The dramatic technological developments in cinema and digital distribution today pose new challenges to the Film Society Movement, and unless far-reaching measures are taken to arrest the deterioration, the Movement’s downward spiral will not be stalled. It is important, therefore, that we delve into the reasons why the Movement faces its biggest battle for survival in the days ahead.
The Film Society Movement had faced similar challenges in the past. There was a comparable threat in mid-1980s when colour television and video distribution arrived in India. Doordarshan began screening Indian and foreign films in late night slots on weekends. The trend of home-viewing directly impacted the footfalls in cinema halls and, by extension, the membership of the Film Society Movement as well.
The number of film societies shrank from 300 to 150 across the country. Those which survived the onslaught of these social and cultural changes experienced a sharp drop in membership, and attendance at film screenings was reduced to just 40 per cent. Mainstream cinema made significant changes in its content, technology and cinema-going experience to lure audiences back to the cinema halls. Film societies hosted international film festivals to hold on to the catchment area of its dedicated patrons.
While video had extensively damaged the film society movement, the introduction of DVDs surprisingly proved to be a shot in the arm. Always struggling for resources, societies could save the high expenses incurred in screening 35mm films by showing easily available DVD versions. Today, societies have only dedicated groups of 200/300 members who are seriously interested in cinema.
Pandit Nehru once described the International Film Festival of India as “the window to the world”. However, with present-day technological leaps, this window has now transformed into an information superhighway. Information of all kinds is easily available at home on television, the internet, and mobile handsets. We no longer need to go to cinema halls to watch films. Instead, films themselves reach us through multiple digital platforms.
Given these developments, film societies will have to change their methods of staying relevant in the digital age. The 50-year-old movement needs a “new wave” to survive this tide. However, before we seek new solutions, it would be pertinent to understand why the relevance of the film society is being increasingly questioned. Critics argue that in the age of 24 x 7 TV channels which beam world cinema into living rooms, with the easy availability of DVDs, and with the internet providing swift downloads at 3G and now 4G speeds, the movement is becoming increasingly irrelevant.
Dr Mohan Aagashe gave a fitting reply to this critique at a summer camp organized by the Western Region. “Nowadays, I hear talk of how the Film Society Movement is becoming irrelevant. I would like to ask the skeptics a counter question. When we have books available in bookshops and libraries, why is English or any other language taught in the universities at the graduate or postgraduate level?”
If we dissect his argument, we will understand that digital gadgets perform only one role of a film society, i.e. the screening of films. However, a society has other important tasks as well – spreading film culture by discussing films, organising film appreciation courses, or creating literature on the aesthetics of cinema. Therefore, film societies are not obsolete, or irrelevant. In fact, they are more sharply relevant in these times of information overload. They can play the key role of a catalyst in guiding cinema lovers on the finer nuances of the film art. Earlier, screening good films was the primary focus of a film society. Now, societies should focus on the study of cinema; they should provide members with libraries a collection of books and DVDs, and make accessible deeper literature on the Seventh Art
It must be noted that the Film Society Movement cannot run in isolation. Societies should take cognizance of the environment media atmosphere. For example, many universities have started Media Studies or Mass Communication studies. Sensing these developments, I initiated the Campus Film Society concept in FFSI. The Western and Southern regions pursued it vigorously, and today around 50 Campus Film Societies function in both the regions, catering to the young in their formative years.
Students who are members of these Campus Societies will graduate after three years. Having experienced world cinema in college, it is hoped that they will join Film Societies outside college as well, and thus become part of the movement.
I suggest that FFSI, the apex body steering the Film Society Movement and individual film Societies, should both focus on study of cinema.
- Should form a Study Group. Perhaps only a few members will join it, but it will send out a subtle message to all members that a film society does not exist only for watching films.
- Study Group may meet once in a month. It should be informed in the beginning about the efforts of the Govt. to create a film culture in the country. Reading material on the films screened should be provided in regional languages.
- Excursions could be organized to visit film institutes, archives etc.
- To create a sense of study, we should associate ourselves with the education sector – Invite a V C. or a college principal to inaugurate a four-day festival.
- Audience polls: distribute rating slips (Good, Average, Bad) prior to screenings. Such efforts will create awareness in members that joining a society means studying cinema, not just watching films. This sense of study will give the member an identity different from that of the average cine-goer who watches popular films. Societies, if possible, can arrange lectures or hold one-day appreciation courses, etc.
- To give an impetus to the study of cinema, FFSI should make structural changes and start a State Council based on the language of the state.
- The State Council can organize five-day Film Appreciation courses with the help of NFAI in the regional languages. This will encourage people untouched by FSM to enter its fold.
- The State Council can approach the State Govt. for funding. This has already begun in Kerala and Karnataka.
- In order to connect the various societies, a four page e-newsletter in the state language which describes their activities should be provided.
- Institute an award for the best film society in the state. The award should go to the Secretary of the Society.
- Encourage film society members to attend international film festivals held in nearby towns or IFFI in Goa.
- Guide and help film societies to solve any problems faced by them.
These are some of the measures I suggest. Additional measures can be devised by the State Council to emphasise the study and importance of international cinema.
Jadavpur University in Kolkata was the first to start a cinema course in India way back in 1970s. In the 80s, Chitrabani, a small film society in Kolkata, organized a one-week film appreciation course and wrote to Satyajit Ray about it.
Ray welcomed the idea and wrote back:
“I find it most heartening that such an event (Film Course) has taken place. I have been hoping for a long time that something concrete should be done about the dissemination of Film Culture among the young people in our country. This course is surely a step in that direction. I hope that the enterprise will continue.” (29th April, 1990.)
-Sudhir Nandgaonkar is a veteran film society activist, the co-founder of the Prabhat Chitra Mandal; he was the Artistic Director of MAMI, FFSI General Secretary, and is currently Director of Third Eye Asian Film Festival, Mumbai.