Friday, October 31, 2008

Cinephilia in India: a search for love and identity

‘The Cinephile is the one who keeps his eyes wide open in vain but will not tell anybody that he could not see any thing. He is the one preparing for a life as a professional ‘watcher’ as a way to make up for being late, as slowly as possible’

- Serge Daney

‘Perhaps it is not cinema that has ended but only cinephilia -- the name of the very specific kind of love that cinema inspired. Each art breeds its fanatics. The love that cinema inspired, however, was special. It was born out of the conviction that cinema was an art unlike any other: quintessentially modern; distinctively accessible; poetic and mysterious and erotic and moral -- all at the same time. Cinema had apostles. (It was like religion.) Cinema was a crusade. For cinephiles, the movies encapsulated everything. Cinema was both the book of art and the book of life.’

- Susan Sontag, ‘The Decay of Cinema’

Main Entry:
French cinéphile, from ciné + -phile
: A devotee of motion pictures
- Merriam Webster.

On Christmas week 1910, India saw the birth of its first cinephile who while watching ‘The Life of Christ’ had visions, and he wrote:

“While the life of Christ was rolling fast before my physical eyes, I was mentally visualizing 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?”

Dada Saheb Phalke saw every film he could get his hands on from that moment. His love for the medium drove him to London to further understand the techniques and refine his senses as a filmmaker. On his return, Dada Saheb Phalke relived his dreams to make films. Dada Saheb Phalke had seen the film like many others but the passion he bore, the love he showed, and the way he pioneered the exhibition and production of the medium made him the first cineaste we had in India. However, similar to Alfred Nobel his great discovery of the medium did not move in the way it should have been. Dada Shaeb Phlake did not inspire or increase cinephilia in India, but set the base for film production, however, there are no clear indication of development in mise-en-scene from then on. And he unknowingly laid the foundation of Bollywood where ever since we haven’t been able to shake- off our love for the epic form.

He also laid the roots for ‘Idol-worship’ in Indian cinema that has continued to be an important aspect of identification for the Indian audience with cinema. When audiences watched their beloved mythology came alive on screen, the first seeds of ‘fascination’ and ‘love’ without a critical space became etched in our genes. Ever since, the admiration has grown by leaps and bounds. It’s only during the late 40s that this form of love was further enlarged and cinephile and cinephilia as such developed. Further, with the growth of the bourgeois in India their mannerism formed another form of love for the medium. This love was build on the foundation of forming a knowledge and displaying it, or watching films to become a part of a social class or acceptance. It’s this form of love for cinema that has flourished and is booming currently in India. Where typical of the nature of such cine-goers: hypocrisy, lies, and pseudo-intellectualism is rampant. The love of cinema in India can be seen from three basic divisions:

1) Idol worship
2) The Bourgeois Gaze
2) Cinephilia

The inception of the ‘Calcutta Film Society’ is a landmark event in the history of Indian cinema and the advent of ‘Cinephilia in India’. The film society spearheaded a growth in the way people looked at films and viewed cinema in the country. This rise of film societies in India inspired a legion of filmmakers; especially in Calcutta, audience had an access to watch movies and meet like minded people unlike before. Satyajit Ray, Chidananda Das Gupta and Bansi Chandragupta sowed the first seeds of ‘Cinephilia’ in India, that eventually lead to the growth of these three men to writing and making films in times to come: Ray as a filmmaker, Das Gupta as critic and Bansi Chandragupta as an Art Director.

Similarly, Adoor Goapalakrishan a graduate of FTII, Pune established the first society in Kerala, the society also aimed at production, distribution and helping to formulate a passage for good cinema in state of Kerala. Interestingly, the enthusiasm and passion of the ‘period’ is the main source of strength along with the support of the government agencies (FFC now NFDC) that led to the emergence of auteur and good cinema for a considerable period of time. The death of film societies rather the death of enthusiasm, passion and lack of support was a major blow to the decline in ‘Cinema of India’ and ‘Cinephilia in general’.

There seems to be a vacuum- a black hole- somewhere between the transitions of cinema in India from 70s to 80s, because it’s exactly in this short period everything seems to have declined. The right reasons are hard to pin down. Except for the notable cinephile turned filmmakers, critics, and historian of 60s and 70s, post 80s onwards ‘Cinephilia in India’ and ‘Cinema in India’ suffered from the same fate. And it’s during this era of decline that film festivals in India and cinephilia in general shifted from love of cinema into snobbism, lies and hypocrisy. It’s not that it did not exist during the era bygone, it did, but it materialized and become a dominant presence that can be felt even today. It has more to do with the bourgeois framework that we come from than our own individual thinking. Where to see, collect, and intellectualize is an important sign of knowledge and collective approval from the crowd and society. Either one has too much money to exhibit those attribute or highlight them using the tools of knowledge.

Interestingly, ‘Idol-worship’ continued to be an important part of the culture: socially and politically, where the ‘matinee’ idol embodied an important place in the minds and heart of film lovers. This spirit has continued to grow and today in the age of satellite boom the media has populated the images into a state of fetish (Like offering prayers when their superstar is sick, and the media reports it as breaking news). While a win by a film director, at an important film festival, in the competitive section of the festival goes unreported. This type of fetish is seen across India. Here, Bollywood is a form of escapism; a place where people go to dream, relax, enjoy and laugh and this assembly reminds us of the fascination our audiences had with other form of popular recreation most notably the circus. However, unlike the circus, the ‘dreams’ and the ‘life’ portrayed on screen are ‘larger’ than what most middle-class Indian population could have aspiration of, the loves here exist as fetish, where any form of critical breakdown is never accepted. Though their lies a similarity of ‘ fetish’ in a cinephile’s love for cinema and the fetish found in 'idol-worship', however, as Christian Metz points out that the ‘fetish’ in the case of a cinephile transpose into a different altitude altogether:

“The fetish is the cinema in its physical state," says Metz, adding that when the love for the cinema is extended from a fascination with technique to a critical study of its codes and processes of signification, the disavowal attached to the fetish becomes a form of knowledge (ibid., p. 75). Cinephilia, in other words, enables the semiotician to love the cinema while gaining a critical distance from its lure

On the other hand, the love of the cinephile has the ‘space’ for a critical breakdown and s (he) is ready to provide evidence, reasons, and is equipped regarding the understanding of the medium. Cinephile is ‘The Love of Cinema’ as Christian Metz defined the term for ‘Cinephile’ in his book; ‘The Imaginary Signifier’. However, the love of cinema for a cinephile also has similarities in the intensity with which the basic three divisions of film lovers are in India, but the difference lies in their degree and range of love for the medium. This degree and range display different aspects that is related to the history, tradition, culture of the medium per se, but it also attributes qualities that are purely related to our own being an existence. Here the love is just not an attraction: physical or mental, but the love is also about exploring the properties and stylistics’ traits of the medium. This is an important trait of ‘watching’ and ‘learning’ for the cinephile, but for ‘idol-worshipers’ it does not matter, everything is acceptable, provided their favorite stars are present. Hence, ‘Cinephile’ or ‘Cinephilia’ should not be confused with such form of love and imagery worship.

So then the question arises, does ‘Cinephilia exist in India’? The answer is that they have always existed even in the darkest periods, but in such small numbers that it’s hard to point them out. However, post 90s globalization in India, due to the opening of Indian economy for various FDI which eventually lead to the growth in various sectors. This has also contributed to the way film viewing experience has changed through: Multiplexes, Satellite channels and availability of cheap CDs and DVDs. This also lead to the rise of Internet and mobile culture. All these aspects has lead to the growth and ‘Appreciation of Cinema’ in the country, where people are getting aware about watching good films and not just sticking to watching routine Bollywood fare. These groups of people mainly belong to the urban class. The urban class of film lover notably refers to people leaving in the metros in India (but such from of bourgeois gaze is just not restricted to metros) they have the facilities and the accessibilities to watch foreign films in theatres, film festivals, and in their own homes. And it’s exactly here we find second group of film lovers and these group should not be confused with cinephilia or even to an extent adhering to cinephile.

Here the ‘ urban class’ of film lovers have taken up the task of appreciating foreign films, and among this social class some typical traits of bourgeoisie narrow-mindness and hypocrisy can be seen. And is evident through all forms of cinema exhibition in the country whether at a film festivals or film screening. This appreciation of films could be referred as the ‘Bourgeois Gaze’ . There is a distinction between people who fall under such platter of film lovers from yesteryears and today. The older lot has slightly become more reconciled in their own cocoons and could be seen more with their own types at film festivals or film screenings and their discussion or the sharing never moves beyond such social group. On the contrary, the younger lot of the same stature actually looks forward to engage, display, or even interact usually in awe to display their love or sudden knowledge of the field. Yet, both forms do not have the space cultivated in for a critical discourse. This is because the love itself is not a pure manifestation, but come towards the field with other invisible source of pretence that carries a disavowal of some form of hidden materialistic desires and acceptance.

