14 December 2012

Godard's Own Country: the IFFK and the oddities of Malayali cinephilia

A long-form piece, for The Caravan, on the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) -- a window into the state's old love of world cinema and its changing relationship to a complex cultural legacy. 

The first thing I hear in Thiruvananthapuram is a Kim Ki-duk joke. A Malayali goes to Seoul and is wandering the streets of the South Korean capital. But no one seems to know where the famous filmmaker lives. Tired and disheartened, the Malayali is about to give up when he sees a house bearing the sign “Beena Paul has blessed this house”—and he knows his search has come to an end.

If that seems a bit hard to decipher at first, worry not. Like the film festival that spawned it, the joke depends on a sensibility that’s simultaneously international art-house and merrily, irrevocably local.

 It requires you to know who Kim Ki-duk is—an art-house director whose films often bomb at his country’s box office, but who is internationally renowned for his alternately savage and lyrical cinema (his Pieta won the Golden Lion at Venice this year). It also requires you to know who Beena Paul is—the Artistic Director, since 2000, of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), a woman of remarkable foresight and enthusiasm. It assumes you know that Beena Paul curated a hugely popular Kim Ki-duk retrospective at IFFK as far back as 2005, making him a household name in the state. And last but not least, it assumes (an ability to appreciate the irreverent marshalling of) local knowledge: many Christian homes in Kerala have a sign outside proclaiming ‘Jesus Christ has blessed this house’.

The religious metaphor has its place in the joke, too. The IFFK, whose 17th edition will run from 7 to 14 December 2012, is the largest secular festival in a multi-religious state. Every December, Kerala’s rather sleepy capital city, Thiruvananthapuram, plays host to what is arguably the most widely attended film festival in South Asia, with screenings in many theatres witnessing such a massive press of people, especially in the initial days, that people constantly joke about the IFFK-as-pilgrimage. “The first film I went to last year was at Ajanta, and the crowd outside was just a mob. People were mock-chanting ‘Swamiye Ayyapo’—because it felt like being at the Sabarimala temple,” said Praveena Kodoth, an economics professor at Thiruvananthapuram’s Centre for Development Studies.

The numbers are impressive. Last year’s festival, held from 9 to 16 December, had 9,232 registered delegates. “If you include media-persons, officials and guests, the number of people registered came to over 11,000,” says Beena Paul Venugopal.

But what makes the IFFK remarkable isn’t so much the numbers as something else—a popular enthusiasm for world cinema that, far from being limited to the post-liberalisation English-speaking metropolitan elite that tends to dominate film festival audiences in other urban centres, seems to cut across class. The most obvious (but also most far-reaching) sign of this wide-ranging interest is the fact that the festival handbook, as well as the daily free newsletter brought out during each IFFK, are bilingual. In the case of the handbook, section headings and introductions are in English, but each film synopsis is provided in both English and Malayalam.  Venugopal is full of stories about running into festival regulars who come from all walks of life: auto rickshaw drivers in Malappuram, or Thiruvananthapuram nurses who take leave for IFFK. “The funny thing about Kerala is that… a film festival is not only judged by the quality of the films or the people who attend or even the press it gets,” Venugopal said in an interview published in 2011. “It is judged by whether it was a popular success, whether it was a people’s festival.”

IT’S ALMOST DE RIGUEUR FOR FILM FESTIVALS in India to feel like mass secular rituals: theoretically open to everyone—but requiring truly religious commitment from the elect. My first film festival experience was the 27th IFFI, held in Delhi in 1996. I was 19: a wide-eyed world cinema newbie willing and able to watch films from 9 am to midnight. But in the sarkari India in which I came of age, getting an IFFI delegate pass to the Siri Fort complex required you to prove that you’d been a film society member for over five years. So I began that IFFI watching as many films as I could at the ticketed public screenings, being enchanted by Wim Wenders’ Lisbon Story at Regal, mystified by Carlos Saura’s flaming flamenco romances at Plaza, and—to my eternal shame—failing to stave off sleep during Theo Angelopoulos’ stately Ulysses’ Gaze at Priya. Things were going well enough until the afternoon I skipped college to go watch Sai Paranjpye’s Papeeha    at Sheila, a cinema near the Old Delhi Railway station that I had never been to before—for good reason, it turned out. When the lights came on in the interval, I found myself alone in a hall full of men—Sheila regulars who made it rather clear that a female presence in the theatre was potential compensation for the disappointment of Paranjpye’s tame romance.

Daunted but indefatigable, I called a friend whose aunt was a high-up at Doordarshan, and begged her to share a delegate pass for Siri Fort screenings. Over the remaining days of the festival, my friend and I became experts at passing the card discreetly to and fro through the Siri Fort railings, confidently striding past suspicious guards, as well as occasionally charming small-time government employees within the hallowed gates into giving us an extra pass or two from the stacks they clearly weren’t using. It was all rather fun, of course. But my memory of that IFFI—and the equally sarkari      affairs I’ve attended since, in Delhi or Goa, where IFFI has been housed since 2002—is bittersweet. Youthful triumph at having beaten the system is coupled with the sad realisation that the system was one that enthusiastic film-goers inevitably had to ‘beat’.

Admittedly, more open-access models do exist. The one I know best is the Osian’s Film Festival of Asian and Arab Cinema, earlier known as Cinefan. Founded by Aruna Vasudev, the festival started out as open as well as free of cost. Having experimented with 20-rupee tickets a few years ago, Osian’s has now settled on a one-time registration system that gives anyone who wants one a free delegate pass to the whole festival, which is now housed in the Siri Fort complex. For anyone with memories of the artificial bureaucratic scarcity of the ’90s, the pleasure of this is palpable.

Unlike the privately-funded Osian’s, attending the IFFK is not free of cost. Delegates must sign up and pay a registration charge of R400, but this princely sum gets you a pass to eight marvellous days of film screenings, five shows a day. And somehow the fact of having paid that delegate fee seems to give people a nicely proprietary air. Even more radically, the festival has no ‘main venue’ reserved for VIPs or the press. Unlike Siri Fort in its IFFI days, or the Nandan complex in the contemporary Kolkata Film Festival, there is no privileged space that remains closed to regular ticket-buyers. Instead, IFFK screenings are spread across 11 different single-screen theatres in Thiruvananthapuram, all open to anyone with a delegate pass. Most wonderfully, whether the screening is of a Robert Bresson classic from the 1960s, a cutting-edge Turkish film or a controversial new Malayalam one, the theatre is almost always full. And if it isn’t, well, at least one can be sure that it isn’t because the passes have all gone to the undersecretary’s sister-in-law.

(Piece continues...)

Read the rest of it on the Caravan site, here.

No comments: