After satellite television, video and DVD introduced the concept of home viewing or home entertainment, many dismissed the Film Society Movement as a redundant idea. It was believed that with television beaming a crop of movies into homes and DVD available like books at bookstores, watching the contemporary world cinema would be readily available as bestsellers at the corner book shops. It is a fact that the monopoly of cinema as the only mass medium has been broken, but the technological advances in cinema distribution hasn’t really substituted the celluloid. Cinema on celluloid has no parallels.
Viewers understand that one can really enjoy and exper-ience cinema as an art form when it is projected on celluloid in the dark privacy of a cinemahall. DVD and TV are, in that sense, the bonsai of cinema. Average cinegoers realised this truth and returned to the cinemahalls.
In their argument about the convenience of a buying a DVD as against travelling to a cinemahall to watch a film society screening, the film pundits often tend to ignore the basic objective of the Film Society Movement. The FSM treats cinema as an international art form, and believes that screening global contemporary cinema would create awareness among Indian audiences. The DVD market’s staple diet remains limited to copies of Bollywood or Hollywood movies because cinema is usually treated merely as a vehicle of entertainment instead of an art form that can reflect contemporary socio-political reality. A DVD buyer may find it easy to pick a DVD at the nearest music or bookshop, but would he choose classics of Kurosawa, Ray or Bergman if he has never seen their cinema?
This is where the film society movement differs from any other form of watching cinema. Film societies not only screen world cinema, they discuss it in seminars, workshops, film society journals, and through film appreciation courses in an attempt to take make the cinegoer appreciate cinema beyond the values of Bollywood and Hollywood.
In other words, anyone who wants to understand the nuances of cinematic arts, the world view of cinema and the nature of modern art has to join a film society. It is true that some universities have started teaching cinema as a subject, but the big audiences beyond the university students have no access to the rather large network of world cinema.
Keeping this in mind, the Patil Committee appointed by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1950 recommended that voluntary and cultural organisations like film societies, and not the bureaucrats, should be entrusted with the responsibility of creating a taste for good cinema among audiences. When Patil Committee, also known as the Film Enquiry Committee, made its recommendations, the film society movement was yet to be born in India. Barely four to five film societies existed then, and among them was the pioneering Calcutta Film Society founded jointly by Satyajit Ray and Chidananda Dasgupta.
Efforts and vision of Dasgupta, Ritu Ray, Vijaya Mulye, the Federation of Film Societies of India(FFSI) was set up in 1959. Only seven film societies were active then. The FFSI efforts and adequate government incentives increased the number of film societies manifold. By 1970s, the film society count had increased to 250. The parallel cinema emerged in the mainstream Hindi cinema with the release of Mrinal Sen’s Hindi film Bhuvan Shome in the 70s.
Initiatives like the Film and Television Institute of India, the National Film Archive, the International Film Festival of India, institution of the national awards for cinema and the Film Society Movement strived to spread film culture across the country. Next decade saw the number of film societies shooting up to 400. It must be said that by that time joining a film society had become some sort of an intellectual status symbol, and during this period many film societies were set up more to jump into the bandwagon than for the serious cause of spreading film culture.
It also must be said that the Film Society Movement has remained confined to the intellectual class who speaks and understands English. All international films screened in film societies were subtitled in English. That could perhaps be the reason why film societies initially flourished in West Bengal, and in Kerala, and later spread to Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and some North Eastern states. Even at the peak of its FSM’s popularity in late 70s and early 80s, the Hindi speaking-belt, with the exception of New Delhi, remained aloof from the movement. Even today, Hindi-speaking states have very few film societies. This, I would say, is a great lacuna in the all India movement.
The advent of colour TV and video in 1984 hit the film society movement as well as the mainstream cinema in a big way. The number of film societies reduced to 150, and its membership strength also reduced considerably. The decade from 1984 to1994 was the FSM’s decade of survival. After India adopted market economy, cable and satellite television entered India in a big way, and gradually, the craze created by television died down. As mainstream cinema brought in innovative strategies like digital dolby sound, better cinemahalls to woo the audiences, the cinegoers returned to theatres in a big way. It helped the FSM too, and they flourished in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra. The Hindi belt still lagged behind though.
In the 21st century, the FFSI should take into account the present social structure. The economic survey of India revealed that after 50 years of independence and economic progress, the Indian population today consists of 25 per cent of the middle class. Due to its interest in arts and culture, the middle class is the targeted audience for film societies. Therefore, if 25 per cent of India’s billion people are its true audience, the film society movement should recognise that this is the most favourable time for it to expand its wings, and bring in more cinegoers into its fold.
The FFSI should gear up to take the movement deeper into the interiors of India. It should focus on setting up film societies at the district level, and the Hindi-speaking states which have traditional lagged behind. The spread of the movement would automatically increase the audience for quality cinema. If FSM succeeds in increasing its 10 per cent audience to 25 per cent, it will directly help good cinema to sustain in mainstream theatres.
A change in mainstream Hindi cinema is inevitable. It manifests in the response to Nagesh Kukunoor’s off-beat film, Iqbal. The audience for this simply told story of a deaf and mute village lad wanting to be India’s top pace bowler increased in the second week than the first week as viewers liked its offbeat subject and treatment.
Time is ripe for the FFSI to grab this opportunity and spread the gospel of film culture.
SUDHIR VASUDEO NANDGAONKAR
Did his M.A. in literature from Mumbai University. He worked as a film critic with the daily newspapers. Later became freelancer contributing reviews, articles on cinema to various periodicals. He started film society movement in Mumbai (1968) and joined the All India Film Society movement led by Satyajit Ray. He is often part of Fipresci Jury in Karlovy Vary, Singapore, Hong Kong, Kerala International Film Festivals. Last seven years he is the artistic director of International Film Festival – Mumbai. Based in Mumbai, India.