This form of façade is very different from the ‘desires’ exhibited by a cinephile towards their relationship of cinema. All three forms of cine-love is justified and accepted at its own limitation and boundaries, however, what causes the distinction of film love is in the personal desires exhibited in the relationship of subject towards the medium. Each desires again could be debated within the framework of an individual vision and goals of life, but when such ‘desires’ are placed on the broader outlook of the medium forms, the social responsibility, the political scenario and scope that the medium itself provides, the clear limitation and redundancy of vision over personal materialistic quest makes the love critically flawed unlike that of a cinephile. A cinephile may be materialistic but he does not become blind in believing that there is no world beyond the limits of his own skin.

Today foreign films are released in theatres and Film titles are available in the market, and there are 24hrs satellite TV showing not just Bollywood or Hollywood but World Movies. I’m not even counting the amount of films downloaded over the Internet that forms an important growth of watching films, sharing films along with music in colleges in India. Students across India; consciously or unconsciously watch tons of films from all over the world. And these are just not people who are studying cinema or mass communication, the field is varied. However, then the question arises, does this make them into ‘ cinephile’ or signal the boom of ‘ cinephilia’ in the country, because it's this very lot today that is directing more films than the people who are actually passing out of films schools. They have seen their fare share of European/ Art films and have love for Bollywood and Hollywood. But this trend of filmmakers and the ‘fresh’ cinema of our country that is directly linked to such group of men/women, who come from this diverse field, (some of them go on to study ‘Cinema’ or simply join the bandwagon to make films) cannot be linked to the same rise of ‘Cinephile and ‘Cinephilia’ of 60s and 70s that gave rise to great filmmakers and cinema.

Because, irrespective of the growth, and appreciation of good films or the change in the way films are being made in mainstream cinema, the core, and the stylistic trait or the advancement of mise-en-scene is completely non-existent. Most mainstream fare, if not all, resemble each other and technical competence is not the sign of an individuality that is the core to any form of art that could separate it from lets say a mass-manufactured good which is severely formed out of alimentation; irrespective of the presence and hard work. So having a new Jimmy-Jib, new Panavision, an avid system or latest DI advancement is not improving the quality of our films. These batches of film lovers are very similar to the ‘Idol-worshiper’ in the forms of their neglect and alienation from the history and tradition of film culture, and almost no understanding and co-relation of the medium either Indian or Foreign. When the zeal of understanding our own traditions and culture does not exist, how can one ‘honestly’ express about others or go on to make films in taking a ‘leap’ in defining their own visual language that could be called individualistic.

This is another core reason why there are no film critics, historian or people severely interested in writing on the medium. Because when they are not equipped, how one can provide evidence when questioned, reasons when pointed or admit their flaws. It’s predominately in-between this group of people that a severe habit of snobism and lying exist. India, maybe, the only country in the world where people from all walk of life and different age-groups lie about movies- to appear intellectual or make things so arcane that it becomes difficult to understand and leaves the other confused. This rise should not be confused with any form of cinephilia. I won’t deny that exception exists in all forms, but exceptions don’t make the rules. The last great batches of cinephiles went on to makes movies in both mainstream and regional cinema in India. However, everything is not lost, irrespective of the fact, that we come from a very rigid social framework yet there seems to be a ray of hope. There are three important reasons for the same:

1) We have a thriving film industry.
2) A generation aware of world cinema is emerging.
3) The slow but important rise of cinephile and converts.

Cinephilia or Cinephile is no special term or institution that requires a person to join or be part of, it’s a conscious or subconscious linkage of people who are preparing a long arduous journey of being an eternal student. Who enjoys all forms of movies, who is ready to be informed and be informed, and who slowly builds his own course of aesthetics through writing, watching, programming, or making films. Here direct influence without understanding has no values: aesthetically or technically. Similarly there can be no space for dishonesty.

Cinephilia is slowly emerging from across India. Some of them are converts; people who have shifted their loyalty from the first two brands of film lovers. Here the shift does not mean that one stops appreciating mainstream fare and becoming holed up in the asses of art cinema. It simply means shading of “lies”, “hypocrisy”, “pseudo- intellectual” that so badly engulf the urban class. I myself had to work tremendously hard to bring in a change from the ‘The Bourgeois Gaze’ towards actually ‘loving cinema’, and its then I realized that the world of films I was living and dreaming was fake and unreal. People whom I meet at film festivals, read online, or anywhere are not what they pretend to be. It’s then only this gradual shift to actually ‘loving cinema’ arouse. I could see the different blend of film lovers and differentiate people who call them cinephile or label the tag of film lovers to be some form of ‘rise of cinephilia’. Beside, it’s very few who have been purely in love from the beginning with pure honesty and reflect the same. These people are the hardest to find here.

However, there has been a considerable growth in the last couple of years in the rise of cinephiles. People who enjoy the diversity that it provides and they are slowly picking up its tradition: reflecting and re-learning. Of late, the cinephile have access to all sources of film-watching much like the other group and they are using the Internet to take advantage of the cross-cultural values and understanding of the medium through blogs, magazines and discussion. If this group of people are able to ‘inform’ and help, especially the second group of film lovers in the country to understand the medium better and help them overcome few boundaries than their could be a vital and a strong pool of people who would be talking, writing, and hoping to making changes in the medium. Wherein one could witness the emergence of New Wave of films, writing, and a ‘choice’ for the audience.

It’s is through this very ‘few’ that a new cinema of the country or a new way of looking at our own cinema and beyond could come through. Because it’s through them that one could help overcome the illiteracy about the medium people have; to help them see the difference between good camerawork and bad camerawork; a bad shot or good shot; between the existent of a director and non-existent. The Internet is the first tool in the struggle to break into the large pool of reaching people, because in the last decade or so, films and film writing has become separated into two large pool ‘ academia’ or ‘mainstream’ and its this gap or a ‘ middle-path’ the cinephile must find and reflect. It’s exactly here the Internet is providing the possibility of an alternate from the clutches of editors and censorship.

At the same time it’s providing an important source of learning. In a country where there is no infrastructure for a critical discourse hence the Internet becomes an ocean of learning. India being a place where most cinephile can’t afford a film magazine it’s learning off the Internet that becomes vital. I won’t deny that a number of critical writing on directors or any form of write-up by cinephile lack critical ingenuity, but we can’t overlook the idea of growth and the prospect of establishing a critical school of thought that could be called our own, and not directly influenced by someone else. Yet always be open to learn and improve is vital. Because in the end, it should not be about you and me, but more of, towards the improvement of the relationship one has with the medium. So the more I work toward my relationship the better I get to understand the forms of its existence.

Cinephilia would help India get back into the days it once had or to even wave a march forward into representing the true face of the nation: through form and content. It is the growth, sustainability and constant self-assurance and motivation of cinephiles across the nation that is important; especially for the survival of the medium aesthetically. Else film love and idol worship will continue to exist here in India. Cinema will continue to flourish, but cinephile and critics will finally disappear from the face of the country and cinephilia will remain buried as just another romanticized fantasy.


- The Tracking Shot in Kapo, Serge Daney, Senses of Cinema
- The Cinema of Experimentation- Amrit Ganger, Winds from the East.
- The Decay of Cinema: Susan Sontag, New York Times
- Christian Metz: The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema
- Upperstall/ Wikipedia- Profile on Dada Saheb Phalke.
- French Cinephilia: Film Reference

Monday, October 27, 2008

Balraj Sahni's 1972 Convocation Address at JNU

About twenty years ago, the Calcutta Film Journalists' Association decided to honour the late Bimal Roy, the maker of Do Bigha Zameen and us, his colleagues. It was a simple but tasteful ceremony. Many good speeches were made, but the listeners were waiting anxiously to hear Bimal Roy. We were all sitting on the floor, and I was next to Bimal Da. I could see that as his turn approached he became increasingly nervous and restless. And when his turn came he got up, folded his hands and said, “Whatever I have to my I say if in my films. I have nothing more to say,” and sat down.

There is a lot in what Bimal Da did, and at this moment my greatest temptation is to follow his example. The fact that I am not doing so is due solely to the profound regard I have for the name which this august institution bears; and the regard I have for yet another person, Shri P.C. Joshi, who is associated with your university. I owe to him some of the greatest moments of my life, a debt which I can never repay. That is why when I received an invitation to speak on this occasion, I found it impossible to refuse. If you had invited me to sweep your doorstep I would have felt equally happy and honoured. Perhaps that service would have been more equal to my merit.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not trying to be modest. Whatever I said was from my heart and whatever I shall say further on will also be from my heart, whether you find it agreeable and in accordance with the tradition and spirit of such occasions or otherwise. As you may know, I have been out of touch with the academic world for more than a quarter of a century. I have never addressed a University Convocation before.

