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Umbra is a quarterly newspaper on screen culture published by Lightcube out of India. Its pages feature major developments in the sectors of film preservation, film archiving, film society activism, funding for alternative films and film literature. Its focus is to establish a broad narrative or a lineage between the state of these areas in the past and their condition in the present. To this aim, Umbra runs a number of interviews, essays, program notes, festival coverage, listings and annotated filmographies in its issues.

BLOG

Umbra Blog presents excerpts from its issues, special interviews and writeups that could not make it to the issue.

WRITERS

Anubhav Dasgupta, H.N. Narahari Rao, Isabel Stevens, Kartikeya Jain, Pawan K. Shrivastava, Purti Purwar, Rahee Punyashloka, Ramesh Hambram, Shaunak Mukhopadhyay, Shivarth Pandey, Sudarshan Ramani, Sudipto Basu, Suraj Prasad Mahato

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The Call of the New: The Film Society Movement in the Future

From the Vaults: Issue 1 (Aug-Sept 2013)

The film society movement started with the aim to demarcate the vulgarized mainstream cinema that was regularly projected in cinemas and cinema as Art, writes H N Narahari Rao, Secretary, FIPRESCI India.

Illustration by Sourav Chatterjee

 

Film society activism in India, particularly in the last decade, has undergone total transformation. This is because of various phenomena, that are affecting it directly and at a great pace. Firstly, because of the advent of digital technology; secondly, because the utility of a film society is different from what it was closer to its formation, and thirdly, because the older film society activists are totally disillusioned because of an inability to keep pace with the rapid changes that are taking place in this field.

As per the statistics available with the Federation of Film Societies of India (FFSI), there are around two hundred film societies in different regions affiliated to the FFSI, but most of these exist only on paper and only a few societies conduct regular activities.

Why this downturn? Is it because the need for film societies has dwindled? No. There is a large number of individuals who still prefer to view titles that do not play in the commercial theatres. These include repertory classics, regional cinema, and also, contemporary films that have won acclaim within the international festival circuit but have very little probability of playing at a theatre near this viewer. The very enthusiastic response received in terms of delegate participation at various international film festivals being held annually is sufficient testament to this increasing public desire for the alternative.

A vast selection of these films are easily available on both the primary digital formats: blu-ray and the DVD. Various marketing agencies, film distributors, online retail websites, film institutes and film bodies, etc. are working in the sector to release them. The legal advantage of this situation is that these institutions are copyright owners, and the copies in circulation are not pirated. Ideally, it should be the prerogative of the Federation to establish an exhaustive library of these digital releases. At any rate, circulation of DVDs is not as cumbersome or tedious as 16mm or 35mm prints that a film society activist had to deal with till a decade and a half ago.

The only question, then, is how do film societies screen these films for their members?

Most of these titles are not permitted for public screening. Instead, they are sold and distributed only for the cause of home viewing. While there does exist a provision for screenings for study purposes within educational institutions, even these require censor exemption. Needless to say, this is a rather long-winded process, and one of the central issues that must feature in FFSI’s discussion with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

Ever since the initial days of the film society movement in the 1950s and 60s, the main providers for foreign films for purposes of screening were the foreign embassies, consulates and cultural centers in India. The normal course of action for the Federation was to source the films in the resident(16mm or 35mm) formats, procure the censorship exemption and then circulate them among the various affiliated film societies in different regions. Over the years, the supply of high-quality programming and titles available with the foreign missions has dwindled drastically; they now sparingly lend a few DVDs to select centres. About the quality of these titles at an average, the less said the better.

In a situation like this, even these embassies or consulates have to pay royalties to the right owners, for a specific, pre-determined number of screenings. Quite directly, this is to say that we cannot expect any sort of assistance from these bodies. As far as obtaining titles from the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) is concerned, most of the titles available with them are on 35mm and 16mm formats; thereby rendering most film societies incapable of screening them because while 16 mm is now totally outdated, 35 mm screenings have become prohibitively expensive.

