The International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), into its 19th edition this year, is in the limelight for all the wrong reasons. With just a month to go for the festival, the organisers have been accused of promoting elitism and excluding local viewers. Ironically, the man at the centre of the controversy is renowned director Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who in 2002 freed the IFFK from the clutches of the festival bureaucracy when he headed the Kerala Chalachithra Academy, the festival host.
Last week, ahead of opening the registration for delegates to the fest, an advisory panel headed by Gopalakrishnan suggested that only mature and serious filmgoers with some “experience” in movie watching be allowed entry to the fest. Prospective delegates were asked to fill in a form where they were grilled about the subject of their studies, the number of times they have attended IFFK, and also to state whether they were members of any trade body or film society. One also had to name three favourite movies and directors and answer why she wished to become a delegate of the IFFK. Most importantly, first-timers were officially discouraged, provoking well-known writer N.S.
Madhavan to tweet: Catch 22 of our times! (To see IFFK you can’t be a first-timer. To not be a first-timer you got to first see IFFK). As traditional and social media erupted over a perceived attempt to exclude the “masses”, the Kerala government stepped in to restore order. On Saturday, three days after Gopalakrishnan triggered the controversy by announcing his panel’s recommendations, the state minister for film promised that all those who applied for delegate passes would be obliged. Tempers have been calmed, but the issues flagged off by the panel are alive. The big question is: Who should be allowed to participate in a film festival? Should the masses be allowed entry on a first-come basis, or should it be limited to a trained audience? These questions are important for the IFFK. Its last edition attracted 9,800 delegates, in contrast to the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa, which is open to only 3,500 delegates.
Until 2002, entry to the IFFK was restricted by invites. The plight of film-lovers was similar to those who would scrounge for passes when the IFFI used to be held at the Siri Fort Complex in New Delhi. As in Delhi, bureaucrats controlled the distribution of passes in Kerala, while cinephiles waited outside theatres wondering how to gain entry and films would often be screened in empty auditoriums. The only solace was enterprising students, who made fake passes and distributed them.
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In 2002, Gopalakrishnan introduced a system whereby anyone could pay a fee and watch movies. The move invited severe criticism from some quarters, with the cinema elite lamenting that even head-load workers were now being allowed to enter the IFFK. But with inventive programming and interesting film packages, the IFFK has become the largest cultural gathering in the state. If the film society movement in the 1970s and 1980s produced a significant crowd of art cinema lovers, the digital revolution democratised film-screening by enabling a new generation of cinema lovers to access DVDs of films that were limited to the festival circuit. The IFFK brought the two generations together, and the fest became a sort of annual cultural pilgrimage for Malayalis. From remote areas in the state, teachers, students, government officials, academicians, doctors, homemakers, not to mention writers and poets, would arrive in Thiruvananthapuram during the festival season. Blue-collar workers, including auto rickshaw drivers and labourers, would also join the queue, making the IFFK an inclusive and rare secular festival of Kerala.
Questions have been raised about the outcome of such a “people’s film festival”. The emergence of a number of independent young filmmakers from the state is a fitting reply to the doubting Thomases. Yes, the surge in the number of student delegates has upset old-timers, who find their viewing habits too rude and unsuitable for “serious” film-viewing. While the concern is genuine, denying access to films is unlikely to make the IFFK perfect.
The intolerance towards young film-viewers also comes out of the male gaze that dominates Kerala. Despite the tall claims about gender advancement, Kerala’s society continues to be deeply conservative, and the rise in the number of female delegates, mostly collegegoers, has attracted the criticism that “merry-making young boys and girls” are thronging festival venues. There have also been allegations that a section of viewers is interested only in adult content in the festival movies. This contention, however, loses steam in the age of internet pornography. The argument to reform the delegate system by removing those “casual viewers who throng the theatres for steamy visuals” is the kind of argument that the moral police loves.
The search for the ideal festival audience is understandable, but fixing subjective standards to select the audience is unlikely to work. A key defence for restricting access to the IFFK is that the festival is unable to accommodate delegates from across the country. However, this rather exposes the abysmal failure of the government in building ample infrastructure for one of the four Indian film festivals accredited by the International Federation of Film Producers Associations. The IFFK is unable to realise a festival complex even after being in existence for nearly two decades. Thiruvananthapuram, for instance, has no multiplex and all the screenings are held at single-screen theatres. However, restricting local participation could turn out to be a self-defeating effort, for it could rob the IFFK of its signature character — the people’s participation.
The writer has worked with three editions of the IFFK .