It would not be out of place to mention that the severance of my contact with your world has not been voluntary. It has been due to the special conditions of film making in our country. Our little film world either offers the actor too little work, forcing him to eat his heart out in idleness; or gives him too much --so much that he gets cut off from all other currents of life. Not only does he sacrifice the pleasures of normal family life, but he also has to ignore his intellectual and spiritual needs. In the last twenty-five years have worked in more than one hundred and twenty five films. In the same period a contemporary European or American actor would have done thirty or thirty-five. From this you can imagine what a large part of my life lies buried in strips of celluloid. A vast number of books which I should have read I have not been able to read. So many events I should have taken part in have passed me by. Sometimes I feel terribly left behind. And the frustration increases when I ask myself how many of these one hundred and twenty-five films had anything significant in them? How many have any claim to be remembered? Perhaps a few. They could be counted on the fingers of one hand. And even they have either been forgotten already or will be, quite soon.

That is why I said I was not being modest. I was only giving a warning, so that in the event of my disappointing you, you should be able to forgive me. Bimal Roy was right. The artist's domain is his work. So, since I must speak, I must confine myself to my own experience to what I have observed and felt, and wish to communicate. To go outside that would be pompous and foolish.

I'd like to tell you about an incident which took place in my college days and which I have never been able to forget. It has left a permanent impression on my mind.

I was going by bus from Rawalpindi to Kashmir with my family to enjoy the summer vacation. Half-way through we were halted because a big chunk of the road had been swept away by a landslide caused by rain the previous night. We joined the long queues of buses and cars on either side of the landside. Impatiently we waited for the road to clear. It was a difficulty job for the P.W.D. and it took some days before they could cut a passage through. During all this time the passengers and the drivers of vehicles made a difficult situation even more difficult by their impatience and constant demonstration. Even the villagers nearby got fed up with the high-handed behaviour of the city-walas.

One morning the overseer declared the road open. The green- flag was waved to the drivers. But we saw a strange sight. No driver was willing to be the first to cross. They just. stood and stared at each other from either side. No doubt the road was a make-shift one and even dangerous. A mountain on one side, and a deep gorge and the river below. Both were forbidding. The overseer had made a careful inspection and had opened the road with a full sense of responsibility. But nobody was prepared to trust his judgment, although these very people had, till yesterday, I accused him and his department of laziness and incompetence. Half an hour passed by in dumb silence. Nobody moved.

Suddenly we saw a small green sports car approaching. An Englishman was driving it; sitting all by himself. He was a bit surprised to see so many parked vehicles and the crowd there. I was rather conspicuous, wearing my smart jacket and trousers. "What's happened?" he asked me.

I told him the whole story. He laughed loudly, blew the horn and went straight ahead, crossing the dangerous portion without the least hesitation.

And now the pendulum swung the other way. Every body was so eager to cross that they got into each other's way and created a new-confusion for some time. The noise of hundreds of engines and hundreds of horns was unbearable.

That day I saw with my own eyes the difference in attitudes between a man brought up in a free country and a man brought up in an enslaved one. A free man has the power to think, decide, and act for himself. But the slave loses that power. He always borrows his thinking from others, wavers in his decisions, and more often than not only takes the trodden path.

I learnt a lesson from this incident, which has been valuable to me. I made it a test for my own life. In the course of my life, whenever I have been able to make my own crucial decisions, I have been happy. I have felt the breath 'of freedom on my face. I have called myself a free man. My spirit has soared high and I have enjoyed life because I have felt there is meaning to life.

But, to be frank, such occasions have been too few. More often, than not I had lost courage at the crucial moment, and taken shelter under the wisdom of other people. I had taken the safer path. I made decisions which were expected of me by my family, by the bourgeois class to which I belonged, and the set of values upheld by them. I thought one way but acted in another. For this reason, afterwards I have felt rotten.

Some decisions have proved ruinous in terms of human happiness. Whenever I lost courage, my life became a meaningless burden.

I told you about an Englishman. 1 think that in itself is symptomatic of the sense of inferiority that I felt at that time. I could have given you the example of Sardar Bhagat Singh who went to the gallows the same year. I could have given you the example of Mahatma Gandhi who always had the courage to decide for himself. I remember how my college professors and the wise respectable people of my home town shook their heads over the folly of Mahatma Gandhi, who thought he could defeat the most powerful empire on earth with his utopian principles of truth and non-violence. I think less than one per cent of the people of my city dreamt that they would see India free in their lifetime. But Mahatma Gandhi had faith in himself, in his country, and his people. Some of you may have seen a painting of Gandhiji done by Nandlal Bose. It is the picture of a man who has the courage to think and act for himself.

During my college days I was not influenced by Bhagat Singh or Mahatma Gandhi. I was doing my M.A. in English literature from the most magnificent educational institution in the Punjab-the Government College in Lahore. Only the very best students were admitted to that college. After independence my fellow students have achieved the highest positions in India and Pakistan, both in the government and society. But, to gain admission to this college we had to give a written undertaking that we would take no interest in any political movement-which at that time meant the freedom movement.

This year we are celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of our independence. But can we honestly say that we have got rid of our slavish mentality--our inferiority complex?

Can we claim that at the personal, social, or institutional level, our thinking, our decisions, or even our actions are our own and not borrowed? Are we really free in the spiritual sense? Can we dare to think and act for ourselves, or do we merely pretend to do so-merely make a superficial show of independence.

I should like to draw your attention to the film industry to which I belong. I know a great many of our films are such that the very mention of them would raise a laugh among you. In the eyes of educated intelligent people, Hindi films are nothing but a tamasha. Their stories are childish, unreal, and illogical. But their worst fault, you will agree with me, is that their plots, their technique, their songs and dances, betray blind, unimaginative, and unabashed copying of films from the west. There have been Hindi films which have been copied in every detail from some foreign film. No wonder that you young people laugh at us, even though some of you may dream of becoming stars yourselves.

It is not easy for me to laugh at Hindi films. I earn my bread from them. They have brought me plenty of fame and wealth. To some extent at least, I owe to Hindi films the high honour which you have given me today.

When I was a student like you, our teachers, both English and Non-English, tried to convince us in diverse ways that the fine arts were a prerogative of white people. Great films, great drama, great acting, great painting, etc., were only possible in Europe and America. The Indian people, their language and culture, were as yet too crude and backward for real artistic expression. We used to feel bitter about this and we resented it outwardly: but inwardly we could not help accepting this judgment.

The picture has changed vastly since then. After independence India has made a tremendous recovery in every branch of the arts. In the field of film making, names like Satyajit Ray and Bimal Roy stand out as international personalities. Many of our artistes, cameramen and technicians compare with the best anywhere in the world. Before independence we hardly made ten or fifteen films worth the name. Today we are the biggest film producing country in the world. Not only are our films immensely popular with the masses in our own country, but also in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, the Eastern Republics of the Soviet Union; Egypt, and other Arab countries in the Far East and many African countries. We have broken the monopoly of Hollywood in this field.

Even from the aspect of social responsibility, our Indian films have not yet degenerated to the low level to which some of the western countries have descended. The film producer in India has not yet exploited sex and crime for the sake of profit to the extent that his American counterpart has been doing for years and years-thus creating a serious social problem for that country.

But all these assets are negated by our one overwhelming fault-that we are imitators and copyists. This one fault makes us the laughing stock of intelligent people everywhere. We make films according to borrowed, outdated formulas. We do not have the courage to strike out on our own, to get to grips with the reality of our own country, to present it convincingly and according to our own genius.

I say this not only in relation to the usual Hindi or Tamil box office films. I make this complaint against our so-called progressive and experimental films also, whether they be in Bengali, Hindi, or Malayalam. I do not lag behind anyone else in admiring the work of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Sukhdev, Basu Bhattacharjee, or Rajinder Singh Bedi. I know they are highly and deservingly respected;but even then I cannot help saying that the winds of fashion in Italy, France, Sweden, Poland, or Czechoslovakia have an immediate effect on their work. They do break new ground, but only after someone else has broken it.

In the literary world, in which I have considerable interest, I see the same picture. Our novelists, story writers, and poets are carried away with the greatest of ease by the currents of fashion in Europe, although Europe, with the exception of the Soviet Union perhaps, is not yet even aware of Indian writing. For example, in my own province of the Punjab there is a wave of protest among young poets against the existing social order. Their poetry exhorts the people to rebel against it, to shatter it and build a better world free from corruption, injustice, and exploitation. One cannot but endorse that spirit wholeheartedly, because, without question, the present social order needs changing.

