Under the influence of the auteur theory, the film society movement gave particular directors demigod status. Venkiteswaran names Sergei Eisenstein (USSR), Ingmar Bergman (Sweden), Miklos Jansco (Hungary), Krzysztof Zanussi (Poland), Akira Kurosawa (Japan) and, to some extent, Jean Luc Godard (France) as those singled out for disproportionate attention early on, with Andrei Tarkovsky (USSR) and Krzysztof Kieslovski (Poland) added to the canon later. In terms of countries, Venkiteswaran points to the predominance of films from the erstwhile Soviet and Eastern bloc, to whom state policy was favourable. “The country embassies were the major source of prints, and only some embassies like those of USSR, Hungary, France and Germany took an interest in showing their films,” he writes.
While many of these directors were from Socialist countries, not all films shown at film society screenings were left-wing in their approach, and neither were film society activists necessarily affiliated with the CPM or CPI. But there were linkages, of course. One of the important ones was Janasakthi, a film society created during the post-Emergency upsurge by P Govinda Pillai. Under the auspices of the CPI(M) State Committee, Janasakthi organised a series of film festivals, distributed films and even made some forays into film production.
Integral to the film society movement’s transformation of film culture was the initiative to find new sources of money for film production. Kulathoor Bhaskaran Nair, who formed Chithralekha with Adoor Gopalakrishnan, has spoken of their “three-pronged strategy”—involving film appreciation, film production and film exhibition—and Gopalakrishnan’s first film, Swayamvaram (1972), was enough of a success that the cooperative was able to return the loan it had taken from the state Film Finance Corporation to produce it.
But it was not till another Malayali FTII graduate, the maverick John Abraham, returned from studying with Ritwik Ghatak and working with Mani Kaul on Uski Roti to form the Odessa Collective in 1984—named, of course, for the iconic Odessa Steps sequence in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin—that there was a serious attempt to bypass both state and market and actually make films based on funds raised from the public. In a now legendary journey through Kerala, the members of the Odessa Collective beat drums, sang and put up skits in village after village, asking people to donate money for the “people’s cinema”. The funds collected in this originary moment—one that makes internet crowd-sourcing look like an also-ran—were used to make John Abraham’s Amma Ariyan (Report to Mother, 1986), a complex interweaving of fiction and documentary that tells the story of a group of friends travelling to the village of a young Naxalite man to give his mother the news of his death. The film—Odessa’s first and Abraham’s last—is now considered an avant-garde classic, and Abraham revered as one of the greatest filmmakers to have emerged from Kerala.
Abraham died in 1987, aged only 49, but left a deep imprint on the film culture of Kerala. “John became an icon, a phenomenon,” said documentary filmmaker KR Manoj, who entered the film society movement in the early ’90s at what he calls “its fag end”. At last year’s IFFK, connections to him and Odessa seemed to spring up everywhere. The IFFK Official Bulletin—a newsletter-plus-screening-schedule brought out daily during the festival—for 16 December 2011 had an item on page 11 entitled ‘Letting ‘Amma’ Know: A 25-year-old tryst’, commemorating the silver jubilee of “the legendary cinematic endeavour” called Amma Ariyan. It quoted four people, one of whom was Beena Paul, reminiscing about the “voyage of experience” it was, and her arguments with Abraham; the IFFK Artistic Director, it turned out, was editor of Amma Ariyan, while her husband Venu was the cinematographer.
Wandering about Kairali Theatre a few hours later, I picked up a flier for a documentary called Blazing Course, about one Comrade Balakrishnan, who embraced martyrdom by setting a police jeep on fire during “the black days of the Emergency”. It is directed by a man who calls himself Sathyan Odessa, whose previous film Mortuary of Love (2009) is described on the same flyer as exploring “the sordid world of sexual exploitation of young innocent girls who are trapped into romance, abducted, persecuted and done to death”. The Kozhikode-based TS Sathyan has made five films under the banner of Odessa Movies, “not accepting money from film industrialists or funding agencies or government agencies… [and working] with the generous donations received from the public in conformity with the vision of the late John Abraham”.
I didn’t manage to meet Sathyan. But the next day, I met a man called Murali who works for United India Insurance and is part of the Rasmi Film Society in Malappuram, an old and active society which claims its 2011 film festival was its 72nd one. A small, wiry man of 50, Murali was uncomfortable speaking English, and seemed a man of few words anyway.
