We are celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema. What are your views on that?
Are we really celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema or is it 100 years of Marathi cinema?
How can you club all manner of cinema into one category and celebrate it in a nation of such diversity?
But wasn’t Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harischandra a silent film? How can you call it Marathi?
It was silent, but the cultural matrix he came out of was Maharashtrian.
So when did Hindi cinema start?
Early Hindi cinema, as you know, was based on Parsi theatre plays. Early cinema was made in cities like Bombay, Madras and Calcutta where Hindi was not spoken, so the only equivalent was company theatre, which was called Parsi theatre.
Now the whole of the theatre company wallah shifted to cinema because they were commercial guys and saw money in cinema. By the time sound came, company theatre had died.
So the convention of Hindi films is actually based on company theatre formats.
In that sense there is no Indian cinema per se. Every cinema will represent a particular region.
You see nobody will talk about the beginnings of European cinema. They'll say the beginning of French Cinema, British Cinema, Italian Cinema, etc. How can you talk about Indian cinema where there are many regional cinemas?
Of course, the one cinema that has the most national footprint is Hindi cinema but it was started by people who came from all over the country - Assam, Gujarat, Bengal, etc.
So this Hindi cinema had the least cultural matrix of its spoken area. The other cinemas are all regional and very much rooted in their theatre traditions.
In that sense, it is the 100 years of Marathi Cinema?
Yes, you can call it Marathi cinema or something else. People in Bengal may have made films earlier.
I met someone in SRFTI who's doing research and she has found recordings of theatre performances of Bengal from way before.
Raja Harishchandra was the most successful film of its time, perhaps all times. So what we are celebrating is success?
Yes. But did Raja Harishchandra lead to Hindi cinema or was it the Marathi embedded in Hindi cinema? How can you say that Alam Ara belongs to the same inspiration that created Raja Harishchandra?
There are different aspects. But this whole celebration thing is very simplified, where people who have not studied cinema are making a lot of noise and comments on Indian cinema.
I just feel that it is an over simplification and this tendency to go on imagining that only Hindi cinema is the history of Indian cinema is stupid.
And they are not even including regional cinema.
Yes. And some of the cinemas are as old as Hindi cinema, especially Bengali and Tamil cinema, because they had presidency towns.
See my theory is that cinema cannot exist in pre-industrial situations. This does not mean that you need to have factories, but your lifestyle has to be post-industrial. In such a society, we will have cinema.
In a pure tribal society, we will not have cinema but have live theatre, dance, etc. Take the case of Ladakh. They have been making films for only 10 years now because of tourism and a lot of Ladakhis are taking up jobs outside and this has led to a change in lifestyle and cinema has evolved.
Same goes for many other languages and cultures that were cut off. Only when they got linked to industrialised societies did they become part of post-industrial society and cinema evolved there.
Bombay became a cinema town because Bombay was an industrial town. So is the case with Chennai and Calcutta.
So cinema is not a rural art form?
It is an urban art form because it needs machines to create and show it, it needs industrialisation, it needs awareness of technology.
But now we have passed that and we are into a post-industrial age, the digital age. So, in a sense, we are celebrating a dead art form.
Dead? Why do you say that?
Because cinema is an art form of the 20th century. It will continue, but I think it will evolve into some other art form, something that has to do with digital.
I am not quite sure what it will be.
Something like say a videogame, much more interactive?
Yes, interactive is the word. But the games right now are very simple minded.
What you are saying is that cinema will evolve into something much more complicated. But mass entertainment is dumbing down?
I am talking about the form, not content. Content is dumbing down. But the form is sophisticated.
Even then if you had to look at celebrating cinema, what would you do?
We could instead have celebrated the form of cinema, as an art and entertainment form, by looking at it and going beyond it.
Instead, everyone is going into a mindless list making: the 10 greatest films of the last 100 years, 100 greatest films, etc. That is not the way to look at what you have done in 100 years of cinema.
You've got to see how the form has developed, how every aspect has evolved.
What would be the ideal way then?
There could be many ways. But you have to think. Let me give you an example of this Urdu magazine that decided to join the bandwagon and bring a special issue on cinema.
Now they don't know what cinema is. For them it is film stars. Ironically, what they themselves don't know is that what has contributed the most to what is called the Indian cinema, is Urdu and Urdu literature and the Urdu tradition.
So what is happening is the simplification of everything to the lowest common denominator instead of a serious effort even to do an overview.
But how many people can give that overview.
True, and even those who can give that overview are looking at an American way of looking at cinema.
But is there an Indian way of looking at cinema?
At least you can make an attempt. Like this guy has written a book comparing Natyashastra with Greek poetics, and he knows Greek and has lived in Greece and he is a musician. So the part on music and Indian and Greek theatre in the book are the best chapters because he knows what he is talking about.
There are a few books where people have done this about music and theatre. But nobody has done that about films.
We have a theory of Indian poetics and theatre, but nobody who has tried to make a study or combined theory of what Indian cinema stands for. Maybe some people have, but it is not something that has been accepted by everyone.
Does it mean that it is waiting for something like what Donald Ritchie did for Japanese cinema, for some western scholar to come and look at an 'Indian' theory for Indian cinema?
There are people who have tried doing that, both inside and outside India, but most don't know what they are talking about. Most of them are quite stupid. So, there is a vacuum.
People are just reviewing films, giving it stars but few have done a really serious study of Indian cinema. Everyone is contributing no doubt, but no serious study as to what is cinema in the Indian context.
Is it also because we have not been serious about preserving our cinema? How do you study your cinema, if you don’t even get to see it?
Yes, exactly. Also cinema sadly is looked down upon as an art form. Especially in the northern states, despite there being a lot of interest in cinema even in small towns there.
I think the southern states and to a certain extent in Bengal, there is a big receptivity amongst the ruling elite for the cinema of their area, but in Hindi areas it is only a means of making entertainment tax for the rulers.
They think it is a tamasha which has glamour but no substance. They do not do anything about cinema. They tried to make a film city in Noida, but it failed and is now used by television people.
You can't initiate a culture by just making a film city in any area.
Can you give some example of this?
You could have done a short film on the Image of the Dacoit in Indian cinema, where you could travel from the films of the '30s and '40s to Paan Singh Tomar now, and studied how the image of the dacoit has changed and how it relates to reality.
Then this whole thing about courtesan and how that has changed; or the evolution of the Hindi film song.
And that can actually be fun and entertaining without being didactic.
Yes. That would have been a better way to spend the money. Of course, the good thing is that some people have started this campaign to open 50 odd theatres in the country to show alternate cinema.
But making short films and having them as part of the educational curriculum I think is much more doable and they have the money as well.
If children from 12 years on are aware of say TV and how to analyze TV and ads, etc., it would help them a lot
So this celebration of 100 years of Indian cinema is just a mad rush to celebrate something just because everyone else is doing the same. It’s one big party when it could have been an opportunity to look deep into cinema and introspect, to find out what can be done, contributing to it so that the next 100 years could have been very different and exciting.
But all we are doing is sitting on a rocking chair, shaking it and feeling that we are going somewhere when actually we are right where we started?