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Interview Hindi

Keeping the film culture alive: Filmmaker Sanjay Kak on Chalti Tasveerein

A much wider set of people is getting access to different kinds of cinema, says Kak, a member of the festival's advisory committee.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Chalti Tasveerein, or the Travelling Film Festival, is a 45-day festival that is screening documentaries, feature films and experimental cinema followed by discussions with an audience that is usually not exposed a great deal to the medium.

The festival is travelling across seven states of North India in this and the next month. Several filmmakers, artistes, activists and volunteers have come together for the festival and become part of organizing it. They have also suggested films and helped in identifying areas where screenings can take place.

Independent documentary filmmaker Sanjay Kak, who is part of the advisory committee of the festival, spoke to Cinestaan.com about the reasons that inform the inception of this unique festival and the need for alternative screening spaces in the country. Excerpts:

What sparked the idea of a travelling festival with a formidable 100 films? There are so many filmmakers who have come together for the festival. What gave it the charge and built the momentum?

One of the things that is not very well recognized is that the alternative film-screening circuit in India is an extremely well-developed one. Simply because it doesn’t have money, the mainstream media tends to ignore it. But, for example, the Cinema of Resistance project is 10 or 12 years old. They have probably had 70-odd festivals and they are only one of many.

So, there are dozens of festivals, some which have a long life, others which have a short life, but that culture is already there. Most of us have been showing our works on these circuits for years.

So, this initiative is new, this configuration is new, but the pool of films, the culture of showing those films, the culture of sharing those films, that’s an old one. That is if you can call 10-15 years 'old'.

I have often said this, and I have written about it also, that the most interesting thing about Indian documentary today is its audience, and by that I mean that this audience also allows a diversity of audiences. So, if you see the 100 films, it’s not that there is just one kind. It’s a dense viewing culture, which is the opposite of the multiplex culture, which no matter how much they call something hatke [different], it’s only that much hatke. It is still within a certain boundary. So that’s where this is coming from.

There seems to be a resurgence of the documentary form in the past few years, especially in terms of the interest that the films have been garnering. What would you attribute this interest to? 

I am sorry to sound contrarian, but again it’s not a new thing because there is an old history to the Indian documentary, and there is an old history to the relationship with its audience. Some of it has its roots in the fact that these were films that came out of a political / activist genre, so they came out of a relationship with mass movements, political movements, activism, so in a sense, there was already an audience.

But in the last 10-15 years, the kinds of films that have been made, many of them will not fit into that paradigm, unlike what people think, that documentary means activist documentary. They are certainly active in their thinking and they could be about sexuality, gender, and others. So, I think now people are also beginning to figure out that because these films will never have the numbers that multiplexes need, you have to seek out alternative spaces — whether they are cafes or college hangouts, public spaces or private spaces.

Earlier, only a certain kind of activist audience was accessing the films. Now a much wider set of people is.

And digital technology has given greater access to films that we perhaps would not have been able to watch otherwise.

I think that the boom in alternative film screening only comes when there is a boom in film production. They are showing 100 films at Chalti Tasveerein, but they have had to choose out of a possible 500 films.

You can only have regular screenings or have a festival running for 10-12 years when there are new films every year. That was triggered by the — I hate to use the word ‘revolution’ here — but the digital. I have been working with the digital medium since 1999 — digital cameras, the first desktop editing systems, eventually the VCDs, DVDs, and, most importantly, the digital projector.

Fifteen years ago, when we started showing films, the projector used to cost a lakh and a half [of rupees] and used to weigh a tonne. Now, for Rs35,000 you get a brilliant projector, the sound systems have improved so much so, it’s possible to create a very cinematic experience for a gathering.

The digitization of content has made people atomistic viewers — you sit at home, watch things on your phone or your laptop. Whereas the screening culture we are talking about draws on the digital but suggests the opposite way of viewing films, a community viewing where every viewer is likely to have a slightly different view than the other one and the conversations that come out of it are what make it special and addictive.

I keep saying that our audiences need to be developed. It’s like music or any other art, you have to become a rasik [connoisseur] and the ras [distillate or knowledge] comes not from the films alone but from the conversations, from the excitement, knowing that you just don’t have to watch, you can respond to it. So, it’s a whole culture.

What, according to you, would really constitute the success of a festival like this one?

What is different about this festival is that it is going to new places, it is going to new sangathans [associations]. All the examples that I have given are established venues now, in Kolkata, Gorakhpur, or wherever they have been working, but you can’t leave it at that. You have to continually increase the space.

The big advantage of what Chalti Tasveerein did was that it brought together people from very diverse set of organisations who have all begun to understand that film mein kuch hai [there is something in film]. They ran a workshop about how do you view films, how do you use films to tell stories, so it is accessing new audiences. An audience which may have sporadically seen a documentary or an alternative film, but to do it in a sustained way, get them excited about it, set up a system where you can feed them films. The idea of doing the workshop was to create a cadre of cultural activists who can then carry on with it. 

So, I hope we will see a second iteration of the festival.

I am sure we will. Sometimes you do something like this for a couple of months and a hundred more people hear about it. So writing about it, publicizing it, describing it, documenting it is as important as doing it, because other people learn from that.

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Chalti Tasveerein