Film Society Movement in Kerala - History and Present

By V. K. Joseph

The idea of film societies was formulated from the notion of enquiry and aesthetic thought that developed in the backdrop of film evolving as a serious art form. As opined in the book India’s Film Society Movement: The Journey and its Impact written by the renowned journalist V. K. Cherian, a cinema theoretician by the name of Ricciotto Canudo, an Italian by birth who lived in Paris formed the first film society in 1921. Under the aegis of pro-left writers, artists and intellectuals, a film club was formed in Great Britain in 1925. This club was formed as a friendly gathering to watch Sergei Einstein’s Battleship Potemkin, a Russian film which was denied public screening due to political reasons and other European films. George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells were the founding members of this film club. Seven young ladies and gents formed a consulate and worked for it.

Later, Sidney Bernstein who started a film company along with Alfred Hitchcock, film critic Ivor Montagu, director Adrien Brunel, film critic Iris Barry, actor Hugh Miller, film critic Walter Microft and Frank Dobson were at the helm of affairs at this film club. In due course, many film societies were formed in Europe and Britain. Later it developed into a decisive movement due to its quest for good films along with its theoretical studies and discussions. This movement regarded films not as commodities but as an art form that illumines the history of humanity with the definite goal of interfering with culture. This movement gave birth to several filmmakers, screen-writers, critics, researchers and intellectuals. In India, a film society was formed at Bombay in 1937 with 14 to 20 persons involved in the screening. They watched films, held discussions and conducted studies which in turn helped develop the notion of good films in India. On 5th October, 1947, the Calcutta Film Society was formed. Satyajit Ray and Chidanand Das Gupta were among the leaders who worked for it. Their main intention was to hold discussions and screen world cinema classics that had been relegated to the fringes of the commercial movie industry. Realizing the fact that cinema is an art form and that a new grammar was slowly evolving in the visual language, this small group took the responsibility of acquainting filmmakers as well as the audience with films that were not corrupted by commercial interests. Independent India in the 1950s sought different ways of developing this movement and several cultural institutions were formed.

Until then cinema was considered a third-rate entertainment by the public. It was this period during which Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s matured secular democratic outlook and cultural attitude inspired much in the formation of institutions and gave a new sense of direction. Panditji formed a committee in 1951 to formulate a policy for the film industry and to promote the making of good films under the aegis of S. J. Patil as chairman and V. Shantaram and B. Sankar as committee members. On the basis of comprehensive reports and recommendations presented by this committee, the Government of India recognized cinema as a cultural product and an art form. As a continuation of this, the Film and Television Institute of India, National Film Archives, Film Finance Corporation and the International Film Festival of India were formed. Film lovers of India watched world films for the first time at the International Film Festival of India in 1952 in Bombay. International film festivals were also conducted in Madras, Calcutta and New Delhi. It provided a new impetus on the cultural front. As per Nehru’s cultural policy, the Kendra Sahitya Academy and Kendra Sangeet Natak Academy were also formed.

It was the influence and excitement of the International Film Festival held in Bombay that gave rise to the new wave cinema in India. The classic Bicycle Thieves directed by Italian maestro Vittorio De Sica was screened at the festival. Realistic films like Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen were conceived under its influence. In 1955 Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali received a lot of appreciation both in India and abroad. It was at this time that Marie Seton, who gave the Indian film society movement the footing and energy, arrived in India at the request of Nehru and V. K. Krishna Menon. With the cooperation of the British Film Institute, the Ministry of Education authorized Marie Seton to conduct film appreciation seminars and studies in various Indian cities for the film societies. It was she who took Indian films to the world by introducing Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali to international festivals, to academic studies and to other screenings. Marie Seton’s continuous series of discourses and classes, along with the recognition that Pather Panchali received, instilled a new sense of excitement among the film societies. It is in this backdrop that the idea of a Federation of Film Societies originated. In December 1959, a federation of six film societies in the name of Federation of Film Societies of India was registered in Calcutta with Satyajit Ray as its first elected President and Ammu Swaminathan (Madras), Robert Hawkins (Bombay) and S Gopalan (Delhi) as Vice Presidents and Vijay Mulay (Delhi) and Chidanand Das Gupta as Joint Secretaries. When the activities of the film societies expanded, the Federation was divided into four zones – Delhi as the center for North zone, Calcutta for East zone, Madras for South and Bombay for the West zone. There is a 15-member regional council comprising of a Secretary, Vice President, Regional Secretary, Assistant Regional Secretary and Treasurer for every zone. There is also a 60-member Central Committee and a 15-member Central Executive Committee. Satyajit Ray was the President of the Federation till his death. Later Mrinal Sen, Anil Chatterjee, Vijay Mulay and Shyam Benegal were successively, its Presidents. At present, Kiran Shantaram, son of the famous director V Shantaram is the National President. Many famous personalities have worked as office bearers of the Federation. That Mrs Indira Gandhi and I K Gujral have worked as Vice Presidents of the North zone is an indication of the respect and importance given to the film societies by the government. Ritwik Ghatak, Nimoy Ghosh, Subrata Mitra and Aruna Asif Ali were all part of this movement.

