IFFC 2019: A Voice of Rebellion

P. Lakshmi Narayanan attends the Independent Film Festival of Chennai 2019.

17 min read

“I don’t wish to make money by making films. Immediate success is not the final aim of cinema. Which film will yield money, which will not, you can’t find a doctor for that. I am making films for my people. I believe in fight. Art means war.”

– Ritwik Ghatak

It has been more than a century since the advent of cinema, and its journey is bound to be timeless. The form, content, creation, and projection methods may change, but cinema shall never cease to exist. It is the finest art form that has permeated the lives of all people, especially those of the ordinary. With light and sound, and a dark screen, cinema transfixes, steers and submerges the viewer with ease. Music, writing, painting, acting and drama—cinema is the explosive product of all of these art forms. The impact of cinema that penetrates the human mind is deep.

That is why the best creators are uncompromising in their love for cinema and the people. Through their work, they reiterate that cinema is not merely for entertainment. They record on film the joys and sorrows of the people, the absurdity of their lives, the rebellions that rise against authoritarianism throughout the world, the strong voices against suppression, the agony and tears of the defeated. They also depict on screen contradicting realities in private lives, conflicts in their relationships, varied circumstances in families, and the state of women in society. This allows people to become more aware of their surroundings, it motivates them to think and change. People begin to scrutinise the society they live in. Scrutiny leads to questions. Questions gently push you toward answers. At this point, cinema transforms into a movement.

Cinema should be in the hands of ordinary people, especially in the hands of the artist who has deep love as well as resentment towards society. The artist should be able to make the film he or she wants, without obstacles. There needs to be a platform for these films to reach the people. This is impossible within the massive commercial cinema setup in Tamil Nadu. The artist then needs to find alternate avenues. Enter independent cinema. It is important for passionate and concerned individuals to consistently make films with limited budgets, and ensure these films reach the people. Independent cinema shatters the centralisation of funds.

Independent cinema is not new to India. Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Satyajit Ray, Nemai Ghosh, Govind Nihalani, Mani Kaul, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aravindan, John Abraham, Guru Dutt, S Arunmozhi, Jayabharathi, Hariharan, RP Amudhan—these filmmakers sowed the seeds for the independent cinema movement. Today we have many more independent filmmakers working throughout the country. When viewers watch their films, they begin to re-evaluate the commercial films they saw earlier. Film appreciation begins here.

[Read Omar Ahmed’s essay on Indian Parallel Cinema here; published in the eighth issue of The World of Apu.]

Commercial, mainstream films are released in cinema halls, but it is nearly impossible for independent movies to get such a release. Netflix and Amazon Prime buy some of the smaller films and release them online. While these platforms provide an opportunity for independent film producers to recover their investment to some extent, the film viewership on such platforms is limited to a minuscule section of the society. A small, loyal following is not enough for independent filmmakers. Their films must be brought to the attention of the public at large. There is a need for a free and unfettered platform that can do so.

The Thamizh Studio was founded by M.Arun in Chennai in 2008. This organisation pursues a variety of initiatives relating to cinema, film appreciation and education. Short films, documentaries, and most importantly, independent films that cannot obtain theatrical release—Thamizh Studio supports these and makes them accessible to people. Thamizh Studio launched the Independent Film Festival of Chennai (IFFC) last year in collaboration with Salanam Trust. This was the first time in India that a film festival was organised without any corporate or government funding, by collecting funds directly from the people. Even though Thamizh Studio coordinated the event, it was in essence a festival for and by the people.

The second edition of this festival took place on February 8th, 9th and 10th this year, with a number of passionate film buffs, and some of the best independent filmmakers. Thamizh Studio began collecting funds for the festival four months earlier. Workshops and special classes were organised for assistant directors and people interested in various departments of filmmaking. The fees from such events went towards the festival fund. Funds were also collected by having live portraits of celebrities drawn, and by directly requesting the public to donate.

