Moditharam at IFFK 2012 : An Open Letter to the Young People Who Volunteered at IFFK
Writing this to you to share the pain, the insult, the deep sense of deprivation that I feel at the end of IFFK 2012.
I am sure many of you would be surprised by this statement. I expect a barrage of irritated questions: didn’t the IFFK 2012 present a most delectable selection of films, and that too, of impeccable political correctness? Weren’t the passes delivered promptly? Weren’t the theaters all spruced up and respectable? Were the loos great this time? So what more do you want, you crude, loud-mouthed female, who was shouting and protesting most of the time? And in any case, why should you write at all to the volunteers, and not to the authorities if you plan to complain?
Let me try to answer the last question, for I think the key to the others lie in it.I feel obliged to answer all these questions when I try to open a conversation with you. Yes, among all the people who make up the machinery that organizes and runs IFFK, you are the ones I would like to talk with. It does not matter to me that you were mostly hired for a brief period. That you were not properly introduced to cinema was evident, especially in the announcements you made before screenings. And the put-on American accents and the shockingly-bad Malayalam which many of you were not ashamed to dish out did not trouble me either. I want to talk with you because you are the youthful people among the organizers. But it appears that your youthfulness is projected only when you are presented as announcers onstage — as a Cosmetic Brigade of sorts. Otherwise, you are temporary workers, so to say, implementers of decisions ‘from above’, as one of you put it during the commencement of a screening, when viewers, stung by truly humiliating treatment, raised some hard questions. Most importantly, seeing you, I thought of my own youthful days in Thiruvananthapuram when I was myself a volunteer in several important cultural events of the 1980s. I couldn’t help thinking wistfully: times have changed. In our generation, even volunteers did not simply take orders ‘from above’. We often asserted our right to make contextual decisions; in other words, we considered it important to be able to modify rules without breaking them, when the context demanded. We did protest often when that right was denied; and were not always scared of challenging or correcting the authorities when they took arbitrary decisions. In other words, we were participants in the fullest sense, not just people implementing orders. Rarely did we receive any substantial payment for our labors — I am told that that is no longer the case now. Low remuneration was probably quite a pinch to many of us, but that did not stop us from claiming our position as full-fledged participants. Part of my pain was from seeing how different our generations are. In theater after theater, I found you exceptionally tame and completely confused in situations when the rules could not be applied as the authorities wanted them to be. And no wonder, there was so much apprehension in your eyes about delegates especially when the crowd swelled outside the theaters. There seemed to be such a divide between us — you the volunteers, gentle, law-abiding people, and we, the viewers, semi-barbarians who invaded theaters, pushed, shoved, argued about the seats reserved for jury, ready to violate every rule to get in and find a seat.Since you represent the future, I want to talk of our differences.
Besides, I don’t want to talk with the higher-ups in the IFFK organizing hierarchy. I find it useless. There are of course some excellent people there who love cinema, who have the skill, talent, and the inclination to recognize good cinema when they see it. But they are not necessarily powerful. And there are too many mediocrities there who are stuffed up with their own shit. And from the highest to the lowest levels in this hierarchy, there are many seriously deluded folk who imagine that they were born with seats of power stitched to their hallowed kundikal (yes, the Malayalam word). Why waste breath on them? Democracy makes sure that their petty power will evaporate in time. I want to talk only with you because it is only you who can make a difference. Not as temporary workers (and you may not be at the IFFK as volunteers next year) but as the young people of Kerala.
I am not saying the divide I talked of is necessarily your fault.Perhaps you have been told that the IFFK is essentially a movie-watching event and that technological and infrastructural upgradation, efficient screening, and smooth crowd-management are all that is required to make the IFFK a great event. So all you need to do is take care of the infrastructre, get efficient about passes, regulate the crowd firmly. That’s the impression I had talking with a smart young girl volunteer who wanted to help sincerely seeing us all wiped out after a particularly crazy pre-screening confusion. If that’s the impression you have, well, that’s actually terribly wrong. I am a woman growing older, been going to film festivals in Kerala organized by the government since 1988. What you are doing is FATAL — the very death-knell of the popular participation that the IFFK is so famous for. I have been a regular at IFFK for about a decade now. Can say for sure that I’ve been there for most of it since 2004. But never before have I felt like this. The IFFK has always been a great experience, a very enriching, refreshing one. But it involves not just movie-watching, but also and perhaps more vitally, human bonding. At IFFK over the years, I have made friends with an amazing range of students, autorikshaw drivers who came in for the last show, retired lady clerks who got really curious to know why people flocked there, day-laborers from Kerala’s northern districts who saved up for the IFFK week. But over the years, IFFK has evolved into a far more exclusive space. And this year, the magic has indeed vanished. I don’t know if I’ll come the next time. A good number of these movies can be watched outside IFFK, through other ways. No need to buy oneself such a rotten feeling.
I remember how it was in the earlier years. Theaters were always overflowing when the film screened was one with good reviews, but we did not have the kind of aggressive pushing and shoving which we have seen in the past few years and was almost universal this year. Which was disconcerting to many of you. The rule that viewers may be allowed into halls only 15 minutes before the show was either non-existent or laxly enforced, and so theatres were open, well before shows. Which meant that people didn’t have to rush in; they used to fill the space in groups. I clearly remember how people tried to make space when the numbers exceeded the seats — and it may have been very, very crowded but the crowd was always a happy one. Very few thought of others as essentially competitors for space; rather, it was a collective effort to make sure how we could share available space the best we could. Some of my happiest memories of viewing cinema are about such crowds. Like that of viewing Godard’s Carmen through a gap between two people’s bums and not feeling awful or stressed. Or waiting for Almodovar’s Volver in a steaming little theater packed and overflowing, for some two long hours (and fruitlessly, for the print had a problem), sharing bottles of water passed around,laughing at intermittent cat-calls, good-natured wisecracks, and loud pleas for mercy addressed, musically or otherwise, to “Bina Chechi” (Bina Paul).
Now little of this kind can happen — because the rules don’t simply allow it. The reservation system was perhaps the first step down. Despite the organizers’ announcement that reservation is for a limited number of seats, it gives out the impression that the seats available for those who have not reserved will be negligible, and immediately sets up a competition to elbow one’s way to the first available seat. And then, the tightening of other rules. In the more recent years viewers can enter the hall especially the government-owned theatres just 15 minutes before screenings. Thus one would find a huge, serpentine queue of people often braving the harsh noon-sun, well-before these last 15 minutes, which breaks up into a most unruly, violent, disorderly rush for seats when the door is opened and each one can only be the other’s competitor! At this IFFK, at the screening of Kim ki-Duk’s Pieta, I saw Adoor Gopalakrishnan nearly run over by the crowd rushing in — he was waiting in a queue and surrounded by admirers, but the minute the gate was opened, these admirers seemed ready to rush madly over him. There were (very few, thank goodness!) people ready to auction their seats for Pieta — it went up to 2000 rupees a seat, apparently! Clearly, the rules do not encourage empathy and bonding; they set up each viewer in competition and in hard bargaining with the other. And this is how we have been made to look like a bunch of barbarians who shove, push, and refuse to listen to the pleadings of the organizers and in the process, makes the heightened policing entirely legitimate! And as the ‘barbarians’ competed for seats, the patricians had their ‘share’ secured– some thirty in each screening — guarded closely by organizers, irrespective of whether these hallowed personages turned up or not.Policing the Barbarian has become so acceptable — even to the extent that the Kairali-Sree complex had CC cameras working — and picking up very close images! And the large majority of the viewers did not want to get into a tangle — predictably so, since many take considerable pains to be here and would not want their week to be disrupted. Now wonder our Minister Ganesh Kumar thinks that the audience was wonderful.
