If Bollywood can be likened to Hollywood as India's home of big-budget, mainstream movie-making, then Kerala state's capital, Thiruvanathapuram (aka Trivandrum), is India's Austin. Kerala is the heart of Indian independent cinema, and Thiruvanathapuram - like the hip Texas capital - is home to the country's most vibrant film festival in one of its most vivid regions. A short stroll past the tea stalls and restaurants of the city's main drag is an adventure: laid-back, crowded, sweaty and fragrant with the scents of vanilla, cardamom, chilli and cinnamon in the air. The 18th International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) wrapped up on December 13 after eight days - and to say it is like no other festival in the world is an understatement. Anyone who has gone to a movie in India (a valid tourist endeavour) will be well aware of Indian audiences' penchant for making it abundantly clear what they think. Reactions to a bad film can transform a slog into a pleasure. Compound that with an art house-friendly crowd that has developed a taste for the unusual and you have a cocktail for a singular festival experience. Israeli filmmaker Adi Adwan (in town with Arabani ) addressed a house so packed people were sitting in the aisles. The crowd cheered robustly before the film started, prompting Adwan to comment: "I've never had a reception like this to my film. Wow." One screening was so crammed that Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (Netpac) jury members had to make a public appeal for seats. This being Kerala, seats were quickly volunteered. It's easy to see why film buffs brave the hordes for the festival. An all-inclusive pass is just 400 rupees (HK$50), and allows "delegates" entry to all IFFK events and films. Kerala's long history of Malayalam-language cinema is ingrained in the state's personality. For a capital, Trivandrum is remarkably unstuffy and classically chaotic. Kochi, farther north, is a hotbed of art and culture. The film industry dates to the late 1930s (the subject of Celluloid , one of the films at the festival this year), and its prominence has further cultivated an already educated - Kerala has the second highest literacy rate in India, at nearly 100 per cent - and discerning audience. Once the hysteria subsided (special guest South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk was swarmed like a rock star wherever he went), the festival revealed a diverse programme of more than 200 films that included spotlights on samurai cinema, indie Latin American films, and contemporary Nigerian movies. It welcomed guests such as Kim, Lifetime Achievement award recipient Carlos Saura, and German filmmaker Harun Farocki. And there were also the IFFK's hallmark Asian, Indian and Malayalam films. Despite criticisms in the local press about the 2013 edition having a weak programme, the depth and breadth of the films in the Malayalam section reflected a wide range of the Malayali experience. As much as audiences clamoured to get seats for Kim's Moebius , Turkish entry Storyteller and Hindi film The Lunchbox , Keralites love watching Kerala on screen. Malayalam entries tackled the immigrant experience ( English ), local history ( The Master of the Play ), faith and guilt ( Virgin Talkies ), and hot-button issues such as surrogacy for profit ( The Endless Summer ). The major awards went to an odd lot, but that's in line with Kerala's maverick vibe. The Suvarna Chakoram Golden Crow Pheasant for best feature was awarded to Majid Barzegar's Parviz , a challenging drama about 50 years of rage manifesting in one man's crumbling life. The Iranian film was a deserving choice and an exemplar of IFFK. Other prizes went to the surreal and innovative Bengali feature Meghe Dhaka Tara by Kamaleswar Mukherjee, a Netpac and Silver Crow Pheasant winner for best director, and Netpac's choice for best Malayalam film, CR NO: 89 from Sudevan PP, a densely structured quasi-thriller about ethics, trust and the challenge of doing the right thing - a theme echoed in much of the programme. First-time director Ivan Vescovo picked up the best debut prize for his haunting mystery Errata . But the audience rules at Kerala, and the Audience Award - and thus biggest - winner of the week turned out to be Sidhartha Siva's gentle, imperfect but connective 101 Questions , about a little boy coming of age in a small village by asking some of life's toughest questions. And no surprise: it's Malayalam.