Prasad Preview Theatre (located in Saligramam, Chennai), Prasad 70 MM Theatre, Kodambakkam M M Preview Theatre—these were the locations of the festival’s movie screenings and events. Unlike other film festivals, which simply screen movies one after another, arrangements were made for post-screening interactions with filmmakers. The festival’s opening film was indie filmmaker Devashish Makhija’s Hindi film Bhonsle. The closing film was Ravi Jadhav’s Marathi film Nude, which was to be the opening film of the Indian Panorama section at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) 2017, but was later dropped from the list for unspecified reasons.

The festival had six main categories: Official Selection, Country Focus, Retrospective, Kazhcha, Shorts and Queer Lens. This year’s Country Focus featured films of Sri Lankan filmmakers Prasanna Vithanage, Asoka Handagama and Vimukthi Jayasundara. Under the Retrospective category, the films of Gurvinder Singh from Punjab were screened. The Kazhcha category comprised of selected films from the Kazhcha Film Festival organised by Kerala’s indie filmmaker Sanal Kumar Sasidharan. Selected films from the Balu Mahendra Short Film Fest organised by Thamizh Studio were screened under the Short Films category. About thirty five films were screened in total, including short films, documentaries and feature-length indie films. The films were chosen by poet-filmmaker-film activist Leena Manimekalai, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, M. Arun and Moulee (for the Queer Lens category). It was a mind-blowing repertoire of films that left one caught between indecision and desire. Small groups of people could be found with event brochure in hand, debating which films to watch.

The Queer Lens category featured films directed by LGBTQ personalities, to sensitise the audience about the lives of the LGBTQ community. An intense group discussion titled “Tamil Cinema and Queer Representation” added immense value to this segment. This was one of the finest aspects of the festival this year. Moulee, the founder of Queer Chennai Chronicles, chose the films for this category and moderated the discussion. Happy Birthday, Marsha! and Sisak, which were featured in this section, drew significant attention. Rafiki, a Kenyan film banned by the country’s Film and Classification Board, was one of the best films in this section. The film gained widespread attention earlier when it was screened at the Chennai International Film Festival (CIFF) this year. In addition to this, masterclasses and panel discussions by specialised film technicians made the second edition of IFFC stand out!

On the evening of the first day, February 8th, one could see people of all ages gathered outside Prasad Film Lab—film buffs, assistant directors, directors, film activists, social activists, film industry professionals, college students and ordinary folks. Each one of them received a badge, a detailed festival catalogue, a notebook, a pen and a sling bag featuring the festival’s mascot, an emerald dove. One festival pass cost 250 Indian rupees for general public, 150 rupees for assistant film technicians, and 100 rupees for those who could not afford this price.

Many banners with film personalities—Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Werner Herzog and others—alongside their quotes welcomed the audience to the Prasad Lab campus. In commemoration of Tamil cinema’s centenary, three banners featured a collage of classic Tamil films under the title Tamil Cinema – Centenary Exhibition. A Charlie Chaplin statue made by the students of Padimai (Thamizh Studio’s film training wing) welcomed everyone at the entrance to Prasad Preview Theatre.

An outstretched yellow forearm being recorded by a red arm holding a video camera; a standing statue of an artist with a head of colourful balloons and a ladder by his side; a clapperboard inscribed with the words “IFFC 2019” perched atop a cliff, and a coterie of soldiers using film reels as ropes to reach it—these sculptures on display drew the attention of many. Some took photographs with them. The most commonly used colours by the festival were red, yellow, orange, blue and white.

A vegetarian canteen was set up within the campus for the audience. Food was available at all times for three days at affordable prices. With the intention of focusing on film education, a Study Corner was set up. Many books on cinema were launched, and made available for sale at the Pure Cinema book stall. One of them was writer Deesha’s Nirami, a guide to the nuanced use of colour in cinema. As part of a series of books on Film Technology, available at the inexpensive price of ten rupees each, three books by Deesha (Shot-Camera-Action, Kim Ki-duk and Focus) and a book by writer S.Dhinesh (Editing, Sreekar Prasad Interviews) were on sale.

