The International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) is a platform for independent filmmakers to showcase their work in front of a massive audience. It’s also a festival that thousands of film enthusiasts throng as an annual pilgrimage looking for fresh content. The prestigious festival is embroiled in a controversy over its selection of Indian films for various categories with a group of independent filmmakers alleging that the pre-selection jury rejected their films without even watching them. One of the main allegations is that some commercial films released in theatres, TV, online platforms and DVD were picked in place of independent films. They allege that the Chalachithra Academy is wasting its grant of Rs 2 Lakhs meant for films that get the official selection on films that do not need that kind of support. All these are valid points indeed, but first let us look at the larger picture of why the conflict between “art” and “commercial” comes up so often.
A handful of off-beat Malayalam films are lined up for theatre release early December. Among them are Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s thriller ‘Chola’ and Unnikrishnan Avala’s tribal transgender drama ‘Udalazham’. Chola is being released by successful commercial film director Ashiq Abu, while award-winning commercial actor Joju George releases 'Udalazham'.
Commercial cinema lending a helping hand to independent films is not a new trend. Leading directors and actors in Tamil have been supporting independent films with production and distribution.
'Award films’ vs ‘commercial films’
For several decades, “art film” or “award padam” has been used to describe non-formulaic off-beat films that do not cater to the prevailing sensibilities of the mainstream audience. Art cinema and mainstream commercial cinema were two independent universes with virtually no bridges between them. Over a period of time, a section of the audience and aspiring filmmakers, who were tired of run-of-the-mill content, started searching for fresh themes and treatment elsewhere, especially in film festivals and on online platforms, including the illegal torrent sites. The inspiration they drew from such films reflected in their works, albeit in a more subtle fashion, much like the Priyadarshan-Srinivasan films of 90s.
Those who drew genuine inspiration from world movies to think out of the box and make better films stood the test of time while copycats could not go too far. When we say copycats, don’t be under the impression that this section of ‘copycats’ consists of only average writers and filmmakers. There are some well-known names in literature and cinema who took the shortcut of copying Korean or Hong Kong thrillers scene-by-scene, without spending any effort to localise the content. When the ‘uncredited remake’ of Hong Kong director Johny To’s ‘Exiled’, which was co-written by two new-generation stalwarts of Malayalam short stories, was released, I found, to my utter dismay, that even the Wikipedia page of the film was plagiarised from that of its original by changing only the names of the characters.
One of the reasons for the success of the so-called “new generation filmmakers” is that they boldly made their own brand of films catering to the changing sensibilities of the young audience and in that process inspiring many more to appreciate their work. While films such as ‘Traffic’ and ‘Chappa Kurishu’ started building that bridge, ‘Maheshinte Prathikaram,’ Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum,’ and a host of other such films reinforced the fact that the audience indeed has an appetite for fresh content and treatment and the old-fashioned masala films that do not offer anything new have had their time.
Commercial is not always crass
Sweeping generalisations often miss the bright spots. Branding all commercial films as crass and regressive is one such generalization that has caught up in parallel movie circles. Of late, the so-called commercial filmmakers have been displaying brilliance in their treatment without compromising on their box office appeal. Similarly, a new crop of filmmakers who smartly combine storytelling brilliance with humour and other commercial elements score super hits. “Maheshinte Prathikaram”, “Kumbalangi Nights”, “Super Deluxe”, or “Otha Seruppu Size 7” are commercial films made by directors without a halo around their heads, but didn’t they offer something new to the audience and push their sensibilities a notch above?
It is absolutely amusing to watch the mainstream directors challenging the established norms of commercial cinema and experimenting with bold themes. Whatever small steps that they take to elevate the sensibilities of the audience and change the grammar of mainstream cinema must be acknowledged and showcased. To that effect, I do not find merit in the argument that mainstream films should be denied entry to international film festivals. Selection to the festivals and awards should be based on merit and not based on labels such as commercial or mainstream.
Why independent cinema loses out
Commercial cinema, especially in Kerala, is constantly experimenting with fresh plots and treatments, but can we claim the same for Malayalam independent cinema? Barring a few, all others produce the same “message” pieces with tropes and techniques that are as old as the hills.
Some voices that argue for independent cinema have taken the argument to one that of fiefdom. They argue that film festivals should be exclusively for their kind of cinema. No reputed film festival can restrict their selection to any particular type of films. It is absurd to eliminate any film because it was released in a theatre, unless of course the festival rules explicitly state that the films in a category should be the world, country or state premiere. However, if the festival provides grants for films, eligibility rules should be framed to make sure that only those films that badly need that grant get it. The independent cinema lobby is angry that big commercial films that were released in theatres and grossed big money are walking away with the measly grant of Rs 2 lakhs that could have helped small independent films. Government support for independent cinema has become a huge scam in the country. In Karnataka, for example, the government provides grants to promote independent cinema but only a handful of films make genuine use of the money. Deccan Herald reported recently that Karnataka spent Rs 34.9 crore in four years to give subsidies to 349 Kannada films, but nearly half of these films never saw the light of the day, leading to wastage of public money. The Kannada Film Policy 2011 stated that films that “intend to spread good messages” in addition to children's films, stories prior to independence or based on literary works receive Rs 10 lakh subsidy from the government. Most of the zero budget movies are made with a budget of Rs 2 to Rs 4 lakhs. There are middlemen who take a commission of up to Rs 3 lakhs and make sure that a film gets a subsidy, regardless of whether the film is eventually released or not. All they need is a censor certificate. The screening panel appointed by the government does not evaluate the films for their quality. The Kerala example isn’t better either. Malayalam films selected in the Kerala festival are often found to be mediocre. Allegations about the jury ignoring films that have won critical acclaim and international awards often cloud the event.
Reforming IFFK is not enough
The “Reform IFFK” movement is indeed a good beginning because the festival, funded with public money, must be accountable to the people. If the selection policy states that films will be selected after the selection panel watches all the entries, then there is no excuse for not watching all the entries. A panel member’s comment indicating that it is the jury’s prerogative to watch the film or not fly on the face of the established process. We, as taxpayers funding the festival, can demand accountability, but we cannot insist that certain films should be excluded altogether because they are “commercial” or certain films must be selected just because they are “independent” films. The first and most important step to ensure transparency is putting an end to political interference in the selection of jury and films.
The thin line that separates art and commercial cinema is truly blurring in India, especially in Malayalam cinema. World over, market forces constantly think about how to capture the imagination of their target customers and condition them to accept next generation products. This economic reality is true in the case of cinema too. The question that the proponents of art cinema should ask themselves is, are we experimenting enough to bring freshness to the content and grammar of films? With the number of screens reducing and the number of films increasing every year, the competition to get theatres is getting tougher. Instead of spending crowd-funded or self-funded budget to prepare their film for release on satellite projection platforms such as Qube and UFO and working with the distributors’ lobby to release films in theaters, can the indie filmmakers put their heads together and form an independent platform to break the distributor monopoly and clout of the fans associations to arrive at a viable funding and distribution model? Can they identify parasites that thrive on the “indie” label without producing anything that is worth talking about? Like charity, reform too begins at home.
(Dress Circle is a weekly column on films. The author is a communication professional and a film enthusiast. Read his past works here.)