This situation is partly the result of the easy availability of veritably any genre of cinema that one can think of

As the city gears up to welcome the fourth edition of the Bengaluru International Film Festival (BIFFES), it is time to look at the situation of the many film societies here that have tried to encourage a critical viewing of films.

Many of these are beset by a host of problems — a dwindling membership base being the core concern. This situation is partly the result of the easy availability of veritably any genre of cinema that one can think of.

Films in any language and from any region or era are easily available now over the counter at hole-in-the-wall pirated stores. If not that, one needs only to cast their net in the deep oceans of the World Wide Web. A film can be downloaded in less than an hour now using peer to peer networks. So what happens to a space like that of a film society in these connected and networked times?

Golden age

The story should really begin with the “golden age” of film societies in Bangalore and in other cities across the country.

“It was impossible to get the membership of a film festival in the 1980s,” says M.K. Raghavendra, film scholar and author of “Bipolar Identity: Region, Nation and the Kannada Language Film”.

“There was a mushrooming of film societies in the 1980s in Bangalore because there was so much demand,” Raghavendra continued.

With a twinkle in his eyes, he added that when big film festivals were organised, many of these film societies, including Suchitra Film Society (SFS) and Bangalore Film Society (BFS), used to collaborate and screen films together.

“We used to source our films from the National Film Archive of India (NFAI),” said George Kutty, a veteran of the film society movement in Bangalore.

“And, the various Embassies who used to send us prints,” he added.

With his shock of white hair and a jhola, the chain-smoking Mr. Kutty has been a staple of the alternative film viewing circuit in Bangalore since his association with the BFS for almost three decades. He has been indefatigably organising “Voices from the Waters” over the past seven years now, which, he claims, is the world's largest film festival dedicated to the theme of water.

Things change

The advent of Video Cassette Recorders (VCRs) in the 1990s weakened the draw of film societies, and it has been downhill from then. Digital Video Discs (DVDs) and downloads from the internet have made the positions of film societies even more precarious.

Nevertheless, film society screenings attract many. After all, the joy of collective viewing in the silence of a darkened theatre, as the audience engages in a hundred ways with the visuals on screen, is unsurpassable.

Other film societies such as Pedestrian Pictures and Vikalp began screening films, including documentaries, in the past decade.

But as Sushma Veerappa of Vikalp explained: “There are several problems that a small organisation such as ours faces. It basically runs because of a few individuals. Once they lose steam, things tend to fizzle out.”

Cultural centres of foreign countries, including the Alliance Française (France) and the Goethe Institute (Germany), have for long provided an important space for films from their respective countries/ regions, and from India as well.

There is no doubt that there is a discerning audience out there interested in watching good films, although Bangalore has become too large a city for one establishment — like the SFS — to attract all of them.

H.N. Narahari Rao, who has for long been associated with the SFS and is now the president of the Federation of Film Societies of India (FFSI), says: “Movement of the people in Bangalore has become difficult. That is why we have suggested that local film clubs are encouraged across the city even in places such as apartment blocks. As an established film society our role will be to curate and help in choosing the films.”

As the fervour surrounding BIFFES reaches fever pitch, it is time that film societies in the city have a long-term plan to provide alternative film viewing spaces through the year.