Cinephilia in India: a search for love and identity
‘The Cinephile is the one who keeps his eyes wide open in vain but will not tell anybody that he could not see any thing. He is the one preparing for a life as a professional ‘watcher’ as a way to make up for being late, as slowly as possible’
- Serge Daney
‘Perhaps it is not cinema that has ended but only cinephilia -- the name of the very specific kind of love that cinema inspired. Each art breeds its fanatics. The love that cinema inspired, however, was special. It was born out of the conviction that cinema was an art unlike any other: quintessentially modern; distinctively accessible; poetic and mysterious and erotic and moral -- all at the same time. Cinema had apostles. (It was like religion.) Cinema was a crusade. For cinephiles, the movies encapsulated everything. Cinema was both the book of art and the book of life.’
- Susan Sontag, ‘The Decay of Cinema’
French cinéphile, from ciné + -phile
: A devotee of motion pictures
- Merriam Webster.
On Christmas week 1910, India saw the birth of its first cinephile who while watching ‘The Life of Christ’ had visions, and he wrote:
“While the life of Christ was rolling fast before my physical eyes, I was mentally visualizing the Gods, Shri Krishna, Shri Ramchandra, their Gokul and Ayodhya. I was gripped by a strange spell. Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on the screen?”
Dada Saheb Phalke saw every film he could get his hands on from that moment. His love for the medium drove him to London to further understand the techniques and refine his senses as a filmmaker. On his return, Dada Saheb Phalke relived his dreams to make films. Dada Saheb Phalke had seen the film like many others but the passion he bore, the love he showed, and the way he pioneered the exhibition and production of the medium made him the first cineaste we had in India. However, similar to Alfred Nobel his great discovery of the medium did not move in the way it should have been. Dada Shaeb Phlake did not inspire or increase cinephilia in India, but set the base for film production, however, there are no clear indication of development in mise-en-scene from then on. And he unknowingly laid the foundation of Bollywood where ever since we haven’t been able to shake- off our love for the epic form.
He also laid the roots for ‘Idol-worship’ in Indian cinema that has continued to be an important aspect of identification for the Indian audience with cinema. When audiences watched their beloved mythology came alive on screen, the first seeds of ‘fascination’ and ‘love’ without a critical space became etched in our genes. Ever since, the admiration has grown by leaps and bounds. It’s only during the late 40s that this form of love was further enlarged and cinephile and cinephilia as such developed. Further, with the growth of the bourgeois in India their mannerism formed another form of love for the medium. This love was build on the foundation of forming a knowledge and displaying it, or watching films to become a part of a social class or acceptance. It’s this form of love for cinema that has flourished and is booming currently in India. Where typical of the nature of such cine-goers: hypocrisy, lies, and pseudo-intellectualism is rampant. The love of cinema in India can be seen from three basic divisions:
1) Idol worship
2) The Bourgeois Gaze
The inception of the ‘Calcutta Film Society’ is a landmark event in the history of Indian cinema and the advent of ‘Cinephilia in India’. The film society spearheaded a growth in the way people looked at films and viewed cinema in the country. This rise of film societies in India inspired a legion of filmmakers; especially in Calcutta, audience had an access to watch movies and meet like minded people unlike before. Satyajit Ray, Chidananda Das Gupta and Bansi Chandragupta sowed the first seeds of ‘Cinephilia’ in India, that eventually lead to the growth of these three men to writing and making films in times to come: Ray as a filmmaker, Das Gupta as critic and Bansi Chandragupta as an Art Director.
Similarly, Adoor Goapalakrishan a graduate of FTII, Pune established the first society in Kerala, the society also aimed at production, distribution and helping to formulate a passage for good cinema in state of Kerala. Interestingly, the enthusiasm and passion of the ‘period’ is the main source of strength along with the support of the government agencies (FFC now NFDC) that led to the emergence of auteur and good cinema for a considerable period of time. The death of film societies rather the death of enthusiasm, passion and lack of support was a major blow to the decline in ‘Cinema of India’ and ‘Cinephilia in general’.
There seems to be a vacuum- a black hole- somewhere between the transitions of cinema in India from 70s to 80s, because it’s exactly in this short period everything seems to have declined. The right reasons are hard to pin down. Except for the notable cinephile turned filmmakers, critics, and historian of 60s and 70s, post 80s onwards ‘Cinephilia in India’ and ‘Cinema in India’ suffered from the same fate. And it’s during this era of decline that film festivals in India and cinephilia in general shifted from love of cinema into snobbism, lies and hypocrisy. It’s not that it did not exist during the era bygone, it did, but it materialized and become a dominant presence that can be felt even today. It has more to do with the bourgeois framework that we come from than our own individual thinking. Where to see, collect, and intellectualize is an important sign of knowledge and collective approval from the crowd and society. Either one has too much money to exhibit those attribute or highlight them using the tools of knowledge.
Interestingly, ‘Idol-worship’ continued to be an important part of the culture: socially and politically, where the ‘matinee’ idol embodied an important place in the minds and heart of film lovers. This spirit has continued to grow and today in the age of satellite boom the media has populated the images into a state of fetish (Like offering prayers when their superstar is sick, and the media reports it as breaking news). While a win by a film director, at an important film festival, in the competitive section of the festival goes unreported. This type of fetish is seen across India. Here, Bollywood is a form of escapism; a place where people go to dream, relax, enjoy and laugh and this assembly reminds us of the fascination our audiences had with other form of popular recreation most notably the circus. However, unlike the circus, the ‘dreams’ and the ‘life’ portrayed on screen are ‘larger’ than what most middle-class Indian population could have aspiration of, the loves here exist as fetish, where any form of critical breakdown is never accepted. Though their lies a similarity of ‘ fetish’ in a cinephile’s love for cinema and the fetish found in 'idol-worship', however, as Christian Metz points out that the ‘fetish’ in the case of a cinephile transpose into a different altitude altogether:
“The fetish is the cinema in its physical state," says Metz, adding that when the love for the cinema is extended from a fascination with technique to a critical study of its codes and processes of signification, the disavowal attached to the fetish becomes a form of knowledge (ibid., p. 75). Cinephilia, in other words, enables the semiotician to love the cinema while gaining a critical distance from its lure
On the other hand, the love of the cinephile has the ‘space’ for a critical breakdown and s (he) is ready to provide evidence, reasons, and is equipped regarding the understanding of the medium. Cinephile is ‘The Love of Cinema’ as Christian Metz defined the term for ‘Cinephile’ in his book; ‘The Imaginary Signifier’. However, the love of cinema for a cinephile also has similarities in the intensity with which the basic three divisions of film lovers are in India, but the difference lies in their degree and range of love for the medium. This degree and range display different aspects that is related to the history, tradition, culture of the medium per se, but it also attributes qualities that are purely related to our own being an existence. Here the love is just not an attraction: physical or mental, but the love is also about exploring the properties and stylistics’ traits of the medium. This is an important trait of ‘watching’ and ‘learning’ for the cinephile, but for ‘idol-worshipers’ it does not matter, everything is acceptable, provided their favorite stars are present. Hence, ‘Cinephile’ or ‘Cinephilia’ should not be confused with such form of love and imagery worship.
So then the question arises, does ‘Cinephilia exist in India’? The answer is that they have always existed even in the darkest periods, but in such small numbers that it’s hard to point them out. However, post 90s globalization in India, due to the opening of Indian economy for various FDI which eventually lead to the growth in various sectors. This has also contributed to the way film viewing experience has changed through: Multiplexes, Satellite channels and availability of cheap CDs and DVDs. This also lead to the rise of Internet and mobile culture. All these aspects has lead to the growth and ‘Appreciation of Cinema’ in the country, where people are getting aware about watching good films and not just sticking to watching routine Bollywood fare. These groups of people mainly belong to the urban class. The urban class of film lover notably refers to people leaving in the metros in India (but such from of bourgeois gaze is just not restricted to metros) they have the facilities and the accessibilities to watch foreign films in theatres, film festivals, and in their own homes. And it’s exactly here we find second group of film lovers and these group should not be confused with cinephilia or even to an extent adhering to cinephile.
