Monday, March 14, 2016

On P K Nair's Heggodu-Ninasam Connection: In Indian Express

Read the story on The Indian Express (old, favourite, much admired paper, yay!) here or see below. Published March 13, 2016.

The legacy of film archivist, PK Nair, can be found in a village in Karnataka

It must take a certain measure of maverick to be a pioneer, to be one that marches to a different drummer, to be brave and foolish, at the exact same time, to do something no one has ever done before. This sets together the late K V Subbanna, one of the founders of Ninasam and the late P K Nair, the first film archivist of the country, on the same bench, even if they were mostly associated with each other’s work through their association with other people. What, however, merits the stringing of their life’s work in the same breath is their contribution to creating pedagogical platforms for the development of film studies in the country.

The story of the Heggodu experiment is a much-thumbed narrative, told and retold with marvel, an ounce of incredulousness and a yearning for its replication elsewhere. K V Subbanna, along with a motley set of mostly farmer friends, set up the eponymous Nilakanteshwara Natya Seva Sangha in 1949 in a remote village called Heggodu - verdant, the landscape studded with picturesque villages of mostly arecanut farmers, and nearly 400 kms from the state capital of Bengaluru. It would be many years before it began to be called the more fashionable Ninasam, an acronym of its old name, and decades before it became a cultural institution to reckon with.

From an empty ground where the local men gathered occasionally to rehearse and stage plays in, it grew to contain a large auditorium and then, to feed the spurt in projects and programs, a theatre school was set up. To further engage with the students that passed out from here, a repertoire of plays that began to be staged all over the state began to take shape. The Thirugata troupe, as they are named, of artistes is today well- known in Karnataka, regularly producing actors who have gone on to be famous names in television and cinema.

What perhaps catapulted Ninasam’s fame in the national culture scene was its film program. K V Akshara, treasurer at Ninasam, also a writer and a prominent personality in contemporary Kannada theatre writes of how his father, K V Subbanna was a participant in the first film appreciation course that the Film Institute in Pune organized in 1967. Marie Seaton led the program. Inspired, Subbanna started the Ninasam Chitra Samaja in 1973 and went on to organize amongst the first ever international film festivals in the country, that too in a hitherto unheard off village in central Karnataka, in 1977. Akshara writes of how the support of the country’s pioneering film archivist, the celluloid man P K Nair, and his contemporary from the film institute, Satish Bahadur, proved invaluable in setting up a film culture in Heggodu.

What continue to remain the calling card for the idea of the Heggodu experiment are the stories of how farmers, local shopkeepers, odd-jobs-men, et all could hold their own in a discussion on foreign cinema. Kurosawa, Fellini, De Sica are names that roll off the tongue unhesitantly, as do thoughts on famous films these and others made. The fact that villagers were familiar with and interested in such films and in meeting, hosting and socializing with intellectuals, artists, writers and the ‘thinking men’ of the country was what first began to get Ninasam and Heggodu noticed. This blip in the map did something monumental – Akshara writes in an essay on Satish Bahadur, of how the 1977 film festival dispelled the myth that high culture, highbrow cinema and quality contemporary theatre was not something people in villages would like or show any interest in. Prajnanand R S, a cable operator in Heggodu, spoke to me about watching movies of Kurosawa and several short films now and then these days.

For ten years, from 1979 onwards, a ten-day long film appreciation course was organized at Ninasam. Films invariably came from FTII and National Film Archive of India (NFAI), Pune. Satish Bahadur and occasionally, P K Nair, were regular fixtures at these courses. Those years gave rise also to a Ninasam Film Society, one of the first rural film societies in India.

Subbanna furthered the development of film studies by publishing books, essays and critiques of films, all in Kannada, a move that made foreign language films all the more accessible to the local populace and the stream of visitors from other parts of the state. K G Mahabaleshwar, retired principal of Ninsam Theatre Institute and a long term associate of Ninasam, told me that after ten years of successfully running the film appreciation course, they all began to think of doing something more and different with those ten days. Thus in 1990 began the Culture Course, a week long meditation on films, art, literature, theatre, music, etc. facilitated by some of the foremost culture practitioners and thinkers of the country. The course remains an essential event on the state’s culture calendar.

In an old interview with Samvartha ‘Sahil’, a freelance screen writer, P K Nair spoke of how “In Heggodu we broke the language barrier. …What was commendable about K V Subbanna was that he not just showed films and held film appreciation courses but also published booklets on and about cinema which is an important thing to do because they serve as knowledge material which go hand in hand with cinema in creation of a film culture. He did it in local language which makes his work extraordinary,” he had said. The film courses were expanded into larger culture courses, something Nair lamented about, but in Heggodu it gave rise to a film culture that remains an important case study in the development of film studies in the country.

In a bid to understand the role Nair played in encouraging film connoisseurs in a country that, still, to some, albeit diminishing, extent, hesitates to count cinema alongside fine arts and performing arts as ‘high-culture’, I spoke to H N Narahari Rao, President of the Indian chapter of International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI). Rao has several anecdotes to share about Nair. He told me how there are some 200 film societies in India and there possibly couldn’t be a single one that Nair didn’t lend films to. “Those days there were no DVDs. The films were in 16 mm prints and he (Nair) always sent a representative of his with the prints to look after them,” he said, speaking of the films that were shown in Bengaluru’s old and famous Suchitra Film Society that Rao co-founded.

Film as a medium serious enough to be studied academically is a thought process that is still a tad novel. In establishing the idea of film – popular, parallel, or otherwise – as part of cultural heritage and in furthering its pedagogical importance in contemporary culture studies, Subbanna and Nair, and the institutions they nurtured, undoubtedly stand at the forefront. Their experiments inspired a legion of practitioners, teachers and enthusiasts who have attempted replications of these works and models, to various degrees of success. Like those two pioneers, these must be mavericks too. Come to think of it, no country could have too many of these bohemians.

No comments: