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Kerala’s Lost and Found Object of Cinema: Bindu Menon M

December 20, 2011

Guest post by BINDU MENON M

The fascination for films by Kim Ki Duk, the iconoclast South Korean film maker, and his hold over cinematic imagination in Kerala has generated many anecdotal and apocryphal stories in the film festival circuit in Kerala. Given his popularity, its not surprising at all that Kim Ki Duk films are available in the original and pirated forms in electronic markets in major towns i the State. A recent Malayalam short film titled ‘Dear Kim’ is a letter written to Kim Di Duk by his fans from a remote village in the High Ranges of the Western Ghats. Against all odds, a small group of young men who are laborers set out to watch a Kim Ki Duk opening film in the city , but couldn’t make the journey. The CD that they procure of his film ‘Wild Animals’ turns out to be a pornographic film of the same name! They finally manage to send an email to Kim Ki Duk requesting for his original DVDs. The Korean wave , has taken distinct turns influencing mainstream Malayalam film production as well, prompting a wry and satirical remark from a popular internet portal film critic that at this rate Cochin might soon be declared as the capital of South Korea! Parodying another joke that pronounces Gabriel Garcia Marquez as the most popular Malayalam novelist, it is often said that Kim Ki Duk is the most popular contemporary Malayalam film maker!Kim Ki Duk wouldn’t have been a household name without the International Film festival of Kerala,the large number of film festivals that mushroomed all over the state in the last decade and the pirate DVD market.

The International film festival of Kerala IFFK is the largest secular event in this small state exuding a special joie de vivre of cinephilia ,with large number of cinephiles in attendance at the festival venue of Thiruvanathapuram every December. It is an implosive boiling pot with a large concentration of people, ritualistic performances, scandals, controversies , transformative spatial practices and a freeing of sorts of every day drudgery within provincial life. It creates a special festive atmosphere of expectations and buzz, imploding into a special event of immense cultural value for the cinephiles and larger public alike.

The most memorable of the film festivals prior to the Government instituted IFFK was the Soorya film festival in 1994 held at Thiruvananthapuram to commemorate 100 years of cinema with 100 films. Memories of the festival is one of awe and slightly unpleasantly overwhelming despite the obvious thrill about being there. The festival was abuzz with discussions, protests and pamphlets about not recognizing the actual and revolutionary potential of the 1970s film society movement and its legacy. The discussions reverberated with a certain sense of nostalgia for cinema as a lost object and a viewing practice that ceased to exist. In informal ‘high spirited’ sessions, film society activists spoke about how film society was a way of life, an attitude to life and elaborated upon the monastic rituals of waiting for film prints from NFAI Pune at railway stations. The festival with some 30 odd women delegates was an all male congregation of film buffs with hardened tastes in films, cultist habits, existential dramas and fetishistic rituals. The 100th year of cinema was thus locally one of repudiation of a form that would die soon in the context of both film viewing and film practice becoming more commercially oriented, apolitical and individualized. The gloom and doom about the death of cinema was deeply inflected by an impending televisual culture too, fear about a culture that would demoralize collectivity and shift audience from darkened theatres to TV sized images at home. Retrospectively, this nostalgia for cinema as a lost object, shared some of the concerns which would get reflected in Susan Sontag’s famous 1995 essay ‘A century of Cinema’ that pronounced the death knell for cinema. Interestingly enough 1995 also marked the beginning of the International Film Festival of Kerala IFFK amidst feelings of disenchantment.

There has been transformations in the festival spaces as well. Merci technology! Rapid advances in digital technology, the availability of pirated film DVDs of world cinema all over electronic markets in Kerala and the subsequent creation of ravenous cinephiles for world cinema has made both the festivals and cinephiles reposition themselves. The politically intimate collective viewing of the 1970s and 80s have given way to a more individualized yet new group affinities within vieiwng cultures. The sheer presence of young students, both men and women , in large numbers was evidence to the changing profile of the cinephile. One would often listen to laments at festival venues about how apolitical the film festivals have become and how the legacies of 1970s are lost and forgotten!This lament often comes in heavy doses of misogyny too.In 2002, Kairali TV, the channel supported by CPI(M) aired a feature on how the International Film festival at Thiruvananthapuram has become a space of moral decay as evident in the number of young women freely moving in this space day and night-roaming as they called it!The female cinephile looked like engaging in some kind of sinful flanerie and threatening the moral fabric of the city!The fact that it was young feminists who were portrayed thus, that is, women whose families were active in the women’s movement, many of who had championed the rights of sexworkers, was no coincidence.