But right in the face of this rather bleak prospect, the vast proliferation of digital tech has come as a shot-in-the-arm for the film society movement. In fact, it has created a new dimension within the act of screening a film. The primary transformative power of this technological upheaval is in terms of accessibility to and availability of these titles.

In the early days of its being, the movement had a very simple objective, i.e., of drawing clear lines and of distinction. The idea to proclaim and protect the notion of cinema as Art and creating a clear demarcation with the vulgarized mainstream form of commercial cinema, that was being regularly projected at most public theatres. The long-standing influence of Italian neo-realism on the film society movement and the pivotal event of Pather Panchali’s release in 1955 fostered a new awakening that resulted in a braver, smaller cinema. Most of these films were often of a low budget (and of low production quality) and could not yield any significant economic gain because they weren’t permitted into the commercial circuit at all. But this utter failure was more than compensated for the vast acclaim these films won at the state, national and sometimes, the international level. It is in this context, that of the protection and exhibition of this alternative vision of the cinema, that the film society movement developed its most significant objectives.

Another significant development is in terms of the films themselves – there are no clear, unequivocal boundaries between art and entertainment anymore. These distinctions were rather significant for the film societies in their earlier days, because it assisted them in their programming. There were days when film societies, in the name of ‘Art Cinema’, screened a number of worthless films just because these did not contain the usual ingredients of the commercial cinema. In the absence of this distinction, a number of film societies are faced with this particular dilemma, one which they cannot resolve. This also features among the reasons for the decline of the larger movement.

As per the constitution of the Federation, Film Societies are legally required be registered under the Registrar of Societies Act. This has various ramifications. A film society is required, as an imperative, therefore, to observe a number of formalities, regulations and guidelines. We have observed that in the recent years, film society activists are largely unable to find time for these. However, if the Federation consciously makes the necessary structural revisions and also undertakes the establishment of a library of specifically curated titles, as well as consciously guide a new generation of viewers, a number of volunteers will participate in an informal way. Communication itself has undergone a sea-change. Therefore, screenings can be publicized via social media outlets, digital platforms, SMSes, and emails. Digital projection on LCD screens can be easily arranged within a small hall and a group of film lovers can gather at this venue. In fact, many such screenings now take place in residential colonies and smaller spaces with a gathering of 50 to 100 individuals. The bottom line being: if the Federation does not move with the time, the future of an organized film society movement seems rather bleak.




On Finding Life in Death: Interview with Thomas Lüchinger and Samuel Kellenberger

From the 5th Lakeside Doc Festival, Naukuchiatal, 14-17 April, 2017

Thomas Lü​chinger's filmography is generously sprinkled with philosophical ideas, particularly those of Buddhism and the Baha'i faith. At the 5th Lakeside Documentary Festival held in April 2017 in Naukuchiatal, Uttarakhand, we spoke to the Swiss filmmaker and the co-editor, Samuel Kellenberger, about their latest film, Being There (Da Sein).

Thomas, you began your career as a professor of visual arts and then moved on to filmmaking. Was this shift anticipated by those around you or were you aware that you might pick up filmmaking eventually?
I think for about fifteen years now, we have had very good film schools in Switzerland. Young students now have a chance to get great education and learn what they need to in order to become filmmakers; there are a lot of young filmmakers in Switzerland now. But things were completely different when I started. A lot of people decided to do it in the same way as I. Many anthropologists, sociologists became interested in filmmaking, with a focus on social issues. Things have changed now; a lot of young filmmakers are interested in teaching film.

