Thursday, December 27, 2007

Of a few good men and a lot of screenings…

In the first screening schedule of my Tulu language digital feature film SUDDHA (The Cleansing Rites) that was held in the villages of Coastal Karnataka a few months back, I had traveled to various schools and colleges. But for the second and the third schedules, I decided to target the general public. This automatically meant that the screenings had to be held only in the evenings. Yet, I managed to have two screenings a day, for during the day time I continued showing the film to interested college students.

After having written to almost all the Gram Panchayats (Village Governing Bodies) in the Tulu speaking areas of the State of Karnataka and after having hobnobbed with various governmental and non governmental cultural organizations requesting them to take the initiative in hosting or arranging the screenings of SUDDHA in the villages of coastal Karnataka; and having failed to evoke any response, I decided to individually contact grassroots level groups that have engaged themselves in cultural activism.
I dug up old contacts, networked hard and touched base with organizations that had people who staged plays, who thought dance, who held literary debates, who encouraged local folk forms and who worked for the cultural development of the Tulu speaking area of Coastal Karnataka. The response, I should say, was encouraging.
Consider this. After having traveled for over three hours from my base town Udupi on bumpy, curvy and narrow roads over vast tracts of forest land, I landed in an extremely remote village called Sulliyapadavu where our host, a seventy year old Kudkadi Vishwanath Rai welcomed us. Although he had asked for two screenings in his village, I wondered if, in this sparely populated area, there would be enough for even one!
Kudkadi Vishwanath Rai, after his retirement as a teacher in a near by town, had settled down in Sulliyapadavu, his native village. He and his family perform dance dramas in a small hall that he has constructed by the side of his house. He teaches classical dance to interested children; runs a small nursery school in his premises and hosts many meetings of self help women’s groups in the area. He had seen SUDDHA when it was screened in the city of Mangalore and was insistent that I come to his place with the film.
Half and hour to the first show, he switched on his TV set, connected it to a loud speaker, played some local music and smiled, ‘this would let the people know that a function is about to begin.’ Sure enough, the place gradually got filled and soon Kudkadi was seen excitedly talking about my film to his audience that mainly consisted of uneducated daily laborers working in and around the village.
The second show had an overflow of people and Kudkadi was like a child excited by the response that his call had evoked. He had even arranged a simple meal to all those who overstayed in his house after seeing the film! I can never forget the image of Kudkadi running to his gate, explaining the virtues of the film to the passersby and convincing them to watch it. It felt good that someone you hardly ever knew was out there battling it out for your film.
But everything was not as smooth as this. The first screening of the second schedule held at Govindas College, Surathkal was a disaster. As per the instruction of the principal, the teacher of class twelfth, herded in around sixty of her students into the screening hall and sensing an opportunity, instantly went off home. A lecturer from the nearby classroom dropped in fifteen minutes after the start of the screening and forced us to reduce the sound volume as his students were writing their exams. Those who were watching SUDDHA got disinterested because they could not clearly hear the sound track. Within half an hour the hall was empty and I was staring at a situation which could easily be termed as a director’s worst nightmare!
But for every such screening there were quite a few impeccable ones that culminated in a meaningful dialogue like the one that happened in Konaji in Mangalore University under the initiative of its Mass Communication staff Dr GP Shivaram and Dr Poornanand; or the one at 'Ranga Adhyayana Kendra', Bandarkar's College in Kundapur town arranged by Vasant Bannadi or even at the 'Bala Khendra' at Nittur village organized by the Lions organization led by a local construction contractor Ishwar Chitpadi.
It is important for me to add that over the years Dr Poornanand in his personal capacity has been spending lakhs of rupees in collecting DVD copies of classic films from all over the world so that he can show them to his students, that Vasant Bannadi is an economics lecturer who has convinced his college management to open a full time course in dramatics, the money for which is contributed by the people of his town and that the 'Bala Kendra' is a Government run remand home cum destitute house for hardened children and abandoned women.
Although there were some organizers for whom the screening of SUDDHA was just another program that fitted into their yearly report, along with the likes of blood donation and rabbis vaccination camps, most of the people who helped me arrange the screenings were extremely committed that the film gets its audience. Dr Niranjan Rai, an over worked but still energetic homeopathy doctor from Uppinangadi town was another of those who took the cudgels on my behalf. Single handedly he had arranged for five screenings in various villages, convincing whomsoever he could, including his patients, to host the screenings. And he still has few more up his sleeves!
One such patient that he had convinced was Manohar, a junior lawyer in the town of Puttur and a member of the Youth Club of his tiny village called Yelankini situated below the Western Ghats. The only large structures that Yelankini boasted of are a primary school and a temple. The village is connected to the main town of Uppinangadi by a forty five minute drive on a rickety route where the bus frequency is just three to four times a day.
It was an open air screening at the Yelankini School and there were around more than three hundred villagers watching the movie sitting firmly on little school benches. There were a few auto rickshaws and share-a-jeeps parked at the rear of the ground; with people sitting inside and on top of the vehicles. A drive in theater in the true sense!
It was an audience that wasn’t much exposed to the fast paced weepy soaps that every other television channel beams these days. I was sitting amidst the audience and the way it experienced and reacted to the film with rapt attention was an eye-opener for me. Here was a film that some city audience had termed as a ‘slow paced arty film’ that went above your head and yet, for these people the engagement with the film was perfect!
