Saturday, January 31, 2009

Cinema in this Nation:Stuck, Not By Chance

Debojit Ghatak

(The film is as confused)

Clearly, Zoya Akhtar only illustrates written text. Her ‘cinema’, if you can call it that, is about pointing-and-shooting written text. The only time her camera becomes dynamic is when she assumes her shot features a subtle sensitivity, such as when Vikram (her male lead), and Sona (her female lead), sleep on the sofa, wrapped around each other. Then, her camera dollies back slowly. And that is that. The camera, for the rest of the film, is only just switched on, as actors speak their lines.

Though the above is nothing to be proud of, it is not something that should shatter the earth in terms of a director’s introspection of his or her work. Many directors point-and-shoot and it’s the basic denial of cinema’s basic function though one cannot deny the power of a narrative. A great script can be shot. It is normal. And this does imply that any judgement of Akhatr’s cinema should be performed in context of her narrative and not her visual capacity.

The topic of her debut feature, ‘Luck By Chance’, is the film industry. And that is the most easily discernible part of what it is about. When a film so heavily relies on the power of a script, so completely denying the camera any other capability, it is imperative that it does not suffer from flaws abundant. The script of ‘Luck by Chance’ does.

I will not question the film based on its logical incongruities, of which there are many, a film named ‘Dil Ki Aag’ being a blockbuster, for instance. But that be forgiven, for it is just another evidence to show that the director wishes to make fun of the industry tradition of embracing tacky titles.

I will, instead, question it based on its narrative flaws:-

a) The film begins with a producer promising a starlet a role. Credits roll over a shot-dissolve-shot montage of various facets of a film studio. And you are made to believe that it is kind of a tongue-in-cheek celebration or a self-conscious parody of how the industry works. This is how the first half until the intermission works. Fine, it is an earnest, if not original idea. Done before at the least, four times in the last 12 years, in films as diverse as Rangeela, Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hu, Om Shanti Om, Superstar.

In that intention, the film serves filmic stereotypes with such aplomb that you almost take it seriously. Almost. Most of the characters are these filmic(or this film type) stocks– the wily producer, the female lead’s finicky mother, the struggling starlet to provide an outsider perspective, the second wily producer, the plagiarist institute writer and a world of lies, deceit, and such, and such. One may argue, in that scenario, that the stereotype is repeated because that is how things exist in reality. Good point, but then what new did you do?

b) The incomplete or mostly abandoned strands/tracks in her film or her script are numerous. You see a searing sense of jealousy developing between Abhimanyu when he sees Vikram’s success. You never see it again. You see an old, ditched-by-his-star producer complain of having to chase young actors to make a film. You allow your mind to entertain the possibility of a redemption sub-plot. Of the film with Vikram being his redemption. You never see it again. You see a possible discussion of a conflict between art and commerce, between theatre and films. You never see that again, as well. Akhtar obviously believed that she could make each character psychologically rich, but she was busier ‘trying’ to achieve point a) and then, point c).

c) Point a) fails the film, but what it replaces in terms of screen time is an even more crucial loss. Since the second half hinges so hugely on the relationship between Vikram and Sona, and how one becomes a star, while the other rues her luck, and that you are made to believe that it is essentially about the relationship between the both of them, between the one who waits for destiny to intervene and the one who intervenes himself; it gives woefully little importance to developing any sort of relationship between the two in the first half.

The first half is as aforementioned, a study of a group of quirky characters in a quirkier film industry. Then in the second, two of them suddenly jump up and say, it is about us. So the ensemble becomes about two, abruptly, of course.

One may still argue that one should assume that the film was always going to be about Farhan Akhtar and Konkona. Well, I didn’t think it has to be like that. The film seemed almost as if Zoya Akhtar felt it compulsory to make a second half, even if it has absolutely no connection with the first. She should thus have focused more on the two characters inside her film universe in the first half, rather than the film universe, which also includes two characters inside it.

d) Akhtar’s screenplay/film is not a complete film by itself. The clear incoherence between its macro components, i.e the first and the second half or the first, second and third acts has already been talked about. But even in terms of its microstructure, each scene is like a standalone, an isolated construction completely free from the obligation to be followed by a coherent scene, or from following a preceding one. It is a collection of incoherent scenes. And not good in a radical sense, but it travels in vignettes. They just follow a structure like, First scene – One quirky film industry comic character, Second Scene – Second quirky industry comic character(istic) And so on. This is how the first half mainly works.

e) In the second half, the film attains coherence, and there is a kind of a notion of a story. Yes, cinema is not to tell stories. But that fancy quote places huge consequential emphasis on the evolution of cinematic form. This film does not care for it too much, so I as a viewer have to burden it with the responsibility of telling me a story, in the absence of any better aim that it is trying to achieve. Suddenly, Zoya decides to make the film about her female character.

About how she has suffered, the lessons she has learnt, the problems she has had to face, to attain a sense of happiness. Such convoluted reduction of the male character into a selfish, manipulative, self-centered, calculating only in order to achieve an ending which she clearly had in mind before she wrote other sequences is a superfluous device. Yes, there were hints of a go-getter in Vikram in the first half as well, but he always seemed so earnest. If there was a struggle, it was a collective struggle of the two to survive in the industry. It was them together, not against one-another. And even if it had to be that, a gradual progression would have been better.

Zoya Akhtar’s debut isn’t any better than Farah Khan’s sophomore effort. As a matter of fact it’s worse, because while Khan has no qualms about admitting to her sheer lack of any filmmaking effort and is comfortable replacing it with spectacle and ostentatiousness.

She remains confused between inducing her subtlety which she clearly borrows from her brother’s debut, in that all conversations are shot with a slow piano keys score, and a lot of silence, it is a style that is not natural to her, and she messes it up. To her, breaking into the most ill-placed song in the form of ‘Bhawre bhawre’ comes naturally, so she should stick to it. The only problem is, there are way too many filmmakers like that already.

She has a keen sense of colour, and does borrow a few traits from American Indie comedies about dysfunctional families – frontal angles, patterns on the walls, the quirk, an edginess to the whole affair. There is also a fantastic scene when the stereotypical star breaks and makes faces for street children – but I am afraid that apart from these features, the film should only be remembered for its abuse of the montage, of which there are far too many, and for proving that one of the most exciting and intelligent young directors in the country is one of the most boring and underwhelming actors to grace the screen. He is not even an actor. He is basically just speaking. As Nand Kishore tells him, “You underplay too much.”

Also, I am sure Akhtar just has to be aware of the possibilities of clever analogies that a scene in her film can help critics like me to draw. So I will jump at it. In one of the scenes, as a play is being performed, the audience looks at each other, bored, disinterested. It was eerie how that reflected the state of the audience in the theatre I watched the film in.


As an endnote, I want to speak about how all directors in the world shoot the ‘audition scene’, i.e a scene which features candidates auditioning for a play, a film, a marriage(in rare Miike perverseness). All of them use the same technique, which is basically, shooting a candidate appearing from a frontal angle, and then jump cutting to the next candidate, then next, then next. Accompanying this series of frontal shots and jump cuts are offscreen reactions of the producers, or auditioneers, mostly to the tune of them shouting, “Next”. This series continues, until, alas, we reach the candidate to be selected. He/she is given full screen time to perform or atleast a semblance of it. Can the by-now redundant method be overhauled?


Anurag Kashyap’s claim of it being the best debut by a filmmaker in Hindi cinema in the last ten years is so ridiculous that you just are compelled to associate it with his presence in the film. There is absolutely no other reason why he would have placed this film over gems like Ab Tak Chappan, Ek Haseena Thi, Khosla ka Ghosla, Shool, Dil Chahta Hai, Matrubhoomi and lesser ones like Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon, Kal Ho Na Ho, My Wife’s Murder. No damn reason.

Ghatak, is a traveller, whose primary interests lie in the study of Zionism, Issei Sagawa, and the designs of Werner Von Braun. He has travelled world over with his autobiography, Debojit : The Autobiography, a bibliographic experience he is sure can change the entire world of the reader. He also watches films sometimes, and like Herzog, believes that cinema comes not from the brain, but from the thighs.


Epilog08- International Rountable on the world of cinema


Cinephile Meeting
Film Journal and more- the site was delayed due to some technical problems launched dates coming soon.

Monday, January 26, 2009

International Roundtable on the world of cinema 2008

The roundtable I had participated is online at THE AUTEURS. Here is the opening address:

Epilogue '08 is the final chapter of the year 2008. An online roundtable looking back one last time on the past year in films, after 2008 came to a close and every year-end poll and commentary has been published. We have gathered here a panel of passionate film critics from around the world to feel the pulse of the cinephile life as it unfolded in half a dozen capital cities where cinema is lively and brewing. We get a chance to take a look at the global village of cinephilia, more than ever bound together by the communitarian feelings of the blogosphere and the communication between foreign film cultures, through films and also the international exchange allowed by film discourse in the English language.

We decided to propose this interactive event to the readers of The Notebook, with the generous help of Daniel Kasman, because The Auteurs is a website representing the evolving face of online cinephilia, opened to the international market and dedicated to provide serious knowledge and quality taste to online audiences. The roundtable conversations will be published two-a-day beginning Monday, January 26. Please join our debate with your reactions, questions and comments.

—HarryTuttle, Andrew Grant, Daniel Kasman


Andrew Grant, New York City, New York, USA.
President of Benten Films, the first US DVD label run by film critics. Owner of the blog Like Anna Karina's Sweater. Freelance film critic whose writing has appeared in Premiere, Cineaste, Asian Cult Cinema and online at GreenCine, The Reeler and The Auteurs.

HarryTuttle, 34, Paris, France.
French cinephile, non-professional film blogger, author of the blog Screenville, founder of Unspoken Cinema, co-editor with Edwin Mak of its online journal, Unspoken, and contributor to The Auteurs. My Top 10 of 2008 (at The Auteurs).

Kevin B. Lee, New York City, New York, USA.
Kevin B. Lee, VP of Programming and Education for dGenerate Films, a distribution company specializing in Chinese independent cinema. Owner of blog Shooting Down Pictures. Producer of dozens of film criticism videos for Shooting Down Pictures, The Museum of the Moving Image and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Currently co-writing feature film set to shoot in 2008.

Edwin Mak, London, UK.
A freelance writer, media producer and post-grad student at SOAS (Uni. of London) in Global Cinemas and the Transcultural, researching Chinese cinemas, art and critical theory. His writing appears in Senses of Cinema, Offscreen, Electric Sheep and The Auteurs; his blog is the farce that is Faster than instant noodles.

Currently he is working with Harry Tuttle on Unspoken, an open access journal version of Unspoken Cinema; the first issue focusing on Bela Tarr will be guest edited by Yvette Biro.
He still thinks that 'cinephile' sounds unwholesome.

Nitesh Rohit, 22, Non-professional cinephile, living in New Delhi, India.
A graduate of Mass-Communication and a scenario writer. Currently working with a group of cinephiles to start a web-zine Indian Auteur and a film society (Cine Darbar). In the past, written for publication like Rolling Stones, India, Amnesty India, Cinema without borders, Upperstall and more. Also worked as intern/asst. director/art assistant director on feature films (Bollywood, Regional, documentary) in India. He blogs at Winds from the East.

