In a 2011 interview with Shai Heredia, founder of Experimenta, a collective which promotes experimental cinema in India, film historian Amrit Gangar reminisces about his experience of running Screen Unit, one of Mumbai’s oldest film clubs. He talks about standing in the queue outside the district collector’s office to take permission before every screening, of writing programme notes at midnight on a rickety second-hand typewriter which wouldn’t let his wife and daughter sleep.
In the interview titled “When Godard Rode The 17:05 Borivli Local” published on Experimenta’s website, he talks about their first screening in 1978, held in a large, multipurpose community hall in Mulund, where the noise of whirring, oversized fans created a “parallel soundtrack” to Andrzej Wajda’s Kanał. On the first day of what he claims was the first complete Andrei Tarkovsky retrospective in India, which took place in 1987 just after the film-maker’s death, 800 people turned up at the Amar Gyan Grover Auditorium at Mumbai’s Haji Ali despite a taxi strike. The romance of film societies back in the day, noted Gangar, was “drenched in perspiration and blood”, and derived from the inaccessibility of films.
On 23 November last year, a different kind of romance was in the air at the Jio Mami Film Club’s screening of La La Land at the plush PVR Icon in Mumbai’s Versova. The big draw for members was the “bragging rights” of watching the film two weeks before its release in theatres. And in an unexpected display of luxury, they were served champagne before the screening: a contribution of one of the partners, Chandon, says Mami (Mumbai Academy of Moving Image) creative director Smriti Kiran.
Mami’s immediate plans—screenings of The Salesman and Mukti Bhavan this month—have been made possible because of a tie-up with Le Reve. The former single-screen in Bandra, which has been refurbished into an upscale cinema house, will allow the Mami Film Club to host screenings this month for free.
The club, which has been hosting events at irregular intervals, now plans to do something every week: be it a screening, a workshop or a conversation with a film-maker. Its first event was a conversation between Ian McKellen and Aamir Khan last May.
The new wave
With torrents and Netflix making individual cinephilia increasingly simple, film clubs in Mumbai have had to work harder to appeal to the ardent movie fan. This has meant that the Mami Film Club, Enlighten Film Society and Movies at the Museum, three of the most active clubs in the city, have all attempted, in different ways, to offer Mumbai film enthusiasts a little more.
Mami has ambitious plans of screening the latest film festival titles; this could well happen, owing to the connections it has forged with the international festival circuit through the Mumbai Film Festival. “We didn’t want to do anything that already exists,” says Kiran. “We mapped out all the film-related activities that happen in the city. We realized that even if others have the intent to do new content, they may not have the resources and access. As a festival, we are constantly engaging with sales agents, production companies and potential partners. It will not be easy but we have the opportunity to get new films and show them the way the film-maker intended them to be seen.” This has meant hosting screenings of uncut versions of films like The Hateful Eight or, more recently, Moonlight before they’re released with certification board-mandated cuts.
Like Mami, the Enlighten Film Society, which began earlier (in 2006) but operates on a smaller scale, has its finances sorted. It holds the rights for many world cinema classics in the subcontinent and anyone screening legal copies of those films needs to transact with them. This explains Enlighten’s steady programming of retrospectives of old masters, on weekends, through its club, Matterden Centre for Films and Creations (Matterden CFC), formed in partnership with Lower Parel’s Deepak Cinema. They used to have a dedicated evening show every day of the week, but low turnouts have reduced this to a single show on weekends.
There are two shows a week in Enlighten’s own venue in The Bombay Art Society, where a member might find a Kurosawa classic playing in the room next to a VR (virtual-reality) movie. Enlighten founder Pranav Ashar, who believes VR may be the new frontier for cinema, says they are producing their own VR content. “A film society’s job is to introduce the audience to new things,” he says. “The technological change will always be there and it is important to remain relevant.”
Movies at the Museum comes close to the spirit of an old-fashioned film society. Once a month, people gather in the outhouse at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum in Byculla, sit on hard wooden chairs and watch films on a medium-sized screen. Tea and biscuits are served on a table outside. Carefully curated by cinematographer and documentarian Avijit Mukul Kishore and architect and urban designer Rohan Shivkumar, it is a meeting point not just for film-makers but also intellectuals from other fields. Last week, Gujarati poet and film scholar Prabodh Parikh introduced István Szabó’s Lovefilm, and after the screening, took part in a Q&A session. At its second screening, writer and critic Shanta Gokhale presented a V. Shantaram double bill.
“We show classics and rare films across genres from different parts of India and all over the world. They may be available online, but it is something else to experience films presented by an expert on the subject or the film-makers themselves,” says Kishore. Until 2015, he used to curate a similar programme called FD Zone for Films Division with other film-makers. It came to an abrupt halt once director general V.S. Kundu’s tenure ended.
Like FD Zone, which has restarted fortnightly screenings, Movies at the Museum is an open-to-all, free event. It doesn’t have the exclusivity of an all-members’ club. Kishore believes this has helped it become more inclusive, shorn of the elitism attached to a film society. “There are a set of regulars but every film brings its own audiences. We are completing two years and we still see new faces,” he says.
Small clubs, big love
Apart from the official clubs, there are the smaller occasional gatherings in people’s homes. There are winter screenings on the terrace of film-maker-curator Shaina Anand’s home in Khar. Two months ago, there was a session at Ashok Rajwade’s place in Goregaon, where he invited a psychiatrist and a small group of people to watch and discuss Abbas Kiarostami’s films from a psychological perspective. There are alternative screening spaces such as the National Centre for the Performing Arts’ (NCPA’s) Little Theatre and Vikalp@Prithvi, and hybrid cultural organizations such as the G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture, which operates from a refurbished warehouse in Mahalaxmi.
This probably makes Prabhat Chitra Mandal the oldest running film club in the city. Its office in Dadar houses a library of film literature in English and Marathi. The organization, whose past members include film-makers like Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Shyam Benegal, came into being in 1968, when the city didn’t have a film festival; the International Film Festival of India, before it was shifted permanently to Goa, would be hosted every four years in Mumbai.
In the 1990s, Prabhat helped start the Mumbai Film Festival by assisting in the formation of the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image. Today, it screens a mix of old Indian art films—there was a retrospective tribute to the late Om Puri last month—and newer award-winning titles. Accessing newer foreign films is a problem; they are dependent solely on the cultural wings of embassies, says Prabhat’s general secretary, Santosh Pathare. “The nature and form of film clubs has changed drastically,” he says. “Earlier, it was a small party. It’s grand now. Not many people come for the foreign film screenings because they get to watch the latest from Cannes and Berlin at the Mumbai Film Festival.”
Next year is Prabhat’s 50th anniversary. It still sends “program notes” by post because most of its members aren’t comfortable with email. “All our committee members are youngsters,” says Pathare. “I’m 45. That’s young by film-society standards.”