But some of us were simply not so wonderful. Take me, for example. Now, I am, for most of the time, a boring academic, a dried-up pedant perhaps. Academic training allows you to insult, when you really need to, with chilling politeness. And I am growing older, and often quite ill too. In other words, in no shape to exert myself physically. But I can’t believe it myself, in eight days flat, I am back to some parts of my youth! Swearing with surprising fluency, screaming at the police and anyone who dons the garb of IFFK-control-force. My street-fighting-skills and my will to challenge rules openly have returned with a vengeance — so I don’t mind being loud-mouthed in expressing dissent and am not nice anymore. Simply because I have been provoked beyond the limits of endurance. And let me assure you, I am not the only one among those who were at IFFK for these days feeling the force of this transformation.But, as must be clear, actually the divide was never between you and us. It was between the patricians which include the higher-ups in Kerala’s culture establishment and their despicable hanger-ons who want to turn the festival into a celebration of their high-handedness — blind to the fact that it will vanish in time and indeed generate resistance which they always underestimate — and the rest of us who are cine-lovers or curious about it. You people were simply inserted in the middle. Some of you, I hope, are cine-lovers and will join us. In that case, we need to work together to retrieve the culture of sharing and bonding that it so central to the vibrant public that the people of Kerala have built around cinema painstakingly. We need to tell the organizers to stop devising practices that pit us against each other.
This year, these rules were enforced as never before. Hence the unprecedented rudeness of the security guards; their determination to check passes. In the earlier years, whenever there was unoccupied space in halls, it was common to see people who had no delegate passes coming in. Most often, these were people exploring such cinema for the first time, their curiosity roused by the apparent enthusiasm of delegates. Many such people I met became familiar presences at subsequent IFFK screenings — IFFK was indeed a place where many people encountered such cinema for the very first time and were fascinated by it. Such a possibility does not exist anymore because the security guards, it appears, had been instructed firmly not to let in anyone other than holders of delegate passes! The delegate pass this year cost four hundred rupees. As a local autorickshaw driver who ferried us from theatre to theatre pointed out, it didn’t work for him. “The government wants us to pay up a thousand rupees for just correcting the meters to show the current changed fare-rates,” he told me, “and how much do you think I earn a day after paying the rent to the rickshaw owner? Four hundred isn’t a small sum for me.” I myself watched in fury when a young man was turned away with exceptional rudeness, even as four whole rows remained empty in a theater with just one minute for the show to begin.To deny entry to anyone deeply curious about this kind of cinema when there are seats available in screeings is sheer arrogance on the part of the authorities. These theatres belong to the public, and were built from public revenues — they need to be made available to the public as much as possible. Having been a lover of cinema that moves off the beaten track for many years, let me tell you, no one is born watching Satyajit Ray or Bergman. One always wanders into a screening, or watches such a movie by chance — and falls in love with it. It is that magical moment that you are denying to ordinary folk — and actually, they are often the most underprivilged people in our society who cannot afford to spend four hundred rupees and go off work all day to be at the screenings regularly. It is clear to me that the organizers are not shy of adding more and more people to the delegate list when it suits them — we know that this year, the effort to limit the number of delegates fell flat. And oh, yeah — I agree, the loos were awesome. Wow. Toilet maintenance look like THE ONE THING these guys are good for. But ah! Neither the fancy loos nor the much-tomtommed improvements made in the government-owned theatres can compensate for the loss of the deeply humanizing
experience at the IFFK, which were driven by practices — most of which did not come ‘from above’ — that fostered cooperation, not disgusting competition.
