One hopes that the drought, which has hit the film society scene, will come to an early end. Bengal showed the way after Independence when the Calcutta Film Society was pioneered by Satyajit Ray (then an aspiring filmmaker), RP Gupta and Bansi Chandragupta. Visiting stalwarts like Renoir, John Huston and Cherkasov contributed to the excitement with which film lovers began to get exposed to trends prevailing outside Hollywood. The movement gathered momentum as more cine clubs were established with the Federation of Film Societies, the apex body that had been formed by then, playing a leading role in bringing well organised movements in France, Italy and Germany to the city. There were also films from East European countries like Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia that left lasting impressions.
It was a pity that the excitement that lasted till the 80s began to subside with the arrival of television and, more emphatically, after the arrival of digital technology. Films that were seen with great interest outside the commercial circuit could be downloaded from diverse sources and seen at one’s convenience. The experience was not the same as seeing offbeat films from countries ranging from Mexico to Sweden and by directors ranging from Bresson to Kurosawa in the company of like minded people. There was also a healthy discussion that flowed into the assessment of the Indian cinema. Onecan recall the spontaneous response to Pather Panchali when it appeared in Kolkata with the city’swalls being plastered with appeals to see the film. All this was the outcome of a passionate commitment to the enhancement of a cinematic awareness outside the popular cinema. But technology did take a heavy toll that led to the virtual eclipse of film societies despite the interest in world cinema that was conspicuous at every film festival in the city.
To that extent, it is a good sign that, while many of the film societies formed in the 60s and later have left the scene, some of them along with other organisations committed to the task of sustaining a serious interest in the medium have persisted with festivals and other events. One such organisation is the Forum for Film Studies and Allied Arts that has been organising lectures, seminars and events like the festival of award-winning films that was held recently at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute. Films that come with recognition from Cannes, Venice, Montreal and Toronto get a mixed response. Some measure up to standards that audiences expect while there could be a feeling that festivals have had to make some compromises under force of circumstances. All this becomes the focus of animated debates in a climate that is not possible to find in the interiors of a drawing room where much-discussed films from festivals or the Oscars are seen by small groups. The growth of a cinematic consciousness is best rooted in prolonged and lively exchanges after the screenings and even later. That is what makes the experience more rewarding.
This was evident at the last festival organised by the Forum at which films from Spain, Finland, South Korea, France, Turkey, Croatia and Mexico were included. It did seem that most of the selections had varied themes on the experiences of women. Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta had been shown at Cannes and had come with recognition from San Diego.
The central figure is a woman and it speaks of a mid-life crisis in which her personal life is curiously affected by the events taking place around her. In much a similar way, though in a different social context, the protagonist in The Girl King, a film from Finland, is torn between reason and passion after the responsibilities of power are thrust upon her in an environment dominated by a conservative male establishment.
In a wholly different setting, Kim Ki-duk pursues a social agenda in tracing the roots of crime after a schoolgirl is abducted in the opening scene of One On One. The South Korean director has made it to many festivals and this film drew a noticeable crowd partly because it was the best film at Venice in 2014. Kim has a style that is quite infectious, especially in its impact on the young, and it grabs attention though the audience can barely relate to the violence that marks the social environment.
Paul Verhoeven is remembered for Basic Instinct that came 25 years ago. Elle was made in France in 2016 and was a story of vengeance in which the central figure is a woman who is quite ruthless in running a video parlour as much as she is in her personal affairs. It was shown at Cannes and this was a rare opportunity to catch up with a controversial director in a non-commercial circuit.
The films from Croatia (Zvizdan) and Mexico (Desierto) had unconventional narrative structures and surprising twists that kept teasing the mind while Mustang, from Turkey, raised moral questions on the society that is still rooted in traditional values, resulting in a bold statement that grabbed an award at Cannes. That is why festivals still arouse curiosity while packaging the diversity of cultures.