Anja Bombelli was a consistent collaborator on your early films as an editor, but you later moved on to editing your films on your own. Could you describe your working relationship with her?
Anja Bombelli is a very well-known editor in Switzerland. We just wanted to make a movie; we never had any plans to make our first documentary a part of ‘Cinema’. She was a tough editor, and I learnt a lot from her. I had never edited such a long film before. I learnt to become a filmmaker not through the process of filming, but through that of editing because only then could I see my mistakes, realise what I was missing, and think about ways to rectify those errors. She, therefore, became a very important guide and teacher for me. We had arguments at the editing table. I realised the importance of working with an editor. In a way, she was controlling me, and I was controlling her because her point of view was completely new. I always thought of the film in terms of time, while she thought of it in terms of the story. If you are too closely involved with the story, it is very difficult sometimes to find an abstract point of view because the way I make documentaries — they become movies at the editing table. I don’t work with a script around which my film revolves. The final film might be very different from what I initially had in mind. Editing, therefore, is the most difficult and crucial process which affects how you tell a story. A secondary perspective can be very inspiring.

Thomas Lüchinger (left) and Samuel Kellenberger

Samuel, how would you describe your experience of editing Being There with Thomas?
SK:
The difference between Thomas and me is that he read a lot of books and did his research on the subject of death and caregiving, while I did not do that. So I approached the film with completely ignorant eyes — ignorant in the sense that I knew nothing at all, but I had an interest in learning and discovering, and that made for quite a good combination. If the editor does not have an extensive knowledge about the subject, he is akin to an audience member in the theatre who comes without being prepared. So the editor has to ask himself, ‘How can I tell this story to the audience in a way that s/he understands?’
TL: Yes, this is what I meant by the importance of a secondary perspective. For us, the most challenging part was to consolidate 180 hours of footage into a proper structure because you can easily get lost in all this material. It was, therefore, very helpful for me to have an editor like Samuel who prepared everything so clearly. We had a lot of interviews which needed to be translated and transcribed. Finally, we began to choose the most important quotes from the protagonists, and that is the way we started structuring the film because we knew that the message of this documentary could only be conveyed through the spoken word. The four portraits made for a three hour-long film, but we were aware that we had to shorten it to about ninety minutes, which was very hard to do. It was only at the end that we started to weave the four narratives together, for which we had another person (Rolf Lang), who provided us with yet another perspective from the outside. The whole process was very intense and took us one year.

You mentioned that you picked up certain quotes from different protagonists. These are very interestingly interspersed with visual imagery of nature, such as the sky and the sea. To my mind, it contrasts our smallness as human beings against the vastness of the universe, and lends a very refined visual texture to the film. What kind of equipment do you use to achieve this technical finesse?
We told one story at one level with the protagonists being interviewed and looking after dying people. We tried to tell a second story with the use of images such as trees, the empty bed at the end, a lot of images from nature. It was a whole other structure in a way, and this is very important because firstly it is about transmission — going from one thing into another — like the coming and going of waves. Ron (the American protagonist) talks about this in the film. Secondly, it conveys the idea of how people need space, how we need to create a space for the dying. It was thus a way to give the audience a space to digest the film, so to speak, to give them time to think.

Most of the shooting was done with Alpha 7S because I knew I would have to film in dark locations. We carried a microphone boom and a tripod as well. I had a very simple kit to move the camera around. When we were in Rio, we went up to the favelas, which are very dangerous because of the crime rate. Everybody was scared to move around because these areas are controlled by the drug mafias, and they don’t like cameras at all. I was almost unable to film up there, so I had to cover my camera with my jacket so that nobody could see it. I would shoot for perhaps a minute and then immediately cover it; it was very intense, and for that reason I was very happy to have such good quality in a very small equipment.

Did you come close to encountering any sort of trouble? Were there any incidences?
Not really, but there was a lot of tension. Once some people with walkie-talkies showed up because of us. I was so naïve in a way because I didn’t feel afraid since I did not know the situation, but they knew it, and they were much more afraid than I was. I felt quite safe because we had four people to guide us all the way into the favelas with cameras.