The content of this poetry is most admirable, but the form is not indigenous. It is borrowed from the west. The west has discarded meter and rhyme, so our Punjabi poet must also discard it. He must also use involved and ultra-radical imagery. The result is that the sound and fury remains only on paper, confined to small, mutually admiring literary circles. The people, the workers and the peasants who are being exhorted to revolution, cannot make head or tail of this kind of poetry. It just leaves them cold and per The content of this poetry is most admirable, but the form is not indigenous. It is borrowed from the west. The west has discarded meter and rhyme, so our Punjabi poet must also discard it. He must also use involved and ultra-radical imagery. The result is that the sound and fury remains only on paper, confined to small, mutually admiring literary circles. The people, the workers and the peasants who are being exhorted to revolution, cannot make head or tail of this kind of poetry. It just leaves them cold and perplexed. I don't think I am wrong if I say that other Indian languages too are in the grip of "new wave" poetry.

I know next to nothing about painting. I can't judge a good one from a bad one. But I have noticed that in this sphere also our painters conform to current fashions abroad. Very few have the courage to swim against the tide.

And what about the academic world? I invite you to I look into the mirror. If you laugh at Hindi films, maybe you are tempted to laugh at yourselves.

This year my own province honoured me by nominating me to the senate of Guru Nanak university. When the invitation to attend the first meeting came, I happened to be in the Punjab, wandering around in some villages near Preet Nagar-the cultural centre founded by our great writer S. Gurbakhsh Singh. During the evening's gossip I told my villager friends that I was to go to Amritsar to attend this meeting and if anyone wanted a lift in my car he was welcome. At this one of the company said, "Here among us you go about dressed in tehmat-kurta, peasant fashion; but tomorrow you will put on your suit and become Sahib Bahadur again." "Why," I said laughingly, "if you want I will go dressed just like this." "You will never dare," another one said. "Our sarpanch Sahib here removes his tehmat and puts on a pyjama whenever he has to go to the city on official work. He has to do it, otherwise, he says, he is not respected. How can yon go peasant-fashion to such a big university?" A jawan who had come home on leave for the rice sowing added, "Our sarpanch is a coward. In cities even girls go about wearing lungis these days. Why should he not be respected?"

The gossip went on, and, as if to accept their challenge, I did make my appearance in the Senate meeting in tehmat-kurta. The sensation I created was beyond my expectation. The officer-perhaps, professor-who was handing out the gowns in the vestibule could not recognize me at first. When he did he could not hide his amusement, "Mr Sahni, with the tehmat you should have worn khosas-not shoes," he said, while putting the gown over my shoulders. "I shall be careful next time," I said apologetically and moved on. But a moment later I asked myself, was it not bad manners for the professor to notice or comment on my dress? Why did I not point this out to him? T felt peeved' over my slow-wittedness.

After the meeting we went over to meet the students. Their amusement was even greater and more eloquent. Many of them could not help laughing at the fact that I was wearing shoes with a tehmat. That they were wearing chappals with trousers seemed nothing extraordinary to them.

You must wonder why I am wasting your time narrating such trivial incidents. But look at it from the point of view of the Punjabi peasant. We are all full of admiration for his contribution to the green revolution. He is the backbone of our armed forces. How must he feel when his dress or his way of life is treated as a matter of amusement?

It is well-known in the Punjab that as soon as a village lad receives college education he becomes indifferent to the village. He begins to consider himself superior and different, as if belonging to a separate world altogether. His one ambition is to somehow leave the village and run to a city. Is this not a slur on the academic world?

I agree that all places are not alike. I know perfectly well that no complex against the native dress exists in Tamil Nadu or Bengal. Anyone from a peasant to a professor can go about in a dhoti on any occasion. But I submit that the habit of borrowed and idealized thinking is present over there too. It is present everywhere, in some form or degree. Even twenty-five years after independence we are blissfully carrying on with the same system of education which was designed by Macaulay and Co. to breed clerks and mental slaves. Slaves who would be incapable of thinking independently of their British masters; slaves who would admire everything about the masters, even while hating them; slaves who would consider it an honour to be standing by the side, of the masters, to speak the language of the masters, to dress like the masters, to sing and dance like the masters; slaves, who would hate their own people and would be available .to preach the gospel of hatred among their own people. Can we then be surprised if the large majority of students in universities are losing faith in this system of education?

Let me go back to trivialities again. Ten years ago, if you asked a fashionable student in Delhi to wear a kurta with trousers he would have laughed at you. Today, by the grace of the hippies and the Hare Rama Hare Krishna cult, not only has the kurta-trousers combination become legitimate, but even the word kurta has changed to guru-shirt. The sitar became a star instrument with us only after the Americans gave a big welcome to Ravi Shankar, just as fifty years ago Tagore became Gurudev all over India only after he received the Nobel Prize from Sweden.

Can you dare to ask a college student to shave his head, moustache, and beard when the fashion is to put the barbers out of business? But if tomorrow under the influence of Yoga the students of Europe begin to shave their heads arid faces, I can assure you that you will begin to see a crop of shaven skulls all over Connaught Circus the next day. Yoga has to get a certificate from Europe before it can influence the home of its birth.

Let me give another example-a less trivial one.

I work in Hindi films, but it is an open secret that the songs and dialogues of these Hindi films are mostly written in Urdu. Eminent Urdu writers and poets-Krishan Chandar, Rajinder Singh Bedi, K. A. Abbas, Gulshan Nanda Sahir Ludhianwi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, and Kaifi Azmi are associated with this work.

Now, if a film written in Urdu can be called a Hindi film, it is logical to conclude that Hindi and Urdu are one and, the same language. But no, our British masters declared them two separate languages in their time. Therefore, even twenty-five years after independence, our government,: our universities, and our intellectuals insist on treating them as two separate and independent languages. Pakistan radio goes on ruining the beauty of this language by thrusting into it as many Persian and Arabic words as possible; and All India Radio knocks it out of all shape by pouring the entire Sanskrit dictionary into it. In this way they carry out the wish of the Master, to separate the inseparable. Can anything be more absurd than that? If the British told us that white was black, would we go on calling white black for ever and ever? My film colleague Johnny Walker remarked the other day, "They should not announce 'Ab Hindi mein samachar suniye' they should say, 'Ab Samachar mein Hindi suniye.'

I have discussed this funny situation with many Hindi and Urdu writers-the so-called progressive as well as non progressive; I have tried to convince them of the urgency to do some fresh thinking on the subject. But so far it has been like striking one's head against a stone wall. We film people call it the "ignorance of the learned." Are we wrong?

Lastly, I would like to tell you about a hunch I have, even at the risk of boring you. A hunch is something you can't help having. It just comes. Ultimately it may prove right or wrong. May be mine is wrong. But there it is. It may even prove right-who knows?

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru has admitted in his autobiography that our freedom movement, led by the Indian National Congress, was always dominated by the propertied classes-the capitalists and landlords. It was logical, therefore, that these very classes should hold the reigns of power even after independence. Today it is obvious to everyone that in the last twenty-five years the rich have been growing 'richer' and the poor have been growing poorer. Pandit Nehru wanted to change this state of affairs, but he couldn't. I don't blame him, because he had to face very heavy odds all along. Today our Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, pledges herself to take the country towards the goal of socialism. How far she will be successful, I can't say. Politics is not my line. For our present purposes it is enough if you agree with me that in today's India the propertied classes dominate the government as well as society.

I think you will also agree that the British used the English language with remarkable success for strengthening their imperial hold on our country.

Now, which language in your opinion would their successors, the present rulers of India, choose to strengthen their own domination? Rashtrabhasha Hindi? By heavens, no. My hunch is that their interests too are served by English and English alone. But since they have to keep up a show of patriotism they make a lot of noise about Rashtrabhasha Hindi so that the mind of the public remains diverted.

Men of property may believe in a thousand different gods, but they worship only one-the God of profit. From the point of view of profit the advantages of retaining English to the capitalist class in this period of rapid industrialization and technological revolution are obvious. But the social advantages are even greater. From that point of view English is a God sent gift to our ruling classes.

Why? For the simple reason that the English language is beyond the reach of the toiling millions of our country. In olden times Sanskrit and Persian were beyond the reach of the toiling masses. That is why the rulers of those times had given them the status of state language. Through Sanskrit and Persian the masses were made to feel ignorant, inferior, uncivilized, and unfit to rule themselves. Sanskrit and Persian helped to enslave their minds, and when the mind is enslaved bondage is eternal.

It suits our present ruling classes to preserve and maintain the social order that they have inherited from the British. They have a privileged position; but they cannot admit it openly. That is why a lot of hoo-haw is made about Hindi as the Rashtrabhasha. They know very well that this Sanskrit-laden, artificial language, deprived of all modern scientific and technical terms, is too weak and insipid to challenge the supremacy of English. It will always remain a show piece, and what is more, a convenient tool to keep the masses fighting among themselves. We film people get a regular flow of fan mail from young people studying in schools and colleges. I get my share of it and these letters reveal quite clearly what a storehouse of torture the English language is to the vast majority of Indian students. How abysmally low the levels of teaching and learning have reached! That is why, I am told preferential treatment is being given to boys and girls who come from public schools i.e. schools to which only the children of privileged classes can go.

