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From the Vaults: Issue 1 (Aug-Sept 2013)

The film society movement started with the aim to demarcate the vulgarized mainstream cinema that was regularly projected in cinemas and cinema as Art, writes H N Narahari Rao, Secretary, FIPRESCI India.

Illustration by Sourav Chatterjee


Film society activism in India, particularly in the last decade, has undergone total transformation. This is because of various phenomena, that are affecting it directly and at a great pace. Firstly, because of the advent of digital technology; secondly, because the utility of a film society is different from what it was closer to its formation, and thirdly, because the older film society activists are totally disillusioned because of an inability to keep pace with the rapid changes that are taking place in this field.

As per the statistics available with the Federation of Film Societies of India (FFSI), there are around two hundred film societies in different regions affiliated to the FFSI, but most of these exist only on paper and only a few societies conduct regular activities.

Why this downturn? Is it because the need for film societies has dwindled? No. There is a large number of individuals who still prefer to view titles that do not play in the commercial theatres. These include repertory classics, regional cinema, and also, contemporary films that have won acclaim within the international festival circuit but have very little probability of playing at a theatre near this viewer. The very enthusiastic response received in terms of delegate participation at various international film festivals being held annually is sufficient testament to this increasing public desire for the alternative.

A vast selection of these films are easily available on both the primary digital formats: blu-ray and the DVD. Various marketing agencies, film distributors, online retail websites, film institutes and film bodies, etc. are working in the sector to release them. The legal advantage of this situation is that these institutions are copyright owners, and the copies in circulation are not pirated. Ideally, it should be the prerogative of the Federation to establish an exhaustive library of these digital releases. At any rate, circulation of DVDs is not as cumbersome or tedious as 16mm or 35mm prints that a film society activist had to deal with till a decade and a half ago.

The only question, then, is how do film societies screen these films for their members?

Most of these titles are not permitted for public screening. Instead, they are sold and distributed only for the cause of home viewing. While there does exist a provision for screenings for study purposes within educational institutions, even these require censor exemption. Needless to say, this is a rather long-winded process, and one of the central issues that must feature in FFSI’s discussion with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

Ever since the initial days of the film society movement in the 1950s and 60s, the main providers for foreign films for purposes of screening were the foreign embassies, consulates and cultural centers in India. The normal course of action for the Federation was to source the films in the resident(16mm or 35mm) formats, procure the censorship exemption and then circulate them among the various affiliated film societies in different regions. Over the years, the supply of high-quality programming and titles available with the foreign missions has dwindled drastically; they now sparingly lend a few DVDs to select centres. About the quality of these titles at an average, the less said the better.

In a situation like this, even these embassies or consulates have to pay royalties to the right owners, for a specific, pre-determined number of screenings. Quite directly, this is to say that we cannot expect any sort of assistance from these bodies. As far as obtaining titles from the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) is concerned, most of the titles available with them are on 35mm and 16mm formats; thereby rendering most film societies incapable of screening them because while 16 mm is now totally outdated, 35 mm screenings have become prohibitively expensive.

But right in the face of this rather bleak prospect, the vast proliferation of digital tech has come as a shot-in-the-arm for the film society movement. In fact, it has created a new dimension within the act of screening a film. The primary transformative power of this technological upheaval is in terms of accessibility to and availability of these titles.

In the early days of its being, the movement had a very simple objective, i.e., of drawing clear lines and of distinction. The idea to proclaim and protect the notion of cinema as Art and creating a clear demarcation with the vulgarized mainstream form of commercial cinema, that was being regularly projected at most public theatres. The long-standing influence of Italian neo-realism on the film society movement and the pivotal event of Pather Panchali’s release in 1955 fostered a new awakening that resulted in a braver, smaller cinema. Most of these films were often of a low budget (and of low production quality) and could not yield any significant economic gain because they weren’t permitted into the commercial circuit at all. But this utter failure was more than compensated for the vast acclaim these films won at the state, national and sometimes, the international level. It is in this context, that of the protection and exhibition of this alternative vision of the cinema, that the film society movement developed its most significant objectives.

Another significant development is in terms of the films themselves – there are no clear, unequivocal boundaries between art and entertainment anymore. These distinctions were rather significant for the film societies in their earlier days, because it assisted them in their programming. There were days when film societies, in the name of ‘Art Cinema’, screened a number of worthless films just because these did not contain the usual ingredients of the commercial cinema. In the absence of this distinction, a number of film societies are faced with this particular dilemma, one which they cannot resolve. This also features among the reasons for the decline of the larger movement.

As per the constitution of the Federation, Film Societies are legally required be registered under the Registrar of Societies Act. This has various ramifications. A film society is required, as an imperative, therefore, to observe a number of formalities, regulations and guidelines. We have observed that in the recent years, film society activists are largely unable to find time for these. However, if the Federation consciously makes the necessary structural revisions and also undertakes the establishment of a library of specifically curated titles, as well as consciously guide a new generation of viewers, a number of volunteers will participate in an informal way. Communication itself has undergone a sea-change. Therefore, screenings can be publicized via social media outlets, digital platforms, SMSes, and emails. Digital projection on LCD screens can be easily arranged within a small hall and a group of film lovers can gather at this venue. In fact, many such screenings now take place in residential colonies and smaller spaces with a gathering of 50 to 100 individuals. The bottom line being: if the Federation does not move with the time, the future of an organized film society movement seems rather bleak.