Between Reviews: Creating a Critic

Posted on October 10, 2009


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In which our film critic says “thank you” to Doordarshan for shaping his cinematic sensibilities.

OCT 11, 2009 – WITH SO MANY RHEUMY REMEMBRANCES being directed towards Doordarshan on its completion of 50 years, I felt compelled to contribute my two-and-a-half bits of nostalgia. But this isn’t about oh-those-were-the-days – Oru Manidhanin Kadhai and Malgudi Days and Hum Log and Buniyaad and those no-nonsense Lalitaji ads between The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and the BBC Shakespeare adaptations that aired on weekends. For all their indisputable merits, I think many of us watched Hum Log and Buniyaad because there was nothing else to watch at the time. I do not have the stomach, any longer, for drawn-out dramas spanning generations. A lot of this is just nostalgia – we like to sentimentalise the past and we like to scorn the present. (Though it’s mostly our past that we’re passionate and protective about – our parents’ past, for instance, we have little hesitation in dismissing with derision.)

What I’d like to acknowledge is that Doordarshan has shaped me (in terms of my profession as a film critic) in ways I cannot begin to be grateful for, primarily through programming that was equally assimilative of the past and the present. (I do not know if any of this was intentional, this respect for the past alongside the recognition of the present – quite frankly, a lot of what Doordarshan did, and still does, appears frustratingly haphazard – but it was there all the same.) Therefore, I tried to remember all the programmes that I felt helped define me as I go about my duties today, and I came up with two overarching categories – the feature films (along with the occasional documentary), and the shows built around feature films (involving songs and personalities and film-based themes in general).

The former consisted of the weekly Hindi film on Saturday evening, the weekly Tamil film on Sunday evening, the films broadcast during the announcement of election results, the late-night art-house and foreign films, and the subtitled regional films on Sunday afternoons. Even within the span of a week, therefore, there was an interesting mix of films that simultaneously inured me to the melodramatic traditions of our cinema and indoctrinated me in the moderations of their cinema. This early exposure helps me put in context any kind of film today, which is not the case with the subsequent generation born into cable-TV households – when the slick, clickety-clack rhythms of Moonlighting and The Wonder Years began to whittle away at the more dated aspects of our storytelling. (With this generation, you can sense a general contempt for older Indian cinema, and this is the first of the generations that’s fully embraced the multiplex filmmaking today).

But when you’ve religiously absorbed Paasamalar and Ganga and Dharam-Veer and Ek Mahal Ho Sapnon Ka, you know where Pokkiri or Wanted is coming from, you’re aware of exactly which sentimental traditions are being invoked in Thavamai Thavamirundhu or Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, and you easily make the leap from Waqt to Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham. You take these films seriously (at least to analyse them, even if you don’t buy into them completely) – and you don’t approach them with the check-that-out cynicism of subsequent generations. Even if I laugh at these films, the rolling of the eyes is compassionate, not cruel. And how could it be otherwise – as the rhythms of these older films, these traditional Indian films, are (thanks to Doordarshan) encoded in my DNA? (That’s possibly why I keep hearing that my reviews of such films aren’t dismissive enough.)

If I’d had more options, maybe I’d have chosen channels that offered brighter blandishments – but much like we speak of single-screen audiences now, I’m the product of a single-channel environment. It was precisely this lack of options that shaped my generation. We watched what was available, not what was attractive, and in retrospect, this is why we’re so accepting of moviemaking from everywhere – from the past, from the present, from here, from over there. The entire oeuvre of Hindi parallel cinema, for instance, was telecast on Doordarshan, and I never thought of these as slow or arty – they were just films to be seen. (Of course, you need to have been a movie buff to begin with. I can name several friends who were not into Indian films, and who’d, today, rather jump off a cliff than subject themselves to Thavamai Thavamirundhu or Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi.)

The other category of programmes that influenced me comprised of song compilations like Oliyum Oliyum and Chitrahaar and Chitramala (again, a valuable exposure to old as well as new), old-timer reminiscences like Malarum Ninaivugal and Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan, and novelties like Show Theme (yes, the one brought to you by Limca and Pond’s) that concatenated thematically related film clips. There’s still the odd new channel that showcases older songs and films, but with all the alternatives available, I doubt there’ll be a new generation that tunes in. Doordarshan may be dismissed as dated, but look past the tatty signage and the other outwardly downmarket aspects and you’ll see that DD Podhigai does have some of the best cinema programming, as also DD National (which, Sunday afternoons, is home to theme-based retrospectives of older films). But forget the present for a moment – this, DD, is simply a thank-you for the past.

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