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Posted in Art, Living by Rrishi on 30 August 2009

Embassy cultural centres actively promote film, but audiences, though die-hard, are not growing

Still from "Leaving Fear Behind" (c)Everyone knows that Indians love movies. Most of what they watch may be crowd-pleasers from Bollywood or Hollywood, but there is also a tiny yet determined audience for quality cinema from other parts of the world and in other languages, including documentaries, art and non-commercial films. This market too must be fed, and the chief quartermasters to this small army of aficionados are the cultural centres run by the embassies of various countries in India.

The Europeans are among the most active, culturally speaking. The French, Germans, Italians, Spanish, Russians, Hungarians, as well as the Americans, Mexicans, Iranians, Koreans, Japanese and Israelis are all more or less involved in showcasing their cinema to Indians.

There are three main ways of getting films to the audience: by regular screenings on cultural centre or embassy premises, by making bouquets of titles available to organisers of film festivals, and by lending screening copies to the many local film clubs and societies scattered about the country — via the Federation of Film Societies of India (FFSI).

“Alliance Française is number one,” says Wrik Basu, a Mumbai-based National Award-winning young filmmaker, “because of their organisational skill and regularity. They make it a point to have regular screenings and inform people.” France’s cultural interests in India benefit from its network of 20-plus Alliance offices. But ask the French staff and they say that all film selections happen through their embassy cinemateque/DVD-teque (i.e., film library) in Delhi.

At the library, according to the French embassy, they have about 200 films in 35 mm and DVD format. This library is fed by the French ministry of foreign affairs, which buys rights for India from the respective film producers for non-commercial screenings for a certain period. They choose French-language films or those produced with French funds. (Oddly enough, the people who prepare film lists based on this limited bounty are a few of the local Indian staff, who have spent years watching and selecting French films.)

A programme is prepared every two months of eight films highlighting a particular issue or topic — depending on their availability in the film library, half of whose stock is always in circulation. They try not to repeat films for a few years.

Harleen Ahluwalia of the Hungarian Cultural Centre in Delhi, which runs its own Zoltán Fábri Film Club of long standing, explains how they select the films to be sent for screenings. “It depends on the theme.” In October, she says, “for the 53rd anniversary of 1956 we will show films related to the Revolution,” the anti-Stalinist revolt which toppled the government and prompted the Soviets to send in the Red Army. On a regular basis they try and show a mix of “classics, new films and musicals”. Then there are other occasions, such as the birth centenaries of famous directors, marked by retrospectives — such as the one for Márta Mészáros planned for the Kolkata Film Festival this November — and the annual Film Week competition of the Hungarian Film Union, the winners of which are also screened here.

The Goethe Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan, the cultural arm of the German government in India, recently acquired a new director in Delhi. Robin Mallick has a long-standing interest in film — he was for several years director of the Dresden Film Festival — and plans to expand the scope of the Goethe Institut’s films programme here. “The films should be relevant to the audience,” he says. “There are many films in Germany but few will be interesting to Indians.” Topics of mutual interest include “urban development, sustainable development, living in a responsible way, responding to ecological challenges — where both countries are thinking of the long term.”

As with the French but to a lesser degree, German films are sent from the home country: “The headquarters in Munich try to clear rights to the films they consider to be interesting,” Mallick says, but “In some cases we approach them.” He adds, however, that they will continue to seek partners for their screenings — like Osian’s, which hosts an annual film festival.

One informed source says with regard to German films, however, that “Internationally, you have to book, and India is lower on the list, so we don’t always get the best films.” And Rohit Ranjan, working towards an MPhil in film studies at JNU, says of the French screenings that “Films definitely take some time to come, plus some of the directors are not well-known in India, so you never know how well they are received abroad.”

More informal in its choice-making is the Foundation for Universal Responsibility of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, where programme manager Thupten Tsewang says “We actually go through Google to try and find films” on Tibet, for which they then write for permission to screen around the world — and not just in India. “We found many from 1915 till now,” including To Lhasa and Shigatse, filmed in Tibet in 1929 by an American ethnologist. He does add that, given political sensitivity, they have to pay attention to content and “We try to show what is authentic.”

One frequent client of the Hungarian centre is the Dharwad Film Club, in Hubli, Karnataka. A M Khan helps organise its programmes. The club shows 20-24 films a year to its 130 devoted members. Most of the films come through FFSI, to which Khan’s club is affiliated. “It lends the film on a subsidised rate which is affordable to us.” (Indeed, rental charges and postal notices to its members consume much of the club’s meagre budget.) Going through FFSI helps allay embassies’ worries about illegal copying of DVDs or IPR violation. In some cases he approaches embassies directly; and otherwise they screen local art films which never get a theatrical release — in such cases the directors are often happy to come and hold a discussion with members after the screening.

Despite all this activity, says Ranjan, “I think the audience is decreasing.” With pirated DVDs in the market, TV channels like NDTV Lumière, and some Indian distributors buying rights direct from producers abroad, fewer people attend film screenings. Basu says, of Mumbai, “Not everyone has their own screening theatre, and getting access to one is getting harder in Mumbai. But there is something important in going and watching films with other people. Watching alone is okay — but it’s not the same.”

(Visit the website of Leaving Fear Behind, the film from which the image above is taken. And, full disclosure: Wrik Basu is a an old friend.)

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