Independent  Malayalam Art Films And Their Post-Award Lives, Film Companion

Every year, and most prominently in recent times, a lot of independent films produced in Malayalam find pride of place in the State film awards and occasionally in the National Awards too. This year for instance, the film that got the Kerala State award for the best film was Kanthan-The Lover of Colour,  a debut film directed by Shareef, a young cineaste from a remote town in north Kerala. There were also other films like Chola by Sanalkumar Sasidharan and Pani by Santhosh Mandoor etc that too were independent films made outside the institutional support system of commercial mainstream industry and star paraphernalia. There is no doubt that such recognition by the State is a great source of encouragement and self-confidence for these young and aspiring filmmakers. Apart from that, in a society like Kerala, these films and filmmakers also get a lot of media attention and critical accolades. But once the limelight fades and the media attention shifts to other matters, what are these young artists finally left with? They do get some money, fame and social capital that a State award brings to them, but do the institution of awards and recognition by the State in anyway contribute towards enabling them to continue making films?

This is especially crucial for independent filmmakers. Because for those who work in the commercial film industry, getting an award is just yet another feather on their cap, for they already have an established support system at work that enables them to make films, celebrates their commercial and aesthetic victories, and also makes up for their losses and failures. In the earlier decades, even very successful commercial filmmakers in Malayalam like IV Sasi, Sasikumar, Joshi etc had to prove their mettle at the box office, and thus compensate for their occasional failures. Nowadays the commercial filmmakers do not even have to produce a commercial hit, for box office does not constitute the only source of revenue. Now they are supported and promoted by star ratings, subsidised by television rights, and most importantly, boosted by publicity blitzkrieg that covers up for everything. In the case of majority of the films, including those starring super stars, the box office success—a real good run at the theatres—is a rarity. So, as far as the new revenue models are concerned, viewing/viewership in theatres and revenue from the box office constitute only a part, as it is amply complemented, if marketed and sold efficiently, by revenue from the movie’s post-theatre avatars. In this scenario, television channels figure prominently, as they act both as a cushion and a continuous source of future income.

For those who work in the commercial film industry, getting an award is just yet another feather on their cap, for they already have an established support system at work that enables them to make films, celebrates their commercial and aesthetic victories, and also makes up for their losses and failures  

But in the case of those who work outside and beyond the logic, imagination and institutional networks of the commercial industry, it is a different ball game altogether. For them,  awards or any kind of recognition is important and crucial, because for them, moving from one film to the next is always a challenge. Once the grand announcement and the star-studded distribution of awards are over, the State does next to nothing to sustain and support serious, art cinema. In Kerala, no sincere efforts have been made to promote independent films at the national or international platforms, or to help them reach out to the international film festival and other exhibition and distribution circuits. The theatre network of Kerala State Film Development Corporation, whose original mission was to support good cinema, is under constant pressure to fall in line with market rules to sustain itself. In the case of Chalachitra Academy also, the efforts to promote young cinema from Malayalam have been far between and feeble. Even the Film Market that was launched a few years back during the International Film Festival of Kerala has been discontinued for no reason.

To promote regional or vernacular cinemas (in fact, ‘regionalised’ and vernacularised’ cinemas), and to foster links with festival organisers, festival directors, critics, curators and programmers to create interest in our cinema abroad, it calls for concerted and consistent efforts. Sadly, even the possibilities of distributing and marketing these films within Indian market by reaching out to the growing number of serious film viewers in various cities and towns across the country, are not being seriously explored.

In fact, if one goes by figures alone, the number of independent films in recent years is much more than those made in the much-celebrated 1970s—the so-called golden era of art cinema in Kerala. Empowered and enabled by digital technology, more young filmmakers are entering the field every year with interesting films on a variety of subjects. But unlike in the 1970s there are no institutional mechanisms to provide them the space they desperately need and deserve. Nor do they have the support of various cultural organisations and circuits to create platforms for interaction with the viewers. For instance, the ‘art’ films of the 70s found a niche of their own in mainstream theatres in the form of ‘noon shows’—a time slot that was not widely prevalent in theatres in those days. (Many used to snub these high brow ‘award’ films shown at noon as ‘uccha padam’ hinting at the freakiness of the films and its audience). Apart from this niche slot in theatres, Doordarshan was another major source of support for art cinema: through the prime slot on Sunday afternoons, these films could reach out to a pan-Indian audience while at the same time, earning them significant returns by way of telecast fee. And getting a State or National award ensured the telecast of those films by  National Doordarshan and the respective regional kendras.

