THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Here’s the establishing shot—Indian cinema has stepped out of the frying pan, into the fire. Issues surrounding mainstream movies (for instance, Mersal and Padmavati) and arthouse releases (like Nude and S Durga) are just the tip of this proverbial iceberg. Controversies are abundant, both on and off the screen. Government authorities—who promise to uphold the constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression—still silence emerging artists, only because their creative work does not appear to adhere to certain widespread, perceivably-acceptable cultural notions.
“It is unfortunate that a situation like this should arise in a mature democracy likes ours. Most ‘fringe groups’ engage in protests or seek a ban on films to gain attention for petty gains,” states Amit V Masurkar, whose feature Newton is India’s official entry to the 90th edition of the Oscars. Yet, things weren’t always so bad. In the past, India’s film fraternity often considered one of the world’s biggest, most distinct, and most dynamic, used to grab international attention and spark national debates for all the right reasons. Contemporary motion pictures from the region including 2014’s Court that won ‘Best Film’ at the 71st Venice International Film Festival, and older productions such as 1982’s Kharji gained the ‘Jury Award’ at Cannes, are just a few examples of our nation’s vibrant silver screen heritage.
IFFK: Second fiddle no more
Most experts agree that this ‘heritage’ was initially nurtured by the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) which began in 1952. IFFI used to be a place that inspired future auteurs with informative workshops and parallel cinema, sowing the seed for a nationwide film society movement. But, in the past few years, this Goa-based showcase has morphed into a sponsored marketing fiasco and ‘sarkari’ celebration which censors its audience, loses its jury members, places a ban on movies, and curbs creative freedom. “It’s clear that censorship exists in different forms in many countries. But, when it primitively interferes with people’s political socialisation and self-expression, it becomes really torturous,” explains Ilgar Najaf, an Azerbaijan-based director of the award-winning Pomegranate Orchard (2017).
This is probably why most globally-renowned cineastes, Ilgar included, have panned their cameras and focussed on Thiruvananthapuram. The International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), which traces its roots to the aforementioned film society initiative, is quickly turning into a safe space for progressive cinema. Here movie aficionados and influencers can express dissent, explore the left-field, experience cultural exchange, and expand their horizons with films that are disruptive, politically-charged, and sexually-liberal.
The next frontier
Artistic tastes and opinions transcend geographical positions and national boundaries. Buenos Aires-based Ernesto Ardito and Virna Molina, are amongst the many filmmakers who hope that the IFFK offers a better and more accepting platform when considered alongside other festivals. “During the military dictatorship of Argentina in the ’70s, there were many cultural and political consequences. Topics including homosexuality and gender identity were taboo. Our film, Symphony for Ana, is set in that tumultuous time period to ensure that those who were persecuted and killed for their ideas are never forgotten. We feel many in Kerala may connect with this as it is a strong story about love, friendship, and political ideas,” explain the folks behind one of the fourteen acclaimed films hoping to clinch the Golden Crow Pheasant Award.
Movie-goers are sure to find themselves in a predicament today, as the 22nd edition of this popular eight-day-long jamboree will screen 190 films from 65 countries. One regional production that many are excited about is Randuper. Director Prem Sankar, who’s making his IFFK debut, is said to have created a contentious film—set against the backdrop of the demonetisation announcement while tackling gender politics and relationships. “I think every film has to provoke and disrupt the minds of viewers. They (viewers) have to come out of the confines of their comfortable ‘walled existence’ and on to the streets,” begins Prem, adding, “Now we are only worried about our GDP growth, but we hardly think about our cultural growth. Film festivals like the IFFK can be the platform for all liberal voices, in this tragically-intolerant era. Nothing should be muted there.”
Point of view
The harsh truth is that sometimes flicks that amass awards internationally, are a failure at the box office in their own country. Yet, there are exceptions like Newton. It has travelled to more than 60 film festivals—from Berlin and Buenos Aires to Tribeca and Hong Kong. Nowadays, commercial success can be primarily achieved in three ways—from the domestic or foreign market, television, and video-on-demand services similar to Netflix. But how important is it to gain visibility, and acclaim, on the festival circuit, as opposed to commercial success at the box office?
“I am an American artist who produced a film on a shoestring budget in Mongolia and got nominated in India’s IFFK,” quips Ayoub Qanir, the man behind The World of Which We Dream Doesn’t Exist, elaborating, “Thanks to festivals like the one in Kerala and new digital platforms, small filmmakers are just a few clicks away from cinematic audiences worldwide. But, visibility and acclaim are truly subjective, I simply make films to make films.”
Most people forget that before crafting multi-million dollar tentpoles such as The Batman Trilogy and Inception, Christopher Nolan carved a niche for himself by debuting his $6,000 offering Following at an indie gala in 1996 called Slamdance. But does this mean viewers will discover the ‘next big thing in Indian cinema’ at Thiruvananthapuram? Not necessarily. However, those familiar with the IFFK might know that over the years the gala has been on the forefront of the contemporary scene.
“Film festivals have and will always remain a foundational pillar of this industry. They become the source of talents from which the entire cinematic ecosystem is nourished. It is the most efficient and only bridge for young and raw filmmakers to have the opportunity to be scrutinised, reviewed, and potentially streamlined towards a more sustainable career in the world of cinema,” says Ayoub.
The liberal attitude within IFFK has inspired young, up-and-coming filmmakers, to create a new strand of independent thought within mainstream motion pictures. So, even after the curtain falls on December 15, most aficionados will ‘pack up’ with a smile on their faces.
“Filmmakers are pushing boundaries. Audiences are ready to watch edgy content. I don’t see any reason why a film festival should object to screening a film that is selected by the jury of the festival. Censorship should be done away with completely at film festivals,” shares director Amit Masurkar, on the Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s decision on the contemporary film S Durga citing ‘communal sensitivity’ and ‘notions of morality’. Though the IFFK had selected S Durga to be screened at Thiruvananthapuram, it may not happen. “The director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan has withdrawn the film from IFFK, as he felt his film deserved a space in the International Competition and not the Malayalam Cinema Today section,” explains IFFK deputy director H Shaji.
As a mark of respect to those who lost their lives in the recent Ockhi cyclone, the festival has cancelled all music/cultural programmes that were planned for the event. But, there are still plenty of great showcases to partake in. Besides ‘banned’ Iranian helmer Mohammad Rasoulof’s Lerd, another notable name who will attempt to highlight the plight of the oppressed at this event is Malaysia’s, Edmund Yeo. Edmund’s 2017 film Aqerat revolves around the Rohingya refugee crisis and is part of the ‘Identity and Spaces’ section of the gala.