About 50 persons take their seats in the marriage hall on the terrace of the four-floor Sri Kumara Samajam building, near the Devi temple in Kerala’s Kodungallur town. In the front is a silver-colour screen propped up on a tripod. As the night falls, a projector in the aisle comes on, and the screen lights up.
For the next 107 minutes, the audience watches in rapt attention as director David Leveaux’s 2016 film The Exception, about a German spy in Holland who falls for a Jewish Dutch woman during World War II, subtitled in Malayalam, plays. As it draws to a close around 8.15 pm, the audience troops out, umbrellas in hand, into a thundershower.
The retired officials, government employees, the daily workers — people whose paths would usually never cross, except for their love of cinema, except on this rooftop every Friday evening — go their separate ways.
For seven years, this has been a routine for the Kodungallur Film Society (KFS). KFS general secretary K J Rejoi says they have only one guideline for the films, curated from across the world: that these should reflect “the plurality of society and its plural democracy”.
So when the Supreme Court, on November 30, 2016, ordered the national anthem to be played before every film in movie halls and for people to stand up in respect, the KFS didn’t think long about what it had to do. A week later, it challenged the order. On October 24, criticising the 2016 order, the Supreme Court wondered why people had to “wear their patriotism on their sleeves”.
Anoop Kumaran, who appealed in the Supreme Court on the KFS’s behalf, as its then president, says, “One should not become irrational over nationalism… Nationalism is not a sentiment that should be dictated; patriotism should be delineated from bigotry.”
Kumaran admits a few among them feared the fallout. But the majority believed this was a fight the KFS needed to take up, and pooled together Rs 25,000 to pay lawyer P V Dinesh. “Soon, flex boards appeared at Kodungallur, calling us anti-national and Maoist,” Kumaran smiles.
The 176 ‘live’ or active members on the KFS’s rolls include daily workers, doctors, advocates, government employees, businessmen and retired officials, while among its patrons are well-known film directors Kamal and Lal Jose, and actor-cum-Left MP Innocent. There is no membership fee.
In the past month, it has screened films such as Goodnight Mommy (German), First They Killed My Father (Khmer/English), and The Last Face (English). Screening is for free, while the KFS pays Rs 250 to the Sri Kumara Samajam as rent for each show. This year, the KFS got a new Rs 1 lakh projector, through contributions from members.
Apart from the Friday screenings, it conducts a film festival every year collecting Rs 1,000 each from willing members, and holds film appreciation courses and theatre performances, as well as awards Rs 25,000 to a Malayalam film industry figure every year.
No film at its Friday screening, in whatever language it may be, is without Malayalam subtitles. Seven of its members are trained in subtitling. Once subtitled, the films are pooled into ‘M-Zone’, a website developed by various film societies to store subtiled films. So far, it has 200 subtitled films.
Pramod Narayanan, 40, a high school dropout who earns a living as a wall painter, is one of the KFS members who subtitles the foreign films for free. Barely taking his eyes off the wall he is painting, Pramod says he has subtitled around 20 films by now. “All foreign films, French, Iranian, etc, have English subtitles. I learnt to do Malayalam subtitles by trial and error. The first film I subtitled was Majid Majidi’s The Willow Tree.”
In 2015, the KFS gave Pramod a laptop for the subtitling. “I have downloaded a subtitling app. I work at night after my job, which fetches Rs 750 a day. To clear doubts regarding grammar and language, I Google and use an English-Malayalam dictionary… I may take about five hours to subtitle a hundred lines.” He has also taken up English tuition to improve the quality of his subtitling.
Recently, because of his work on subtitles, Pramod says, he got a chance to direct a 12-minute film, Pathi. “I have submitted it for the FEFKA (Film Employees Federation of Kerala) Short Film Festival,” says the father of two.
At the KFS shows, Pramod’s story is not rare. On Fridays, the Sree Kumara Samajam hall can find auto drivers such as Vipin Das sharing space with a college professor like Dr G Usha Kumari.
Das, 43, says he came to know of the film society through members who hired him, including for running around during film festivals. “If I am free by Friday evening, I turn up.” Das, who has studied up to Class 12, says, “My involvement in the society is a support for the anti-Fascist movement in Kodungallur.”
Dr Usha Kumari regrets that she is one of only five women KFS members. “Films expose us to various cultures… and remove misconceptions,” she points out. “When I watch West Asian films, I realise how outspoken the women in those regions are.”
K K Shahida, another woman member, believes the KFS has helped groom a society sensitive to socio-political issues. “A community that appreciates good films can feel the pulse of society. It has also helped retain the region’s cultural history,” says Shahida, who is principal of a higher secondary school.
Not far from the Sri Kumara Samajam building is the Cheraman Juma Masjid. Built in 629 AD, it is considered India’s first mosque.
Since the early 1980s, when the BJP first tried to make inroads into this Left bastion, Kodungallur has seen its share of political and communal violence. Now the BJP is the main opposition in the Kodungallur municipality, but Kumaran believes the KFS’s hold on the town, and its strong Left moorings, have helped keep down the Sangh Parivar influence.
KFS president Abdul Samad says, “The KFS is a secular platform. Only persons with secular perspective join it.”
BJP Kodungallur Mandalam president Prasanth Lalu calls such assertions by the KSF a “challenge” to the Constitution. “It screens films based on extremism. The society has an ultra-Left attitude. In May, for its film festival, the KFS did not even invite the BJP.”