Most of the books on Indian Cinema which have appeared so far rest content with a chronological listing of films made, simplistically categorized, and garnished with high sounding but essentially superficial analyses and evaluations. Chidananda Das Gupta’s ‘Talking About Films’, in contrast, is a collection of eighteen short essays that discuss various aspects of film in India as well as film in general with refreshing lucidity.
Taken from writings published over a long period (1957 to 1975) in newspapers and periodicals in India and abroad, the essays, as the preface states, range over a variety of subjects and ‘are by no means comprehensive or integrated into a structure’. While some are essentially analytical, as for instance, the one entitled, ‘The Cultural Basis of Indian Cinema’, a few, such as ‘Films Remembered’ and ‘Cinema in the Sixties: Some Trends’, are more rambling, though never mindless. In fact, they all reflect a probing and sensitive mind, honestly concerned with the state of Indian film and culture, and knowledgeable ‘about wider cinematic and societal trends.
Why are Indian films made the way they are? What elements have governed the changes in their pattern of development? and what courses of action can improve the climate of cinema in our country? These are some of the basic questions the author is concerned with in the first section, entitled, ‘Indian Cinema: High and Low’. The approach, fortunately, is not pedantic. In fact it is significant, that in discussing a highly sensuous medium like the Cinema, the author communicates his ideas without eliminating the feel of the atmosphere in which the questions arise and attempts are made to answer them. In the essay called, ‘The cultural basis of Indian Cinema’, he delineates the reactionary role of the Hindu formula film; and relates its emergence to the growth of certain social classes and ‘to particular economic and cultural situations. More generally, the problem is seed to stem from the fact that cinema, a medium distilled out of previous modes of expression, synthesized by science, has been transplanted to a country where only a tiny segment lives in the scientific ambience of the twentieth century, ‘while the rest, is one enormous anachronism struggling to leap into the present’. Particularly after the Second World War, ‘the Hindi cinema found itself forced to address its appeal to a culturally impoverished nouveau riche audience, increasingly disoriented from the cultural ambitions of new India, and falling back on a schizophrenic solution of being extremely conservative inside and outwardly ultra-modern.’
The government solution of providing aid to a parallel cinema movement, the author notes in his essay, ‘The Golden Age of Indian Cinema Still to Come,’ is no solution at all, because it does not try to improve the mass cinema, what it shows, in fact, is that ‘the affluent minority of India, whose size is that of a European country like Sweden, has grabbed the benefits of development in this area as in all the others. The privileged class is in the process of creating entertainment for itself leaving the masses to the mercy of their exploiters.
The notion that Indian cinema is substandard because it is commercial is shown to be false. On the contrary, according to the, author cinema’s link with the box office in India, as everywhere in the world presents a superb challenge for the film maker, because it makes universality, which is the ideal condition of all art, the 6nly condition for the cinema. This point is amplified with illustrations from Western films, particularly Hollywood, in the article entitled, ‘In Defence of the Box Office’.
What inspires the author with hopes for a golden age of Indian cinema is precisely the possibility of films being made in India which appeal to the highest, rather than to the lowest common denominator at the box office. One wonders, however, whether awareness of this possibility alone, is, what is needed for such a cinema to come into being.
Falling into a category apart, and yet among the ‘highs’ of Indian cinema, are the films of Satyajit Ray, discussed in a separate essay. Ray’s links with the humanist tradition of Tagore and Nehru are brought to the fore with examples from his films. In fact, the Tagore-Nehru dream of modern India is a recurring point of reference for Chidananda Dasgupta’s analysis of the cultural situation of modern India. That the tradition was never suited to the depiction of life in the raw, of showing the facets of character that are shocking to behold, accounts for Ray’s failure when he attempts to portray non-middle., class characters and milieu. This is particularly true of his early films which have been discussed in this essay. In the other book by Chidananda Das Gupta, ‘Cinema of Satyajit Ray’, published in 1980, Ray’s cinema, including his later films, were analysed in greater detail, from this and many other angles. The essay here, however, is a fairly indepth study of Ray’s early work, providing important insights into the relations between the director’s creative genius, and his environment.
The first section of the book also includes essays on film music, film censorship. Bengali cinema and the cinema of P.C. Barua. A longish piece on the role of film societies in India and the world is particularly informative.
The second section of the book, called ‘Speaking in General’ is less compelling, primarily because most of the essays clarify basic ideas about cinema in a somewhat text-bookish fashion, e.g., the essays entitled, ‘What is a Good Film’? ‘The Story and the Film’, ‘The Screenplay as Literature’, and ‘Documentary: Art or Propaganda’. However, they provide excellent material for use in initiatory courses in film appreciation, in film societies or elsewhere. This seems particularly appropriate because even while discussing the rudiments of cinematic literacy, the author draws upon examples from a wide range of films, which the reader must be in a position to see in order to comprehend accurately, what he is saying. Unfortunately, the high price of the book is likely to be a stumbling block for these essays to reach a wide audience.
The final section of the book consists of two articles related to the author’s own experience as film maker. In ‘From Advertising to Films’, he manages to convey the excitement of perceiving reality through ‘seeing’ as also the manner in which it often puts the honest film makers in conflict with authority. The essay called, ‘Dance of Shiva, Postscript of a Film’, narrates the story of his making of a film on Ananda Coomaraswamy, but more than that, of his discovery of Coomaraswamy’s contribution to our times.
‘Talking About Films’, is an unpretentious, thought-provoking book. As is perhaps inevitable in a collection of essays written over a stretch of time, essentially related to the same phenomena some ideas get repeated, while certain others are merely mentioned, but not dealt with in great detail. One such is the reference to theatre as providing an alternative to the cinema as a truly significant medium of modern’ Indian culture. An error appears on page 88: ‘Adhey Adhurey’, is noted as a’ film made by Mrinal Sen, which it is not. Perhaps the author is referring here to his ‘Ek Adhuri Kahani’.
Sheena Jain is a Research Scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.