On the other side of Prasad Lab, eight spacious stalls had been set up. One of them had Pure Cinema’s cinema publications on sale. Another stall named Precision displayed paintings of Indian and foreign master filmmakers, along with famous world cinema posters for sale. All of these paintings were created by the students of the Chennai Government College of Fine Arts and Padimai. The money from sales went to the festival fund. Another stall named Let’s Draw your Live Portrait had artists who would draw a realistic live portrait of you within half an hour. There was also a stall that sold the latest cameras.

Investment is a serious limiting factor to independent filmmaking. Independent directors try to complete their films on tight budgets, but they need some basic funding. Collecting funds is a tedious job. A film’s production gets stalled if the creator cannot find the right kind of investors who understand the film. The most important initiative of IFFC this year is Film Bazaar, which aims to solve this problem. Through this initiative, IFFC will not only produce your film, but will also screen your film in the non-competitive category at the next edition of the festival. The only condition is that you have to make short films or documentaries on Tamil writers, directors, historians, political, social or environmental activists or issues. You need to submit your film’s background research, screenplay and a visual treatment. A jury of directors, producers and activists from Film Bazaar will review your content and award funding if it qualifies. Film Bazaar will find your film a co-producer. An organiser mentioned that this year they have received several submissions. Film Bazaar is an initiative that is bound to have a huge impact on independent filmmakers in the coming years.

The next stall was named Script Doctor. On further enquiry, it turned out you could submit your film’s screenplay here to receive feedback from experts. Since this was a time-consuming activity, you had to register your name first, following which you would get an appointment with an expert whom you’d meet with a copy of your screenplay. At the neighbouring stall named Let’s Act, Jayarao, the founder of Theatre Lab, provided training to budding actors.

The IFFC director and film activist M. Arun had mentioned that the colour black and the parai drum were symbolic of the festival’s distinct identity. The festival had a lively opening with parai music. Thinai Nadagaveli, a group of college students enthusiastic about art and drama, led by Pagu, enlivened the audience with their parai music. Several traditional performances transfixed the audience for more than an hour—parai dance, alangara silambam, por silambam (Tamil martial arts), harvest songs, and saattai kuchi aattam. This was followed by a satirical play, performed by the Pagu group of artists. The play focused on the difference between commercial cinema and independent cinema, and the damaging effect of hero worship on Tamil cinema. This play was written by ‘Thamizh Studio’ Dinesh and directed by Pagu.

Following this, the festival director M. Arun made clear the need for an artist’s voice to ring loud in the current political scenario, where individual rights are trampled upon. He also emphasised the importance of this festival and independent cinema in fighting the dominance of commercial cinema. He made it clear that the IFFC was a festival of the people. Following him, film director Leena Manimakalai spoke about the films she picked to be screened at the festival and expressed her joy in having the film directors in attendance. It is noteworthy that over fifteen independent film directors from other Indian states and foreign countries participated in IFFC this year. Cinematographers PC Sreeram and Murali, Theater Lab Jayarao, filmmaker Amshan Kumar and other directors who were special guests spoke briefly during the opening ceremony.

The IFFC was methodical in organising every event and screening; thereby encouraging a healthy filmgoing culture. You were permitted to enter a screening only within the first fifteen minutes; you would have to remain seated until the end credits are over; mobile phones were not to be used within the screening halls; you were expected to not leave the hall while the movie played, and be present for the post-screening discussion with the director. Constant emphasis was given to these rules throughout the festival. For anyone who frequents cinema theatres in Chennai, these must indeed seem novel!

