On January 14, film exhibitors in Kerala called off an almost month-long stir that had paralysed the state’s movie industry, with no new Malayalam production released after December 16. The breakthrough came on the same day the actor Dileep launched a new film organisation in Kochi.

Last month, the Kerala Film Exhibitors Federation – whose members own 356 ‘A’ class release centres, which make up the majority of single-screen theatres in the state – had decided not to release any Malayalam film to push for their demand for a higher share in box office collections. The decision had stalled the release of four highly-anticipated films – Mohanlal’s Munthirivallikal Thalirkkumpol, Dulquer Salmaan’s Jomonte Suvisheshangal, Jayasurya’s Fukri and Prithviraj’s Ezra – during the Christmas and New Year festival season. Rough estimates put the loss incurred by producers in the last four weeks at Rs 100 crore.

The federation’s demand was for a 50% share of the box-office collection in the first week of a film’s release. Currently, they get 40% of the first-week collection, 45% in the second week, 50% in the third and 60% in the fourth. “We have been demanding parity with multiplexes, which get 50% from the first week itself,” said federation president Liberty Basheer.

However, the Kerala Film Producers’ Federation and Kerala Film Distributors’ Association had rejected the demand, pointing out that multiplexes have better facilities and higher ticket rates while most single-screen theatres have not upgraded their facilities.

But on January 14, as news of the launch of the new film organisation trickled in, the federation hurriedly called off its strike, fearing a split. Cracks had already started appearing over the release of Tamil superstar Vijay’s film Bairavaa on over 100 screens, including many A class theatres, in the state during the strike period.

The development came a day after Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan issued a stern warning to the federation. “When it announced the strike, the government told them not to resort to the unilateral strike,” he said in a statement. “It should withdraw from the strike immediately.”

Culture of film organisations

The Dileep-led outfit is the ninth association in the Malayalam film industry, popularly called Mollywood, after the Kerala Film Chamber of Commerce, Kerala Film Producers’ Association, Kerala Film Distributors Association, Kerala Cine Exhibitors Federation, Kerala Film Exhibitors Association, Film Employees Federation of Kerala, Malayalam Cine Technicians Association and Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes.

Each association wields considerable clout and acts as a power centre. The association culture began in the 1970s with the launch of the Film Chamber of Commerce, comprising producers, distributors and exhibitors, to lobby with the government for rules favourable to the industry.

Dileep told journalists that the new organisation would work for the betterment of Malayalam cinema. “We will ensure that theatres are not closed down from now on,” he said. “We have received the support of directors, producers and theatre owners who feel the show must go on.”

But Basheer, on Friday, accused Dileep of trying to split his organisation. “Associations of film producers and distributors have been trying to split KFEF with Dileep’s support,” he said.

Strikes and bans

Strikes are not new to the Malayalam film industry, and have been called by different associations of exhibitors and distributors in the past to raise various demands.

“Mollywood has witnessed at least five strikes in the last two years before major releases,” said Ziyad Kokker, president of the Kerala Film Distributors Association.

The Kerala Film Exhibitors Federation had launched a major strike in 2011 after the government decided to classify theatres based on facilities. This was followed by a protest by film producers against rising costs. The Film Distributors Association too had decided not to distribute any film if theatre owners refrained from screening Malayalam movies.

The Kerala Film Exhibitors Federation was in the news again in 2015 when it objected to the release of Telugu filmmaker SS Rajamouli’s big-budget Baahubali, alleging that it would affect the revenue of Malayalam movies.

Apart from strikes, these associations have also banned actors in the past. In 2008, Meera Jasmine faced an unofficial ban after the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes accused her of noncooperation during the shooting of its production Twenty-Twenty. Two years later, in 2010, the association banned the late actor Thilakan for refusing to apologise for his comments against its senior members.

The producers’ association meted out similar treatment to actor Nithya Menen in 2012, accusing her of misbehaving with producers who had come to meet her at a movie location.

Reform recommended

The formation of the new association by Dileep has brought back the focus on the recommendations of an expert panel, headed by eminent director Adoor Gopalakrishnan, to improve the state of cinema in Kerala. The report, submitted in 2014, had urged the government to form a film regulatory authority.

Among its recommendations was the grading of theatres based on infrastructure, quality of the projection system, air-conditioning, seating arrangements and parking facilities. It had also suggested that producers have the freedom to release their movies in any theatre.

In his statement, the chief minister mentioned the panel’s suggestions. “The government would think about appointing a fact-finding committee to look into the issues that led to the strike and setting up a regulatory committee as suggested by Adoor panel if KFEF withdrew the strike,” he said.

For and against

There have been mixed reactions to the new organisation. Director and Film Employees Federation of Kerala president B Unnikrishnan said everyone has the right to form an association. “I don’t feel that another association will hamper the growth of the industry,” he said. “We can assess the new outfit based on its stands.”

He said the film strike had continued for a month because of the adamant stand taken by both sides. “The aggrieved parties didn’t sit across the table to sort out issues,” he said. “FEFKA would like to see the release of movies soon.”

Filmmaker Sajin Babu, who is unsure about the release date of his second film Ayal Sasi, also welcomed the formation of the new association. “I hope it will end the current crisis,” Babu said. “I urge the government to implement the Adoor panel recommendations to avoid theatre strikes in future.”

Director Vinayan, however, felt the formation of yet another organisation would further complicate the scenario. “Organisations never did any good to the industry,” he told Scroll.in. “The new organisation will act as another pressure group.”