History - Kerala Region

Film society movement in Kerala History and Present - V. K. Joseph

The idea of film societies were formulated from the notion of enquiry and aesthetic thoughts in the backdrop of film evolving as a serious art form. As opined in the book India’s Film Society Movement: The Journey and its Impact written by V. K. Cherian, a Delhi-based renowned journalist and seasoned film society activist, Ricciotto Canudo, a cinema theoretician, an Italian by birth but who lived in Paris formed the first film society in 1921. Under the aegis of pro-left writers, artists and intellectuals, a film club was formed in Great Britain in 1925. This club was formed as a friendly gathering purely to watch Sergei Einstein’s Battleship Potemkin,a Russian film which was denied public screening due to political reasons and other European films. George Bernard Shaw and H G Wells were the founding members of this film club. Seven young ladies and gents formed a consulate and worked for it.

Later, Sidney Bernstein who started a film company along with Alfred Hitchcock, film critic Ivor Montagu, director Adrien Brunel, film critic Iris Barry, actor Hugh Miller, film critic Walter Microft and Frank Dobson were at the helm of affairs of this film club. In due course many film societies were formed in Europe and Britain. Later it developed into a decisive factor due to its quest for good films and its theoretical studies and discussions. Films are not just commodities but an art form that illumines the history of humanity and flaunting it as a cultural form with a definite goal of interfering with the history and culture, it travelled with good cinema. This movement gave birth to a bunch of filmmakers, screen writers critics, researchers and intellectuals. In India, a film society was formed at Bombay in 1937 with 14 to 20 persons involved in the screening. But they watched films, held discussions and studies which in turn helped to develop the notion of good films. On 5 October, 1947, the Calcutta Film Society was formed with Calcutta as its headquarters. Satyajit Ray and Chidanand Das Gupta were among the leaders who worked for it. Their main intention was to hold discussions and studies and to conduct screenings of world classics, which were discarded at the outskirts of commercial films. Realising the fact that cinema is an art form and a new grammar was slowly evolving in the visual language, this small group took the responsibility of acquainting the audience as well as filmmakers with the films that were not corrupted by commercial interests. Independent India in the 1950s sought different ways of development and started several cultural institutions.

Till then cinema was considered as third rate entertainment by the public. It was the period during which Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s matured secular democratic outlook and cultural attitude inspired much in the formation of institutions and gave a new sense of direction. Panditji formed a committee in 1951 to formulate a policy for the film industry and to promote the making of good films under the aegis of S. J. Patil as chairman and V. Shantaram and B. Sankar as committee members. On the basis of comprehensive reports and recommendations presented by this committee, the Government of India recognised cinema as a cultural product and an art form. As a continuation of this, the Film and Television Institute of India, National Film Archives, Film Finance Corporation, International Film Festival of India and the like were started. Film lovers of India watched world films for the first time at the International Film Festival of India in 1952 in Bombay. With this a new visual culture, a hope, a door towards watching good films was opened. International film festivals were also conducted in Madras, Calcutta and New Delhi. It gave a new impetus to the cultural front. As per the cultural policy of Nehru, the Kendra Sahitya Academy and Kendra Sangeet Natak Academy were formed. It was Nehru’s dream to have a Film University in India. But it has not materialised till date.

