In Conversation with C.S. Venkiteswaran: Children’s Films in Kerala

In Conversation with C.S. Venkiteswaran: Children’s Films in Kerala

in Interview
Published on: 24 July 2019
Sudha K.F. in conversation with C.S. Venkiteswaran, Thiruvananthapuram, July 2018

Dr C.S. Venkiteswaran is an Indian film critic, professor, documentary filmmaker and writer from Kerala, who writes in English and Malayalam. He won the National Film Award for Best Film Critic in 2009 and is known for his insightful analysis on social aspects of cinema. His writings and reviews on film and media have been published in journals and periodicals such as Deep Focus, Film International, Cinema in India, Bhashaposhini, Pachakuthira, Indian Express, The Hindu, Mathrubhumi and Madhyamam. His column 'Rumblestrip' (1999–2008) in the Indian Express talked about film and the media scene in Kerala. He also won the National Award for Best Arts/Cultural Film in 1995 along with M.R. Rajan for directing Pakarnnattam Ammannur, The Actor, a lyrical cinematic documentation of the life of Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, an exponent of the ancient classical Sanskrit theatrical artform Kutiyattam.

Sudha K.F. is an Indian filmmaker. Her dissertation short film Eye Test, made for her Masters in Film from the University of Reading, was selected to be screened at major international film festivals and has won several awards. She is a recipient of the Felix scholarship for 2016–17.

Following is an edited (transcribed and translated by Ambili Anna Markose and Bivitha Easo) transcript of the interview.

Sudha K.F. (SFK): There have always been child-centred films in Malayalam. What could be the reason behind using such a narrative trope?

C.S. Venkiteswaran (CSV): I think, in Kerala, especially in the narrative context of Malayalam cinema, the child is a significant element. The child was a focal point in Malayalam cinema in the formative years; be it Vigathakumaran (1928) or Balan. But, by the 1950s, an imagination of a post-independent society started to be represented through the movies. For example, with the production of movies like Neelakkuyil, Newspaper Boy, etc., we can see an imagination which is suggestive of a nation-to-be, or a future-to-be. In many ways, those films presented a longing for a better future through the child. This child/nation, who is encumbered by the social, economic, and casteist issues, looks at the outer world. Often, the shift portrayed in the cinema could be in terms of a transition from agricultural society to an industrial one, or from a village to a city, etc., that is to say, in a sense, the child is on the cusp of this transition.

Take for example, the movie Rarichan Enna Pauran (1956). The film begins with a scene where we see a boy winding the chakku (traditional oil press). Though he is revolving around the machine, the song he sings is about Kerala and the lyrics capture the entire geography of Kerala. It brings in the regional products, agriculture patterns, etc. Therefore, my point is—there is an imagination of ‘Kerala’ in all the films produced at that juncture. I think it is an imagination of a nation-to-be. It talks about an underclasssomething that calls for a social realist mode—which imagines itself as free citizens in a future world. These films, seemingly, talk about the possibilities of the imminent future. That is, on a closer look, either Rarichan Enna Pauran or Newspaper Boy, are not really children, they are citizens in many respects. They are characters who can represent all the conflicts of the society they live in. So, they are not necessarily ‘children’s films’. Moreover, this phenomenon may not be typical to Kerala; rather, it has to be viewed as a Pan-Indian phenomenon. Pather Panchali must have played an important role in this.

SFK: What was the influence of neo-realism on Malayalam cinema?

CSV: I think the manner of narration and especially the mise-en-scène has a lot of influence from neo-realism, specifically in terms of characterization. Visibly, there is also an interface of different pasts in the narrative. Furthermore, one of the major issues of regional films like those from Kerala is the difficulty in showing people from different classes in a particular scene. There is always confusion in setting the space where they come together, so that they can be shown together in a scene: for instance, a scene where there is a dialogue between a feudal landlord and a tenant or that of between a Namboodiri (a Brahmin caste in Kerala that belongs to the ‘upper castes’ in the Varnavyavastha—system of caste that classifies people as four-fold based on their occupation) and a Pulaya (a ‘lower caste’, which is presently categorised as Scheduled Caste). You just cannot show it. Because they simply do not have a common space! That is the reason why in most of the films we see the courtyard (muttam) as the background for their conversation. One would stand on the veranda and the other would stand down in the yard. In yet other instances, this common space would become the road. They meet on the street. This is what happens, when the characters represent the dominant and the subordinated positions in terms of their social status in the hierarchical social structure. If they share more social, interactive spaces, the locations changes into a teashop or barbershop depending on the scope of shared social spaces. And, the dramatic and narrative dynamics and visual compositions in these contexts definitely bring in the neo-realist narrative modes.

