Travelling the hinterland with the Touring Talkies throws up emotional moments time and again. Last year, when we had ventured into the laidback Kuravankandi in the tribal hamlet of Attappady, I happened to witness emotional cinema being played in the eyes of the people who flocked around the Touring Talkies vehicle. From the toddlers to the aged grandma, it was indeed overwhelming to welcome a sizable audience just before we started screening Dr Biju’s ‘Kaadu Pookunna Neram’. In fact, the crowd at Kuravankandi amazed me more than the long line of film buffs who had queued up to watch the film when it was screened at the IFFK. The show over, we had to promise the tribal audience that we would return.
When Rejoy K J elaborates on his experience of travelling with the Touring Talkies, to far off lands in Kerala, he is all excited. Rejoy, who is one of the regional coordinators for the Touring Talkies that has set off to distant hamlets to continue with the screening of films as part of the 22nd International Film Festival of Kerala, and has been out with his team to screen films to a variety of people who reside in places where they haven’t even heard of the mega film carnival that happens every year in the state capital. Rejoy, and men and women like him, have been accompanying the Touring Talkies to places where villagers come together. Be it library premises, Kudumbasree units, film societies or anywhere for that matter, films are screened wherever discerning audiences flock together. The vehicle that bears the Touring Talkies mascot most of the time opts for a detour, off the main streets and instead taking the road less travelled.
Rejoy, who also heads the Kodungalloor Film Society that had hogged headlines recently for appealing against the Supreme Court ruling in connection with the National Anthem case, explains the awesome experience that the Touring Talkies team came across while screening films at a tribal settlement in the Chimminy dam area. The Touring Talkies made a stopover at the tribal reading room there and screened ‘Kaadu Pookkunna Neram’ and ‘Ottal’. “Watching the tribal audience sitting spell bound as the movies unfurled before them was an experience that is beyond description. It was as if they were part of the films – absolutely immersed and in awe. It seemed like they thought the characters in the two movies were those among them, they cried when the characters cried, they laughed when they smiled. In ‘Ottal’, when the kid gets sold to a local business in a faraway land, they seethed in anger. An elderly lady was also heard shouting abuses at the antagonist for what he did to the boy, even after the film rolled to an end,” Rejoy reminisces.
Talkies that Tour
The Touring Talkies concept had turned real, when the VS Achuthanandan ministry was in power. Aimed at bringing in a creative intervention in the way the Malayali audience watched cinema, the Kerala Chalachithra Academy had floated the idea of a movie theatre that would go to the masses and show them the varied hues of change that was taking place in the realm of cinema worldwide. Though Touring Talkies got rolling and had successfully toured many a region in Kannur and Thrissur soon after being flagged off, the project ground to an abrupt halt when the succeeding government assumed charge.
Later on, when the Chalachithra Academy got a new team of office bearers, the concept got rolling again. As many as five regions – Kannur, Kozhikode, Thrissur, Kottayam, and Thiruvananthapuram – were picked and soon the Touring Talkies units were deployed in each of them. The films that were handpicked to be shown by the Touring Talkies were those that had been screened at the preceding IFFK, select international films, select Malayalam films, and non-Malayalam films including those in Marathi, Odia, Tamil and the like.
Talking about the possibilities that Touring Talkies holds, writer G Ushakumari, who has been part of the film festival audience for quite a long time now, says: “It isn’t sheer joy that good cinema brings unto oneself. What it actually presents is a state of mesmerism that comes loaded with fear and anxiety. The fact is that we deliberately stumble upon them and fall. Cinema, through the medium of Touring Talkies, perches on us. Interestingly, the films that the Touring Talkies shows us present a much different experience that what we get to know during the film festivals that are organized in the metro. Though the places and the people that welcome the Touring Talkies movies are known to us, we tend to forget all that and we wake up to a new world created with novel frames and sounds”.
“The Touring Talkies concept is akin to the traditional bangle seller, who after a long, back-breaking afternoon under the blazing sun trudges on to your verandah and settles down to cool himself, as he shows off his ware for you to pick your bunch. As you browse through the vivid varieties of bangles dangling between his fingers, you realize he is vending dreams. The films that the Touring Talkies unwraps before you, make you fall in love with them, as you would caress your soul with the multi-hued bangle bunch the seller hands over to you. It’s like making your foray into a whole new firmament.”
However, Shobhana Padinjattil has a totally different opinion. Shobhana, the Kerala State Central Librarian and a regular at the Film Festival circuit in Kerala, says that even while welcoming the project that shows festival films in cities and towns away from Thiruvananthapuram, she would want the organizers to deploy a more focused approach when handpicking films. “It indeed is heartening that the Touring Talkies effectively helps the audience to experience different cultures when foreign films are screened. However, care needs to be taken to ensure that films picked for screening are not the ones available on the internet for downloading. When films that are not available on the web are picked for screening, the enthusiasm would grow manifold. What we get to experience here most of the time is that the lineup of films the Touring Talkies picks are the ones that have been seen by many at different film festivals. To add to the worry, a bunch of much showcased Malayalam films will also be part of the lineup. I’m not against having a Malayalam package, but why should the audience be offered only a handful of films made by established film makers. The selection of films need to be more transparent,” Shobhana Padinjattil says.
