Wondering what happened to Kolkata film fest audience? First ask what happened to Bengal’s film society movement

Shanoli Debnath
BCCI President Sourav Ganguly, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Bollywood actors Rakhee Gulzar and Shah Rukh Khan attend the lamp lighting ceremony during the inauguration of the 25th Kolkata International Film Festival. (AP Photo/Bikas Das)

In 1995, Calcutta witnessed the inauguration of its first International Film Festival. Only a year back, in 1994, the city had hosted IFFI, which was a touring festival back then. Calcutta had been the venue for IFFI's non-competitive section, more than once - in 1975, 1982 and 1990. And the choice was not arbitrary. Kolkata (Calcutta) had a long history of film appreciation, since the formation of Calcutta Film Society (CFS), the second oldest film society in India. The city observed more than five decades of film society movement that gradually faded post 2000.

The inauguration of the 25th Kolkata International Film Festival was one of the most glossy events in recent times. What was once a solemn annual celebration of and for the city's film buffs is now a mega event, wrapped in all sorts of tam-jham and glitterati footfalls. If the full house inauguration in Netaji Indoor Stadium and the long queues inside Nandan campus made you think that the city is full of voracious consumers of substantial movies, you are missing the whole picture.

If the Bengali audience comprised of considerable niche viewers with an eye for good movies, contemporary arthouse Bengali films wouldn't be struggling to convince producers. There has been a paradigm shift in how one should see an international film festival. In the zeal to make KIFF a mass event, the importance of film appreciation has been ignored hugely in the past few years, and that has degraded the quality of viewers. Parallely, the film society movement has faded in recent years, now restricted to a handful of clubs, partly because of more availability of films online and partly due to a mass ignorance about the importance of dialogue related to art and craft of cinema.

Watching a film is not enough. Debates, criticism, conflicting analyses, discussions on form and content lead to a general consciousness about cinema that help both makers and viewers to do better in their respective roles. In West Bengal, film societies played a pivotal role in nurturing such dialogues and the first of such initiatives had been Calcutta Film Society (CFS), founded by Satyajit Ray and others in 1947. Back then, the city's young film enthusiasts, fascinated chiefly by Italian neo-realism, gathered under one umbrella to learn and discuss more about the art form. Registration of the society was performed by four founding members-- Chidananda Dasgupta, Satyajit Ray, Manojendu Majumdar and Purnendu Narayan. Within a couple of years, the society attracted other stalwarts of Bengali cinema like Banshi Chandra Gupta, Mrinal Sen, Harisadhan Dasgupta, noted intellectuals like Radha Prasad Gupta along with an influx of conscious viewers who hungered for movies that could change their lives or shape their ideas.

A session at Calcutta Film Society in 1956. (Photo by Calcutta Film Society, Kolkata, India - Archives of CFS, Kolkata, Public Domain)

In an article published in Silhouette magazine, documentary filmmaker and media teacher Subhra Das Mollick described how internationally serious studies on cinema got a firm footing in the 30s, post the formation of The British Film Institute (1933) and publication of Rudolph Arnheim's book Film as Art (1932). By the 40s, cinema was accepted as an art form globally and the importance of forming film societies was discussed at length by Roger Manvell in his book titled Film (1946). Arnold Roger Manvell was a British film industry stalwart and author of many books on filmmaking. According to Mollick, Manvell's book had been a thought-provocator to the founders of Calcutta Film Society. They were thrilled by the point raised by the author-- 'Why not start a film society?'.

The first screening of CFS occurred at Ray's maternal uncle's home. The 16-mm projector hired by the members screened The Great Waltz (1938). Soon after the first screening, CFS started its weekly discussion sessions. A community of cinephiles emerged and grew with this society. Founding members, especially Ray, pulled all possible strings to bring masterpieces of World Cinema-- from Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925) to then-contemporary Indian films of other languages.

A few years later, in 1959, Federation of Film Societies of India was formed, taking under its umbrella six existing film societies -- Calcutta Film Society, Delhi Film Society, Madras Film Society, Patna Film Society, Bombay Film Society and Roorkee Film Society. The impact of Calcutta Film Society and film society movement in Bengal was evident as FFSI had its central office registered here. Calcutta Film Society's screenings, discussion sessions and other activities created a wave of film appreciation that not only helped city's cinephiles to grow as niche viewers, but also acted as the final push for Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Harisadhan Dasgupta and others to emerge as ace directors of the time.

