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Beyond the festival

K.G. Kumar

AS the Ninth International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) got under way in Thiruvananthapuram, there was a huge scramble among film lovers to grab a bite from the tantalising menu of 171 films from 50 countries on offer. Enthusiasm is ruling high, as the organisers reported having given out over 4,500 passes by the time the show opened.

However, this enthusiasm appears to remain confined to cinema buffs and the organisers basking in the limelight. One indication of discontent was the conspicuous absence of the office-bearers of the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA) at the inaugural ceremony.

In contrast, the Malayalam Cine Technicians' Association (MACTA) was in full bloom, having conceived and staged the inaugural show. The other players in the industry, like the Kerala Film Producers Association, the Film Distributors Association (Kerala), the Kerala Film Exhibitors Federation and the Kerala Cine Exhibitors Association, are lying low too.

A few months ago, when the Malayalam film industry was nearly split over the participation of artistes in non-film stage entertainment shows, many of those now seen at IFFK 2004 were at each other's throats. Then, the Kerala Film Chamber of Commerce had decided to withdraw its nominees to the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy general council in protest against the cooperation extended by the Academy Chairman, T.K. Rajiv Kumar, to a "star nite" programme in Kochi.

Behind all this bitterness is the sorry plight of the Malayalam film industry. At the height of the standoff between film artistes and producers a few months ago, Siyad Kokker, President of the Kerala Film Chamber, had told this paper that the current year, 2004, may see just about 25 to 30 films hitting the silver screen. In 2003, the industry had produced only 60 films, down from around 120 in 1999.

The cost of producing a Malayalam film has risen significantly over the past few years. "It takes about Rs 1-1.5 crore to make a film without casting any superstars. For films with superstars, the cost is over Rs 2 crore," Kokker said. To recover investments, non-star films need to run at least 50 days in the cinema halls of the main cities, while films featuring superstar need to complete a minimum of 100 days screening. This, according to industry watchers, rarely happens in Kerala nowadays.

The plain fact is fewer people are going to the movies. "The number of people who would go to a theatre to watch films has come down by 50 per cent in Kerala," film director K.G. George, President of MACTA, pointed out to this paper's correspondent. He cited the poor quality of theatres in the State, rampant piracy and the absence of meaningful films as the main factors that forced people to remain indoors, glued to their TV sets.

Of these factors, the one that could perhaps be best addressed by the State Government is the status of cinema halls. The Kerala Cine Exhibitors Association estimates that the number of theatres in Kerala has come down to 1,009, from over 1,400 in the late 1980s. As the rest of urban India is fast discovering, multiplex theatre complexes are a safe bet to lure back the crowds. But Kerala is yet to have its first multiplex.

By according industry status to film-making and funnelling back to the industry some of the revenue from the 48 per cent entertainment tax levied, the State government can do its bit to revive Malayalam cinema.

Then perhaps we can start believing the Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy, who, while inaugurating IFFK 2004, expressed the government's willingness to give all possible assistance to the Malayalam film industry.

The writer can be contacted at kgkumar@gmail.com

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