Alexis A. Tioseco, Quezon city, Manila, The Philippines.
Film critic, lecturer, and curator from the Philippines. Founding editor of Criticine, an online journal on Southeast Asian cinema whose contributor base is comprised of writers either from or specializing in the region. Maintains the blog Concentrated Nonsense, for thoughts and notes usually unpublished elsewhere. Attempting to write weekly of film for The Philippines Free Press since December 08. Enjoys reading good criticism. An advocate of translation.


Film Journal on Indian Cinema
Film Club
Cinephile Meeting


Those who wish to sign the manifesto could do so, the discussion on the same will be done when the site is launched

The launch of the site delayed for a week due to technical reasons. More details on the upcoming events will soon be up on the site.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


' ' The First step towards debunking the myth of a bright future'
Watch the space

Film Journal on Indian Cinema
Film Club
Cinephile Meeting


Thank you everyone, who have signed the manifesto, and those who like to sign please do so by clicking the link above.

Friday, January 16, 2009



  • Our cinema screen has become an ill-constructed, and conventional portal to a world we aspire of, rather than a mirror, which reflects us.
  • Our emotions are guided by leitmotifs placed deftly, and religious beliefs exploited.
  • Our spirit of inquiry has become dead and we have been reduced to mere receivers in the process.
  • Cinema and television has replaced interaction with imposition of thought. Its thought. An artificial, fake and ill-created thought, a manifestation of our needs to escape ourselves.
  • The medium has become a symbol of cheap entertainment, devoid of any examination of the form, and a victim of our collective need to create personalities, perfect alternate universes, and images of our aspiration.
  • Our criticism has become trivial. Stories take precedent over the intrinsic qualities of the cinematic medium.
  • Our film lovers are snobs, indulging in their wholehearted pseudo-intellectual diatribe, condemning the ignorant, and the ignorant have become so used to a cinema that’s meager that they are satiated with films from the West.
  • Our parallel offerings remain strictly entrenched in the tradition of the mainstream, and hence, are versions of the same, rather than its replacements

We reject a system that encourages the above, despite its realization, and seek:-

a) To incite discussion on the possibilities, limitations and viability of the application of the auteur theory as a critical prism.

b) To use criticism and our theories to both champion and strive for innovation and cutting edge in form, form and content.

c) To attempt a formulation of a pure love for cinema, a middle ground between the pseudo intellect of the snobs, and the ignorance of the unknowing, and attempt to mobilize their film loves to this new ground.

d) To attempt a critical theory that moves beyond the supply of the story and the statistical rating points.

e) To observe, notice, and champion upcoming films, filmmakers, and technicians, who remain obscured in the looming shadows of commerce and a faux parallel cinema.

f) To champion cinema that creates dissonance, repulsion, interpretation, confusion and discussion rather than loud claps, whistles and scrupulous satisfaction

g) To work towards a film love which adopts a middle ground, to reinstate the cinema director to his deserved position, to celebrate Indian cinema of the past and the present, to examine its potential, we propose ''The Delhi manifesto.”

- A Delhi Suburb, 1st Jan 2009


People who agree and think we are in need of a dire change.
In the way our cinema, our social realm functions, support us.

Leave a comment with your name/profession/country to add to the list and spread the word.

The vote of support is open to the world.


1) Supriya Suri
2) Satyam
3) Kshitiz Anand
4) Ronnie Sen
5) Anuj Malhotra
6) Ankit Choudhary
7) Indranil Kashyap
8) Srikanth Srinivasn
9) Nitesh Rohit
10) Deepak Kumar

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Approaches to Critiquing

Kshitiz Anand

I love to critique. Being in a field in which I am always surrounded by the different forms of art that have been created, there is always a scope for criticism. So photographs that I take are criticized, and so are the designs that I make and I do so the same for any movie I see. Now there is a difference between the art of critiquing and the art of reviewing. While reviews are targeted for the common, general audience who do not have a flair for work, critiques are often targeted at a very specific audience.

When we view an art / design we start with an impression of it. Over a time we start to develop an opinion about it. And these opinions over a period turn into judgments. These judgments are what we call critiques. Thus if we analyze, any judgment is therefore ultimately what is what the judge thinks about it. And these judgments are subjective. Thus criticism is a subjective act.
A critic is a judge of a piece of art, who gives his or her subjective judgments based on the opinions formulated after the impression of the artwork.

Now criticism has been prevalent in the society since a long time but it is only recently that I felt that there is a need for a sincere effort for an organization to send out an honest opinion without any bias. Often one confuses criticism with only negative feedback. The art of criticism is supposed to see the piece of art a consummation of efforts. So the good things, as well as the bad things should be highlighted in a critique. A good practice that I follow and propagate people to follow is to start by saying a positive thing about the cultural expression. This not only gets respect from the artist, but it is more likely that the negative criticism to follow later is better accepted.

I was surprised to see the reviews of some movies of late that, did pretty well at the box office, but unfortunately for me none of the reviews gave an impression of the movie they way I felt it. I personally did not like the movie, and expected the critique to reflect that. But this is perfectly understandable, as critiquing is so subjective. While I do understand that the ultimately the decision to watch a film lies within the cinegoer, that decision of late has been influenced by numerous things. It is thus very common to see people read on a bunch of websites about the movie, or wait for a week before deciding to watch the movie.

As a critic, the prime concern should be to give an honest opinion on the film on three different grounds. These are in terms of (a) its semantic value,(b) its entertainment value and (c) its emotional value (this again we are looking at commercial films and not necessarily educational values in films, where the educational value can also be sincerely looked into). From the very onset one has to understand that the critiques are for people. We as people have emotions and our lives are affected to a certain extent by the content of the movie. It affects the way we talk, the dresses we wear, the songs we hum and the places we seek to visit.

And but naturally, not all critics would focus on all of these aspects while doing the critiques. Here I present a parallel understanding of two of my favorite mediums namely photography and film and how the different ways each can be critiqued.

Any cultural expression like the film, paintings, photography, which involves the study of visual elements, can be understood at different levels. All these above said mediums involve the working of the eye and the brain in a way that is not present in other mediums like literature. From an ontological perspective, these things are the same to all unless a meaning is made individually.

The way the light enters the eye when making the impression of the artifact might be the same for most individuals, but the way it is interpreted in the brains of individuals differ. Hence the notion of the subjectivity comes in. Also, there is not only a denotative meanings (what one sees) but also connotative meanings that are associated with the cultural expression. One can analyze the photographs using the semiotics of photography, identifying the signifiers, and what it means in the different cultural contexts.

Film theory and film criticism has been doing this for years and has established itself. A key figure in that is the French semiotician, Christian Metz, who in his book “Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema” outlines the semiotics of the film language in great detail [2]. Film critic like Kickasola in his book “Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski” has tried to give close readings of the works of noted filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski [3].

When analyzing any cultural expression it is equally important to identify both the general and the particular evidences. The general allows one to get a better understanding of the artifact from a broader perspective- issues like the placement of the cultural expression within the context of the life-worlds and the horizons is looked into. Understanding the general evidences also helps in establishing the cultural context of the expression in time.

Photography and the cinema are discoveries that satisfy, once and for all and in its very essence, our obsession with realism. However, there are some differences in analyzing photographs and in the way the film critic does for a film. The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it. [1] The photographs are a representative of time and the events are not unfolding real time. The notion of the temporal framework and the sequence of events are absent.

The challenge becomes even more because more often than not, one has to understand what has happened in an event that has occurred at some time in the past. Andre Bazin in his essay titled “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” [1] talks about how with the advent of the photographic art, the artist was now in a position to create the illusion of three-dimensional space within which things appeared to exist as our eyes in reality. But since this had only solved the problem of the form and not the movement, there was stillroom for the fourth dimension to be brought it. This was fulfilled with the advent of the film, which encountered for the dimension of time. However there happened to be a discussion going around the aesthetics and the psychological. In other way, this was between true realism (which was being captured by the early photographers), the need that is to give significant expression to the world both concretely and in its essence, and the pseudorealism (which the paintings had sought out to do as well at a later stage) of a deception aimed at fooling the eye (or for that matter the mind); a pseudorealism content in other words with illusory appearances. Film allowed for this pseudorealism to play out to a large extent.

There are primarily two approaches that have become more popular when doing a critique. They are the structuralism approach that basically looks into the meaning of things in itself (its semantic value) and the phenomenological approach (Husserl (6), Heidegger (5) et al.), which looks into how the meaning is interpreted by the individual. The structuralism approach hence can be said to be a function of the signs, the signifiers and the general meaning, which is a result of a social construct. This social construct is constructed over a period of time across a wide group of people within a particular culture. The structuralism approach also calls for a high objective content and aims to find the meanings that are widely accepted by that larger group. The unit of analysis hence for this approach becomes the individual frames: its compositions, the elements and the different movements. On the other hand the phenomenological approach, which is a function of the individual and personal sense making and the individual’s experience. Phenomenology on the other hand seeks out for the more subjective understandings and the individual’s interpretations on the expression. In this approach, hence the unit of analysis becomes the individual experiences.

Having made the distinction, I must admit and mention that it is indeed very difficult to see either of these approaches existing independently. So when one starts analyzing the frames in terms of its content, one is obliged to look at the semantic value, but at the same time one is looking at the way the individual is experiencing it. It is difficult to state which comes first. Whether the experience is based on the semantic nature of the frame, or whether the semantic nature of the frame is decided based on how an individual interprets it.

In most of the movie reviews that one would read these days, the critique is mostly phenomenological. No one really goes to the extent of analyzing a film to an extent of using semantic theory to analyze films. (Unless of course you are a critic like Kickasola, who would go on to write books on just a set of movies)

Does anyone actually care to think what the audience is actually looking for? Are they just concerned with the film as a thing, or as an expression that has a certain entertainment value. Do I have an understanding of the audience that is going to read the critique and the review that one writes up? So for example, knowing that the audience that is visiting this site is conversant in the different terminologies in film theory, one can afford to use the language in such a way. But if one was looking at the critique on a portal that just has a small section devoted towards film reviews (read critiques), one cannot expect the audience to understand everything that is written.

Being a critic, for the general masses one has to use the vocabulary that a layman can understand easily, but still get an honest opinion about a movie. If you are a hardcore film critic, you may go to the extent of analyzing each and every frame, using things like the things like Christian Metz Grande Syntagmathique to analyze the list of frames, do a sequence analysis, and also the relation of the different shots and its metaphorical meaning. This should, however, be only done if you know that the audience is able to understand that language clearly.

There are other questions that one can ask. Some of them being; should the critiquing be done at the movie theater or in a confided space in my room or better still as a critique from the script? Well does it make a difference? Well of course it does! I know of many movies whose overall experience has changed if I saw it in the theaters as compared to seeing it on my laptop.

Another question that I ask myself day in and day out is, ‘Does the critique depend on the star casts and also on the reputation of the director?’ Why can’t a movie be appreciated on grounds of its film making essence and not based on whether it is of an actor or by a director. Well, unfortunately many of the movie reviews that I have seen lately are just this. They start with the actor, praise them or tease them and end with more things about the actors. The essence of filmmaking is not at all talked about. When was the last time you actually heard a so-called critic talk about the shot selection, or the shot compositions.