In the next two-three decades, till the 90s, a number of film clubs and societies mushroomed in and around Kolkata, some of them still breathing. Film societies like Cine Central, Calcutta and Uttarpara Cine Club are still trying to keep the movement alive. The former grew bigger than CFS during the Leftist reign and started their own international film festival, still continued upto this year. Before Calcutta International Film Festival was born, Cine Central's annual festival was recognised as the most prestigious cinema event of the city, showcasing the best of World Cinema. Uttarpara Cine Club still has a huge cultural impact in the suburbs. During the 80s and 90s, almost all the film societies and clubs in and around Kolkata were closely connected and used to organize their own festivals. Cross-society exchange of film cans and projectors was common. The idea was to spread a serious film appreciation culture and everyone associated with the movement willingly contributed. In the 90s, every district of West Bengal boasted of at least one film club.

The Philippine film delegation met director Satyajit Ray ahead of the Philipine film session organised by Cine Central. (Express archive photo)

In 1985, Nandan, the government-sponsored film and cultural centre, was inaugurated by Satyajit Ray. Ten years down the line, the I&C Department of West Bengal government created the property of Calcutta Film Festival which gained the status of an international film festival soon. Within a few years, the Cine Central festival merged with the government initiative, boosting the international festival. The wave of film appreciation that Calcutta Film Society initiated in the city achieved its peak in the 90s, propelled by the international film festival itself. During the first few years of the new millenium, this festival was still a conscious choice of cinephiles, not a hashtag-driven trend or a fad!

Parallely, another change was occurring. One of the most important aspects of film societies had been showcasing films that were not available otherwise. After 2000, especially in the past few years, access to films has become easier. Once individual collections grew bigger, members started skipping screening sessions. Today, film buffs have Mubi.com and other avenues to access fresh international films of all genres along with the archived classics.

Theatre activist Kaberi Basu, a former member of Cine Central, Calcutta and many other film clubs, has been a delegate in more than 15 editions of Calcutta International Film Festival, including the first one. According to her, even if the films are more accessible nowadays, film society movement should not be abandoned. ''Without hall screening, a film cannot be appreciated properly'', says Basu, ''Film society screenings are important. DVDs should not replace that habit. Also post-screening interactive sessions among members is required to create more number of conscious viewers.''

Unfortunately, film societies in Kolkata and around have curbed their activities in recent years. The dialogues and debates among the makers, viewers and critics have gone missing. After a film is made and showcased, it is important to value the questions raised by critics and conscious viewers. From cinematics to casting, unless every aspect of films are discussed and criticised, film practices are bound to lose their vision and fall prey to trends and entertainment only. In the end, we would have 90 per cent of contemporary makers creating their own group of fan-followers, intolerant about any kind of criticism.

Social media acts like a double-edged sword. On one hand, it diverts attention, consumes time and on the other, it gives an indiscriminate power to people who can comment on anything under the sun without being an expert on anything. This has further disturbed serious film discussions, making it restricted to a few groups.

These subtle changes contributed to the changing paradigm of KIFF. An overall qualitative degradation of the festival-bound audience is disturbing. Earlier most of the viewers came from film society backgrounds with a niche taste in films. Nowadays, a huge number of trend-driven people flock to the festival screenings, click selfies incessantly, discuss less about films and more about catching a glimpse of this celebrity or that celebrity.

In order to cater to that mass and with a notion to encourage aspiring makers, KIFF has stepped down a bit in terms of selection of films to be screened, making contemporary Bengali films a priority and adding many amateurish short films in the bouquet. The open forum of the festival that had earlier witnessed debates among the best of directors and critics, has now turned into a live performance arena and promotional platform for the city's mainstream film industry. In a time where film society movement has lost the influx of people, an initiative like KIFF is supposed to trigger substantial dialogues related to the craft of cinema, but it is going the other way round. If serious film discussions remain restricted to film schools and film study centres, Bengal will keep losing conscious and knowledgeable viewers, which will lead to a general qualitative degradation of Bengali cinema.