Renowned film maker Priyanandanan is all for Touring Talkies when he says such projects can help people look at the changing world through the right mirror. The film maker who has carved a niche for himself in the film firmament with much acclaimed works such as ‘Neythukaran and Pulijanmam’, saw his latest ‘Paathira Kaalam’ kicking off the festival circuit with an opening at the Kolkata Film Festival.
“Times have changed. From an era where film boxes had to be carried from the railways stations to the local cinema houses for screening, things have changed a lot. Mainstream cinema had always tampered with the sensibilities of the audience by effectively creating a make-believe situation that never existed in reality. Such films tinkered with our thoughts and beliefs. The advent of the film society movement has, in fact, helped in aiding the audience know and experience history, culture and time through the films the movement brought unto us. When organizations like the Chalachithra Academy bring forth such movies, it would ensure a welcome change in the way people view cinema. A new way of thinking would be ushered in through such efforts. I believe concepts like Touring Talkies would help us look at the changing world through the right mirror,” Priyanandanan points out.
Adding that the Chalachithra Academy should also look at picking films that may never see the light of the day, he hopes that, “the Academy can think of charging a nominal amount as fees so that the collected amount could be handed over to the film makers who had suffered much to make their dreams head for the silver screen. Such efforts would, along with promoting a culture of film viewing, lend strength to the efforts of making good movies”.
On how he would like to describe Touring Talkies, poet P N Gopikrishnan, who has penned the story for Priyanandanan’s ‘Paathira Kaalam’, says: “May cinema and its pain arrive unto all good souls. Let it open all closed eyes. Let the spirit of independence and self-reliance shower its thoughts all over”.”
Documentary film maker and teacher Mitra Sindhu is all for any movement that has the people at the centre of its cause.
Stating that the last two years have seen a visible change in the world of cinema, and that this is the right time to take cinema to the people, she adds: “In a situation where even the film festivals tend to pass like mere crowded carnivals of cinema, the real joy of watching and imbibing cinema often gets ignored. It is also a fact that top quality films tend to miss the touring festival bus often. In that context, the arrival of cinema that tours smaller bunches of cine buffs has turned out to be the need of the hour. The fact is that Touring Talkies arrives in the midst of people who long for it, and it triggers conversations and discussions on the cinema being shown. This is what is fascinating about Touring Talkies. The concept opens the doors to the big world of international cinema and the craft the film makers deploy.”
A film festival regular, Dr R Sharmila, loves the way Touring Talkies has been making its way into the common man’s terrain. According to her, “the charm that visual media exudes is way beyond what any other form of art does. Cinema has the ability to simultaneously take the viewer to itself and to the world outside of it. It is this uniqueness that make film festivals stand apart”.
A film festival enthusiast who has her own complaints about the way film festivals are organized and the manner in which films are picked, writer-journalist Aparna Prasanthini, however, is of the opinion that Touring Talkies is a very creative idea. In the midst of all the controversies and critcisms against film festivals, ideas of the likes of Touring Talkies indeed held in taking cinema to an added number of enthusiasts, she says.
“Post deciding on Thiruvananthapuram as the permanent venue for the IFFK, the film enthusiasts from other places in Kerala had felt deprived of their chance of hosting and watching movie festivals. However, with the advent of Touring Talkies, the people in other parts of the state too are a happy lot as they also get a chance to watch a handful of good films. I just wish the concept would see more changes for the better as time goes by,” she adds.
Need for Vision
‘Asthamayam Vare’ director Sajin Babu, whose latest film ‘Ayal Sasi’ had released in Kerala a few months ago, vociferously rebukes the whole idea, saying that the Touring Talkies doesn’t offer any novelty at a time when there are good film societies all over. “Every year a mega film extravaganza is organised, an offshoot like Touring Talkies is also given shape. However, I don’t believe there is any creative vision involved in the concept,” he says.
Arguing for screening of films in quality theatres, Sajin says, “I would call for technical perfection in the screening of films. Films need to be screened in theatres that top in quality. I would say, it is high time that the Chalachithra Academy be revamped and redesigned in such a way that it proves helpful to the film enthusiasts, film makers and students of cinema”.
“Touring Talkies hasn’t succeeded in creating a wave,” feels film maker K P Srikrishnan, whose film ‘Dog’s Heart’ would be screened in the Malayalam Cinema Now section of the 22nd IFFK. Arguing that a touring film festival is not what is needed in the current times, he says spending money on such efforts will not bring any desired change.
“My take on this would be that the Chalachithra Academy should ensure deploying a DCP system that boasts utmost quality and perfection. The Academy should establish cinema halls where at least 50 people can sit and watch movies. Such halls should come up in five or six centres across Kerala. Quality viewing experience and screening of good films are the need of the hour, and the Academy can even look at monetizing the system through the sale of tickets at these centres. Instead of running a vehicle that speeds through the oft-taken route, this is what the Academy should be doing,” Srikrishnan adds.
Touring Talkies : Unsung Heroes
All said, a team of committed film enthusiasts comprising people like Rejoy, Kuriakose, Shaji , Naveena Subhash, Baiju and others have been captaining the Touring Talkies vehicle in the best possible manner.
Starting at dawn and working late into the night, the Touring Talkies team makes sure that around six shows happen at different locations on the vehicle’s route. Though tedious, the effort brings to them immense joy.
By screening films in front of enthusiastic crowds, they, the unsung heroes in Kerala’s film movement, make sure the silver screen shines brighter every passing day and night.