A Letter from Chandigarh

 | Essay |

  BY Surbhi Goel

Dear fellow Cinephile,

                I write this to you from the foothills of the Himalayas, while lights from a tiny hamlet in the Mountains rival the stars with their ember sparkle; visible from Sukhna Lake, a quintessential landmark of this hypnagogic city: these ‘Kasauli Lights’ sprinkled across the tiny strip of sky, a gathering of spirits, are like the dreams and dust in my cinephilic eyes.

City of Photographers (Sebastian Moreno, 2006) is a protest documentary, recalling what many gritty photographers did in Chile in 1960s, when life was cheap for any political activist. But, more than the subject of the film, the narrative, its heroes and protagonists – the film points out that vital aspect of life – conviction, enthusiasm and vivified kindred self which is sans self - consciousness or deliberation. This is also a definition of subversion at an individual level, a fight against the power bloc of cultural power play; a silent but relentless resistance to the already accepted and assimilated easy morality, devoid of any solid plank, dancing like a headless chicken on the bones and dreams of those who dare to dissent and question the injustice. This quality of subversion resembles liminality of cinephilia – a complete and immersive enjoyment of cinema; sincere intentions to understand its aspects and self-awareness that such an avocation convokes. And this particular documentary also defines another vital feature of cinephilia – sharing information, obsessions, interests, opinions, stories, anecdotes, trivia around, about and of cinema; leaking out information, splitting any power notion to contain and dominate, especially in the internet age, fast communication – where speed matters but also sincerity and intention. To put simply, I had goose bumps when I saw this film and I experienced it even more when I screened it in a makeshift film club in Chandigarh (a sleepy town nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, actually a village with aspirations of a mega city).

This film club, known as MeTa Movie Club, is an open air space where a few cine addicts set up a screen and sound under a tree, with the star filled sky as  backdrop, huddled together, watching films that they had no idea existed prior to the screening. A short- lived, intense romance that this club was (it is in hibernation now, lovers having parted company), it actually symbolized Chandigarh’s ephemeral interest in art, culture, cinema or politics and, if I may delve into a bit of drollery, its own self. It is the very nature of the city – a tri-city, actually – a naturalized ménage a trois of a cluster that spreads over a Union territory and two forever- nascent towns; labeled by some as the Daulatabad of Nehru, an embarrassing nocturnal dream of the Swiss architect Le Corbusier : a fledgling soft-core high modernism exhibit.

This short infatuation of a club was filled with an invited visit by Ajay Bhardwaj from Delhi, who was present for interaction after the screening of his films on Lal Singh ‘Dil’, a poet activist and on the  Partition of Punjab; the extremely talented Jaideep Varma with his brilliant feature documentary Leaving Home (2010); and numerous films chosen with care and thought and write-ups put together, complete with suggestions for relevant co-features, done with sincerity and utter obsession that only a cine nerd is capable of - a bit of combinatorial over-curating at times with dedicated months to Cinema of Subcultures, Freedom of expression, Cinematic techniques etc. – a  thoroughly torrid fling.

MeTa Movie Club did have a following of a handful of dedicated people who were sensitive, interested and had the ability to be utterly shocked at watching Mulholland Drive (2001), or silenced after Nowhere in Africa (2001), or be at each other’s throats during the after-discussion following the screening of Holy Smoke!(1999), or find a collective political awareness after seeing Lemon Tree (2008) or the simple pleasure of watching The Rat Trap (1982), Aranyer Din Ratri (1970), Woman in the Dunes (1964), Whale Rider (2002), Silent Light (2007), Sita Sings the Blues (2008), Calcutta (1969)  and many more carefully selected films. This short run gave me utter satisfaction apropos curating screenings was concerned and forming connections with fellow cinephiles who worked together to organize it; to keep the conversation flowing after the screenings, occasional ‘potluck’ dinner worked its magic as well.

Cinema and Chandigarh has had this forever-chasing-each-other relationship. Most folks have an adrenaline rush for multiplexes that offer caramel popcorn and great deals combining weirdly-shaped potato chips with regular-sized carbonated drinks and a license to ogle (and not just at the specters projected on the screen). This is India’s unofficial city of Ogling, perhaps the only place in the world with a designated route known as ‘gheri route’ (spread around colleges, hostels and University) – a perpetual voyeur’s lane lined with people who want to watch and be watched, accost and be accosted, unceasing obsession. In such a scopophilic city, cinema is a transmogrified projection of the Self in Punjabi films such as Jatt and Juliet (2012), wherein the rustic youth of the hinterlands dream of courting and winning the hand of the virginal, ambrosial, Westernized girl who speaks English with a flourish and can mix Vodka and traditions to perfection. Cinephilia extend its arms like a mythical Kali with her multiple appendages in niche film clubs, private screenings, Alliance Francaise/British Council/Goethe Institute backed ‘foreign film festival’ and a handful of enthusiasts in the Punjab University, punctuated by brief misfired spurts of the official bureaucratic channels of Government-funded cultural organizations or well meaning but lukewarm attempts by the Chandigarh Film Society.

