Film historian Theodore Baskaran speaks on what constitutes good cinema in a programme organised by Aruvi literary society

Azhagarsamiyin Kudhirai, an unconventional story of a naïve villager Appukutty and his missing horse, critiques religious beliefs in an understated way. Vazhakku En 18/9 sends out a hard-hitting comment on the judiciary, and the vulnerability of the poor. Subramaniapuram, a gritty story of four youths growing up in Madurai shows how unemployment and circumstances forces them to turn into killers. “These films are fine examples of new wave cinema,” says S. Theodore Baskaran, film historian. All the three films emphasise realism, and rely more on images rather than a verbal narration, which is a sign of good cinema. A number of new films address the marginalised, labourers, drug smugglers, criminals and take up environmental issues too. “They reduce songs if not eschew them totally. Songs become an intrusion. Core competence of films relies on images. It is important to tell a story through images.”

Theodore, who has authored many books on cinema, attributes the new wave to the influences of Latin-American cinema. “This is aided by the growing number of film festivals, and the DVD revolution. It inspires newcomers to direct that kind of cinema,” he says.

He regrets that it took so long for the 100-year-old cinema to be recognised as an industry. “It’s been only three years since cinema has been identified as an industry. Things are looking up. There are 26 trade unions and this includes artistes, dancers, stuntmen, cooks and drivers. Everyone is given a credit when the titles roll. I learnt about it while acting in the film Aval Peyar Thamizharisi. It was an eye-opener.”

Starting young

Film appreciation studies, he says, should begin at schools. “Like music and literature. Just as children learn Silappadhigaaram and Thirukkural, Shakespeare and Puthumai Pithan… they should also learn about films. While we acknowledge that literature is needed to appreciate dance or music, somehow cinema is reduced to mere entertainment. Children should be taught to receive images, and appreciate the excellence of the medium, like literature. I started with Hitchcock for my children. ”

The film historian notes that out of 60,000 films only a few are recognised and appreciated. “We have a growing tradition of hero worship and rasigar mandrams, but nothing to promote good cinema. As writer Sivakumar puts it: You need much more than a pair of eyes to watch cinema,” he says.

Differentiating between art or parallel cinema, and commercial cinema, marked the decline of good cinema, he regrets.

Another deterrent is the tendency to look at cinema as an extension of theatre. “We had Charlie Chaplin films in the British Silent era and the Battleship Potemkin series in the Russian Silent Era. And, they made a smooth transition to the talkie movie. But Tamil cinema failed to make the leap. Here, the silent movies era lasted for 20 years from 1916 and 126 films were made. When talkies came, they were just a medium which recorded readymade dramas. Cinema is neither a photographed variety entertainment nor a verbal narration; it’s the images that do the talking.”

He gives an example from Azhiyaadha Kolangal. Images of spectacles lying on the river bed, retrieval of his body and burial tells the story of the death of a boy without a single dialogue. “A character should enhance the image; the image shouldn’t illustrate the talk. In most of our films, there’s a role reversal and that is the bane of our films. Alfred Hitchcock whose film Vertigo figures in the all-time top 10 best films, says any emotion, love, lust, frustration, anger… can be conveyed in images. One can master the cinematic language in a number of ways. One is by using symbols. In the film Sirai, the character Antony’s manliness and power is represented by a gun. Subtle symbols enrich a film language.”

Uncomfortable truths

Keep your eyes open to issues, he says. “Tamil film Kutty talks about the helplessness of domestic help. It leaves you disturbed. And, you become sensitive to the issue.”

Theodore stresses that cinema is an entity, like music, dance and drama. “It has to be believable and realism is the base. Veedu directed by Balu Mahendra immerses you totally in the images as he takes you through the struggles of a middle class family. The images of a police station, court and the prison in Subramaniapuram brings in a sense of fear that lingers long after the film is over… such is the power of images.”

Theodore rates Bergman’s Wild Strawberries and Jayakanthan’s Yarukkaga Azhudhaan as his favourite films.

Meals Ready, a 9-minute short film made by Nithuna Nevil Dinesh was screened. Theodore Bhaskaran was in Coimbatore to talk on “What is good cinema” at a discussion organised by Aruvi. Visit: