Of Films that Critiqued the Present and the Pasts Leading to it

There is no doubt that the cultural scene in Bengal during the 1940s-1970s period was very rich. Not only art films but mainstream Bengali films also flourished.

How is it that Bengal has stood out in nurturing great directors like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak, whose films “contain in them visions of many possible futures” and “critiqued the present and the pasts leading to it”?

“There is no doubt that the cultural scene in Bengal during the 1940s-1970s period was very rich. Not only art films but mainstream Bengali films also flourished. There were legions of directors, cinematographers, art directors, music directors, actors, and singers who did remarkable work.

“Moreover we must not think of film in isolation. Bengali literature, music, and theatre was also flourishing during this period. Ray, Sen, and Ghatak must be situated within this cultural milieu,” Rochona Majundar, an Associate Professor in the Departments of South Asian Languages and Civilisation and Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago, told IANS in an interview of her book “Art Cinema and India’s Forgotten Futures — Film and History in the Postcolony” (Columbia).

At the same time, “there was exceptionally important work being done in Bombay” in films, theatre, music, and art. Kerala witnessed its own cinematic efflorescence. Ramu Kariat, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G.Aravindan, P.A. Backer, John Abraham are just a few notable examples.

“Overall, these decades were special for Indian cinema generally when there was both a keen sense of regional particularity that was also cosmopolitan,” Majumdar explained.

The films of Ray, Sen, and Ghatak are significant to her “because they contain in them visions of many possible futures. They critiqued the present and the pasts leading to it. Their assessments were not identical. This is why, for each, the forgotten futures were also different”.

“Sen imagined a future that was internationalist. He saw India as part of a rising third world — what in today’s parlance is the global South — not a capitalist giant but a society that was responsible to women and other disempowered groups.

“Ghatak critiqued the deep rupture that produced the Indian nation. Although he was a committed leftist, his imagination of left politics did not banish archetypes and myths. The present, he argued, had distorted India’s founding myths beyond recognition. A culture that spoke of the mother goddess thought nothing of exploiting women. The future anticipated in his films would renew humanity through on-the-ground popular work by leftist cultural workers who would find ethical ways of bringing together ecology and economy.

“Ray is the least prescriptive of the three. For him, the challenge was to find ways of being present, ethically and with patience, in tumultuous times. The old gods were all dead: the promises of development and modernisation could only be looked at with skepticism. How did one live with a sense of fullness in a difficult present when known formulas of transition are compromised? These are questions we have too,” Majumdar elaborated.

Put differently, “all three filmmakers would agree that the goal for humanity was a better, more inclusive future. They did not converge on the paths that we might take toward that future. Sometimes the films pointed to a non-statist socialism, a benevolent developmentalism, better and more inclusive democratic practices, or simply to live each day fully embracing the uncertainty of not knowing what tomorrow has in store,” Majumdar maintained.

She also makes some very powerful other points in the book:

  • Art films gave Indian cinema international recognition in Cannes, Venice, and scores of international festivals.
  • Art filmmakers were among the first to see the problems with the developmental state. The films spoke both thematically and cinematographically of the many ills that beset the new nation state.
  • Certain traits such as the “angry young man” arose first in art films before they reappeared in Bombay films in the star persona of Amitabh Bachchan.
  • The novel use of songs, location shooting, melodrama, poster art, graffiti, found footage, and sound camera techniques marked unprecedented breaks in Indian cinema.

Why then has the Indian Art Cinema gone into oblivion? Is it just the new climate brought by liberalisation and multiplexes or is it something more?

“I think the answer is complex. I should clarify that the moniker art films contained within it a very wide variety of films. Some of these were commercially very successful, others less so. As I mention briefly in the conclusion of my book, cultural globalization and the rise of the multiplex have loosened the neat separation between art and mainstream films.

“Multiplexes cater to niche audiences. They also draw big audiences who troop in to watch blockbusters. The festival circuit has expanded, producing more venues for the exhibition of non-mainstream films. The role of the state is also an important factor as we consider the fate of films more generally in India,” Majumdar said.

The 1950s-1970s were unique in some respects in the way that the state regarded films.

“Sure, there was censorship. But there was also very interesting work that happened despite it. As some scholars have shown, even Films Division documentaries were sites of tremendous creativity. After all, S.N.S Sastry, Pramod Pati, and many like them worked under the aegis of the Films Division. Like many of the figures I discuss in my book, they too cast a very critical gaze upon the politics of development.

“In sum, films were central to critical discourse about the nation and its place in the world. That atmosphere has changed. We must also consider the role of OTT platforms. I think a lot of excellent work has migrated to these platforms.

“Finally, I must underscore that the ongoing pandemic has posed enormous challenges to filmmaking and filmgoing. It remains to be seen how we emerge into the post-Covid world. I, for one, will be deeply saddened if film watching as a public activity does not recover,” Majumdar contended.

She also writes about the commonality of the era of art films and modern times — “they are both disorienting” — and of the challenges — “the pioneering labour of a certain kind that we also need today: the creation of historical sensibilities adequate to the challenges of disorienting times”. Does she see this happening?

“Today we find ourselves in a historical moment when futures are even more fragmented. Oddly, with the pandemic we are all nostalgic for the life we had before it. There are many historians, philosophers, and social scientists who even argue that it is fallacious to think of the future in terms of humanity alone.

“We are once again in disorienting times when the vice grip of neoliberal capitalism, extreme weather events, rising numbers of refugees, a growing precariat, and many other factors makes it challenging to consider the future, making future thinking paradoxically into big business,” Majumdar said.

While there are many filmmakers who are grappling with the strangeness of our times, in the last decade, there have been “very interesting films that bring together human beings and animals, films that strive to forge a political aesthetic of combating exclusion and marginalisation, and films that address the rage that arises from just trying to live from one day to the next,” she added.

In such films, she sees a version of the humility to not be programmatic, to admit that it is important to listen and take stock than to prescribe solutions.

In filmmakers such as Chaitanya Tamhane, Suman Mukhopadhyay, Nagraj Manjule, Ivan Ayr, Arun Karthick, Paromita Vohra, Konkona Sen Sharma, Nandita Das and many others “I see efforts to look at the past both respectfully and critically in order to forge humble scripts toward possible futures”, Majumdar concluded.

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