It is not necessary for me to comment on the efforts being made to strengthen English in every sphere of life, despite assurances to the contrary. They are all too obvious. It is admitted that English is too alien and hence too difficult to learn for the average Indian. And yet, it helps the capitalists and industrialists to consolidate their position on an all-India scale. That one consideration is more important than any other. According to them whatever serves their interest automatically serves national interest too. They are hopeful that in the not too distant future the people themselves will endorse their stand-that English should retain its present status for ever.

This was my hunch and I confided it one day to a friend of mine who is a labour leader. I told him that if we are serious about doing away with capitalism and bringing in socialism, we have to help the working class to consolidate itself on an all-India scale with the same energy as the capitalist class is doing. We have to help the working class achieve a leading role in society. And that can only be done by breaking the domination of English and replacing it with a people's language.

My friend listened to me carefully and largely agreed with me. "You have analyzed the situation very well," he said, "but what is the remedy?"

"The remedy is to retain the English script and kick out the English language," I replied.

"But how?"

"A rough and ready type of Hindustani is used by the working masses all over India. They make practical use of it by discarding all academic and grammatical flourishes. In this type of Hindustani, "Larka bhi jata hei" and "Larki bhi jata hei." There is an atmosphere of rare freedom in this patois and even the intellectuals indulge in it when they want to relax. And actually this is in the best tradition of Hindustani. This is how it was born, made progress, and acquired currency all over India. In the old days it was contemptuously called Urdu-or the language of the camps or bazaars.

Today in this bazaari Hindustani the word university becomes univrasti-a much better word than vishwa vidyalaya, lantern becomes laltain, the chasis of a car becomes chesi, spanner becomes pana, i.e. anything and everything is possible. The string with which the soldier cleans his rifle is called "pullthrough" in English. In Roman Hindustani it becomes fultroo–a beautiful word. "Barn-door" is the term the Hollywood lights man uses for a particular type of two blade' cover. The Bombay film worker has changed it to bandar, an excellent transformation. This Hindustani has untold and unlimited possibilities. It can absorb the international scientific and technological vocabulary with the greatest of ease. It can take words from every source and enrich itself. One has no need to run only to the Sanskrit dictionary."

"But why the Roman script?" my friend asked.

"Because no one has any prejudice against it," I said. "It is the only script which has already gained all-India currency. In north, south, east and west, you can see shop signs and film poster in this script. We use this script for writing addresses on envelopes and post cards. The army has been using it for the last thirty years at least."

My friend, the labour leader, kept silent for some time. Then he smiled indulgently and said, "Comrade, Europe also experimented with Esperanto. A great intellectual like Bernard Shaw tried his best to popularize the Basic English. But all these schemes failed miserably, for the simple reason that languages cannot be evolved mechanically; they grow spontaneously."

I was deeply shocked. I said, "Comrade, Esperanto is just that Rashtrabhasha which the Hindi Pandits are manufacturing in their studies, from the pages of some Sanskrit dictionary. I am talking of the language which is growing all round you, through the action of the people."

But I couldn't convince him. I gave more arguments, including the one that Netaji Subhash Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru were both strong advocates of Roman Hindustani, but that too failed to convince him. The question is not whether the comrade or I was right. Perhaps, I was wrong. Perhaps, my thinking was utopian, or "mechanical"-as he called it. As I said before, you can never say whether a hunch is going to be right or wrong. But the fun lies in having it, because to have a hunch is a sign of independent thinking. The comrade should have been able to appreciate that, but he couldn't, because it was difficult for him to get out of the grooves of orthodox thinking.

No country can progress unless it becomes conscious of its being-its mind and body. It has to learn to exercise its own muscles. It has to learn to find out and solve its own problems in its own way. But whichever way I turn I find that even after twenty-five years of independence, we are like a bird which has been let out of its cage after a prolonged imprisonment-unable to know what to do with its freedom. It has wings, but is afraid to fly into the open air. It longs to remain within defined limits, as in the cage.

Individually and collectively, we resemble Walter Mitty. Our inner lives are different from our outer lives. Our thoughts and actions are poles apart. We want to change this state of affairs, but we lack the courage to do anything different from what we have been doing all along-or different from what others expect us to do.

I am sure there must be some police officers in this country who in their hearts want to be regarded as friends rather than enemies of the public. They must be aware that in England the behaviour of the police towards the public is polite and helpful. But the tradition in which they have been trained is not the one which the British set for their own country but the one which they set for their colonies. So, the policeman is helpless. According to this colonial tradition, it is his duty to strike terror into anyone who enters his office, to be as obstructive and unhelpful as possible. This is the tradition which pervades every government office, from the chaparasi to the minister.

One of our young and enterprising producers made an experimental film and approached the Government for tax exemption. The minister concerned was being sworn into office the next day. He invited the producer to attend the ceremony, after which he would meet him and discuss the matter. The producer went, impressed by the informality with which the minister had treated him. As the minister was being sworn in, promising to serve the people truly, faithfully, and honestly, his secretary started explaining to the young producer how much he would have to pay in black money to the minister and how much to the others if he wanted the tax exemption.

The producer got so shocked and angry that he wanted to put this scene in his next film. But his financiers had already suffered a loss with the first one. They told him categorically not to make an ass of himself. In any case, if he had insisted in making an ass of himself the censors would never have passed the film, because it is an unwritten law that no policeman or minister is corrupt in our country.

But there is something which strikes me as being even funnier. Those same people who scream against ministers every day cannot themselves hold a single function without some minister inaugurating it, or presiding over it, or being the chief guest. Sometimes the minister is the chief guest and a film star is the president, or else the film star is the chief guest and the minister is the president. Some big personality has to be there, because it is the age old colonial tradition.

During the last war, I spent four years in England as a Hindustani announcer at the B.B.C. During those four years of extreme crisis I never even once set my eyes on a member of the British cabinet, including Prime Minister Churchill. But since independence I have seen nothing else but ministers in India, all over the place.

When Gandhiji went to the Round Table Conference in 1930, he remarked to British journalists that the Indian people regarded the guns and bullets of their empire in the same way as their children regarded the crackers and phatakas on Diwali day. He could make that claim because he had driven the fear of the British out of Indian minds. He had taught them to ignore and boycott the British officers instead of kowtowing to them.

Similarly, if we want socialism in our country we have firstly to drive out the fear of money, position, and power from the minds of our people. Are we doing anything in that direction? In our society today who is respected most -the man with talent or the man with money? Who is admired most-the man with talent or the man with power? Can we ever hope to usher in socialism under such conditions? Before socialism can come we have to create an atmosphere in which possession of wealth and riches should invite disrespect rather than respect. We have to create an atmosphere in which the highest respect is given to labour whether it be physical or mental; to talent, to skill, to art, and to inventiveness. This requires, new thinking; and the courage to discard old ways of thinking. Are we anywhere near this revolution of the mind?

Perhaps, today we need a messiah to give us the courage to abandon our slavishness and to create values befitting the human beings of a free and independent country so that we may have the courage to link our destinies to the ones being ruled, and not the rulers-to the exploited and not to the exploiters.

A great saint of the Punjab, Guru Arjun Dev, said,

Jan ki tehl sanbhaionhah jan
Uthan bithan jan kaisanga
Jan char raj mukh mathai laagi
Aasa pooran anant taranga.

It is my earnest hope and prayer that you, graduates of Jawaharlal Nehru University may succeed where I and so many others of my generation have failed.

Balraj Sahni's 1972 Convocation Address at JNU.

Republished from JNUTA

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Days of Glory

Days Of Glory
Directed- Richard Bouchareb

In Days of Glory, there is a single forward track on the face of a Colonel in the French troupe, who is talking about the glory that the French would bestow upon the North Africans who are fighting for them in the war. And this ‘track’ on his face, to form a tight close-up; as he is speaking (the only one within the film) is a prominent deviation within the mise-en-scene that spoke beyond what the narrative, the image and the sound the rest of the film provided. Because it’s exactly here the film transcends the boundaries of becoming just another war movie and vibrates more than the limitation of heroism, patriotism and death all such films provide aplenty. Since the ‘track’ becomes a document that the film later uses to testify against the false promises, dreams and hope the French had promised and shown.