Before each film screening, the festival volunteers read out a short introduction to the film in Tamil and English. It was wonderful to see that translators were arranged for the audience to ask questions in Tamil during interaction sessions with those directors who spoke other languages. College students and young film buffs joined hands with Padimai students and actively worked as volunteers and photographers. These volunteers also took it upon themselves to put up posters around the city, promoting the festival. Also, the audience frequently engulfed filmmakers after the post-screening discussion, to continue from where they left off. In moments like these, the filmmakers became part of the audience themselves!

Filmmaker Devashish Makhija interacting with the audience

Unlike other film festivals, the award-winning films at this festival were chosen not by a jury, but by the people who made this festival possible. Does a creator need anything more than recognition from the audience? IFFC gives out three awards: the Emerald Dove Award for Best Feature-length Indie Film, the Karuppu Award for Best Documentary, and the Thamizh Studio Award for Best Short Film. These are People’s Choice Awards, with each viewer scoring movies they watched, on a form given out after every screening. Ballot boxes were placed outside each of the three screens.

The following films screened at the festival drew a large number of the audience: Devasish Makhija’s Bhonsle; Rima Das’s Bulbul Can Sing; Jude Ratnam’s Sri Lankan documentary Demons in Paradise; Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Unmadiyude Maranam [Death of Insane]; Sri Lankan filmmaker Asoka Handagama’s Let Her Cry; Her. Him. The Other, an anthology film directed by Asoka Handagama, Prasanna Vithanage, Vimukthi Jayasundara; Sanju Surendran’s Aeden; Amshan Kumar’s Manusangada (Cry Humanity), the only Tamil film in the festival; Gurvinder Singh’s Chauthi Koot; Sincerely Yours, Dhaka, an anthology film directed by eleven Bengali filmmakers; Sanjoy Nag’s Hindi film Yours Truly; Up Down and Sideways directed by Anushka Meenakshi and Iswar Srikumar; Sunetra – The Pretty Eyed Girl directed by Santosh Babusenan and Satish Babusenan; Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s Jonaki; Chandrasekhar Reddy’s Fireflies in the Abyss.

Let me talk about a few films I liked. I saw the opening film Bhonsle at Prasad Preview Theatre. Devashish’s debut film Ajji had a compelling message against rape. Since I loved that film, I went to watch his second film Bhonsle, and found Devashish to be in terrific form. Although the film’s story followed an individual named Bhonsle, the film depicted the dark underbelly of Mumbai. The film underlines the treatment meted out by native Marathis to immigrant Biharis who have come to this city for their livelihood, the conflicts between them, the ulterior political motivations, sexual assault and the characters’ strong reactions to this injustice (a theme found in both his films). The hall was packed. After the screening, Devashish interacted with the audience for half an hour. There was a second opening film as well! To commemorate the memory of Mrinal Sen, the father of Indian neo-political cinema, his classic Ek Din Pratidin was screened at the Prasad 70MM cinema hall.

[Read Amit Agarwal’s article on Mrinal Sen’s film Kharij; published in the seventh issue of The World of Apu.]

Sanjoy Nag’s Yours Truly has a wonderful storyline. A single, fifty-year-old woman lives by herself. She goes to work, but has no friends there, only people who make fun of her. She commutes daily by Kolkata’s crowded trains, and falls in love with the announcer’s voice. She shares a graceful journey with this voice on a daily basis. It follows her, comforting her during lonely moments. It gives her solutions when she’s faced with important decisions. She writes love letters to the unknown train announcer. She imagines that the voice lives with her. All of this is intercut with moments from her daily life: interacting with neighbours, Kolkata’s railway stations, incidents of interest on the train, the camaraderie with her sister. This was a good film, it felt close to my heart. Director Sanjoy Nag revealed that this film was mostly completed using guerrilla filmmaking techniques, with many scenes shot on iPhones. He also shared several techniques that were used to hide the fact that the film was made on a paltry budget.

