Interview Malayalam

IFFK 2017: Mainstream seeping into film festivals, redefining aesthetics, say Babusenan brothers

Satish and Santosh Babusenan speak of the bitter response at the first screening of their film at the recent IFFK, and the reasons why slow films are unpalatable to audiences today.

Satish and Santosh Babusenan

Anita Paikat

Santosh and Satish Babusenan are brothers sharing the same passion — films. They are known names in the independent cinema circuit. The former has a PhD in film studies while the latter studied visual communication at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.

The brothers joined Channel [V] and, later, MTV in Mumbai and returned to Kerala when they knew they could do it no longer. They returned to take a step back and look at things from the outside.

For several years they did not take up any other job. They were, as Satish puts it, “two pigeons sitting on a branch ruminating on existence”, taking after Roy Andersson’s famous black-comedy drama, A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence. While Andersson’s film was 101 minutes long, the brothers reflected for about 15 years.

Their first feature film The Painted House (2015) was embroiled in a legal battle with the Central Board of Film Certification, popularly known as the censor board. Their second film, Ottayaal Paatha (The Narrow Path, 2016) won the Kerala State award for Second Best Film and the Silver Gateway award for Second Best Film at the MAMI film festival in Mumbai in November 2016.

Their third film, Maravi (Lost, 2017), was screened at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) earlier this month. The film is a reflection on the connection between suppressed memories and forgetfulness, and questions if we really know everything we think we know.

Even before the first screening began, the director duo informed the audience that the film is slow and would require patient viewing. The film started and soon the audience lost control and began hooting and jeering, which ended only when the end credits rolled up.

The question and answer session after the screening did not go well either. The filmmakers were accused of tarnishing the image of Malayalam cinema. Some even accused them of bribing the jury to get Maravi selected at the festival.

In a long conversation with, Satish and Santosh Babusenan spoke of the experience and why slow films are unpalatable to audiences today. One factor, according to them, was the format. The DCP version was screened on the first day, making the film very dark and dull for the audience. “For the second screening, we took the Blu-ray version and it looked completely different on screen,” Santosh said.

This time the audience’s reaction was also very different. There were hardly any walkouts and no jeering. In fact, some members later came forward to congratulate the duo for the camera work in the film.

Satish pointed out that audiences are too impatient and unwilling to give filmmakers the benefit of doubt. Their first two films were critical successes. “The crowd that came there, some of them knew the first two films we had made. They don’t think, ‘Would somebody like that make utter crap? Did we miss a point?’ Here they assumed there was no point,” he said.

Another issue at the major festivals, say the brothers, is the increasing bent towards mainstream cinema. “The problem is the government and institutes like the [Kerala State] Chalachitra Academy have aided in creating an aesthetic for films that is only slightly offbeat from mainstream cinema," Santosh said. "Those movies are given awards, they are the touted ones. So people have come to believe that these are the good films and a festival is about these films.”

The filmmaker said offbeat films like Angamaly Diaries (2017) and Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (2017) are good films, but they cannot be called ‘art films’. “It is meant for public consumption," he explained. "An art film is not meant for public consumption. The movies that we make are not meant for public consumption. So we focus on festivals.”

However, even at the festivals, they are told to make certain types of cinema. “I have no problem that the people who came to watch the film could not stand the movie," Santosh said. "We cannot tell people what they should like and what they should not. They have the freedom. But the point is they have come to a place which is meant for movies like this and they are coming and telling us, ‘don’t make these movies’!”

In recent times, the MAMI festival in Mumbai has got 'Bollywoodized', to use the colloquial term for mainstream commercial Hindi cinema, to an extent. The directors remembered an incident from their visit to the festival earlier this year. The opening ceremony was held at the newly restored Opera House.

While the Babusenans, along with other guests, including foreign jury members, other filmmakers, and artistes were taken to the sixth level, the lower level was all occupied by Hindi film stars and filmmakers.

