Friday, January 18, 2013

Many types of “new” – notes from a discussion about cinema

Thought I'd put up a fragmented report of the session – “Transgressions: Essaying the New in Indian Cinema” – that I moderated at the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival with Shyam Benegal, Onir, Mira Hashmi and Dhritiman Chatterjee. Dhritiman spoke for all of us, I think, when he said he was a little confused about what to make of the word “transgressions” in this context. For the purposes of the session, I felt we should define the term broadly – for any filmic movement, or individual film, that represented even a small departure from the dominant cinematic mode in India, giving us new forms of storytelling or new lenses through which to view social and political issues.

Such departures could range from the so-called New Wave of the early 1970s to some of the films produced within the “multiplex culture” of recent years, with directors setting their stories in the hinterland and attempting greater realism in language and production design. Or it could refer to a nuanced treatment of gender roles and identities in films such as the ones made by Onir. Much also depends on context: as Benegal pointed out in his speech at the festival inauguration the previous day, in pre-Independence India there were films that were banned by the British because they attacked colonialism; those films would have been transgressive for their time.

As you can guess, then, our conversation became a wide-ranging one, with far more talking points than could be accommodated in the one-hour slot. But here’s some of what was covered:

– Commercial cinema in India has largely been about maintaining the status quo; about upholding the assumptions of a traditional, patriarchal, feudal society, or giving us a superhero who solves society’s problems with his two fists. As one of the torchbearers of a more reflective, less triumphal cinema in the 1970s, Benegal spoke about the challenges he faced in attempting to make “my kind of film” in an escapism-oriented industry. (“When Satyajit Ray asked me what ambition I had for my first film, I said it should open in Eros and run for the weekend!”) He also discussed his own changing responses to commercial cinema. “I used to think of mainstream films as completely mindless, without any serious consequence. What is the take-home from such a film, I wondered. But popular filmmaking
isn’t as naive as I had thought it was. The present generation of young filmmakers has come from the cinema of that kind - they are modern people looking at the larger picture of cinema entertainment, and they are using what they need from the old tradition.” And he spoke with admiration about some of today’s directors like Vishal Bhardwaj and Anurag Kashyap, who have a knack for imaginative storytelling and for expressing their own concerns without being weighed down by too much ideological baggage. (Note: similar thoughts on the diluting of specific ideologies in post-liberalisation Indian cinema were expressed by Dibakar Banerjee in the story I recently did about him.)

– This led to a brief discussion about explicitly political cinema as it used to be in the early 1970s, when Dhritiman Chatterjee played the lead roles in Mrinal Sen’s Padatik and Ray’s Pratidwandi – films that were, to different extents, influenced by the French and American student movements and the great unrest of young people in that era. I asked Chatterjee if he felt there had been a falling away of political consciousness in our movies since then, and he recalled a time when “there was a critical mass in thinking, when a number of people were thinking the same way. I remember in the 1970s visiting Shyam’s place and sitting with greats like Vijay Tendulkar, where the talk was not about cinema as such – but it led to a kind of cinema based on a certain sensibility. I think there still is political cinema, but it is not political cinema of the kind it was in the 60s and 70s. Which is normal; things change.”

Any cinema, he said, is the product of a socio-political context. “With liberalisation, that context changed – things became more apolitical. The other practical thing that has happened is that cinema is not necessarily the prime platform for activist thinking today – that has been taken over by media that reports instantly, TV, the internet, blogs and so on.” But he did voice his view that the younger filmmakers in Bengal these days seem to lack the courage to make the films they really want to make. “The possibility of failure is a no-no.”

– It struck me that both directors on our panel had used atypical funding methods for their cinema. In 1975, Benegal’s Manthan opened with the title “500,000 farmers of Gujarat present...” (each of those farmers contributed two rupees to the film!) and more than 30 years later, in the Internet age, Onir turned to social media to acquired “crowd-funding” for I Am. These are inspirational stories, but they are also reminders that films with unusual or potentially controversial subjects find it difficult to get conventional financing. Onir spoke with feeling about producers telling him “let’s not go there” without even spelling out what “there” meant. Equally problematic, he said, was the issue of censorship. “A censor board, made up by people who have nothing to do with
films, decide that your audience is not ready for a certain subject. And the kinds of biases they have are disturbing.” As he pointed out, offensively sexist mainstream films get passed with U-certificates, but a consensual romantic encounter between two men is seen as problematic. (More on that here.) There was a scene in the child-abuse story in I Am where a young man accuses his mother of having known all along that he was being sexually abused by his stepfather as a child. This scene is sending the wrong signals, the censor board told Onir (a howler of a statement in a country where cases of child abuse by family members are routinely covered up to preserve family “honour”).

– A related talking point – especially relevant today, given the discourse following the Delhi gang-rape and murder – was the depiction of women in mainstream Indian cinema. We have all been conditioned into seeing certain things - including forms of sexual harassment - as acceptable, Mira Hashmi pointed out. “A scene where the hero is pursuing the heroine will begin with Kishore Kumar singing a beautiful song and one’s immediate response is to think: why wouldn’t you want to be wooed like this? Until one day you wake up and say to yourself, maybe not.” Despite the recent, self-congratulatory narrative that we are seeing more films with strong women protagonists, Hashmi feels mainstream cinema has “regressed to all sorts of new levels” – most visibly seen in “item numbers”, where even the camera presents women as disjointed body parts rather than as sentient people. Mixed messages are being sent out all the time, she pointed out: even a film like The Dirty Picture, which talks about how women are perceived or treated, ends up doing the same things itself. “If you’re staring at Vidya Balan’s cleavage at the same time, the message gets a little muddled.”

(Hashmi’s thoughtful, humorous talk also combined nostalgia for older Hindi cinema with a pragmatic acknowledgement of how misleading some of its content could be. “Living in Pakistan, I grew up with the idea that the Muslim Indian lives in a white haveli, eating lots of paan, doing adaab – it all seemed very exciting. My first visit to India as a child was a rude awakening – yeh toh bilkul Pakistan jaisa hai, and I had thought I was going to a foreign country. Where were those Muslims, I wondered. Where was Rishi Kapoor? It didn’t make sense.”)

– With limited time, one of the many things we didn’t get to discuss was the continuing hegemony of the Bombay film industry. “As far as viewers in Pakistan are concerned, there is no such thing as regional Indian cinema,” Hashmi had noted earlier, but this is equally true of most Hindi-speaking viewers in India too. There is a definite gap to be filled in film distribution as well as in availability of DVD prints with good subtitles. Perhaps, in a nation as large and varied as India, this is the most transgressive idea of all: that people living in one part of the country might one day have easy access to the cinemas produced in the other parts.

12 comments:

  1. Seems to have been a charged and satisfying discussion, and all in one hour!. I really like what Mr Chatterjee said. His views seem uptodate. He does not seem overly nostalgic. Many say that all cinema, for that matter art, is political even as they label themselves apolitical.

    I agree it'd be great to get regional cinema. I still remember when I was in school, Sunday afternoon meant watching a good regional film on Doordarshan. Access should have improved but it's the other way round now.

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  2. haha, the benegal line about his film opening at eros was excellent! wonder what ray's response was to that?

    regarding hashmi's comments, again, as a cis-het male who grew up in India and went to an all boys school and didn't have a healthy interaction with girls his age till 18, it smacks of at least a little dis-ingenuousness.

    surely, a more accurate statement would be that one (hetero Indian women of some socio-economic mobility?) would love to be wooed by a fictive entity as codified by an earnestly awkward, gorgeously cherubic and fundamentally harmless rishi kapoor soundtracked by a popular 70s kishore kumar song, but the reality being that when the feller in your paara or mohalla, or housing society who looks like the wedding planner from monsoon wedding does the same, the results are probably less fun and the repercussions likely, less than desirable.

    But said Rishi Kapoor manque is as fictive in real life as the average Indian Muslim living in a resplendent white villa, spouting shayari and chewing paan from a gilded case.

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  3. Sapera: Benegal said Ray's response was "Oh, it will run for more than a weekend!"

    But said Rishi Kapoor manque is as fictive in real life as the average Indian Muslim living in a resplendent white villa...

    Of course, and I'm sure Hashmi knows that - think that's obvious from her comments.

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  4. Commercial cinema in India has largely been about maintaining the status quo; about upholding the assumptions of a traditional, patriarchal, feudal society, or giving us a superhero who solves society’s problems with his two fists

    I don't think this line is accurate at all. Indian commercial cinema has traditionally been more radical than conservative, throughout its history (with the 80s being the exception to the rule)

    Most great Indian stars of Hollywood - be it Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, AB or the Khans have had fairly radical screen personas always challenging status-quo in their films

    There really hasn't been a consevative equivalent of a John Wayne or a Jimmy Stewart in Indian movies. In regional cinema maybe (eg: Rajkumar in Kannada cinema), but not in Bollywood.

    And that's fair enough because it is natural for a young nation such as ours with not a lot of success in the past to have a radical slant unlike older, more successful countries like UK and US.

    But I just didn't get this remark on Commercial Indian cinema championing feudalism and patriarchy. Inaccurate.