With more and more people relying on reviews and ratings before actually deciding to go to watch a movie, film criticism should be practiced to a larger extent. But what is important is that it is the duty of the film critic to strike a balance of putting down, in easy to understand language the different aspects of film that an audience can enjoy (emotional and entertainment value mostly). The influence of the Internet revolution has had a huge impact in the creation of the audience for such things. This is so different than a few years back. This has exposed the public to more forms of art (including foreign cinema) and as a consequence, accepting and acknowledging different forms of art. It is within a very short time that information is disseminated across boundaries today.

The advent of features like RSS feeds, the blogging micro blogging sites, has made information more readily available to the audience. The expanse of the Internet onto personal devices like the mobiles and other PDAs, have made information literally available at the fingertips in its truest sense. The success of online forums, the discussion groups has made interacting with another person not being limited to the presence in the physical sense.

It is hoped that with a sincere effort towards film criticism, that one can view the film fraternity to progress and the directors to get an understanding that there is a body out there who seeks to make a judgment on their piece of work based on the essence of medium of the film only.

Bazin A;Gray H; The Ontology of the Photographic Image, Film Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 4. (Summer, 1960), pp. 4-9.
Metz, C; Taylor M; Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema, University of Chicago Press, 1991
Kickasola J, Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski, Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., 2004
Heidegger M, A short Biography,
5. Husserl Edmund in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Apu Trilogy

Part 1





The Railway Motif.
Prof. Satish Bahadur

I use the term railways motif, rather than the limited term train motif. The railways include trains and also engines, wagons, bogies, railway stations, platforms, human details on platforms, and in passenger bogies... also technological artifacts like rail tracks, shunting yards, signals, bridges, embankments, telegraph lines running along the rail track, and (add on) landscape seen from running trains, (... keep on adding...) rumble of a train, whistle of an engine... smoke from an engine.

The railways are in the ambience of the Indian landscape and the Indian socialscape. Hence, they occur in the background of several scenes in the Apu Trilogy. The fiction of the Trilogy is essentially a design of developing human relations of the Apu story, and the railways recur with the palpable consistency of an integral element of the design. We need to trace this in the design of the Trilogy.

Running the railways is an activity related to the human needs. In composing a film scene, some aspect of the railways (in the background of the scene) can be brought into an expressive relationship with the feeling of the (foreground) drama of human requirements, human compulsions, human tensions, human expectations... (add to this list, to include the entire range of human character and inter-personal relationships...).

A quick preview of some situations which occur in the Apu Trilogy. A train can take a beloved person away from you. A train can also bring the beloved back to you.... A train can be an object of wonder for a child. For a growing mind, the train comes from there, and goes there: the train can stimulate the desire to know the world out there.... An oncoming train can be violent, even lethal, it can kill man or animal. An engine steamed up for a journey exudes brutish power.... A whistle is a sharp reminder, even a warning.... One could be lonely in a train compartment or a crowded platform, even though surrounded by many others... and so on.


The Apu Trilogy is the fiction of Apu from birth through childhood and adolescence to early youth when he marries and has a son of his own. The time period is identifiable. Pather Panchali begins in Nischindapur with Apu’s birth around 1910. Aparajito opens in 1920 with the Varanasi episodes which fix the years of Harihar’s death and Sarbojaya’s return to Mansapota. Apu is about 16, when he goes for college studies in Calcutta. The end of Aparajito when Sarbojaya dies should be about 1927. Apur Sansar opens sometime in 1930. The offscreen slogan: Inquilab Zindabad from a political procession on the street outside can be heard as the professor encourages Apu to take up writing seriously. Apu is about 21. At the end of Apur Sansar, when Apu returns for his son, Kajal is about five years old. The year could be around 1935.

Throughout the late 18th and 19th century, the British administration had introduced several devices of modernisation, designed mainly to tighten the hold on the socio-economic frame of Indian life: the railways, the post and telegraph, revenue collection through the zamindars, money economy replacing the commodity barter system which destroyed the traditional basis of the village self-sufficiency, growth of ports and trading cities; education in the English language and in modern science and technology... These new elements interacted with the traditional factors in shaping he evolution of the Indian personality during the first half of the 20th century. One not-designed effect of these measures was the heightened sense of national awareness in the Indian mind. (The Apu Trilogy has shades of most of these in its composition.)

Thus the fiction of Apu’s life (1910 to 1935) is placed against such a backdrop of social and cultural change in Bengal.

Here we try to relate one factor of change, the Railways with the fictional events of the Trilogy.
Notice some decisions of the scriptwriter in the overall macro-shape of the script. There are several major village/ city locations of the Apu story. Can we place these locations in relation to the railways in a meaningful manner?

Pather Panchali is confined to Nischindipur, a small village deep within the Bengal countryside. It is not on the railway line, but not too far away either. Bengal is the first conquest of the Raj, and it has been ensured that the railway network penetrates deep enough into the countryside. The railway line is about three miles or so away from Nischindipur, and the children can hear the sound of passing trains in the stillness of night. Apu and Durga promise that someday they will go to see the train.

One excited afternoon, they wander that far away from the village and see a train. Apu has his first close view of the train as the wheels thunder past the little boy clambering up the embankment. (To anticipate the script design, in Apur Sansar the grieving Apu just about escapes coming under the wheels of a train in a last-moment-circumvented suicide bid.)... After the first shock of the family disaster, when Harihar Roy settles down for the night, he cannot sleep, and the sound of the distant train whistle is heard on his wide awake face, and we know this is the precise point when he decides to leave the village. The last shots of Pather Panchali show the decimated family in a bullock cart trundling away from the abandoned home moving towards the (not-shown) railway which will take them away to Varanasi... (Anticipating Aparajito, the precise point of decision to return from Varanasi also will be signalled by a train whistle on Sarbojaya’s face.)

In Aparajito, we enter Varanasi in a train, rumbling past he massive girders of the railway bridge opening up the river front of the city. The British have provided a secure railway connection from the Bengal countryside to this ancient holy city and for the last lap they also made this bridge across the wide Ganga. Harihar’s family must have come along this rout: they will also return the same way. Some months after Harihar’s death we leave Varanasi on a train going out past the same massive girders of the bridge, closing out the view of the river front of the city. The train is carrying back the further decimated family, Sarbojaya and Apu, past the tile-roofed villages on the other side of the Ganga, speeding through the hilly nightscape in south Bihar into the next-morning-verdure of the Bengal countryside.

The mother and son are now in the village Mansapota in Bhabataran’s house. In the text few years, Apu will grow up and grow away from the mother. He will go away to Calcutta on the train. The scriptwriter’s question is... how to place Bhabataran’s house in relation to the railway. We locate the house with a back door, from where one can see beyond the fields, the rail track. For Apu’s growing mind the train is a constant beckoning of the world out there. This visual location of the house can be used in a deeply moving situation. A very ill Sarbojaya can totter in the evening dust to see the train from Calcutta, which may (or may not!!) bring the son to the dying mother.

In Aparajito, the rail entry into Calcutta is markedly different from the entry into Varanasi. The train carrying the older Apu for studies changes several tracks snaking along the wide railway station yard before entering the platform at Sealdah.

The unplanned growth of Calcutta had created railway sidings leading to factories, and for shunting, and handling of coal and bulk commercial products. Along these railway sidings grew slums and cheap tenement buildings. For Apur Sansar, the scriptwriter decides that Apu’s rented room will be on the top of a three storied building in a slum next to a railway siding. This is just about the lodging which the unemployed Apu can afford. The railway siding provides several interesting possibilities involving Apu. Apu will walk with Pulu one might along the railway track, excitedly recounting his autobiographical novel. The scene ends with Apu’s confused protest at his lack of actual experience of romantic love with a woman.... (Months have passed, Apu had married and had wonderful conjugal experience with Aparna... Continuing, as if, from that night scene, Apu walks along the railway track again, deeply absorbed in (the absent and the pregnant) Aparna’s letter, which sensitises him to prevent a neighbour’s child from crawling too close to the railway track.

This scene, in continuation, leads upstairs to Apu receiving the violent blow of Aparna’s death, which triggers off his ineffectual violence of hitting the hapless bring-er of bad news, all played against the impersonal ugliness of the shunting yard below. From this point, the drama moves on to Apu’s breakdown. An engine whistle and train sounds over Apu’s grieving face trigger off the passing possibility of suicide under shunting train which is circumvented by the shriek of a run-over animal... Recall the earlier departure scene at Sealdah platform: the inevitability of the guard’s whistle and the engine whistle on the faces of both, Aparna and Apu, as they attempt to make the most of the moments on the-already-moving train, carrying Aparna away from Apu... And earlier, the first morning of this family. The shrill engine whistle which had annoyed Aparna when she was struggling with the smoky coal sigri for cooking their first meal.

... Recalling Aparajito, the departure from Varanasi is, as if, triggered of by an engine whistle. Sarbojaya, now widowed, has been serving temporarily in the Varanasi household of a zamindar. She has just now been offered a permanent job in the Dewanpur establishment of the zamindar. Coming down the stairs, she sees Apu, down there, blowing at the tobacco chillium for the master’s hookah.... Apu’s future (?) as a household servant!! This is the precise instant of decision for Sarbajaya. The shrill railway whistle comes right on Sarbojaya’s face coming down the stairs, a swish pan away from her, and they are already leaving Varanasi on the train rumbling past the massive girders of the bridge closing out of riverside view of the city.

Likewise, one could take up a detailed analysis of the composition of all the scenes in the Trilogy where the Railways occur in some aspect, and show how the feeling-tone of the foreground human drama is appropriately expressed in the feeling-tone of the railway details.


The train is a vehicle, a mode of transportation in the Apu story. In the Trilogy we have numerous events happening at several locations in villages and towns. Logically it follows that a range of other modes of transportation would also consciously be brought into other scenes. This, indeed, is the case. And the formal symmetries in the script design are striking.

(In theory terms, if the train is a motif, the other vehicles oftransportaion are variations of the motif. In Metzian terminology, train and other means of transportation would form a paradigmatic relationship.... The richness of a design is due to the coexistence of a motif with its variations.... Recall the school-science example of the sound of a tuning fork of frequency N, or a vibrating sitar string. The richness of the sitar string sound is due to the main vibration at frequency N, and the simultaneous vibrations at the harmonics of N, like frequencies N/2, N/4, N/8, N/16, N/32... and so on... If N is the tone, N/2, N/4, N/8... are overtones.)

The trilogy is observing the changing life styles of the people in this fiction. The train is a vehicle. Wherever it is possible other vehicles have been brought into the film composition, indicating the rich diversity of transport vehicles at the different levels in this changing society. Let us see how

At the end of Pather Panchali, a bullock cart carries Harihar’s family away from Nischindipur towards the train to Varanasi. In Aparajito, when the decimated family returns from Varanasi to Mansapota, the bullock cart is used again in the last lap from the railway station to the village house. We had seen boats on the huge Ganga river front at Varanasi. A tiny boat being poled on a tiny water channel in Mansapota as the family returns from Varanasi. A horse drawn phaeton brings the Inspector to Apu’s school at Arboal. The street in Calcutta has a motor car coexisting with hand carts. Boats of all kinds float on the Hooghly, even big smoky steamers triggering off thoughts of going abroad.

