Sunday, September 28, 2008

On Facial Expression

Chaaru Haasan
As against the art of acting, especially with facial expressions, the cops in the west have developed a science of facial expressions. It all started with a cop who was on patrol found three juvenile delinquents in an area known for violence. By the time the cop got out of his car with gun raised two of them ran away while one stood still. The cop pointing the gun at the boy, who was hardly fourteen years, shouted ordering him to put his hands on his head. The boy, instead, reached his pocket and came out with an automatic pistol. The cop who was concentrating on his face, held his fire. The boy dropped the gun on the floor and raised his hands in the air.

Later the cop explained that he saw only fear in the face of the boy and not anger that would be the kind of emotion that would have made the boy to take pot shot at a cop. The innocent Brazilian died in London recently as the cops involved had no acumen for studying facial expressions or body language or they interpreted them wrongly.

Some cops have come up with experiments where they found that constant use of simulated experiments of facial expressions of anger and fear actually increased the heart rate and also the adrenaline flow. This has made us change our opinion on `method acting’ where we asserted that the way you artificially move your body or move your facial muscles conveyed the emotions you wanted the audience to experience. Move a set of muscles in your face upwards and you simulate laughter. By the same token moving them downwards is synonymous to weeping. Now the same thing can influence your emotions that you are in real tears and in a depressed state of mind after enacting a tragic scene in front of the camera.

In my early days as a film audience, I hardly let myself to be influenced by a heartrending scene being enacted in a film. That was when I was comparatively young in body and mind. Most unacceptable physical heroics, where the lead player made a back ward somersault on the floor and took off backwards to reach the top of roof that was 15 to 20 feet above ground appealed to me a lot more than the rest of the narrative, till I reached my teens. On the borders of my manhood I was superimposing myself on the hero and was falling emotionally in love with every other heroine.

After more than 25 years of acting, directing two flop films and ingratiating myself with top echelons of the film industry, an average performance even by an unknown artist brings tears to my eyes. Now I realize why some of my fellow artists continued their emotions and tears long after the camera had stopped.

I had come across the case of a young hero who is supposed to fall in love with an obese woman of his mother’s age as per the screenplay actually trying to marry her, though he got out of that illusion after being influenced by another screenplay and another heroine. Similar emotions repeating constant facial expressions are likely to have a long-term effect on your body and mind.

Coming to the practical side of performing in front of a camera, I have one instant to quote from my own personal experience.

A director was taking a close up of the heroine’s father played by comparatively a new actor. The villain asks:

“I want a decision from you! What do you say?”

The answer in close up as the script read …He thinks for a time and says

“I shall tell you tomorrow.”

The artist gives a long stare and delivers the dialogue. The director screams, “Use your head and think man; before you deliver the dialogue!” After five bad takes which had consumed about 50 feet of raw film and about one thousand rupees going down the drain not counting rupees 750 being half an hour’s cash flow in production costs, I offered to talk to the artist.

I advised the actor to shift his eyes to the tube light on the left, few feet above the face of the villain, come back and say I shall tell you tomorrow. When the director came back the shot was done in one take. There are other ways by which the same effect can be induced in the audience. The artist could have shifted his look to stare down at the floor and then come looking up and answer “I shall you to morrow.”

Now the essential difference between the above two body languages is that when the man looks upwards slanting his face to one side suggests he is planning some strategy to meet the situation next day. There is suggestion of a little more confidence in his attitude than when his goes down and stares at the floor. There could be a third way in which he might use another body language by just turning his head at the same level, scratch his beard or chin if does not have a beard, come back to look at the face of the villain and deliver the same dialogue. Here there is neither a scheming nor lack of confidence. His aim is procrastination or biding for time and a postponement. If in this case if he does not come back to face the villain and delivers his dialogue, an ingredient called fear is added to the lack of confidence.

Now facial expressions are something that should convey a thought process to the audience. To the American cop, a face reader, the boy’s face conveyed an expression of fear and that is why he held the fire even when the boy’s hand came out with a gun from the pocket. In the same token if a girl, while listening to the advances of an young man, widens her eyes opening her lids a little more than normal and moves her cheek muscles backwards towards her ears that would produce a smile exposing a portion of her teeth, she is supposed to be happy with what the boy has said. On the other hand, if the eyes are narrowed, brows shrinking closer together and lips gets compressed it means that she hates the idea. .

Chaaru Haasan is an award winning film actor. He won the national award for the Best Actor and also the Karnataka Government's Best Actor Award for the movie Tabarana Kathe, directed by Girish Kasaravalli in 1987. Charu Haasan is the father of the famous South Indian actress Suhasini Maniratnam and the brother of famous film star Kamal Haasan. Charu Haasan has also acted in several other Tamil and Kannada movies. His other notable movies include Dalapathi which was directed by his son-in-law Maniratnam.He also acted for a short time in Sun TV's serial Anandham

He will be contributing articles on cinema, acting and life in general for the blog.

Monday, September 22, 2008

A River Called Titas

Ritwik Ghatak,
in partition, not physically of willingness
-the country departed
Out of his outer consciousness - cosmic consciousness
none of his mistakes,
Reactions - natural reactions - reflections
Ritwik Ghatak,
refugee, unborn, unwanted, unbearable
penetrative towards the Victorian hangover
of the Tagorian corruption of thinking

Life was more important to him
than the words in praise of god,
the god of Victorian Tagorian thinking.

Hence, he was rejected from the Bengalian thinking
Ritwik Ghatak - the name doesn't suit
the hierarchic thinking of
the Raynian Zamidarian thinking
Perhaps, the long echo of the forgotten factors
that becomes reminiscence of
the 'death of the salesman' or otherwise
the long columns and no more Chhabi Biswas,
Cardiac arrest is common.
The death of Ghatak is uncommon.

Nay, Ritwik Ghatak
I remember, a tall man
his hands moving around my shoulders,
catching me with the feeling of nearness,
rather than imperialism-
the man who stands before me
questioning my manliness
loosing his hands to shake my hands
in appreciation of manliness
recognizing each other-
abiding in each other
kicking on my an's and telling me
"Get up, awake shoot"
I remember, not with sentiments
with awakening proud, Ritwik Ghatak

Ritwik Daa,
let me call you Ritwik Daa,
I know that you are no more.
But I am, alive for you
Believe me. When the seventh seal is opened
I will use my camera as my gun
and I am sure the echo of the sound
will reverberate in your bones,
and feed back to me for my inspiration.

