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THE CATALYST Satyajit Ray  

Once upon a time when Battleship Potemkin could not be carried in a pen drive, there were film societies where connoisseurs would gather and watch the works of greats like Alexander Dovshenko and Rene Clair. They realised that the nascent art form is no less than the traditional arts they had been celebrating for centuries. After Independence, with a little push from the political leadership, the interest took the shape of a movement resulting in the formation of Federation of Film Societies of India. Shaped by stalwarts like Satyajit Ray and Marie Seton, it went on to give us a number of auteurs. From Adoor Gopalakrishnan to Shyam Benegal to Shoojit Sircar, the sensibilities of most reputed filmmakers have been shaped in one of the film societies. Now, VK Cherian, a seasoned film society activist and a communications professional, has put together the serious side of cinema between covers in an engaging manner in “India’s Film Society Movement: The Journey and its Impact” (Sage).

Edited excerpts:

What was the catalyst? How will you like to present the idea of film societies to the pen drive generation?

A chat with Adoor Gopalakrishnan, the pioneer of the film society movement in Kerala, inspired me to write. There was one book, the official history of the movement, but it was just a collection of documents, not a story told or interpreted. Hence, I was enthused to venture into it, as I have met or seen most of the major players, like Vijaya Mulay, Gautam Kaul, Anil Srivastava and Bikram Singh.

As for the new pen drive generation, the book presents how even Bollywood, not just the “New Wave films”, emerged over the years, thematically and technologically, through the film society movement. Till 1950s, 90 per cent of films shown in Indian cinemas were of Hollywood and now it is the other way around.

How do you see the role of film societies in building taste for quality cinema in India?

Film societies gave Indian films a respectable place among other arts. Surprisingly, cinema, though much celebrated today, was neither considered a form of art nor a legitimate past time in India till the 1950s. Rather, it was looked down as a low form of entertainment. None of the prominent cultural figures, writers, painters, musicians associated with it whole heartedly till films like Pather Panchali began to make headlines nationally and internationally. Up to ‘80s, film societies were the only source for seeing the best of films across the world. The digital revolution has made its existence non-exclusive, but such collectives still bring together people of similar interests.

Tell us about some of the stalwarts of the movement and their contribution?

I have featured 11 of the visionaries of the film society movement; they include former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was the first Vice President of the Federation of Film Societies way back in 1959 to Jean Bhownagary, who initiated the IFFI in 1952 by opening the best of films – other than English – to India. Few know KA Abbas as a film society activist, as he not just organised the first cine-trade unions in Bombay, but also inherited the country’s first film society – The Bombay Film Society and formed a new one, Film Forum, which gave us filmmakers like Basu Bhattacharya, Basu Chatterjee and Khalid Mohammed. Marie Seton, the British evangelist, Chidanadan Das Gupta, the brain behind the movement, PK Nair, the first Director of National Film Archives, Anil Srivastava, the first Children’s Film Society man who got Pandit Nehru to his school in 1960 and Vijaya Mulay, who adorned many a post on films in the Central Government are featured. Not to speak about Satyajit Ray, the life long President of the movement.

What has the been role of political leadership?

The movement started as a sporadic individual pursuit of English educated youngsters in urban and academic centres like Kolkata, Patna, Lucknow, Madras, Delhi and even Roorkie to create an “ Indian idiom” for the country’s films, which got the attention of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who encouraged the movement by creating governmental support structures.

Prime Minister Nehru saw films as medium of masses and constituted a Government high level committee under SK Patil in 1950 to suggest ways and means to “develop” Indian film from dance drama to a tasteful expression, and using it as communication medium for development issues. Nehru, under the active pushing of his daughter Indira Gandhi, instituted the first IFFI in 1952, first of the International Film Festival in Asia. In 1956, he brought in Marie Seton from the British Film Institute to evangelise the need for aesthetic appreciation of films and films to be used as an educational tool. Nehru supported Pather Panchali against the criticism of portraying Indian poverty, as he found it “sensitively” done.