However, when it comes to prizes, the festival still favours 'art' cinema. “The good thing at the Mumbai festival was that all the awards were given to films made in the name of art," Satish said. "Even the films selected in the competition section were not from Bollywood.”

The brothers understand that mainstream cinema cannot be completely ousted from the festival circuit. Keeping this in view, they propose a solution. “Divide the films under separate sections," said Satish. "For example, [this year] we have a section called Malayalam Cinema Today, under which our film was selected. Instead, let there be a Mainstream Malayalam Cinema Today section, under which films like Angamaly Diaries, Take Off (2017), etc can go.

"Then let there be another section called Independent Malayalam Cinema Today.” In such a case, the audience will be fully aware what to expect in each section and make its choice accordingly. Right now, audiences are unable to distinguish between the categories and judge all the films with the same yardstick.

The duo’s tryst with the CBFC for their first film, The Painted House, was nothing short of a tale of perseverance and courage. In fact, even while making the film they had anticipated a reprove from the board but decided to make it the way they wanted and not take dictation from any authority. “We did not want to censor our thinking,” said Satish.

The film was based on the idea of false morality and how the values we have inculcated have blinded us so much that we have started thinking we are the moral people we have always wanted to be. When you want to be something, you gradually try to believe you are that.

With this idea in mind, a story was written. A middle-aged writer is writing a book on the ideal human. He is joined by a young woman who needs a place to stay. The story takes a turn when a young man also joins them. “Now what the writer never thought existed in him slowly begins to come out," said Satish. "So it is self-recognition.” Santosh added, “He becomes jealous of the boy and wants to possess the girl. But he never thought he was like that.”

To bring out the writer’s inner, original sexual feelings, the film had three nude scenes. The CBFC initially acknowledged the importance of the scenes but off the record asked that they be blurred. The brothers simply refused, saying the scenes were critical to the film and blurring them would ruin their impact.

That is when the board hardened its stand and asked that the scenes be cut out entirely. The filmmakers stood their ground and refused, saying they were ready to accept an ‘Adults only’ certificate. The board refused to certify the film. And the fight began.

Satish and Santosh went to the Kerala high court and submitted the clips of the film. They case was argued by former member of Parliament Sebastian Paul. The court ruled in the filmmakers' favour and they finally got certification.

Satish believes their case was won long before they entered the court. “We did not win the case in the high court," he said. "We won it in our study room when we decided we would shoot those scenes.”

The victory, however, came at a price. By the time the brothers received the certificate, it was too late to apply for any festival in Mumbai. Their film was screened only at the IFFK (in the International Competition section), that too because the festival itself got an exemption certificate from the Union information and broadcasting ministry.

This story rings a bell even today with Sanal Kumar Sasidharan taking the ministry to court for removal of his film Sexy Durga from the International Film Festival of India in Goa last month. While Santosh stands in support of his fellow filmmaker, he believes Sanal Kumar should never have agreed to the CBFC’s demand to change his film's name to S Durga. “Your opponent has to believe you will not give up,” said Satish.

Santosh, however, is ready to give Sanal Kumar the benefit of doubt, arguing that the brothers could be unbending because they had produced The Painted House themselves along with a few close friends. So they could stand and fight for what they felt was right. But Satish, in a rare disagreement, says, “I don’t think a filmmaker can bow down with that concession or excuse. You don’t have to put your fight down just because others don’t have the guts.”

The last observation the brothers made is why Indian films rarely make it to the main section at prestigious international festivals like Berlin or Cannes. Indian filmmakers, they say, have experimented enough with content but not with form. “They [foreign filmmakers] have broken barriers of both content and form," said Santosh. "Indian films have been focusing on content, with what we are saying, not how we are saying it. We have not been able to find our form. We are still trying.”

The only way this change can come, the directors said, is if filmmakers give up their current obsession with awards and applause and start doing things that people have never seen before.

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