By APARITA BHANDARI
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, January 20, 2018
Growing up in a film-loving family in Chennai, India, Madhan Selvaraj was a fan of commercial Tamil cinema.
During religious holidays such as the harvest festival Thai Pongal, his family went to the cinema, sometimes watching up to three movies a day. But it wasn't until Selvaraj moved to Toronto in 2006 and started dating a Bengali colleague that he started watching Bengali films.
"We used to go for movie dates at Woodside Cinema," he says, noting the Scarborough theatre that screens Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam-language films.
"Then she introduced me to Bengali films by Satyajit Ray, like Charulata. Initially, it was tough for me to understand what was going on. Tamil commercial cinema is different, it's very mass [audience] oriented. But slowly I started to understand the characters, the storyline. Subtitles were important."
Years later, now in Edmonton where he works with the Alberta government, Selvaraj started to screen Tamil and Bengali movies out of his own passion - and pocket. After two years of small screenings featuring movies such as Enthiran (Robot), starring Tamil superstar Rajnikanth, and Iti Mrinalini by celebrated Bengali filmmaker Aparna Sen, Selvaraj joined forces with some former university friends to start the not-for-profit Edmonton Movie Club. Its mandate is to show regional-language and independent cinema from India to "bridge cultures through movies."
Starting out slowly with monthly screenings in Edmonton in 2012, the group grew quickly. Screenings increased to weekly offerings and venues spread to Calgary, Red Deer, Fort McMurray, Coal Lake and Lethbridge, plus out of the province in Regina, Saskatoon and Victoria. In 2015, the Edmonton Movie Club started the India Film Festival of Alberta, taking the festival on the road across the province.
Now, the group has opened a chapter called Toronto Movie Club. It officially kicks off on Sunday at the city's Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema with a screening of Kadvi Hawa, an art-house film tackling the issue of climate change and its effects on India's rural poor.
Despite the easy availability of commercial Bollywood fare, as well as Tamil and Malayalam films in Toronto especially, there is an appetite for critically acclaimed films in other Indian languages, says Bibaswan Ghoshal, who works in cancer research at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital by day and is director of the Edmonton Movie Club in his spare time. Ghoshal moved from Alberta to Toronto in 2016 and spent a year scoping out the scene before starting the Toronto chapter.
"Although we're officially starting in January, we've already had a couple of screenings. We showed a Bengali movie and Gujarati movie. There were people who came to us and said this is the first time they have seen a movie in their own language in Toronto, especially people who have moved here from India just three or four years ago ... like the student population or immigrant worker population," Ghoshal says. "For the Gujarati movie, Love Ni Bhavai, there was so much demand that we had to do a second showing in December."
These are the films that audiences won't necessarily be able to see at local art houses or during the Toronto International Film Festival, which last year screened four films from India, including one Indian/British coproduction. "In the past two years, we've had Anurag Kashyap, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Konkona Sen Sharma and many more launch films at our festival," TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey said. "Our audience has a real passion for Indian cinema. We do everything we can both to satisfy and surprise them." While the Indian film industry is famous for producing more than 1,000 films annually, and does so in several of India's official 22 languages, many bypass Canadian film festivals, competing instead for India's National Films Awards or Indian film festivals. According to Aseem Chhabra, director of the New York Indian Film Festival and author of The Householder, The Star, a biography of Bollywood veteran Shashi Kapoor, regional Indian filmmakers are more concerned with making movies for their regional audience. "Take Angamaly Diaries. Great Malayalam gangster film, with lots of fast cuts and lots of style. At first it was only released in Kerala, but when some people outside the Malayalam industry started to comment on how great it was, then they started to consider sending it to festivals," Chhabra says.
In Edmonton, however, where the availability of commercial Hindi, Tamil or Malayalam films is limited, the Edmonton Movie Club offers a mixed bag, taking big-budget spectacles to smaller markets such as Coal Lake, or screening them on an Imax screen at the Telus World of Science in Edmonton.
"When we screened Tiger Zinda Hai [a Bollywood movie starring Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif] in Lethbridge, many Bhutanese and Nepalese fans of Salman Khan showed up," Selvaraj says. "There are [Bollywood fans] working in Lethbridge's agriculture sector and they don't get a chance to see these movies."
Revenue from screening commercial films also helps offset costs of presenting more offbeat Indian cinema, and running the India Film Festival of Alberta.
The group's biggest coup so far was to screen Baahubali - a twopart Telugu-language fantasy epic that broke box-office records in India - across Western Canada. "That movie put us on the map," Ghoshal says. "Before that, we would get regional audiences for a regional movie from India. But Baahubali had a global reach. It created a lot of hype."
The screening of the second part of Baahubali in 2016 at Red Deer College led to an initiative where students in the school's motion-picture arts program are able to attend screenings by Edmonton Movie Club for free, handing in class assignments on the films they see.
"After we started the India Film Festival, the next year we got [Tamil actor] R. Madhavan to attend," as well as other celebrities from the Malayalam, Gujarati and Punjabi cinemas, Selvaraj says. "They get a tour to show locations they can shoot [Indian] movies in Alberta."
The group's ambitions are only limited by the time they can spare to volunteer for the organization. Partially funded by the Edmonton Arts Council and the government of Alberta, the Edmonton Movie Club hopes to secure more funding to hire at least part-time help.
"We would love to do screenings all over Canada, even in Newfoundland. Also, we want to focus more on our mandate, on educating [Canadians] about the diversity of India," Selvaraj says.
"We can understand a lot about race and diversity through movies, beyond the entertainment."
As for Ghoshal, it is the human connections he's made that keep him going.
"We opened our first film festival in 2015 with Pather Panchali [the first of Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy] - the restored version," he says. "This older gentleman, he must be in his late 80s, came to me afterwards and said he was in Paris when the film first showed at Cannes, in 1956. He'd lined up to watch it, but could not get in. He'd seen the movie since on TV and online, but he'd always wanted to watch it on the big screen."
For information on future screenings in Edmonton, visit facebook.com/edmontonmovieclub For Toronto screenings, visit facebook.com/torontomovieclub.
The Edmonton Movie Club's biggest coup so far was to screen Baahubali - a two-part Telugu-language fantasy epic that broke box-office records in India - across Western Canada.
The club's Toronto chapter officially kicks off on Sunday at the city's Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema with a screening of Kadvi Hawa, an art-house film tackling climate change and its effects on India's rural poor.