One site of memory in this placid city is of watching Shivaji in a city multiplex with a majority audience of Tamils. What I remember of that screening is precisely – people dancing, clapping, whistling, distributing sneaked-in sweetmeats when Rajnikant appeared on the screen, and a fight sequence with cars flying so fast that my eyes scorched from watching the blur, people singing songs and more whistles and non-stop commentary from more than half the people in the theatre. Of course this shocked me – I had not seen anything like this in my life, before or since – a never-ending carnival where I was carried forward, into and out of the cinema hall, by a sea of people chanting ‘Annaa!’ (Tamil for elder brother, a name that Rajnikant is known by). Absolutely the high point in the history of Chandigarh!

Sometimes the meditative rhythm of this hypnagogic city receives a boost or a change in pace aided by lazy and uninterested journalists as well, people who are trying to inject staleness into the still waters.  In September 2009, the gag reflex of some of the academia made headlines in the newspapers – where a teacher in Punjab University was berated by some of her colleagues for attacking the Indian Culture, or being irresponsible for supervising a research project by a male student on the transgressive themes in the films of Catherine Breillat and Pedro Almovodar. The city press went berserk with insinuations that were comical and hilarious, as well as tragic, and exposed the nadir that journalism in the city had so happily descended into. Amid threats to life and abusive emails, it was shocking to see academicians who championed the cause of culture, held important and apex positions in the educational system and the cultural scenario of the city, go overboard and attack the film culture itself – declaring it to be against Indian Culture; a Western invention. It would have been amusing if it did not carry an actual threat to the well-being of a person. This happened in a place that advocated high French feminism and subversive literature!

Around this time, amazing coincidences helped to clear up this hazy dust storm in a teacup. The discovery of legendary Adrian Martin’s writings online was a silver lining that turned around the disappointment. Although his works were available in many Film Journals previously, his intense engagement with the World Wide Web created an inspired and inspiring energy that catapulted cinemania waves to an all-time high.  There was a renewal in online cinephilia/cinemania around this time, also thanks to the innovative blogs of Catherine Grant (Film Studies for Free) and Kevin Lee’s foray into Video criticism, which provided affirmation of my long-held ideas and notions. It was astonishing, not to mention pleasantly surprising, to come across people who were putting to practice some of the ideas that had been bubbling in my mind for years – I was convinced that human intelligence is indeed interconnected in ways unknown. Tim Lucas, the inceptor of Video Watchdog, has been churning a cinemania in America;  Girish Shambu illustrated what  dedicated cinephilia could attain, Kimberly Lindbergs’ blog  and interest in film culture being a bright beacon, as well as a young IT professional in India, Vinayak Razdan, whose archival abilities and humour rival those of anyone in the world via the best cinephilia blog from India , the list is exhaustive. Cinephiles of the world united – I found the galaxy I had been searching for – open access is what nurtures cinephilia, sharing chisels it further. In nutshell, this also outlines the present and future of Cinephilia in Chandigarh and world at large, where people with diverse backgrounds and even professional interests come together – some of them fully engrossed in Cinema, Film Studies, Professional Film Criticism and others fully engrossed in Cinema while making a living via other ways and means. And the criss cross, the grid takes shape online – be it online journals, video criticism, mash – ups, images, archives and facts, even films uploaded on video platforms.

During this crisis filled period, what fully restored my confidence was a gracious filmmaker, writer Jaideep Varma, who agreed to bring his documentary film Leaving Home for my film club and students in Panjab University, bearing all the costs himself – and he did it twice. It was an important chapter when students were dancing while sitting in their chairs or on the floor while the film was on; the gritty courage of this young filmmaker who had put everything, including his sanity, on the line to make this film, as well as his other creative projects; a man who had given up a lucrative job in advertising to pursue his dreams – and dreams of meaningful life, not of hoarding money or fame; who once told me that he wanted the respect of those people who saw his films, not fame. It broke for me that thin veil of cynicism and utter disappointment that had begun to settle, owing to my bittersweet experiences of being hounded for making a case for Film Studies (an area of my primary research).

 Gurvinder Singh's Anhe Ghode Da Daan (2012)

Buoyed by these discoveries, chance meetings and an alcove that world cinephilia provided, it has been  joyride. Regular screenings, followed by discussions in Panjab University, are a one-stop pit for creating vibrations that one hopes will facilitate further uniting of cine activities from around the world. Of the many ideas and dreams that take shape every day, some get realized, while others are deferred. Gurvinder Singh brought his film Anhey Ghode Da Dhan (2012) and the response was magical. The last two years have been a time of screening films by the likes of Tony Gatlif, Satyajit Ray, Asghar Farhadi, Abbas Kiarostami, Terence Malick, among others – the audience may wane or swell, but it unquestionably persists with plans for future screenings, film festivals galore.

Yet, I fight doubts and prejudice, my own and that of others, to do what I can, because I do not know what else to do. Such is the nature of love (for Cinema), even if it fails in living up to expectations, it remains, it persists, it flounders but it stays; it expands, even takes a reprieve, but lives every day, every split second, somehow it never goes away. And, it dares to dream, even with a bit of dust in the eyes.                            

Yours sincerely,