Thank you Ritwik Daa,
I am thanking you
not with impotency and insipidity

Ritwik Daa,
I remember you,
when the words fails to criticize you,
Ritwik Daa,
eternally you are
in my brain
in my spirit and
in my Holy Ghost

-John Abraham
(republished from CineMalayalam)

-John Abraham was a pupil of Ritwik Ghatak at FTII, Pune. He was one of few people who were directly affected by the " Cinema of RitwikGhatak. In his short stay at the Film Institute, Ghatak inspired many and some of them went on to become great director's themshelves: Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahini, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and John Abrahham are just few of the names who took on the legacy of the man.

- Daa( Bengali)- Brother.

-A river Called Titas: Bengali, 82 min, no subtitle
- Amma Ariyan- Malayalam, few fragments- John Abraham.


- Remembering John- Adoor Gopalakrishnan
-John Abraham- a profile.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Saas Bahu Aur Sensex

Sigmund Freud found it extremely difficult analyzing women. Today, analysts from across the world find it nerve-racking to predict the stock market. Both elements have the disruptive hormones of sentiment running in them. If one out of the hundred analyses fails on target, the entire chain crumbles. And that’s exactly what happened to the markets around the world on September 15th 2008 and incisively four days later with Warner Brother’s first foray in India, Saas Bahu Aur Sensex.

The films begins with Binita Sen (Kirron Kher) moving from Kolkata to Mumbai (due to her divorce) along with her daughter, Nitya Sen (Tansuhree Dutta). She has no money, but lives in a posh-apartment with kitty-party aunties, a clichéd and stereotypical bunch. Although a few jokes and elements of realism are present in the dialogues to make the whole façade of the film seem ‘real’, they come across only through the subtle and controlled performances from Kitron Kher and her broker (Farooque Sheikh), both of these remarkable actors allowing the film to become watachable at least. Had the film been entirely on them and the sensex, it could have been a different ball game, but…

The film 'wants' to offer a glimpse into the world of soap-opera pathos, the fate of the stock market and female bonding. Instead in its final form, the film remains stuck in the age-old tradition of Bollywood films using text-book Bollywood clichés: the Punjabi aunty, the Parsee uncle, the South-Indian couple and the Bong connections. To top it all, the plot development is about a guy in love with the wrong girl and who does not realize his folly until the very end even when the girl seems to scream out her infidelity. In the age of mechanical reproduction he is unable to differentiate between love, friendship, flirtation, sex and lies.

The film starts with a wedding and ends with one, but everything between this divide is rubbish. The entire movie is actually one long-boring-advertisement, where the hero could easily have been Udayan Mukherjee who is seen on the television channel (CNBC) expressing his delight with the soaring stock-prices and rising bull runs. Furthermore, there are packaged scenes written down only to promote products. Ritesh takes his girlfriend out on a date where he gifts her expensive Hamilton watch, instead of concentrating on exploring the layers and dimension of love and relationships, the film explores various advertising possibilities. Ever since Shubhash Ghai and Yash Chopra began the revolution of tailor-made films, Bollywood has abridged the line between cinema and advertising, and Saas Bahu aur Sensex tries to bring us one step closer into believing what we watching is important plot development, but is actually nothing but in your face brand endorsement.

Films like Saas Bhau or Sensex may look good on paper, but never achieves any form of truism on screen. The only elements which achieve its purpose and goals are: the trailers, the opening-credit, the film posters, and media coverage. Since they achieve the basic function of duping people into believing something which doesn’t exist, it’s like how the luxury market works; in selling, something which we really don’t need. Saas Bahu Aur Sensex is one such product. It’s not a film. It’s a mass-manufactured product. It has a label, packaging, properties (clichés and stereotypes), workers (not creators), and it has a tailor- made customer base, hence, every such film is just the emperor in new clothes. No different from the new flavors and packaging which Pepsi and Coca-Cola come up with- along with their stars to promote the product. This is precisely what happens in this film too.

Cinema is a sensory experience where not everything can be canned into words. Its precise purpose could be lost. But sadly, today, all our experiences are laid out in a A4 size, Courier New font, 12 point size format. As long as this continues, films like Saas, Bahu aur Sensex will continue give us experiences we would want to forget.

Cross-Published from my review at Upperstall

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


On Christmas Eve, Friday, December 24th 1999, six days before the millennium, Flight 814 (IC 814) was hijacked. It took eight days of negotiations, and a death to finally get the hostage released in return for three extremists. The entire nation sat and watched the drama unfold on their television screens, but what happened inside could be best described with these words: fright, despair, Stockholm syndrome, stench, prophecy, dream, illusion and nostalgia – in short, the passengers only wanted to get out alive. Moreover, the animal behind the basic human façade comes through in faces of adversity. It’s then humans behave and emote in true mannerism. Such an atmosphere when recreated and captured subjectively by the camera should reflect the two polar extremes of human nature – to kill and to escape, to live and to die-in the name of God, but sadly Hijack is miles away in form and content of the subjective matter and medium.

Hijack is a Bollywood film: it has songs, dances, hero, villains, heroine, and a “realistic” plot according to the norms and exception of the industry. To quote Kunal Shivadasani, the director of the film, “I feel a sense of accomplishment because I have not made a fluffy film. It is a well researched action thriller quite close to reality”. So does the movie capture anything from the above listed emotions, or does the movie have some form of semblance to the reality which is supposed to be depicted? Not quite. Not even close. The film could be described in two sentences, the action of Allan Amin happens to be its selling point- as ostensibly advertised, and the only ‘mystery’ is whether Shiney Ahuja saves the day or whether he falls in love. The story of the film involves a terrorist outfit hijacking a plane, and demanding the release of a terrorist who goes by the name of Rashid.

