Communities of cinema

Posted on November 26, 2016

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Thoughts on a book on India’s film society movements, with a guest appearance by Jawaharlal Nehru.

When was the first official film society movement started in India? Where? And why? If the answers intrigue you – 1940; Bombay; to expose budding Indian documentary filmmakers to the best documentaries in the world, so they could make effective war-effort films for the Raj – you’re the target audience for VK Cherian’s meticulously recounted India’s Film Society Movement: The Journey and Its Impact.

The (rather unlikely) subject may suggest the literary equivalent of one of those donnish documentaries on textiles or tribals we were forced to sit though before the movie got going, but the chapters offer stirring flashbacks worthy of the best fictional films. For instance, the formation of the Calcutta Film Society on October 5, 1947. Its members included Satyajit Ray and Chidananda Das Gupta. Imagine that room, that day – the cinephile’s equivalent of drawing up the Constitution. It’s not just the birth of a society. It’s the birth of a sensibility. It’s why the book is dedicated to Pather Panchali.

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At a time the latest releases are just a download away, let us wonder what it must have been like to know you want to see a different kind of cinema than what was playing at the theatre near you but did not know how to go about it. This is how a young man named Shyam Benegal tackled the problem. He had started a film club in Secunderabad, sometime in 1955/56. It was called The Cultural Group. Benegal writes, in his prefatory note, “Having heard of Pather Panchali, I wrote to Satyajit Ray to ask him if we could get his film to screen at our film society. He graciously sent an introductory letter to his producers, who in turn sent us a print quite unhesitatingly for a screening.” This wait, this anticipation, one might argue, transformed these films into religious experiences. We are, after all, talking about prayers being answered, the gods of cinema making themselves manifest at a humble doorstep. The formation of fervent cults was only a matter of time.

Soon, devotees were everywhere, organising screenings of films sourced from distributors and European embassies, and then discussing these films to death. Admission to these societies meant you had arrived, that you were the cinema world’s answer to the Literature student who’s not just read Ulysses but annotated each page. Cherian charts the growth of film societies in Delhi (an unconfirmed story has it that Rajiv Gandhi was denied entry), Bhopal, Lucknow, Patna, Agra and Madras. Speaking of the latter, the list of names of regulars at the screenings contains the usual suspects (K Balachander, Kamal Haasan, Singeetham Srinivasa Rao, Balu Mahendra) and an utter surprise (SP Muthuraman). To the uninitiated, this is a little like discovering David Dhawan was a fan of Jean Renoir.

By the 1970s, societies had sprung up in nooks and corners, and PK Nair of the National Film Archive of India fumed, “This misguided proliferation brought all sorts of people to the movement. People who had never heard of Flaherty or Ozu, or could distinguish between Einstein and Eisenstein, emerged as the new breed of film organisers. Presumably, their only aim was to climb up the social bandwagon or getting invited to an Embassy cocktail party.” Or watching uncensored films. Before the arrival of the video cassette player, people were willing to put up with two hours of Bergman in order to catch a two-second shot of breasts.

The book is dotted with delightful cameos, from KA Abbas of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) to Satish Bahadur (“the guru of film appreciation in India”) to Marie Seton (the “chain-smoking, saree-draped” Britisher and lifelong Indophile) to Indira Gandhi, who, after a private screening of Garm Hava at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, helped the controversial film get a release.

Her father, too, drops in for a guest appearance. Here he is, holding forth on film: “It is melodrama that interests large numbers of people, whether in India, England or America or elsewhere. Public taste, to some extent, moulds what is presented to it. At the same time, what is presented should mould public taste.” In other words, cinema was very much part of the Prime Minister’s nation-building agenda. And did you know he defended Pather Panchali against criticism that it pandered to Western notions of India? “What is wrong about showcasing India’s poverty? Everyone knows that we are a poor country. The question is: are we Indians sensitive to our poverty or insensitive to it?”

As amazing as this quote is, surely it did not merit two mentions, first on page 15, then on page 35. This is, mercifully, not a book review, so we need not dwell on these repetitions, or wish that the book had been edited better, its contents organised with more of a narrative thrust. We can simply seek out the next titbit, like the author finding himself behind Adoor Gopalakrishnan in a queue at Trivandrum’s Sreekumar Cinema, before a screening of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The book ends on a wistful note, observing how changing technologies and decreasing political patronage contributed to the decline of film societies. The question comes up often. Do other nations produce (and consume) more non-mainstream cinema because their governments fund these productions? Or was alternate cinema always just for a minority, which becomes even more of a minority in a nation of a billion? That is a subject for another book, one that looks forward. This one is really about the era Gopalakrishnan describes in his foreword. “At a time when the cinemas of Europe and the East were inaccessible to the cinephiles of our subcontinent, film societies provided us with the special privilege of watching, relishing, debating and writing about the very best of world cinema.”

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