Lessons from cinema

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Right angle K. Hariharan.
Right angle K. Hariharan.

What's the right course for students of cinema? K. Hariharan of L.V. Prasad Film and TV Academy discusses the nitty-gritty with SUDHISH KAMATH

What makes K. Hariharan one of the finest teachers of cinema in the country is his love for the people and regional languages. Which is why he believes it's time for course correction.

“Indian cinema has missed out on the study of characters because we have been depending too much on archetypes,” says Hariharan, spelling out his agenda at the L.V. Prasad Film and TV Academy as the director of the institute.

“I spend more time these days sensitising students to the Indian context and problems in India than teaching them technology,” he adds. In three years, films by his students have gone to almost all the big student film festivals around the world, and the Institute is bringing a out DVD of the best of those films.

Over coffee, the young-at-heart Hariharan tells us all about his journey.

Born into cinema

“I am really blessed. I was born into cinema,” he says, tracing his beginnings to Bombay. “My dad was vice-president of Eastman Kodak, and all the top cinematographers would be at my place, including the great Subrata Mitra. I remember when I was in Standard VI; the entire discussion of Satyajit Ray's ‘Charulatha' was taking place in the ground floor of my house. All of Ray's storyboard drawings were spread out, and I'd listen to them till 11 o'clock when I would doze off on Subrata's lap. I would go with my dad to see all the Film Society screenings. By the time I was in Standard X, I had no choice but to join the FTII.”

“After graduating in Commerce, I joined the film institute. FTII was a good thing and a bad thing. Because my rooting in cinema was so strong, I could teach my classmates such as Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Kundan Shah, Saaed Mirza, Dibakar Ghosh… While it gave me enormous confidence, it also took me away from the cinema I loved very much.”

Which brings us to the biggest issue plaguing film education in the country — “FTII has a slightly elitist kind of agenda. They look at realism as the only way of making films because they borrowed their syllabus from European film schools. So it was Satyajit Ray or nothing else. And then there was only Kurosawa, Truffaut and Bergman… We wouldn't even discuss Guru Dutt. No people's cinema.”

So, it was quite natural, he says, that his first film “Ghasiram Kotwal”, was “such an esoteric piece of art”. “It found its way to the Berlin Film Festival in 1978. I had hardly stepped out of FTII, and I was at the Berlin Festival. At such a young age, I got a little halo around my head, and I wondered: ‘Now, what do I do?'”

V. Shantaram, the chairman of the Children's Film Society, then called him to ask if he would like to do a children's film. “He said: ‘I don't want it to be like the other film. I don't want it to go to Berlin. I want it to reach people.' That was my first break in Tamil. A film called ‘Wanted Thangaraj'.

“That film brought me to Madras in 1979. They liked it very much. I liked Madras very much. And, I settled here and was married to this wonderful woman called Rama.

“Here I was in Madras, with no work, when ‘Palai' Shanmugham, a criminal lawyer from Tirunelveli, came to see me to make a documentary on Subramania Bharati. As we did the research, we figured Bharati was a complicated character, and we would have to tell a few truths that people would not be too comfortable with, in his centenary year. So, we abandoned it, and took up a film based on a criminal case he conducted against a cement factory in Tirunelveli.”

That film, “Ezhavathu Manithan” won a National award for Best Tamil film. “It also went to the Moscow festival, and I became the festival guy. I was also running the Chennai Film Society.”

Teaching phase

That started off the teaching phase of his career in 1983. “Purely for survival, I had to teach at the Adyar Film Institute, and I learnt to speak Tamil because students came from small towns. That is when I realised what I had missed. I realised that English language was a deterrent for mainstream cinema, and to love mainstream cinema, you had to think in Tamil.”

With the growth of Doordarshan, Hariharan took to making documentaries through the late 1980s. “I made ‘Crocodile Boy' with Romulus Whitaker, and made a series on tourism, education, and one on understanding cinema.”

In 1991, Hariharan made his first Hindi feature film “Current” with Om Puri and Deepti Naval. Again, it was a low-budget art-house film on the plight of the farmer in India.

“In 1995, I went to the U.S. on a big lecture series to universities, and three of them signed me on as a scholar on Indian cinema, and I went into academics full swing.

“I did another children's film in 1999 called ‘Dubashi', which I consider my finest film. I then did a long series on the Alwars, then another on the 100 years of world cinema, and I would have cranked hours and hours of footage making documentaries when in 2004, I got a call from Ramesh Prasad who said: ‘Hari, I want you to run an academy'.”

* * *

Looking within

We think of importing all that's considered good in our Indian cinema only when the high priests in the American and European world decide to call it good cinema. Guru Dutt is a classic example. He was nobody during the days I was studying in FTII. But in 1985, he becomes master when Channel 4 decides to have a retrospective on Guru Dutt in London. We have to blame people such as us who never took our own Indian cinema seriously enough to write books about it or write analytical work… We have to make an effort to study a film such as ‘Mother India', to study a film such as ‘Thalapathy', ‘Sahib, Biwi aur Ghulam' or ‘Paruthiveeran' or ‘Subramaniapuram'… Just because mainstream filmmakers are not able to express their own dilemmas, their own formative systems, we think they don't have anything to say. Just because Mehboob Khan did not write a book about himself like Scorsese on Scorsese, Godard on Godard, or Kubrick on Kubrick, does not mean he was any less.

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