The Shivaram Karanth Committee appointed by Mrs Indira Gandhi, along with many other suggestions, also put forward the idea of a Chalachithra Academy. It also didn’t happen, as we know. It was in Kerala, for the first time in India, that a Chalachitra Academy was formed in 1998 during the tenure of E. K. Nayanar when T. K. Ramakrishnan was the Cultural Minister. The decision to start the academy was on account of repeated pleas of the Federation of Film Societies and film lovers in Kerala. It was the influence and excitement of the International Film Festival held in Bombay that give rise to the new wave cinema in India. The classic movie Bicycle Thieves directed by Italian maestro Vittorio De Sica was screened at the festival. Realistic movies like Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen happened under its influence. In 1955 Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali received a lot of appreciation both in India and abroad. This led to tremendous excitement among the few workers and viewers of film societies. It was at this time that Marie Seton, who gave the Indian Film Society movement the footing and energy, came to India from Britain on the request of Nehru and V. K. Krishna Menon. With the cooperation of the British Film Institute, the Ministry of Education authorised Marie Seton to conduct film appreciation seminars and studies in various Indian cities for the film societies. It was she who took Indian films to the World Cinema by introducing Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali to international festivals, to academic studies and screening. Marie Seton’s continuous series of discourses and classes and the reception Pather Panchali got everywhere instilled a new excitement among good viewers and film buffs. It is in this backdrop that the idea of a Federation of Film Societies came up. In December 1969, a federation of six film societies in the name of Federation of Film Societies was registered in Calcutta with Satyajit Ray as its first elected President and Ammu Swaminathan (Madras), Robert Hawkins (Bombay) and S Gopalan (Delhi) as Vice Presidents and Vijay Mulay (Delhi) and Chidanand Das Gupta as Joint Secretaries. When the activities of the film societies expanded, the Federation was divided into four zones – Delhi as centre for North, Calcutta for East zone, Madras for South and Bombay for West zone. There is a 15-member regional council comprising Secretary, Vice President, Regional Secretary, Assistant Regional Secretary and Treasurer for every zone. There is also a 60-member Central Committee and a 15-member Central Executive Committee. Satyajit Ray was the President of the Federation till his death. Later Mrinal Sen, Anil Chatterjee, Vijay Mulay and Shyam Benegal were successive Presidents. Now Kiran Shantaram, son of the famous director V Shantaram is the National President. Many famous personalities worked as office bearers of the Federation. That Mrs Indira Gandhi and I K Gujral have worked as Vice Presidents of the North zone are an indication of the respect and importance given to the film societies in those days by the government. Ritwik Ghatak, Nimoy Ghosh, Subrata Mitra, Aruna Asif Ali and Ammu Swaminathan were all part of this movement.Film society movement in Kerala.

The film society movement in Kerala has completed 50 years. A vista of good world films was opened when Chitralekha Film Society started working at Trivandrum on 21 July, 1965. The society began to flourish with the association of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Kulathoor Bhaskaran Nair, K P Kumaran and Sreevaraham Balakrishnan. An All India Writers’ Conference was held at Ernakulam in 1966. M. Govindan and M. K. K. Nair, Chairman of FACT, led the conference from the front. As a part of the conference, a festival of classic films was also organised. M. Govindan was the master brain behind this concept. Adoor Gopalakrishnan was given the charge of conducting the festival. Nine other districts also followed suit. Fifteen to sixteen films from Russia, Poland, France, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, along with the films of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, were screened. This gave an opportunity for those working in art, literature and cultural fields to travel along with an enriched experience of watching good films. These festivals gave momentum to film societies in Kerala. A person like Adoor Gopalakrishnan stood with them by spending a lot of time, guiding and advising. Just like the Library Movement in Kerala opened the doors to world literature, film societies enhanced film literacy by acquainting film lovers with new visual aesthetics and techniques. Though they were very few in numbers, they slowly expanded their influence through their writings, new films and film appreciation camps. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G. Aravindan, K. P. Kumaran, T. V. Chandran, Ravindran, Pavithran and Lenin Rajendran were the forerunners of this movement. It was an attempt at overcoming the dry experiences of seeing through and understanding the different streams of film aesthetics. It was also true that the Malayali audience came to know how films became the new art form of seeing and hearing. Classic films from the National Film Archives and different embassies poured into the society screenings. Embarking on an adventurous journey with 16 mm films and 16 mm projector, the society pushed forth new communication arenas. The Film Society has become a cultural presence in Kerala.Along with Battleship Potemkin and Bicycle Thieves, Neo German and French New Wave films added up to provide visual literacy for Malayalis. These films that came through the different film societies of India echoed the changes in world cinema in tune with the experiments, and changes in literature, theatre and painting were made possible in the cultural field of Kerala too.

