Dwindling membership, no funds, punishing rentals. The woes of film societies are all too familiar by now. But a 22-year-old who’s set up a film club with 10,000 members and a corporate sponsor may have just the solution
The Taj Enlighten Film Society is a film society with a difference. Started just three years ago in Mumbai, it has grown to become India’s largest film society today, with 10,000 members and three chapters in Delhi, Surat and Bangalore (this last opened early last month), and another opening in a few months’ time in Kolkata. That’s not all. Taj Enlighten is India’s first “professionally run” film society, claims Pranav Ashar, the society’s 22-year-old co-founder and president. For starters, it has a sponsor — Taj Mahal Brooke Bond. Then, it has exhibition partners, namely Cinemax and Big Cinemas, so members can watch films in air-conditioned comfort.The society also advertises in the print media and on the Internet. Taj Enlighten has a team of 15 people who liaise with embassies, production houses and others to source films; invite filmmakers, actors and scholars to deliver talks after screenings; send out mails with screening schedules to members; design and print cards with trivia on the films being shown and so on.
It’s a far cry from other film societies in India which depend largely on their members’ love for cinema and government doles to survive. Many of these are floundering, especially now that there are specialist channels such as UTV World Movies and NDTV Lumiere screening the best of non-Hollywood/non-Bollywood cinema.
Perhaps the hardest hit are the bigger cities, Kolkata especially, a city that prides itself on being the birthplace of the film society movement in India. The Calcutta Film Society, started a few months after independence in 1947 by Satyajit Ray and others, was India’s first film society, and for long the city boasted the reputation of having the most cine-literate audiences in the country. The Calcutta Film Society is defunct now, and even Cine Central, Calcutta (also founded by Ray in 1965), which remains the biggest and most active of the societies — it organises the Calcutta International Film Festival — is seeing a drain in membership and interest among the viewers, feels Premendra Mazunder, veteran film society activist and vice-president of the Federation of Film Societies of India (FFSI), eastern region.
“At one point, Cine Central had to hold two shows in Nandan II for its films,” remembers Mazumder. “Now there is one show at Nandan IV and that too is thinly attended.” (Nandan is the West Bengal government-run cinema complex with a number of halls of varying capacities — Nandan II is a mini auditorium, while Nandan IV is more of a conference hall.) “In comparison,” says Mazumder, “societies in smaller cities such as Beherampur, Bardhaman and Siliguri are doing far better. The Beherampur Film Society even has its own hall named after Ritwik Ghatak, who lived in the city for a long time.”
“The film society movement in Delhi is dead,” rues U Radhakrishnan, regional secretary of the FFSI and director of the Annual Habitat Film Festival. “The only active societies in the capital are the IIC film club [with 6,000+ members], the Habitat Film Club [around 4,200 members] and the Delhi Malayalee Film Society,” he says.
“There are 211 film societies in India today,” says Sudhir Nandgaonkar, secretary of the FFSI, “with 40,000 members. In a sense, we are far better off now than we were in the 1994-95 when the number had declined to only 100.” Nandgaonkar is also the founder president of Prabhat Chitra Mandal, one of the oldest and most active societies in Mumbai with 900 members. But clearly there are problems, finances being the most prominent. With membership fees stuck at Rs 500 for the past 10 years, as much as 60 per cent of the society’s finances are spent on rentals of AC halls, says Nangaonkar, appealing to the government to step in.
It is south India, especially Kerala, that holds out hope for film societies, points out Mazumder. “There are around 100 film societies in Kerala today,” says V K Joseph, National Award-winning film critic and vice president of the Kerala branch of the FFSI (the state is so big that it got its own branch of the federation around four years ago). “A lot of the credit for this should go to the state government which announced a Rs 50 lakh grant to film societies in last year’s budget.” The Chalachitra Academy, set up by the state in 1998 to promote cinema culture in Kerala, also gives material support to the activities of film societies.
Thiruvananthapuram has large film societies such as Soorya and Chalachitra, but even a smaller city like Thrissur has the very active Jana Samskara Film Society which holds regular ‘international’ film festivals. “In Kerala, cinema classics such as Ray’s Pather Panchali are taught in schools. Colleges have their own film socieities, with many student members making short films and documentaries.” The FFSI in Kerala even has three mobile units with projectors, sound systems and a generator to screen films in villages and towns. But even so, interest has been flagging. “We are swimming against the tide,” admits Joseph.
Perhaps, Ashar had the right idea of blending passion with commerce. He started Taj Enlighten with a business plan and one of the first things he did was to get a sponsor. Thankfully, he didn’t have to look hard. “Our plank was ‘connoisseurship’ and so was that of Brooke Bond, with whom we tied up. They realised it was a perfect fit,” says Ashar. There’s also a relatively high yearly membership fee of Rs 1,500, which helps to make Taj Enlighten “sustainable”. Ashar has also been getting Bollywood personages — such as Farhan Akhtar, Shabana Azmi and Amitabh Bachchan — to Taj Enlighten events. After all, publicity always helps.