Volume 3 : Movement Column

Film Society Movement : Some Thoughts

Amitava Nag



2003 had been a very bad year for cinema. The Berlin Film Festival (in February) had seen a lukewarm response while the 56th Cannes Film Festival had been an absolute flop. Critics coin it as the worst festival for quite some time. Participation was less in general due to a number of reasons from recession, uncertainty about terrorism, SARS epidemic threat to frequent French Air Traffic strikes. But the real let down was the quality of films. Glamour was less this year with lesser number of star and starlets walking up the ramp and business had also been slow with a very late start. Controversy was minimal apart from Lars Von Trier's statement about his film 'Dogville' (considered as an attack on US culture) - "This is not a comment on how America is, but on how America is in my head" and Samira Makhmalbaf's overt political message on the award's night - "I don't want to be President if the most important president of the world is George W. Bush". All in all, Cannes 2003 had been lacklustre in keeping its undeniable reputation of being the best film festival of the world. To sum it up, Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian rightly commented - "Cannes 2003 was politically fractious and artistically disappointing".

Bollywood <-> Indian Film Industry?

From an Indian perspective there was anxiety and eagerness about the truth of the news that Aishwarya Rai will be jury at Cannes 2003. Confusion disappeared soon with the Bollywood star confirming her acceptance of the proposal to visit Cannes. What followed during the festival was photo feature of Rai in colourful dresses which we were told were Indian traditional blended with western. But her silence over any of the competition films she presumably watched is noticeable.

The Rai inclusion in the jury comes at an important time in the Indian film history. Take the year 2002 that marked the Oscar nomination of 'Lagaan' as well as the out-of-competition screening of 'Devdas' at Cannes. Locarno Film Festival programmed an "Indian Summer" while the British Film Institute's curriculum on "Imagine Asia" featured India in a big way. However UK is a place where Bollywood films are doing brisk business for sometime now. The popularity of 'K3G', 'Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge' (popularly, 'DDLJ') and 'Pardesh' can be attributed to nostalgia of the NRIs and the identification crisis of the Indian Diaspora. Added to that, these films promote a new-found 'Hinduvta' in our social melee reflected in rich Hindu families of Bollywood Block-busters. One may be tempted to link the endless serials ('Kyun Ki Sash Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi', 'Ghar Ghar Ki Kahani' etc) with these 'family drama' whose underlying sentiment of an Indian joint family with age-old values and virtues pay rich dividends in the Box-Office. In the same 2002, Sushma Swaraj, the then Information and Broadcasting Minister met with dignitaries at Cannes, visited the Cannes International film market (which accommodated a none-too-impressive "Indian Pavilion" for the last few years) and held a meeting to publicize India's entertainment industry. A 100+ Indian (read Bollywood) delegation comprising of Yash Chopra, Yash Johar, Subash Ghai, Sooraj Brjatya, Ramesh Sippy visited Cannes the same year to boost the Indian battalion and returned awe-struck with their stomach full. Deals were struck in Eastern and Central Europe, the far East as well as in Korea. This remains interesting since the Hindi mainstream films gather a market in foreign festivals where the Indian entries in the festival for the last few years including Manish Jha's 'A Very, very Silent Film', Manu Rewal's 'Hollywood Ki Pukar', Murali Nair's 'A Dog's Day' and 'A story that begins at the end' are mostly non Bollywood films. This perhaps confuses and baffles the buyer of the Indian market as well as the general audience and bares the lack of information towards Indian films (other than Bollywood) which subsequently become difficult to promote. This recent Hindi film market led Sanjay Leela Bhansali (director, 'Devdas') to proudly thump—"It has taken years for us to reach out of our country to be accepted here (Cannes 2002), but the wonderful achievement is that, we are accepted the way we are". The politics is interesting here. In recent writings and media releases (a 90s phenomenon) 'Indian films' and 'Bollywood mainstream Hindi movies' are used interchangeably. (Speaking to CNBC India, during the 33rd International Film Festival of India, Adoor Gopalakrishnan said, "This country produces more than 1000 films a year. Of that number, more than 600-700 films are produced outside Bombay. I am not against the Bombay industry per se. But when you talk only about Bombay …, you are leaving out the bulk of the industry. That’s very unfair." ) Bollywoodisation of Indian culture has started to roll out its ugly face behind the joy of being 'accepted' as 'we are'. Bollywood films can be categorized into a number of parts - but two most important ones are the pseudo real 'Bhoot', 'Satya' and the Ram Gopal Verma brigade, the other being the huge and elaborate family canvases that should have a marriage party, immaculate cholis and sherwanis and cleverly crafted musicals. And this second type caters the NRI who feel 'proud' about their 'projected' culture in the company of their foreign friends. Atleast the ignominy of watching poverty and unemployment in the earlier international films can be avoided! We need to bask in reflected glory — don't we?

