One of the main objectives of a state-run film festival is to provide a space for independent cinema. Do you think our festivals are deviating from this objective and are giving more prominence to commercially successful movies?
Festivals are aimed at not only featuring quality cinema of our country, but also at bringing to the audience the best of contemporary world cinema as well as retrospectives. The targeted audiences are mostly people from the film industry, students of cinema, film critics and scholars, and also the audience at large. The Indian Panorama has become an important section as it showcases the best of our production every year. Originally, the Indian Panorama was composed of original and uncompromising films. But of late, it is being watered down to insignificance with the addition of crass commercial films. Of the 26 movies allotted in the Indian Panorama section, 12 are from commercial mainstream and 14 are offbeat. We don’t know why mainstream movies are included in film festivals. It goes against the very idea of showcasing the very best of Indian cinema to the world. Important newspapers and journals write about them, directors and selectors of international film festivals make their choices from them and it all results in the participation and promotion of our cinema in international forums.
All over the world, international film festivals are run by thoroughbred professionals. Critics and selectors do not come to our festivals to watch commercial films. They are looking for original, uncompromising works of cinema. But sadly, with our stupid effort to preen the producers of worthless films, we are providing them with equal status and esteem as the quality filmmakers. With the excessive weight of the muck, Indian Panorama is gradually sinking and losing its significance. International festivals are essentially meant for people who have a genuine love for worthwhile works of cinema. Festivals provide them with the opportunity to study and realise where we stand in terms of filmmaking vis-a-vis world cinema. The art and technique are changing with every original work of cinema. To my mind, it is sinful, apart from being wasteful, to parade mainstream cinema as part of Indian Panorama. The very concept of having an Indian Panorama as part of our international film festival was mooted by us, including filmmakers and critics from all over the country.
Can you talk a bit on how technology is changing things in film festivals?
In 1977, the government heeded to our demand and the first Indian Panorma was held in 1978 in the city of Madras. My film Kodiyettam was part of it. At that time, technology was not as developed as today, so we had to show our movies without subtitles. By the time I made my next film, we could get subtitles made through a heating process. It was done in a very amateurish manner. I remember writing down the subtitles for Kodiyettam and then making blocks of the dialogue line and printing it on the film like we do in a treadle press.
Subsequently, sub-titling was done through the chemical process. We used to send our movies outside India, particularly to Switzerland, where they had developed a method of subtitling using chemical processing. In due course, NFDC imported such machines and started regular subtitling. The latest technology is that of laser subtitling. With the advent of digital filming, everything has become less complex than before. There are more and more new practitioners in cinema with coming of the digital era. Formally trained as well as self trained people are making movies today, some of them make reasonably good films, but the commercial industry is reluctant to accept these offbeat movies. Fortunately, some of the Malayalam movies — without big stars or high production values — are making a difference. So the change is happening.
With the advent of online platforms like Netflix and Amazon, do you think the culture of watching films in theatres will take a hit?
Netflix and all don’t buy good films and also they don’t pay much. For regional movies, the maximum amount they pay is Rs 30 lakh, which is nothing. To overcome this crisis, we need to nurture good taste among the new generation of viewers. There should be a space conserved for the alternative viewing experience. Where will it come from? In Kerala, the scene looks a bit better as we have a chain of state-owned theatres.
Do you think the number of delegates should be seen as a yardstick for the success of a film festival?
Yes, reach is very important when you spend so much money. It is important that young people gather to watch these movies. But the problem is that most often they don’t evince any maturity. We often notice they don’t have the patience to watch an important film that is not titillating. It is not an uncommon sight that people keep walking out during screenings. That’s a raw and uninitiated audience. I think we should help develop taste, patience among our audience. The best of world cinema may not be as titillating as the commercial ones. Our audience should realise that they are here to watch serious films. Film viewing in a festival should be conceived as an academic exercise.
In film festivals, there is a rush to see good films but when the same films are released, the response is tepid. Have you noticed this inconsistency?
It has always been like that. Look at book fairs; they sell more books during such fairs than in the book shops. Film festivals are places where people gather only to watch and discuss films.
You and other artistes had written to the Prime Minister expressing concern over mob lynchings. What has been the response?
Very often I get hate mails and letters. Some people are completely misinformed and misguided by vicious lobbies. You can’t do anything about them.
Do you think it’s becoming increasingly difficult to ask questions in the current political climate?
We should not compromise on our rights in a democracy — the right as well as the responsibility to question policies which are against the concept of democracy. We have to hold on to it fiercely. Fundamentalism of any kind should be resisted. Democracy rests on a plurality of opinions, otherwise it will turn into an autocracy. I don’t think the electorate is foolish, they will rise up to the occasion and act.