In the metro film screenings or film festivals, there are certain kinds of boundaries,” says documentary filmmaker Saba Dewan “We never challenge our boundaries. We more or less know the nature of questions metro audiences would ask in post-screening discussions. Not so in small towns!”She says she has gone to many film festivals organised by ‘Cinema of Resistance’ in big and small towns, especially in the Hindi heartland. But the questions asked, the content of the discussion, the boundaries of intellectual thresholds that are pushed and the reinterpretation of the cinematic narrative have been refreshingly different and original. All these are outside much of the clichés, which dominate the discourse on ‘alternative’ cinema. Her film, The Other Song, (made in 2009, after a decade of research) traces and recaptures the lost traditions of the courtesans of North India through a journey across Varanasi, Muzaffarpur and Lucknow. She says her film was screened in Nagpur and there were no Hindi subtitltes. So she said, “Kuch aur dikha do.” But the festival organisers wanted to experiment. The audience loved the film. And the discussion which followed was heady. “The audiences in these towns challenge you and the filmmaker,” she says. “They are taking my film to all kinds of places. I can’t go with my films always or screen them for audiences in small towns. They are doing it and they have built a fantastic reach. It is path-breaking work.” The ‘they’ Saba refers to is members of Cinema of Resistance — Pratirodh ka Cinema. This has radically transformed the aesthetic discourse of the cinematic narrative in a network of towns across India. It is a culmination of a parallel film-society movement unprecedented in the Indian landscape and reminiscent of the early film society movements in Bengal and Kerala.
Says Pranay Srivastava, former JNUSU president, professor of Hindi literature at Allahabad University, and one of the founders of the movement along with other intellectuals, journalists, writers and filmmakers in Gorakhpur in 2006, “We saw the vacuum in the Hindi heartland, since the progressive content of the Indian Progressive Theatre Association (IPTA), during and after the freedom movement, was all but over.” They wanted to fill this vacuum with a holistic cultural kaleidoscope, with Indian and world cinema as its scaffolding. And also with a bouquet of theatre, poetry, literature, arts and culture, especially in places like Gorakhpur and other small towns, where the audience has not been exposed to high-quality documentary and feature films. It was initially a political project of the Jan Sanskriti Manch (JASAM), the cultural wing of the CPI(ML)-Liberation. “We soon realised that the film-society movement should become autonomous and independent. That is how the Cinema of Resistance was born.”Says Sanjay Joshi, the main catalyst of the movement: “We decided we will not take any corporate or government sponsorship. It will be based on crowd-funding. It will reflect both great art and cinema, as much as the politics of grassroots radicalism.” It was agreed upon that the movement will not be propagandistic, but will include a spectrum of progressive ideologies. “We will engage with war and peace, with communalism, the political economy of development, issues in the Northeast and Kashmir, with students’ movements, and Dalit, adivasi and minority narratives,” adds Joshi.The film festivals have spread out to towns like Allahabad, Varanasi, Lucknow, Azamgarh, Salemgarh, Chittorgarh, Udaipur, Nagpur, Ramnagar, Nainital, Indore and Rohtak.
The first steps
Conceived in Allahabad by a group of local and regional intellectuals, the movement held its first Gorakhpur Film Festival in Gorakhpur in 2006. The first scaffoldings were young filmmakers Meghnath and Biju Toppo, an adivasi filmmaker. The key catalysts, apart from Sanjay and Pranay, were (late) Ramrishna Mani Tripathi, Manoj Singh and Ashok Chaudhary, prof CB Thakur, Niten Aggarwal, among others. The term, Pratirodh ka Cinema was coined by Ashutosh Kumar, an academic in Delhi University. The festivals were conceptualised as extremely low-budget shows, equipped with only local resources and community shelter and food, and individual donations. Later, other friends and organisations like the Zindabad Trust run by writer Arundhati Roy and friends, Insaf run by Anil Chaudhury, among other groups pitched in. Among chief guests and participants were a host of filmmakers and writers, including Arundhati Roy, MS Sathyu, Girish Kasaravalli, Syed Mirza, Shahji N Karun, Ajay Bharadwaj, Iffat, Sanjay Kak, Rahul Roy, Saba Dewan, Yosouf Saeed…. “We screened Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Anand Patwardhan’s War and Peace, Voices from Baliapal by Vasudha Joshi, Motorcycle Diaries by Brazilian director Walter Salles, among host of feature and documentary films from India and the world,” says Joshi.
Breaking the barriers
During the four-day first film festival in Gorakhpur, there was no auditorium available. Hence, in a make-shift, full-of-light hall with 200 chairs, a show was started in Gorakhpur University. “The main problem was how to have a pitch-dark hall where sound is clear. Hence, volunteers brought in black curtains and black paper to obstruct light from the windows, ventilators and doors,” recalls Joshi.It was dark, hot and damp. But the audience refused to move from the packed hall. And the discussion was also quite something. When an elderly gentlemen opposed the depiction of the “nude mothers” protesting in Imphal against AFSPA in a film made by Calcutta-based journalists Jiten Bandi and Shamik, a girl stood up to voice her opinion. Other girls followed, raising their voices. The discussion quickly shifted to women’s freedom, patriarchy and sexism. Also, cultural groups from UP staged plays, sang songs, recited poetry, there were story-telling and solo plays. One group took old cycle tyres and decorated them with colourful symbols and motifs, and flung the tyres on trees, where they made a remarkable artistic installation. Explains filmmaker Sanjay Kak: “The main contribution that the Cinema of Resistance has made is in reviving a conversation about the place of cinema in society.” Is it a relationship that must only be mediated by money, a commercial transaction? Or, are there other ways of looking at the relations? “The absolute insistence on ‘no commercial sponsorship’ has enforced a discipline that has allowed us to rediscover alternate ways in which films are viewed. And not simply consumed,” adds Kak.In one of the earlier festival screenings, Yosouf Saeed’s famous film on Pakistani classical music, Khayal Darpan was screened. It was a stupendous success. “First, it was a film shot entirely in Pakistan. Then, it was about classical music. However, the film was watched in rapt silence, the audience enjoyed it, and the discussion that followed marked a departure from routine post-film discussions,” Kak says.The most important dimension of this film festival network is that it is making meaningful cinema available to a fairly large audience. “Added with the contours of a certain progressive politics, the films raise awareness about communalism, gender justice, puts up a critique of the development paradigm, raises crucial and difficult questions on social justice,” says documentary filmmaker Rahul Roy. It is the contribution of these two factors that makes the movement very relevant.
By Amit Sengupta for The Tribune