Demons in Paradise, a documentary film by Jude Ratnam stirred a serious debate at the festival. Jude spent ten years in making this film; previously screened at Cannes. The director journeys through his childhood memories to study the shattered lives of his countrymen. This film investigates internal and external power struggles of various armed rebel groups in Sri Lanka that fought for the independent state of Tamil Eelam. It depicts the loss of people’s livelihood triggered by the actions of these rebel groups against the backdrop of war. There was a post-screening discussion between Jude Ratnam and writer Charu Nivedita, that seemed to get the audience riled up. Some members of the audience, and a few visitors from Sri Lanka, criticised the film for portraying a one-sided perspective. They opined that all protest groups tried to quell the other groups and their supporters. Some people said, “The director has recorded his personal experiences in this film and this is definitely not the complete picture!” Even though the director gave explanations, it took a while for the dispute to subside.

Bulbul Can Sing directed by Assamese director Rima Das was a great feature, just like her previous venture Village Rockstars. Through the story of a girl named Bulbul, she sheds light on the lives of teenage girls—the brash spirit of adolescence, and attraction to the opposite gender, the blossoming of love. Bulbul is shown to be an exceptional singer. In showing the incidents that take place at school, and the many small moments of Bulbul’s life, Rima Das succeeds in making a heartwarming film. The climax is unsettling though, when it depicts the havoc that moral police can wreak on the unsuspecting. It may take several days for one to recover from its effect. This is a film that brims with simplicity, beauty and resonance.

Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s film Unmadiyude Maranam [The Death of Insane] is a formidable political film with a unique structure. This film tears apart the facade of India’s autocratic government by portraying the destruction of the country’s diversity in the name of homogeneity, the cruelties perpetrated by guardians of culture, the horrific murders of artists and writers who protested against injustice, the shocking killing of people when they rose in rebellion against policies that thwart their welfare, police brutality, death threats issued to filmmakers when their films criticise the government’s “public welfare” policies. In India there is no freedom even to dream, it too shall be banned, Sanal said. That is why the film’s opening credits featured these statements: Dreaming is injurious to health, Thank God, No specific God or God’s name has been used in this film, and Vande Mataram. This caused the audience to break out in laughter. Throughout the film, Sanal uses dreams to visualise many atrocities that happened and continue to happen in India. It was disappointing that Sanal was unable to make it to the festival. The festival team had publicised that he would be part of a panel discussion titled Censor – Politics – Cinema.

Ravi Jadhav’s Nude was the only film at IFFC to be screened simultaneously in two cinema halls with close to a thousand people watching it. This film was initially planned to be screened at 7.30 PM after the festival’s closing ceremony. While the closing ceremony was going on at the Prasad 70MM hall, more than four hundred people queued up outside the Prasad Preview Theatre to watch Nude. There were already four hundred people attending the closing ceremony. The festival organisers soon realised that it would be impossible for all these people to watch Nude in a single hall. So they quickly obtained permission from the film director and venue owners to screen Nude in both halls.

Nude was deliberately pulled out of International Film Festival of India 2017 for its title, and for one of the scenes making a reference to painter MF Hussain. The protagonist is a woman from a village in Maharashtra, who despises her husband for his misdeeds, and escapes to Mumbai with her only son. She stays in her elder sister’s house, while looking for a job to fund her son’s studies. The son is interested in painting at an early age. Her elder sister is a nude model for students at a renowned arts college in the city. Amidst indecision and inner turmoil, the protagonist becomes a nude model too. They see this as a means out of their financial struggles. The doors are closed when the pupils draw her body—nudity is seen as pristine beauty. No one is aware of the profession of these two sisters. Initially, the protagonist works as a nude model only at the college. Later when her son goes overseas for higher studies, her need for more money pushes her to pose in private too. She poses for a famous painter and asks, “Why do you paint nudity?” His answer shatters generic notions and prejudices about the body. In fact, the film does exactly the same. There are several scenes in the film that show artists painting the body, but they do not feel forced.