But what is the scene now as far as avenues for screening and revenues for art filmmakers are concerned? If one takes the number of theatres, it has drastically come down in the post-television decades: if Kerala had around 2100 theatres in the 1980s, there are only about 650 theatres now, that too with lesser seating capacity and in the multiplex mode that target high net worth audiences. (They are no longer even called theatres but ‘screens’). With regard to public service broadcasting, Doordarshan, in its competition with the private channels, has slowly but definitively shifted to profit-making mode, where the telecast of award films is considered ‘unviable’ and so, do not figure in their priority list; nor do they consider telecast of art cinema as part of their mission. In the case of private television channels, they continue to shun serious art cinema: they don’t provide even an occasional slot for offbeat films. So, bereft of theatres and television, the art filmmakers have been systematically deprived of their opportunities and channels to reach out to their audience.

In a situation like this where serious art is thus being shunned by public platforms and barred from commercial avenues, aren’t we as a society responsible to sustain them? Or are we going to leave them at the mercy of market laws?  

The remaining platforms for art cinema are film festivals, film societies and the new avenues opened up by Internet. Earlier, if a film made by a debutant from a remote village manages to get a State or National award, it had a fair chance of being selected to an international film festival. But now the chances are very remote. Because in those days, films for international film festivals and programmes were nominated and selected through national agencies or by cultural institutions that are bound by transparent norms and had to follow at least a modicum of representational ethics in terms of region, language, ethnicity etc. Today, it is left to the tastes and preferences, biases and preoccupations of individual curators, programmers, festival directors and promoters. They often follow the tastes and trends set by certain celebrated film festivals, which in turn, influence the  priorities and selection process of curators and programmers from other parts of the world. Obviously, Europe and European festivals that every filmmaker ardently vies for set the rules of the game here. As a result, in the current setup, the new filmmakers, unless they manage to get noticed by these ‘promoters’, have very remote chances of making it into the international film league. As for film societies, though they provide a parallel screening space and a niche audience, they can seldom afford to offer any substantial financial returns.

Definitely, the channels and opportunities that Internet provides are immense, but the opportunities opened up by web platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime etc are yet to take the risk of promoting art cinema in a serious and sustained manner. Bound to the rules of the market, they are driven by the glamour quotient, proven track records, ratings of artists/ directors/production companies, box office collections, festival feedback etc. With market dictating the terms here, ratings, tastes and recognitions that are celebrated at the national and global levels will rule the roost here too.  Obviously, any personal, experimental and out-of-the-box film that dares to break the rules, seldom find a place here. It is true that many experimental filmmakers and auteurs get recognition in the international film festival circuit, but in most cases, they were first ‘discovered’ by European festivals before they became celebrities even in their own countries.

In a situation like this where serious art is thus being shunned by public platforms and barred from commercial avenues, aren’t we as a society responsible to sustain them? Or are we going to leave them at the mercy of market laws? In the latter case, we are erasing narratives that questions and ventures beyond the logic of Capital and Market, and are silencing the voices of real contemporaries of our times. As for the question who is contemporary this is how Georgio Agamben, the Italian philosopher and political thinker,  answers: “the contemporary is the person who perceives the darkness of his time as something that concerns him, as something that never ceases to engage him. Darkness is something that—more than any light—turns directly and singularly toward him. The contemporary is the one whose eyes are struck by the beam of darkness that comes from his own time. Those who coincide too well with the epoch, those who are perfectly tied to it every respect, are not contemporaries, precisely because they do not manage to see it; they are not able to firmly hold their gaze on it.”

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