The opening of the film best describes the style and nature of the film: glossy and superficial. As the basic premises seems to be establishing the action of the film rather than build up on characterization and form, because when we see men in mask trying to rescue a terrorist using a chopper, and when you know they could win- they fail, by our men in khakis holding a rifle. One gets to know the depth of the script, the depth of the director and the methodology of the medium from the very opening. Because we have witnessed such an opening in countless films, and the only “deviation” is the failure of the rescue, but the entire film is based on this failure to rescue Rashid. This thin string of Bollywood fiction is the catalyst which ties the film and its characters in more of a clichéd set-up from the beginning till the end.

Furthermore, the tools used in the film to capture the fragments of reality (camera, narrative, actors) are distorted which make the film incoherent. There should be a simple rule of thumb for Bollywood, if they want to entertain, let the movie flow without much pomp and show regarding its narrative and plot line. Even though it’s laid with various mechanisms which are used to reproduce the schema of our existence, the film does not come close to reflecting the human emotions: characters are not allowed to grow and people are killed without any effect on the audience. Basic syntax of film grammar doesn’t exist in this film.

Even an entertaining film should have a cohesive pattern which holds the film from the beginning to the end, but this film is loose from its shaky start (with the clichéd close-up of the terrorist, and his Bollywood grin) to the finale of hero saving the day. And there are no brownie points for guessing neither the narrative nor the layers of plot-line, since it’s hollow and sparse.

People often talk about leaving one’s head outside to watch such a film, but how far could one leave their head behind, when what we see, what we witness, is supposed to be a re-creation of our everyday realities of space, time, and images. Perhaps, just by reading the film title the event that gripped through our nation flows back, breaking all bondage of time and space on the power of memory. If cinema and television stop reflecting about an event, it becomes labeled as forgotten history. But the mind does not forget, because if it could, then everyday would be fresh, which it can’t. So no matter how far the movie goes about being a masala blockbuster, it still owes its existence to the event – to which it owes no debt. Irrespective of the claim to be realistic. Hence, it fails; in neither projecting even an inch to our perception of reality neither does it achieve the goal of becoming a complete fiction, something which does not exist. Artists lie in order to tell the truth, Bollywood films talk about the truth in order to hide the lies. Such films should not exist in representing wrong facts in actions, gestures and expression because these human emotions are so hard to live through that the mere distortion of them should be condemned in order to make money, because making money on entertainment is fine, but milking money out of cheap thrills and wrong facts is pernicious.

If you want to save the world, go ahead and donate to the Bihar flood or teach a poor street kid. If you want to witness chaos simply browse through hundred channels on your television, if you want to connect go out and meet people. If you want entertainment watch a film, any film, if it entertains without the pretence of research and realism.

The review is re-published here from my writing for

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Cinema of Pryaog( Experiment)

'Prayōga' is a Sanskrit word, which loosely translates as 'experiment' but can also mean 'representation' and 'practice'. Coined by film historian Amrit Gangar, the term 'cinema of prayōga' defines "the eternal quest, [the] continuing process in time and space" central to artists' film and video.

"In 1949, Einstein pointed out to me during one of several long and highly involved private technical discussions that certain beautifully formulated theories of his would mean that the whole universe consisted of no more than two charged particles. Then he added with a rueful smile, “Perhaps I have been working on the wrong lines, and nature does not obey differential equations after all.” If a scientist of his rank could face the possibility that his entire lifework might have to be discarded, could I insist that the theorems whose inner beauty brought me so much pleasure after heavy toil must be of profound significance in natural philosophy? Fashions change quickly in physics where theory is so rapidly outstripped by experiment." – D.D. Kosambi

The late Prof D.D. Kosambi was perhaps one of those few Indians who had grasped the modern transformation of science and its implications, particularly for India. He was, perhaps, the only one who had endeavored to act on a wide canvas, to make the scientists of this country realize their tasks and catalyze their tradition-bound society. Through his studies and writings on Indian history, mythology and religion, literature and sociology, he not only applied scientific methods to these areas but also showed that new explanations to age-old beliefs were desirable and possible.

Interestingly, Prof Kosambi has left a profound influence on some of our progressive, innovative filmmakers – Kumar Shahani, in particular. Prof Kosambi lived in Poona (Pune), close to the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII). As Shahani told me once, Prof Kosambi had good insights into cinematography, too. As a great teacher he would take young Shahani to the surrounding areas; on the way he would pick up a pebble and start narrating history. History, for Prof Kosambi, was at one’s doorstep. ‘History at the Doorstep’ was his radical concept to study and understand the past. Some of his field works are extremely significant.

Einstein’s dilemma or self-doubt also reminds me of Stan Brakhage in an interview, regretting his underestimation of ‘the historical flypaper’ he was stuck in. “I didn’t realize until much later how people in their daily living imitate the narrative-dramatic materials that infiltrate their lives through the radio, TV, newspapers and, certainly, the movies.” He also felt that “despite all the evolutions of his film grammar and his inclusion of hypnagogic and dream vision, they were still tied to the more traditional dramatic-narrative framework!” It is, I think, a trial and error game that one keeps playing, always in pra-kriyā, the process, creative or post-creative. But there is a difference between empirical sciences and the plastic arts such as cinematography. What, however, puzzles me is Brakhage’s repeated use of the term ‘film grammar’, which is essentially rules-bound, whereas avant-garde, to my mind, is iconoclastic. It is interesting to note from Prof Kosambi’s comment that even in physics, fashions change quickly and theory is so rapidly outstripped by experiment. Does this, or has it, happen/d in the praxis of experimental cinematography? Later in this essay and in the context of Cinema of Prayōga and the Euro-American avant-garde and underground cinema, I propose to refer to the kind of unsteady axes that these terms have always stood on, floundering.

The Spirit of Experimentation
It was during EXPERIMENTA 2005 in Mumbai that I thought of creating the term Cinema of Prayōga, as a prayāya, an alternative to Experimental Film and its synonyms. [Prayōga is pronounced as prayōg, and paryāya as paryāy]. And I wrote briefly about it in the festival catalogue. Given that the first explorations into the so-called experimental / avant-garde / underground films started in Western Europe and North America, the relevant theories also naturally emerged from there. Why so? Isn’t experimentation intrinsically universal – in one form or another? In the times when the Euro-American establishment can only assimilate non-western art on manifestly ethnographic terms, while keeping the option open to reject it precisely on those terms, how do we recognize the avant-garde in India? Do experiments happen in isolation of local conditions? Do experiments rapidly outstrip theories across the spectrum? Or, in particular, how stable the theories or paradigms of these operative terms have been vis-à-vis developing cinematography and its technology? And does the experiment end once the artist has completed his work? If so, are we talking about just the process that the ‘experimental film’ has gone through? These are some of the questions (and they are not actually new) that have been troubling my mind for quite some time, and in the context, I would like to check whether the idea of cinema of prayōga could be put in currency in the global cinematographic vocabulary and discourse for better employment and use. Prayōga includes both these applications.

