Amid buses, honking cars, tinkling cycle bells and the smell of food from roadside stalls comes the sporadic rat-ta-tat-tat of machine-gun fire. People crane their necks out of bus windows; a couple of policemen keep watch; passers-by returning home from office join an audience gripped by the scenes unfolding on the street-corner film screen.

The images on the makeshift screen are hazy because of the reflection of adjacent street and shop lights but the issue of state repression comes through clearly as Haobam Paban Kumar’s much discussed documentary, AFSPA, 1958 plays on the screen. Named after the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act which gave security forces sweeping authority in Manipur in 1958, Kumar’s film follows the vortex of violence that engulfed the state after the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama in 2004 by security force men.

Timed to the day when arrested Manipuri human rights activist Irom Sharmila completed 15 years of a hunger-strike, the public screening resonated with the audience. The reality of Baghbazar, the north Kolkata venue, may be far removed from Manipur, but an audience member appeared to be on the verge of breaking down. Before ending proceedings, Kasturi Basu, one of the founders of the Kolkata-based People’s Film Collective that facilitated the public screening, announced the collective’s schedule of documentary film shows: one on 14 November, to protest the killing of atheist bloggers and rising Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh, and a film on Hindu extremism on 6 December, the day in 1992 when the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya. “We condemn both kinds of extremism," she adds.

Screenings like these are one of the ways the collective reaches out to audiences outside multiplexes and high-brow film festivals. Since 2013, when it came into existence, its members have travelled to Bengal’s rural and suburban areas to screen films for targeted and general audiences in school buildings and municipal halls, at railway stations, factory gates and trade union offices, and in open public areas. While its package of documentary films has been viewed by jobless factory workers, children, gender minorities, human rights and trade union activists, as well as the general public, two editions of the Kolkata People’s Film Festival, held annually in the city, have had urban audiences lining up to watch documentary films rarely seen. Books on Indian documentary and non-mainstream cinema brought out by the collective’s publication wing have sold out within months.

The 22-member collective has achieved all this without accepting money or sponsorship from corporate entities, the government or non-governmental organizations, says Basu. Instead, it has relied on the monthly contributions of members and donations from viewers during the free screenings. “Sponsorship, we know, is censorship," says Purba Rudra, one of the founder members.

Rudra and Basu, both 35, went to the US for higher studies at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey. While Basu dropped out of her PhD programme in physics there and joined a women’s rights movement before pursuing it again in Kolkata, Rudra went on to complete her thesis in geography.

As we meet one morning in south Kolkata, Rudra is in a hurry to leave for work; she teaches at an “inclusive home" for orphaned girls, including the differently abled. She laughs at the thought of being “underemployed", spending her day teaching deprived girls and working as a cinema activist for the People’s Film Collective. “I enjoy what I do. That’s important."

Basu’s husband Dwaipayan Banerjee, 35, the third founder member of the collective, says: “In Bengal these days, films are about drawing room dramas and typical middle-class alienation. I wasn’t interested in such nyaka nyaka (namby-pamby) cinema and wanted films that reflected reality. Documentary films, I found, could initiate dialogue and raise questions."

They bemoan the contemporary Indian cinema scenario. Other than Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider, says Banerjee, there are hardly any films on Kashmir, Manipur or Adivasi issues, “as if these people don’t exist".

In 2006, as a student of philosophy at Kolkata’s Presidency College, Banerjee slowly got sucked into anti-establishment politics during the twin movements against land acquisition for industry in Singur and Nandigram. Joining the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation as a full-time member, he not only encountered the grim realities of rural India but had to face arrest for agitating against the state government, then led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Though he quit full-time politics earlier this year, Banerjee’s political stint and the founder members’ political beliefs have lent to the People’s Film Collective a character that is “broadly leftist and democratic, but never sectarian", says Basu. “Other than during the Ipta movement (the leftist Indian People’s Theatre Association formed in the 1940s), when culture was broad-based, the Left has mostly micromanaged culture in India, and in a flawed way. For example, some would only sing at rallies while others would exclusively do street plays before elections. That is fine, but it can’t be the only role of left cultural activism in India. It has to come out of its corner and reach all kinds of people. Just like the way the right wing is doing," says Basu.

