Interview Malayalam

We have to be realistic: IFFK deputy director H Shaji on low footfalls this year

The deputy director took time out of a busy schedule on the inaugural day of the 23rd International Film Festival of Kerala to speak on the struggle of facing budget cuts, declining footfalls, and the solidarity among the cinema industry in Kerala. 

Photo: Facebook/H Shaji

Shriram Iyengar

It took some running around to get to H Shaji, deputy director of the 23rd International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), held in Trivandrum. On the opening day of the festival, 7 December, Shaji was busy managing multiple schedules, ensuring guest arrivals, battling screening problems, and arranging for the opening ceremony. Constantly working through details, Shaji seemed a bit tensed.

Understandably so. A couple of months ago, the festival was almost canceled owing to the devastation wrought by the Kerala floods in August. In the face of the worst ever floods, the state government had decided not to hold any artistic or cultural celebrations and instead focus on the rebuilding efforts. 

"An understandable priority," says Shaji. However, the Kerala Chalachitra Academy persisted in their decision to hold the festival, leading to several budget cuts, organisational struggles, and the need to raise delegate fees. 

This, in turn, has led to a fall in numbers at the festival. 

On the sidelines of the inaugural day in Trivandrum, Shaji spoke with, explaining why the decline in attendance was expected. Excerpts:

 It has been a difficult year for the state, and there were talks about cancelling the festival. How difficult was it to sustain the festival, with budget cuts as well this year? 

Actually, this is like - 'There was no festival, then there was a festival'. Post floods, the [state] government took a decision that there won't be any artistic or cultural events. But then they also had a change of mind. 

Obviously, the state had a priority change. All energy was focused towards rebuilding efforts. There were questions if we should spend towards the art, or focus on building bridges and homes. 

We had to face budget cuts. Last year, the budget was at Rs6.5 crore. This year it has been halved to Rs3.5 crore. 

We, however, took care to not change the quality of the programming. Our distributors, theatrical partners were quite empathetic to the situation. 

While the government had also said that there won't be any funds available, at the same time, the government has also provided venues free of cost. All the government theatres, Kairali, Sree, Nila and Kala Bhavan have just charged running costs. 

We were forced to find sources of income ourselves. We adopted a two-point strategy. We increased the delegate fee, and had to find sponsors. Finding sponsors was difficult, because everyone has been donating to the disaster relief fund. So it is not that successful. But the delegate fee has already seen 7,500 members register. Initially, we thought of bringing in 10,000. 

But for obvious reasons it is difficult. But at the same time, we are helpless. So many delegates decided to shell out money and stand with us. We are happy. 

Is there an expected decline in footfall? 

Yes, some decline in footfall. There is no point in hiding from the reality, and ignoring it. We have to be realistic. That is in a way slightly affected, but the films are there. 

We thought we would close spot registration on the opening day, but the large number of people coming in for registration forced us to keep it open for now. 

The festival also has a package of films that focus on the theme of hope. It seems a timely addition? 

This was a post-floods decision. The moment we decided there will be a festival, it came to our mind that there should be a focus on rebuilding and hope, the success of human spirit, and resilience. 

That too not in the conventional sense of rebuilding, but a broad sense where a thought of positive thinking is evoked. We tried to break that stereotype. There is a documentary on the Pope, and also a Mandela film which marks the 100th year of his birth. Happy coincidences. In a way, this also pays a tribute to the survival spirit of people. 

The festival opens this evening, with chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, and Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi among the guests. What do you hope from the festival? 

I think this will be a happy occassion. Majid Majidi, especially. We can't talk about the festival without mentioning him. 

All through these years, his films have been hugely popular across Kerala. The Academy (Kerala Chalachitra Academy) has a program called Touring Talkies, which takes good films to all the villages in the state of Kerala, and some tribal hamlets as well. Remotest areas where they haven't even heard of cinema. 

At these places, we have shown Majidi's films with Malayalam subtitles. So Majidi is like a Kerala filmmaker, kind of. 

He has a huge fan following, and even outside IFFK, he is quite well known. So his coming to IFFK is a landmark for us. I hope he also feels the same about cinephiles in Kerala. 

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