Thursday, October 05, 2006

My Experiments with an Alternate Screening System

At 1.00 A.M this morning, I had one of the strangest screenings in my life. An audience of around 650 Tulu speaking hotel laborers watched my Tulu digital feature film, SUDDHA (The Cleansing Rites) at the Vishweshwaraiya Auditorium, Matunga run by the Karnataka Sangha, Mumbai. Karnataka Sangha is one of the premium Kannada organizations culturally active in Mumbai.

Mumbai, as many of you are aware, is the home for ‘Udupi Hotels’ – eateries that provide cheap and affordable food stuff to the city’s population. Most of the management staff as well as the labor force in these hotels are migrants from the Tulu speaking coastal belt of Karnataka. Over the years many of these hotels have graduated to being Beer Bars and are often kept open, till late in the night. The Karnataka Sangha, apart from being responsible for thought provoking programs relating to music, literature and theater, also caters to the entertainment needs of these migrant hotel workers, by letting out its premises to either professional Yakshagana (a popular traditional folk form) troupes or semi-professional Tulu drama troupes, both from Coastal Karnataka.

It works like this – the shows start from 12.00 AM, in the wee hours of the morning. The Beer Bars close around this time. The migrant hotel workers can catch the last train after his work shift to watch these shows. The shows themselves go on till 6.00 AM. The workers can then go back to their respective hotels, catch up with their sleep so that they have enough time to get ready for their afternoon shift. It was my dream to get though to this audience.

‘Chiguru Chandana’, an organization in Mumbai, had arranged to stage a ‘super hit comedy’ play called ‘Porludaaye!’ or The Smart Man!, performed by ‘Lakumi’; a semi-professional troupe from Mangalore. The duration of such plays is normally flexible – from three to four hours, depending on the improvisation capabilities of the actors.

But today, ‘Porludaaye!’ was restricted to three hours for, before the play, they had arranged the screening of ‘the award winning’ film SUDDHA. Over the last two months SUDDHA was in the news all over the local Kannada press, and the organizers probably thought it will bring in the crowd.

Asha Marnad, an actress who had acted in SUDDHA and who had since then become a semi-professional theater artist in Mangalore, was also acting in ‘Porludaaye!’. A local kannada newspaper ‘Karnataka Malla’ carried an advertisement of the play. It also had an invite for the film. It screamed, ‘Award Winning Film... only one show… Watch our artist Asha Marnad in SUDDHA’.

The ticket rates for such plays are anywhere between Rs. 75/- to Rs.150/-. Sometimes, when the halls are empty, the organizers incur losses. The enterprising men who arrange such shows minimize their risks by getting hold of sponsors, who partly pay for the expenses. In return, their banner is prominently displayed at the venue and then some times, the play is stopped half way through and, in the wee hours in the morning, the sponsor is felicitated!

‘Chiguru Chandana’ was not only showing the play ‘Porludaaye!’, but it was also screening SUDDHA. Besides, it was also having a variety entertainment program during the interval. All these for a rate of Rs. 100/-, the tickets basically meant for the play. The screening of SUDDHA and the variety entertainment program was supposed to be free. Buy one, take two free! The capacity of the auditorium was 750 and there were around 650 people, mostly men, watching the movie. A few came late, but hardly anyone left the hall during the screening.

SUDDHA was always being branded as a film for the ‘classes’ or as a slow ‘art film’ that does not have a mass base. The award of the Best Indian film at the Osian’s Cinefan Festival of Asian Films at New Delhi in 2006, seems to have confirmed this view among a certain section of Kannada / Tulu film lovers. I firmly believe that films like SUDDHA have not managed to reach a large audience because there is no distribution system that will take such a film to an audience that wants to see it.

I am finding it difficult to find a conventional film distributor who would exhibit the film in regular theaters. For one, SUDDHA is in the digital format and there are hardly any digital theaters in the Tulu speaking areas in the country. And then a few reputed distributors whom I have been meeting over the last six months have refused to take up the film, quoting that ‘is not a commercial’ proposition and it does not have any ‘commercial elements’ in it.

I need to prove this wrong. SUDDHA talks about the changing life in Coastal Karnataka – of those living there and those who have migrated. It talks of these issues in a style that is uncomplicated and easy to understand, therefore making it identifiable to each and everyone who is associated with that area. The Tulu speaking people is my primary audience. I just have to take the film to them.

With a view to make the film accessible to the general public in a large systematic way, I approached the Mangalore University to evolve a self financing screening system in the 80 odd colleges affiliated with it. There was no response. I then approached the “Tulu Academy’ asking them if they could take up the exhibition of the film in the 290 Tulu speaking Gram Panchayats of Coastal Karnataka. Even if fifty people see the film in each screening, we are talking of an audience of close to 15,000. But being a government body that it is, the proposal was not accepted.

Not to be undone, I have been personally approaching various individual colleges through emails and conventional posts and through word-of-mouth recommendations. Yesterday, I have completed the process of writing snail mails to the president of 290 gram panchayats of Coastal Karnataka, with a strong plea for the screening of the film. The idea is to create a permanent structure through which other films could be screened.

And there is a lot to be explained. Many times in my communication to prospective screening organizers, I find myself explaining the entire process of digital projection. I have been telling them things like the kind of persons who would hire out digital projectors, about luminance of these projectors, about sound systems, about DVD players etc… Unless I do that, they would not be convinced by this new medium.

Already, till date, seven screenings have been held in eight colleges in Coastal Karnataka. Those colleges that have L.C.D. screening facilities with them are the first ones to screen SUDDHA. A few more have agreed for a screening in their colleges. A few ‘Youth Clubs’ are coming forward.

But I should be having at least 100 screenings before I can say that a system has been put into place.


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