Award-winning editor and the artistic director of more than 20 editions of the International Film Festival of Kerala, Bina Paul has also been active in the Women in Cinema Collective.

Bina Paul in a pink sari sits in a white couch in front of a cooler
Features Interview Thursday, December 15, 2022 - 22:43

In the half an hour we are inside the festival office at Thiruvananthapuram’s Tagore Theatre, at least five people stop by to talk to Bina Paul. When a middle-aged man passes by, she says, “Gopikrishnan (of the festival cell) was there even back then.” By back then, she means the first year of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), held in 1996. Bina, then an esteemed editor who had worked with legendary directors like John Abraham and G Aravindan, was asked by P Govinda Pillai, then chairman of the state’s film development corporation, to be the fest’s artistic director. She said yes. Twenty-seven editions of IFFK have since rolled by, and Bina Paul curated 21 or 22 of them. She stopped with the 26th edition, held earlier this year. Now, as the 27th edition is going on, Bina is looking at it from the outside, a festival that she and many others had helped make it the celebrated event it has become.

“It is going very well. Everyone is happy,” she says. A few metres away, you can spot the familiar long queues before a screening, and small groups of people hovering around the vast grounds of Tagore Theatre, the main venue of the IFFK.

Nearly all of it now banks on technology. A world away from 1996 when Bina and her team battled with huge and heavy film reels, that came with or without subtitles, wrote letters to filmmakers which may or may not reach them. “It was so challenging and though I have been the face of the festival for long, there was always a team, dedicated to see that the fest was growing,” Bina says.

Best and worst of the IFFK

Funnily enough, she has trouble naming a single year as her best. Her memories are more like highlights flashing by – the year Herzog came, the year that many big names like Abbas Kiarostami, Christopher Doyle and others came, the year Asif Kapadia’s film on Maradona had a midnight screening and the audience went wild like at a stadium. But she remembers her worst year – that’s when the shift from print to digital happened. “There were schedule changes everywhere, and everyone was baying for my blood!”

That was not the only time she got blamed. Every year, there’d be a lot of murmurs when films got rejected and people assumed it was because of her personal grudges. “I can say with a clear conscience, I have never done that. I always thought the festival was the most important, and respected everyone’s opinions. But when you have space only for 200 films, you will need to make choices. Being a curator, you are often like a gatekeeper. When you decide to show something, it means the rest do not get space, so how do you make that decision?” she asks.

Bina Paul with Director Anurag Kashyap at the 26th IFFK

From the offset, they were very clear that it should not be a rarefied atmosphere. The gates were open to everyone, and people could come and get their passes. The team was also very keen that this was a space for films ‘that are not normally seen’ – which meant, not the American films that anyway released in theatres in Kerala, and not the popular films that people got to see otherwise.

“Not that they are not good enough, but you have the opportunity to see them elsewhere. But where do you get to see a film from Cuba, from Africa? Then the fest became about films from Latin America, Africa, and Asia,” she says.

Of course, those were the days before OTT platforms were launched. The only way to see world cinema came through screenings at film societies, which only a niche crowd attended. Bina says that the festival kept evolving every year. “I’m really happy that we have given it such a solid ground that it is now almost in auto mode. Not that it is easy. Deepika has done a great job this year.”

Deepika Suseelan is the new artistic director of IFFK. She has handled three back-to-back editions of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) and a previous edition of the IFFK when Bina had stepped down. Bina missed out a few editions in the early years too, owing to her work at C-DIT. That is a job she took a few years after coming to Kerala. That was also where she organised her first film festival, a documentary fest in 1995, inviting known names of the day such as Anand Patwardhan, Reena Mohan, Madhusree Dutta, and Shabnam Virmani.

FTII days

Years before that, Bina got a taste of organising a film festival when she interned for the IFFI. This was while she was still a student of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), learning editing. Her major motivation to take up the internship, she tells me, was so she could get passes for everyone! “At that time, to get a pass for the film festival was impossible, even when we were students of the FTII. I thought if I’m part of the team, I can get passes for everyone. And I really enjoyed the work. Malti Sahay was the director, Parameswaran the programme director. I enjoyed meeting filmmakers, and the whole challenge of imagining this fest with them.”