His first statement to me was the answer to a question I hadn’t asked. “I respect only one film,” he announced solemnly. “The Hour of the Furnaces.” The film he was referring to is Fernando E Solanas and Octavio Getino’s polemical cinematic articulation of a revolutionary struggle against neocolonialism, shot clandestinely in Argentina in the early ’60s and still shown in Film Appreciation classes at FTII, Pune. When I asked Murali how he got involved in film society activity, he said only one word in answer: “Odessa.”
OTHERS WERE MORE FORTHCOMING. Hariharan Srinivasan, 41, works in the Transport Commission Office in Thiruvananthapuram and has been a film society buff since he was in college. “My father was a film theatre manager in Kulashekharam, a small place near Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu. I spent my childhood in theatres, like in that film Cinema Paradiso!” he said. “Unlike many others, I didn’t have any ban placed on watching films even as a child. But it was my brother who introduced me to good cinema. He was an employee of the Accountants General office, where he and his friends ran a very active film society in the ’80s.” Srinivasan is an IFFK regular, one of the thousands of salaried employees who take leave from work every year to attend the festival.
He is also among the many people I spoke to who mourn the end of the film society era: “In the last 10-12 years, most of the film clubs have vanished. There is no movement.”
The number of registered number of film societies in Kerala had dropped to 85 in 2010. The increasingly widespread availability of world cinema means that the film society no longer provides privileged access. Apart from the number of societies, the level of active participation has also gone down.
In Kochi, where Arvind Menon, 28, lives, there are still four or five active film societies, and the curly-haired, gangly, bespectacled Menon started watching films through them a few years ago. In 2008, he attended the FTII’s summer course in film appreciation. He is now on the Executive Committee of Kochi Film Society and Convenor of the Film Club in Ernakulam Public Library. Since too few people tend to show up at individual screenings, he said, many film societies had started to hold festivals instead. While an IFFK regular, Menon is staunchly opposed to the festival as the only form of film society activity. “In a festival, you don’t meet anyone. You need to be regular to get to know people,” he said. He advocated a more collaborative model of film society revival. “In Ernakulam Library, we screen two movies every week, so that the younger people who work in the industry and who want to make [their own] films get to know each other. New thoughts come up. It has been working well, and now some of us are planning to do a movie. We have a script that we have shown to an actor, [he names a Malayali hero of middling fame], and we hope to get funding once he accepts the film. When we can connect with the industry itself, the dimension changes.”
This transformation of the film society into a space where the collective interest in cinema is not spectatorial or critical but rather a stepping stone to making your own films marks an ongoing transition—from an era of profoundly committed but staunchly amateur cineastes to one of potential film professionals, who may or may not be cineastes in the same way. “Earlier when we do these things [film society activities], people may not take it seriously,” said Arvind. “But when we become filmmakers and are still doing this, then people have to take it seriously.”
Film societies in Kerala have worked as collectives to produce and distribute films in the past, but those projects were invariably part of a radical agenda for the transformation of cinema, its creation and its reception, not—as now—a potential training ground for young people to enter the existing film and media industries.
The inevitable decline of the film society—and its near-total reinvention where it does survive—provides a key to the transformation of the audience at IFFK, which has lately become a point of debate. Delhi-based academic Bindu Menon, writing on Kafila.org soon after the 2011 edition of IFFK, remembers the Soorya Film Festival, held in Thiruvananthapuram in 1994 to commemorate a 100 years of cinema, as “an all male congregation of film buffs with hardened tastes in films, cultist habits, existential dramas and fetishistic rituals”. There were only some 30-odd women delegates. “Abuzz with discussions, protests and pamphlets about not recognizing the actual and revolutionary potential of the 1970s film society movement and its legacy,” the 1994 festival seemed, to Malayali women like Menon, a closed, intimately masculine space which wasn’t too comfortable opening its doors.
Unsurprisingly, the changing profile of the IFFK audience in the last few years—many more young people and students, including larger numbers of women—has coincided with a chorus of laments about “indiscipline” and “non-seriousness”. Among the most powerful voices of nostalgia-ridden despair is Adoor Gopalakrishnan. “The large crowds at the screening venues of IFFK are hardly any indication of an elevated culture. The media hype, uncensored foreign films, a festive occasion for the youth, etc, are all contributing to the attraction of the festival,” he said on email. “There is hardly any special film culture left to write about.” The film society “way of life”, complete with what Bindu Menon calls “monastic rituals” (“waiting for film prints from NFAI Pune at railway stations”)—has given way to an altogether less ascetic world in which the pirated DVD shops of Beemapally can cater to world cinema tastes all year round (though these tastes are certainly honed by IFFK, down to the creation of “festival special” DVDS). In this world, as KR Manoj puts it, “people are coming to the venue for an annual get-together”. Manoj is quick to specify that he does not mean to be moralistic; he is glad, for example, that 20-30 percent of the IFFK audience is now female. But the concerns that someone like Manoj has, about film viewing and film practice becoming more commercially oriented, apolitical and individualised, can also find themselves feeding into lateral discourses in which IFFK is attacked by the moral police for creating a space of easy camaraderie between young men and women.
To understand the shifts in Kerala film culture and the anxieties around these shifts, we need to place them in the context of wider socio-political and economic transformations. The new circuits of globalisation have inevitably altered not just our individual relationships to world cinema, but the world’s relationship to ‘Indian cinema’. Increasingly, it is ‘Bollywood’ (rather than the arthouse cinema of Satyajit Ray or even Shyam Benegal) that is positioned as representing India in the global arena. The International Film Festival of India, earlier the bastion of Indian art cinema holding out in a sea of popular commercial melodrama, has in recent years been happy to gain glamour and much-needed publicity from the presence of big Bollywood stars and directors with ‘crossover’ appeal—Akshay Kumar inaugurates it this year, while the closing film is Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
This new ‘global’ avatar has emerged after the permanent shift to Goa—which was itself part of the attempt to make the IFFI a ‘brand’ associated with a specific ‘destination’. This revamped IFFI, in great measure, is what IFFK defines itself against. During the 2007 edition of IFFK, the Malayali filmmaker TV Chandran made a much-publicised statement to the effect that the Malayalis would show the Goans how to organise a film festival. Ordinary IFFK delegates may not be as pugnacious, but the sentiment seemed alive and well in 2011. Whether in terms of choice of films, organisational excellence or the sense of local pride in having a ‘truer’ film culture, the discourse within Kerala—both on the ground and in the media—is one in which IFFK claims to be better than IFFI. Less clearly articulated but certainly present is another implicit subtext: that of IFFK (and Kerala) taking up the cultural responsibility that IFFI (and the nation-state) has abdicated. “The regional,” suggests Ratheesh Radhakrishnan, “now asserts its critique of the national event by performing what lacks in the latter.”
While the film society movement in Kerala may not have been directly linked to left party politics, it cannot but be understood in the context of what Radhakrishnan calls “the history of the left on an aesthetic plane”. World cinema has been, for the Kerala film viewer, a way to transcend the particularities of region, language, religion—an entry into the world held together only by a notion of art and humanity, not citizenship. Participation in the IFFK, Radhakrishnan argues, involves a certain performance of internationalism—a claim to universality that is not mediated either by the national project of IFFI or by the logic of consumption that governs new privately funded festivals like the Mumbai Film Festival or Osian’s.
Radhakrishnan’s point about the internationalist ethos of IFFK is persuasive, but the festival is also underpinned by a strong sense of Malayali pride, expressed most obviously in the section on contemporary Malayalam cinema, an annual feature. In seeking to represent the best of Kerala’s cinema alongside that of the world, the section echoes the Indian Panorama section in IFFI. A lot of coverage in the local press naturally focuses on the Malayalam films chosen, with the directors being feted as new auteurs.
In 2011, a massive controversy erupted around a film called Adimadhyantham, the only Malayalam film in the competition section, which was disqualified citing technical grounds. “No Malayalam films at IFFKerala!” announced the Indian Express. “Never before has Malayalam cinema been treated this way,” lamented CS Venkiteswaran. Sherrey, the film’s debutant director, became the centre of a storm of popular support, with angry IFFK delegates holding a demonstration outside Kairali theatre targeting the Minister for Cinema, ex-actor KB Ganesh Kumar, and the Chalachitra Academy chairman, filmmaker Priyadarshan. Newspaper reports portrayed Sherrey as a believer betrayed by his own gods. “For the young filmmaker, the IFFK is as divine as the temple festivals in his village in Taliparamba, Kannur”, wrote the Deccan Chronicle. “I have been coming to IFFK for 14 years in a row. Until my short film [Kadaltheerathu] was screened here a couple of years back, I used to borrow money to be at the IFFK, to pay for my travel, stay and food,” Sherrey said. “Ganesh Kumar and Priyadarshan can never understand what it means to be deprived of a chance to get one’s film screened at the IFFK.”
