Interview: ‘Nasir’ director Arun Karthick on Panchajanyam film festival, OTTs, and more

Arun Karthick
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangment

The 14th edition of the Panchajanyam International Film Festival will commence on February 2 at the Kairali-Sree Theatre in Chittoor, Palakkad. It might not be the biggest of film festivals- it doesn’t boast a star-studded guest list or visits of auteurs from abroad – yet it, and other small-scale festivals, are essential for a film community’s growth. Kerala, especially, has more of these festivals. This should be correlated to the state’s reputation for consistently creating critically acclaimed mainstream cinema. At least, that’s what Coimbatore-based filmmaker Arun Karthick believes. Arun, who made the superbly poignant Nasir (an independent Tamil film won the NETPAC award for Best Asian Film at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam), will curate the Indian Experimental Cinema section at Panchajanyam. 

In this interview, Arun discusses the importance of film festivals, the increasing influence of streaming platforms on Indian cinema, the difficulties of being an independent filmmaker, and more.


In this age where films from across the world are available online, what role do film festivals play in promoting film culture?

In recent years, my film consumption on laptops and television has diminished my closeness with cinema. To rekindle that connection, I want to watch more films on the big screen. Savouring films on the big screen significantly differs from watching them on your laptop or phone. Because, in the latter, you tend to pause, get distracted, and not see the film in one stretch. Watching in one sitting enhances the impact and extends the memorability of the cinematic experience. You can do this at film festivals, where you also get to interact with filmmakers from different cultures. So, film festivals, in a way, are cultural confluences. They are also crucial because they feature curations of cinema. Curators offer a historical perspective to cinema. They juxtapose films from different eras to illustrate the evolution of cinema in specific regions. 

What are your thoughts on the increasing influence of streaming platforms on Indian cinema?

While streaming platforms initially seemed promising, they now appear to have lost their appeal among film lovers. The abundance of mediocre films on these platforms has transformed them into what feels like ‘internet television’. Mainstream platforms prioritise quantity over quality, often neglecting interesting and original narratives. These platforms, acting as quasi-monopolies, hinder the emergence of alternative portals showcasing unique works.

The potential for meaningful attempts and narratives with integrity and originality is absent. Even in terms of series, the space already feels uninspiring. The vast content on these platforms makes it challenging for viewers to remember what they’ve watched, and the experience lacks the cultural significance of theatre.

The theatre space is now primarily associated with big commercial films. So, the charm and communal experience of watching ‘small’ films on the screen is at risk of being lost.

Are you saying the space for experimental films is shrinking even on OTT platforms? 

Absolutely. The growing censorship within OTTs is also concerning. Even with Nasir, we face a huge issue with its OTT screening. These platforms just accept whatever the government and the censor board prefer. As of now, there is less space for interesting independent films. It’s sad. Filmmaking, a powerful mode of dissent, loses impact when OTTs want to play it safe and conform to the government.

Do you think Indian cinema adequately reflects the diversity and complexities of Indian society? 

Every year, intriguing films emerge from various parts of India, addressing cultural, political, and dissenting themes in documentaries and independent fiction. However, the challenge lies in inadequate distribution, hindering these voices from reaching a broader audience. Despite the vibrant storytelling methods employed, mainstream media largely ignores these works. Again, this is why festivals like the Panchajanyam International Film Festival are essential. This year, they have a program to showcase how experimental short films have historically subverted accepted norms, highlighting filmmakers grappling with ahead-of-their-time ideas. While there are exceptional Indian films, they are hampered by the lack of support for regional cinema and limited distribution avenues.

‘Past Lives’ will be one of the films screened at the Panchajanyam International Film Festival

‘Past Lives’ will be one of the films screened at the Panchajanyam International Film Festival
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Do you believe in the division of mainstream and arthouse cinema? What makes a cinema ‘arthouse’ or ‘mainstream’?

Film classifications, often assigned by journalists and distribution agents to give films an identity, don’t align with my perspective as a film enthusiast. While some classifications make sense, like labelling a film commercial or art house based on its audience reach, these distinctions are arbitrary. Films labelled ‘art films’ may attract a significant audience and generate revenue, while mainstream films intended for broader viewership may struggle in theatres.

The same ambiguity applies to terms like independent and industry films. Genres, budgets, and labels like low-budget, art house, or human drama often fail to capture a film’s essence. Even terms like fiction and documentary become confusing when the boundaries between reality and expression are blurred within the frame.

I believe in each film’s unique identity, resisting the constraints imposed by conventional classifications that are often challenged and blurred by filmmaking.

Thanks to technological advancement, making films is more affordable than ever. However, there is more competition and restrictions. How easy or difficult is it to become an independent filmmaker in India?

While technological advancements have made filmmaking more accessible, the challenge lies in exhibiting, distributing, and selling the films. The availability of various cameras, from cinema to mobile phone cameras, with 4K capabilities allows for diverse storytelling methods. Independent films can be made with small crews and minimal budgets, yet the need for funds arises in certain cases. For instance, when we made Nasir, an independent film, we needed to set up the protagonist’s world and an aesthetically and technically sharp team. So we had to spend a lot on the film.

The dynamics of filmmaking and its economy have become more accessible, as evident in a film we shot in Amsterdam using small cameras and bicycles. Yet, the crucial role of a producer in Indian independent filmmaking is underdeveloped, as they play a vital role in positioning, distributing, and marketing the film. The need for creative producers who can think strategically and create effective distribution models is emphasised for independent filmmakers to make meaningful contributions to the film culture.

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