The romantic Apur Sansar journey to Aparna is in a large sail boat, appropriately suffused with poetry recitation. The bridal chamber in Aparna’s house overlooks the river and the distant boatman’s songs... The (to-be-rejected) epileptic bridegroom arrives in a traditional palanquin, along with the English style band playing "He is a jolly good fellow"... In Calcutta, Apu brings the bride in style in an expensive horse drawn carriage to his room in a slum adjoining the rail shunting yard. Aparna’s bedroom in Calcutta has the constant presence of railway shunting noises all the time, day or night. Returning form cinema, the privacy of a closed horse drawn carriage provides Apu and Aparna the space to dream of the soon-to-arrive-Kajal... Five years later, when the repentant Apu faces for the first time the-long-arrived-Kajal, the preferred gift from father to son will be a toy railway engine. At the end of the Trilogy, when father-and-son move towards a possible new future, the toy engine is forgotten, abandoned in the hands of the old grandfather.

And so on and so forth...


A train is a train is a train, a whistle is a whistle (is a whistle)... In the film medium, everything is what it is and not another thing. The main quality of the film image is its verisimilitude: the image looks exactly like the thing which is imaged. The running boy on the screen looks like a running boy, a passing train on the screen looks like a passing train.

If we pose a question seeking a one to one relationship of the kind: What do the Railways symbolise in the Apu Trilogy?), and expect a smart one-line answer, we have made the initial mistake of posing a wrong question... and we should never expect a correct answer to a wrongly posed question. It is important to realise that the fiction of the Trilogy traces a complex design of changes in traditional lifestyles and character traits under the impact of modernisation of a (definite) cultural segment of society during a (definite) historical period of 20th century India. Hence, the significance of a single element like the railway motif can be understood only by exploring the details through which the numerous aspects of the railways are integrated in the growth of the human design of the Apu Trilogy.

We have attempted a first level exercise of this kind in these notes.

Rounding off, one may not that a symbol is something which stands for something else. Theatre is a symbolic medium, so is Dance. Hand mudra gestures in dance stand for a range of meanings. Verbal language is, in this sense, a symbolic system. The sounds produced by a speaker stand for the meaning of what is spoken. The black markings of paper which you are calling "reading" stand for the idea which is triggered off in you by this sentence.

Also, in actual cultural life around us symbols work effectively. A cross stands for the presence of Christianity. A building with a cross may indicate a church or Christian dwelling. A cross on a garment or a neck would indicate that the wearer is a Christian. A film will photograph these symbolic devices realistically. And symbols can be used effectively for identifying traits of the characters in a film plot in many subtle ways. Pather Panchali opens with Sejobou on the roof shouting the little child away from the guava orchard below. Shejobou is dressed like a married woman. Between this day and the next time we see her, sometime Shejobou’s husband died.

This death is not shown in the film, but is symbolically reported to us when Shejobou accuses Durga of the theft of glass bead necklace: she is in (a Bengali) widow’s white weeds. The Aparajito headmaster, Paresh Babu, in a very Bengali dhoti and buttoned-up coat, also identifies himself as a Christian; he has a tiny cross on his pocket watch chain. (The missionary had also come to Bengal along with the British Raj...). In fact, when the Inspector of schools is visibly moved by Apu’s recitation of the patriotic poem, Paresh Babu is quietly touching the cross in prayer. For the headmaster it is a happy moment. The performance of a student is being approved by a government official!!

Satish Bahadur, one of the leading film scholars of India, the essay was originally published in 1998 and republished on Arup/Asim Ghosh now dead e-zine in 2003. I have later added the pictures for this part of the essay.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Issue of Norm: Slumdog and Ghajini

Anuj Malhotra


From IBN TV18 Film host/reviewer Rajeev Masand’s recent review of Ghajini, a certain line is very interesting, carries great repercussions and yet, is present in such a casual, off-hand manner that it not only discards the gravity of the issue, but makes it seem that the writer has come to terms with it. The line goes-

“Ghajini is a film which is dumb and celebrates its dumbness”

The recent success of Ghajini, all commercial ofcourse, reveals a few collective national tendencies. We as a nation prefer restaurants with waiters instead of the ones which demand of us to self-serve. We love escalator and elevators. The concept of ‘home delivery’, though invented by some shrewd commercial mind in the Western hemisphere, eventually had us as its target. We also are a nation who stand in front of an artificial Taj Mahal background, and get our family portraits clicked. We do not go visit Agra.

Basically, assuming the reader is one of us, the above paragraph implies, that we are a lazy, indolent, sluggish, and slothful group of people. In the communication chain, we believe the transfer is only from one end to another. We are glad being the another.

Language- Hindi

The film is a romantic action thriller(starring superstar Aamir Khan) that explores the life of a rich businessman who suffers from anterograde amnesia following a violent encounter. With the aid of Polaroid Instant camera images and permanent tattoos on his torso, the businessman tries to avenge the murder of his vivacious model girlfriend, Kalpana, who was killed shortly before he was also attacked leading to his diagnosis of amnesia.the irony is that kalpana does not know that sachin is sanjay himself. The film is said to have been 'inspired' by the 2000 Hollywood movie Memento directed by Christopher Nolan.



The problem is hardly that each film review advises me to leave my brains behind in order to enjoy a film.

Such celebration at the dismissal of our cerebral capacity, howsoever misfortunate, is still acceptable, since it basically is attempting a substitution of thought by entertainment of puzzle-pieces by jokers-in-the-box: simple, normal, fast, warm, cozy, comfortable, escapist entertainment.

The problem is also not with the liberties with logic that most of these films undertake. Cinema, or a particular film, is not subject to the application of an external, ‘real’, logic, and often needs to be judged by its internal logic. If the filmmaker can convince us, we are convinced of action if a galaxy far, far away. No, those are not my problems.

The problem is, the sad equation of each and every film with a nymphet show, by the roadside, where one seeks empty, gratuitous, superficial ‘entertainment’, and is happy not using any brain. The problem is with the creation of this comfortable atmosphere where each viewer is allowed to revel in his or her state of ignorance, while giving them a false sense of assurance that ‘it’s just a movie’. Where dumbness is not only allowed to survive but it is celebrated, and the lack of pretense is equated with an achievement.

If a person struts around displaying his vices proudly, they do not become virtues. A film can be a healthy family entertainer, but it does not have to reduce itself to an evening party- where people come, have their fun and leave. While ‘paisa vasool’(money worth entertainment) is an understandable and, even, honorable intention, it should not imply a maker’s desperation to earn and serve, rather it should encourage the discovery of new methods by which to engage and even disturb the viewer and giving them their money worth entertainment.


The film opens. The doctor tells the student who plays the student that the patient has a disease. Listen carefully to how the doctor tells the student. He is infact, not telling her. He is telling us. He does not merely pass over; he ensures that there is eventually no doubt. He bludgeons out each minute bit of ambiguity; beats it to death, puts the remains in an incarcerator as to the nature of the disease. In the movie Philadelphia, the Washington lawyers said, “Now explain to me how you would explain it to a 6 year old.” In the cinemas we are the 6 year olds. The doctor says, “Pata nahin ab woh kya kar raha hoga”,’ (I wonder what he will be doing now) what means the scene will now cut to ‘Ab woh jo bhi kar raha hoga’ (Whatever he is doing now)

In one of the following scenes, we enter the dark, hellishly and rather blue-green aqua lit room of the ‘patient’. The leitmotif appears- Notoriety. It’s a musical cue to the audience. Now we know what and how we have to feel. The camera passes, with unnatural jerks, accompanied by hammer sound effects, uneasy dissolves guaranteed to put your brain into a tizzy, over the ‘detailing’ – a map which means nothing, a few areas circled which mean more nothing, a red diary hanging precariously by a pin, and music plays. We have to be serious now.

The director ensures you notice all his detail work – all the massive research he has employed – by going all the way to the market and buying a DVD, which is besides the point. But he wants you to notice. The patient enters the bathroom. The camera makes an unnaturally fast zoom into a sign by the sink which says, ‘Remove T-Shirt’.

Two issues-:

a) First, I am really hoping that a sudden gush of water does not soak the sign wet and remove it from its place, because we are expected to believe that without the sign, the character would have had a bath with his t-shirt on. I know that eventually, it is only to make him immediately remove his t-shirt and seethe with anger at all the tattoo-work beneath, but it amuses me immensely to think how it would not even let him have a bath now, since he would now have to go find the murderer before his 15 minutes are over.

b) Secondly, how brilliant and deft a touch it would have been had the director only placed the small sign in the background, and let the audience notice it. That would have been some vindication of the philosophy of cinematic realism, through an absence of cutting and through the long take. Besides being an apt reward for those who observe, and a punishment for those who do not.

But no…as I write this, I’m told that Ghaijini might be the first Hindi film to earn over 100 crore at the box-office. Yes, it does reveal few new trends.

On a prime-time television show, the director is asked about the logical incongruities within his work. He finds it amusing. He is thinking, “You think I care?” It is precisely this attitude that we are harboring, and while cinema might be an example of it, its eventually, only a microcosm of a larger societal reflection.

Ambiguity or a state of confusion, which is accompanied by a small hope of a solution, is an element so wholeheartedly amiss from our cinema, that there is no ambiguity to its dismissal. Our cinema feels the need to feed the audience- slowly, and gradually, letting them feel comfortable. If the audience were handicapped, there is a cinema which can help them face that reality and learn, best, to live with the disability. And then there is a cinema which exploits the handicap, explores it, almost insensitively. It allows the handicapped audience to settle down in their comfy chairs and serves them, instead of encouraging resolve to serve themselves, within them. Our cinema is the former, ofcourse. The only issue being – it not only harbors the handicap, it also has begun celebrating it.


When we settle in the theatre seats, we demand of our films to please us, through a happy –go-lucky projection of cheap, vulgar entertainers that provide with a healthy deal of superficial entertainment. Our cinema aims not at satisfying us, but at filling us.

When we go to a cheap restaurant by the roadside, and eat a lot, even despite the food being tasty because we are hungry; we do not like the food, but we stuff ourselves. The hunger is eliminated ofcourse, and we equate being filled with being satisfied. Our cinema is a spectacle, it is not a statement. We love expressionism.

Our movies claim their pride and their exclusiveness in their ability to create falsehood as convincingly as possible. In their artifice. If suspension of disbelief is a requirement to enjoy films, we demand of the audiences to dangle it beyond the sea level. We are fake, mainly ostentatious, and never ashamed of it.

We sleep, we eat, we drink, we wear, we walk, we talk about movies. We talk about movies a lot- any movie. The admission to being touched by the hype of an arriving film, the observation of a memory attached to a old one, but mostly the enthusiasm at a film we just saw. We talk about movies a lot. It is inbuilt, and it’s a phenomenon we cannot deny. Most mainstream cinema is discussed at length no matter how misinformed those discussions are, the sheer force of the enthusiasm behind them can often render them infectious. We talk about everything, from the latest dresses, to the songs, to the songs, to the dresses, to the acting, to the acting – mostly acting. Yes, we love talking about actors and their performances. Nothing else is more essential than the establishment of a star in a role.

Movies affect our daily interactions – we pick dialogues from a film to represent our emotions, we use mannerisms of a character to establish a certain purpose, and we are forever quoting. Movies become a parallel universe, a world of artifice, fakery, and we are always a distant observer. They are set-ups we love to be fooled by.