SFK: Later on, the 1980s produced a number of films where children appeared as an important part of the narrative. How do you look at this phase? Why is it so?

CSV: I think we can call it a moment that necessitated the making of such films. If we look at what happened in the 1950s, we can say that it was a national moment, and in the 1980s it was a nuclear family moment. This moment was important because it was post land reforms and Gulf migration. Both these historical events had accelerated the disintegration of joint families to a large extent and the birth of nuclear family systems. In particular, here we see the emergence of the middle/upper caste, middle class nuclear family. Thus, the major concern of the films produced in this period was the middle-class nuclear family unit. And at the centre of the nuclear family was again the child. That means, though the films have children at the centre of the narrative, they are not ‘children’s films’ per se.

I think, there has never been any children’s film made in Malayalam cinema. There are only films where we can take children. Family has always been our audience unit. Thinking of the time when I was a child, the films we got to see were of three categories: 1) mythologicals, 2) films which had animals and things that attracted children. Directors like P. Subramaniam had experimented with this genre. Subramaniam’s Aana Valarthiya Vanambadi (1959) is an example of this. 3) And the last category includes those films that offered spectacular visual experience like Ben-Hur (1959) which again come under the Western mythological genre.

SFK: We often find parents carrying their kids to the theatretaking toddlers to theatres is commonplace here. Clearly there is no differentiation between children’s or adult movie in terms of content. What about the Western context? Is this ‘normality’ unique to Kerala/India?

CSV: I think these are issues pertaining to the industry’s idea of the market. It is related to what constitutes an audience unit here. For example, the family has been the audience unit of the larger south Indian film industry, until recently. We do not have the segmentation of audience unlike Western film industries. The consumers are not segmented into youth, children, elderly, etc. What we have are ‘A’ (adult) certified films and those that are not. Family remains the key unit. The dismantling of this concept happened only after the 1990s. Until then, until the television came into the picture, it remained the same. Television brought in a fissure in this structure. Eventually, families withdrew into television viewing and the theatre turned into a completely male, macho space. The idea of family as the audience unit remained intact until the 1990s. And the existence of the family unit permitted the presence of children in cinema halls. I think, even adult films have not banned kids.

SFK: Coming to the film society movementshave they ever thought of the child spectator at any point of time in the history of film society movements in Kerala?

CSV: There were hardly any such attempts. For the film society movements in Kerala, viewership is purely and exclusively a male domain. Even women were not visible, let alone kids. May be there were children’s films from classics. But they were all part of the movie fair. They had Chaplin films as part of regional film festivals. Children would have been brought in there to watch those films. But, other than that, I do not remember anything like a children’s film society or a special screening or things like that.

SFK: Were there any such interventions on behalf of ‘independent cinema’?  Were there any deliberations on the need for children’s film?

CSV:  If we look at the issue from that vantage point; see, our serious filmmakers in Malayalam in the 1970s and the 1980s or may be till the 1970s like Ramu Kariat, P. Bhaskaran, Sethu Madhavan, Vincent Mash, etc. and then people like Padmarajan, Bharathan, Aravindan etc. did make a few children’s movies. For instance, Padmarajan, Aravindan, and Ramu Kariat have made children’s movies. Kariat’s Ammuvinte Aattinkutty (1978) can well be considered as a children’s film. It could be the only film widely screened as a children’s film all over Kerala. Even Kummaatti (1979) did not have the tag of a children’s film. I do not think Kummaatti was ever seen, or talked about as a children’s film. Children also saw it, of course. But it was not conceived as a children’s movie.

Though Satyajit Ray was a huge influence and idol for many Malayali filmmakers or artists, we hardly have any serious filmmakers who focused on children’s films or who thought about their life and world the way Ray did. He was a prolific writer of children’s literature and a maker of children’s films. He had done designing and illustrations, and he had many drawings for children to his credit. But here, serious filmmakers did not take children’s cinema seriously.

SFK: Would Aravindan have envisioned a child spectator or viewership when he was making Kummaatti?

