books’ ART’SCAPE Chronicle – Telegraph India
Art Cinema and India’s Forgotten Futures: Film and History in the Post Colony by Rochona Majumdar is an in-depth and scholarly study of the three pillars whose films put India on the world stage ââ Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. the interest of deepening the culture of the cinematographic society prevalent in the country and the trajectory of arthouse cinema in a post-colonial world which led Majumdar, an academic, to draw a full narrative that is would prove fundamental for future researchers. We spoke to the author to understand his thoughts behind the book. Extracts.
Tell us about the creation of this book.
There are three central characters at the heart of this book ââ Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. When I grew up in Calcutta, everyone knew them and their work. When I joined the university there was a film company – the Chalachitra Sansad Presidential College. I attended their screenings. It was in the early 90s. My friends and I weren’t a snob about watching only arthouse films in particular. We watched everything. One day we were watching Debi screened by the company, then we were going to watch Kaho Na Pyaar Hai the next day. As moviegoers, we have consumed it all.
I started my academic career as a genre historian. When I finished Marriage and Modernity and wondering what to do next, I thought about writing about the movies because I spent a lot of time watching them. It was then that I started to read the scholarly literature on Indian cinema, and I was really struck by the fact that there was actually very little about Indian art cinema.
As I read the sequel, I realized that this was actually a time when there was some really good work going on in popular Indian cinema. And the people who wrote about popular cinema at the time ââ Ashish Rajadhyaksha,
Mr. Madhav Prasad, Rachel Dwyer ââ rebelled against a sense of intolerance and snobbery, saying there was a lot to be understood in studying popular cinema, especially Indian politics and democracy.
This kind of popular art film revolt has swept under the rug. Now there is a kind of snobbery in reverse. To think that there is hardly anything written about Mrinal Sen, for example, sounds like a glaring gap. I wanted to situate art cinema and those associated with it historically. I wanted to understand them not as competitors of each other, but really as the creation of an environment that was not limited only to Ray, Sen and Ghatak, but also included people like Rajen Tarafdar, Chidananda Dasgupta and Tapan Sinha – people we don’t know. not talking enough. That’s what got me there.
I think in India and parts of Europe there was a love for art cinema, the beginnings of which have always been linked to a kind of civil social organization – film clubs. These clubs have played a very important role in the development of a particular cinematographic sensibility. The history of film clubs brought me to this project.
As an academician, you have had access to a lot of documented research. What was your research like beyond that point?
All the academics I read and love have always struggled to reach a large audience without diluting what they have to say. The challenge is actually to balance the two and not everyone succeeds. I can’t say I am, but it’s something that I deeply appreciate. Having said that, one of the challenges of working on Indian cinema is that for a very long time, unlike other arts, cinema was not taken seriously. As a result, the archiving process is even more uneven. The National Film Archives in Pune are currently doing a magnificent job. My work is indebted to the archives and to the passion of the individual members of the film society. They have preserved publications, many of which are ephemeral. When I started this research in 2011, I actually traveled around the country a lot, meeting many people including Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Girish Kasaravalli, the late Satish Bahadur and PK Nair (longtime NFAI archivist). Thanks to them, I met other moviegoers who had been members of the movie club, who shared many photographs, newspapers with me.
You have been very candid about the role of the NFDC in the decline of art cinema in India. Could you please elaborate on that a bit?
There was a Film Finance Corporation that predated the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). Previously, they gave loans to filmmakers who would otherwise have trouble finding producers. Unlike in Europe, it was not about grants offered to filmmakers, but loans that had to be repaid. So when people talk about state cinema, that’s actually a misnomer. The NFDC eventually emerged as an umbrella organization and I write about Attenborough’s Gandhi as marking his big moment of emergence of big budget international films, of which Gandhi was a part. Shortly after that you also have a political regime change and as a result cinema has become a different kind of battleground where the types of movies I write about wouldn’t even count for any type. loan / financing. So in a sense, this founding moment of the NFDC is the start of a very long process ââ the beginning of the end of a process.
Do you think OTT platforms came along with their big budget funding and somehow democratized the rules of the game by hosting content that would otherwise be lost at sea?
I think more work needs to be done on the kind of impact of online streaming platforms. Due to the instant or easy availability of a large amount of content, people are more easily becoming moviegoers than before. But, at the same time, the collective experience of coming together and watching movies together in the theater is extremely important. I think we might even have a rebirth of the film society movement. The ubiquity of the content does not diminish the desire to get together to talk about it. There may be a group of people who decide to watch Korean movies or Chinese movies – they are no longer limited by national or international geography. You can meet on Zoom or Google Meet to talk about the movies you’ve watched. Thanks to OTT, we have access to some really great content that we would never have even heard of otherwise. Movies that you would only watch if you were in India attending film festivals. But the decline of the collective experience and the engagement in the conversation after the screening is something that really bothers me.
The other thing is the setting up of film festival circuits and a certain aesthetic that is associated with low budget films, specially designed for this circuit. There is a kind of homogenization of films that would otherwise be considered alternative. Having said that, I think there is a lot of interesting work going on. I love the coat rack setup, which consists of four separate films in one. I thought Made in Heaven was a fantastic show in the way it dealt with issues of class and sexuality. There are filmmakers like Ivan Ayr, whose work I really like. Overall, I would say that while I am very optimistic about the quality of the work, I dread our ability to form safe spectator communities after Covid.