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Is Indian cinema inferior?

In trying to argue for popular vs avant garde cinema, we often miss the point that the latter cannot emerge out of a tautology about its worth and necessity

Cannes: wake up call for India‘ moans that there are no entries from India at Cannes this year. It is interesting how the report first valorises the awards as a sort of benchmark to aspire for and then highlights the Indian inability to make it the grade. In particular, he criticises the media for its rhapsodic view of films that are part of the non-competitive section. In analysing the problem the report, quoting film critic Saibal Chatterjee, states the problem thus:

It is entirely up to the jury members to select films for the various competition sections. They didn’t find a single Indian film which they felt was up to the mark

The world has moved ahead. They are making films that are cutting edge. The filmmakers are using new ideas but we are repeating the same old thing. In fact we don’t make cinema at all. We make entertainers to please the masses

Chatterjee’s view comes from a classic position about filmmaking being akin to art. And the best art pushes the boundaries of aesthetics. I am slightly ambivalent of this position of the film critic, not because I disagree with his position about the value of cutting-edge practices. If we take the position of good cinema vs mediocre cinema, we need to analyse and explain why the latter gets made and find ways to redress the balance between the two. The report ends with the following assertion:

This should be a wake up call for Indian filmmakers who should try to balance good cinema with entertainers. They need to represent a kaleidoscope of cultures and create a medium to appreciate and share cinematic excellence.

Here the Indian filmmaker is being talked about as if filmmakers wake up one fine day and decide to make a) or b) kind of films. This kind of specious analysis comes at the expense of either explaining the various kinds of cinematic experiences. It does not take into account that unlike Europe, where film culture has been negotiated by the tension between populist and intellectual discourse about cinema, Indian film culture has been (especially since the 60s) sustained by trivia, innuendo, and gossip about stars.

Historically, mainstream film culture has been negotiated through the mass mediums of radio, magazines, and since the mid-80s — mass television. Though this discourse sustained the commodification of cinema, the explanation cannot be an overarching one. Beyond the spectator-spectacle relationship, this culture also spawned sub-cultures — fan clubs, popular music, fashion, youth culture among others. This view supports the “uses and gratification” model of active audience. The populist cinema and its discourse also incorporates certain reflexivity about contemporary events — though it is also overwhelmed by the triviality and commodification of the spectacle. This cinema is negotiated through the box office and for film producers it is a working model that should not be tinkered with. So when the report argues that filmmakers “should try to balance good cinema with entertainers”, one wonders which filmmakers are they talking about — popular cinema or art-house/”avant garde”?

Historically, film movements such as the the Indian “new-wave” were restricted to the metropolitan cities, where it was throttled out of existence by poor distribution, promotion, and exhibition policies by those managing the movement, i.e., FFC and NFDC. Indeed the discourse, then and now, places such films as being indulgent/boring. The avantgarde film movement never acquired the kind of critical mass that other movements across the world did. The arguments raised in the report positions popular cinema in a way that all alternatives have to work within the binary position. The argument fails to recognise the role mass audience, mass media, and capital have played in placing what is mainstream Indian cinema at the centre. Popular film is what is watched, talked about, and funded. If films such as Kim Ki-duk’s Breath, Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine, Naomi Kawase’s Mogari No Mor get made, it is primarily due to the willingness of backers who see profitability of making such films (see report here).

Hope for the future

It has been argued that the sustainability of any cinema lies in the negotiation of the matrix of mass audience, mass media, and capital. In the same way that popular Indian cinema has an evolution rooted in the hardnosed world of commerce, other cinematic visions will have to creates spaces where such ideals can be sold and consumed. Passion for Cinema (PfC) and the UTV launched Olive Collection are examples of such platforms, which will hopefully generate a momentum and an audience for cinemas outside of the popular film. Through an enthusiastic discourse, which at the core resembles a Gramscian war of position against popular cinema, PfC is generating interest amongst young filmmakers of the digital generation and cinephiles. However, the nature of such discources — if we are to learn our lessons from Cahiers du Cinema — is that such movements are best in a small scale. The ontology of internet, digital production, distribution, and consumption for the first time allows us to break from the notions of mass — mass audience, mass media, mass production. Hopefully, this will lead to a greater diversity of voices and narratives, and therefore films.


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