In a cinema like ours, however, familiarity, like any other place, breeds contempt. Change being the rule of the universe, it is more often than not imperative, that familiarity is avoided as much as it can be. Between people, it’s almost an insurmountable task; movies, however, leave a lot of room for reinvention. The problem, here, however, is that, we do not have either talented writers, or producers who back them, and hence, the process of reinvention is never attained.

They are so much a part of our collective conscious, that over the time, films stop surprising us. Each movie becomes a set of clichés. Because we know so much that we do not believe anymore. And we need to believe. In a cinema that believes its very foundation on its ability to be unreal, the audience needs to believe. But we see so much, talk so much about the medium that we refuse to suspend our belief anymore. Furthermore, when films are so ensconced in our knowing, in such a situation, each line a writer writes becomes a cliché, and each shot runs the risk of being a parody.

In this scenario, any film, which slightly rids itself of the obligation to embrace the norm, is hailed as path-breaking. Whilst proclaiming every bit of it different. Moreover there are films with “filmmakers” so devoid of any motivation that they fail to identify the frailties of a suspension of disbelief. Hence, they create the same old-thus failing. Then therein also lies the existence of a third group of “filmmakers”, not as inspired like the first group, but also not as uninspired as the second. They realize that they cannot let go of the cliché, not because they do not want to, but because they cannot. They do not know anything beyond it, and for them, that is the supreme form of films. So they look for a new way out – they celebrate the clichés.

They take a few leaves out of the pages of a book on post-modern iconoclasm and recycle the old to create new – mostly to evoke nostalgia and to exploit the audience’s popular fancy for those icons. The only difference between the second and the third group of filmmakers is that they are: cheats, they copy, they recycle, and then they create parodies – just that they are proud of it. They are proud of being dumb. They are proud of their impediment of the creative process, and yes, they make a lot of money.

The problem with most of these films is that while they follow the first basic tenet of iconoclasm – i.e. to use an icon, they forget the second, as essential one – to destruct icons and use the destruction to create a new. Clichés are meant to generate nostalgia and evoke memories, but they are not meant to be used as substitutes of the basic narrative. In films like the ones we make, the narrative does not contain the clichés; the clichés contain the narrative.

Recycling is definitely not an easy process. Masala is a term we attach to inanity in our films. Often ridiculed, it is also, when featured in a big-budget entertainer, it is identified as a throwback to a bygone era. Thus, we associate masala with the 70s and 80s, often ignoring the fact that while film stocks, budgets, techniques have improved, our cinema is still stuck in the same time-warp. Perhaps that is the reason why most so-called post-modern homage-induced work, from Tashan to Om Shanti Om to Karzzz, it never really seems like a style which is fish out of water, and more often than not, belongs to the present era itself. Such is the speed at which our cinema has evolved, or has not.

It is, thus, ironical, that a British director uses and incorporates both Indian film clichés – an impossible love story, discernible negative and positive power centers, a rags-to-riches fairytale and foreign film productions –set- in- India- clichés – poor children living in slums, the hardships that the foreigners attach their sympathies with, Taj Mahal, railways; and absorbs them into a new template to make telling statements on the nature of the three new tiers of the Indian society.


The film shuttles and functions between three clearly defined planes of story-telling – the police station, the TV Studio, and the experiences in Jamal’s life. The three are also a deft representation of the three Indian classes – the middle class, the upper class, and the lower class respectively.

The police station – The cynical, skeptical, questioning middle class. They cannot fathom the exorbitant success of the chaiwallah(tea-seller). They cannot believe he has done so well, and most importantly, they cannot believe that he has done so much better than they have. The proverbial qualities of people like the reader, and the author. We are either jealous, or we are cynical, but we are never really appreciative, unless ofcourse, the icon is so large so as to remain safely at a distance from our personal feelings. Then we jump onto the bandwagon. Yes.

The TV Studio – The studio audience. The upper class. The hypocritical upper class. The levels at which Jamal reaches are representations of the levels of appreciation they have for him. In the first half, they laugh at every snide remark, or offhand joke that the anchor supplies them with. They mock Jamal, ridicule him, and detest him for having occupied a hotseat they presume is solely meant for them. Then he begins winning. And they start cheering for him. They prepare acceptance of Jamal as being one of their own.

The Experiences – Mostly featured in as a series of flashbacks, they are summaries of what Jamal has been through, and how those experiences help him in reaching the level he is at. Throughout this plane, Jamal becomes a symbol of the Indian lower class, forever, trying to attain a higher goal – whether monetarily or spiritually. He is desperate, often helpless, yet hopeful.

It is also interesting to note the transformations in the second and the third group. The second is moving, emotionally. They are always in a state of emotional transition, and are mere spectators, but their habits are not passive. The third group, the experience, is also moving, both literally and figuratively. It is only the first plane, the police station, which remains consistent in its cynicism, even while releasing the prisoner they arrested in Jamal.

At the center of the conjunction of these three is the show host, gleefully played by Anil Kapoor, who as I can imagine, might have wholeheartedly occupied the position occupied formerly occupied by two of the most powerful actors in the country, a position he hoped for in real but attained only on the reel. He is a man who has been through all the three planes – the lower, the middle and the upper. At various points during the story, he represents both, condescension, cynicism and glee, at Jamal’s exploits in the game show, thus becoming, at various points, a part of each group. His is the toughest role ofcourse, and while Kapoor’s clearly not an English actor, he does well.

Boyle’s camera is observant. But it is clearly not a tourist. It is a generally keen observant. It is a robust, moving, curious, curious observer. It does not want to settle down. The trip is short and there is so much to discover. So his camera never really stops. It moves at a vulgar, often indecent speed, and then suddenly, it screeches to a stop- at the most critical of moments- when the hero and the heroine hug. Or when he just looks at her through the large gate, or when he sees her left behind on the non-descript railway station. The observer stops at an emotionality alien to him. It is a kind of sentimentality he does not see back home. It is a sentimentality that he does not have an idea about, but is fascinated by. It is sentimentality so typical of Bollywood, and so when the camera stops, not only is he respecting the most repeated clichés, he is celebrating them.

By placing them carefully and cautiously to convey the same drama that the Hindi industry uses them for. The crucial difference here is, that in his post-modernistic homage, he does not mock them, or satirize them, or makes fun of those clichés. He actually uses them.

The camera thus, observes. And it remains assured of what and when it needs to observe, often through unnatural cants and tilts, a dynamic he captures the so-called grit of Mumbai, and of Agra, and of the police station, and carefully uses mostly the conventional angles of the TV show, and thus opts, reconstruction over original construction, which would in any case, have defeated the purpose of using such a popular quiz show.

It is amazing how Boyle’s filming, and Beaufoy’s script (based on diplomat Swaroop’s novel ofcourse), evokes the most evident Indian icons – the Taj Mahal, the red-light districts, Amitabh Bachchan, the Bombay slums, Kaun Banega Crorepati, and brilliantly, never lets them function in their own isolation or function in their personal context. They exist because they have some relation to our protagonist, and otherwise, they do not exist. When in Delhi, shoot the Qutub, when in Kolkata, shoot the Victoria, and when in Hyderabad, shoot the Char Minar, irrespective of whether a character has anything to do with them.

He shoots in a style I personally can trace back to Jeunet and Caro’s 1991 film ‘Delicatessen’, which though, did not epitomize the style, but did initiate a few of its origins – bright, vibrant, radiant colours, colour contrasts increased to abnormal levels, and a fast, dynamic camera. Lately, City of God employed it masterfully.

The film does not dumb down. It does not feed. Why does the brother die at the end? How does Jamal achieve what he does? Why does the host write an answer on the bathroom mirror? It also is ‘different’, and it also recycles the same old clichés and uses them in a new template and thus achieves a result which our filmmakers are not attempting, and more importantly, are proud of not attempting.

The Modern Times

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Is Anyone Watching- Indian Documentary pt-2

"The tragedy of Indian documentary is that for too long it has leaned on official patronage. This has stultified its growth and deprived it of an identity. The honest fact is that we do not have what can be called an 'Indian Documentary'. We have to create one, in order that one of the greatest mediums of the 20th century is not mortgaged to the purveyors of meretricious and mindless fare. As Goethe said:... "a great public is entitled to our respect, and should not be treated like children from whom one wishes merely to extract money"


Synchronous Sound and Fury

The sixties turned out to be an exciting decade. At last, the documentary idea had caught on. Its tremendous potential, range and effectiveness as a medium of communication was becoming apparent to the policy-makers and intellectuals alike. It is not without some significance that India's leading art magazine Marg devoted an entire issue to documentary films. So did the prestigious political monthly Seminar. Abroad, a new type of documentary film was taking shape. Aided by lightweight cameras and synchronous sound tape-recorders, filmmakers in France (Jean Rouch, Ruspoli) and the United States (Richard Leacock, Al Maysles, Pennebaker) had given their films (Yanki No!, Primary, Crisis, The Chair) a depth of detail and a sense of urgency unknown to cinema earlier. The filmmaker was no longer the promoter of ideas or ideals that Grierson had ordained him to be, his credo (the cinéma verité or direct cinema practitioner) was to bear witness, to observe a situation as faithfully as humanly possible, without his own prejudices intruding upon it.

The Indian filmmaker could not remain untouched by these stirrings. Commenting on films like Face to Face, I am Twenty, Report on Drought, India '67 and Explorer, the noted film critic Bikram Singh said that they reveal "a degree of sophistication which was rarely to be seen before the sixties.. there is today greater willingness to face facts and, occasionally, even to stick the neck out (and) say an oblique 'boo' to the establishment". Before I come to avant garde filmmakers like Sukhdev, Pati, Sastry and Chari, it is necessary to discuss the work of Fali Bilimoria, Clement Baptista, Shanti Chowdhury and some others, which had the necessary innovative edge and a healthy regard for craftsmanship. No one epitomises these qualities better than Fali Bilimoria.

Fali Bilimoria started his film career with Paul Zils in the late forties and later became his partner. He was trained as a cameraman under Dr. P.V. Pathy, an early associate of Zils. Bilimoria was to later direct a large number of films including such well-known ones as A Village in Travancore, The Vanishing Tribe, The Call and Water, but the film that brought Bilimoria much critical acclaim (and a nomination for an Oscar in 1967) was The House that Ananda Built. A quiet film about a vaishya peasant family in Nadpur village, Orissa, it examines the farmer's traditional way of life and changing relationships with his sons who have migrated to different parts of the country and are living at varying levels of modernity. In the Indian context, it was a very interesting theme, but unfortunately the 20-minute format within which this was sought to be examined defeated its purpose. In the process it became a well researched, well written, long essay illustrated with portraits of the family and other inhabitants of the village.

It's a pity, because Bilimoria had the necessary expertise and his writer K.S. Chari, a keen exploratory sense. Despite all this, it remains a landmark film. Bilimoria followed this up with two other films the Last Rajah - a film on the ruler of a small state who had to change his lifestyle with the dissolution of the princely system - and another film on theAnglo-lndian community.