The Youth Club of Kanakamajalu village, headed by a young agriculturalist Lakshminarayana, too had arranged a screening in their open air ground of their school. The fact that there were no external disturbances like traffic noises did help these open air screenings. The ideal acoustics that exists within the dark hall of a normal film theater cut off from the rest of the world automatically creates a space for the audience to experience a film. But here in villages like Kanakamajalu where there are no film theaters, this space had to be created - mainly through the enthusiasm of the organizers.
Encouraged by the success of this screening, Lakshminarayana and his friends are now planning a week long Film Festival in Kanakamajalu and have even managed to convince a few of the village elders about it! Among the films that they want to screen is an experimental short film from Andra Pradesh, whose DVD copy they have managed to somehow acquire! The language of the film is an alien Telugu and its images and edit pattern, extremely surreal!
I.K. Boluvaru is also toying with the idea of arranging a Documentary Film Festival in his home town of Puttur. He works in the Telephone Department of the Government of Karnataka, but is more known for his activism in the children’s theater. He had convinced the Durgaprasad Rai of the 'Puttur Tulu Kuta', an organization working for the revival of Tulu culture and language, to arrange a screening in Puttur. ‘Puttur needs a screening of SUDDHA’, he had declared when I first contacted him.
The screening itself was held in front of the traditional house of Purandara Bhat, a member of Tulu Kuta. The house is actually a cultural center in the town and it houses the offices of a host of organizations like an amateur drama troupe, a writer’s association apart from the Tulu Kuta itself. The house is dwarfed by three newly constructed shopping complexes, yet a culturally oriented Purandara Bhat refuses to let go of this prime property to any local builder for a reconstruction and rehabilitation package!
Throughout the three screening schedules of SUDDHA, I have experienced that the screening goes off well, if the organizers are committed to their audience. This commitment normally showed in the way they selected the venue and the date; the way they printed pamphlets, drew posters and banners and even in the way they arranged the chairs for their audience. In many places the organizers had individually visited people’s houses inviting them for the screening, had urged them on the phone to come over and had even reminded them of the screening over numerous SMSes.
Of course, my personal equation with some of the organizers also helped. Twenty three years ago, as a young college student, I attended a fifteen-day theater workshop organized in a village called Baalila, under the leadership of a school teacher called R.K. Bhaskar. I have fond memories of the workshop not only because it was the first time that I had stepped out of my house for such a long period of time, but also because the workshop had opened up many new things for me, in my life. So, it was a pleasant surprise when one day I got a call from Bhaskar, saying that he wanted to arrange a screening of SUDDHA in his courtyard in Baalila.
Bhaskar strives to incorporate theater, crafts, music and films into children’s education. So, over and above holding his regular classes in the school in which he is employed, he - on his own initiative – conducts various cultural workshops for the school children in his house. Off late, for various reasons his activities had diminished and by his own admission, the screening of SUDDHA in his house was a sort of revival of his days of cultural activism. I am glad that SUDDHA had the possibility of being such a catalyst.
Theater director Jeevan Ram too has staged and hosted many modern plays at an open air theater that he has designed and constructed in his own backyard. He stays in the outskirts of the small town of Sullia. He makes traditional mementos and designs the sets for huge stage functions to earn his living. Over the years he has developed his own set of loyal audience, who have taken a liking to whatever that comes from ‘Ranga Mane’, the organization that he heads.
‘Ranga Mane’ also publishes books and SUDDHA was screened after the release of a new book written by a local writer. Ideally I would have liked to have had just the screening as a stand alone event and not be tagged along with some other agenda of the organizers. But having participated in the book release function one did realize that for people like Jeevan Ram the book release and the film screening had a similar context – a context that would provide the village audience a variety of cultural presentations that would enable them to find their own voice.
Years ago, in a remote village called Heggodu in Shimoga district in Karnataka, an agriculturalist named K.V. Subanna believed that every village should find out and have their own cultural expressions. In his village, he went on to construct a modern theater that staged world class plays in all languages. He plunged himself into theater education, starting a year long state level course in dramatics. He organized film appreciation courses and showed the likes of ‘Roshomon’, ‘Pather Panchali’ and ‘Bicycle Thieves’ to his fellow villagers. He formed a theater repertoire that traveled to every nook and corner of Karnataka, performing plays that had modern sensibilities.
For over two to three decades Heggodu was the cultural capital of Karnataka. Hundreds of writers, teachers, students, theater artists and the rest of the intelligentsia flocked to this remote village to participate in the yearly cultural workshops that was organized there. K.V. Subanna had one mantra to tell everyone - go back to your roots and with local participation help find the cultural identity of your own villages.
The attempts by Jeevan Ram, R.K. Bhaskar, Lakshminarayana, I.K. Boluvaru, Kudkadi Vishwanath Rai, Vasant Bannadi, Dr Poornanand and others in creating their audience in their own backyard might be an offshoot of this. As much as I owe to these men the success of the screenings of SUDDHA in the villages of Coastal Karnataka, I also do owe a lot to the Late K.V. Subanna - the inspirational cultural visionary.
I have never had any personal interaction with him when he was alive. But the pioneering efforts that he had initiated decades back have surely helped me, today, to find an audience for my Tulu film SUDDHA.
The making of SUDDHA and the process of finding an audience for it has been an extremely satisfying journey for me. The ‘Best Indian Film’ award that it received at the Osian’s Cinefan Festival of Asian Films in 2006 helped it get heard in places that mattered. The modest Exhibition Fund that I received from the Hubert Bals Fund, The Netherlands gave me the necessary means to find my audience.
Have I been successful in creating a self sufficient system where money recovered from the exhibition of a film would lead to the making of another? I am afraid not. If I had charged all those who wanted to arrange the screenings, only a few people would have seen the film. And because I have not charged for the screenings, I will have to struggle all over again to produce and direct another feature film. That is the reality and sometimes you choose it. 

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