The film is set in the year 1943, France is at war against Germany and several men from French controlled North African territories join the Army to fight alongside the French. The film is about four Algerian men (Saïd Otmari, Yassir, Messaoud Souni, and Abdelkader) who never set foot on French soil, but fight alongside them in the war. And like most war movies their journey crosses various frontiers: death, love, victory and the elusive search for the homeland. The mise-en-scene compliments the way the narrative and the character inhabit and interact within the space like most war films do: the use of music to heighten emotions or to create emotional depth. The use of camera movements to bring focus on the heroism of the character or death, and the placement of bonding of love and family to create an emotional association and connection are dully present. For example, if any of these four men would be shot; a stimuli would create a tension within you to relate to them, because of the formatted and projected image to fill our stages of conversation, as its here, we hold on to something that one has gone before in order to make and relate to the present event. Similarly, the same could not be said for the killing of the German troops or any other soldiers from their own Infantry.

However, what makes this movie special and different from most movies in this genre and cinema per se is that the film though uses an existing template (genre) to create the layout of narrative and mise-en-scene, but most importantly, it intertwines a social and political commentary within the narrative through key scenes and plot sequences. That makes the movie socially and politically relevant. The first sign of the social and political stigma in the film sprout when during a dinner scene the Algerian soldiers revolt against the racial discrimination over food: French soldiers were provided with tomatoes which the Algerian’s aren’t and that causes a friction and a direct confrontation with the authorities, who eventually decide to bend the rule. Another interesting and an added layer of passive voice lay in the character of Sgt. Sergent Roger Martinez who was half Arab- French and represented the Algerian Infantry. But he never revealed his roots in the film, and when confronted, he became violent and wild, though he appeared sympathetic for the people who worked under him and towards his own lineage; a clear sign is the picture he kept of his mother in his shirt. Yet, he remained silent and passive towards the discrimination of the people. This closed voice spoke for another majority of people who worked within the regiment but hid their own past. Whilst they lived a much better life than their own people but always carried the guilt. Furthermore, the plot development though builds much like a conventional war movies but the placement of key scenes and dialogues provide the growth to the narrative that makes the film more powerful than the staple products. The film operates on a two layers; first a basic conflict of World War and, the second, the conflict of race that the North African soldiers were facing in their war against the French. And the central figure connecting both the layers and the film is Abdelkader (Sami Boujaila), a corporal and the voice of the Algerian and Africans who spoke for them against the French and their racism. Like most war movies his central role is just not configured to bring out the patriotism among his comrades or help the audience connect emotionally to their goals, but his ideology moves beyond fighting and motivating, as it is him, who constantly challenges the authorities. Sami Boujiala portrayal of the war veteran is more than cinematic, since it’s the subtlety he shows in shifting the weight between imitating the character and representing him that he seriously deserves every inch of accolade for the role.

Interestingly, the most important scene and question of the film are raised during the non-dramatic moment in the film. The film is broken down into chapters and connecting them is a beautiful transition of a black& white image slowly dissolving into color. It’s during one such moment, when Adelkader is reading a military handbook; he questions the Sgt regarding the illiteracy of his own comrades; as he quotes from the military guide book, ‘That no man should return illiterate from the war’, to which the Sgt question his own fellow mate, Said Otmari regarding education, who hesitatingly quips that, “He is too old to study’. A simple glance and a series of shot to express his helplessness move such scenes out of the boundaries of filmic realities of space and time. However, it’s at the end of the film that the movie and the character clearly express their own helplessness. When the war comes to a close, and Adelkader walks out of the town of Alsace, few French soldiers are standing with a family, and a war filmmaker is capturing the victory of the French army while the real man walk past unsung. The character cannot do anything but watch, and we cannot do anything but be a passive witness to the way the world function, nor could the movie intervene with the reality; as truth seemed the only ‘ hope’ of projection, just the like the ‘ track’ to create witnesses to the hypocrisies and lies.

Days of Glory is not a movie, it’s more than a movie, because in a world where the idea persist that the film cannot change our social structure, it helped in shaping a change of the people it portrayed. The North Africans who had fought alongside the French lost their pensions after the year 1959, when the countries started becoming Independent, and subsequent French authorities never granted them their rightful, however, Jacques Chirac after watching the film enforced the pension to be granted to the veterans. Days of Glory is an honest film with a heart of melodrama mind of melodrama but a soul of creation.

Cross-Published from my review for Dear Cinema

NDTV Lumiere release in India. Check your local listing for the film timings.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Karzzz- The Remake

Directed- Satish Kaushik
Release- 2008

Karzzzz the remake, is a fantasy, and the only domain it belongs to is Bollywood. The film falls under the same branch of movies such as Farah Khan’s Main Hoon Na, Om Shanti Om or Anees Bazmee’s Singh is Kinng. However, what separates this from the very lot of ‘pure Bollywood films’ is that Karzzzz is a remake of a 1980 potboiler, that elevated mainstream storytelling to a new cinematic height; forming a certain shift in narrative and form. However, it still remained a pure work of fantasy; a story about rebirth, vengeance, greed, laid out in a surreal manner.

Hence, the remake becomes a double-whammy; a fantasy within a fantasy, so the first rule of the film is to actually watch it with loads of popcorn, burgers and colas cause without it the film would be hard to digest. When Himesh Reshammiya came alive on the silver screen in Aap Kaa Surroor: The Moviee - The Real Luv Story his mannerism in the film was unique like his voice. Similarly, in Karzzzz, excluding the ‘trademark’ Reshammiya cap, everything else is just the same. In Aap Kaa Surroor: The Moviee - The Real Luv Story, Himesh Reshammiya broke the barriers of melodrama and masala films, and in Karzzzz he raises the stakes higher. He is all over the film, playing a successful rockstar, Monty, in South Africa. He evokes an emotion that makes him more Himesh than a rocker; yet, we are made to believe in his emotions, dilemma, and his sudden realization of re-birth.

In Bollywood films, most characters have a peculiar and a very unique way of remembering their past, and reclaiming their lost eye-sight or memory to recover the lost grounds in the film narrative. In Karzzzz, Monty has a similar recurrence and vision while performing in one of his rock concerts, which looks more like Bollywood stage shows. The sudden vision leaves a profound impact on our rocker, who, then decides to go beneath the metaphor and symbols of his vision. The films picks up the basic ingredients of plot development form the original, but few ‘twists’ and ‘turns’ are added in to allow the audience to feel a sense of freshness in the ‘remake’, but that actually never materializes onscreen, because the basic growth of narrative through exposition, climax, and resolution is already clichéd and retold a thousand and one times on the silver screen.

When Monty without the help of hypnosis, Freudian psychoanalysis or Proust’s sudden recollection of the past, travels back and finds about the details of his vision: the mansion, his previous life, and a tragic accident, another jolt from the blue allows the audience and Monty to understand that he was Ravi Verma (Dino Morea) in his previous life. And everything he saw, he dreamt; was a calling from the past. Masala films actually are movies tailor-made for the audience, where the structure is like an instant noodle easily forming the fabula in our mind and the whole ‘cause-effect’ construction of moving in plot development then becomes funny and laughable. After all, we exactly know, and can predict sequences that makes the whole emotions, drama, and suspense a mere butt of a joke and hence laughable. Monty meets the late Ravi Verma’s wife Kamini (Urmila) who though portrayed in vamp like demeanor does not bring forth the elegance of Simi Garewel from the original.

Subash Ghai single-handedly made the original tick, even under the presence of Rishi Kapoor as the main lead. Here, Satish Kaushik is non-existent, the whole film could actually be shot by any other person and yet feel the same, taste the same, and smell the same. Let us not ignore the facts; first of all, there is no rule which says that ‘masala’ films should be low on its quality to create a new visual language or syntax. The film for most part looks visually attractive (cinematography), but this ‘attractiveness’ is different from ‘beautiful’, because the cinematographer simply ‘capture’ what is there, exactly in the same manner, same situation, excluding the subject from the surrounding, and hence it is the ontological beauty of the place (Kenya, South Africa) that makes it appealing to us, without any form of effort from the director, or cinematographer. Because it’s very easy to capture something to give you a feeling of a similar thing, but it’s very difficult to depict something, and form a different rapture, in the same stance and style as music.

To sum it up, Karzzzz is a pure entertainer; as it labels and markets itself to be, but even “pure entertainment’ is very much like a circus with an individuality where the clown, the trapeze artist and even the animals have their own distinctive style making it enjoyable and nostalgic. Sadly, today this instinctive individuality is lost in the name of entertainment, and most blockbusters which come with tagline of entertaining the masses are simply deceiving us.

Cross published from my review at Upperstall.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Adoor Gopalakrishnan on Mankada Ravi Verma

Raviettan’s [Mankada Ravi Varma] brother Rama Varma and I were students at the Film Institute in Pune. He used to talk to me about his brother, a cinematographer, who was then freelancing for the BBC and other agencies after passing out from the Madras film institute. He had worked as assistant cameraman in Films Division also.