Clement Baptista had come to films after securing a diploma in Fine Arts and mural painting. He had also taught at J.J. School of Arts. During the War he joined the Army Film Unit as an art director. After the War, together with his friend and co-officer in the army, V.M. Vijaykar, he formed his company Hunnar Films. Clement Baptista made films on a vast variety of subjects but his natural inclination was for art and animation films. This came out strongly in Kailash at Ellora, on the famous rock-hewn temples. Baptista's approach was uncommon in the sense that he used architectural designs to bring out the fact that carving out a temple of this size and dimension from solid rock was a unique accomplishment of man and his endeavour at artistic creation. A film in an entirely different mood and genre was Dubbawalla (Tiffin carrier). It examines the daily collection, transport and distribution of hot lunches to tens and thousands of Bombay's workers from suburban homes to metropolitan offices. The dubbawalla is a unique institution in the life of Bombay's citizens. Baptista covers not only the journey of the dubbawalla but also shows the housewives bargaining at vegetable markets. This unique enterprise is run by totally illiterate people who have an amazing capacity to remember which dabbah belongs to which person.

Shanti Chowdhury came to film making via civil engineering which he had studied in England. It is no wonder then, that his work was marked by a certain precision and a good deal of concern for detail. This was clearly evident in his film To Light a Candle about Dr. Welthy Fisher, the renowned adult educator who had set up the Literacy House in Lucknow in 1953. This was followed by Entertainers of Rajasthan which concerned the itinerant minstrels and entertainers of the desert. These ranged from puppeteers to acrobats to singers, actors and dancers. Chowdhury was able to capture not only the colour and spectacle of these traditional artistes but he closely observed with compassion their lives, their sorrows and frustrations.

Sukhdev, who had served a long period of apprenticeship with Paul Zils and later became his assistant, is generally regarded as one of India's best documentary filmmakers. He showed an early promise with films like And Miles to Go and After the Eclipse, both of which had a socio-political content. However, he came to the fore with an hour-long documentary India '67. This was followed by another monumental work Nine Months to Freedom on the emergence of Bangladesh. And Miles to Go, Sukhdev's first angry documentary showed us the inequalities of Indian society. While a lady applies perfume, a slum dweller is shown taking out lice from her hair. In a similar vein contrasts are juxtaposed at every level of urban living. Unfortunately while the visual impact, as in most of Sukhdev's films, was stunning, the film lacked depth and analysis. It created a sensation but did not set the mind thinking. After the Eclipse, much of which was shot inside a prison with Sukhdev himself playing an inmate, was a compassionate dramatisation of jail life. It is the essential humanity, even among murderers, that Sukhdev brought out with considerable success.

His earlier two films could be said to be a preparation for Sukhdev's most mature work India '67. The film was a highly cinematic perusal of the contrasts and contradictions that abound in Indian life. In the film the filmmaker takes us on a countrywide tour and provides a kaleidoscopic view of the new with the old, western ways encroaching upon tradition, technological advances and age-old methods. All this is familiar stuff but what gave the film its uniqueness were the keenly observed small details. I think Satyajit Ray was entirely right when he remarked: "I like India '67 but not for its broad and percussive contrasts of poverty and influence, beauty and squalor, modernity and primitivity - however well shot and cut they might be. I like it for its details - for the black beetle that crawls along the hot sand, for the street dog that pees on the parked bicycle, for the bead of perspiration that dangles on the nose tip of the begrimed musician".

Nonetheless, India '67 is a film of extraordinary visual beauty and unfailing compassion. It is a film charged with passion. With its rather loose structure and occasional self-indulgence (it is by no means a flawless work) but these are the excesses of a brilliant talent. That it aroused diverse and extreme reactions was a tribute to its maker who despised neutrality in art.

When the Bangladesh pogrom began, Sukhdev was one of the very few Indian filmmakers who was in ngladesh pogrom began, Sukhdev was one of the very few Indian filmmakers who was in the thick of the action at considerable physical risk. The result was Nine Months to Freedom, a work of compelling power. The Bangladesh story is placed in historical perspective from the emergence of Pakistan upto the return of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to his people. The basic conflict that arose between the two wings of Pakistan - the language problem, the riots, the demands for freedom from exploitation and for self rule, the crackdown by the Pakistan Army, the exodus of refugees, the nine-month-long struggle, the genocide and the rapes and mass destruction - Sukhdev's camera shows it all. Here I must mention that the young Dacca filmmaker Zahir Raihan gave Sukhdev some of the grisly footage personally shot by him, of the atrocities, including a view of a corpse with its innards being ripped open by a dog. Later Raihan was killed by Pakistani forces .

One man had enlivened the documentary scene and some of this excitement spilled over even to 24 Peddar Road, the headquarters of Films Division in Bombay. There is no doubt that filmmakers like S.N.S. Sastry, T.A. Abraham, Chari, Prem Vaidya and Pramod Pati were greatly influenced by Sukhdev, not so much in style as in spirit
Pramod Pati who died of cancer at a young age, was probably the most original talent working in the Films Division. He made a number of films on a variety of subjects including, This Our lndia, Ravi Shankar, Hamara Rashtragan, which were all competently made, but it was in his very short films lasting sometimes one or two minutes such as Klaxplosion, Perspectives, Trip, Violence and Explorer (seven minutes) that Pati came into his own. Here it is well to mention that Pati had his early training in animation filmmaking under the celebrated Jiri Trinka, the Czech master. With work ranging from folklore (Czech Legends, 1953) and national literature (The Good Soldier Schweik, 1954) to Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1959) Hans Anderson and haunting visions of present and future, Trinka made the puppet film into a new and important genre. His example was of inestirnable importance to other filmmakers working in the same genre.

Pati's work evoked extreme reactions. Explorer which lasts just seven minutes but whose visual and aural impact is felt a long time after, is a probe into the young urban Indian mind. Pati contrasts and juxtaposes Tantric symbols, images of meditating sadhus collide with teenagers doing the twist, computers are cut with the chanting of prayers. But the camera always returns to the young people in labs, libraries, fields - all of them searching, seeking, exploring. The film had no narration. When it was shown in theatres the audience reaction was extreme. Used as they were to the didactic 'narrated' documentary, the film came as a shock. At a seminar in the Films Division after the film was shown, the noted film critic and filmmaker K.A. Abbas called it a waste of public money. K. Subrahmanyam, the veteran Tamil filmmaker, compared Pati to Norman MacLaren. James Beveridge was so impressed as to say that the film "as well done as one could find anywhere, in any country no matter what its resources".

That Pati was not given to gimmickry but had a genuine urge for experimentation was clear in a much shorter film Perspectives which lasted under a minute and had no commentary. It is virtually a oneshot film in which the camera follows a jet plane taking off and pans down to show a little girl and a wrinkled old woman sitting close together in front of a hut, saying the letters of the Hindi alphabet aloud together. The film was produced to mark International Adult Literacy Year and won Pati a well-deserved international award. Pati's early death was a tragic loss to experimental cinema.

For too long the Indian audience had been "informed and educated" through didactic narrated documerltaries, it was about time - and 20 years after Independence, the right time - that the Indian citizen would speak from the screen. Two films that started the trend were K.S. Chari/T.A. Abraham co-directed Face to Face and S.N.S. Sastry's I am Twenty. Face to Face showed a cross section of people - students, workers, taxi drivers, intellectuals and peasants (and the distinguished journalist Frank Moraes) - airing their opinions on democracy and India 20 years after Independence. These expressions of criticisms, frustrations or optimism are placed in the context of the sharp, distressing contrasts of life in contemporary India. This was probably the first film which gave a sense of feedback. Chari, who had started his career as a senior commentary writer in the Films Division, went on to make two more films, Transition and Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan.

S.N.S. Sastry, whowas a diploma holder in cinematography from the Bangalore Polytechnic, had joined Films Division as a cameraman and started directing films in 1956. Sastry had made a large number of films but it was with I am Twenty that he made his mark. I am Twenty was structured around interviews with young people who were born in 1947 when India attained her freedom. The film made a tremendous impact because the young people whom Sastry interviewed on camera came out with force and pungency. They looked credible and convincing and expressed their feelings with candour. Young men with uncertain future questioned bitterly:
"Is it freedom to starve and go naked?"

"Well I don't love my country... and even if I did, to whom should I speak of my love."
This note of dissonance, an element of doubt was something new to Indian documentary, at least the official documentary. The value of the film lay in the fact that it provided a basis for discussion. This is what a good documentary is all about. Sastry later made several other notable films like And I Make Short Films, On the Move, Yes It's on, Burning Sun. Like Pati he too died tragically young. While driving his daughter to school he suffered a fatal heart attack.

The interview film initiated by Chari and Sastry was put to effective use in Report on Drought which was factual, terse, stark. A film that created something of a commotion was O.P. Arora's Actual Experience, on family planning. Arora who had earlier made films like Kulu Manali and Narmada revealed remarkable aptitude for interviewing people. In Actual Experience Arora's concern was to find out if the new methods like loop were favoured by women. Most women came out forcefully against the use of loop for various reasons. As expected, the film was held back from release. This was significant as the interview film had irritated the authorities and startled the smug.


The 70s were both the best and the worst of years. Best, for the exciting new talent that appeared on the documentary scene bringing in fresh energy, radical outlook and innovative technique, notable among them Shyam Benegal, Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, Vinod Chopra – the last three being alumni of the Film Institute, Pune. Worst, for the trauma caused by Mrs. Indira Gandhi's Emergency that stifled much of the creative impulse and the equally barren period of the Janata party rule, remarkable only for its ambivalence. More of these later.

Shyam Benegal who shot to sudden fame with his first feature film Ankur (1974) had begun his career with the well-known advertising agency, Lintas. He worked his way up from scripting ad films to making them himself. He had also been a film buff and read a considerable amount of theoretical work on cinema before he made his first documentary, A Child of the Street (1967) about juvenile vagrancy. It traces the traumatic experiences of a nine year old boy in a metropolitan city, his search for parental love and shelter before he ends up in a rehabilitation centre. The film had urgency, compassion and sociological concern. For a first film, Benegal also used his camera with surprising skill.

His next film Close to Nature took us to the tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh, providing a kaleidoscopic view of tribal life at different times and in varying moods – worshipping their gods, singing and dancing as dusk fell, bargaining in the marketplace, living in the ghotul (an institution where young people live together). It was a tricky film to make and required greater involvement and rapport with the subject. Unfortunately, Benegal failed to achieve this. One wishes Benegal had put to better use the words of Verrier Elwin with which he ends the film: "We must help the tribals to come to terms with their own past so that their present and future will not be denied from it, but be a natural evolution from it... we must not impose our own ideas on them. We must not create a sense of guilt by forcing on them laws that they do not understand and cannot observe".

Nevertheless Close to Nature was way ahead of Films Division's scores of films on tribal life where the district officer gets them to parade before the camera. (Perhaps an exception could be made of Prem Vaidya's Man in Search of Man on the tribals of Andaman and Nicobar Island.) Indian Youth: An Exploration, as the name suggests, was Benegal's attempt to understand the problems of modern Indian youth, both urban and rural, at various social and economical levels. Here he is clearly more at home than in the world of the tribals – eschewing a didactic approach, he presents a panorama of quick, flashing episodes, of several young people as they struggle through a fast-changing world, so different from the world of their parents. Another film, Horoscope for a Child, on protein deficiency among growing children, succeeds in being much more than that. Woven around a taxi driver's family living in one of Bombay's numerous chawls*, we get acquainted with a whole way of life, thus experiencing the problem in a socio-economic context. Benegal later moved to a different genre, and made several films on Indian music, notably Tala and Rhythm, The Shruti and Graces of Indian Music, The Raag Yaman Kalyan. In a sense, this was pioneering work which found greater maturity and finer expression in Mani Kaul's hour-long Dhrupad.