While watching the film, I could not help but think of Martin Heidegger who, in his book Being and Time, explores the concept of da sein, of being there. He writes that the philosophy of ‘being there’ has a central paradox in the sense that while our existence has meaning in relation to other human beings, in the end, we are essentially alone with ourselves. I observed this with regard to Elizabeth in the beginning of the film as she is trying to find her position in the world, and she only finds meaning when she begins to tend to others. By the end of the film, Ron echoes the same sentiment when he mulls over the prospect of his own death. How do you think one can reconcile these contrasting ideas?
(Smiles) I would need a lot of time to talk about that, but I can tell you about my impression of the protagonists. All of them talk about their suffering — Elizabeth went through a lot; Ron escaped being shot to death. He mentions that he was a lost boy, became an alcoholic and a drug addict, and got involved in criminal activities. After he got in touch with this ALS patient, he went through something quite interesting. This ALS patient, who was suffering because of his disease, gave Ron a chance to transform himself. He took Ron to a desert for twelve days where he fasted for five-six days under the guidance of the patient, the sick person. After that, Ron started to care for him. For me, it is an incredible story. To paraphrase what His Holiness the Dalai Lama once said: the best way to become happy is to make someone else happy. To me, all the four people in my film exemplify this wonderfully because in spite of their own difficulties, they help others as they face the end of their lives, and in doing so, they redeem themselves. Actually this is not so much a film about dying as it is about living, about being there.




Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep

by Suraj Prasad

An email from Anuj, rather wistful, pushed us to make an effort to visit Regal cinema in Connaught Place for its last show ever. Although we were aware of the ancient cinema closing down that very day, somehow it did not upset me enough. Nevertheless, we made some calls to find out if anyone could arrange tickets to the last show, but everywhere we called, people acted shocked. It was as if we were informing people of Regal’s closing down, so they would in turn ask us if we could also help them in getting a ticket in the same tone of voice when people expect you to express condolences when you inform them of someone’s demise; they don’t really want to be there, but they also don’t want you to feel they are insensitive.

With no easy solution working out, one had to actually make a trip and try their ‘luck’ to maybe get a ticket in ‘black’. So, Sumeet left early from office to see if tickets could be bought, while I planned to reach later and catch the last show at 10pm. In about half an hour Sumeet called to tell me that she did get a ticket, but would be unable to watch the 6:30 pm show of Mera Naam Joker, so I packed up and left for Regal.

Around 6:35 pm, when I reached Regal, I noticed that there was a considerably large crowd, much larger than what Regal had seen in the last decade or so. I stood below the banner that read “REGAL — New Delhi’s Premier Theatre” and lit up a cigarette before I went inside; there were many who were clicking selfies next to the posters.

To my surprise, the ticket counter opened up and they did have rear stall tickets for the later show at ten in the night, and they were available aplenty. So I booked two tickets, just in case someone called asking for one. The film had started playing when I went into the theatre, but more than the film and the audience, what welcomed me were the stench of damp walls and an unpleasant smell from the men’s restroom. I settled down and watched the film for a bit. The projection was tilted, the sound was very difficult to hear. No one could hear much, but people hummed along with whatever they could hear.

When the film got over and the lights came up, one could see the paint peeling off the walls, cobwebs and smudges, seats that were probably cleaned years ago; the front stall with seats without cushions was mostly empty. The floor was uneven and almost cracking up. I walked along the corridors, discovering more decay and a room that looked as though it had caved in. The space looked terrible; the memory of a building that was once beautiful. There were a few old, black and white photographs of old Bollywood actors.

The cafeteria was abuzz, and the manager was happy because all the sandwiches were getting sold and the popcorn, too, was almost finished; people ate like there was no tomorrow. I stepped out since there was an hour to kill before the show. Outside there was a frenzy of people clicking selfies, news crews hunting for that one sound bite to place on national television, and people enacting grief so it could be them. I, too, clicked some photos, smoked a few cigarettes, and hoped that someone would turn up to use the other ticket I had. A journalist, who was also on a cigarette break, was on phone trying to convince his boss that he should stay for longer because he was sure to get a lot of material for television coverage.

Soon there was a massive group of people who all glued to one cell phone on a selfie stick. They were live on Facebook. Every person in the corridor had a story to narrate, an anecdote to share about Regal. I, too, recalled my father telling me about the time when he would sleep in front of the cinema on the footpath when he had come to Delhi for the first time looking for work sometime in the early eighties.