Even FFSI was the creation of the government, as Indira Gandhi was its first Vice President. I.K Gujral was the treasurer of FFSI. FFSI was given an annual grant by I & B Ministry, exception of entertainment taxes and even censorship by the Central Government. The entire “new wave”of Indian films and film societies movement is a legacy of the Nehru-Gandhi leadership.

Can the film societies be held responsible for pushing an elitist point of view in cinema?

If connoisseurs of arts are all elitists, then film societies can also be blamed as one. If you go by the profile of the people involved in the movement till 1990s and even today, most of them are academics or professionals, not elites, barring the exception of Bombay Film Society or Madras Film Society in its initial years. Film Societies screened the best of world cinema from across the non-English speaking countries like Japan and Poland, where greater film experiments were undertaken by the likes of Akira Kurosawa and Adrej Wajda, thereby enriching the aesthetic experience of the viewers, many of whom tuned to film making later like Shoojit Sircar.

Tell us some interesting anecdotes about the viewing experience in film societies like the instances in Delhi Film Society.

The Delhi Film Society (DFS) was a VVIP film society as it had surprise visitors for its screenings like VK Krishna Menon, the Defence Minister (for preview of Ray’s Devi) and there is a story of Ms Gandhi attending the screening of a film of Ingmar Bergman. Aruna Asaf Ali and I.K. Gujral were regular at DFS, so was many a senior officers of the government of India. Rajiv Gandhi had applied for the membership of DFS, but did not make it!

There was an incident involving a French film maker who addressed DFS members after the screening of his film. One of the members said he found the film “sadistic” much to the surprise and shock of the film maker. The member put his feelings about the film so rudely that the filmmaker had to be admitted to the hospital after the screening. Satyajit Ray was so much enamoured by Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, that he decided to create a background score for this silent film with his LPs, when he saw it for the 20th time or so.

Tell us about some of the surviving societies and how they have coped?

Most of the initial ones have survived the media revolution and advent of digital technologies. Unlike the big theatre screenings in 35 mm or the small halls with 16 mm projectors, now it is all digitally done even in a big room. Pioneer Calcutta Film Society has about 50 members assembling in a small hall in Kolkata. Suchitra in Bangalore has a big cultural complex which even offers training in film making. In Mumbai, the Prabhat Chitra Mandal flourishes and leads the movement in Maharashtra with annual film festival. In Chennai, the International Cine Appreciation Forum, has started the Madras film festival. In Kerala, there are over 100 film societies across the length and breadth of the State. North, as a region, still has some survivors even in Delhi. But the IIC and Habitat Centre film clubs and film screenings of Film Festival Directorate, various diplomatic missions make it a happening capital for film screenings.

There is an interesting exploration of desi and margi streams. Does the reality lie somewhere in between?

The film Societies promoted a classic approach, a margi approach, as Chidanada Das Gupta points out. It was almost like as in music, classic to make the popular (desi) better connected to the format. Most of the popular music makers even today are experts in classical music of their region. Hence, one can say that film societies initiated those interested into the “classic” aspect or showcased the best of films across the globe to elevate their appreciation from a “crass act to a classic act”. The films influenced many of the filmmakers like Mani Ratnam and Shoojit Sircar to come up with a healthy interplay of margi and desi, making their films acceptable to connoisseurs of both the genres and making a mark at the box office too.

Is FFSI getting reduced to good old nostalgia or is there a future?

As the book points out, the movement at present is not organised, but has gone widespread. It needs a new positioning and also new leadership. The digital technologies have forced them do so. Just as in Mumbai, Lokhandawala video store (which offers a make-your-own-film festival package), many are offering digital films in various formats for screenings. There was a University Film Council promoted by the University Grants Commission at the height of the movement and the present leadership of FFSI is pushing to revive it as over 200 universities across India offers films as a post graduate study. The classical example of this new packaging is seen in the sudden spurt of good Marathi films, where the film societies have gone regional and to small towns. For urban centres, portals like Netflix have come up offering huge library of world classics and good films, not to speak of the grey market in each of the film centres.

The advent of regional film festivals in last 20 years is also a phenomenon of the film society movement as most of them are started in collaboration with the movement of the region. Film societies are not nostalgia, but a contemporary reality undergoing a makeover.

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Printable version | Apr 22, 2021 5:10:06 PM |

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