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Interview Malayalam

Indie films should find a market of their own, says filmmaker Santosh Babusenan

In a candid conversation, controversial filmmaker Santosh Babusenan talks about going overboard with censorship and the essential difference between 'commercial' and 'parallel' cinema.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

The Babusenan brothers, Santosh and Satish, are known for resolutely fighting for their artistic freedom. Their debut feature, The Painted House (Chaayam Poosiya Veedu, 2015), was denied a certificate for public exhibition as the film included some nude scenes.

The film was screened in the Competition Section at the International Film Festival of Kerala that year. And, after a court battle against the Central Board of Film Certification, it was cleared without any cuts.

The brothers have consistently championed the need to do away with censorship and they continue to make films that do not compromise on their artistic vision in any way.

On the sidelines of the Kazhcha-Niv Indie Film Festival here, Santosh Babusenan spoke to Cinestaan.com about censorship and the spaces available to independent filmmakers to exhibit their films. Excerpts:

In the panel discussion at the festival, you spoke of the differentiated audience that exists for independent and mainstream cinema. What is your response to the move to make independent cinema more accessible? For example, Lijo Jose Pellissery’s films have been doing well commercially as well as on the festival circuit. Do you think that is because his films are able to straddle both sensibilities, or is it because festivals are opening up to include more mainstream films?

I did not see Lijo’s latest film [Jallikkattu (2019)], but I have seen his older films and I specifically remember Ee. Ma. Yau. (2018), which I like — not in terms of artistic merit, I thought it was too dramatic in certain areas, but I’ll always classify it as a proper independent film. It’s a good film and I have never felt it's a mainstream film, but it has been able to relate to the audience. That’s why more people enjoy watching his films. 

Even in the independent stream of filmmaking, you have a range of movies. On the one side you have experimental films; there your audience will be very small. Then you have the more narrative films, where, of course, more people can relate to what you are saying. So that itself is a big stream. I think someone like Sanal Kumar but more Lijo, I think he is on the spectrum with more audience, but that doesn’t make it mainstream. I think it’s still an independent film.

One of the main distinctions I see between the commercial and parallel streams is that these directors have something to say, which is not so important for a mainstream film, where the most important thing is to entertain. Of course, there are grey areas in between, but some people are able to relate to their audiences better than others. I think that’s why those films do better in terms of release and viewership. But that doesn’t make those films better than the more experimental ones.

You used the term ‘proper independent film’. I would like to understand what your definition for this is, because there are individuals as well as studios backing independent films today.

It is actually a grey area, but I would like to use the phrase 'arthouse movie', because those movies, I think, are giving more value to experimentation in art, stretching the boundaries of art and looking at social issues, where you are aiming at a festival market and at people who like those kinds of movies. It’s not for the mass market. That’s the only distinction I make and it’s not very specific. It’s a general kind of definition that doesn’t close the matter in any way.

You have been very outspoken about censorship and have been particular about not allowing any cuts in your films so as to preserve your artistic vision. Do you think censorship, especially in current times, is becoming a bit hyperactive as even cigarettes and alcohol bottles are blurred on screens? Do you think we are going overboard?

We are going overboard the moment we bring in a censor board. It shouldn’t be there at all. In fact, they call themselves a 'board of certification' and I don’t have a problem with that. Let them certify and give guidance to viewers, but the question of censoring is an old foggy idea that came in the British era and I don’t know why people want to maintain it today when we are talking about freedom and democracy and people being mature enough to decide what kind of government they want. Why can’t they decide what sort of movie they should watch?

You have your own production house and fund your films, but most independent filmmakers rely on government funding. What are your views on subsidies for the arts, especially as there is a move to cut back on these subsidies?

I think, ideally, independent films should find a market of their own. That’s the best situation. You cannot really count on government subsidies. But the fact is that we have not been able to find a proper market; there are Netflix and Amazon markets and other OTT platforms, but one can’t count on them so much. So, in the present scenario, it would be good for the government to support movies with some kind of subsidies, for a while at least, till the movies can support themselves. Or the government can help in finding these markets. 

The IFFK this year has introduced a film market. Do you think that will support filmmakers?

Not at all. Because they thought of this market only two weeks before the festival. You have to plan months in advance, get in touch with the right people, do your research work and classification. Even if they do all that, I don’t think it will catch on in the first or second year. It will take three to four years for good selectors and buyers to come down. But these people [the government-run IFFK] have made a mockery of the whole thing. They started it just two weeks before the festival, so whom are they trying to fool?

Related topics

Kazhcha Indie Film Festival