The collective’s volunteers move around with all the paraphernalia required for screening—a pen drive containing the films, a small projector and a foldable 8x10ft screen—in their backpacks. “The point is to show films on people’s movements. If any (political) faction works for or against people’s movements, we will show the film," clarifies Banerjee.

To underline the political even-handedness of these activities, the founder members list some of the films they have selected for their 40-odd screenings across Bengal: a documentary on the khap panchayats in Haryana, one that is critical of the Maoist insurgency, others on the Save Narmada and Jharkhand Adivasi movements, Manipur’s struggle against Afspa, and Nakul Sawhney’s Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai. The last is a 2014 documentary film on the anti-Muslim riots in Uttar Pradesh ahead of the general election; a screening in Delhi University was blocked by student activists.

The collective’s own efforts connect umbilically to a bigger cinema and alternative media movement in India. Founded by film-maker Sanjay Joshi, Cinema of Resistance (CoR) is a movement aimed at broad basing people-centric films that started from Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, in 2006. Since then, CoR has grown phenomenally beyond Gorakhpur, the fiefdom of the firebrand and controversial member of Parliament and Hindutva leader, Yogi Adityanath. With film screenings and festivals on its agenda, CoR chapters have mushroomed in small towns and cities like Bareilly, Nainital, Bhilai, Patna, Indore, Allahabad, Varanasi, Lucknow, Salempur, Ballia, Udaipur, Azamgarh and Hyderabad. In Kolkata, CoR is represented by the People’s Film Collective.

What the CoR project has demonstrated, says Sanjay Kak, award-winning documentary film-maker and CoR national executive body member, is that cultural activity is possible in India without institutional or corporate funding if expenses are minimal, screenings aren’t ticketed, donations are invited from audiences and curation is emphasized. “The People’s Film Collective has honed this. They’ve taken it further, not just waiting to organize one big festival, but attempting to do screenings throughout the year," Kak says on email. “They’ve done screenings in small towns, and not necessarily to the same old bhadro, cinema-society crowd: They’ve tried to screen with working-class organizations and done it with some success."

Veteran documentary film-maker Ranjan Palit, who has returned three of four National Awards in protest, credits the People’s Film Collective with following a tradition of dissent against authoritarianism. “Despite Kolkata’s claims over cinema culture, documentary film-makers here are selfish and self-obsessed, unlike in Delhi or Mumbai where they come together as activists when needed," he says. “There are very few venues for documentary film screenings and everybody has their own clique. The coming of the People’s Film Collective is a good sign."

For 70-year-old Rabi Saha, the Baghbazar public screening of AFSPA, 1958 was his first experience of watching a film in an open-street environment. The relentless images of brutality and violence in distant Manipur rekindled memories of the mid-1970s, when then Bengal chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray sanctioned a crackdown on the student-helmed Naxalite movement. “Through these streets, we had to walk with our hands held up. There was fear," the septuagenarian recounts after the screening. “Who knows when a similar situation will return?"

HOW TO GIVE

MAIN SPONSORS

Individuals and non-funded grass-roots groups/organizations. They don’t accept government, corporate or NGO funding.

BIGGEST NEEDS

A portable sound system and backup laptop. An editing set-up, lapel mic and sound recorder for the video/film production unit.

A DONATION OF 10,000 CAN

Help organize three monthly film screenings, the third Kolkata People’s Film Festival (KPFF), or purchase a portable speaker-microphone system.

VOLUNTEERS CAN HELP

In design work, maintenance of the blog/website, publication or projection. They can also help in fund-raising for the KPFF.

CONTACT

Corkolkata.wordpress.com; Facebook.com/KolkataPeoplesFilmFestival

Close