That final year at FTII brought a lot of events. She got her first editing job – a small film made by renowned director MP Sukumaran Nair called Bhavi (“and there was my whole bhavi ahead of me,” she says laughing).

Early photo of Bina Paul / Courtesy - Rakesh S / Wiki Commons

She had not chosen to study editing because she was passionate about it. Bina says she had no clue about filmmaking when she went to the film institute. She was a product of the post Emergency generation, idealistic and full of activism. Films, she thought, would be a mode for activism.

“During my college days in Delhi, we were shown films like Anand Patwardhan’s Prisoners of Conscience, which was banned at the time. We were involved in film societies and we attended film appreciation courses. We also did a lot of street theatre at the time. When I applied to the film institute, I only knew film as a kind of finished product, nothing about how it was made. In my year at the FTII, they offered two specialisations – cinematography or editing. At that time even owning a camera was so expensive, so I chose editing,” Bina says.

At the FTII, they were a disgruntled lot, as students everywhere have always been, she says. She had come from Delhi, raised in the northern city by parents hailing from Kerala and Karnataka. Going from Delhi to the film institute, she found a very open, academic and scholarly kind of atmosphere. “You meet students from all over the country and have the freedom to make mistakes. Looking back, I really feel that it was those three years in the institute that really shaped how one actually values the freedom to learn. Nobody told you to do things this way or that way. It was so open.”

Aravindan and Shaji spoke to parents for Venu

On the personal front, FTII was the place she met Venu, then a student of cinematography, who would go on to become her husband and renowned cinematographer and director.

Venu and Bina / Courtesy - Venu's Facebook page

It was a very busy time. After she graduated, FTII dean John Sankaramangalam asked her to edit a film he made and that became her first feature film. Then, of course, she went on to work with G Aravindan for his documentary on Jiddu Krishnamurti and afterwards with John Abraham for Amma Ariyan.

“I was petrified by John [initially]. He had ragged me very badly at the institute. Later we became good friends. I’d argue with him, discuss and disagree. With Aravindettan, there was a submission, he had already made these wonderful films. I have learnt so much from both of them,” she says.

It was Aravindan and Shaji N Karun who went to Bina’s home in Delhi to talk to her parents about Venu. They were instrumental, she says, in setting up her and Venu’s marriage.

Bina is doing a project about her FTII days, about how it was for women at the institute. There were only two in her class and five in the whole campus of 60 to 65 students. All the women who had studied with her did continue in the field, but many others, after and before them, had dropped out.

What’s next

Bina has that and other projects going on, she is editing films, something that she began enjoying sometime between her course and the work on the sets. But it took much longer for her to feel confident about her work, she says, until MT Vasudevan Nair’s Oru Cheru Punchiri. “Even now I’m very nervous about editing. But that year (2000) when I worked with MT sir, there was something that gave me confidence.”

She had by then already worked on Agnisakshi, the film that won the best feature in Malayalam at the National Awards. And Mitr – Revathy’s debut as a director with an all-women crew – was on the way. Perhaps a sort of predecessor to the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) – a group founded in 2017 after the sexual assault of a prominent female actor in Kerala, of which Bina is an active member. “It is very comfortable working in an all-women space. Men are going through a peculiar crisis of being so exposed and not being able to tie this up in their personal lives while women have moved on so much. I have close men friends. But with women, I find a level of comfort in terms of ideas, not having to feel responsible for everything. On Mitr sets, that feeling was very much there. It was also the same atmosphere in a film by Shabnam Virmani where it was all women. With WCC, we realised how important it is for women to form these groups.”

Bina Paul, Revathy and others during Mitr/ Courtesy - South Indian Film Women's Association

Mitr also brought her her first National Award. She also received state awards for films like Daya (Venu’s first as a director) and Sayahnam. Bina does not mention any of the awards or recognitions. Through the interview, she refers to the work behind the IFFK as a team’s, not an individual’s.

As we come to a close, Bina is getting ready to attend an open forum as a panellist. She does miss being a part of the IFFK, she says, but it wasn’t to be and she had to move on. She also thinks it is time to take it easy a bit and indulge in her other interests, which also includes spending time with her two grandchildren.

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