I would be very reluctant to call the recently – concluded Twelfth International Film Festival of Kerala (7-14 December) a ‘circus’, but well. When the CPM in Kerala wears Caesar-like accoutrements, one may have to call it just that! At the press conference organized a few days before the festival – actually the day on which Buddhadev admitted to his ‘mistake’ — M A Baby, CPM intellectual and Minister, Cultural Affairs, Government of Kerala spoke at length about how Lenin and other worthies of the Soviet Union had endorsed cinema as a medium to ‘educate and entertain’ the masses. However when he announced the name of the opening film after many such lofty words, ripples of laughter filled the hall.
The opening film was Hana Makhmalbaf’s ‘Buddha Collapsed out of Shame’! Of course, the CPM intellectuals could not laugh; nor could they snap at back-benchers who asked whether it wasn’t ‘Buddhadev Collapsed out of Shame’. Thus it was clear, that despite the circuses, the spectre of the people continues to haunt the CPM, to borrow Partho Sarathi Ray’s words.
And a circus it remained. This year, IFFK had 8000 delegates attending, and no wonder a few people felt that it may indeed be a certain kind of public. Unlike the late 1980s when the IFFK was largely attended by male intellectuals well-versed in a certain aesthetic of cinema (‘common folk’, it used to be widely claimed, came to see ‘sex films’ in festivals, something now rendered quite redundant!), now the IFFK-goers are a strikingly diverse group, including a substantial number of women, young people, and interestingly enough, groups of senior citizens, especially women. However, the interests which would like the IFFK to remain a circus are powerful. On the third day, supporters of the ongoing struggles by landless people in Kerala organized a protest in front of the main venue, which was largely blacked out by the media. The non-connection between the political statements made on the screen and those made outside the venue, it appears, continues to be carefully protected.
That said, what a great week it was, and even if our Caesar is doing rather poorly on bread (prices of rice have skyrocketed this month), I’m pretty thankful for the ‘circus’. Most of the credit goes to the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy, especially to Bina Paul Venugopal, the Artistic Director of the IFFK. In a State where (contrary to popular perception) women do not exercise much say in public affairs, Bina shines. This year, more theatres were roped in, and the festival administration was exceptionally efficient. Indeed now the IFFK has grown into a huge popular festival, almost a substitute for the annual church or temple festivals, which one keenly looks forward to, an occasion to meet up with friends from all over Kerala, eight days in which one forgets work and domesticity, the house fills up with visitors, days on which one leaves home before eight in the morning and returns after eleven.
Thus there is more to watch in the IFFK than the films. For instance, the audience. Even last year, old-timers were lamenting the lack of discipline of the young cine-watchers, who forget or don’t bother to shut off their mobile phones, who may even boo a film that they find uninteresting. I could never agree with this point of view; I do believe that the IFFK is indeed opening up world cinema to people who would have never watched it otherwise, and indeed it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that of all the new non-fictional writing produced in Malayalam, it is work in film studies that is proving to be the most promising, both in quality as well as in the number of new authors emerging. The fact that the G Aravindan Memorial Lecture, which was delivered by M Madhava Prasad this year, drew a sizeable audience and a lively discussion despite the fact that it was scheduled at the same time as some of the best films, does speak something about the interest in film studies among the cine-goers. This year, the audience was much bigger, but disruptions were remarkably few. It was hoped that repeated screenings of acclaimed films may reduce the crowding, but interestingly, every repeated screening saw the theatres overflow. Particularly interesting was the reaction of the audience to the signature film, ‘Broken Glass’ by the young film maker, Vipin Vijay. The film was unusual to a Malayalee audience in that it was crafted from disjointed and disturbing images and sounds. The first day, the audience was completely quiet – a bit awed; on the second and third days, the film was booed loudly. However, from the fourth day, the audience was divided, and for the rest of the festival, clapping and booing could be heard in equal measure in all the theatres!
This year the highlights were the Jiri Menzel retro (and the filmmaker was also the chairman of the jury for the competition section), another retro on the South Korean director Im kwon Tek, and a most inviting package of films by the Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar. Two packages – from the Balkans and from the Caribbean also drew large crowds. The Balkan package had some truly moving and aesthetically powerful films like ‘Kukumi’, ‘Border Post’, and ‘Whose is this Song?’ The Golden Crow Pheasant Award was shared by two films, ‘10+4’, by Iranian director Mania Akbari, and ‘XXY’, by Argentinian filmmaker Lucia Puenzo, though the most popular films of the festival seem to have been the Chinese film ‘Getting Home’, and the Turkish ‘Bliss’, both which ran to full houses in all three screenings, and won the NETPAC Award for Best Asian Film and the Audience Prize, respectively. Among the Malayalam films, Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s ‘Four Women’ was appreciated for its craft; yet the claims that it was an ‘anti-patriarchal’ film seemed utterly far-fetched, given that its condemnation is of a certain caricatured masculinity. Also, the camera does work to sexualize them in an intriguing way (which I feel, caters to Malayalee male voyeurism), cutting them up into body parts for viewing — and the women on screen are not sexually forthcoming in any way.
Indeed, many of us in Thiruvananthapuram have been suffering from ‘post-IFFK blues’, which may not solely because the festival atmosphere has vanished suddenly and we have all been thrust rudely, back into our humdrum routines. The IFFK somehow provides a ‘third way’, to escape both Malayalee provincialism, and the kind of superficial exposure to the world, and feel really at home with the entire world. This is a truly liberating, exhilarating experience, though it lasts just a week. So once it is over we land with a dull thud not just into our boring everyday lives, but also into a certain intensely provincial life. That’s why I do feel that post-IFFK blues ought to be renamed the ‘Little Match Girl Syndrome’; the difference of course, is that there is the promise of redemption, just for one week, next year!