Seven years after I left the Institute, in 1972, when I thought of making a feature film, I approached Raviettan with the script of ‘Swayamvaram.’ He was happy with the script and expressed his willingness to work in the film. We thought alike and we clicked as a team.

Prior to my films, he had worked with Aziz, a former FTII student, in a film called ‘Aval.’ He has also worked with P.N. Menon for the film ‘Olavum Theeravum,’ produced by P.A. Bakker, G. Aravindan’s ‘Uttarayanam’ and Singeetam Sreenivasa Rao’s ‘Dikkatta Parvathi.’

He never did more than one film with any of them. But he has been my cinematographer for all my films and documentaries since ‘Swayamvaram.’

Austere frames

The riveting austerity of his frames enhances the narration of the films. Raviettan would work on only one film at a time; his devotion to his work, dedication and enthusiasm set him apart. His frames capture our culture and each shot stays true to our roots and ethnicity. An original thinker, Raviettan uses light like a painter to create unforgettable images on celluloid. He is like an elder brother to me. Raviettan is the only person I show my script to after I finish working on it. As soon as a work is finished, I send it to him in Chennai and he would respond with his remarks. The beauty of it is that we are completely in sync with each other. So, never once has he made a disparaging remark or a negative comment about the script.

Although I wanted to shoot ‘Kodiyettam’ in colour, the restriction on colour film at that time did not permit me to do that. So, my first colour film was ‘Elippathayam.’ Colour has to be used judiciously and aesthetically. Raviettan rose to the challenge posed by colour and achieved the same excellence that he perfected in his black and white shots.

The only time he expressed reluctance was before the shoot of ‘Nizhalkuthu.’ He told me: ‘I am too old and perhaps it is time you chose someone else. I find it difficult to stay on my feet all day long.’ But I managed to persuade him. I told him to choose some one to assist him. Finally, it was Sunny Joseph, an accomplished cinematographer in his own right, who worked with us and the cinematography of ‘Nizhalkuthu’ has been credited to both of them. But once, Raviettan reaches the sets, he never sits or relaxes. Although he suffers from varicose veins, he prefers to stand while working. His drive inspires each person working on the set. He used to take a break only for a frugal meal of rice and curd. Awards and commercial success do not enthuse him. It is his quest for excellence that makes him the cinematographer he is.

Close-up of a lensman

Three heroes of Adoor’s films reminisce the professionalism of Mankada Ravi Varma. Veteran actor Madhu, a recipient of the J.C. Daniel Award, has worked in two films that were filmed by Mankada Ravi Varma – ‘Olavum Theeravum’and ‘Swayamvaram.’

Mammootty worked in three of Adoor’s films, ‘Ananthapuram,’ ‘Mathilukal’ and ‘Vidheyan.’ Mammootty, a keen photographer himself, had clicked Adoor and Mankada on the sets of ‘Mathilukal.’

Ashokan was the hero in ‘Anantharam.’ As a teenager, Ashokan had worked with some of the finest directors in Malayalam cinema. ‘Mukhamukham’ was his first film with Adoor and Mankada Ravi Varma.

“He is unique in the film world. It is hard to think of a man without enemies in any field. But Raviettan is a man without enemies. Always courteous and professional, he is completely devoted to his work. For him, each shot is a painting that he composes with great care.

For ‘Olavum Theeravum,’ we had to shoot indoors and outdoors, all in natural light. His greatest quality is his ability to go about his work with no fuss or attempt to impress. Before he started working in films, he had made a number of documentaries and that seems to have given him an academic bent of mind. He does not indulge in any kind of technical gimmicks or showmanship. Man of few words but great experience.

As an ardent film buff I was familiar with his work. I had seen his films and by the time I was cast in ‘Anantharam,’ both Adoor and Raviettan were legends. It was interesting to watch the professional rapport between the director and the cinematographer.

There is quite an age difference between the two but they share a similar vision. Perhaps that is what made each film of theirs so different. Raviettan is a person with simple tastes and few ambitions in life. His passion is his work.

He never ever made us feel small. Therein lay his greatness. If Adoor Sir were to make a short remark, he would turn around, smile and wink at us.

Although a man of few words, if you had a doubt or a question, he would take time to explain and tell you why a shot had been planned in a certain way or why the camera was at a certain angle. He is not a voluble person. I remember him reading on the set, when there was a break in the shoot.

courtsey- The Hindu


Mankanda Ravi Verma on Adoor Gopalakrishnan

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Servant's Shirt- An encroachment of 'Space'.

Anuj Malhotra

Film- Naukar Ki Kameez( The Servant's Shirt)
Directed- Mani Kaul.

Without pretending to portray a period of history, "Naukar Ki Kameez" is steeped in the liberal pre-economic atmosphere that marked India in the sixties.The film evokes the special lifestyle that India fashioned for itself during fifty years of soviet influenced Socialism. Through the characters: the civil servant, the Sahib, who lives with his spouse in a colonial-type residence, the chief of the alcoholic bureau, Bade Babu, who whiles away his time as he looks for a servant for the Sahib, and Santou, the young hero in the film, and his wife, whose home is flooded every time it rains because of their leaky roof, the film suggests a network of hierarchical relations between people through sometimes subtle and at other times blunt illustrations. The secret manipulations the different characters indulge in, whether it be in their formal exchanges or in their friendships and intimate relations, are confined to the grotesque, as if the aim were to catch the other person out. Among all the protagonists, the capacity to endure the absurd leads to a passivity in which they shift between the tragic and the comic.

- Mani Kaul

A film, when viewed, can demand two levels of examinations, one which places itself at a technical level, and the other, at a sub-textual level. Often, technique should be a mere means to an end. Often, however, it is not. Godard’s jump cuts have to be among the flashiest (perhaps, the flashiest) style device of all time, but without their objective of making aware the viewer that it’s after all a film, they are mere gimmicks. Scorsese’s voiceovers are super-cool, the king of cool, the Arctic version of the cool, but unless examined alongwith the planes of storytelling they create, they make mercury rise. And just that: Someone once said, ‘Technique without a purpose is simple sign of having fallen slave to the tools at hand.’

In the following article, I seek to examine not the technique, for that is obvious, (and perhaps a lowly aim for a self-proclaimed cineaste or cinephile like myself), but the subtexts or the themes recurrent within the film. Simply put, I will devote my energies not to how the script is written, but what it achieves. Whether the film intended the achievement or not, is ofcourse open to the luxury of subjective thought.

The film is essentially about the encroachment of the space of a ‘lesser’ element by a hypocritical, confused, and all-effacing ‘stronger’ element. Mind you, these elements are not necessarily societal classes only. Without making an attempt to clearly define an aesthetic, or commenting on it, I’d use the space given to me to identify a keen and recurring element in the film – that of space, its occupation, and their collective usage to construct a comment on the social employer-employee relationship, and also the concerns of the ‘laborer’ in the Indian context. However, the films also has a social, and a political underlying, for example:

The Kathal, Santu babu climbs the tree to bring it down, but is then he supposed to accept that it is; infact, a product meant for the Bade Sarkaar in the bungalow. It’s an ironical take on how the lower-class works hard, but the upper-class then reaps the fruit (quite literally).

Also, albeit more tragic incident within the film, is the death of the peon, Memho. One dialogue - "Koi aur Memho dhund lo” (Find some other Memho), makes clear his position as a replaceable and irrelevant element in the larger scheme of things. Ofcourse, the next day, 'Koi aur'(Some other) Memho comes as well

Once you watch the film, you will notice how much of it is about 'closed' structures being invaded or encroached upon, as an act which is representative of say, the encroachment of a person's dignity, privacy or private life. There can be three instances of such, found in the film-:

a) The House - The opening voiceover, "Ghar bahaar jaane ke liye nahin hota, Ghar hota hai laut ke aane ke liye” (The home is not meant for a person to be able to go out, its meant for him to be able to come back.) . One can see how the main character explains his fascination with the house as being the only place where he feels his dignity and self-respect that are not constantly challenged(like in the office), and where he can feel assured and safe. Now, when the roof of the house is damaged, and water 'enters' the house, it is encroachment. Encroachment of his private place, indirectly by his landlord, the doctor. Ironically, on who, he relies to get the house repaired. Here, it’s clearly the first of two class clashes. The upper-class doctor encroaches into the private sacred place of the lower-class clerk.

b) The Wife's trunk - She keeps it closed. The trunk is clearly the symbol of her personal space in the relationship. It’s a very strong feminine touch to the film: A married woman who chooses to guard her personal belongings (thus her 'space') from her husband. On the contrary, her husband (the stronger element) coaxes her to open the trunk. We can view this encroachment in a negative sense; but, it can also be seen, as a manifestation of her undying love for her husband, and her representation of trust in the relationship wherein she gives more importance to the preservation of her relationship with her husband, than to the sanctimony of her personal space.

c) The Shirt, or the Kameez - It’s a hilarious, satirical and rather ironical look on the employer-employee relationship. The employer decides the criterion, represented by the 'shirt', the third closed structure or enclosure in the film. Whoever fits the shirt gets the job. It’s the upper class fancy. Poor Santu Babu, inadvertently, and against his better wishes, becomes the object of this fancy, and in a strong paradox, encroaches upon a space, without his willingness to, and thus, the encroachment becomes the compulsion of the weaker, rather than the imposition of the stronger, as in the other two cases.

