It must take a certain measure of maverick to be a pioneer, to be one that marches to a different drumbeat, to do something no one has ever done before. This brings together the late KV Subbanna, one of the founders of Ninasam and the late PK Nair, the first film archivist of the country, on the same bench, even if they were mostly acquainted with each other’s work through their association with other people. What, however, merits the stringing of their life’s work together is their contribution to creating pedagogical platforms for the development of film studies in the country.
The story of the Heggodu experiment is a much-thumbed narrative, told and retold with an ounce of incredulousness and a yearning for its replication elsewhere. KV Subbanna, along with a motley set of mostly farmer friends, set up the Neelakanteshwara Natya Seva Sangha in 1949 in a remote village called Heggodu — the verdant landscape studded with picturesque villages of mostly areca nut farmers, and nearly 400 km from the state capital of Bengaluru. It would be many years before it began to be called by the more fashionable Ninasam, an acronym of its old name, and decades before it became a cultural institution to reckon with.
From an empty ground where the local men gathered occasionally to rehearse and stage plays in, it grew to contain a large auditorium and then, to feed the spurt in projects and programmes, a theatre school was set up. To further engage with the students that passed out from here, a repertoire of plays that began to be staged all over the state began to take shape. The Thirugata troupe, as they are named, is today well-known in Karnataka, regularly producing actors who have gone on to become famous names in television and cinema.
What perhaps catapulted Ninasam’s fame in the national culture scene was its film programme. KV Akshara, treasurer at Ninasam, also a writer and a prominent personality in contemporary Kannada theatre, writes of how his father, Subbanna was a participant in the first film appreciation course that the Film Institute in Pune organised in 1967. Marie Seaton led the programme. Inspired, Subbanna started the Ninasam Chitra Samaja in 1973 and went on to organise amongst the first ever international film festivals in the country, that too in a hitherto unheard off village in central Karnataka, in 1977. Akshara writes of how the support of celluloid man, Nair, and his contemporary from the film institute, Satish Bahadur, proved invaluable in setting up a film culture in Heggodu.
The calling card for the idea of the Heggodu experiment has always been the story of how farmers, local shopkeepers, odd-jobs men, could hold their own in a discussion on foreign cinema. Kurosawa, Fellini, De Sica are names that trip off their tongue effortlessly, as do thoughts on world cinema. The fact that villagers were familiar with and interested in such films and in meeting, hosting and socialising with intellectuals, artists, writers and the thinking men of the country was what first began to get Ninasam and Heggodu noticed. This blip in the map did something monumental — Akshara writes in an essay on Satish Bahadur, of how the 1977 film festival dispelled the myth that high culture, highbrow cinema and quality contemporary theatre was not something people in villages would like or show any interest in. For instance, Prajnanand RS, a cable operator in Heggodu, talks about watching movies of Kurosawa and several short films from time to time.
For 10 years, from 1979 onwards, a 10-day long film appreciation course was organised at Ninasam. Films invariably came from FTII and National Film Archive of India (NFAI), Pune. Bahadur and Nair, were regular fixtures at these courses. Those years gave rise to Ninasam Film Society, one of the first rural film societies in India.
Subbanna furthered the development of film studies by publishing books, essays and critiques of films, all in Kannada, a move that made foreign language films all the more accessible to the local populace and the stream of visitors from other parts of the state. KG Mahabaleshwar, retired principal of Ninasam Theatre Institute and a long term associate of Ninasam, says that after 10 years of successfully running the film appreciation course, they all began to think of doing something different with those 10 days. Thus, in 1990, began the culture course, a week-long meditation on films, art, literature, theatre, music, facilitated by some of the foremost culture practitioners and thinkers of the country. The course remains an essential event on the state’s culture calendar.
In an old interview with Samvartha ‘Sahil’, a freelance screen writer, Nair spoke of how “In Heggodu, we broke the language barrier… What was commendable about KV Subbanna was that he not just showed films and held film appreciation courses but also published booklets on and about cinema which is an important thing to do because they serve as knowledge material which go hand in hand with cinema in creation of a film culture. He did it in local language which makes his work extraordinary.” The film courses were expanded into larger culture courses, something Nair lamented about, but in Heggodu, it gave rise to a film culture that remains an important case study in the development of film studies in the country.
HN Narahari Rao, president of the Indian chapter of International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI), throws light on the role Nair played in encouraging film connoisseurs in a country that, to some extent, hesitates to count cinema among fine arts and performing arts as high-culture. Rao has several anecdotes to share about Nair. He says there are some 200 film societies in India and there possibly couldn’t be a single one that Nair didn’t lend films to. “Those days, there were no DVDs. The films were in 16 mm prints and he always sent a representative of his with the prints to look after them,” he said, speaking of the films that were shown in Bengaluru’s famous Suchitra Film Society that Rao co-founded.
The experiments of Subbanna and Nair, inspired a legion of practitioners, teachers and enthusiasts who have attempted replications of these models, to various degrees of success.