While examining and elaborating the term prayōga, I would also like to explore and contextualize Indian film history in brief. It is also of interest to see the Indian political economy entering the realm of the ‘experimental’.

In fact, the so-called ‘experiment’ works in the form and with or without the form. Again the question – what after all is not experimental? – looms large. This essay would branch itself into multiple but integral streams, all finally flowing into the mahāsāgar, ocean of prayōga.

Experimental Environmental
Amit Dutta, the youngest artist in the ‘Cinema of Prayōga’ programme believes that everybody is born experimental. Or as Ritwik Ghatak said, experimentation is an ever-living and never dying thing. Experiment is part of life so why name it, why label it? To my mind at the moment, the three most experimental objects or organisms that we always live in are: food, architecture, and erotology. All these are experiments-in-perpetuation. Look at food and the way we ‘experiment’ with it all the time, look at its history, it is nothing but the history of experimentation, underground or over-ground, inside the oven or outside it, front guard or rear guard, less spicy or more. The configurations keep on changing, even the way the vegetable or meat is cut and placed. The gastronomic aesthetics is a glocal experiment; it has its visuality and aurality, plus the smell. And the sound. But I haven’t yet found the term experimental gastronomy or avant-garde food except the explorations made in molecular gastronomy. Architecture has its own avant-garde and experimental history, but not without problems. The fact is, like the art of the culinary; the art of architecture affects us the most. Architecture was the first obvious sign of post-modernism, just around the corner of our living place, or across the street – anywhere in the world.

And thirdly, erotology, that fathoms the human body, mind and its deepest environs, in the realm of fantasy, pleasure and pain. One of the greatest ‘experimental’ work of art, a grand prayōga, in this realm is Vātsyāyana’s Kāma Sātra. It is a manual for erotic specialists, in the same sense that Kautilya’s Arthashāstra is one of the most open-ended manual for power specialists, and it drily lists the techniques of sex. There is a widespread notion among foreigners that every literate Indian reads the Kāma Sātra.

I think if we contextualize experiment environmentally, or environment experimentally, we get a transcendental experience of the realm of cinematography. It is always in the process. The naming or labelling perhaps helps give it a push, to polemicize the thought that dies and takes birth again to die. The term prayōga suggests the eternal quest, a continuing process in time and space. And it is not exclusivist. It, I think, would create ‘an ecology of aesthetics’. In its comprehensive sense, the word ‘ecology’ is crucial in our context. According to French philosopher and mathematician, Michel Serres, the American philosopher Henri David Thoreau (1817-1862) must have invented this word in 1852. In the French language, it appeared for the first time around 1874, following the German usage proposed by the biologist-philosopher Ernst Heinrich August Haeckel (1834-1919) in 1866. Since then ecology has generally acquired two meanings: as reference to a scientific discipline, dedicated to the study of more or less numerous sets of living beings interacting with their environment. And secondly, ecology also refers to the controversial ideological and political doctrine varying from author to author, or group to group, that aims at the protection of the environment through diverse means.

Experimental or avant-garde theatre has happened all over the world, either on stage, or in streets. As Richard Schechner comments, “Much of the post-war avant-garde is an attempt to overcome fragmentation by approaching performance as a part of rather than apart from the community. Sometimes this community is the community of the artists making the work; this has been the pattern in New York, London, Paris and other Western cities. Sometimes – as in the general uprisings of 1968 – the art is joined to large political movements. Sometimes, as in black and Chicano theatre, and more recently in other ‘special interest’ theatres, the artists identify with – even help to form – a sense of ethnic, racial or political identity. This community-related avant-garde is not only a phenomenon of the industrialized West, but also of countries that are industrializing or undergoing great changes in social organization.” Theatre makes it possible, because it is much more physical than the cinema? But I think here there is much more conceptual clarity, so it is perhaps in avant-garde music. In Indian classical music (both Hindustani and Carnatic) the prayōga or prayōgam (both in the sense of experimentation and usage), is an integral part. The relationship between Yoga-Tantra and music is another wonderful area of pra-yōga study to intensify its ecology.

The Indian Environment: State Funding Spirit of Prayōga
Film Finance Corporation et al

India is a peculiar case. On the one hand we have some of the craziest kinds of popular culture imagery or art works, breaking all the conservative or non-conservative rules, while on the other we see our cinematography feeling increasingly shy of bold prayōga. At the initiative of independent India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the Film Finance Corporation (FFC), later becoming the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) and the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) were set up in the 1960s. FFC’s original objective was to promote and assist the mainstream film industry by providing, affording or procuring finance or other facilities for the production of films of good standard. Later, under the direct influence of then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, the FFC initiated the New Indian Cinema (the media dubbed it as Indian New Wave) with Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome and Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti (A Day’s Bread), both made in 1969. This indeed was a national prayōga in cultural-political economy. Kaul’s debut was an adaptation of a short story by the noted Hindi author Mohan Rakesh and was perhaps the ‘first consistently formal experiment in Indian cinema.’ While this state-funded film was violently attacked in the popular media, aesthetically sensitive intelligentsia defended it across the country.