CSV:  He must have thought of it. But look at the body of his work. In each film, he was trying to do something else, something different. One needed musicals, the other had a circus in there; some other had something else, and so on and so forth. This means, it may not have been intended as a children’s film, but it was part of his larger narrative or oeuvre, if I may say so.

SFK: My Dear Kuttichathan (1984) was a milestone as the first 3D film from India. What do you think of that film?

CSV:  It was the first 3D movie ever made in India. But, like I said earlier, it was not a film conceived and conceptualized entirely as a movie for children. It was a runaway hit. Everybody watched that film and there were many reasons for its huge success. One thing could be that, it was about children and people must have found it interesting. Or, may be the whole idea of 3D cinema itself made everybody a child. That might have appeared a good rationale to watch a film that presented a child’s perspective. I think everybody was curious to know what it really was. May be, the idea of watching a 3D film for the first time in their life, for the first time in Malayalam, made everybody a child.

SFK: When we talk about Japanese cinema, they have different genres like animations, fantasy, etc. Do we have similar branching out or different explorations in Malayalam?

CSV:  In my opinion, a major drawback or limitation of Malayalam cinema or the larger south Indian cinema per se, is the dearth of generic variety. Most of the films made would be confined to the audience unit or concept of family in one sense or the other. Look at the current scenario in Malayalam cinema. What is the generic variety that it offers? Vadakkanpaattu movies are of course a genre with identifiable and distinct identity. You do not even have gangster films or thriller films. Yakshi movies stand out as a different category. There is nothing more to add; no science fiction, no other categories and varieties.

I think it is also because the needs and demands of the film viewers are met by other cinemas. For instance, James Bond movies are part of our viewing preference; similarly, mythologicals from Tamil cinema or colossal science fiction films from Hollywood and larger-than-life NRI romantic films from Hindi. And this has shaped our viewing habits. It is not necessary to have each and every genre made in Malayalam itself.

SFK: Currently Kerala has an international children’s film festival organized in Trivandrum (ICFFK). Could you elaborate on the venture and its history?

CSV: It is actually an offshoot of IFFK (International Film Festival of Kerala). IFFK has a very long history in Kerala. It is a hugely popular fair which enjoys an international appeal and crowd. The number of applicants exceeds 20,000 and very often, there is a huge rush. But, there is a kind of feeling that it is only for adults. So, what about the children? Should children be watching movies seriously? Basically, the idea was promoted by the Child Welfare Board, and the Chalachitra Academy provided the content. It was a huge success in terms of participation. A lot of children came forward, and they watched and thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. The mix of the films was also oriented towards entertainment, and filmmakers as well as actors participated in the festival. So, it could be considered as yet another younger, smaller, and a child’s version of IFFK.

SFK: Children’s Film Society, India (CFSI) is a major funding source of children’s films in India. Could you explain more about the kind of films supported or funded/produced by CFSI?

CSV: The Malayalam industry has not utilized the opportunity or they have not taken it seriously, I think. Except a few of them—like Shivan perhaps—not many have made use of CFSI funding. I think, in Malayalam, CFSI has not been used much as a source of funding. Even if used… those films, though it may have won awards, it is because every year they have a category called Best Children’s Film Award. So most of the years you have a film. It is there most of the times. They get awards as well. But, in a sense, we do not have a slot for such children’s films in the theatre network. And they do not actually show it. Secondly, there are no arrangements or film-show networking across schools in Kerala. So, it never gets shown. Thirdly, the only space where we can actually show this is on television. And, television never shows children’s films. There is neither a slot nor do they care. In that sense, if I can say so, there is hardly any exhibition space for children’s films made in Malayalam. Hence, that itself makes it very difficult to make films. But, if you look at art cinema, we have made some serious children’s films. I think art cinema have made many more children’s films than commercial cinema. Earlier we talked about Ramu Kariat, Aravindan etc. Similarly, I think there are two very interesting films: one is our Sunil’s Kaliyorukkam (2007). It is a very interesting children’s film. A film made by children. It is a movie in which children participated at all stages. And it really deals with children’s issues and also about their public spaces and all that.

Another film is our Murali Nair’s Unni (2007). Unni is also a very interesting film. A very, very different kind of a movie! But, if you talk about these films, these films got awards; they participated in festivals; but never actually entered a children’s viewing circuit. There may be such attempts. Children’s Film Society of India is a kind of organization which is…which does not have an exhibition network or a programme to reach out to children. For instance, there are some cinemas that they make; there are festivals that they conduct every year. What about taking a package of those films to all the colleges or schools? There are no such initiatives. Children will become part of a viewing culture only if there are such outreach programmes.

