I WAS AT THE third edition of the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala last week. A crowd trooping into a cinema hall at 9.30 on a rainy morning for an independent film does not fall into the realm of the impossible, especially in a state like Kerala. The festival is run by professionals who love film and is backed by a state academy though that alone cannot guarantee an interested audience. Decades of work done by individuals and collectives in the state has created an audience for world cinema as well as contemporary independent films.
A motley bunch tying the ends of a white sheet onto two palm trees while a village waits for flickering images to spill out of the projector does not belong to a dreamy, idealistic time in the past. There are films being screened in cafés and college classrooms, in libraries, in living rooms, in old cinema halls, in multiplexes. Film festivals in Gorakhpur, Madurai, Thrissur are hosting films and their makers from around the country. Activists and cinephiles in small towns and big cities have stretched the magical white sheet across all kinds of spaces.
As an independent filmmaker I am often asked, rather aggressively: ‘Who watches your films?’ My existence is under attack unless my work is squeezed between ads on prime time TV or carpet bombed onto thousands of screens across the country. A timid recounting of a story, my favourite, is met at times with plain boredom: I received a call from a trade union activist from Indore who had got a VHS copy of my first film, Jari Mari: Of Cloth and Other Stories from a friend in Delhi. Along with his friends, he para-dubbed the film into Hindi and screened it many times at meetings and functions that they conducted. He had called to ask if I could send more copies because the one they had was worn out from overuse.
Every filmmaker I know has a film circulating extensively outside the realm of big film festivals and niche, exclusive screenings. But when a fellow passenger on the train turns to me and asks: ‘What do you do?’ I lie frantically. That is easier than having to explain why the fellow passenger has never heard of me or my films. But maybe on a train to Gorakhpur I will not need to be so diffident.