Towards a new film culture? the Rise and Fall of Indian Film Society Movement
by VK Cherian
my thoughts and information responding to authors 11 questions].
1.What prompted you and friends to organise a Film Society in Lucknow?
My involvement with film society movement started with the International Film Clubin high school (St. Josephs' Convent, Bhopal) in 1959.
The father of two of my classmates, Saleem and Parvez Romani, had a used Bell & Howell 16 mm film projector. We used this to start showing films and started a film society on 4th August 1959. We began with 16mm film distributors like MGM, Columbia and NEIF Film Club. Tagore's birth centennial (1961) was coming up and from the newspapers we learnt about Satyajit Ray and his Teen Kanyabased on tagore stories and Tagore documentary.
Jaya Bachchan was a couple of years’ junior and her father (writer, journalist and stage artist), TaroonBahaduri, was a well known personality in Bhopal and well known for his writings on dacoits of Chambal Valley.
TapanSinha was coming to Bhopal to shoot KshuditaPashan (The Hungry Stone). If I remember correctly, TaroonBahaduri was the host (or had something to do with TapanSinha’s film) and that is when the idea of getting Satyajit Ray’s film for screening in Bhopal was born.
I found out Satyajit Ray’s phone number in Calcutta and called him. He must have beenflabbergasted by the unexpected call from a school kid asking him for the film to screen, that he asked the distributor (Aurora) to send a 35 mm print of ‘PatherPanchali’. A person from Aurora arrived with a print of PatherPanchali.
Satyajit Rayrecalled this incident decades later when Shampa’s mother (KarunaBanerji) called to tell him about Shampa and I getting together.
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was coming to visit Bhopal. So we decided to write to ‘Chacha Nehru’ telling him about the International Film Club and the wonderful work we are doing and asked him for the gift of a film projector.
Marie Seton was, as I learnt later, was Nehru’s houseguest at Teen Murti in Delhi. Nehru passed onour letter to Marie. We were surprised by a long letter from Marie Seton telling about film society movement in UK; VijayaMulay and the film societies in Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi; and the formation of the Federation of Film Societies of India (1959).
This was beginning of a long correspondence over the years. I have always marveled at Marie’s dedication to film society movement and her effort to bring together everyone she got to know—from Indira Gandhi and Satyajit Ray, at one end, to a kid like me—who happen to share her interest in film.
In course of my correspondence with Marie, I had mentioned to her about the film we were working on. We called it “Together We Learn”. She promptly responded back with the information about News Chronicle in London having a competition on films made by children, suggesting that we should enter the competition. Which we did.
Marie’s letters were amazing they wereusually several pages long and full of news, ideas and connecting to interesting people with similar interests. Her letters talked about the film festivals that FFSI was planning; films she was getting for private screening for Prime Minister Nehru; NIAVE (National Institute of Audio Visual Education) of NCERT (National Council for Educational Research and Training) where she is helping with the Central Film Library and written couple of monographs on film study; and the wonderful man, SatishBahadur, at Agra University whom I must meet.
For me, in far away Bhopal, Marie’s letters were my window to the wonderous world of cinema. Each letter was like a tutorial telling me about all the wonderful people and films and in between, she talked of contemporary India—Nehru, Indu and Krishna Menon.
I had finished my High School. My father’s two year posting in Bhopal was coming to an end. We were going back to Lucknow, I told Marie. I was very unhappy about having to leave Bhopal. She told me about Professor KailashNathKaul, director of the National Botanical Gardens (now it is called National Botanical Research Institute) and suggested that I should meet him about starting a film society in Lucknow.
2.Who were the initial members, which strata of society?
Marie had spoken to Professor Kaulin Delhi. I still remember vividly my meeting with Professor Kaul and his words how the botanical gardens are a place for nurturing the intellect and human culture. Walking through the botanical garden, he spoke of films and his stay at KewRoyal Botanic Gardens. In between, bending down pointing and describing the plants along our path. Films he talked about and plants he described seemed equally to preoccupy his thinking.
He had a beautiful small film auditoriumin the botanic garden whichwas the venue for most of the Lucknow Film Society screenings.
I don’t know how the group came together. One person led to another and
weall met at Professor Kaul’s home. It was decided to start the Lucknow Film Society with Mrs. Sheila Kaul as the President; Wendy Vora, Devendra Mishra (father of filmmaker, Sudhir Mishra); journalist CS Pandit; HarbansMathur, KN Kacker and me as members. I was not even 18 but was treated as one. I was asked to be the joint secretary of the society.
This is where I met GautamKaul and spent many an evening discussing films.
The first film shown at the inauguration of the Lucknow Film Society was Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Calcutta Film Society had recently acquired the print which they generously loaned to us. Marie sent me the original program note from the Film Society in London when they showed The House of Usher and Battleship Potemkin. Marie was then, like me, a teenager.
Devendra Mishra had recently returned from University of Paris, Sonborne, after is doctorate and had perhaps the most exposure to new cinema. I remember many a times at his home talking about films, aesthetics and planning and writing program notes for the Lucknow Film Society. Devendra was also my main source for books on cinema.
One of the big event was showing all the three films of The Apu Trilogy in one screening at The Mayfair in Lucknow.
The winter of 1961, Delhi Film Society and the Federation had arranged a Polish Film Festival in Delhi. I was invited to go up to Delhi. That is where I met, for the first time, Akka, ChidanandaDasgupta, Marie Seton and SatishBahadur.
To answer your question, the members of the Lucknow Film Society were people from the educated middle class. Many of them were artists, writers and teachers. RoshanTaneja, who later went the Film Institute in Pune to teach film acting; Vijay Bahadur Chandra, who later become the chief producer of Films Division; SarlaSahni, director of the state information department were some of the regular members.