The Adimadhyantham affair is an example of the overwhelming sense of ownership that distinguishes IFFK delegates from viewers in any other film festival. This emotional investment moulds an amorphous mass of film-goers into an organised, participatory, critical public, which even has its own representative body: the IFFK Delegate Forum, with an eight rupee membership fee. In 2011, the Delegate Forum led a successful protest against a new rule instituting a “late registration” charge of R200. When confusion and delay in the distribution of delegate passes on the first day of the festival led to angry scenes outside Kalabhavan theatre, the Forum lodged its protest in written form. The printed statement issued—English on one side, Malayalam on the reverse—bemoaned the fact that “over the last few years… the delegate’s participation in a cultural event like IFFK is more in the nature of a consumer, that stops short of ANY direct involvement in ANY of its chief activities, be it participation in the organising committee, be it having their voice heard in the choice of packages of films… [or] the bare minimum expectation of getting to register as a delegate on the inaugural day of the festival.”
Is it likely that the viewership of a film festival anywhere else in the world has such a sense of itself as a collective? I think not. Though as with many organisations that speak on behalf of a larger public, perhaps not all delegates would “pour scorn” on 2012’s new online-only registration policy as Delegate Forum representative Sridhar P insists he does. For Sridhar, the new system makes delegates “compete with one another to register and pay to be inside the sick limit of 7000” and is symptomatic of wider socio-economic changes: “New generation banks prefer their customers not to walk in to their branch. So does the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy with its delegates.”
Sridhar’s views may appear extreme, but the nature of technological modernity certainly affects the festival experience. The very specific local texture of IFFK has much to do with screenings taking place in private single-screen theatres which are all of a certain vintage – not in multiplexes (the city has none) or a government complex. Though the need for better infrastructure (and particularly for a festival complex) is the one thing on which defenders and critics seem to agree, it seems to me that when and if that happens, the festival will change its character completely. The wave of carnivalesque excitement that currently sweeps through the city during the IFFK is tied to the fact of delegates moving from theatre to theatre through the day, sharing autos with strangers to get to a screening on time, striking up conversations at an eatery as they recognise each other as fellow film-goers from the delegate cards hanging around their necks.
THIS YEAR’S EDITION OF IFFK, as always, will have 14 films from countries of Asia, Latin America and Africa competing for the Suvarna Chakoram. Outside of competition, there are seven separate retrospectives: acknowledged masters like Alain Resnais, Akira Kurosawa and 1920s Hitchcock sit alongside the work of S Pierre Yameogo, writer-director from Burkina Faso; Australian director Paul Cox; iconic Brazilian actress-filmmaker Helena Ignez and three-time National-Award-winning Malayalam actress Sharada (one award was for Adoor’s Swayamvaram). Other packages include Australian indigenous films, recent French films on adolescence, and a focus on Vietnam. The world cinema section, always a highlight, will bring IFFK viewers a bounty this year, with brand new films by many of the world’s most highly regarded filmmakers—Michael Haneke (Amour), Cristian Mungiu (Beyond the Hills), Ken Loach (Angel’s Share), Volker Schlondorff (Calm at Sea), Hong Sang-Soo (In Another Country), Abbas Kiarostami (Like Someone in Love), Aki Kaurismaki (Le Havre), Mohsen Makhmalbaf (The Gardener), Walter Salles (On The Road), Takeshi Kitano (Outrage Beyond), Bernardo Bertolucci (Me and You), Carlos Reygadas (Post Tenebras Lux)—and of course, Kim Ki-duk (Pieta).
As the list above ought to assure anyone concerned, IFFK’s glamour is still very much about world cinema: what most delegates come for is the sheer frisson of watching films that have been to Cannes and Venice, and are on their way to Berlin. But the IFFK is also a carnival, and an indisputably Malayali one. The collective energy of Kerala’s continuing socio-political legacy turns even film spectators into participants. And the austere ideal of the film society lives on in such things as choosing not to set up food or drink stalls within festival venues – hoping to ensure that IFFK delegates are punch-drunk on nothing but the love of cinema.