Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Where the festivals should be? - Amudhan R.P.

The power of popular cinema is its inherent possibility of reaching people. When western film producers arrived here in India with their silent “shorts” in the early days of cinema, they targeted essentially the upper class of this land. Although caste and racial (are they different?) barriers tried to keep “natives” away from cinema, its popular appeal broke all the shackles to include more and more audiences. More “untouchables” and “unseebales” of this country were allowed. In fact they were invited.

It influenced Indians too and was born our Indian cinema. Despite our “intellectual and artistic lamenting”, popular cinema in India has survived with developing its own genre through the years. At the same time our “masters” have withered away to store rooms.

Development of digital technology has also revolutionized documentary and short film making in India in terms of being inclusive as far as subjects and filmmakers are concerned. As we all know, India in itself a continent with a vast landscape of cultures, languages and experiences with more stories to tell using wide range of narrative styles. The popular wave of independent filmmaking is spreading like a wild fire thanks to mini DV and Adobe Premiere (Final cut pro is not as widespread in rural areas and small towns). The activists who believe in democratizing the independent filmmaking in India might be aware that the changes are happening at a grass root level.

The fact that we have more number of regional political parties than national parties show that there is no one platform which can reflect the aspirations of a hundred crore people. It is also true that we are in the process of developing our own independent cinemas, not only independent of state or private ownership, also independent of centralized standardization of narrative styles. I used the term “cinemas” consciously as pluralism is going to be the connecting identity amidst the broad spectrum of identities.

The Film festivals
Ten years back when some one wanted to watch “the other kind” of cinema she or he had to travel to metros like Mumbai or New Delhi or Chennai. Or they had to travel to big cities (II tier cities?) like Trivandrum, Bangalore (once it was II tier city), Pune, etc. But now things are going through the wave of changes. Festivals happen in smaller and unknown places.

The fact that such festivals happen in smaller towns and villages brings new benefits. Apart from films getting screened in new places in front of new audiences, there is space for all the filmmakers now. Sheer number itself opens up wide range of possibilities.

There is also a freedom now for filmmakers to make films on any topic not getting worried of censorship, taboos and boundaries. Even if major festivals in India try to clamp the filmmakers and films with restrictions, the later can jolly well boycott them and go to smaller festivals. Although such festivals may not have heavy prize money and television possibilities, one can screen films.

The new wave:
But there is a small problem which is both internal and external. There is a new trend emerging in Indian documentaries now. It may not be obvious, but it is subtle. Or it is both. It is the new wave of personal films. These films are also apolitical. They are negating the whole concept of wider audiences. It is almost equal to multiplex wave of filmmaking in Indian feature film industry. It is almost equal to exclusive film shows organized by European film producers in 1890s to 1920’s.

Let me explain that. A feature film recently in Tamil language did very well in box office of multiplex cinemas in big cities while almost bombed in smaller towns. The film was based on cosmetic love story portraying urban life with consumerism as a core value. The cost of tickets in multiplexes is too high, that the film need not do well in smaller towns at all. In other words the common people of Tamilnadu need not participate in that film. Despite that the film can do well. The film catered to urban audience with particular sensibilities and values. It is a sign to show the power of multiplex cinema and of course money. This can lead to exclusive cinema and a reverse to what happened in 1930’s where cinema had to include people from all strata of society to succeed economically.

It is also happening to Indian documentary. The films commissioned and broad cast by PSBT or NDTV are of the same nature where only soft issues are dealt with. Serious political issues are not encouraged and more and more film makers are falling into that trap. Although there is nothing wrong in making personal and artistic films, they should not be the only documentaries that are made in this country. If documentary as a form is left to urban film makers alone that can become a reality. Although there are 100 functioning documentary filmmakers in Mumbai alone, not one documentary on farmer’s suicides has been made so far. Such is the social responsibility of an urban filmmaker.

When Films Division lost interest in producing documentaries in 1980’s due to political and economical compulsions, only independent and activist film makers took it up. They begged, borrowed and robbed money from somewhere and somehow made documentaries dealing with serious political issues facing lot of difficulties. They also took the films to the people. They screened not only their own films. They screened films made by others too. Suddenly it is being propagated as an outdated concept. Articles are written about. Interviews are published. That people’s documentary or activist documentary is gone.

Now the new genre of personal and artistic films has some specific characters. They need not face audiences. They do not have the responsibility of catering to general public. They have international film festivals and international funding. Nothing comes in between them and victory. More and more filmmakers from film schools and institutes are also taking up this style of film making and producing. It is almost like multiplex cinema. In fact some of the new documentaries are also being screened in multiplexes these days. Although one can see it as another space for screening, it can also lead to exclusiveness.

There is also a danger when the apolitical style of filmmaking is getting standardized and popularized through film festivals and awards. Documentary as a form is getting slowly appropriated by such personal and artistic expressions. In a country like India where caste and creed play an important role in access to any resource, such appropriation is a dangerous sign. It can also lead to a documentary Brahminism. In fact it is moving in that direction.

There is space for all kinds of documentaries in India. Artistic, avant-garde, impressionist, cinema verite, personal, political, issue based etc., what ever you call it. But if we succumb to the obsession of shooting ourselves we might end up creating multiplex documentaries alone.
However, there are solutions too.

Village festivals:
India is going through a difficult period politically and economically. More and more billionaires emerge amidst the dead bodies of fellow Indians who happen to be poor farmers, dalits and adivasis. Land, water, sea, forest and air are being taken over by the state and corporate sector in the name of development using “law and order” as a cover. With the failure of media and major political parties to represent ordinary people of India, independent media has all the more social responsibility for the new political forces to emerge.

To make use of documentary as a political form to raise serious political questions about the direction in which the state is led to, the medium has to reach people. The audiences are waiting there in rural areas to watch and discuss films. The film festivals have to go to villages. The film makers should be made accountable for their films. If they face people, the ordinary people instead of just festival and television audiences, more films reflecting people’s aspirations will be created. More new filmmakers with new experiences, new perspectives and new stories from rural areas will emerge. That is the true media democracy.

Amudhan R.P.
A 9/4 K.K.Nagar
Madurai 625 020
Email: amudhanrp@rediffmail.com; Ph: 093444-79353

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