I Think It Would Be Fun To Run a Film Journal

 | Editorial |

  BY Sudarshan Ramani

It is my great privilege and joy to commence my editorship of Projectorhead magazine. I plan to be here for quite a while. Naturally there are responsibilities involved in the day-to-day running of a film journal but for me this is a dream job in the sense that I never imagined that one day I would actually edit a cinephile magazine in India, and, in that position communicate with intelligent writers on film and culture from India and abroad. It could only come to me in a dream because I never consciously expected it to be possible. The excellent work done by Gautam Valluri, who published my earlier pieces in issue 5 and issue 6, provided me as strong a foundation to build from as anyone could hope. On this issue we have old hands, such as Anuj Malhotra and Devdutt Trivedi and some new voices like Rahee Punyashloka and Surbhi Goel as well as such distinguished guests as Messrs Daryl Chin and David Cairns. Succeeding issues will continue the initiative of Projectorhead to provide a vital forum for criticism of audio-visual culture in India. And audio-visual culture, in India and elsewhere, for all the proliferation of multiple digital formats and increasingly bigger TV-Screens and monitors; for all the concerns over the survival of cinema as a medium into the next century, is essentially the culture of cinema.

In India’s middle-class Anglophone community, “film history” tends to be regarded as a hobby. Consider the fact that most people use words like “movie-buffs” to characterize people involved in such a pursuit. The word doesn’t have any flavor of seriousness or rigor attached to it; in fact it makes us sound like addicts for a particular kind of sweet. Cinephile is the more respectful word, having a Greek suffix for one, but here too we are not so far from the hobbyist, the bibliophile, and the collectors of stamps, magazines, toys, and comic books. Not that I have a better idea for another word. Rather I hope that a word like cinephilia can be expanded in the dimensions of its meaning. Loving cinema ought to mean that you want to understand the people who make it, their attitudes, their political and philosophical ideas and beliefs, and the culture that they come from. But more importantly, it ought to mean understanding your own attitude and self, and the culture where and when you made this great cinematic discovery to start with.

The endurance of the work of certain film-makers such as Yasujiro Ozu, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Ritwik Ghatak defies established mainstream ideas of target demographic, acceptable content and political ideology. The films of Jean-Luc Godard won’t be coming to any local theater in India any time soon but his films are taught in Indian film schools, they are screened in advertising houses and shown to students of media and cultural studies. Film history is a vital source for information and resource to our cultural industry, confined and restricted yes, but no means as trivial and marginal as popular claimed or believed. The main problem with cinephilia in India is neither its lack of voice or forum nor even a place to gather and discuss films. It’s chiefly the problem of dissemination of culture treasure. Take my case, when I discovered “old films” I did it through DVDs on the shelves of the British and French culture centers, the Alliance Française and the British Council, where I saw films by Michael Powell, Hitchcock, Chaplin, Jean-Pierre Melville, Renoir, Godard and Tati. To have access to these films, legal access, one has to belong to one or other elite circle to start with.

Of course now, the situation is remedied somewhat. We have TV channels like World Movies and NDTV Lumière (where I first saw Claude Lanzmann’s Sobibor, a movie I never dreamed would ever be shown on Indian TV), we have companies like Enlighten Film Society and the now defunct Palador Pictures and other initiatives of a similar kind. One can protest that such offerings come under the dilettante label of “world cinema”, another term that falls flat on the tongue; merely as an exotic curio for an emerging consumerist market of middle-class urbanites but such protests are perhaps too petty. But the problem of correct appreciation of these great films remains, chiefly the fact that many of them are rarely on offer to be seen on the big screen. One of my all-time greatest film experiences remains the Japan Foundation’s generous offering of repertory screenings to the 2010 Mumbai Film Festival, where one could see films like Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of Late Chrysanthemums on 35mm as well as offerings by Mikio Naruse, Seijun Suzuki, the underrated Kiju Yoshida, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Keisuke Kinoshita’s truly weird Immortal Love. That such events are rare and scarce in a self-proclaimed cosmopolitan city like Mumbai is a cultural shame. Perhaps in Pune, another elite circle, one has better access to repertory screenings. But the fact is that these events, when they happen, have an influence of some kind or another and are relevant to our cultural discourse, our sense of who we are and where we are going.

