In his essay, Towards A Canadian (Inter)National Cinema, the critic Robin Wood discussed his feelings towards national cinema from the position of a self-described post-national; an Englishman who settled in Canada for the rest of his personal and professional life. He noted that a discussion on National Cinema had less interest to him vis-à-vis an established narrative of a country’s history, the idea of a cinema in some way reflecting the achievement and spirit of a nation. In the case of the most well developed examples of national cinema, Hollywood and Japanese Cinema for Wood, their existence depended upon and reflected back a society that had imbibed and nurtured a variety of cultural and literary values that its cinema would inherit and develop in its turn. National Cinema, that is, a cinema composed of narrative values and a spiritual character distinct unto itself, is therefore a much rarer achievement and moreover, according to Wood’s strict criteria, impossible to will into being.
Whether or not one agrees with this reasoning, at the very least it challenges the general complacency surrounding discourses on national cinema, particularly the discourse surrounding the narrative of a given national cinema. Take the case of Indian Cinema which in 2013 is celebrating its centenary year. The period of 1912-1913 covers the production and release of Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra. This film is generally accepted to be the oldest surviving feature film made by an Indian. While some writers in the press and media have caught the milestone fever and Film channels on TV have programmed older titles and “classics of yesteryear”. Likewise, this year’s National Awards Ceremony is to be accompanied with a retrospective of selected titles from Indian film history. However, there is a sense that such events and anniversaries leave out more than they include. They tend to be bereft of context, the exchange of influences across borders and the shifts in style from period to period and a general critical spirit.
To return to Wood and the notion of national cinema as a particular constellation of narrative styles identifiably bound by a national fiber, the question of how it applies to India and how it coheres is rather difficult to answer. The main reason being that no national cinema has had as stark a difference between the popular mainstream tradition of film-making and the independent aesthetic-minded film-makers as in the case of Indian cinema. At least in so far as one looks at the Hindi language cinema. The regional language cinemas have this same divide to greater or lesser degree. Further on the margins there’s the documentary and experimental film traditions which are little seen and little known. When discussing national cinema in the context of Indian cinema, we can see that there’s very little that coheres the multiple competing styles deployed by artists in different fields.
WHY FORM A CANON AT ALL, THEN?
This canon is therefore an attempt to catalogue the variety and richness of Indian cinema and its achievements. Its intent is to pose serious questions on aesthetic grounds. The idea of this canon is to be open and inclusive, which means not only established “arthouse” titles but also films that are perhaps disreputable, genre films, films from outside the radar that perhaps show some subversive spirit and technical capacity. While the intent and purpose is serious, we have neither the wish nor the inclination to be “definitive” or give any “last word” on the subject. Our hope is merely to collect individual opinions and ideas from cinephiles and moviegoers within India and outside the world on their ideas of the role Indian cinema has to play in the evolution of film language as well as the question of its continuing influence in the context of the 21st Century.
More importantly, the creation of a canon can help in calling attention to the state and availability of film prints in the archive and cast a light on a few dark corners in need of film preservation and/or restoration.
A NOTE FOR CONTRIBUTORS
The most important thing I would like to emphasize to any potential contributors is that our idea of a canon for Indian cinema need not resemble a list of “The All-Time Greatest Indian Films”. Such lists are familiar in form and useful in its own right but it’s not a form everyone is comfortable with, rather we hope that writers express their thoughts on some aspect of Indian life as reflected in an Indian film, or a set of films, some films which they feel are little known, in their own style as per their comfort. The word “Canon” carries a sense of seriousness and definitive quality. Projectorhead wishes to maintain the seriousness with which we discuss Indian film history while doing away with any pretense of “definitiveness”. This isn’t the first discussion on the greatest Indian films and we certainly don’t want to be the last. There’s no number to round out the discussion and indeed no rankings except any that writers may choose to impose.
Contributors can contribute an image, a paragraph, a full article, a list or all of the above, comprising their thoughts on the project and initiative, their feelings about a particular film, film-maker, actor and composer and so on. Through the accumulated contributions, we hope to arrive at a mosaic of Indian cinema and honor its diversity, its strangeness and honor the struggles of the artists who created these visions in the different and varied set of circumstances in which they lived and worked.
Ultimately, the hope of this project is to create a discourse towards a new understanding of Indian Cinema, an understanding based on what it is and not what people believe it to be. If we can appreciate our national cinema without making hollow excuses or concessions to its marketplace and cultural exception, and subject it to the same scrutiny and high aesthetic standards applied by critics in America, France, England and Japan to their respective national cinemas, than it would be a considerable intellectual achievement and a great service to Indian moviegoers.
Srikanth Srinivasan on the notion of a canon of the Indian cinema
Dr. Adrian Martin on Ritwik Ghatak's Meghe Dhaka Tara
Ashim Ahluwalia on the 'blot': the glorious traditions of C-grade cinema in India
Omar Ahmed on the stylistic peculiarities and influences of Mehboob's 1942-film, 'Roti'