Interview Malayalam

KIFF 2017: Cinema Vandi can sustain only if we continue in a consistent way, says Don Palathara

Cinema Vandi travels to villages with independent films. caught up with Palathara to speak about this movement, the public response, its sustainability, and online alternative exhibition platforms.

Photo: Facebook/Don Palathara

Anita Paikat

The discourse on the state of indie film and filmmakers today is ruffling a few feathers, especially, in the festival circuit. Unhappy with the treatment meted out to small budget films at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, along with the Kazhcha Film Forum, organized their own event — Kazhcha Indie Film Festival (KIFF).

It seems this is not the first time Sanal and Kazhcha have resorted to innovative methods to showcase indie films. Cinema Vandi or Cinema Cab was born in 2015 when Sanal couldn’t find distributors to exhibit his first film Oraalpokkam (2014). The film travelled to every district in Kerala over a period of 4-5 months. While the film was screened on streets, schools and grounds, Don Palathara was given the task of making a documentary on the movement.

So far 4-5 films have travelled across the state, including, Palathara’s critically acclaimed Shavam (2015), Shanavas Naranipuzha’s Karie (2015), and Jiju Anthony’s Eli Eli Lama Sabachtani?. caught up with Palathara to speak about this movement, the public response, its sustainability, and online alternative exhibition platforms.   

How did the idea of Cinema Vandi come about?

Cinema Vandi came from desperation to be honest. It was Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s idea, he had formed the Kazhcha Film Forum. They produced his first film, a crowdfunded film called Oraalpokkam (2014). The film won a few awards at a few festivals and other than that, distribution wise, they had no hope at all. They couldn’t expect a theatrical release, even the online medium was also not very successful at the time. So we didn’t know how to show the film to the public, because he made the movie for the public and he didn’t have any other way to show it to the public.

Then he came up with this very radical idea of a travelling vehicle that screens films in villages, colleges in Kerala. When they planned this, they also wanted to make a documentary, not just on Cinema Vandi, but also the entire history of the parallel indie movement. They found and approached me and I tagged along.

How was the public response to the film and it being screened on the street?

It was not something that we expected. People didn’t expect a movie like this, more so not on the streets. We screened the film at bus stands, colleges, and so on. The response was not very uniform, but there are a lot of passionate people who want to watch such movies. It was a discovery for me that there are people who really want to watch these kinds of movies. They are not the typical film festival goers. Here what you can see is the festival mood and people. At the same time, there is a different generation out there who wants to watch serious movies. They used to the opportunities with film societies, but those are extinct these days. So this new movement was something they open heartedly accepted.

The initiative itself challenges the conventional distribution and exhibition systems that are usually monopolized by the big banners. Do you think the concept of Cinema Vandi can also be undertaken in film hubs like Mumbai?

Am not quite sure because the environment is completely different in Mumbai compared to that of Kerala, even though great films are coming out of Maharashtra. Am not very aware of the scenario there. Here there is a culture, of the generation before us, who used to accept these kinds of films in theatres as well. The films would run for 2-3 weeks, and the producers and director would get their money back. So they could keep on making that kind of film.

Today, people have been divided. The movie goers of the theatre are not the audience that watch films at this kind of venues, even at a festival. Now there are 3-4 kinds of audiences. When Sanal and Kazhcha planned this, it was not something very new. These kinds of things were pretty successful here. John Abraham, who used to act and make independent movies in the 1960s and 1970s, had the idea to make movies and distribute them with the help of the public, for the public. It was in a way crowdfunding in a very amateurish form.

Do you think it would be sustainable in the long run?

It will sustain only if we continue doing that in a consistent way. If we do that for a year, and not the next year, take a gap, then there won’t be enough audience. And rather than finding new venues all the time, there should be some kind of consistency.

What about the financial viability?

When Cinema Vandi happened, all of the people who associated were volunteers. The return was not standardized. Sometimes Rs5,000 from a screening, sometimes Rs10,000, and sometimes Rs30 or Rs20. They (Kazhcha Film Forum) accepted money on the basis of contribution. But I don’t personally agree to that method. Because sometimes you travel 50-60 km, take all the risks with the set up, then there is also the effort put in the making of the film. There is also an attitude with people that if it is free, it is not of great value anyway.

Today, people are conditioned to think that what they see in mainstream cinema is supposed to be the definition of a film. How do you think this can be undone?

The only thing we can do is keep on making our kind of films and let people know that there are other kinds of films out there. Reaching out to public is not an easy task. When Sanal first asked people about undertaking Cinema Vandi, they discouraged him saying it is not viable. My first feature film, Shavam (2015), was also first distributed using Cinema Vandi. We travelled to the north of Kerala and throughout the way we screened it at every district.

Which other films have been screened with Cinema Vandi?

After my film, they have screened Karie (2015) and Ozhivudhivasathe Kali (2015), which was Sanal’s second film, after it’s theatrical release. So, four or five films, including Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani (2016).

So one of the benefits of making a film independently is that you can screen your film on your own terms.

It’s not like that. My films were definitely independent. The producers were myself and my friends, so I didn’t have any issues like that. Vith is a crowdfunded film, so I wouldn’t be going through too much trouble. Most of these filmamkers too were independent filmmakers. But these days it’s not going to be easier anymore. Nowadays, everyone will want a censor certificate, even for a small screening people come and argue with you saying, ‘I saw someone smoking on the screen, why don’t you have the disclaimer?’

With a concept like Cinema Vandi, the idea of a target audience is dismantled. Will that affect the making of the films?

I didn’t make the film with Cinema Vandi in my mind. It’s only after making the film that I started thinking of how I would distribute it. Cinema Vandi was the best option in Kerala. Even though it takes two months of your life for once, it is a good experience for your life. You get direct feedback from entirely different kinds of people, from all over Kerala.

You’ve made two feature films — Shavam (2015) and Vith (2017).  Both are black and white films. Any particular reason?

Initially, it was of the budget constraints. I didn’t have the money to control every colour on the screen. I was using locations rather than sets, so would be difficult to change everything as how I wanted it to be. So I thought of mastering the art of contrast first, before going into the colours.

The subject of both films are very different. What inspired you to pick those?

Subconsciously, I think these are subjects I care for. Shavam is about a bunch of people gathered at a funeral and their behaviour. In my early childhood I’ve seen a few deaths and it’s there in everybody’s lives. Even though death is so heartbreaking, there are different ways in which people approach death. Some are really passive, mostly, in my opinion, it’s in people’s nature to be hypocritic. I tried to bring all these characters.

Vith is on the relationship between a father and son. The film is on the contrast in values between two generations and how power hierarchy works in a society. How power travels through people and affects them.

Shavam is on Netflix. Which is also an alternative exhibition platform. What do you think is the difference between a Cinema Vandi and a Netflix.

A platform like Netflix or a theatrical release brings the money back. I would definitely go for that. Cinema Vandi takes a lot of effort. There should be an establishment that runs a Cinema Vandi, or else you are responsible for every stage — from production to distribution.

The problem with platforms like Netflix is that it’s also creating a culture of movie viewing. It’s also creating a special kind of audience. What I’ve realized is that Netflix slowly changes since it is a multinational company. Even though they initially accept all these different kinds of content, once the number of audience grows, they will focus on popular demands. They wouldn’t take the risk of taking up movies like our’s.

Related topics

Kazhcha Indie Film Festival IFFK