Paradoxically, this new movement was born of a governmental decision and not from the impetus of filmmakers rebelling against the existing commercial or popular cinema. The public institutional aid created its own problematic. In most cases, the financial aid was very meagre and that many a time became detrimental to the formal vision of the film. But eventually, “the prizes and awards won by these small budget films led to the feeling that only ‘small’ was ‘artistic’. Nevertheless, as the English proverb goes, “Necessity is the mother of Invention”, and innovative auteur filmmakers found creative ways to make films, the body of which was eventually called the ‘parallel’ cinema in India; parallel to the mainstream. In-between the parallel-mainstream poles also emerged the ‘middle-roader’ cinema, the one that compromised between the two in order to attract more viewers. The scenario was noisy with loud rhetoric against the state-funded filmmakers who took initiatives to rigorously explore the potential of cinematography in their works. Many said it was waste of public money. In these times, filmmakers such as Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani made some of their most serious films, beginning with Uski Roti and Maya Darpan (Mirror of Illusion, 1972), respectively. One of the most ‘remarkable avant-garde’ films Ghasiram Kotwal (1976) was made by the Yukt Film Cooperative. It was co-directed by the Cooperative’s founders, Mani Kaul, K. Hariharan, Saeed Mirza and Kamal Swaroop, and was shot by the cameramen Binod Pradhan, Rajesh Joshi, Manmohan Singh and Virendra Saini – all FTII alumni. Interestingly a nationalised bank financed this film, in those days when the film industry was not recognized as such officially.

Films Division
Experiment of Government Made Experimental Films!

It is quite interesting to see the category of ‘Experimental Films’ in the Indian Government owned Films Division’s catalogue. However, as Jag Mohan, the author of a book on the Films Division said, “Experimental films as understood in the West have made slow progress at the FD. From its inception, the FD has been concerned with information, educational and propaganda films. The utilitarian aspect of the film is primary consideration in the selection of subjects. Besides, the Film Advisory Board, which approves films for public exhibition through the FD circuit, also keeps a watchful eye on the utilitarian value of the films. Thus films of the type popularised by Norman McLaren, Len Lye, Lotte Reiniger, Maya Deren and later by the American Underground filmmakers cannot be found here. Probably for hitherto underdeveloped and now a developing country like India, such films are a luxury.” According to Marie Seton, some of the Films Division films had practical as well as artistic value. “They make their impact, strikingly different as they are because they have a style of their own. They are mature films.”

Nevertheless, the Films Division did venture into this so-called ‘luxury’. The late Vijay B. Chandra, who was then FD’s Chief Producer (later the first Director of the Bombay International Film Festival for Documentary, Short & Short Films launched in 1990) always talked about producing visually stimulating ‘food for thought’ to nourish India’s millions of illiterate people. To whatever extent, it was the public sector Films Division that took the risk of making films such as Explorer (Pramod Pati, 1968), And I Make Short Films (S.N.S. Sastry, 1968), Trip (Pramod Pati, 1970), Child on a Chess Board (Vijay B. Chandra, 1979); all these filmmakers were the FD staffers.

Mani Kaul has made several interesting documentaries for the Films Division, as an outside independent producer. And there are many other young and old leading filmmakers – including Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G. Arvindan, Kamal Swaroop, Rajat Kapoor – whose films are in the FD’s collection. As the Founder Director of Datakino, I had the opportunity of setting up a comprehensive database of the entire FD output from its inception to the year 1995 – over 8,000 newsreels, newsmagazines, documentary, short features, and animation films. We did it on a primitive PC286, without Windows; I would jocularly compare this project to the making of Pather Panchali (Song of the Road, 1955), which Satyajit Ray was able to make without enough resources. Of late, the Films Division has updated the Database and made it Windows-based.

It was in December 1947 (India attained independence on 15 August 1947) that the Standing Finance Committee of the Government India approved the scheme for the revival of a film producing and distributing organization, as a mass media unit of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B). First christened the ‘Film Unit’ of the Ministry of I&B and finally renamed as the ‘Films Division’ in April 1948, it was described as ‘the official organ of the Government of India for the production and distribution of information films and newsreels.’ The documentaries were to be released under the banner of ‘Documentary Films of India’ while the newsreels under ‘Indian News Reviews’. It was mandatory for all the cinema houses (over 12,900 permanent and touring cinemas) in the country to show the documentaries and newsreels produced by the Films Division. Produced in fourteen major Indian languages of the country, over 300 prints of each documentary and newsreel went for the first and second weeks to first-run theatres, and later-run halls over a period of up to nine months until this batch of prints was withdrawn. The cinemas paid the Films Division for the hire of these films on a contractual basis. The annual output of over 30,000 prints in 35mm and 16mm included not only the copies for theatres, but also prints supplied free of charge for use on the mobile units of the Central and State Governments, those selected by Indian diplomatic and trade missions abroad for their territories, those distributed for foreign television and theatrical hiring outlets, and films supplied for ‘prestige and publicity’ to international festivals and other occasions. Over 15,83,654 prints of its films had been in circulation by 1987. Imagine millions of people watching the Films Division’s ‘Experimental Films’ across the county.

Historically, this is not very unique to India alone. The Soviet Union, under the dynamic leadership of Vladimir Lenin had marched far ahead in producing radical ‘experimental’ cinematography. It was Lenin who supported Dziga Vertov (Denis Arkadievitch Kaufman) when, early in 1922, he told the Commissar of Education, Anatoli Lunacharsky, “Of all the arts, for us, film is the most important.” India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had understood the potential of cinematography but his mentor Mahatma Gandhi had a different opinion.

Indian Political Leadership Attitudes Towards Cinema
Mahatma Gandhi was not well disposed towards cinema – no matter if his work had influenced many a filmmaker in those early days of Indian cinema. Gandhi’s dislike for cinema is evident in his note to the Indian Cinematography Committee (the Rangachariyar Committee) in 1927-28. Again in 1938, on the occasion of the film industry’s anniversary, a Bombay trade paper asked Gandhi for a congratulatory message; his secretary responded, “As a rule Gandhiji gives messages only on rare occasions – and those only for causes whose virtue is ever undoubtful. As for the cinema industry he has the least interest in it and one may not expect a word of appreciation from him.” Journalist-turned-filmmaker K.A. Abbas wrote an open letter to Gandhi and, while greeting him on his 71st birth anniversary, said: “I have no knowledge of how you came to such a poor opinion of the cinema. I don’t know if you have ever cared to see a motion picture. I can only imagine that, rushing from one political meeting to another, you chanced to catch a glimpse of some lewd cinema posters that disfigure the city walls and concluded that all the films are evil and that the cinema is a playhouse of the devil.” In his letter, Abbas also provided a list of Indian and foreign films which were “unexceptionable even from the viewpoint of the strictest moralist”. Had Gandhi and others taken interest in the budding filmmaking enterprise during 1930s and 1940s, would the Indian cinema have taken a different shape?

