Sight & Sound’s South Asian cinema critic, recalls reading his first Top 10 poll and voting in the latest.
Some 25 years ago, when I was a teenager growing up in Bangalore, I chanced upon a film magazine at the British Council Library. It was called Sight & Sound and was published by the British Film Institute (BFI). I was captured by the quality of writing and the in-depth analysis of films (to call them mere reviews didn’t seem appropriate) and I thirsted for more. Reading through back issues I discovered the delights of editor Penelope Houston’s masterly writings on my favourite director of all time, Satyajit Ray, particularly her essay on Charulata in the winter 1965/66 issue. The piece, coupled with the corresponding chapter in Andrew Robinson’s 1989 biography, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye (also borrowed from the British Council Library), made me watch the film again and again and reassess it with new eyes. That’s when I knew that I wanted to write about films for the rest of my life.
The only problem was that Sight & Sound was a quarterly and I ran out of reading material soon enough. That changed in 1991 when the magazine merged with the Monthly Film Bulletin, also published by the BFI. Subscribing to the magazine from a newly liberal India was a bewildering process involving copious amounts of foreign exchange and RBI clearances and I settled for sourcing issues in second-hand shops. One of the features that fascinated me about the magazine was the once-in-a-decade Greatest Films Top 10 poll, voted for by a medley of international critics. Everybody loves a list, even if it is to compare with one’s own and disagree. Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) topped the first ever poll held in 1952. Thereafter, from the 1962 poll, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) reigned at the top for a remarkable 50 years, before being dethroned in 2012.
After working in the media across the world, including a stint as a film reviewer for some Indian publications, I found myself in London in 2000. An internship at the BFI soon led to a job there, working on the Institute’s most ambitious celebration of South Asian cinema ever, titled ImagineAsia. From scouring Bangalore’s back lanes for Sight & Sound, the magazine’s headquarters were now just a corridor across from me and I lost no time in introducing myself to the editor Nick James and impressing upon him my writing credentials. Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (2001) broke into the U.K. box office at number three and that’s the first film I reviewed for the magazine and I’ve been writing in those august pages ever since. It continues to be a humbling experience to be able to live one’s childhood dream.
My joy knew no bounds when I was asked to vote in the 2012 poll. Some of the guidelines were: “We realise that this is not the easiest of tasks, but we want you to know that this is a major worldwide endeavour that will help us all to remind people of film’s rich history and to refine what we mean by the best of cinema.
“As for what we mean by ‘Greatest’, we leave that open to your interpretation. You might choose the ten films you feel are most important to film history, or the ten that represent the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement, or indeed the ten films that have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema.”
I chose a combination of all three and here are my top 10 with brief rationales. (For this exercise, I watched all the films on my long list again with a view to eliminating nostalgia and to see if they had dated or not.)
1. Charulata (The Lonely Wife) : Satyajit Ray
It was very tempting to include Ray’s Apu Trilogy on this list, but that would have consumed three votes. For me, Ray’s Charulata is the perfect film and I’ve watched it more often than the Trilogy. As Ray himself has said: “The one film that I would make the same way, if I had to do it again, is Charulata.” Good enough for the master, good enough for me.
2. Apocalypse Now: Francis Ford Coppola
Even though the Redux version added footage and extra depth to Coppola’s masterpiece, the original cut remains one of the greatest films simply because it is tonally brilliant, with not a false note anywhere.
3. Sunrise: FW Murnau
For sheer visual poetry, nothing comes close.
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick
Though the effects may seem humdrum today in the light of advanced technology, no other science fiction film can capture the majesty and the nothingness of space plus a sense of the existence of a supreme otherworldly power that Kubrick achieved.
5. Gandhi: Richard Attenborough
Detractors may carp about Attenborough presenting a roseate view of the Mahatma and the omission of some negative facts about him, but the film remains a grand journey populated, literally, by a cast of thousands and guarantees moist eyes by the end of it.
6. La Dolce Vita: Federico Fellini
Wonderful snapshot of Roman society at the time, a sneering look at hedonism and at the same time an exploration of human emptiness.
7. L’Avventura: Michelangelo Antonioni
The austere flip side to Fellini’s exuberance, Antonioni practically wrote the book on disconnection.
8. Sholay: Ramesh Sippy
Though derivative of Kurosawa and Leone, Sippy crafted a faultless curry western that set the bar for action, emotion and comedy unrivalled since in Indian popular cinema.
9. Ikiru: Akira Kurosawa
Kurosawa, ironically, finds an affirmation of life from his protagonist who is doomed to die.
10. Raiders of the Lost Ark: Steven Spielberg
Since there is no rule that says commercial cinema cannot be included in lists of the great and the good, Ark makes it in for its sheer joie de vivre and the fact that no action adventure since has managed to even come close to Spielberg’s masterpiece.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo pushed Citizen Kane to second place this year. I’m pleased that two of my choices (Sunrise and 2001) made the top 10. Pather Panchali is India’s only placing in the top 50, at number 42. Nick James said, “This result reflects changes in the culture of film criticism. The new cinephilia seems to be not so much about films that strive to be great art, such as Citizen Kane, and that use cinema’s entire arsenal of effects to make a grand statement, but more about works that have personal meaning to the critic.” I couldn’t agree more.
Naman also covers South Asia for Variety and the U.K. and Ireland for Cineuropa. His biography of Rajinikanth will be released in December.