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August 22, 2000


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'Indians go abroad to watch Indian films!'

Sharmila Taliculam & Shobha Warrier Shaji N Karun

Shaji N Karun was disturbed.

The National Awards had just been declared. His film, Vaanaprastham, was declared best film. But it hasn't gone down well with the people of Kerala.

* * *
Shaji N Karun is relaxed. Happy. The French government have just conferred on him the title of Chevalier.

Only the fourth Indian to receive the award after Satyajit Ray, Sivaji Ganesan and M Mukundan (a well-known novelist from Kerala), Karun says, "I am happy -- I'm getting my old friends back now. It's on occasions like these that friends with whom you had lost contact suddenly start calling you!"

Was the award a surprise or did you have any indication that you would win it?

Of course, it was unexpected. After Vaanaprastham was shown at the Cannes film festival last year, the CNC (Center for National Cinema) wanted me to forward my biodata to them. The producer of Vaanaprastham, Pierre, gave them the details. I did not hear anything from them, till now.

I think they gave me the award because all three of my films were premiered at Cannes -- a very rare honour. All the five films of the Dutch director who won this year's award at Cannes also were premiered at Cannes. Very few have this good fortune.

For the French, Cannes is very significant, sometimes fanatically so. The advantage at Cannes is that all the films that are shortlisted get theatrical releases there. That means we get a wider market for our films. Unlike other film festivals, Cannes selects films and finds a market for them. Piravi for example had over a million people watching the film.

How was the response to Vaanaprastham in the European theatres?

Quite good. It was screened in over a hundred theatres. You know, a Frenchman I met in Austria told me that he had seen the film in an Austrian village. Can you believe an Indian film running for 10 days in a European village? People are passionate about all art forms in Europe. Vaanaprastham

Actually, Vaanaprastham has been to more festivals than Piravi. It has gone all over Europe, Brazil and Mexico. It is going to the 65th film festival next month. Visually, too, it is different from other Indian films, as we had more finance at our disposal. So we had an opportunity to show the world that we are not lagging behind in technology.

In fact, people in the West criticised Pierre for producing a film on India that many won't even understand. The India in Vaanaprastham is different from the one they know. To his credit, Pierre defended his decision, saying, "The India I am trying to understand is different from the India I have understood." Conversely, I have been accused of making the film with the Western audience in mind. Tell me, how could I? They have enough material there; they don’t need an Indian to make a film for them.

What are your thoughts on the Chevalier award?

Basically, it is a title, not an award. They look at it very seriously. Else the French President would not have come here to honour Satyajit Ray (he couldn't go to France as he was ill.) What I like about this title is that it means 'protector of art'.

So it is a big responsibility...

Yes, and one I am enjoying. I have to prove whether I am suitable to shoulder it.

Vaanaprastham Contrary to Western response and the national felicitation, Keralites didn't take too well to Vaanaprastham. Why do you think that happened?

It's sad that only those who didn't like the film were heard, not those who liked it. What then happens is even the sensible people get confused. How qualified are the critics to talk about film as a medium? Do they know the medium well enough to criticise?

But you were criticised for questioning the sensibility of the Keralites because they didn't enjoy your film and rejected it. Is Vaanaprastham a yardstick to measure their sensibility?

I read an article where the writer commented that I should be happy to have won the National Award. Who is he to say when I should be happy? I was certainly not happy because the people who could have enjoyed the film did not get a chance to see it. I was sad because people did not see the film.

I am worried about the way people of Kerala are looking at art now. Consumerism has crept into their sensibility. And I feel very sad about it.

There aren't many Indian films being screened at international festivals. Why?

It's strange that Indian films have never been able to compete abroad. Even if they do, there is no market there. It's a difficult standard to compete for. The Chinese have mastered the market technology. They have figured out the right approach and many of their films make it to Paris or England. And though they don't have government support, they have a lot of backups for promoting their films.

Do we have that kind of support?

No. Look at NFDC. They are supposed to promote Indian films. But, even after 15 years, they haven't been able to make a mark for themselves. Every year, they put up a stall at the film festivals, but they have yet to come up with a viable proposition.

They haven't been able to sell their films nor even buy films for us. They haven't interacted with the market very convincingly, and have a very limited market opportunities. Conversely, people of Taiwan and Hong Kong have established a different market.

In India, regional films are treated as regional and not Indian...Does the same situation exist abroad?

You are right. Malayalam cinema is never treated as Indian cinema by us. Even the tag 'Indian' goes only for Hindi cinema. The rest are tagged regional cinema. Abroad, an entry from India is obviously an Indian films. There's not much chance of a Tamil film being watched by a bigger audience. It's the same for all regional films. That's racism!

When I was member of the national jury, I realised there are so many criteria to consider -- the region counts, the culture counts. Only then does cinema enter the picture. You see, there are 17 or18 jury members hailing from all over India discussing cinema. Their opinions, naturally, differ. That makes it all the more difficult to arrive at a single decision. As a result, good cinema has suffers.

Take the Chinese. Even if they have internal political differences, Chinese cinema is very popular abroad. Indian cinema, on the other hand, is not popular. People in the West consider it a song and dance drama. We are considered a backward culture.

The fact is we CAN make superior films. But our must be recognised on an all-India level. What is the point in being rueful about good cinema faring badly when we ourselves don't consider, promote, nor even see it? Therefore this gap between the industry and the people should be bridged. Vaanaprastham won an award, but we still don't consider it an Indian film. It's still considered a local or a regional film. It only shows some kind of intellectual backwardness.

In America, when a film wins an award, people at least watch it. They discuss and market it well, too. That way even their low budget films don't get lost. Here, a national award winning film might get a one-column mention in the leading newspaper. That's it.

So, the fact that art films are usually relegated to being just festival films must bother you a lot?

Yes. You know, it's strange. Indians themselves don't watch these films here. They go abroad to watch them! Also, Indian films are considered dance-dramas abroad. A film-maker once told me that he had heard our films, not seen them. He was being sarcastic, referring to the innumerable songs and dances in our films. The point was that the biggest film-making country was making trash.

When I made Vaanaprastham, I wanted to convey to everyone that we can access modern technology. Technology in our films means taking the camera and crew to foreign locales. It's simply to amuse people, you know.

Here, cinema has had a traditional growth, and we are proud of not being dependent on anybody for making the kind of films we want. But the fact is cinema is a universal language. Everybody should understand what is being said on screen.

Fortunately, your films have done well commercially… Mohanlal in Vaanaprastham

Yes, they have been successful in that I have been able to take my films to the theatre. Otherwise they haven't had much success despite the presence of the superstar Mohanlal. People don't rate films on the basis of who directed it. Mohanlal has performed better in Vaanaprastham than in his other commercially successful film. But the former is hasn't been successful. Why? Maybe the message has not reached in the right way.

Look at America. It's the only nation which doesn't have a culture minister. But they are ready to widen their market to embrace other cultures. Today, the Oscar Awards ceremony is the biggest event in the world. Have we been able to claim an Oscar?

Basically, we need commitment. People need to change their attitudes.

Most film-makers want their films to be seen by a wider audience, which is why they cater to audience's tastes. So bad films flourish. Do you think this will change?

Our standards of entertainment are controlled by the American ones. Their success is our success. We just follow them. The new generation Japanese filmmakers make a cinema for the American audience. Today, it would be difficult for me to make a film than it was ten years ago. I cannot make another Piravi, for example, with newcomers.

Also read:
'I wanted to change Western opinion of Indian films'

'I welcome any opportunity to work with Shaji'

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