The studies that introduced the world films and the experiments of new films that went off the beaten track made the seventies and eighties upbeat. Nearly 100 film societies were active in different parts of the country. But at the end of the eighties, the activities of the film societies became low ebb due to different reasons. Kerala was a part of the Southern Regional Council, with Madras as centre. The activities in Kerala were being controlled from Madras. Normally there would only be one council member to represent film societies from Kerala. In the seventies itself, personalities like Kulathoor Bhaskaran Nair demanded the formation of an independent region for Kerala as it was difficult to do justice to the independent activities owing to the cultural and political temperaments of Kerala. Bhaskaran Nair filed a suit in court against the officebearers of the Federation since both the regional leadership of Madras-centred South zone and the central leadership at Calcutta repeatedly ignored the plea of Kerala. Still all requests were in vain as the bye-law and the constitutional provisions of the Federation were against it. The society got affiliation to the Federation after continuous requests for years. The packages of films received from the embassies were made available only to the affiliated societies. The availability of films was a real problem for the societies. Many societies were depending on the films available in the Archives for their existence. These circumstances caused difficulties for the expansion of the activities of the society. In 1986 for the first time in India, a state-level office of the Federation was formed for Kerala. In 1990 with the support of other societies in Kerala, the council was expanded. Since then by different activities, numerous camps, seminars and film festivals were organised and new societies were formed. The number of societies increased systematically. Due to the advent of digital technology unlike the past, DVDs of all good films were made available to the societies. LCD projectors also became widespread. At last after the continuous request of the Federation, a Film Academy was constituted. The Academy was functioning under the Southern Regional Council. With the limited freedom the new team developed different action plans. Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Federation, film festivals and film appreciation camps were organised along with the action plan for reviving the dormant societies. In consultation with the then Minister for Cultural Affairs T. K. Ramakrishnan and P. Govinda Pillai, Chairman of the Kerala State Film Development Corporation, certain favourable decisions were taken. In 1990 with the special interest of the Cultural Minister, a sum of Rs 5000 was allotted to the Societies. It was the beginning of an attempt to get the recognition of status of a cultural movement to the Federation. Later a small space was allotted to the Federation in Kalabhavan as per the interest of P. Govinda Pillai. Thus, the Federation got a permanent office. But the office runs on a shoestring budget and manages to work through the donations received from individuals and advertisements.

At this juncture, several new societies sprung up in Kerala. Regional Film Festivals were conducted. In 2005, a competitive Documentary and Short Films Festival started. Till then the Films Division of India was organising film festivals once in two years. Filmmakers from different parts of the country and abroad participated in the festivals conducted at Trivandrum at their own cost. This turned out to be an opportunity for the directors of documentaries and short films to meet and exchange ideas. Some of the filmmakers who won the John Abraham Award in this festival are now known both in India and abroad.

Under the influence and model of this festival a decision was taken to conduct the Festival of Documentary and Short Film Festivals every year by the Government when M. A. Baby was the Minister for Cultural Affairs. Still the festivals conducted by the Federation continued as an independent parallel festival and it has reached its tenth edition. For the past two to three years, the festival is being conducted outside Trivandrum. From the last year, the festival is being conducted in association with the Kochi Bienalle group. Some of the filmmakers who participated in these festivals later bagged the award for best films in the Kerala state film awards. The struggle for regional status for Kerala continued. At last a sub-region was allotted for Kerala. But Kerala has not been able to attain the fifth regional status with full participation till date. The Constitutional amendment for the purpose has begun. In Kerala, about 118 societies have been affiliated to the Federation. The Federation is trying to form new societies at various places. During the last regime of the left front, the then Finance Minister Dr. Thomas Isaac made a budget proposal of Rs 50 lakh as grant for the support of the activities of the societies. This grant helped the societies to a great extent and they in turn organised several film festivals and camps. As a result new societies have sprung up.

