On how film societies moulded the cineastes in the State

On the threshold of the 18th International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) the focus is on films to be screened, celebrities arriving for the event, and the ever-growing number of delegates to the festival. Stop for a moment to recall how this little state and the city have come to be recognised for its discerning film viewer. The major catalyst has been the phenomenon of proliferation of the film societies throughout the state. Beginning with the first ever film society, Chitralekha, being set up in 1965 by a group of film lovers, including internationally acclaimed filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan, steering the novel initiative, the film society movement later gathered momentum, set the tenor in moulding and influencing talent. Activists, filmmakers and critics who witnessed and experienced the shifts reflect on the role of film societies in the past and present.

C. S. Venkiteswaran

Film critic

Window to world cinema

It was film societies that organised screenings of art films and later film festivals for the first time in Kerala. The continued activism of film societies and the collective enthusiasm of cineastes in the state ultimately led to the formation of the Chalachitra Academy - the first of its kind in India at the state level.

Film societies, by creating a network for sourcing of films for distribution at the national level, and exhibition at the state level, opened the window to world cinema and classics, changing perceptions about cinema in a fundamental way. Film screenings triggered alternative discourses about cinema, produced literature in the form of brochures, pamphlets and books about the art of cinema, major filmmakers and films, thereby inaugurating a new kind of film writing in Malayalam.

Most importantly, they also inspired a lot of avant garde filmmakers such as Aravindan, K.P. Kumaran, Pavithran, T.V. Chandran… who were avid film viewers and film society buffs before they went on to make films.

Unlike the present, the film societies nurtured and supported experimental and alternative films and filmmakers, thus creating a kind of sub culture or space for thinking/working outside the commercial mainstream, which is becoming increasingly impossible now, when all forums are being usurped by the commercial industry.

K. R. Mohanan

Filmmaker and former chairman, Kerala State Chalachitra Academy

A new cinematic experience

Till the seventies, except those who had access to study cinema from Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, few had the opportunity to see good cinema, and to experience a different cinema. The first film society had its beginning in Thiruvananthapuram. Later, film societies spread to towns and villages of Kerala, sourcing films from National Film Archives, different embassies and the Federation of Film Societies of India.

Members of a film society were a minority, but a committed minority with a passion for good cinema. By the time the new cinema movement started in the 70s we had an audience to appreciate and accept this kind of cinema with refined sensibilities about its aesthetic and social values.

Malayalam cinema and Kerala secured a space as an important region of cinematic activities. This was one of the prime reasons for the Directorate of Film Festivals’ choice of Thiruvananthapuram to organise an edition of International Film Festival of India in 1988 which till then was confined to New Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai. This edition of IFFI inspired us to have our own festival in Kerala, which materialised in 1994.

Gone are the days when classics and contemporary cinema were unavailable for society screenings. Gone are the days when the film society activists had to carry the film boxes of 40 kg on their heads to the screening venues, from the bus stand or railway station. Technology has made access to films more free and personal. Film societies have to redefine and rework their activities in the present context – from organising film festivals and film camps to film studies are areas where the societies can step in.

V.K. Joseph

Film society activist, film critic, and former vice-chairman, Kerala State Chalachitra Academy

Promoting good cinema

The film society movement introduced people to a new kind of cinema and brought in change within the film industry itself. Interest and curiosity about the medium was stirred within a small group of film enthusiasts. The change was followed by the media generating an awareness and interest among the people. Now, with the arrival of new media and the changing pace of life there has been a shift. Theme-based film festivals, documentary and short film festivals took the functioning of film societies to a different plane.

The last few years have witnessed the emergence of talent and new methods in the arena of filmmaking, energised and inspired by the film society movement. A cultural intervention of sorts has saved/reinvigorated films.

After long years of consistent exposure and association with the film society movement, many have found their calling, as it were. B. Ajith Kumar (editing), Sherry, Sudevan, Manoj Kana and K. R. Manoj (direction) and Shahbaz Aman (music), to name a few. The formation of an Academy for promoting good cinema was an idea to which the federation of film societies has contributed in no small way. Then, IFFK, the SiGNS documentary festival, and a host of minor festivals that take place in the state play an undeniably significant role in creating the aesthetic for good cinema.

George Mathew

Film society activist and director, Trivandrum International Film Festival

Creating a niche audience

After West Bengal, it was Kerala which paved the way for a film society movement through the establishment of Chitralekha Film Society. Soon Kerala became the strongest base for the movement which in turn created a film conscious audience. It was not therefore surprising that Europe’s New Wave filmmakers such as Godard and Trauffaut, or Fassbinder and Herzog, or Tarkovsky and Parandjanov, Wajda and Kieslowski, or Jiri Menzel and Dusan Makavejev are familiar names to viewers.

One need not go too far to find the influence of the film society culture among filmmakers like Adoor, Aravindan, John Abraham, K.G. George, Padmarajan and so on. Right now we have, a committed film society activist, K.R. Manoj, who stands tall with his film Kanyaka Talkies finding the inaugural slot in the prestigious Indian Panorama Section of the International Film Festival of India at Goa, this year.

IFFK enjoys the top ranking with regard to highest delegate participation in India. . Even at the IFFI in Goa, the largest participation from any single state is from Kerala. Message is so clear and vivid – every aspiring filmmaker here wants to be at least a Kim Ki Duk, if not, a Fassbinder! The Malayali from the early 70s itself had cultivated the passion for good cinema, and fortunately, continues till today.