Phalke’s Pioneering Experiment With Form And Funds
When Dhundiraj Govind Phalke (1870-1944) pioneered feature filmmaking in India in 1913, India was still a British colony. Dadasaheb (as he was popularly known) Phalke was a versatile artist; he learnt and pursued many arts and crafts including drawing, painting, printing, engraving, photography, moulding, architecture, music, magic and amateur acting. Thus he was a complete karmayōgi (man of action) prayōga person.

After watching the film Life of Christ at the America-India cinema in Bombay during Christmas in 1910, he had decided to make a film featuring Hindu gods and goddesses. As he wrote, “While the life of Christ was rolling fast before my physical eyes, I was mentally visualising the Gods, Shri Krishna, Shri Ramchandra, their Gokul and Ayodhya. I was gripped by a strange spell. Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on the screen?” He was forty then, without any dependable source of income on which his family could fall back, and, since he was not prepared to do anything else except his experiments in filmmaking, the future was dark, insecure. Undaunted, he made a short film Growth of a Pea Plant to convince his potential financier. Incidentally, through this film, he introduced the concept of ‘time-lapse’ photography as also the first indigenous or ‘swadeshi’ instructional film. To get the first hand knowledge of necessary equipment, he went to London, pledging his insurance policies. There, Mr Carbourne, editor of the Bioscope weekly helped him to identify the right camera and other equipment as well as raw negative film. He also introduced Phalke to Cecil Hepworth who took him around his studio.

Back home in April 1912, Phalke busied himself making his / India’s first silent feature film Raja Harishchandra (King Harishchandra). It was released on 13 May 1913 at Bombay’s Coronation Cinema. About the most upright and truthful king, the film was based on a story from the epic Mahabharata. The film was advertised as “an entirely Indian production by Indians,” indicating Phalke’s resolve to establish a new ‘swadeshi’ or India’s own industry in those colonial times. Gandhi was yet to return home from South Africa. Lanka Dahan (Lanka Aflame) was a big success and he could make a new version of Raja Harishchandra. Released in 1918, Shree Krishna Janma (Birth of Shree Krishna) was made by the new Hindustan Film Company of which Phalke was a working partner with other five financing partners. Feeling bitter, due to internal differences, Phalke took voluntary retirement and went to the holy city of Benaras towards the end of 1919. However, convinced by several other producers, Phalke rejoined restructured Hindustan and remained there until it folded up in 1932, when Indian sound film was barely a year old. The last silent film directed by Phalke for Hindustan was Setu Bandhan but with the advent of sound, the film had to be post-synchronised. It flopped. On 16 February 1944, Phalke died a pauper at the age of 74 in Nasik, ‘like those two other pioneers of early films, George Melies in France and Fraise Green in England.”

In our Indian prayōga context, Phalke occupies a significant space because, besides being a pioneer, he personified the prayōga spirit in those awkward times. It is an open secret that Melies had already made ‘fantastic’ films such as A Trip to the Moon in 1902 and that Phalke took ten more years to produce his first feature film, which does not survive in totality, but we do get a definite idea about his insights into the art and its craft. He wanted to prove to the British that an Indian working under primitive conditions could make films too. On an aesthetic level, Phalke’s tableaux remind us of Raja Ravi Varma’s oleograph paintings. As Ashish Rajadhyaksha mentions, “The painter Raja Ravi Varma was in many ways the direct cultural predecessor to Phalke, greatly influencing his themes, his images, his views on culture.” Phalke mixed his patriotic ‘swadeshi’ spirit with his cinematographic prayōga experimental praxis – in constructing the gaze, the frame, the space and time. Comparing Lumiere’s L’Arroseur arrose, Rajadhyaksha observes that in Phalke there is almost no definition of time; the contiguities are employed in the different states of seeing as they come together. “The story, if there is one, is a continuous back-and-forth interaction between the viewers and the object viewed; we are shown the imaginary universe condensed into the object, our seeing is reciprocated.” Apparently, Phalke was aware about the plastic potential of the medium he was working in. In nutshell, Phalke provides the earliest example of India’s private filmmaking enterprise as against the post-colonial public Films Division.

Good Cinema Bad Cinema
Art Film Commercial Film

It was in the 1960s and 1970s that the divide between the so-called ‘art’ and ‘commercial’ film became rhetorically pronounced, often becoming acerbic. Thousands of national / mental hours were spent on deciding what was ‘good’ cinema and its corollary ‘bad’. This obviously moralistic stand unfortunately took the toll of the prayōga spirit. In retrospect when I look at this past, its ramifications seem to have been widespread and serious. Gradually, the ‘rhetoric’ impacted the FTII and its progressive, prāyōga outlook towards cinematography. And as we witnessed, it led cinematography to becoming part of mass communication and management studies curricula in colleges, depriving millions of youngsters the experience of facing creative challenges that cinematography potentially puts forward.

A film magazine interviewed several thinker-filmmakers about what they thought of ‘good’ cinema and whether it was viable commercially. The general tone amplified the Indian artist’s struggle to make ‘self’ responsible to her/his art and at the same time to ‘society’ at large. As film and theatre director Vijaya Mehta said, “The filmmaker must have a sense of responsibility to the society at large.” For Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani, good cinema was one that re-sensitised the sensibility of the people who watch it. This ‘Self-Social’ balancing becomes pivotal to art in a country like India, determining its very nature and its own essential ‘self’. And became the fertile terrain for ‘rhetoric’ to mushroom.

Nevertheless, beyond all this ‘good-bad’ debate, what was significant in the prayōga context was Mani Kaul’s persistent radical cinematographic / philosophical praxis in Indian cinema. In his film Naukar ki Kameez (Servant’s Shirt, 1999), he did not let his cameraman look through the camera while a shot was being taken. He believes, “the moment the eye looks through the camera it ‘appropriates’ the space it is filming by a dichotomous organization that splits the experience of that space into a fork: of being sacred and/or of being profane. Obviously it saves what it knows as sacred from an exposure to what it thinks is profane.” This gives yet another dimension to the understanding prayōga, if I may say so. His philosophy of abhed ākāsh or undivided space and its application to cinematography is a part of his prayōga. He has been resisting the idea of the European concept of Renaissance perspective since it splits space into object-horizon polarity.