Film Societies : New Beginnings

In 1995 during the centenary celebration of Cinema, film scholar and historian M V Krishnaswami commented at Nandan, “Our concern at this moment is ought to be the prospect for Indian film industry more than its retrospect. It is, therefore, necessary and imperative to define and draw up an agenda for Indian Cinema for the next century… for I believe, if this is not done it will be again adhoc measure, and solution as in the past and the growth of the industry will continue to be haphazard and lopsided.” Refer to the earlier sections and try to visualize a single or a group of entities—human or institutional who can and are really serious about the 'prospect for Indian film industry'. Any private organization is expected to be careful about its own personal gain and Government, in general, had been oblivious so far. Also take the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) or for that any other State Film development Corporations. They believe in producing films and have funded in many. However they are not into distribution. An important question is whether Govt should do be involved in all these aspects of a film production in the role of a saviour. The potential threat that many may envision here is that the Govt. backed films will eventually be the Govt.’s propaganda bandwagon. This logic is not entirely superficial though there are glorious examples in Ritwik Ghatak's 'Titas Ekti Nadir Naam' and 'Jukti, Takko aar Goppo' - the last one being an overt political film.

Film Societies of India, I feel, should play an important role here. Gone are the heady days of the 50's and 60's. Present scenario is much more difficult and hence challenging for Film societies to survive. The objective of the Federation of Film Societies of India as par the Memorandum of the Federation of Film Societies of India is “To promote the study of film as an art and as a social force”. Unfortunately, the history of the Indian Film Society Movement typically shuns the social force part. The confusion stems from the fact that the Film Society members and activists have so far taken a superior stance than the general public. As Arnold Hauser states in “The Social History of Art” Vol.4 - “The problem is not to confine art to the present day horizon of the broad masses, but to extend the horizon of the masses as much as possible. The new way to genuine appreciation of art is through education. Not the violent simplification of art, but by the training of the capacity for aesthetic judgement is the means by which the constant monopolizing of art by a small minority group can be prevented.” Unfortunately the Film Societies are predominantly centred round big cities where we have continuously thrived to maintain that 'minority group' and shut ourselves from the rest of the world. For example the Film Societies by and large have screened foreign classics a number of times, yet they are reluctant about lesser-known films or for that matter regional films of any type and category. The magazines of these Film Societies should have included critique from both so-called 'art' and 'commercial' films. This will help only to make people realize and differentiate between different films thereby enriching the film appreciation culture. The Film Societies of the 21st century should leave that attitude of being part of a minority intellectual class and try to relate this movement with the other social movements of the time. Then only the Film Societies will function more than that of a Saturday Club and the Film Society movement can be termed as a 'movement' at all.

Year 1965. Georges Sadul, the then Director of Cannes Film Festival wanted Ritwik's ‘Subarnarekha’ (he infact wrote an article on the film as well) to be screened in Cannes, Locarno, Moscow. French subtitles were made. The film didn’t reach Cannes due to problem in granting foreign currency by the Indian Govt. Same happened after the film was invited to Venice. What were the Film societies (the Satyajit Ray bastion) doing at that time? Why were they not vocal against the anomalies of the Govt.? The film Societies should also keep a close watch on the Govt. directives and actions for the promotion of 'Indian' films. Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union minister of state for Information and Broadcasting visited the Cannes 2003 and announced- "We would like to do everything in our power to create conditions conducive to the rapid growth of the Indian film Industry". And he explained, "The Government's job was only to facilitate good film-making in the country". The fact that two Information of Broadcasting ministers visited Cannes in subsequent years raise hope of a serious Government strategy in publicizing the potentials of world's largest film industry.

