We were all a little confused about what the word transgressions’ meant,” said veteran actor Dhritiman Chatterjee, addressing the audience at last week’s Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival. The occasion was a panel discussion titled “Transgressions: Essaying the New in Indian Film” — I was moderating and the other panellists were the directors Shyam Benegal and Onir, and the film critic Mira Hashmi.
A while earlier, I had learnt that there was a movement titled Cinema of Transgression in the US in the 1980s — but these were minuscule-budget, avant-garde films that only reached tiny audiences. For our purposes, it made sense to define the term more broadly; it could be used for any filmic movement that represented even a small departure from the dominant cinematic mode in India, giving us new forms of storytelling or new lenses through which to view social and political issues. Such departures could range from the so-called New Wave of the early 1970s to the offbeat films produced within the “multiplex culture” of recent years, which set their stories in the hinterland and attempted greater realism in language and production design. It could also refer to a nuanced treatment of gender roles and identities in films such as the ones directed by Onir.
Once we had got the subject sorted out, our conversation became a wide-ranging one. As the senior-most member of the panel and one of the torchbearers of a grounded Hindi cinema in the 1970s, Benegal spoke about the challenges he faced in making “my kind of film” in an industry where the majority of movies are intended as escapism. “When Satyajit Ray asked me what ambition I had for my first film, I said it should open in Eros and run for a weekend!”
Both directors on the panel had used unconventional funding methods. In 1975, Benegal’s Manthan opened with the title “500,000 farmers of Gujarat present” (each of those farmers contributed two rupees to the film!) and more than 30 years later, in the Internet age, Onir turned to social media to acquired “crowd-funding” for I Am. These are inspirational stories, but they are also reminders that films with unusual or potentially controversial subjects find it difficult to get conventional financing. Onir spoke with feeling about producers telling him “let’s not go there”, without even spelling out what “there” meant. Equally problematic, he said, was the issue of censorship. “A censor board, made up by people who have nothing to do with films, decides that your audience is not ready for a certain subject. The kinds of biases they have are disturbing.” As he pointed out, offensively sexist mainstream films get passed with U-certificates, but a consensual romantic encounter between two men is seen as problematic.
A related talking point — especially relevant today, in the wake of the Delhi gang-rape and murder — was the depiction of women in mainstream Indian cinema. We have all been conditioned into seeing certain things as acceptable, Mira Hashmi pointed out. “A scene where the hero is pursuing the heroine will begin with Kishore Kumar singing a beautiful song, and one’s immediate response is to think: how nice to be wooed like this. You don’t even realise that it is a form of sexual harassment.” Despite the recent, self-congratulatory narrative about an increase in films with strong women protagonists, Hashmi feels mainstream cinema has “regressed to all sorts of new levels” — most visibly seen in “item numbers”, where even the camera presents women as disjointed body parts rather than as sentient people.
With our time being too limited for a cover-all-bases discussion, one of the things we didn’t get to talk about was the continuing hegemony of the Mumbai film industry. “As far as viewers in Pakistan are concerned, there is no such thing as regional Indian cinema,” Hashmi had noted, but this is equally true of most Hindi-speaking viewers in India too. There is a definite gap to be filled in film distribution as well as in availability of DVD prints with good subtitles. Perhaps, in a nation as large and varied as India, this is the most transgressive idea of all: that people living in one part of the country might one day have easy access to the many cinemas produced in the other parts.
Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based writer