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IFFK 2017: Dissent is built into art, say panellists at ‘Tradition of Dissent’ colloquium

The panellists included writer NS Madhavan, film scholar and historian Amrit Gangar, filmmaker Anup Singh, and Malayalam actor and activist Alencier Ley Lopez.

NS Madhavan, Amrit Gangar, Anup Singh, Bina Paul, Alencier Ley Lopez and Sadanandan Menon. Photo: Murukesh Iyer

Anita Paikat

The 22nd International Film Festival of Kerala this year was full of energy and enthusiasm from the crowds as well as from participating filmmakers. The air was thick with discussion on censorship, art cinema, freedom of expression and political interference. Taking the discourse ahead was the seminar held on 14 December titled ‘PK Nair Colloquium: Tradition of Dissent’.

As the title suggests, the annual colloquium was dedicated to the late film archivist and scholar PK Nair. Paramesh Krishnan Nair founded and worked with the National Film Archive of India for three decades and committed his life to procuring and preserving films. He is credited with having procured several landmark films like Raja Harishchandra (1913), Kaliya Mardan (1919), Jeevan Naiya (1936), Achhut Kanya (1936), Kangan (1939), Bandhan (1940), Kismet (1943), Chandralekha (1948) and Kalpana (1948) for the archive.

Nair helped students at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune with films from all over the world, and inculcated in the youngsters the ability to think beyond what is taught and expected. Therefore, it was only fitting that a seminar on dissent be dedicated to him.

Bina Paul, IFFK artistic director, welcomed the audience and panellists writer NS Madhavan, film scholar and historian Amrit Gangar, filmmaker Anup Singh, Malayalam actor and activist Alencier Ley Lopez, Sadanandan Menon and professor Dr Veena Hariharan, who moderated the session.

The session was introduced by Amrit Gangar, setting the tone for the colloquium by speaking of the ‘voices of dissent’. “Most women of our epics are voices of dissent, feeble or forceful,” he reminded the audience.

Amrit Gangar

Listing the names of famed historical poets and writers like Sant Tukaram, Chanakya, Eknath, and the Bhakti movement, Gangar said all were part of the tradition of dissent. He called upon the progressives to save Hinduism and the saffron colour, which stood for renunciation and giving but has been turned into the colour of repression and killing. Voices of dissent, according to him, are the voices of unity.

Anup Singh spoke of the importance of hope in the discourse of dissent. He said one should not embitter oneself with the repressive state of today’s affairs. For Anup Singh, space and time hold every single frame in a film and therefore it is very important to know what frame is being created.

Anup Singh

He also noted that the frame in cinema is constantly in transition. However, the current political scenario offers a squeezed space and time that is static and we are left with a frame that is not moving anymore. He also reminded the audience that cinema itself gives us the means and ways to challenge this, and that filmmakers have a very powerful tool to fight this kind of control of our time and space.

Moderator Dr Veena invited Alencier Ley Lopez to bring his perspective on the topic as an actor and activist. Lopez believes an actor has a responsibility to the community and stressed the individual’s ability to speak and construct that belief for himself/herself.

“I don’t need anybody to teach me what patriotism and nationalism is,” he said. Speaking of the silence of celebrities on crucial issues, Lopez said, “I regret the stars are still afraid to speak out against the injustice that is going on in the world.” The need of the moment, he said, is to speak out, not silently or subtly, but loudly and clearly.

Alencier Ley Lopez

Writer NS Madhavan, one of the best-known short story writers in Malayalam literature today, began by saying “the idea of dissent is inbuilt in art” and asked, “But how have artistes reacted to situations of oppression when art is not allowed to function?”

According to Madhavan, history shows us that artists have usually had two kinds of responses to oppression — supporting the oppressor or remaining silent. Going back to the Emergency of 1975-77, he noted that while poets Amrita Pritam and Harivanshrai Bachchan issued a joint statement in support of the Emergency, the most well-known Indian writer of the time, Mulk Raj Anand, remained silent. “What dissent are we speaking about?” he asked.

Moving on to the medium of cinema, Madhavan noted that cinema is totally controlled by government and all aspects of filmmaking are under tight control. “Yet,” he said, “probably the biggest dissent against the Emergency came from cinema. One artiste who really stood against the Emergency was Kishore Kumar. He refused to sing for the All-India Congress Committee meeting and was banned from All India Radio.”

Remembering PK Nair's contribution, Madhavan emphasized the importance of archiving to keep memories alive. He concluded that art is not a medium of dissent and dissent is not possible in times of oppression.

NS Madhavan

Sadanandan Menon began with the meaning and idea of dissent. “The idea of dissent,” he said, “is an impulse that comes from both historical and social context.” He stressed the importance of distinguishing between art that is political and art that is ideological.

Disagreeing with Madhavan, Menon said there have been voices of dissent in the past. However, he stressed that “an act of dissent should be registered as an act of dissent”.

Amrit Gangar pointed out the role of education in curbing dissent in contemporary times. “Management studies has killed dissent... they are careerists," he said. "In cinema, very cleverly, mass media was introduced, which removed the cinema conscience.”

Gangar concluded by asking the students present in the audience to compare recent films with those of masters like Ritwick Ghatak and Satyajit Ray, who were not part of the ‘studies’ culture.

At the end, the colloquium opened up for questions from the audience. One student spoke of the dumbing down of the masses through popular media like online content and questioned the use of ideology if nothing is in our control. A journalist from the audience replied, “You should retain a certain optimism. You cannot afford to be confused about your beliefs today.”

The session ended with the panellists and the audience agreeing on the importance of dissent, noting that it is better to protest now than to regret the lack of protest later. Right now, tongues should speak and not remain silent as cinema is the biggest weapon we have today, they said.

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