Film societies in the city are struggling to adapt to the changing landscape of film appreciation

The long-assurgent history of film societies in India has sputtered like an old 16-mm projector over the past 20 years, reeling with the onset of cable television, pirated DVDs and online downloads.

In the 1970s and early ‘80s, more than a 100 film societies had spread across Kerala – more than in any other State. According to the Federation of Film Societies (FFSI), only half that number remains today, though some suggest even that may be generous.

“They say there are 14 film societies in Thiruvananthapuram,” said George Mathew, one of the founding members of the 35-year-old Chalachithra Film Society. But apart from some societies like Soorya, FILCA and Chalachitra, many are still trying to find their feet.

With classical films so readily available, film buffs have withdrawn in droves, transforming themselves largely into home-viewers. Now many are left wondering whether these cultural vanguards remain relevant.

“I don't have the time to join a society,” said Krishna Kumar, a university student, who recently attended the third International Documentary and Short Film Festival here, echoing the sentiments of many of his peers. “We still want that community – to watch, analyse, discuss. But festivals can provide such a platform.”

Replaced screenings

According to Kerala State Chalachitra Academy, there are around a 100 film festivals held throughout Kerala every year. To a large extent, these have replaced traditional screenings. But some in the film movement's old guard lament the changing landscape in film appreciation.

“If you want to enjoy something, there should be some effort,” said Soorya Krishnamoorthy, who founded Soorya Stage and Film Society in 1977.

“Now it is not there. If I want to see a great film, I should stake the claim of joining a film society, pay dues, attend screenings and stay for the discussion. The younger generation wants everything without burning their fingers.”

A number of film societies continue to lose membership, and with the cost of a single screening often running to around Rs.10,000, most do not hold regular programmes.

Nevertheless, help may be coming. The Government has promised Rs. 50 lakh in next year's budget, up from one lakh in previous years, to be divided amongst the film societies and festivals in Kerala (not including the Chalachitra Academy's International Film Festival of Kerala [IFFK]).

But some question whether the film movement has really been undermined by the decline in film societies.

“Even in the golden days, film enthusiasts were nostalgic for an earlier era, saying the film movement was dead,” said V.K. Joseph, vice-president of the Kerala branch of FFSI. “I think this current period is better than the ‘70s and ‘80s because more people are watching, and willing to sit for two or three hours for a documentary. And that's because film societies preserved this idea.”

Role to play

Joseph still thinks film societies have a role to play. “They're not just about screenings anymore,” he said. “It's about exploring knowledge and improving the appreciation level.”

Nearly 9,000 delegates attended last year's IFFK. And smaller festivals create buzz whenever they roll into town. The movement is surviving in different forms.

“With the digital revolution, filmmaking is increasingly more accessible,” said Joseph.

“I think we'll start to see more experiments in content and form. Everyone will take films. That's our utopia. New possibilities are there. We can't direct everything.”

“It's a cycle,” added Krishnamoorthy. “We have sacrificed a major portion of our lives for this movement. That will be recognised one day. If a film society stops now, no one asks why. But I believe a day will come when people will recognise the film societies and the value of good cinema.”

Leading the way

Auteur Adoor Gopalakrishnan started not only the first society in Kerala (Chitralekha) in 1965, but with it the foundations for a now thriving film culture. With Chitralekha's energy and promotion, the film society movement exploded across the State. An audience emerged for the films he would begin to make seven years later, and this first film cooperative formed a backbone for the production and distribution of local cinema. Excerpts from a chat with the acclaimed director….

How has film culture changed globally?

It is like art houses in the United States. Once there were art houses aplenty all over the country, but now these have been replaced by film festivals. Suddenly in the last 10 years, there is a film festival in every town. That has brought down the art house. In India, we never had art houses. And film societies could never afford to pay. It was like a free house.

Do you lament the decline in film societies?

No, actually film societies should have developed into art houses. That should have been a very natural, chronological development. People do not have the time now or the will to attend appointed screenings. The audience has changed. What we should promote today is art houses. You should programme good films, and the public should be able to go and buy tickets. That is the function that film societies should take on.