    Bollywood Movies have challenged patriarchy in their own sweet way from Awaara to DDLJ.

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  5. Shrikanth: interesting perspective, but I think we may be looking at the subject through different prisms, and with different benchmarks for what is "conservative" and what is "radical". It's possible, for instance, that DDLJ challenged patriarchy in its own, tangential way - but it is also a film that (like so many mainstream Hindi films of its time) features the hero harassing the heroine for a great deal of its duration (until, of course, she falls in love with him: more on that in this piece, incidentally, not that I'm saying you have to agree with it!) and raises questions of female "honour" in what is sometimes a cringe-inducing way. And it ends with the lovers being permitted to unite only once the patriarch has given in.

    I have no problem with the idea that many of our better, or more influential, mainstream films (such as the ones you mention) are open to multiple readings, but I don't agree that the line about commerical cinema being largely feudal is inaccurate.

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  6. but I don't agree that the line about commerical cinema being largely feudal is inaccurate.

    Indian films may seem regressive when compared with the films of Antonioni. But in reference to the average Indian attitudes, mainstream Indian cinema are decidedly very radical.

    Take a film which you wrote about recently - Anuradha. The film questions very basic assumptions about gender roles (too aggressively for my liking) in a way no Hollywood film would! I bet a Jimmy Stewart or a John Wayne would've refused to act in an American Anuradha.

    And Anuradha is not an exception. I can recall scores of lesser Hindi films from 50s and 60s that are very radical with aggressive stances against the establishment (which is often represented by Seths, Judges, Landlords - in short anyone who is doing good in life).

    Classic Hollywood cinema nowhere near as radical. Yes, there were some "progressive" directors like Stanley Kramer, the odd leftist eccentric like Chaplin. But most films essentially celebrate traditional American virtues (especially genres like the Western) and seldom challenge conventional social mores. (not even the darkest noirs which empathize with behavior that is off the beat, but don't espouse it)

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  7. I wasn't comparing them with Antonioni films, Shrikanth - not even close. Anyway, I do get the broad point you're making. Incidentally, Shyam Benegal did say something a bit similar when I spoke with him later - that many commercial films (including some that we tend to dismiss as "mindless") have hidden depths and little transgressions.

    Btw, many of the Hollywood films you are labelling conservative - such as the Stewart-Wayne ones - aren't so easily categorised, in my view.

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  8. "Perhaps, in a nation as large and varied as India, this is the most transgressive idea of all: that people living in one part of the country might one day have easy access to the cinemas produced in the other parts." Dear Jai, once upon a time, we did have access (not always easy, though) to cinemas produced in different parts of India. That was called the weekend movie on Doordarshan and that was how I got to watch, one hot summer afternoon in Patiala, the unbelievable talent of Kamalhasan unfold in 'Nayakan', in Tamil with subtitles. Wish we could bring back some of the good things about a truly national network like Doordarshan - minus the robotic newsreaders (although I have a vexed affection for them, too).

    ---Sharmishtha

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  9. many of the Hollywood films you are labelling conservative - such as the Stewart-Wayne ones - aren't so easily categorised, in my view.

    Not just the Stewart/Wayne films but several other British and American efforts. How about A Canterbury Tale and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in Britain.

    In America, you've a Ford movie like Judge Priest which very fondly remembers the Confederacy! Elsewhere you have Only Angels have Wings which romanticizes "Karma" even if it is dangerous and life threatening. Even a movie like A Place in the Sun doesn't criticize the establishment but instead makes fun of the half-made youth who chooses to be parasitic on the establishment. Then you've The Heiress where the lead couple are flawed while the stern and pragmatic Ralph Richardson hogs the show! In some ways The Heiress is reverse-DDLJ.

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  10. Shrikanth: as discussed at some length elsewhere on this blog, I don't feel A Canterbury Tale is an unequivocally nostalgic film; it is extremely mature in its understanding of the good as well as the bad aspects of the "old world" and the "modern world". This would apply to many of the other films you have mentioned too. But let's just try to accept that we are looking at the whole conservative-liberal thing through different lenses?

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  11. Sharmishtha: true, of course, and aren't such telecasts still happening on channels like Lok Sabha TV etc? What I had in mind was the theatrical release of new films from around the country, with good subtitles - which is admittedly a utopian and impractical idea in a country this big and varied.

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  12. But let's just try to accept that we are looking at the whole conservative-liberal thing through different lenses?

    Fair enough. Not saying that any of these films should be regarded as "conservative".

    My basic point was that Hollywood films have traditionally been closer to the political and cultural center of US whereas Indian films have generally been left of center (vis-a-vis Indian realities).

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