Here the ‘ urban class’ of film lovers have taken up the task of appreciating foreign films, and among this social class some typical traits of bourgeoisie narrow-mindness and hypocrisy can be seen. And is evident through all forms of cinema exhibition in the country whether at a film festivals or film screening. This appreciation of films could be referred as the ‘Bourgeois Gaze’ . There is a distinction between people who fall under such platter of film lovers from yesteryears and today. The older lot has slightly become more reconciled in their own cocoons and could be seen more with their own types at film festivals or film screenings and their discussion or the sharing never moves beyond such social group. On the contrary, the younger lot of the same stature actually looks forward to engage, display, or even interact usually in awe to display their love or sudden knowledge of the field. Yet, both forms do not have the space cultivated in for a critical discourse. This is because the love itself is not a pure manifestation, but come towards the field with other invisible source of pretence that carries a disavowal of some form of hidden materialistic desires and acceptance.
This form of façade is very different from the ‘desires’ exhibited by a cinephile towards their relationship of cinema. All three forms of cine-love is justified and accepted at its own limitation and boundaries, however, what causes the distinction of film love is in the personal desires exhibited in the relationship of subject towards the medium. Each desires again could be debated within the framework of an individual vision and goals of life, but when such ‘desires’ are placed on the broader outlook of the medium forms, the social responsibility, the political scenario and scope that the medium itself provides, the clear limitation and redundancy of vision over personal materialistic quest makes the love critically flawed unlike that of a cinephile. A cinephile may be materialistic but he does not become blind in believing that there is no world beyond the limits of his own skin.
Today foreign films are released in theatres and Film titles are available in the market, and there are 24hrs satellite TV showing not just Bollywood or Hollywood but World Movies. I’m not even counting the amount of films downloaded over the Internet that forms an important growth of watching films, sharing films along with music in colleges in India. Students across India; consciously or unconsciously watch tons of films from all over the world. And these are just not people who are studying cinema or mass communication, the field is varied. However, then the question arises, does this make them into ‘ cinephile’ or signal the boom of ‘ cinephilia’ in the country, because it's this very lot today that is directing more films than the people who are actually passing out of films schools. They have seen their fare share of European/ Art films and have love for Bollywood and Hollywood. But this trend of filmmakers and the ‘fresh’ cinema of our country that is directly linked to such group of men/women, who come from this diverse field, (some of them go on to study ‘Cinema’ or simply join the bandwagon to make films) cannot be linked to the same rise of ‘Cinephile and ‘Cinephilia’ of 60s and 70s that gave rise to great filmmakers and cinema.
Because, irrespective of the growth, and appreciation of good films or the change in the way films are being made in mainstream cinema, the core, and the stylistic trait or the advancement of mise-en-scene is completely non-existent. Most mainstream fare, if not all, resemble each other and technical competence is not the sign of an individuality that is the core to any form of art that could separate it from lets say a mass-manufactured good which is severely formed out of alimentation; irrespective of the presence and hard work. So having a new Jimmy-Jib, new Panavision, an avid system or latest DI advancement is not improving the quality of our films. These batches of film lovers are very similar to the ‘Idol-worshiper’ in the forms of their neglect and alienation from the history and tradition of film culture, and almost no understanding and co-relation of the medium either Indian or Foreign. When the zeal of understanding our own traditions and culture does not exist, how can one ‘honestly’ express about others or go on to make films in taking a ‘leap’ in defining their own visual language that could be called individualistic.
This is another core reason why there are no film critics, historian or people severely interested in writing on the medium. Because when they are not equipped, how one can provide evidence when questioned, reasons when pointed or admit their flaws. It’s predominately in-between this group of people that a severe habit of snobism and lying exist. India, maybe, the only country in the world where people from all walk of life and different age-groups lie about movies- to appear intellectual or make things so arcane that it becomes difficult to understand and leaves the other confused. This rise should not be confused with any form of cinephilia. I won’t deny that exception exists in all forms, but exceptions don’t make the rules. The last great batches of cinephiles went on to makes movies in both mainstream and regional cinema in India. However, everything is not lost, irrespective of the fact, that we come from a very rigid social framework yet there seems to be a ray of hope. There are three important reasons for the same:
1) We have a thriving film industry.
2) A generation aware of world cinema is emerging.
3) The slow but important rise of cinephile and converts.
Cinephilia or Cinephile is no special term or institution that requires a person to join or be part of, it’s a conscious or subconscious linkage of people who are preparing a long arduous journey of being an eternal student. Who enjoys all forms of movies, who is ready to be informed and be informed, and who slowly builds his own course of aesthetics through writing, watching, programming, or making films. Here direct influence without understanding has no values: aesthetically or technically. Similarly there can be no space for dishonesty.
Cinephilia is slowly emerging from across India. Some of them are converts; people who have shifted their loyalty from the first two brands of film lovers. Here the shift does not mean that one stops appreciating mainstream fare and becoming holed up in the asses of art cinema. It simply means shading of “lies”, “hypocrisy”, “pseudo- intellectual” that so badly engulf the urban class. I myself had to work tremendously hard to bring in a change from the ‘The Bourgeois Gaze’ towards actually ‘loving cinema’, and its then I realized that the world of films I was living and dreaming was fake and unreal. People whom I meet at film festivals, read online, or anywhere are not what they pretend to be. It’s then only this gradual shift to actually ‘loving cinema’ arouse. I could see the different blend of film lovers and differentiate people who call them cinephile or label the tag of film lovers to be some form of ‘rise of cinephilia’. Beside, it’s very few who have been purely in love from the beginning with pure honesty and reflect the same. These people are the hardest to find here.
However, there has been a considerable growth in the last couple of years in the rise of cinephiles. People who enjoy the diversity that it provides and they are slowly picking up its tradition: reflecting and re-learning. Of late, the cinephile have access to all sources of film-watching much like the other group and they are using the Internet to take advantage of the cross-cultural values and understanding of the medium through blogs, magazines and discussion. If this group of people are able to ‘inform’ and help, especially the second group of film lovers in the country to understand the medium better and help them overcome few boundaries than their could be a vital and a strong pool of people who would be talking, writing, and hoping to making changes in the medium. Wherein one could witness the emergence of New Wave of films, writing, and a ‘choice’ for the audience.
It’s is through this very ‘few’ that a new cinema of the country or a new way of looking at our own cinema and beyond could come through. Because it’s through them that one could help overcome the illiteracy about the medium people have; to help them see the difference between good camerawork and bad camerawork; a bad shot or good shot; between the existent of a director and non-existent. The Internet is the first tool in the struggle to break into the large pool of reaching people, because in the last decade or so, films and film writing has become separated into two large pool ‘ academia’ or ‘mainstream’ and its this gap or a ‘ middle-path’ the cinephile must find and reflect. It’s exactly here the Internet is providing the possibility of an alternate from the clutches of editors and censorship.
At the same time it’s providing an important source of learning. In a country where there is no infrastructure for a critical discourse hence the Internet becomes an ocean of learning. India being a place where most cinephile can’t afford a film magazine it’s learning off the Internet that becomes vital. I won’t deny that a number of critical writing on directors or any form of write-up by cinephile lack critical ingenuity, but we can’t overlook the idea of growth and the prospect of establishing a critical school of thought that could be called our own, and not directly influenced by someone else. Yet always be open to learn and improve is vital. Because in the end, it should not be about you and me, but more of, towards the improvement of the relationship one has with the medium. So the more I work toward my relationship the better I get to understand the forms of its existence.
Cinephilia would help India get back into the days it once had or to even wave a march forward into representing the true face of the nation: through form and content. It is the growth, sustainability and constant self-assurance and motivation of cinephiles across the nation that is important; especially for the survival of the medium aesthetically. Else film love and idol worship will continue to exist here in India. Cinema will continue to flourish, but cinephile and critics will finally disappear from the face of the country and cinephilia will remain buried as just another romanticized fantasy.
- The Tracking Shot in Kapo, Serge Daney, Senses of Cinema
- The Cinema of Experimentation- Amrit Ganger, Winds from the East.
- The Decay of Cinema: Susan Sontag, New York Times
- Christian Metz: The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema
- Upperstall/ Wikipedia- Profile on Dada Saheb Phalke.
- French Cinephilia: Film Reference