The film society movement in Kerala has today completed 50 years. A door to world cinema was opened with the formation of Chitralekha Film Society at Trivandrum on 21 July, 1965. The society began to flourish through the association of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Kulathoor Bhaskaran Nair, K P Kumaran and Sreevaraham Balakrishnan. An All India Writers’ Conference was held at Ernakulam in 1966. M. Govindan and M. K. K. Nair, Chairman of FACT, led the conference. As a part of the conference, a festival of classic films was also organized. M. Govindan was the mastermind behind this idea. Adoor Gopalakrishnan was given the charge of conducting the festival. Nine other districts followed suit. Sixteen films from Russia, Poland, France, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, along with the films of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, were screened. These festivals gave momentum to the film societies in Kerala. Just like the Library Movement in Kerala opened doors to world literature, film societies enhanced film literacy by acquainting film lovers with new visual aesthetics and techniques. Though they were very few in number, film societies slowly expanded their influence through their writings, new films and film appreciation camps. Filmmakers such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G. Aravindan, K. P. Kumaran, T. V. Chandran, Ravindran, Pavithran and Lenin Rajendran were forerunners of this movement. Classic films from the National Film Archives and embassies of various countries poured into the film society screenings. Embarking on an adventurous journey with 16 mm films and projectors, the film society movement pushed forth into new communication arenas. Along with Battleship Potemkin and Bicycle Thieves, Neo German and French New Wave films provided visual literacy to the Malayalis. These films that arrived through the different film societies of India echoed the changes in world cinema, resonating with the experiments in literature, theatre and painting.

By the seventies and eighties, nearly a hundred film societies were active in different parts of the country. But at the end of the eighties, the activities of the film societies in Kerala hit a trough due to various reasons. Kerala was a part of the Southern Regional Council of the Federation of Film Societies, centered at Madras. The film society activities in Kerala were being controlled from Madras. Normally there would only be one council member to represent all the film societies from Kerala. Even back in the seventies, personalities like Kulathoor Bhaskaran Nair demanded the formation of an independent region for Kerala within the Federation. Owing to the cultural and political temperament of Kerala, it had become difficult to do justice to the film society activities in Kerala. The availability of films had become a major issue as films received from the embassies were made available only to the affiliated societies. Many film societies had to rely solely on the limited films available at the Film Archives. These circumstances caused difficulties for the expansion of film societies in Kerala. Bhaskaran Nair filed a suit in court against the office-bearers of the Federation since both the regional leadership of the Madras-centered South zone and the central leadership at Calcutta repeatedly ignored Kerala’s plea. Still all requests were in vain as the by-law and the constitutional provisions of the Federation were against it.

Finally, in 1986 for the first time in India, a state-level chapter of the Federation was formed for Kerala. In 1990, the council was expanded. Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Federation, film festivals and film appreciation camps were organized along with the action plan for reviving the dormant film societies. In consultation with the then Minister for Cultural Affairs T. K. Ramakrishnan and P. Govinda Pillai, Chairman of the Kerala State Film Development Corporation, certain favorable decisions were taken. In 1990 with the special interest of the Cultural Minister, a grant of Rs 5000 was allocated to the film societies. Later a permanent office space was allotted to the Kerala chapter of the Federation at the Kalabhavan Complex at the behest of P. Govinda Pillai. In 1998 for the first time in India, a Chalachitra Academy was constituted in Kerala, formed during the tenure of E. K. Nayanar when T. K. Ramakrishnan was the Cultural Minister. The Shivaram Karanth Committee appointed by Mrs. Indira Gandhi, had first put forward the idea of a Chalachithra Academy in 1980. The decision to form the academy in Kerala was a result of repeated pleas from the Kerala chapter of the Federation of Film Societies and film lovers in Kerala.

In 2005, the Kerala chapter founded the Signs Festival for documentaries and short films at Trivandrum. Over the years, the festival has provided an opportunity for filmmakers from different parts of the country and abroad to meet and exchange ideas. Some of the filmmakers who’ve won the coveted John Abraham Award at this festival have gone on to have fulfilling film careers in India and abroad. The International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala founded by the state government was also inspired by the Signs Festival.

The history and activities of the film societies in Kerala have had a great influence in producing film enthusiasts, critics, filmmakers and film technicians. Some of the well-known directors working in Kerala today were first inspired by the films they watched at the film societies. Most of the film critics in Kerala are products of film societies movement. Many of the cameramen, film editors, sound recordists and other technicians who have since graduated from the prestigious Film and Television Institute first learnt of great cinema from the film camps and events conducted by the film societies. Still others received recognition for their films thanks to the documentary and short film festivals conducted by the Kerala chapter of the Federation and the individual film societies in various parts of the state. Today, out of the 321 film societies in the entire country, 118 are in Kerala. Gradually and positively, the film society movement has thus become a cultural presence in the state, influencing immeasurably, a new film aesthetic.