And yeah, you would ask, what about the movies, such good ones, so politically correct? The selection of movies however was excellent and thank goodness the producers of cultural-crap, so prominent among our eminent organizers, don’t seem to have tampered with that too much. And this time, viewers seem to have shunned mediocrity with a vengeance, sending an unmistakable message to mainstream Malayalam cinema represented by Ganesh Kumar and his ilk. There were excellent packages, quite in keeping with IFFK’s claim to be a festival celebrating people’s resistance and democracy in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. There was a brilliant package of films on and by indigenous people from Australia and wonderful films from Africa as well. Many of the films from Europe probed the shapes of underprivilege in the developed world. Overall, the political correctness was amazing. But the contradiction between the celebration of resistant identities, struggles, and democracy onscreen and the sheer violation of democracy outside was too much to bear. This time, the popular forum for debate, the Open Forum, was avoided, apparently to stall uncomfortable questions to organizers regarding the selection of films. The recent film Papilio Buddha, which draws on the recent struggles of Dalits and Adivasis — indigenous peoples of Kerala — was rejected for no good reason by the IFFK (I have written an earlier post on this on Kafila). It is indeed an interesting contradiction, one that ought to set us thinking, that a festival that
renews its radical credentials (possibly to renew its accreditation) through packages on and by indigenous people elsewhere should deny space to the indigenous peoples of Kerala! And oh by the way, when some of us wanted to watch Papilio Buddha at a private screening, it was stopped — for no go reason at all! Some people, it appears, will never outgrow their infantile tantrums. Unless the illusion regarding the particularly precious kundikal (mentioned above) fades. I was present there. Many of those who came to watch the film were ordinary Dalit people from the colonies in Thiruvananthapuram. I will never forget how they fought to control their anger. Papilio Buddha is no longer just another movie; it now represents the pride of Dalits and Adivasis of Kerala. Challenged kundikal can’t be expected to know that, of course. So much for the political correctness of IFFK! BTW, please do watch the movie when you can.
You know what, I just coined a new name for this style of operation. I call it ‘Moditharam’in honour of Narendra Modi, who tried it out in Gujarat first. You know of course of ‘Chattambitharam’, ‘Maadampitharam’ etc. which all refer, one way or the other, to aggressive, high-handed tyranny. Moditharam is actually a variant of this, which, as we all know, is as old as the hills. But in the present reincarnation, it refers to a style of operation hugely
popular in the dominant media today, specifically associated with Narendra Modi. This style constantly projects ‘development’ and ‘achievements’, largely infrastructural ones, and uses this projection to stamp out democracy and secure assent for unlawful state intrusion. Moditharam has been the hallmark of much of the ruling powers in Kerala today, surfacing sometimes as outright development goondaism, but many of us who have been at the IFFK 2012 will agree that it is this beloved event that it chose to make itself completely manifest.So Moditharam has had its week, showing off the white walls, the smooth floors, the fancy seats, of the theatres, bragging about the early supply of passes and so on. And merrily trampling underfoot what was far more valuable to us as a people — our ability to built cooperative mutual ties. Thorugh this week, it strode unimpeded through the screenings, policed the delegates, created situations which would legitimize greater policing and surveillance, shut up free speech (got rid of Open Forum), stopped other screenings that defied its will and exposed its evil, and I even suspect it was behind the irrepressible urge displayed by some elements in the local press to ridicule cine-goers as potential trouble-makers and/or jokers best ignored. As I write this, I hear that the Minister for Cinema, K B Ganesh Kumar, speaking at the closing ceremony, heartily congratulated the delegates for their excellent participation at the IFFK. I could dance for joy. My determination to fight Moditharam is only further strengthened by his veiled gloating.
And oh, one last question that I must expect . Aren’t the whole bunch of you who don’t appreciate the IFFK organizers’ sincere efforts to make you happy actually supporters of the CPM? Why were you seen at the alternative open forum, uh? If you aren’t with us, then you must be with them! In response, let me say, this is an easy one, only because one hears it too much. Well, you’d note that I traced the slow forming of controlling practices across the years, and this would include the periods of LDF rule as well. Last year’s IFFK had some terrible moments, we all agree. And the practice of handing out goodies to hanger-ons is certainly not an innovation of the present authorities. But remember, in former years too, many of us have been strongly critical of these tendencies. And unlike the hanger-ons of the present rulers who always protest only when they haven’t got the creamiest bit, we have persistently argued that the practice of treating cultural and literary institutions as spoils to be distributed among hanger-ons and minor warlords should be stopped. So don’t just dump us with the hanger-ons of the CPM who may indeed be murmuring against the loss of cushy space. Please realize there are still people left here — and not too small a number, really — who work in the cultural sphere who do not wait for scraps from the tables of the powerful. We need to be heard, but we are not. But we will claim that voice, even if it means civil disobedience.