Filmmakers like Lijo Jose Pellissery or Aashiq Abu or Madhu C Narayanan cannot be blamed for doing what is widely considered desirable by film historians: the blurring of the art-commercial divide.
But the presence of these filmmakers at the 24th International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) has given rise to serious misgivings. What is being questioned is not the quality of their films but the logic of showcasing their hugely popular creations at the expense of independent films made on shoestring budgets, and for whom finding even a single screen is a challenge.
“Why is screen-time being wasted to show films that have already been seen by a large group of people and are also on online platforms like Netlix and Amazon Prime,” asked filmmaker Satish Babusenan, the president of the newly-formed Movement for Independent Cinema.
“There were just 70 people to watch 'Virus' inside a 500-seat theatre. There were less number of people to watch 'Unda',” Babusenan said. “It is not because they are bad films but because they have been widely watched in Kerala,” he added.
The Malayalam Cinema Today section at the IFFK features 12 films and five of them ('Kumbalangi Nights', 'Ishq', 'Unda', 'Uyare', and 'Virus') had minted between Rs 10 crore to Rs 30 crore at the box office. And a sixth film ('And the Oskar Goes To'), though not very successful commercially, had still managed to rake in over Rs two crore. This is besides the satellite rights its leading actor Tovino Thomas had pulled in for the film.
The Malayalam Cinema Now section seems to have been conceived for the have-nots in the industry. For instance, the Chalachthra Academy offers the films selected to this section a grant of Rs two lakh each. “Do you think the producers of Kumbalangi Nights or Virus are desperate to pocket those two lakh rupees. The IFFK is turning out to be a mighty farce,” said short filmmaker Sajeevnath.
Babusenan said the Chalachithra Academy should at least ensure that all Malayalam films screened at the IFFK were premieres, debut shows. “The prestige of a film festival depends on the number of premieres it had,” Babusenan said. Only five films in the section this year are premieres. Most of the others are available on television, DVD and online platforms. Pellissery's 'Jallikattu', which is in the International Competition section, has graced virtually all major festivals in the world, and had a decent run at the box office, before it came to the IFFK.
When Babusenan raised the issue with Chalchithra Academy chairman Kamal, he was told that producers would lose money if they waited till after the IFFK to release their films. “Does the IFFK exist to ensure profits for commercial film producers,” Babusenan said. “If a filmmaker wants his film showcased at the IFFK, he or she has to wait,” Babusenan said. Top filmmakers wait to get their films shown at Cannes or Berlin first before going for a commercial release.
Noted critic V K Joseph was of the opinion that a film could not be smirked at simply because it was commercially successful. “A filmmaker like K P Kumaran had to suffer the mental agony of being mercilessly criticised just because his film 'Athithi' was made outside the then existing framework of independent cinema. It had top stars like Sheela and Balan K Nair and, what's more, it had songs. But now it is considered one of the ten best films ever made in Malayalam,” Joseph said.
One of the greatest Brazilian films, 'Olga', was a huge commercial success, Joseph said. He also wanted to know where filmmakers like K G George who made a commercially successful film like 'Yavanika' would be placed. “What about Aashiq Abu who not only makes good films but is also behind the theatrical release of many independent films,” Joseph asked.
Babusenan once again stressed his disappointment was not with the quality of the chosen films. “No film festival worth its name will allow a film to be screened only if it is a premiere,” he said.
Priyanandanan, whose 'Silencer' is part of the Malayalam Cinema Now section, said indie films too had undergone major transformation. He said unlike before the focus of indie filmmakers now was not only on the theme of the movie. “They don't chase the date of stars but will sincerely work on the technical aspects like editing, sound and cinematography,” Priyanandanan said. He held up Manoj Kana's 'Kenjira' as one of the finest examples of the new indie cinema. 'Kenjira', incidentally, is part of the Malayalam Cinema Now section.
Priyanandanan was subtly hinting that indie filmmakers who had felt left out should change with the times. V K Joseph, too, said there were valid reasons for the non-selection of many independent Malayalam films this time.