Starring Kodungallur

P Anima | Updated on January 11, 2018

Divided we stand: Kodungallur Film Society recently made national news — and not a few enemies — when it questioned the need for playing the national anthem in cinemas, as mandated by the country’s apex court. Photo: V Ganesan   -  The Hindu

How the history and social milieu of this Kerala town inspired its film society to challenge the Supreme Court order on playing the national anthem in theatres

They watched In the Shadow of Iris last Friday. Elle, another French film, is the likely choice this week. Every Friday, on the roof of the Sree Kumara Samajam building in a small town in central Kerala, the Kodungallur Film Society (KFS) screens films from across the world. The only equipment of value is a projector, and the utilitarian space hired for a princely ₹250 a day. Yet an eclectic mix — festival films as well as classics — find their way here. European cinema is often mounted because they are easier to access. But films from West Asia and Latin America, Africa and Australia are coveted treats. The Dark Land in Maori was not merely a new film for those who watched it. It was an initiation to a culture, language, history and narrative they were unaware of. The discussions that follow the screenings are as valued as the film itself. Here, films instantaneously become a window to cultures and a tool of learning. Stories of resistance and subversion are the subjects of passionate debates.

Recently, veering away from the routine of Friday shows and an annual film festival, this obscure society, boasting not more than 140 members, found itself in the national news. It challenged the Supreme Court’s November 2016 order that made the playing of national anthem mandatory in cinemas. The society’s move, followed by the controversies over the same issue at the International Film Festival of Kerala, attracted strong protests from the right wing against a KFS patron and the petitioners. The society’s core committee was united in its decision to challenge the verdict. But the ensuing turmoil saw a few members worried about the fate of their Friday shows. But before long, Kodungallur rose in their support. A meeting organised to condemn the attacks was attended by leaders cutting across party lines, cultural representatives and commoners alike. “ Irul veezhum munpe (Before darkness falls) was attended by 4,000-5,000 people,” says Anoop Kumaran, former president and executive member of KFS, and one of the petitioners.

The dust has settled for now. Court hearings are on. The audience for the Friday films has swelled. The society’s decision to challenge the SC order can be viewed in tandem with Kodungallur’s history of resistance. This ancient town in Thrissur district has long been a hub of counter-narratives and oppositional movements. The KFS was one among several such clubs that sprouted across Kerala in the 1970s when a wave of film society and radical movements swept the State. It trundled along over the next three decades, briefly reviving in the ’90s. In 2010, KFS found new life and identity when a few aficionados got together. Ever since, the Friday cinema has remained uninterrupted.

A shared passion for films and an innate interest in culture bind the members. They hold a pot-pourri of political beliefs. “Anyone who believes in a plural society and in dialogue can be a part of us,” says Kumaran in a phone interview with BL ink. It has Gandhians and liberals, converts and drifters. “Among us are government employees, professors and doctors. But so too auto-rickshaw drivers, shopkeepers and daily wagers,” says Rijoy KJ, secretary. One member who works as a painter has subtitled eight films in Malayalam. “He also tours neighbouring villages with films,” says Rijoy. Like in much of Kerala, the noticeable absentees in this cultural space are women. Only 15-20 members are women, says Kumaran.

The Friday shows have gently stoked a culture of film appreciation. “A few could earlier appreciate, say, a (Roberto) Benigni classic. But that has changed. And discussions have become vigorous,” says Rijoy.

For a society that has nurtured debate, discussions and dissent, challenging an SC order was no daunting task. Additionally, Kumaran also happens to be a proud legal activist. “I was one of the petitioners to challenge Section 66A of the IT Act as well as Section 118D of the Kerala Police Act in the SC,” he says.

Poet K Satchidanandan hails from Kodungallur and KFS is among the multiple initiatives he has lent his name to. “The case is an example of the kind of progressive traditions Kodungallur has stood for,” says Satchidanandan. Born and raised here, Kodungallur’s cultural milieu has influenced him in no small measure. On his fingertips are the masters who belonged to his hometown — writers, poets, filmmakers and activists. Of the latter, Kodungallur has nurtured many.

“It has always been a society that actively responded to changing situations both within and outside Kerala. It has been a hub of oppositional movements. E Gopalakrishna Menon, the only Legislative Assembly member from the Communist Party in 1949, was elected from Kodungallur,” he says. The town has never failed to respond to the tumult around it. “It has been a hub of intellectuals and readers, and ideas, discussions, culture and literature were always a part of it,” says Satchidanandan.

The poet considers the KFS’s challenge a bold step. He questions the propriety of impositions, particularly that of the national anthem in a cinema. Abuse and trolls may be just a click away. And nuance the missing ingredient in a new world of black and white. “But it is a very important time to act — when fear is spreading like the plague,” says Satchidanandan.

Published on May 19, 2017

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