Godard’s Own Country, The IFFK and the oddities of Malayali cinephilia (Caravan)
[Renowned filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan interacts with children at Thiruvananthapuram’s Public Library in 2008. In 2000, he decided to make the city permanent venue for the festival and accessible to anyone for a nominal fee of S100.]
THE FIRST THING I HEAR IN THIRUVANANTHAPURAM is a Kim Ki-duk joke. A Malayali goes to Seoul and is wandering the streets of the South Korean capital. But no one seems to know where the famous filmmaker lives. Tired and disheartened, the Malayali is about to give up when he sees a house bearing the sign “Beena Paul has blessed this house”—and he knows his search has come to an end.
If that seems a bit hard to decipher at first, worry not. Like the film festival that spawned it, the joke depends on a sensibility that’s simultaneously international art-house and merrily, irrevocably local.
It requires you to know who Kim Ki-duk is—an art-house director whose films often bomb at his country’s box office, but who is internationally renowned for his alternately savage and lyrical cinema (his Pieta won the Golden Lion at Venice this year). It also requires you to know who Beena Paul is—the Artistic Director, since 2000, of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), a woman of remarkable foresight and enthusiasm. It assumes you know that Beena Paul curated a hugely popular Kim Ki-duk retrospective at IFFK as far back as 2005, making him a household name in the state. And last but not least, it assumes (an ability to appreciate the irreverent marshalling of) local knowledge: many Christian homes in Kerala have a sign outside proclaiming ‘Jesus Christ has blessed this house’.
The religious metaphor has its place in the joke, too. The IFFK, whose 17th edition will run from 7 to 14 December 2012, is the largest secular festival in a multi-religious state. Every December, Kerala’s rather sleepy capital city, Thiruvananthapuram, plays host to what is arguably the most widely attended film festival in South Asia, with screenings in many theatres witnessing such a massive press of people, especially in the initial days, that people constantly joke about the IFFK-as-pilgrimage. “The first film I went to last year was at Ajanta, and the crowd outside was just a mob. People were mock-chanting ‘Swamiye Ayyapo’—because it felt like being at the Sabarimala temple,” said Praveena Kodoth, an economics professor at Thiruvananthapuram’s Centre for Development Studies.
The numbers are impressive. Last year’s festival, held from 9 to 16 December, had 9,232 registered delegates. “If you include media-persons, officials and guests, the number of people registered came to over 11,000,” says Beena Paul Venugopal.
But what makes the IFFK remarkable isn’t so much the numbers as something else—a popular enthusiasm for world cinema that, far from being limited to the post-liberalisation English-speaking metropolitan elite that tends to dominate film festival audiences in other urban centres, seems to cut across class. The most obvious (but also most far-reaching) sign of this wide-ranging interest is the fact that the festival handbook, as well as the daily free newsletter brought out during each IFFK, are bilingual. In the case of the handbook, section headings and introductions are in English, but each film synopsis is provided in both English and Malayalam. Venugopal is full of stories about running into festival regulars who come from all walks of life: auto rickshaw drivers in Malappuram, or Thiruvananthapuram nurses who take leave for IFFK. “The funny thing about Kerala is that… a film festival is not only judged by the quality of the films or the people who attend or even the press it gets,” Venugopal said in an interview published in 2011. “It is judged by whether it was a popular success, whether it was a people’s festival.”
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