2012 is being celebrated as the centennial year for Indian cinema. A hundred years since Dadasaheb Phalke made Raja Harishchandra, even if the film was merely in production during 1912 and released in 1913, yet another misapplication of film history. News channels have picked it up, a recent piece charted the rise of “parallel cinema” in Indian history, we shall perhaps see more references, tributes and salutes to the past in the coming few months. A creative programmer could perhaps include a screening of Dadasaheb Phalke’s film with other films made around the world in anno 1912-1913, films like D. W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley the world’s first gangster film, Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas or films by the pre-Revolutionary Russian film-maker Yevgeni Bauer. Such programming would challenge and correct the hermetic self-confinement of India’s popular cinema.

The discourse on film history in India, and the international popular culture outside, is that of a narrow-minded nostalgia that obscures the past even as it accords it the dignity of a dinosaur exhibit. Nostalgia, a Greek word, in the original sense was better understood as “the pain of returning home” rather than a longing for a past that never was. One ought to look at the old Hindi films and feel a range of emotions rather than simple blind celebration. Try and make sense of the overwhelming sameness of characterization and storytelling in mainstream commercial films for a whopping six decades. Try and find explanations for the persistent absence of strong female characters and the continuing stereotypes of minorities as comic-relief and sidekicks. The fact, that Bollywood displays a greater “genius of the system” than many other popular cinemas in film history. Of course, by talking about the impossible divide between artistic vision and commercial sensibility, I don’t mean to revive dead grudges or invoke new bitterness at old shame. Rather rally against the notion that we must be doing something right to make films for a hundred years.

When I attended the Mani Kaul retrospective at the Films Division building in Mumbai, an intelligent woman started a petition to the effect that “Bollywood” ought to be removed as a name or description for our film industry. She deemed it, justifiably, as a colonialist handle. I signed the petition but I did it thinking that to a great extent “Bollywood” better describes the crass, copy-by-rote films that still comprise the greater volume of Indian films made per year, films to a large extent made and consumed through a sense of inertia rather than any genuine passion for the product. And “Bollywood” does characterize the dominant popular cinema in India for more than forty years better than any other proposed replacement does. The word itself in its very utterance contains the admixture of colonialist repression, a sense of the self-loathing and shame which is reflected in so many Hindi films about impossible dreams and throttled desires, always fulfilled by mere impossibility and one-in-blue-moon-chance, never by any human endeavour. The defeatist ideology of our commercial cinema is the most honest expression of its guilt, its failure to adequately represent life and society in India. And this guilt is the greater part of the story of Indian cinema and the one given least attention. If cinema and film criticism is to go forward, and an anniversary year is as good as any, than that is the place to start.

Clinging as we do to the shadow of Hollywood, scholars of the Indian film industry ought to regard the superb work done by critics and historians in unearthing the ideological and political subconscious of the American commercial cinema. Submitted to serious questions about its attitudes towards race, sex and class, old Hollywood nonetheless endures as a genuinely authentic popular cinema. The serious questions posed to these films revealed far more ambiguous currents than visible on the surface and moreover kept these films fresh for future audiences, revealing the works of old American masters to be far more rich and modern than people would suppose. Whether the Indian film industry can withstand such scrutiny and endure in the face of serious questioning can only be known when people start asking the right questions. When researchers start unearthing the labyrinth of pre-production and production files to get a sense of how films were really made from yesterday to today; to bring to light the system of compromise and self-censorship whose unmistakable fingerprints are visible on the screen for all to see. That’s a long-term project which at the very least, functions as a phenomenal thought experiment. At once you are liberated from concerns over immediate impact, topicality and proposals for changes and influence on the production process of cinema itself; an impossible position to fulfill but one insisted upon by producers and media aficionados anytime someone raises questions on the transparency of the Emperor’s clothes. It is the goal of this magazine to pursue these and other related lines of inquiry. How think and thick our mainstream and alternative cinemas truly are can only be understood when they are subject to a serious inquiry and criticism. And this magazine is as good a place as any to start.