SFK: It is heard that cinema is now part of our curriculum. How does it look at cinema? Where does that effort come from?

CSV: I think there are two factors here. I have felt that the mandate or the objective of children’s film festivals is…children, today, are not like us or the previous generation. They are living in a… in other words they are breathing itself in a highly visually saturated atmosphere; through television, internet, WhatsApp, mobile phones, and so on. So, they are surrounded by images, narratives; they are living with this visual flood. In reality, these film festivals have not self-reflectively asked the question: what should be the nature of a film festival that addresses students growing up in such contexts? We have to create a kind of film festival that will educate them about problems, to look at the usual visual content they are consuming every day in a critical way; in a discerning manner. Festivals should be packaged in such a manner. Like a counter to this present context; or else we can perhaps think of a film appreciation programme as the festival. Film festivals should be packaged with the objective of imparting film education, visual education, visual culture exposure, etc.

Similarly, it is now part of the curriculum. If you look at it, in a way, visual media, television, cinema, etc. are part of school, college and university curriculum in Kerala unlike any other states in India. But, actually there are two issues here. First, what are being taught here are techniques like script writing, not the study of visual cinema or to generate visual education among students. Second, there is hardly any reference to the basics of visual education like visual culture, painting or other kinds of visual arts in these textbooks. They are totally alien. There is no real subject like this (visual arts). We study history; we study literature. Why not visual arts? We should at least begin a primary education in this. It is possible to become a postgraduate even without getting acquainted with Raja Ravi Varma or KCS Panikker. So what I am saying is that unless you start from the beginning, from an earlier stage, there is a problem in introducing visual education suddenly in high school or the tenth class. They do not know even the basics of visual communication or visual arts or visual culture. Nobody has seen a painting; nobody has seen a sculptor. We start directly from/with cinema. Then there is a disconnect. The curriculum has not addressed this. We just teach some technical lessons, and that is all! We introduce some scripts, some cinemas. That method is very fragmented, according to me.

SFK: Today when digital technologies are more accessible even here, it has become easier for anyone to become a filmmaker while, filmmaking was a remote possibility in the past. How has this affected the sensibilities of this generation of makers as well as viewers?

CSV: Anybody can be an image maker or filmmaker now. If anybody could be a poet in the past, anybody can be a filmmaker in the present. In our generation everyone was a poet! Today, everybody is an image maker. That is the shift. But if I am asked about these excesses… Carlos Sobera was the chief guest at IFFK two years ago. This was a question raised in a conversation with him: what about digital technology? It has made everything easy. Anybody can be a filmmaker. What do you think about this? He said that digital imaging or digital technology was like a whale. It gives birth to millions of eggs; but only one or two survive. So that is about digital and image making. It is flooding! Everybody is an image maker. You are making images; you are sharing images; you are manipulating images every day; not every day, every minute in fact! But as a producer and as a consumer, we can ask two questions here: am I a thinking producer or a thinking consumer? I doubt it. We do not have such education. This visual flow or visual flood does not allow a distance to look at it. Because you are in it; you are breathing it. You just cannot keep away from it and look at it. As a result, what happens is that… especially in the case of children… I notice it when taking classes in schools and colleges… there is a pace underlying their visual understanding or visual experience, which is set by the television. There is a hyperlinked situation here. You tend to move from one to the other. And it is natural to you.

We do not have the patience to consistently look at or follow a particular visual. Because you are always impatient to go somewhere else. Because that is the format of this web page. You go from one to the other and it continues. This is the pace of the television. In that sense, television, as a frame, and as a continuous one, is highly fragmented temporally and spatially. This is what has set the visual pace of these children. This is their pace. Hence, they are not actually able to relate to everything. They get impatient. Then, they do not relate to the image. They do not let the image sink in.

We only had this (limited visual material) in our generation. So our pace was set accordingly. We did not have television to set our pace. Hence, we were not used to any other kind of faster medium. We had not experienced any editing pace.

Also, in a sense, we could feel the difference, as well. Now, even that is not felt. There is no difference or an alternative felt either visually, aesthetically or emotionally. Thus, there is this issue here. I doubt whether that is the way to approach images. Then the question is what would be the visual culture of such a generation?