When the Women in Collective Cinema, which has been striving to make the workspace better for women in cinema, thought of a name to launch its first film society, several names came up. But none seemed so close and honest to what the association stood for than PK Rosy, Malayalam cinema's first leading lady, who acted in the silent film, Vigathakumaran (1928). "With the other names, we thought we could be questioned, but we knew PK Rosy would be acceptable to all," says Archana Padmini, WCC Member, film curator and one of the founders of the film society.
"PK Rosy was hounded by caste and patriarchal forces. Not only was she a Dalit who acted as an upper caste woman, but she was also a woman who dared to be seen in a space as public as the movie screen. It does reveal the gender biases and definitions of the ideal feminine prevalent in Kerala society at that time, and which has been a crucial marker of our cinema from then on," observes Professor Meena T Pillai in an article in The Hindu.
A discovery of director JC Daniel, Rosy was already working in Kaakarashi, a form of Tamil Dalit theatre. It is said that after the film's release, prominent members of the film industry refused to attend the show as long as Rosy was part of the audience. She was forced to flee to Tamil Nadu. "Malayalam cinema has an award in memory of JC Daniel, but we have never attempted to give a space for PK Rosy in our art and cultural space. So, I think this is an important move," says GP Ramachandran, award-winning film critic and Kerala State Chalathithra Academy treasurer.
According to Archana, the society is an attempt to include all those who have been excluded from dominant cinema histories because of their gender, caste, religious or class. The logo, a tribute to PK Rosy, has been designed by Mumbai-based Zoya Riyas. The film society will be headed by an all cis-women/transwomen panel, with workshops by women filmmakers and women film professionals and discourses on feminist cinema aesthetics.
The idea had been around since the last general body at WCC, which was set up following the abduction and sexual assault of a prominent Malayalam actress in 2017. "We had discussed the different projects each of us should take up. One was the film society project. We are trying to give a space for those women who have been marginalised, especially in mainstream cinema, and also for looking at cinema academically and aesthetically, as an art form," says Archana.
The society was flagged off at Mamangam studio on Sunday by Dalit activist Mrudula Devi Shashidharan. Jiva's 7.6 and Leela Santhosh's Paikinjana Chiri, a short fiction, was screened followed by interactions.
It's also interesting that for a State that boasts over 160 film societies (the first was formed in 1956 by Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Kulathur Baskaran Nair), this is the only fourth all-women film society and the first one headed completely by women film professionals.
Though a part of the WCC, the PK Rosy Film Society has been registered autonomously, comprising 11 executive members drawn from WCC. The decisions and programmes will be jointly executed by WCC and the Society. There will be appreciation classes, technical workshops, screenings and discourses on film criticism. While these programmes are open to the public, only cis-women and transwomen are qualified for a membership.
"The activities of a film society depend on its members. One thing I have noticed in several film societies in Kerala is the male domination. PK Rosy Film Society would also be hijacked by men if they start allowing male members. So, the move to keep it exclusively for women is positive," says indie filmmaker Don Palathara.
For now, the Society has not really slotted the members into positions of hierarchy. Funding will be worked according to the membership fees and other programmes. "Usually, the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy always allots us its projector and screens. There is Mamangam (owned by actor Rima Kallingal) for space and sponsorship. Right now, it's about finding funds according to the events," says Archana.
Watch, learn and engage in cinema, academically and aesthetically, is how the Society hopes to take it forward. There will be screenings of classics and discourses to help redefine the functioning of the industry. It is also eyeing film festivals in future. Regarding the mainstream cinema space, while films from all masters and contemporary films will be screened, the Society is not keen on promoting deeply-misogynistic films. "While they will be discussed, we are not going to create a space for such films. It's an opportunity for WCC to engage with the public directly. We will, of course, include films of our members, but it will be seen more as an endeavour to help us grow," says Archana.
Through this film society, the team is making sure that discourses are visually and textually documented. "Today, we have enough scope to watch films on various platforms. So, we are envisaging a film society that belongs to 2019. We hope to hone individuals who can contribute to the art of cinema in one way or the other," adds Archana.
Veteran film critic and academician VK Joseph says that, "Considering cinema is a male-dominated space, its various arms such as production, distribution and exhibition are structured in a way that makes it difficult for women to enter. And, because our social structure is so male-inclined, women do not have significant presence even in film societies. This was why Film Society Federation had encouraged women to start film societies. That's how the Female Film Society began in Thiruvananthapuram. Mazhavil Film Society was unveiled in Kottayam. Quite recently, Thiruvananthapuram saw yet another female film collective: Kanal Film Society. Now, there's the PK Rosy Film Society. Only if such collectives sprout all over Kerala can females achieve high levels of film literacy. This way, the power and presence of cultural bodies fighting gender discrimination, too, will see a dramatic rise."