The Federation started an Open Forum in 1988 in connection with Filmotsav. Since then it became the most discussed democratic space of the festivals. In all the film festivals organised in India, the Open Forum became an inevitable part. This was the fundamental contribution of the Kerala film society movement. P Govinda Pillai and Adoor Gopalakrishnan paved the way for it. It became the open space for exchanging views and ideas between the filmmakers and the delegates who participated in the festivals. Moreover, it became the space for criticising the quality of the films screened and to evaluate the performance of the festival as a whole. The Open Forum got deactivated for a short period owing to certain controversies. But after some time when Rajiv Nath became the Chairman of the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy, the Open Forum was resumed. K. R. Mohanan as Chairman of the Kerala Chalachitra Academy started film appreciation and study camps for teachers and students, during his tenure, by inducting special subjects for them. The Federation did a commendable job in setting the syllabus, providing faculties and in organising camps. All the film critics in Kerala were associated with the Federation. The camps were organised using their academic contributions and abilities. By using the cooperation and teaching experience of the editors, cinematographers and filmmakers who stood with good cinema, the technology, politics, culture and history of the films were taught in these camps through meaningful discussions and dialogues. As a result, students and teachers came forward with documentaries and short films. The presence of film societies and the idea of good films attracted so many people from the field of art and culture to this movement in Kerala. In academic studies, film studies were included as a subject because of the activities of the Federation. By the academic intervention and discussions of these small groups, film and screen writings have been included in the syllabus in schools and colleges. The academic support, cooperation and presence of the faculties are ensured by the people from the film societies when the camps and film seminars are conducted in the colleges and universities. The Academic Council members who were responsible for the selection of the syllabus relating to the newly introduced post graduate course in film studies in the Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University were mostly film society activists. At the initiative of the Federation, with the cooperation of the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy, it organised a faculty workshop for preparing the syllabus and study modules so that it can be used in the film study camps. At the end of the discussion in the faculty workshop where more than 25 members consisting of critics, teachers and film technocrats participated, a decision was taken to include a wide range of study subjects and comprehensive modules. Small groups and individuals were entrusted with expanding the existing study subjects and preparing modules. The intention was to prepare a resource data bank of nearly 28 subjects and faculties so that the film studies conducted in the school and college levels could be improved. Still it needs to be worked on. Numerous foreign films are being screened with subtitles in Malayalam by the Open Frame Film Society activists and a group working at Payyanur, singlehandedly and jointly. It will make the world of films more democratic and reach out to the public. With the cooperation of the Chalachitra Academy, the Federation has conducted a workshop for Malayalam subtitling. With the help and intervention of the Federation, Female Film Festivals are being conducted in Trivandrum continuously for the past three years under the auspices of the Female Study Centre and Female Film Society. Many film societies are conducting film festivals at different places successfully. Academic activates are being done silently. It is not widely known simply because of the absence of media advertisement and glamour. All the queries raised by the common man regarding the activities of the Federation cannot be answered since the activities of the film societies are low-profile. It is a cultural activity sans the show of stardom.

The background and the activities of the film societies in Kerala have had a great influence in creating film enthusiasts, critics, directors and technicians in the film field. Senior directors and pioneers of good films are in constant touch with the activities of the film societies. They are still continuing that relationship in one way or the other. Some of the directors of the new-generation films got inspiration from the screening and activities of the film societies. Most of the film critics in Kerala are products of film societies. Many of the cameramen, film editors, sound recordists, etc. got into FTII after the inspiration from camps and screenings conducted by the societies. There are so many people who got the opportunity to come forward with good films due to their presence and participation in the documentary and short film exhibitions conducted by the Federation and small film festivals by film societies in various parts of the state.

The small and big film festivals conducted by the societies in various parts of the state have influenced the new aesthetic sense of the films slowly and positively. The activities of the film societies conducted locally are blacked out by the media, leaving the public in other parts of the state unaware of it. Hence, to the public, film societies are extinct. The fact is that the small film festivals, discussions and seminars, including the documentary screening being conducted in different places, are left unknown to the public. Hence it is the duty of the public who love good films to develop the film societies into a big cultural movement spread all over the state. Film societies should be organised all over the state under the auspices of the library movement, Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad, students’ organisations and other cultural movements. Wide activities are carried out with this aim. Teachers and students’ organisations should extend their support to form film clubs in schools and colleges in order to expand the visual culture.