The entire film can thus be viewed as two individuals, the husband and the wife, being constantly subject to an 'authority' figure that they hardly wish for - the mother at the beginning, and the doctor who keeps asking the wife to do small tasks for her, the Bade Babu at the office, the main boss. In the end, however, its a rather solemn and peaceful end, as their child's on the way, they make a rather modest and silent pledge to preserve their self-respect and dignity, when Santu decides to not go to the bungalow the next day, and the wife shuns away the prospect of a visit to the doctor. It’s their peaceful and dignified rejection of authority. It’s their final quiet statement to preserve their own dignity.

Monday, October 13, 2008

KK Mahajan- an unfinished potrait.

What VK Murthy was to Guru Dutt, Subarta Mitra to Satyajit Ray, Mankand Ravi Verma to Adoor Gopalakrishan, KK Mahajhan was to the Indian New Wave. There never was, and there never will be an iconoclast like him again in Indian Cinema. He smoked, he drank, he laughed, he joked, and he ‘created’ images out of thin air; breaking barriers of light, texture, shadow to form an everlasting bonding. To watch the camera sway and form distinct patterns in Kumar Shahani documentary ‘ The Bamboo Flute’ one cannot help, but think, and think deeply, not only regarding the layers of meaning woven in Shah ani's mise-en-scene, but the dense layers of textures and colors of green, reds and blue forming the basic substance and creating the organic growth in the film. When I asked Kumar Shahani regarding his collaboration with KK Mahajan, he simply smiled, and the smile meant more than any words could have expressed. After all, they had shared a bond from their years at FTII, Pune to their final short video film on the painter Akbar Padamese exhibition. Alok Upadhyay (FTII batch of 1984) recalls his experience on the sets of Kumar Shahani:

In the years that I worked with Mahajan Saab, the films that we did for Kumar Shahani and Mrinal Sen were most rewarding. The style of work on these productions was such that it reflected the trust that these directors had in Mahajan Saab, and this sort of trust he passed on to those working with him.

I remember soon after joining Mahajan Saab, we were shooting with Kumar Shahani near Delhi and the whole day went by without a word being spoken between them. Strange as it may sound (or the lack of sound), work went on fine, and I thought to myself,"Is this any way to work?" I now look back on those days and understand that this sort of trust between a director and cinematographer is unique and today probably a rarity if not an extinct species.

His cinematography epitomized the color and vibrancy of the films of the 60s and 70s in Indian Cinema. KK Mahajan walked hand in hand with the likes of Mirnal Sen, Kumar Shahini, Basu Chatterjee, Mani Kaul, Subhash Ghai, and several mainstream directors to create a world of his own. Even when not working with the directors of the ‘New Wave’ his mark and sensibilities could be felt in the commercial works he had done. It was his attitude, courage and zeal to come in direct confrontation with nature to create enduring images that prompted Mirnal Sen to ask him to shoot Bhvan Shome. It is this very zeal and courage Mirnal Sen wrote about in his article for the NFDC:

That was the time when I had accidentally run into a minor work by K.K. Mahajan—a diploma film of the Institute directed by his batch-mate Kumar Shahani, and photographed by K.K. I saw the class-room exercise and loved it immediately. I loved it for a different reason…for venturing to shoot in adverse conditions. Two years later, in 1968, I got a loan from the then Film Finance Corporation, and happily there were no strings attached. I formed a team, almost all having very little or nothing of “commercial” content and having an abundant measure of verve and courage.

I asked K.K. if he would do the photography as a sort of love’s labour, so to say. K.K. readily agreed and perhaps beamed inwardly. That was the beginning of a journey, a long one, which perhaps in just two cases, that too under unforeseen circumstances, never broke. K.K. and I, we worked together, starting from BHUVAN SHOME and continued unabated, once a year, in various places, various languages, and interestingly, in diverse situations. In the process, I learnt a lot and so, I believe, did he and we have been growing together steadily, happily, clumsily. True, we had initial problems to understand each other but neither he nor I took unreasonable time to get to know ourselves and then coming out of one film and walking into another, year after year, we became, as was expected, almost one inseparable entity.

KK, as he was fondly called, won four National Awards, and was later bestowed with more during his lifetime; but for him, it was his work with the directors of the ‘ New Wave’ that he most cherished, whereupon, there was an excitement and chance of discovering possibilities beyond the fixated and formula of Bollywood. Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti would not have the same effect, if it was not for the exploration of the ‘ wide’ and ‘ telephoto’ lens to heighten and widen the psychological perception of the characters in the space, and even, allow the feeling of ‘ waiting’ and ‘ emptiness’ seep beyond the parameters of filmic space and time. It is his cinematography which gave the image its required tension, just as it brought in the visceral yet a calm imagery to Bhuvan Shome. KK Mahajan went on the shot more than 18 features of Mirnal Sen, and hence, gave as basic unity in terms of colors, lighting and technique to his films. So if one looks closely, one can identify with the lighting pattern and a certain visual flow in his works for Mirnal Sen,especially in the lighting for all his Black&White films, since Mirnal Sen movies has this uncanny ability to infuse a certain Marxist idiom and lingo that made his movies flow like a docu-drama, and it's with the help of Mahajan's minute ability to mould those characters and settings into a very realistic space that allowed most of his films to seem raw, crude, yet poetic.So,whether it was Bhuvan Shome in Gujarat or Interview in Calcutta, Mahjan brought out the energy of the space, and captured the tension needed to be conveyed between the character and surrounding and reflected to us.

But the greatness of KK Mahajan simply does not stop here. He went on the shot all of Kumar Shahani films, and documentaries with Shyam Benegal, BD Garga and others. Each time he worked with a new director he made sure it was the impression of the director that he helped ‘mould’ and bring the image into vision. Today one feels handicapped and helpless when watching a Bollywood film shot on ‘Cinemascope’ because the space that the lens allows a director or cinematographer to work together to fill and use is simply wasted. Looking back, at the cinematography of VK Murthy, in Kagez ke Phool and KK Mahajan for Kumar Shahini’s Tarang the power and degree of mise-en-scene of the directors achieve its desired status simply because these two great cinematographers of Indian Cinema helped them in guiding the refraction and reflection into images that is projected. 24fps. In the case of Guru Dutt it allowed him to explore his social romanticism further, and Shahani the breakdown of the social-class he set out to portray. KK Mahajan and Kumar Shahani had been working together from Shahani's Diploma film ' The Glass Pane' down to his very last work. The traditional and folks roots of Shahini mise-en-scene and his inclusion of the epic form into his cinematic vision, only achieved its degrees of austerity because of the photography of KK Mahajan. His photography brought forth the lush colors and energy expressed through Shahani's representation of the folk art, panting and music, and it gave him the freedom to create a synesthetic image to arouse question and motifs, while creating a dense textured and layered work.

The gift in KK Mahajan cinematic excellence lay in his ability to bring out results from the needed resources he had, because most of the films he ever worked had a shoestring budget, and equipments which simply functioned. Nothing hi-tech. Unlike the class of equipment a production boosts of today and it’s supernatural DI effects flowing with their superhuman editing jargons. But such images and sounds have lost any form of meaning or bonding. It simply exist in vacuum. To 'retell' the same story again and again. But there still is an everlasting freshness in the film shot under the guidance of KK Mahajan, whether it is a documentary, short films or features- commercial or art. The prints may have scratches, become dark, even lost its sharpness. Yet, the movies he shot still brings in something ‘ new’ to behold and, to 'witness,' something that our naked eye and perception cannot capture and see everyday. It’s this ability of great cinematographers that have allowed the images in films to withstand the taste of time. His contribution to the growth of Indian Cinema cannot be forgotten, he worked towards sharpening the lines, infusing the color and creating a canvas unique for every director he worked with. He broke down each image, and created a flux to reclaim the honor of moving back to zero to create unique properties for each film he worked. Today, in the age of HI-tech equipments, new DI effects, and the bombarded of images through photos, television and cinema one is lost in determining the truth from fiction, because the image has lost its innocence, and cinema its ability to evoke truth.

pic-1 KK Mahajan
pic-2 Mirnal Sen and KK Mahajan
pic -3 Kasba(still)1990, Kumar Shahani/ KK Mahjan