Mani Kaul came over to documentaries after he had made three feature films, Uski Roti, Ashad Ka Ek din and Duvidha. His first documentary was The Nomad Puppeteers of Rajasthan, an area he knew well enough having been brought up there. Mani follows a troupe of puppeteers as they move from place to place entertaining and ekeing out a miserable living. An entire family is involved in entertaining and making the puppets which they carve out of softwood and then paint and clothe. To our dismay we discover that this remarkable art is on the wane with the easy accessibility of the moving pictures. What is even worse, the puppeteers now prostitute their art by enacting scenes from popular cinema where the puppets dance to the tunes of film songs. But it need not have been so. Mani carries out his argument with great force and urgency in his next film Chitrakathi.

Made for the Films Division, in a 20-minute format which proved hopelessly inadequate, Chitrakathi is about the folk artists of western India who narrate with the help of leather puppets. Mani takes us to the sleepy Konkan coastal village and introduces us to the family that has preserved this unique art for several centuries. Now it faces extinction because younger men would rather go to the city and earn a living there, than practise an outmoded art which holds no future. What happens to these men who migrate to the big cities?

Mani Kaul presents a searing study in Arrival. To the city come men, women, fruits, flowers, vegetables, goats and sheep – all ready for consumption. It is the process of consumption/exploitation that forms the core of the film. In a collage of images held together by an engaging soundtrack we are shown the brutality and dehumanisation of city life. Perhaps the best part of the film is the scene in the slaughterhouse where Mani shows us the routineness of death – rows upon rows of slaughtered goats and sheep, all ready for human consumption. Because he refuses to sentimentalise, the effect is electric. Only once before have I experienced the same cold academic ferocity, in Franju's La Sang des Betes. Mani extends the slaughterhouse metaphor to labour-intensive areas where human beings are exploited and reduced to insignificant cogs in a giant, merciiess machine. The film raises more questions than it can possibly answer. That perhaps is its intention.

Dhrupad, a 72-minute long film which features two famous masters, the Dagar brothers of Dhrupad school of Indian classical music, is truly a pioneering work in the sense that nothing quite like this had been attempted before. It not only captures for us, and posterity, the magical quality of the two great masters' voices, but provides a valuable clue to the evolution of their art with its beginning in tribal music; Mani Kaul puts forth the argument that tribal music had two aspects: one concerned itself with ritualistic hymns and the other related to changing seasons, as also birth, marriage, death, etc. While the folk music stayed in the villages, the ritualistic music evolved into classical music and moved to the courts. In a simple yet effective structure, the film opens on the historical monuments at Gwalior, Agra, Amber and Mandu to the accompaniment of veena* recital. It is in this setting that the great Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar explains the intricacies of Dhrupad style. The concluding passage of the film is on a panoramic shot of Bombay as the music reared in the courts of princely states undergoes a subtle change in a vastly different, industrialised milieu. Shot with immense love and care for tone, texture and colour, it is a landmark film.

Unfortunately, Kumar Shahani has not been very active in the documentary field, but one still remembers his moving film on spastic children, A Certain Childhood (a Leela Naidu production). It was probably the earliest in-depth study on the subject. Abandoned, vagrant children was also the subject of Vinod Chopra's An Encounter with Faces which won him several awards, including nomination for the Oscar at the 51st annual AcademyAwards. In this film Chopra takes over where Shyam Benegal had left off: he examines the lives of these children who lead a dreary, loveless existence at a rehabilitation centre. Using no narration and letting the children speak for themselves, Chopra turns his film into an authentic document.

A determined man can beat the system. Loksen Lalwani did. Working within the fusty Films Division (which he later left) Lalwani made a searching study of the lives of coal miners in Bihar in his film Burning Stone. Lalwani shows us the inhuman conditions in which the coal miners work and live. He also underscores the constant fear of the money-lenders and the shenanigans of the politicall trade union leaders. Lalwani's camera follows them to the pits – revealing their primitive safety measures and the unremitting misery and squalor of their hovels. The only place where they can seek oblivion and indulge in fantasies of a glorious future for their children is the cheap liquor shop.

When asked why he chose to call his film Burning Stone, Lalwani replied, "I could have called it ‘black diamond' as coal is referred to... but for the miners it is a burning stone. It is burning in the depths of the earth like a volcano waiting to erupt.."

They Call me Chamar, Lalwani's next film, was reportedly based on a newspaper item, of a brahmin having married a Harijan* girl. Socially ostracised, he is driven to the bustee* of the chamars* who live by skinning dead animals. Vultures peck at dead carcasses as we approach the chamar bustee to meet our protagonists. Lalwani lets the couple alternately relate their story which forms a powerful indictment of a cruel social system. It is a pity a man of such strong conviction and social consciousness died so young.
And now the bad news.

The portents were all there but it was the suddenness of it which took everyone unawares. On 26 lune 1975, the President of India through a proclamation declared that "a grave emergency exists, whereby the security of India is threatened by internal disturbances". Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister, was more reasurring, "The President has proclaimed emergency. This is nothing to panic about". As always, the axe fell on the media – press, radio, television, film. The earnest, authoritative Vidya Charan Shukla took overcharge of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry from Inder Kumar Gujral. Soon after assuming office, Mr. Shukla went into action.

What happened to the press, radio, TV and feature film industry is only too well known. Perhaps less known is the irreparable damage Emergency and men like Shukla did to the documentary film. Emergency highlighted the vulnerability of the government-controlled media— AIR [All India Radio], TV and Films Division. Mr. Shukla and his ilk instilled fear in every area of creative and organisational activity. And to use Mr. L.K. Advani's famous phrase, men began to "crawl when asked only to bend". Fear stalked the corridors of Films Division. "The largest documentary film unit in the world" was reduced to an impotent giant. In an atmosphere rife with suspicion and supression, 'seasonal' filmmakers and political adventurists jumped on to the gravy train. According to the White Paper on Misuse of Mass Media, a number of films including Agya Do Hukam Karo, Zimmedar Waris, A New Era Begins and Godmen of Ganges were purchased by Films Division on orders from the Minister, bypassing both the Film Purchase Committee and the Film Advisory Board. Crude propaganda, hastily churned out by Films Division, filled the screens of the country. Mercifully, people could not be forced to watch it.
The pity and sorrow of it was that when Mrs. Gandhi was voted out of power and the Janata Party brought in, nothing but nothing changed materially. Although the government was new, the men who constituted it were not.

No sooner did they get into power than they resorted to the same old game of revenge and reprisal. Mrs. Gandhi was declared persona non grata on AIR, Doordarshan [televisione nazionale] and Films Division. Once when a TV producer unwittingly allowed a documentary in which Mrs. Gandhi had briefly figured, he was summarily sacked. Worse still was the case of an FD documentary which showed a portrait of Mrs. Gandhi in the background. All prints of the film were ordered to be withdrawn from the national circuit. So much for the high-minded declarations of Mr. L.K. Advani.

Like the proverbial silver lining to the dark cloud, a significant development in the aftermath of Emergency was the political comment film. Credit for this should go to a young man, Anand Patwardhan [Patvardhan], who was more of a political activist than a filmmaker. He took to filmmaking to put across his socio-political views to a wider audience. Patwardhan got considerable media attention with his half-hour 16 mm black and white documentary Prisoners of Conscience on the condition of political prisoners in India before, during and after the Emergency.

Another documentary on political prisoners was Utpalendu Chakraborty's Mukti Chai. Shot mostly with hand-held camera which gave it a certain sense of urgency, Chakraborty postulated that right from the Rowlatt Act to the proclamation of Emergency, the repressive forces have never really let the individual out of their grip. A more effective, well-made film was Gautam Ghose's Hungry Autumn which won its director a prize at Oberhausen. Taking off from actual famine conditions in 1974 in West Bengal, the film analyses the basic Indian agronomic situation, widespread destitution and its repercussions on rural and urban societies.

In the investigative genre, a truly courageous film was the Tapan Bose [Bos]-Suhasini Mulay [Mule] film, An Indian Story, on the notorious Bhagalpur blindings and the whole pattern of police brutality in India. Anyone who has ventured to make an unsponsored film knows the hazards of raising funds. Even the eventual fate of such a film is uncertain as Tapan was to discover later. Bhagalpur blindings had hit the headlines when it was discovered that some policemen had forcibly blinded 34 under-trial prisoners by puncturing their eyes with a thick needle and then pouring acid on the wounds. Tapan Bose started off by interviewing three of the blinded men in Delhi and then went to Bhagalpur to finish the film. Needless to say, the authorities tried every trick to dissuade Tapan and uniformed policemen shadowed the crew throughout. To cap it all, the censors banned the film only to be saved by a court order. For the socially committed, independent filmmaker it is a tight rope walk. It would appear that the establishment takes sadistic pleasure in keeping him poised so precariously.


The medium Is the message' – that's hogwash. The story is, who owns the medium, owns the message.
(Emile de Antonio, Ameritan documentary filmmaker)

The '80s witnessed the pathetic downhill slide of Films Division. Lacking leadership, ideology and creative impulse, it now seemed to have lost the will to live. It was no longer the favoured agency of propaganda for the government. Those favours were now being bestowed on Doordarshan. In a bid to cut it to size, in 1984, the government drastically curtailed its production programme from 104 to 52 films a year, and suspended the production of about 200 films "to clear an unprecedented backlog accumulated over a period of four years and involving crores of rupees". This led Chidananda Dasgupta to write in the Indian Express, (Chronicles of a Death Foretold – Nov. 24, 1985) "Now, rumours are afloat that Films Division is on its death bed. It is time for the scribes to get their obits ready – or so it seems. If true, is this a case of murder, suicide, or just slow decay?.... It is alleged... that Films Division has fallen into official neglect and is now being readied for axing. But the seeds of its destruction were planted earlier. The hardening of its arteries, to change the metaphor, has been evident for a long time". Harsh words these, but they underline a painful reality.

As early as 1966, the Chanda Committee in its report on Documentary Films and Newsreels had remarked that "because of organisational defects the documentaries are produced mechanically and disinterestedly, making them dull and uninteresting. Their treatment is often superficial and the absence of humour and satire is a contributory factor. Also, the pattern of documentaries has now become so stereotyped... it is easy to anticipate sequences and conclusions".

It is a saddening thought that in its 40 years existence, Films Division has failed to build an identifiable image of Indian documentary. If anything, it has become an object of derision typifying Donald Richie's famous quip, "Official anything is bad but official films are worst". It is a well-known fact that most theatres in the country show these documentaries under duress and sufferance. The common practice is either to keep the lights on while the documentary is screened or to show only the beginning and the end of the film. However, Films Division can take comfort from the fact that the country's well-over 12,000 theatres contribute to their kitty substantially, while they may deny exposure to their films.