3. Vis-a-visthe popular Cinema, what was the USP of FS and its films as seen in those days?
Except for the Hollywood films and the popular commercial cinema (now called Bollywood) there was no opportunity to view other films of merit and from other parts of the world. There was little or no exposure to exciting new trends in world cinema. Film societies provide an opportunity for us to see good films.
The influence the Renoir coming to Calcutta to shoot River had on a lot of people from young SubrataMitra (later Ray’s cameraman); Bansi Chandragupta (Ray’s art director) and even Satyajit Ray himself is well documented.
The film society movement broadened this exposure to good cinema from across the world to many ordinary folks and inculcated in them film sense. The new Indian cinema or parallel cinema would not have been possible without the channel thaty film society provided.
India was fortunate that its leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru or Maulana Azad, were men who regarded art and culture as an important component of the new nation. We were fortunate that Indira Gandhi was equally interested and was directly involved in the film society movement. She served as the Vice President of the Federation of Film Societies of India till she became the Prime Minister and was known to quietly come to watch the films.
4. What kind of films were popular with the FS members and what were the sources of those films?
Other than the popular commercial cinema and Hollywood films, film society members were keen on films from all over the world. The leaders of film society movement, specially those based in Delhi (VijayaMulay, Muriel Wasiand Marie Seton), persuaded the embassies of many countries to bring in films from their countries for showing through the film societies. British and Canadian High Commission brought in several good films; the Soviet Union and Eastern and Central European countries (Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania) made their best films available on a regular basis; there was the Antipodes program of film exchange supported by Unesco; Central Film Library of the Ministry of Education; and private 16mm film distributors like NEIF; and eventually the National Film Archive became a major source of good cinema.
Slowly by mid 1960s good films were increasingly available and most film societies were able to have at least one film screening a month.
It was fun.
5.60s and 70s saw a huge interest in FS in general across India and what do u think was the factors behind this interest?
1960s and 70s was a period of cultural renaissance in India. PatherPanchali had established a sense of pride that we had amongst a filmmaker of world stature and then came the film institute, the film archive, the film festivals and the New Cinema Movement. All of these were, in a way, events that validated the concept of good cinema, and therefore, the film society movement. Whether it was Satyajit Ray,AdoorGopalakrishnan or ShyamBenegal, they were associated with the film society movement.
A lot of credit has to be given to the leaders of the movement. Each one of them subscribed to a vision for new and vibrant Indian cinema and saw in film society movement a channel to create a worldview. Fortunately, we had the political leadership which actively supported this view.
6. Has the FS movement supported the parallel film movement in India?
Yes and No. It provided the context for the Parallel Cinema Movement. The New Cinema Manifesto was written in the coffee house and taverns infused
7. What role did Marie Seton playedin popularising film society in India?
Marie played an unique and important role of bringing a wide variety of people together from across the country. She was the connector. I got to know Akka (VijayaMulay), SatishBahadur and Chituda (ChidanandaDasgupta) through Marie.
As advisor—from the very beginning—to the Federation of Film Societies of India she helped shape the movement.
On the other hand she engaged Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, InderGujral and many other important people in the film society movement. Indira Gandhi, served for many years, as the Vice President of the Federation of Film Societies of India.
No because the film society subscription was never adequate to pay for the films. So unlike Britain, United States and other countries we never economically contributed to parallel cinema movement. Art cinema remained a distant dream.
8. Did the government, under Nehru and Ms Gandhi actively support the FS movement and if so what do you think was there motivation?
Yes. You should read Marie Seton’s Panditji. It is full of references to private film screenings for Prime Minister Nehru and Indira Gandhi and their support to the film society activities. Indira Gandhi was Vice President of FFSI and took an active interest in its affairs before she became Minister for Information and Broadcasting and continued till the very end. Her social secretary, UshaBhagat, was closely involved with the film society movement till the end.
If you recall, it was Mrs. Gandhi, who as Vice President of FFSI and Minister of Information Broadcasting ruled that film meant for film society screening need not be subject to censor board clearancewould be cleared based on a letter from Satyajit Ray in his capacity as FFSI President.
9. FS movement has undergone many ups and downs and how do you look back from US now?
The film society movement has outlived its purpose. Its mission has to be subsumed—as it is in most parts of the world—into other channels for reaching out good cinema to the people and engaging them with film appreciation.
The Film Finance Corporation was to set up art cinemas across the country for showing of good films and works of new cinema movement. A large number of parallel cinema films were financed by the corporation. It never happened except the Nehru Centre in Worli, Mumbai and Nandan in Calcutta. We needed a chain of more than 100 and we did not even get 10.
The New Cinema Manifesto built its sustainability model on this assumption. It never happened. This was a humongous failure.
Both the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York and San Francisco Film Society—which survived here—are built as host to major film festival in their city and having permanent arrangement for screening of their films.
Cable and satellite television has created a huge opportunity to take good cinema to the people. We tried this with the National Film Heritage program (at Cendit in partnership with the National Film Archive in the 1980s) where we persuaded Doordarshan not only to telecast films of RitwikGhatak but their telecast fees provided money which went into restoration of some of his films.
10. What is the one reason which you strongly attribute to the waning interest in FS and the why makes you comes to that conclusion.
11. How do you see the future of FS as movement in India? Has it got a new role , in the changing interest, policies of government, and technological revolution on in the filed?
 If you like I can send you a photograph with Nehru in Bhjopal with some members of the International Film Club.
 I am not absolutely sure of the initials but I think it was KN Kacker.
 Then films officer in the Uttar Pradesh Department of Information headed by SarlaSahni.
 …and (I think) Australian government.
 National Education and Information Films Ltd, Bombay
ArunKaul, et al.
Speakeasies of prohibition Bombay.
 National film Development Corporation