I glanced at the ticket counter, and people were still buying tickets, contrary to reports of the show being sold out. It was difficult to decipher exactly what the staff was feeling — it seemed that the recent troubled past was coming to an end, almost like an old, sick person was going to die and the caretakers would no longer have to clean the mess every day. In the projection room, too, the projectionists were getting many visitors with their cameras and recorders, asking them questions about the theatre and the time they had spent there. Several journalists had queued up to interview the two men, their cameras steadfastly pointed at them.

The last show started on time, and while people could already hear the title track of the film, they were still outside clicking selfies. I made my way inside again to see Sangam. It finished well past midnight, and by the time I got outside the hall, there was another group exiting from the theatre singing songs from the film while a television camera followed them. The song ended and another one started and the chorus grew louder. A television journalist told his colleague that he had asked a few of them to come out singing these songs. Everyone then chanted in unison, ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai.’

Outside the frenzy of selfies still continued, and soon people were also collecting memorabilia, tearing off the posters; some even got them autographed from the manager. Gradually, the crowd died out, the frenzy was over, a group of photographers jumped to take shots of the gatekeeper drawing the grilles and locking up the place. They all took several attempts to get the perfect shot of him putting the lock in and turning the key. He seemed distressed.

I smoked another cigarette, strolled in the corridor for a while, bumped into Kunal Dutt, the guy who ran a campaign to save a historical site in Patna, and we had a nifty chat about conservation of historical, heritage sites which have such cultural importance while strolling across to the center of Connaught Place. We called for a cab and decided to continue the conversation on the way.




The Place is Waiting: Interview with Roop Ghai

A Still from Sangam

At a recently concluded documentary film festival, I watched an Alexandru Belc film, Cinema Mon Amour, about its manager’s struggle to keep one of the very last cinemas in Romania alive and functional. The camera follows the manager as he ambles through the theatre and recalls the days when the place was bustling with activity. ‘How do things look now?’, his voiceover contemplates, ‘...like the place is waiting.’ It seemed perfectly timed, for my mind made a journey backward, two weeks prior to this, when I was in the middle of a rather rambunctious event that, for all its well-intended evocation of nostalgia, was slowly unfolding with bacchanal glee. Every newspaper and channel wanted to partake of it. What struck me as odd was that for many others in the room, it was a funeral. Roop Ghai, the manager, was swamped by media persons, so I made an appointment to speak with him at ease after returning from the documentary festival. Ghai’s career as a theatre manager spans over four decades, the last of which he has spent as the custodian of Delhi’s oldest and most famous cinema, Regal. As the vanguard of single-screen cinemas prepares to pave the way for a multiplex, we sit in the nearly deserted lobby, save for the security guard and two former employees of the movie theatre, to understand the cultural and economic implications of this move.

Can you tell us about the changes in Regal since you took over?
Regal was Raj Kapoor’s favourite cinema. His films always had a premiere here, and he would do havan-puja before the film screening and break the coconut at the foot of the film projector. In its heydays, Regal was starlit; the biggest names in the show business would grace the red carpet. People would stand in queues for hours to get a ticket. In the last few years, many changes took place. The manner of projection is no longer the same as it has given way to digital technology. Now the films that run here are downloaded via a satellite link.

In terms of the infrastructure, we refurbished the theatre, replaced the seats, repaired the restrooms, but the public prefers multiplexes. Various other technological devices such as computers and mobile phones have become a source of entertainment for the masses, which keep them away from cinemas.

Rumours about Regal shutting down gained strength over the last one year or so. What has been your experience through this uncertain phase?
We were trying to acquire permission from several authorities to convert this into a multiplex. We have closed the theatre now, but we are still waiting for a few civic bodies to green-light the plan.

As for the uncertainty, there was none. It is the public that demands multiplexes. Single-screen cinemas have fixed show timings: four shows a day with a gap of three hours each. Multiplexes offer a huge advantage here — many films play simultaneously, and each film has multiple shows. Also, most of the films these days are of a shorter duration. A moviegoer, therefore, does not have to wait for three hours for the next show to begin if s/he misses or gets late for the current show.  It is not only the young generation, but even the old do not prefer going to single-screen cinemas.