A true documentary must mirror the conditions and probe into the problems of human life. Its tradition has not been self-congratulatory, but self-questioning. Unfortunately our bureaucrats have never understood this, their argument being: as they were paying the piper, they must call the tune. That tune has never been in consonance with the mood and reality of the situation. Hence, the credibility gap and walkouts from the theatres. According to the Working Group on National Film Policy (May, 1980) one reason why Films Division films fail to attract audiences is their superficial and simplistic approach, and the non-involvement "of the filmmaker with the problems which he attempts to depict". Any documentary worth its name is never neutral and non-controversial. If it is to serve as a positive catalyst of social change, it must shock, inspire and provoke and not indulge in a balancing act as most FD documentaries do.

Indian documentary faces an unprecedented crisis. It can only come out of it if the government relaxes its vice-like control on exhibition outlets. Nothing else will change the situation. In an editorial in Screen, B.K. Karanjia put it succinctly, "The very manner in which we exhibit the Films Division's newsreels and shorts (by compulsion and, adding insult to injury, on payment) makes a travesty of a fundamental democratic principle. The documentary in India is made and shown by bureaucratic fiat, but that is not how good documentaries are made and it is certainly not how good documentaries need be shown... There is also no dearth of exhibitors who would be willing to show such films provided they have interest and quality. That is the first thing – compulsion must go".

Despite official apathy and indifference, a new kind of documentary has taken shape – not of smiling faces and lush fields but the struggle and strife of our multitudes. Scraping together the funds somehow or the other, the filmmakers have gone ahead regardless of the limited outlets available to them. Subjects which had been taboo earlier and swept under the carpet by the official media were now brought out in the open. As a result, we have courageous exposes of caste and communal riots, police brutality, industrial neglect, urban unemployment, bride burning, and other issues of social urgency. Interestingly, a number of films on current social problems have been made by women directors, among them Uma Segal, Meera Dewan, Mira Nair, Manjira Dutta and Suhasini Mulay.

Uma Segal, a graduate of the Film and TV Institute, Pune, made a 42-minute film Shelter (1984), on the plight of pavement dwellers in Bombay whose dwellings had been demolished and who were deported to far-off places. Using a candid camera style of spot interviews, Segal examines the issues involved and builds up a case against the demolition of the hutments. The film makes the plea that the pavement dwellers provide essential services to nearby high-rise buildings but are unable to get accommodation for themselves. Interestingly, the film was awarded the Special Jury Prize which Segal refused: "The very government which was and is responsible for the demolitions, instead of showing reason... has continued demolitions with impunity on a massive scale. I find it ironical that the very same government chooses to give me an award".

Anand Patwardhan's Hamara Sheher ([La nostra città] 1985) centers around the same theme but has a greater thrust. Made possible through donations from individuals and public bodies, Patwardhan's film was well over two years in the making. Motivated by the large scale attacks on slum dwellers in 1982/83 he found, "that it wasn't just the authorities who were determined to demolish them, but that the entire middle-class opinion was being mobilised against slum dwellers". The film counters the argument that slum dwellers are a drain on the economy. On the contrary, Patwardhan avers, they contribute to it as workers in industry and other labour-intensive fields. The filmmaker was criticised for manipulating some of the interviews – specially those of the affluent section – and using them out of context. Dismissing the criticism, Patwardhan said, "the objection is come because we have actually put them in context... the background of poverty". It is a film made with compassion and conviction. Pity that it has remained unseen except for special screenings for film circles and seminars on housing.

Another film which focussed attention on the (in)human condition is Sashi Anand's Man Vs. Man (1983) which questions the wisdom of government legislation banning hand-pulled rickshaws in Calcutta which would throw well over hundred thousand people out of employment. Meera Dewan who had been deeply concerned about the plight of women in a traditional, male-dominated society, won a prize at Oberhausen for her film Gift of Love (1983). It is a trenchant indictment of the widely-prevalent but pernicious dowry system. Not a day passes without some young married women, unable to meet the demands of her greedy in-laws, being set aflame. Meera Dewan's film deals with two such cases. Interviews with victims, relatives, a lawyer and a social scientist are juxtaposed with scenes of merry-making during an Indian marriage. The filmmaker thus effectively brings out the brutality of the system which, to quote a critic, "penetrates right into the skin".

Communal clashes have been a part of the Indian scene from the days of the Raj. The official media has either tried to cover it up or play it down. What is needed is a more mature approach to a problem that cannot just be wished away. Hence it is rare that one comes across a film like Deepa Dhanraj's What Happened to this City (1986). The film depicts a Hindu-Muslim communal riot in Hyderabad, a city where for about 800 years the two communities had lived in harmony. It attempts to analyse the 1984 riot when for nearly 10 weeks large parts of the city were swept by waves of communal violence followed by a continuous period of curfew. It also exposes the process of political manoeuvering.

On December 3, 1984, the Union Carbide's plant at Bhopal filled the air with the deadly poison methyl isocyanide (MIC), leading to the world's biggest industrial disaster. Thousands died and many more were permanently maimed. The Tapan Sinha-Suhasini Mulay-directed Bhopal Beyond Genocide is a powerful expose of the multinational's criminal negligence. The film highlights the inadequacies of relief which made the aftermath even more tragic, and predictably, like their earlier film An Indian Story, the Censor Board refused its certification and the producers had to take the matter to court. Though the film was chosen as the 'Best Documentary of the Year' it has never been publicly shown. The producers refused the award in protest. "It was the frustration of many years which came out in the open," they stated.

In contrast, Prakash Jha's Faces After the Storm, on the victims of communal riots at Bihar Sharif was a tame affair. Sponsored by Films Division, the constraint showed in its content and approach.

Oppression and exploitation is the stuff of Manjira Dutta's Raaste Bandh Hain Sub ([Le strade sono tutte chiuse] 1985) too. In the anthropological genre, this could possibly be the first film to explore in some depth and detail the lives of a backward tribal people living in the hilly terrain of Jaunsar Bawar, in Uttar Pradesh. The film also focuses on the failure of rural land reform measures, the persistence of bonded labour and political corruption which makes a mockery of rehabilitation programmes. Another film that has the same anthropological motivation is Muzaffar Ali's Vadakath – A Thervad in Kerala. The film, based on the Vadakath family of Anakara in Kerala, focuses on the matrilineal system, in accordance with the prevailing customs of the region. Muzaffar Ali takes us to the beautiful old house of the Ammu Swaminadhan family where traditionally the property has been handed from mother to daughter for generations. At a family get-together the women recall their childhood nostalgically. It is an intimate and keenly-observed film.

It appeared that the 20-minute format forced by Films Division was being increasingly discarded in favour of longer films. Prolific as always, Shyam Benegal made two important films in 1985, one on Jawaharlal Nehru (180 mts.) and the other on Satyajit Ray (150 mts.). The Nehru film, an Indo-USSR coproduction directed jointly by Shyam Benegal and Yuri Aldokhin was an ambitious production, wide in scope, rich in resources – technical, artistic and archival. The filmmakers chose a first person biography approach, relying for the spoken text entirely on Nehru's Autobiography, his Selected Works, and Glimpses of World History and his speeches. The film opens on Mrs. Indira Gandhi recalling that the most remarkable thing about her father was the poet in him. What follows – after his birth in Allahabad and early life at Anand Bhavan, his student days in England at Harrow and Cambridge – is as much the contemporary history of India as the life of Nehru, so intermingled were the two. Nehru's was a fascinating life. The man who believed in 'living dangerously' was at once a poet, a romantic, an idealist, a revolutionary, a writer and historian. Unfortunately, the film fails him, and remains at best an overlong, dreary document.

The Satyajit Ray film is the more interesting of the two. Probably the presence of Ray has something to do with it. Opening with Ray at work on the sets of Ghare Baire, most of the film is composed of conversation between the two filmmakers interspersed with excerpts from Ray's films. In both films one got the feeling that Benegal was in awe of his material. While the first-person approach can make for purity of a kind, it can also place severe limitations on critical analysis and comment .

Talking of feature-length documentaries, I must mention Mani Kaul's Mati Manas ([La psiche dell'argilla] 80 mins, 1985). Like his earlier film, Satah Se Uthatha Aadmi [L'uomo che si erge dalla superficie], on the Hindi writer Muktibodh, Mati Manas is multilinear and defies conventional distinction between a documentary and fiction film, thus creating, what Mani calls, "a non-fictional reality". The film traces our entire cultural superstructure, myths, rituals etc. in the act of pottery making, one of man's earliest occupations. Mani's film starts with a museum exhibiting terracotta of the past and moves out to the vast central Indian plains which saw the rise of one of the most ancient civilisations of the world, and the extreme south with its ritualistic pottery, linking the pot – a symbol of creation – with the rhythm of life.

Barring the films of Shyam Benegal and Mani Kaul, most of the films mentioned earlier were unsponsored – undertaken as an act of faith, by courageous young men and women. Deeply troubled by certain socio-political problems, they sought to bring these out into the open for a wider discussion. That they failed to achieve this, is a sad commentary on the state of affairs. It is a frustrating situation. On the one hand, Films Division will not let go its control on exhibition outlets; on the other, Doordarshan is too busy profiteering from the insatiable hunger of the audience for jejune entertainment with its incredibly bad and indifferent sitcoms and soap operas, forgetting its function towards the community.

Doordarshan's in-house production of documentaries is lamentable. In the past, they have been rehashing material acquired from Films Division. I may be forgiven if I cite a personal example. On Sarojini Naidu's birthday this year, DD had announced a film, Sarojini Naidu - The Nightingale of India, the title of a film which I had produced and directed some years back for Films Division, and had won me Filmfare's Best Documentary of the Year Award. On viewing the film, I was shocked to discover that large chunks from my black and white film had been clumsily strung together with material shot in garish colour. Shown on the national network, it was a Calcutta Doordarshan presentation. There was not so much as an acknowledgement of the original material which had taken me months to research and acquire.
Sooner or later Mandi House must realise that television is at its best when tackling non-fiction subjects. Doordarshan suddenly came of age with graphic reportage on the surrender of terrorists in the Golden Temple and the two-part

Bofors programme. These have not only given DD a raison d'etre but proved the power and potential of the medium. Which brings me to Ramesh Sharma's two documentary-based programmes: Focus and Kasauti [La pietra di paragone]. Kasauti is about the 'marginal people' – people who are not in the mainstream. It is a new concept for Doordarshan though an old and tried one elsewhere. Ramesh Sharma, its producer who first came into prominence with his feature film New Delhi Times, confronts us with the stark reality of Indian life with subjects ranging from prostitution to mental asylums, drug addiction to dacoits. His style is direct, the approach compassionate, the result disturbing and thought-provoking. In Focus, Sharma goes into areas as diverse as advertising and tourism, Gorkhaland and nuclear power, the Punjab problem and the new Indian Cinema. Programmes such as these earn DD the discerning viewers' patronage and respect.

The tragedy of Indian documentary is that for too long it has leaned on official patronage. This has stultified its growth and deprived it of an identity. The honest fact is that we do not have what can be called an 'Indian Documentary'. We have to create one, in order that o ne of the greatest mediums of the 20th century is not mortgaged to the purveyors of meretricious and mindless fare. As Goethe said:... "a great public is entitled to our respect, and should not be treated like children from whom one wishes merely to extract money".

B.D. Garga
In "Cinema in India", Vol. II, No. 2, April-June, 1988, pp. 32-36..
(Some excerpt also published online on asia media)


pic 1/2 Painting by Manjit Bawa

pic 3- Manjit Bawa( 1941-29th December 2008)