There's an interesting parallel director Shaji N Karun draws to explain the degenerating relationship between today's audience and the filmmaker. As he sees it, this decline is not one of aesthetics alone. It's wider and cultural. "We no longer know the farmer who grows our vegetables," he says, talking about the supermarket culture. "Earlier, we would develop a friendship with the vegetable seller over the years. That was our social network. But that aspect of society has disappeared, even from our cinema."
The social networks of today play another role. "That's where the audiences are talking about how much money a film has made. Discussing the 100 crores or the 200 crores grossed by a film is a major threat to our cinema. This is foreign to us and the people who actually make this money will slowly familiarize the audience with Hollywoodised content. It's a mousetrap, but we have should be intelligent enough to evade it."
He is speaking on the sidelines of the 10th Indian Film Festival of Bhubaneswar, conducted by the Film Society of Bhubaneswar, where his National-Award winning Vanaprastham was screened. Despite the digital streaming revolution, Karun says the importance of film societies has never been as important. "A film society's responsibility has only increased. Earlier, their job was to take good films to the audience. But now its members have to also defend the film and become its ambassadors. That's because the bigger film festivals in India have become commercial propositions…much like the process of making a film."
Pointing to the people who are now elected to the position of Chairman to the various film academies, he warns of a generation that is stunted by the aesthetic limitations of the people who govern these bodies. "This is happening in the case of the classical arts as well. The situation is alarming. How can cinema and other art forms be reduced to entertainment alone? It has become only about momentary pleasures. It is no longer being looked at a medium to express cerebral ideas."
The result, he feels, is the creation of a man who has no nostalgia. "Earlier, cinema would contribute a lot to a man who has few memories to preserve. It would become nostalgia for him. But when this stops happening, it is the failure of the aesthetic form."
The cause of this is two-fold; internal and external. The former is because filmmaking itself has become subservient to the actor/star. "Directors today are making films about the actor who plays the hero. Actors no longer seek out directors to be a part of their work. Because of this trespassing of the actors, we have ended up with a film that has no nativity. That's why our films are the same no matter where it is set. Even the themes in such films are reduced to love and violence. The audience has already accepted that films are something that takes place in utopia."
The external factors too are a cause of concern. "During the multiplex boom, instead of large 2000 seaters, we finally got screens with 200 seats. They said that these smaller screens would be used to showcase parallel cinema, but has that happened? A system was developed and people stuck to their own agenda."
His films Piravi complete 30 years and Swaham, 25 in 2019 and they continue to be screened across the country. But when the themes and issues discussed in the film continue to affect society even today, does it disappoint the socially conscious person in him? "More than the artists, it is the leaders that have the ability to take the society forward. When the ex Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Kamaraj passed away, they couldn't even find Rs.10 in his possession. Do you find leaders with foresight like him today? Leaders have a duty to protect art. But the government today has money for everything else but culture."
When he talks about art, he refers to only that which can stand the test of time, like the "music of Mozart or the paintings of Rembrandt." "I don't think I could have made films like Piravi or Swaham today. I'm fortunate that I was born a few years ago."