Nude‘s protagonist is reluctant to pose naked the first time and breaks down, but she moves on. Custodians of culture, who understand nothing about nude paintings, enter the college and make themselves a nuisance. Teachers and students are attacked. The way the film progresses after this point left a deep impact on me. Once the film was over, there was silence in the hall, and not a single person stood up. When Kalyanee Mulay, who plays the mother and nude model in the film, walked onto the stage, the audience gave her a standing ovation. It took a long time for the applause to die down. Kalyanee was moved. She bowed, and graciously accepted this recognition from the people of Chennai. Nobody asked any questions. Later during the course of the interactive session, Kalyanee revealed that there were only three women who worked for thirty years at that college as nude models. She also made a mention of male nude models. She said that we had watched a version of the film censored by the Indian government and that it was not the same as the international version. One of the viewers expressed everyone’s feeling by saying that the film’s highlight was that it did not evoke even a tinge of lust through nudity.

From the Queer Lens section, short films Happy Birthday, Marsha!, Sisak and feature film Rafiki impressed me. The film language of Jonaki, with its surrealism, felt new and mystifying. Sea of Lost Time, a film by Gurvinder Singh, adapted from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story, was noteworthy. This film, which was screened International Film Festival of Rotterdam 2019, was produced by the Pune Film Institute and later banned by it. Among the panel discussions I attended, these were quite meaningful—Tamil Cinema and Queer Representation, Censor – Politics – Cinema, Changes in independent and art films in the age of digital downloads. Mani Kaul and the Cinema to Come—a panel discussion between Gurvinder Singh and Sanju Surendran was quite informative.

[Read Gurvinder Singh’s interview with Iniyavan here.]

The closing ceremony of the IFFC took place with a huge audience and special guests in attendance—including poet-filmmaker Leena Manimekalai, cinematographer PC Sreeram, directors Mysskin, Amshan Kumar, Rasi Azhagappan, Iswar Srikumar, Sanjoy Nag, Abu Shahed Emon (Bangladesh), Jude Ratnam, Gurvinder Singh, Sanju Surendran (Kerala), Kalyanee Mulay, Satish Babusenan, Santosh Babusenan (Kerala) and Govind Raju (Maharashtra). Festival Director M. Arun thanked everyone who worked hard for this festival, the directors, the volunteers, the photographers and the media, and especially the massive crowd that made the festival a resounding success.

The indie film Chauthi Koot, directed by Gurvinder Singh, won the Emerald Dove Award at IFFC this year. Up Down and Sideways, directed by Iswar Srikumar and Anushka Meenakshi, won the Karuppu Award for Best Documentary Film. The Thamizh Studio award for best short film went to Sonyacha Amba, a Marathi short directed by Govind Raju. I felt sad that my friends and I had somehow missed watching all three films that won awards. We hope to be able to watch them soon! PC Sreeram handed the awards to the directors. The directors whose films were screened stated that this festival was very impressive and expressed their interest to take part in the years to come. Mysskin held the audience spellbound with a fascinating 45-minute talk. IFFC 2019 came to an end with the launch of a few special festival books. For almost three whole days, I had lived through different worlds, and shared this wonderful experience with many others whose every breath was cinema.

About the author

P. Lakshmi Narayanan, a native of Perambalur, works in Chennai. He is one among many who has disappeared into the crowds of Chennai, the city of simple folk. He is deeply interested in reading, writing and cinema.

About the translator

Ramchander is a freelance writer who’s written on cinema for Film Companion. Depending on his mood, he oscillates between Medium and Tumblr for blogging. On his desk you might find photos of Steve Jobs, Buddha, Isaac Asimov and Satyajit Ray.

Images belong to IFFChennai. They may not be reproduced without permission.

இக்கட்டுரையை இங்குத் தமிழில் படிக்கலாம்.

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