Why define “great movies” based on a cold and clinical foreign ideal of greatness, especially when so many foreign filmmakers are already making those kinds of great movies?
One question I’m routinely asked when interviewed or at a casual dinner discussion is when our cinema will grow up, become more like “foreign cinema.” And by “foreign cinema,” the person asking this question usually means a “meaningful” film he or she has seen recently, been affected by, Hollywood or European or Asian, while being assaulted by a barrage of ads for – let’s say – Dabangg 2. The discrepancy hits them hard – songless cinema versus one with booty-rattling item numbers, actors submerging themselves in character versus stars playing to the gallery, near-invisible craft versus blingy production values, and most of all the sound, the cathedral-like soundlessless of exalted art versus the loudness that’s sometimes inevitable while pandering to the lowest common denominator. Why, they want to know, are we incapable of making great movies? Where is the new Satyajit Ray, the new Adoor Gopalakrishnan, the new Mani Kaul?
And I’ll usually end up telling them that making these films is as much a function of the system as the audience. Take Michael Haneke, the Austrian auteur whose chilling Amour – one of the greatest love stories of the cinema; also one of the ghastliest, an unflinching portrait of the last days of a couple played by Jean-Louis Trintingant and Emmanuelle Riva – has won acclaim the world over and has now entered the Oscar race as a hot favourite for Best Foreign Film. In a recent interview to The New York Times, Haneke said that he has ended up making a lot of films in French, rather than in his native German, because “It’s easier to find money there. In comparison, Austria makes about 15 films a year. And France what, about 200? So there’s much more money — and in this case the reason was Jean-Louis Trintingant, because he is just available in France.”
India may make more films than Austria, but if we take the kind of films that can be singled out as heralding the next Ray or the next Kaul or Gopalakrishnan, the numbers even out. It’s a question of finding the money, and even if that issue resolved itself magically, there’s still the question of finding an audience that will help recover that money. In Haneke’s case, or in the case of auteurs of international renown, their audiences exist all over the world, thanks to studios or studio equivalents that acquire these films for their respective territories and promote them expertly to the target demographics, using as a selling point awards won at film festivals and reviews in major publications. Even a Ray became a Ray mainly through international recognition. The question, therefore, becomes how the next Ray is going to attract those eyeballs – and if the answer is by making, first, those kinds of movies here, then how is he going to go about it? Where’s the audience, apart from a handful of people who attend film festivals and those who corner critics with these questions?
Let’s, for an instant, forget the narrow definition of a “great film” as only one that resembles an international art-house film, songless, danceless, joyless. Let us assume that that is how you define a great film. How many viewers here want to actually watch these films? The opening-night film of the recently concluded 10th Chennai International Film Festival was Amour, and there was palpable excitement as it began. There’s some tension early on. An apartment is broken into. At least one dead body is discovered. (There may be another, but we aren’t presented with concrete evidence.) So far, so good. But after this intrigue is established, after the hook is sunk into us, Haneke casts us adrift in the minutiae of the couple’s life. This is, of course, what makes the film, but once the audience became aware of the glacial pace, there were murmurs. People began shifting in their seats. Phones were whipped out. And one exasperated (and brave) woman had to yell out what some of us were only thinking: “If you don’t want to watch the film, then get out and let the others watch it.”
It’s funny how different the notion of a foreign film is, when idealised in the head, when compared to the reality of sitting through one. Had such a film been made in India – by, say, the next Ray – it’s hard to see how much recognition it would have received. How many people, even in multiplexes, would have paid up for a film that lavishes much symbolism on a pigeon, leaches its most shocking scene of all sentiment, and which features a trademark Haneke scene like the one that closed his much-earlier Caché, a static wide composition where we’re not sure which corner of the screen to focus on? Those of us who like this kind of cinema already get this kind of cinema from these filmmakers outside, and it’s a different kind of greatness – very different in tone and texture – that we look for in our films. To work within the Indian format of song- and sentiment-driven narration and yet make something affecting like Udaan – that’s also a kind of greatness.
Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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