Today, the media has almost completely shunned that period in Indian film history that was pregnant with a certain youthful restlessness. But strangely it keeps using the word ‘avant-garde’ even for the most old-fashioned stuff simply because it seems different from the crass commercial crap. Recently, a journalist wrote that the older generation of
avant-gardes “bridged the gap between masala and art cinema.” Did avant-gardism in cinema in Europe play such a function? For Andrew Sarris, the avant-garde films pointed the way for commercial movies.

Avant-garde Indian Art
New Formalism Cultural Difference Political Urgencies

Early on, the label avant-garde was used especially for the films by filmmakers such as Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani who, I presume, felt embarrassed since their cinema had attempted to rigorously revitalise Indian narrative traditions, including the epic. Interestingly, they could reconcile Ritwik Ghatak and Robert Bresson in their cinematographic worldview. For their films’ obvious ‘visual or dialogic slow or static’ space and their public praise of Bresson, the journalists dubbed them Bressonian, in the sense of imitating him.

How do we recognize the avant-garde in India? While raising this pertinent question, Geeta Kapur, the eminent art critic and author, says: “The Euro-American establishment can still only assimilate non-western art on manifestly ethnographic terms, keeping the option open to reject it precisely on those terms. On the other hand, Asia / Africa / Australia, not to speak of Latin America, look for a new formalism, an extension of language on the basis of cultural difference and political urgencies which, because of the shared history of the 20th century (via capitalism / imperialism), implicates the artists in global questions: of location and the appropriate forms of political redress from their vantage point. These artists, living in societies riven with contradictions, ask for synthesizing universals, for visionary and vanguard initiatives.” Kapur’s context is Indian fine arts and within the questions of cultural differences in a changing India.

Experimental Avant-garde Old New Underground
Unsteady Axes Doubts

Watching from hindsight, we could feel how unsteady these nomenclatures or terms have been historically. I think one of the major problems with these labels was the womb they were born from; the womb was in movements outside it – Dadaism, Surrealism, for instance, no matter how plastic. As Kumar Shahani commented, the avant-garde experiments, borrowing syntax from the other arts, have been attempts at achieving a kind of respectability for the cinema. Or as Janet Bergstrom argues, “When avant-garde is used to describe an artistic movement, such as Cubism, it means that the movement is, for a time, ahead of critical acceptance. But when Cubism becomes absorbed into the mainstream of the tradition, it is no longer avant-garde. In connection with cinema, however, avant-garde does not mean ‘in advance of’ a developing film tradition; it is taken to mean, rather, apart from the commercial cinema.” Especially by its own historians, who almost always see the avant-garde cinema in terms of a development completely separate from that of history of cinema. It is seen in terms of the ‘art world’ (painting, graphics, music, poetry, sometimes architecture) rather than the ‘entertainment industry’. On the contrary, Andrew Sarris thinks that avant-garde films point the way for commercial movies. “It is difficult to think of any technical or stylistic innovations contributed by the avant-garde. Avant-garde critics and filmmakers have had to be dragged screaming into the eras of sound, colour, and wide-screen. Avant-garde impulses seem to be channelled toward the shattering of content taboos, political, religious, and sexual. Luis Bunuel and Rene Claire have come out of the avant-garde, and some think that Cocteau never left it, but avant-garde mannerisms stand for long the withering gaze of the camera.”

Bergstrom also believes that the definitions of avant-garde or experimental cinema have always been controversial because they have always presupposed value judgments; even those offered in the most recent histories provoke the kinds of counter-examples, which imply conflicting opinions about what counts as avant-garde cinema.

And with the historic shifts in these movements, the terms for the cinema also kept floundering with self-doubts around the exclusivist factions. Quite earlier on, the sudden advent of the 1929-depression shook up the dominating art-for-art’s sake philosophy of the avant-gardes. And as Arthur Knight said, with panic, starvation and ruin all about them, they found it peculiarly inappropriate to be concerned solely with revolving starfish and swinging pendulums, with textures and prisms and the dream world of the subconscious. “The penetrating works of Soviet realism had been seen and discussed in the numerous avant-garde cine-clubs that spread through the Continent after 1925. For many they were a revelation, a proof that the problems relating the real world could be as intriguing, as challenging – and as artistically valid – as anything they had done before. After a decade of altering reality, kidding reality, ignoring reality, they suddenly found themselves concerned with reproducing reality, substituting social purpose for aesthetic experiment.”

The willingness to experiment, to try out new forms, new techniques and ideas, is as vital to the arts as it is to science. “Today, through an unfortunate limiting of the word, experiment in film has come to be associated almost exclusively with the efforts of small avant-garde coteries working quite apart from the mainstream of motion-picture production.” In fact, a lot of ground- or path-breaking work in cinematographic aesthetics and technology had already been done (without any labels). Quite early on, what was Griffith doing when he pushed his camera closer to the actors against the prevailing conventions? What was Ritwik Ghatak doing in his radical employment of the archetypes? Or evolving strange but sweet love between man and machine in Ajantrik, for example? They were creating newer forms of narrating stories; they were at the vanguard. Most of the time the artists only reclaim the old to make it new, in newer contexts and environments. But it is all in a continuum.

It was during the 1920s, when the avant-gardes were in full swing on the Continent, that the idea of experiment became identified exclusively with their peculiar kind of filmmaking. “If a film were abstract, baffling or downright incomprehensible, it could always be described as ‘experimental’. And since these films came from Europe they were also considered ‘artistic,’ an assumption based largely upon the native American tradition that anything European is necessarily more artistic than the native product. Thus experiment acquired a certain honorific connotation, a quality that has clung to it ever since. And because the men who were experimenting in the studios, never claimed that they were doing anything but making films as best they could, a certain preciousness and ‘little cinema’ aura gathered about the word as well.”