But isn’t the idea of ‘the public’ that you speak of rather elitist?
There are only three releases every year that pull in crowd and make money, those starring the three big Khans: Shah Rukh, Aamir, and Salman. No other film is as profitable as these are. A large share of the revenue gets taxed — there is service tax, entertainment tax, house tax. The daily minimum wages have increased. In such a situation, for the rest of the year, how is a cinema owner meant to survive in this city? The government should waive off taxes for single screen cinemas, electricity and water should be provided at subsidised rates. The owner cannot keep burning a hole in his pocket.

What about the working classes for whom this step spells, in a way, the death of entertainment?
The popular notion of ‘the common man’ does not extend to the working class. Forty years in this business have taught me that the producers-distributors do not take them into account. As far as the concerns of the middle class go, I would like to give an example. Bobby (1973) was first released in Punjab, not Delhi. I was a college student then, and people used to travel for over an hour to watch the film in Rohtak. My point is that if a film is great, the price of the ticket — be it Rs 50 or Rs 100 — becomes immaterial to those who are sincerely interested in watching it. However, there is a dearth of great films; most of them are not profitable. Cinema owners have to, therefore, rely on the Khan-starrers.

The cinema owner may or may not take public interest into account, but for how long do you expect him to survive when he is shelling out money from his own pocket? The tag of a heritage building cannot cover costs. We had to pay approximately Rs 4 lakhs for electricity.

One of the many people who spent the evening clicking pictures

Can you elaborate on the choice of screening Mera Naam Joker and Sangam as Regal’s swan song?
Our aim with screening Raj Kapoor’s films was nostalgic. Regal was his favourite cinema, and it is here that his films had their premiere. The elderly turned up in large numbers on the last day because they wanted to relive their experience of watching Raj Kapoor’s films here. It was extremely heartening to see so many people gathered here after a very long time; it took me back to the 70s and 80s.

What do you think of the public’s hypocrisy in turning up for the last film, when they hadn’t watched a film here in perhaps a decade?
Both the shows — Mera Naam Joker and Sangam — were sold out because of Raj Kapoor. Otherwise, we never quite had the same multitude in the last few years. The old came to take a walk down the memory lane, and they brought their children along to show them the place they frequented in their youth.

Why the older generation stopped watching films at Regal is a question that I have no answer for. All I know is that they came in hordes on the last day to show their support; that act in itself shows that Regal has, after all these years, always held a special place their hearts.

Since pre-Independence, CP was famous for its quartet of single-screen cinemas. What made Regal stand out among the rest?
Regal is famous all over the world. Many single-screen cinemas have closed down over the years — Vishal, Samrat, Golcha — but none made headlines the way Regal did. This place served as a landmark, as a meeting point. No one ever asked their friends to meet them near Rivoli, which is a stone’s throw away, or near Plaza or Odeon. Many among those who came here on the last day did not actually watch the film. They toured the place and clicked pictures to refresh their memories, but did not leave until late night. Instead, they stayed behind and sang songs from Mera Naam Joker, and the media persons were more than eager to document their activities. I had to plead with them with folded hands to leave the venue, for the next film, Sangam, was about to start.

Go Home. Party's Over.
 

What are the plans for the future?
We have sought permission to convert the place. We are waiting for the approval. The workers and former employees of Regal have been paid their dues. The second floor is owned by Mr Bakshi, who will convert the building into a wax museum.





COLUMNS:ARCHIVAL, INTERVIEW, FESTIVAL, TECHREVIEW, FUTURE TRENDS, CAMPUS, EXCLUSIVES, REAR VIEW
EDITOR: SUMEET KAUR    MANAGING EDITOR: ISHAAN BANERJEE
CONSULTANT: SANJAY WADHWA    WEB ARCHITECT: SURAJ PRASAD
---------------------------
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