A Brief Sketch of Alternative Films: Making, Screening and Orgnising People’s Film Festivals in India
When Martin Luther King (Junior) stated: `I have a dream’, he never meant that he wanted to become a film maker. When Lumiere brothers made the first documentary in the world, capturing the images of a train coming towards the audience, some of the audience ran away from the auditorium. Lumiere brothers also had a dream, though not perfectly articulated like Martin Luther King. The question before us is to analyse the differences, similarities and merger of these two types of dreams today in India.
The fact that what Lumiere brothers and Martin Luther King did was an execution of their dreams which certainly needstremendous admiration in history, because such an execution of dreams could make changes and ripples on the waves of history. What Martin Luther King and Lumiere brothers did with their dreams became dreams of millions of people throughout the world. While both the dreams worked on the consciousness of people, the routes were almost parallel. But when the routes of the dreams merged at certain stages that created a different history, Inspiring film lovers as well as political activists. It is from here that we should look into the shades of alternative film making, screening and organising alternative film festivals – bringing together art and politics.
The merger of art and politics and film activism had a long history throughout the world. It had a long history in India too. But I would rather begin certain aspects of this tradition from the post emergency period from Anand Patwardhan’s films, not just due to lack of space and time, but also due to the fact that this contemporary history of cinema appears to me to be more and more relevant in these crucial times of control of human consciousness by the communal forces and globalisation in India today. And due to the convenience of time and space, these observations will be limited to documentary films in India.
There were documentary film makers before Anand Patwardhan who tried to introduce this
merger’ between art and politics in the history of documentary cinema. However, with the arrival of Anand, a different shade of history in this field sprang up, perhaps due to his own involvements or perhaps due to the sheer conditions of emergency and the post-emergency period in India. Before making films, Anand Patwardhan had an activist mind and that mind kept on evolving inspiring an evolution of a different tradition of political cinema in India. He let the victims, survivors of the marginalised sections speak for themselves, weaving up a narrative and walking towards their inner consciousness. The human rights consciousness expressed through these films shook up many, making the activists feel that the impact of such works would not have been achieved with their own words, even if they repeated the same words in different platforms. Side by side, the impact of the effort initiated a different tradition of alternative cinema, where the film maker became a listener, though not entirely a submissive listener and sharing what he saw and listened, to a world of people who were either concerned about these issues or totally unconcerned about these issues. And these efforts made their impact on both the worlds of the converted and the unconverted. Though his earlier films made impact, the revolution of form came from hisBombay Our City’ full length documentary film, dealing with the issue of people living the slums in Mumbai. And in this film, the aesthetics of the film was entirely built around narrative of the oppressed as well as their surroundings. Later, many film makers started making films using the same form, without the intrusion of the film maker through a commentary or an external voice. The form and content of the film became the script of a film which could not have been written, a script which was created only at the end of the production of the film. But even now, after several experiments of such films during the last few decades, when the supporters of a film ask me to share the script of the film that I am making and when I reply that the script of the film can only be experienced at the end of the film production, many people can not understand it. The challenge for the film maker in these situations is to indulge in a process of allowing people to express a script through their own words instead of a pre-planned written text, which may have nothing to do with the real lives of people.
I might have listened to thousands of people in different parts of the country, staying behind the camera. What I listened to changed my politics, my vision and my personal and internal life. My only regret in my life is that I could not maintain my touch with all the thousands of people whom I have interviewed. But luckily, I am able to continue the relationship with some at least. This is not just my fate, I am sure this is the fate of all activist film makers. Or else, you will have to stop making films after just one film. In any case, I do not wish to indulge into the relationship between activism and the reality of the ground with the physical existence of a film maker. It needs more words than what the title of this article permits me.
What is important to realize at this moment is the use of the film, a creative document of a living history, a living representation of people who are suffering and struggling. During the last three and a half decades, many people started connecting to such films, taking serious efforts and pains to screen such films. Often, film makers themselves took such initiatives. One of the reason why the film maker took such initiatives is due to the fact that since it does not cater to the commercial interests, the only option left for himself or herself was to reach out to the people, for the sheer need of the logical conclusion of the communication process. If they had not taken such initiatives, they were aware that the film would end up in cans, without anybody watching it. And what is the use of taking so much of pains and energies and resources to make a film, if it is not watched by the people? The other reason for the film maker to reach out to the audience was to interact with people who have only experienced the film of a certain short length, but the film maker might have gone through the experience of the process of feeling, thinking, listening and discussing with it for a long period. And such a communication goes much beyond the `product’ even if it is perfect on the grounds of form and content. This need expressed by Anand Patwardhan after he made every film, initiated a different process of film activism in India. Earlier, the film society movements used to express such a role, but that was with different experiences of art and politics through the communication of cinema. Nevertheless, the contributions of the film society movements were immense in history in shaping a different consciousness in different parts of the country.
With the growing need to relate with the challenges of a new history filled with multiple social issues all over the country, the film society movements started diminishing more due to a certain notion and formula of what a good cinema was all about. But beyond the changes of perceptions on cinema, the reality was also the entry of the idiot box in a big way into every home in India. The real conflict between non-commercial cinema and its audience was the conflict generated with the process when cinema entered the drawing rooms of houses. Cinema was no longer an exclusive affair of a certain community. It became a household affair and later a personal affair when people started watching films on the net or on their mobile phones. But yet the historical context itself created the need for the generation of alternative communities and that is why so many groups keep on screening alternative films today. It is a community bothered by their own existence as well as the existence of others on this planet. This need gave birth to a different alternative screening experiences with many groups entering into the activism of screening films. They shaped the consciousness of the people through cinema as well as their own interactions with people. These efforts generated alternative dreams in different parts of the country. While some efforts collapse due to a variety of reasons, new efforts emerge taking up the challenges of the newer times with new sets of dreams. Thus a community struggling for their rights in one part of the country could communicate to a community of concerned sections in another part of the country.
The alternative screening experiences gave birth to alternative film festivals, because for the very formation of a concerned community, you need to have more live and concerted community experiences with each other. The alternative film festivals gave that opportunity. The discussions of this community did not limit to the platforms alone, they were more intense on the ground between few people or between individuals. These efforts provided a new horizon in the pursuit of dreamers of a third kind.
With alternative film festivals experimenting with involvements of diverse forms of communication apart from the use of films, such as songs, books, spaces for activists and representatives of people’s movements, paintings and many other forms of alternative actions, the community reached a different height of experiences. Cinema became a platform for multiple experiences not just in the film, but also in the process of screening the films. These experiments have set of new possibilities of enriching the community of dreamers. Apart from being sheer
reflection of reality’, cinema also became instrumental in thecreation of a new reality’, a reality generated consciously by the need of the hour. This is where alternative films, making, screening and organising film festivals differed from traditional routes of commercial cinema as well as art cinema. And for all the impact this process has made so far over the last few decades, it is becoming more and more obvious that the future of visual and political language will be determined by the dreamers of a third kind – those who insist that their dreams must also be realised in history of the lives of people. The moment of a dream becoming a reality !
K.P. Sasi is a film maker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org