Underground Film and Pop Art, as Parker Tyler has said, represent the only elites in human history which insist on the privileges of an elite without any visible means of earning or sustaining those privileges; that is, without any values that can be measured, or even, properly speaking, named except by its own labels. A distinct irony of the Underground is that here the film, the only complete time art of the theatre, exactly duplicating itself simply by staring the reel over again, declines to take seriously its own historical integrity. The Underground standpoint, thus, betrays the very lifeblood of the avant-garde.

For Andrei Tarkovsky, the concept of avant-garde in art was meaningless. “The whole question of avant-garde is peculiar to the twentieth century, to the time when art has steadily been losing its spirituality.” He thinks the avant-gardes were confused by the new aesthetic structures, lost in the face of the real discoveries and achievements, not capable of finding any criteria of their own, they included under the one head avant-garde anything that was not familiar and easily understood – just in case, in order not to be wrong.” Tarkovsky even questions the very notion of experimentation in art: How can you experiment in art? Can one talk of experiment in relation to the birth of a child?

Experiment, according to Richard Schechner, is going beyond the boundaries, although he thinks experimentation in theatre is dead. “There’s not much of that going on these days. As things have gotten desperate outside of theatre, they’ve become more conservative within. The great period of experimentation that began in the fifties ended by the mid-seventies.” What is, however, interesting for him is the ‘foundation of practice’ bestowed by the experimental period. This foundation is a performance art based on a post-modern consciousness.

Experimental film or the avant-garde cinema doesn’t seem to be sharing this experience with theatre, maybe because of its huge technological stake. Every technological change or shift affects it aesthetically, lately from analogue to digital, the new media, for instance. But still the connection with history can’t be snapped.

Applied Avant-gardism has often met with its death. It has also become like the chameleon, changing garbs and loyalties. The author of A History of Experimental Film and Video, A.L. Rees, thinks that, “Using the terms ‘avant-garde’, or even ‘experimental’, film at this late date may appear anachronistic or a provocation. For a long time they have scarcely been used without some degree of embarrassment. It was applied loosely to artists’ filmmaking from the 1920s, but peaked in the 1970s when it ousted the term ‘underground film’ as a seemingly more serious name for the then rising structural film movement.”

Lucie-Smith: Can you give a definition of ‘avant-garde’?
Greenberg: You don’t define it; you recognize it, as a historical phenomenon.

Is Greenberg talking about ‘historical avant-garde’?

- Amrit Gangar.

- An Interview with Amrit Ganger

The article is republished here from Cinema of Pryaog was an exhibition of experimental Indian films 1913-2006.

- The article is part of our constant effort to bring forth essays, articles, reviews by Indian filmmakers, writers, authors, and even translated works- with proper credit to the source material.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

DROH KAAL( Times of Betrayal)

Supriya Suri

Just as the film title suggests, the movie is about the betrayal in the legal system . It talks about corruption, morals, duty, honesty, principals and how people due to circumstances have to bend upon their self believes and values.

The narrative deals with two dedicated police officers, Abhay Singh( Om Puri) and Abbas Lodhi (Naseeruddin Shah) leading an operation," Dhanush", against a Terrorism group by sending two under cover officers in their group, while the commander of the terrorist group, splendidly played by Ashish Vidyarthi, is under arrest and operates from the cell. Soon the nexus between the Police force and terrorism is unfolded, leaving Abhay bemused on trusting his own officers even his seniors. As the commande, Ashish Vidyarthi, sends in spies at Abhay Singh's house, and his family gets in trouble of being killed by them, the officer is not left with any choice than to reveal the vital secrets of Dhanush.

The act of Om Puri, surrendering himself due to the fear for his family- leads to the life of Abbas being in danger, when Abbas is caught by the terrorist to find out the under cover cop in his alliance, he chooses death over it. If there's a person who deserves attention in the film is Sumitra Singh, (wife of Om Puri), played by Mita Vashisht, with her terrific performance. She is a simple house wife but supporting her husband in every case possible. The death of Abbas and his guilt does make Abhay weak (which we see when Abhay tries to commit suicide), but watching his wife console his daughter, makes him weak, and he confides in her everything. It is then, his wife who encourages him. To follow the right path. There is a remarkable moment in the scene when Om Puri looks in a distant, and the camera captures his gaze in long shot, that the whole emotional and turmoil touches us without bringing forth any form of melodrama.

Om Puri moves on a path of redemption, his family is left behind in danger with two spies in the house. The story then deviates towards showing the sexual exploitation of woman, the way Indian men psyche work, and how lots of women having experienced such exploitation but choose to remain quiet. The spy, Anu Kapoor, is constantly after Abbas's daughter, when he tries to have sex with her and she faints, Sumitra enters offering herself and asking him to leave the young girl, to which he agrees upon. Even earlier he had tried to hit upon his daughter, but doesn't get a chance and opts to have sex with her spy partner to satisfy himself. Does a man actually just seek woman as a sex object? Does an evil mind lose control to such an extent? After such exploitation, murdering a man was just an expected reaction from the brave Sumitra, over which she doesn't shed a single tear.

The director has made good use of the off-screen space. For example: On finding IGP Pathak (Amrish Puri), treachery towards his duties, the CBI, comes to arrests him, he shoots him self off-screen which was also the most abrupt and unexpected. Another scene which really caught my attention was the beginning of the film when Sumitra kisses her husband, the subtlety of the scene really brought out a sense of reality that any couple would share. The film included very minimal movement, however, what was carried throughout the film was the camera tracking in between the conversation scenes such that it became over the shoulder shot. Subtle moves like tracking and panning were constant throughout the film, though I believe the blocking of the actors and the way space utilized on screen could have been better. Even the usage of sound was very minimalistic, used only when required.

While other directors other mainstream directors usually try to be time consumer and economical by saving on cuts and indulging into unnecessary zooms and moves of the camera, it feels positive that there existed what we call Indian Parallel cinema, wherein the directors were at least trying to find their style with a sense of aesthetics . The film had strong dialogues which were again written by the director. It was not my first experience with the director, the first film I saw was Ardh Satya, which had strong, good dialogues too, which only shows his strong command over the ideologies, notions and what is remarkable is the beauty with which he brings out the language through his dialogues. A very strong acting performance by everyone and a good theme is what marks this very fine film. Though its not one of his best film, but yet a worth watch.