Why should Puram have all the fun?

As Thiruvananthapuram revels in the grandiose spectacle that is IFFK, grumblings and groans are heard from across Kochi, the state’s unofficial cinema capital
A scene from a music concert held as part of IFFK in Thiruvananthapuram I B P Deepu
A scene from a music concert held as part of IFFK in Thiruvananthapuram I B P Deepu

When Kerala hosted the National Games in 1985, the then-chief minister E K Nayanar, in a move considered a departure from the norm, decided not to hold the events at a single location but instead spread them across six cities — Kannur, Kozhikode, Thrissur, Kochi, Kollam and Alappuzha.

He believed that this way, the sports spectacle would give a much-needed fillip to grass-roots level sports organisations in the state. And it did. The following two decades saw Kerala emerge as a top contender at the Games. This strategy is as much true for other industries as it is for sports, including cinema.

Indeed, the very impetus for conceiving the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) came as a result of the state getting to host the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), which, like the National Games, was also moved around annually to inspire this very action.

Hosting IFFI in 1998 cultivated an interest in cinema and led to the creation of several film societies throughout the state. The film society movement helped to raise film literacy among people. The first IFFK, held in Kozhikode in 1996, was the crest of the wave that had been gathering momentum for the past eight years. Fittingly, it was held the same year that also marked the 100th anniversary of cinema.

According to Shaji N Karun, the chairman of Kerala State Film Development Corporation (KSFDC), the agency that rolled out the festival, the initial idea was to see the festival hosted in different districts. “This way, it could support the cinema and film-making ecosystem in all these regions. In addition, it could also help raise awareness among film buffs. After Kozhikode, Kochi, and Thiruvananthapuram, the plan was for Wayanad to host the festival,” Shaji says.

However, somewhere along the way, the idea was abandoned. “It was a policy decision. Someone deemed it fitting that the capital city hosted the event,” explains Shaji, who was the premiere chairman of the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy, which took over the role of organising the festival from KSFDC in 1998.

The award-winning director rues how the International Film Festival of Kerala has become the International Film Festival of Thiruvananthapuram. “Initially, we named it so (i.e. International) with the intention of getting the whole of Kerala to embrace the event. Sadly, it has been relegated to a ‘property’ of the Thiruvananthapuram people,” adds Shaji.

Recently, in an exclusive dialogue with us, filmmaker Ranjith, who helms the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy, asserted that there is no plan to shift the festival venue. “Every film festival must have a festival city. For IFFK, it is Thiruvananthapuram.”

C Ajoy, the secretary and executive director of IFFK, explains why. “IFFK is an internationally acclaimed festival accredited with the Fédération Internationale des Associations de Producteurs de Films (FIAPF) or the International Federation of Film Producers Associations. As per their regulation, the festival should have a permanent location.

Like the Berlin Film Festival, Busan Film Festival and back home, the International Film Festival of India, which is held every year in Panaji, Goa. So, we cannot shift the location out of Thiruvananthapuram. It happened only once, and that too due to Covid. For that, we had to get special permission from FIAPF,” he says. “Besides, Thiruvananthapuram has more government-run theatres than Kochi. The capital city also has Nishagandhi, a large open air auditorium,” Alok adds.

However, grumblings and groans of disappointment are heard from all corners of Kochi, the unofficial cinema capital of Kerala. From artists to commoners, Kochiites are demanding that the city be turned into a permanent regional film-screening centre for IFFK.

Kochi has had a tryst with IFFK on more than one occasion in recent years — in 2020, when the festival was spread across four cities (Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi, Thalassery, and Palakkad) on account of Covid, and in 2021, when Kochi was selected as the regional film festival venue for the 26th IFFK. However, last year, the city was skipped by the festival organisers.

“The film festival should come to Kochi,” says Shiji Abraham, a movie buff. “At least the organisers should accept Kochi as a permanent venue for regional screenings, in addition to another centre, which can change every year. I don’t understand the logic of not even holding screenings in Kochi, which is the centre of Mollywood,” says Shiji.

However, Binu K P, another cinephile from Kochi who never misses a theatre release, asserts that Kochi would have been the ideal festival venue. “A beautiful city, infrastructurally developed, smack in the middle of the state with ample connectivity. The festival could have become much more if it was held in Kochi,” he says. But he adds that not even holding satellite programmes or special screenings is a huge logical flaw.

Rohit Jose, a movie buff and a renowned artist, seconds this. According to him, scores of people from other districts make their way to Thiruvananthapuram to participate in IFFK. “Thiruvananthapuram is too far, even from Kochi. Imagine what it would be like for those who hail from the Malabar region. That’s not all. Kochi is also the hub of cinema. You have the headquarters of key cinema-related associations (AMMA,  FEUOK) here. So won’t it make better sense to host, if not the entire festival, then some screenings here as well?” Rohit asks.

Director Vignesh P Sasidharan, whose second film Scheherazade is being screened at the IFFK, argues that holding regional screenings in Kochi would be a huge impetus to budding independent filmmakers. 

“When my first film, Uddharani, was screened in 26th IFFK, the response from Thiruvananthapuram was lukewarm, as many festival-goers prefer watching international films. For me, it was Kochi that gave me a boost as more people came to see my film. Kochiites chose films democratically,” Vignesh says.

Malayalam cinema that gets screened in IFFK rarely gets a theatrical release. If you miss them at the festival, you will never get to see them again, warns the director. Of all the Malayalam independent productions screened at the 26th IFFK, only Avasa Vyooham by Krishand got an OTT release. “Even the festival’s favourite, Prappeda, didn’t get an OTT release,” Vignesh adds.

Like Vignesh, many echo that missing Kochi as a regional venue is a loss for filmmakers. Christo Tomy, a two-time national award-winning writer and director, says, “Many IFFK regulars often go to regional screenings to watch the movies they missed at the festival or for a second viewing of their favourite flicks. If the regional screenings are held in Kochi, which has more connectivity, more people are likely to attend. In that sense, the metro city holds importance to budding artists,” says Christo.

“Limiting Thiruvananthapuram as the only venue in Kerala for the screening of critically acclaimed Malayalam independent movies also affects the public,” says Uma Kumarapuram, a cinematographer and filmmaker. “For the public, this is the only opportunity to watch these gems. Especially homemakers and regular employees who cannot take a week-long break to attend screenings. Also, given how Kochi is the hub of many activities in the state, I believe the city would be much more welcoming to the fest,” Uma adds.

Mrudula Murali, actress and model, welcomes the idea. “There are a lot of film enthusiasts in Kochi. This is evident from the number of film screenings that happen here every weekend, albeit in silos and without adequate promotions. Screenings in Kochi would build an ecosystem of cinema-goers and film enthusiasts,” says Mrudula.

According to C Ajoy, secretary and executive director of IFFK, venues for the regional festival have not been decided yet. These screenings are done independently and usually only happen months after the main festival.

While Alok admits that there is a growing chorus to see Kochi turned into a permanent screening venue, he points out that “the whole idea of a regional festival is to ensure that cinema reaches various places and people. That is why we change venues every year.” Last year, the festival was held in Kottayam and Taliparamba. “We will decide the regional venues and the list of movies by January,” he adds.

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