The role of a Film Society so far had been restricted to screening films, organizing seminars, publishing magazines and the like. These still remain an integral part of the Film Society activity. However, given the current industry trend and the socio-economic conditions, a Film Society's activity shouldn't limit to these only but should venture out to the more practical aspects of filmmaking. In this regard, Film Societies should collaborate amongst themselves to enlarge their circle of influence and impact and strengthen the movement. The salient feature to note is that a single Film Society cannot thrive on its own unless blessed with immense scope and fortune. This cooperative structure will try to build and maintain a platform where young aspiring filmmakers get a chance to film their ideas. This cooperative should operate purely as a parallel mode of production-distribution-exhibition chain. The history of most film festivals across this globe originated from the need to refute the all-encompassing Hollywood's sweeping influence on our lives. Noted filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli finds, "The festival gives an opportunity to film-makers to exhibit and market their films. And if there are a few agencies that can take Indian films and market them abroad, it’s a good trend". However the Film Market (an initiative by the NFDC in collaboration with the Confederation of Indian Industries, CII and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, FICCI) in the different international film festivals of India remain mostly unattended due to obvious lack of resources. Whatever little action took place so far, as mentioned in the previous section as well, had revolved round Hindi commercial movies. A notable exception being Buddhadeb Dasgupta's 'Mando Meyer Upakhyan' which swung a rumoured record Rs.10 crore (Rs.100 million) deal with a top North American film distribution company, Alliance Atlantic. But whereas the promotion of commercial 'Hindi' movies has started to follow a disciplined and intended trend, the regional and 'parallel' films remain non-cooperated and isolated. This cooperative of Film Societies, which I propose can take care to promote Indian films to foreign delegates as well as try to set up a trade relationship with them. But for that the cooperative's common platform should be the place for these filmmakers as well as their producers to unite with the Film Societies.

Another interesting aspect is the absolute absence of libraries of different film societies. Film Societies should have their own libraries either virtually or physically which will make the members film-literate and help in eventually prospering the film culture. In this regard also the cooperative should act as a repository for these libraries through which a member of one Film Society can issue a book belonging to other society. The exact logistics of these transactions should be laid down and agreed upon by the Film Societies forming the co-operative.

A truly disturbing aspect of the different Film Societies has been the lack of funds and an absolute dismal monetary condition. Increasing the membership fee ceased to become a solution. To attract investors and promoters, the Film Societies can pressurise the Govt. to exempt tax to entrepreneurs who want to invest in Film Societies. Here again balance has to be maintained so that the Film Societies don’t become a money-making machinery only. It will and should continue to remain a non-profit making organization but definitely not a loss-incurring one. A logic here says, as mentioned earlier, whether its ethical enough to get the tax exemption benefit from the Govt. since then also the Film Society might become a Govt. machinery to promote its views. However this seems an illogic given the fact that as individuals and as a collective race living in a society we cannot, simply cannot, ignore the role and importance of the Govt. in our lives. If we do bother about getting a Govt. registration for the Film Society or holding an Indian passport issued by the Govt. while travelling abroad with our own films in foreign festivals, then perhaps that logic falls through.

Leave alone Aishwarya Rai's plastic smile or a major hit of a Bollywood potboiler in UK top ten, Indian film industry (as a whole and not Bollywood alone) needs to stand on its feet—firmly and convincingly. And for that the Film Societies of India should play the pivotal role of a mediator between the Govt. and the general mass. Never before, this movement seemed so relevant and absolutely necessary. Shedding the past failures and misdirection the Film Societies should stand hand-in-hand for a better and more solid cinematic future of this land of profound cinematic excellence and possibilities.



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