HAVE FILM SOCIETIES LOST THEIR RELEVANCE?
This is a thought that has been bothering me for quite some time now, having been closely associated with the “movement” for the past five decades. As one who spent the bulk of his life in the dissemination of a healthy film culture in the country, my association with film societies dates back to the late fifties when I was an active member of Anandam and Film Forum, the two major film societies of Bombay. Those days when I was struggling to learn the rudiments of filmmaking, working as unpaid apprentices under such stalwarts like Mehboob Khan and Hrishikesh Mukherjee Ramnord Lab preview theatre at Worli and Tarabai Hall at Marine Drive were the favorite haunts of film enthusiasts who thronged to see Bergman’s Seventh Seal, Humberto Solas’s Lucia, Bunuel’s Nazarin Kurosawa’s Ikiru / Doomed and the great classics of Calcutta New Theatres like Vidyapati, President, Street Singer (in which Saigal sung the unforgettable “ Babul Mora … “ and several other gems of movies which had an indelible mark on any sensitive film viewer .
Grierson and friends started the London Film Society in 1929. Primarily with the aim of seeing Battleship Potemkin. They realized forming a Film Society was the only way they could see the Eisenstein classic, as no commercial theatre would dare to show the film. Their first programme consisted of G’s own Documentary “ Drifters” (1929) followed by Potemkin. Ironically the first official film society in India,
The Bombay Film Society was started in 1940 with the blessing and support of the colonial rulers, obviously with different intentions. Namely to expose budding Indian documentary film makers to the best of world documentary especially the works of Grierson, Wright, Jennings and others so that they can be engaged to make effective war effort films for the Raj. The fact their intentions did not work out is another story. Credit should go to some of our truly nationalist documentary filmmakers. The movement however caught up on the right direction when two friends fresh from college, started the Calcutta Film Society in 1948. Chidanand Das Gupta and Satyajit Ray laid the foundation for what later turned out to be a pioneering movement for the spread of film culture in the country
The growth and the decline
The fifties and sixties were the hey days of Film societies, which one remembers with fond memories. Initially the movement was confined to the metros only, New Delhi, Bombay and Madras. Soon it spread to other cities both urban and rural. In Kerala the activities started in the mid sixties with the formation of the Chitralekha Film Society which spear headed the growth of the movement in the State in a big way. By the seventies societies had sprung up in every nook and corner of the country, even in some remote places one never heard of before. The misguided proliferation brought all sorts of people to the movement. People who had never heard of a Flaherty or Ozu, or could distinguish between Einstein and Eisenstein, emerged as the new breed of film society organizers. Presumably their only aim was to climb up the social bandwagon or getting invited to an Embassy cocktail party. The craze for watching uncensored films gave a membership boost to number of societies and even some of the organizers went out of the way to schedule such films in their programmes and take pride in the fact they have the largest viewer ship, using the same yardsticks as that of a commercial exhibitor, equating the two and thereby defeating the very purpose of a film society. No wonder such gate crashers could not thrive for long. They had to have their natural exit.
When any movement expands with individual units springing up in different parts of the country it’s but natural there should be a parent body with regional set ups to net working their activities and act as a liaison with Govt and international agencies And that must have been the thinking of the founding fathers who took the initiative in setting up the FFSI within the first decade of the post independent phase of film society movement, with Calcutta as headquarters and regional set ups at Delhi , Bombay and Madras . Ray was the unanimous choice for the lifetime President of FFSI. He was no doubt the binding force behind the organization to keep it going despite various fissiparous tendencies and long drawn out ego clashes between individual organizers Besides Govt had implicit trust in his recommendations for granting censorship exemption for films to be screened by member societies I wonder whether his successors to the post could enjoy the same respect and credibility to keep the organization in tact and taking the movement forward? One has to watch and assess.
Lack of film sources
Unlike foreign countries we have no tradition of a distribution network catering to non-commercial screenings i.e. where there is no sale of tickets to the public as such but admission restricted only to confide members who pay an annual membership fee. In the early days the Embassies especially of the Socialist block where filmmaking was a State sponsored activity were the main source of films for film society programming. Later other Embassies and Consulates followed as a part of their cultural promotion activities this had its plus and minus points. On the plus side there was a regular flow and the film societies could hold programmes with minimum expenditure On the negative side it made the organizers lazy as they do not have to make any effort to select the films according to merits and explore their print sources or do any kind of negotiations and expecting as a matter of right that every film should come to them free. When asked why you are not having any programmes this month, the secretary of a film society in Pine some years ago told me: “Federation (FFSI) did not send us any films this month “. Imagine someone claiming to be running a film society does not want to take the effort to find out what films to be screened and where to get the prints from and totally being dependent on FFSI or NFAI. With the break up of the socialist system and film production passing on to private hands, the embassy sources for getting films all got dried up. One has to wait when they decide to bring some films for their own promotional activities. And invariably the films would be of their choice and cannot be ours. How can beggars be choosers? The NFDC which was supposed to have imported a limited number of award winning films every year exclusively for film society circulation seem to have got cold feet and abandoned the idea as they may have found it economically not viable. No wonder as how many societies can afford to pay rental fee of $ 500 /- per screening? Perhaps the rental could be reduced to half if at least fifty screenings are assured and the print is n not damaged Will at least fifty societies come forward to share the burden? This is a question, which FFSI should put forth to its member units.
Not lost relevance yet
There is no denying the fact that the film society movement over the past five decades did contribute substantially for creating a new film consciousness in the country. Despite all its ups and downs, the pitfalls and inherent contradictions, and the involvement of a motley crowd of people ranging from the cool to the hot headed, the soft to the out - spoken, the lazy/ to the energetic, the hardened egoistic to the amiable broadminded, the literate to the non - literate, the committed to the not so committed, the self-centered to the large hearted and the over enthusiastic film buff, the movement, though fractured has still not lost its relevance. At least that’s what one would like to believe. But it has still a long way to go for realizing its declared objectives. Sometimes I get depressed at the Luke warm response from our members to what we have been striving to do all these days.
You schedule one of the greatest films of all time in your monthly screening. Expecting for a good turn out, more so since the film is being screened for the first time in the city. . You get disappointed as only few people turn up. But the same film you include in a five or seven day Festival with lot of fanfare and publicity and delegate cards and what not. Lo, there is a crowd. Which means they need a festival or mega event tag to be drawn to the theatre, thereby exposing the myth that they have no sense of discrimination in the selection of titles they want to see. This is a sad reflection of the attitude of a section of our film viewers whose genuineness we start doubting. One can’t expect such viewers to take a film society forward. If in the process the organizers also fall prey to such aberrations and decide not to have any monthly programmes but confine their activities to holding only film festivals occasionally, then where are we? As long as such attitudes persist, I don’t see any hope for film societies.
29th April 2004