While the contemporary film festival spaces might not be the same kind of intimate political spaces of like minded male cinephiles of the 1970s, they are obviously not non-places and often takes away the impersonal anonymity of large festivals by creating a sense of community of cinema lovers. Unlike the singular political viewer of 1970s cinephilia, contemporary film festivals facilitate different kinds of film viewing-hardcore film buffs to who thoroughly prepares for his/her festival visit depending mainly one’s own taste or by collecting information and tips from network of cinephiles. There are leisure visitors who visit the festival with friends and family , for whom the social activity of visiting the festival is more important than the choice of films. The younger generation cinephiles can be seen as bringing their home video and internet access to cinema to bear upon film festival choices.

The film festivals have also been put under pressure by rapid advancement in technology, make over in film industry and the proliferation of film festivals themselves.In order to adapt and survive in this competing and dynamic festival circuit any festivals have repositioned themselves. To become an important node in this ubiquitous network they have work through premiers, professional interfaces, cutting edge technology and finding new talents. The IFFK itself has been managed much more professionally in the last decade and points towards an explosive increase in attendance since 2000 with delegate registration getting close to 12,000 in 2011.

Some of the festivals have positioned themselves as thematic festivals like the annual VIBGYOR festival in Thrissur which has now acquired a national reputation. In the past more than a decade, film festivals have grown in size, number, nature and has mushroomed over the cultural landscape of Kerala. Virtually every district centre has an international film festival to boast about and some like Thrissur, often described as the cultural capital of Kerala has two international film festivals and the widely acclaimed VIBGYOR Festival!Since 2004 VIBGYOR has emerged as a significant alternative space for non feature films and a meeting place for film makers, activists from social movements ushering in a new festival space, one that is of practicing politics differently. VIBGYOR finds space for alternative politics that are left out of traditional flm festival spaces- questions of Gender and Sexuality, Environmental issues, Sustainable development, Energy conservation, Food Security, Livelihood and Displacement and Communal Conflicts . In something like VIBGYOR cinephilia itself turns into an activism providing a framework for a new language to think about Politics.

In the global geopolitics of film festivals where the new and influential go to the classical European festivals or the new ones like Toronto, Pusan and LA, the Kerala film festivals look towards Classic films and have reinvigorated themselves through Iranian, Korean and other East Asian cinemas. The professionalization of IFFK has enabled effective networking with international film festival and global art cinema circuit and has tuned the antennae to new trends in the international film festival network. The invisible correspondences with such cinemas seem to nurture a variety of imaginations, political and cinematic. For example, a few important Iranian films have been subtitled in Malayalam for circulation. In sophisticated discussions on the possibility of Islamic cinema, Iranian cinema seems to be providing the model from which such cinematic practices needs to be derived. Why does Iranian and East Asian cinemas evince such fascination in the Kerala cinephiles? Could it be the affinities between modernities similar yet different from their own and forms that generate invisible correspondences? Discussions about Iranian films are abundant with grand vocabulary of mysticism, humanism, naturalism and poetry. Korean films are kept alive in discussions through their explorations of the human condition within Buddhist paradigm and many East Asian films are seen as reclamations of melodrama.

Film festivals have changed all over the world to become more than film viewing and have become spectacular exhibitions, with events, Q&As, historical exhibitions etc. The Kerala Film festivals and especially the IFFK has its own share of controversies and scandals every year. While one witnesses efforts to pronounce these as distracting from the pure cinema experience, it paradoxically makes the festival unique and invites participation of a different kind. The effects of scandal and controversies cannot be underestimated in creating a cloud of discourse over every year’s festival. The film festivals and especially IFFK runs around the pillars of uniqueness, spectacle, popular participation and high cultural prestige. They are simultaneously meeting points, city attractions, cultural canon builders, exhibition sites and market places. The IFFK is institutionalised and established and yet dynamic and flexible enough to create opportunities and bring together different kinds of cinephiles. The IFFK and other Kerala Festivals embed the local in the global by offering an interesting mix of regional , national and world cinema. For many regional directors the festivals are sites of passages to the film festival circuit.

Film festivals can be seen as festivalising the cities and towns in which they are held. The IFFK for example transforms provincial Thiruvananthapuram into a cosmopolitan one every December. The city suddenly comes alive with a rich and vibrant nightlife, women moving freely at night( a dangerous thing to do otherwise) and large public gatherings at city centres. The festivalisation of the city is best described in the words of a visiting cinephile Mathews Riviera at the IFFK in 2004. (http://www.mattriviera.net/2010/05/life-in-100-films-2046.html)

It was during that first taxi ride that I’d gotten my first hint of Trivandrum’s unique brand of enthusiasm for cinema, the magnitude of which became apparent later that very day when we eventually stumbled into the Festival’s opening night ceremony, a surreal open-air screening of Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046, attended by what looked like thousands of local residents.This was more than a screening, it was a celebration. Dancers paraded down the aisle as the sun set on Gandhi Park. Constant music filled the air before the speeches began. Though the dignitaries spoke Malayalam their animated tone relayed what seemed like a sincere passion. The audience was humming with the kind of excitement I’d only seen at rock concerts. I barely remember the film, other than as a beautiful but narratively inert riff on the Chinese director’s previous masterpiece In The Mood For Love. I was worn out from the plane ride, the heat and the jetlag, high on the culture shock and half eaten alive by mosquitoes, but in this joyful crowd which lived and breathed cinema, I felt entirely at home.

This thick description of the opening ceremony captures the pleasures of public film viewing, but what it does to an otherwise quiet Thiruvanathapuram which gets disrupted only during organised Political rallies and annual religious festivals is unique. The roads are blocked with vehicles an hour prior to the screening and the long line of vehicles- the signature middle class of vehicles of Maruti 800s and scooters are parked up to two kilometres from the venue, Nishagandhi Open air auditorium which Riviera mistakes for Gandhi Park. This festivalisation of the city displays a tendency to suspend normative relations, time and societal structure where other rules of social engagement count more than what traditional Kerala society would sanction. This cosmopolitanism is just not about these change in rules of social engagement but in the ability to imagine other spaces and times within the experience of film viewing. In this viewing other places, modernities and times come alive.

Malayalam cinema is bogged by intra-industry conflicts among multiple unions of actors, theatre owners, technicians, distributors and producers. Banal ego clashes leading to bans, bandhs, and protracted disputes requiring ministerial interventions to quell them are a regular feature . ‘Crisis of Malayalam cinema’ is a favourite topic of talk shows of all TV channels. Film festivals take the Malayalee film buff away from this cultural imbroglio to a realm of what they consider as genuine cinema, an ecosphere of intellectual pinnacles and aesthetic sublime. Nonetheless, the passion for cinema seems to have been rediscovered, albeit in different ways and in a variety of sites, where the Film festival is only one node. This new love for cinema is not just one that is defined as overtly political but one that gets refracted through various lenses- identity politics to leisure management and as sheer meeting venues to sources of cultural capital. Moreover, in the fifteenth year of the festival, several new viewers would have been just born when the event was kick-started in 1996. It is important to reckon them since from the start, film festival had been most noticed for the crowd it gathers. The reports from the 15th IFFK suggest the festival becoming a turf for battles between CPI(M) and the ruling coalition, similar to the co-operative banks , societies and employee’s unions. As long as persistent viewers define the scripts of a festival, its spectacular charms would never cease to exist.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. cowledy rd permalink
    December 21, 2011 3:49 PM

    Thank you Bindu Menon. Mainstream Malayalam media mostly ignores the festival, so it was an eye-opener to read about the festival and how it creates alternative spaces, not just in the kind of movies but also the viewing experience. Many many thanks for exposing the misogyny – boy, if women are out at night, there is immediate moral decay.

  2. Raj@gmail.com permalink
    December 22, 2011 12:30 AM

    Bindu Menon beautifully captures the mood of the “festival”. I’m a regular participant

  3. joe permalink
    December 23, 2011 2:17 AM

    Can the historic limitations of a third world communist project of the 70’s be compared to the liberal space of more integrated global capitalism of the present. And the unique experience of audience thronging for high art it self can be traced to the discourse of modernism/existentialism inthe past of Kerala….Moreover,festival is run by a Congress government or it’s left B team.

    • Bindu Menon permalink
      December 25, 2011 8:38 PM

      Hi Joe, Thanks for the comment. I doubt whether it is necessary to frame every cultural phenomenon on the basis of presence or absence of utopian projects. Post colonial lived experiences and conjunctures are politically complex and in this piece I have basically tried to understand the breaks and continuities in the transformation of cinephilia within Kerala’s cultural landscape simultaneously taking int account the reorganization of festivals. The piece is not about IFFK per say, but about film festivals as specific modes of film exhibition and viewing spaces that enable socialities.Nevertheless, on the other hand the nostalgia that I talk about cannot be disengaged from the way modernism was negotiated in Kerala in the 1970s.

      • joe permalink
        December 28, 2011 10:29 PM

        Thenks Bindu for the response. sorry for being late

  4. December 23, 2011 9:34 AM

    Thanks Bindu! Really enjoyed reading!

    • Bindu Menon permalink
      December 25, 2011 8:39 PM

      Glad that you liked it Sunalini!

  5. aravindan permalink
    February 28, 2012 10:13 AM

    excellent piece.. but being a regular visitor of festivals for say 5 yrs (not a great experience certificate though), i have found the delegates that u refer to is increasingly becoming hostile to cinema as such, where only the films with all it visually volatile power packed adrenaline drenching narratives (korean, iranian, mexican) being accepted, where subtelities in both experiment and suave, being either welcomed with booing or widespread communal disruption (bit of strong word) where mostly the majority/ minority ‘voiced audiences’ setting the tone for the approval (minimal almost nil) or hasteful dissapproval..
    this in a sense points towards a larger dissolution of the politics/ performance of alternate public spaces, where mobocracy dismisses even the basic ethical nature of these spaces..

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