Indian art cinema gives us an ongoing resource to live through disorienting times: Rochona Majumdar

Interview with the historian whose new book talks of India’s ‘art cinema’ moment and the recalcitrant artistic and intellectual practices it represented

February 26, 2022 04:10 pm | Updated 04:11 pm IST

A still from Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (1963).

A still from Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (1963).

A new book on Indian art cinema focuses on Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen to bring in fresh historical perspectives and understanding to the genre, its concerns and trajectories. Historian Rochona Majumdar, author of Art Cinema and India’s Forgotten Futures: Film and History in the Postcolony, talks about the many competing but no less legitimate ways of being Indian that art cinema animated. Excerpts:

Your book addresses the film scholar and the cineaste, the academic and film society activist. How did it take shape and what inspired it?

I trained as a historian of modern India with an abiding interest in issues of postcoloniality and subaltern histories. Over the years, I became increasingly convinced that the history of modern India must engage more with the post-Independence period. To understand the ideas of India — and I emphasise the plural here — we need to focus on the post-1947 years and analyse Indian pasts and futures from that point. Furthermore, the imagination of the modern nation was not just expressed in books. It lay in aesthetic and popular forms to understand which historians need to retool themselves and bring their practice into conversation with other disciplines. The book stemmed from these insights.

As a historian, I did not want to shy away from thinking about aesthetic objects such as films as instantiations of history-making. Instead of treating films as a “source” for writing history, I wanted to understand a mass democracy like India by thinking historically with its preeminent mass product — the cinema.

To be sure, I am passionate about films. Even though I was aware of the separation between art and mainstream films growing up I was not invested in it. But the division interests me intellectually. In the context of Indian Film Studies, even as scholars acknowledge the place of art films they are immediately dismissed as elitist, the cinema of a minority, a bastion of privilege, in cahoots with the state, and so forth. Yet, even with the most celebrated filmmakers — I discuss three of them in my book — it is really difficult to get good prints of films that are properly subtitled. I asked myself what it meant to think about a body of films that were not part of the film-industrial structures and yet were indispensable in considering imaginations of the new nation state.

Art Cinema and India’s Forgotten Futures: Film and History in the Postcolony (Columbia University Press) by Rochona Majumdar.

Art Cinema and India’s Forgotten Futures: Film and History in the Postcolony (Columbia University Press) by Rochona Majumdar.

You consider art cinema a distinct form of knowledge. Its pedagogy and practices involved filmmakers, the film society movement, the state. There are synergies between art and state, imaginations and institutions, aesthetic visions and political projects, which at certain times are complementary and at other times (often necessarily) at odds with each other. How do you see the evolution of these dynamics post-90s, when the state retreated from culture and a Hindu majoritarian imagination began to gain supremacy? How do you think the art cinema project grapples with it, if at all?

As you know, my account of art cinema begins when there was shared ground between filmmakers, cineastes, state, and government. Both mainstream and art films sought to understand and communicate a sense of the postcolonial present that, despite bearing the scars of colonialism, was nevertheless poised towards a future of progress and development. During the 1960s, that sense of hope and a naturalised sense of transition lost its spell for many. In my book, I focus on three foundational figures — Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, and Mrinal Sen — to analyse the ways in which they apprehended the postcolonial present in the wake of their disillusionment with developmental processes. As I state in the book, the position of art cinema from the 1960s on is not just about a break with a history of cinematic form and practice. It is a new mode of apprehending postcolonial history.

We live in a different historical moment now. Cinema for me is always more capacious than just the film. It is a universe of viewing practices, discussions, writing, screenings, intimacy, censorship, debates and much else. To think of cinema in our present moment requires an attunement to new media forms and the ways in which they articulate with or dissent from state and other powers. The levels of anxiety we witness globally about the control of media — films, videos, Internet — would be inexplicable unless we agreed that in this world saturated with images everyone is vying to make some images stick. 

Some images have changed the world — George Floyd’s death, for example. In my home state of West Bengal, the devastating images of cyclone Amphan during the height of the second wave of COVID-19 surely moved many who translated that overwhelming emotion into their will in the ballot. Whilst acknowledging the power of these moments, I do want to underscore that all too often the power of images is not decisive, especially when we are oversaturated with them. There are a huge number of people who own mobile phones and produce a plethora of images continuously. The dizzying speed and volume of images in circulation produces a sense of disorientation. That is why art cinema of the 1960s-1970s is a resource to me — because it gives us a repertoire of images, sounds, and stories to live through disorienting times. That is the one thing our present has in common with the past — they are both disorienting. Indian art cinema provides an ongoing resource to live through this sense of disorientation.

A still from Mrinal Sen’s Padatik (1973).

A still from Mrinal Sen’s Padatik (1973).

One cannot escape the book’s ‘Bengal-centrism’. Not only in putting Ray-Ghatak-Sen at the centre of the project, but also in terms of your basic thematic concerns. What about cinemas like Kannada, Malayalam or Marathi, whose art cinema movements were triggered by and nurtured in totally different socio-politico-cultural ambiences? Or do you think Indian art cinema closely follows the Bengali trio?

One of the things that struck me when I was conducting research on this book was the place that many filmmakers and practitioners gave to the Bengali trio. They seemed to suffer less from the “Bengal-fatigue” that plagues Indian academics. That said, not all three were equally respected or cited: Adoor Gopalakrishnan spoke very warmly of Ray and Sen; Shahani writes eloquently about Ghatak. In the FTII strike, it was Ghatak’s image next to John Abraham’s that moved many strikers. But you make an important point. Each region is distinct; each is cosmopolitan in its way. Sen made a film in Telugu and in Odia because he was able to secure regional funding from places other than West Bengal. This is by way of saying that it would be reductive to create a unified Bengaliness that we lump on to each of the three directors I discuss. I am sure this would be true of Kerala. G. Aravindan’s sensibilities would be very different from Adoor’s. Indeed, until the present moment when there is tremendous anxiety about producing an image of one India, the period I write about presents us with many, competing but no less legitimate ways of being Indian that were regionally grounded but open to a world. It was not the homogenous globe of globalisation, but an internationalist outlook firmly situated in regions.

You say about Indian art cinema that ‘belatedness did not confer subordinate status upon the post-colonial’. How will you extend this argument to film theorising and historicising, especially when discourses about ‘third’ or ‘radical’ cinema are almost non-existent? Also, the role played by film society movement was crucial in creating certain basic templates and approaches to film writing in India. In the post-film appreciation era, film studies became academic discipline, leading to a certain kind of language, theoretical tools and jargon, and also a radical shift in publication formats, platforms, and readership. How do you see the impact of the withdrawal of ‘film society style writing on quality, content and intent of film writing in India today? Has academization brought in anything that could be termed ‘Indian film theory’?

These questions are related, urgent, and capacious. I see them as initiating a set of conversations that are very much a part of my book but are by no means a closed chapter. Film societies heralded film appreciation in India and other parts of the world. Before the establishment of academic film studies, film societies and the kind of criticism they engaged in made cinema an object of serious engagement in many parts of the world. There is a legacy of film society type of film appreciation in academic film studies. For instance, studying the formal aspects of film and the moving image, learning about different international cinemas, auteur studies show continuities with film society writings. 

Notwithstanding all the criticisms made of auteur studies, the fact remains that third cinema studies too focus a great deal on particular films and filmmakers even as they acknowledge that a film is first and foremost a political act, an act of liberation. I agree with you that the rise of cultural studies shifted the radar sharply to an appreciation of the popular often at the expense of an engagement with aesthetic questions on the ground that the latter compromised radical politics. Today, we are once again at a different moment in history — of nations, institutions, disciplines, and the world. As scholars, we are painfully aware that uncritical adulation of the popular can veer sharply toward authoritarian and populist forms of politics. The space for recalcitrant artistic and intellectual practice is threatened in many parts of the world. There is a distinction to be drawn between elitism of the intellect and elitism fostered by neo-liberal capital. 

Under the circumstances, we can ill afford to write off critical artistic practices of the early postcolonial years even as we remain critical of the exclusions they perpetuated. Film, theatre, literature were sites of radical critique of the state, the continuing effects of colonial rule, and neo-colonial practices in the postcolonial world. They teach us the difficult task of judgement. Indian art cinema was crucial in such endeavours. As I mentioned above, its materials and forms were cosmopolitan, but not by diluting the deeply grounded experiences of the local and regional to an anxiety about universal accessibility.

A still from Ritwik Ghatak’s ‘Meghe Dhaka Tara’.

A still from Ritwik Ghatak’s ‘Meghe Dhaka Tara’.

You describe art cinema as ‘histories of their present that point toward possible, unrealised futures.’ You analyse the works of Ray, Sen and Ghatak from this perspective. What happened to this trajectory of ‘art cinema’? Who do you think are its successors in post-Ray Bengali cinema?

Gautam Ghose and Aparna Sen are two Bengali filmmakers whose early work especially was a continuation of trends in art filmmaking into the 1980s. I see Rituparno Ghosh as a turning point. Ghosh often saw himself as a legatee of Ray. I find his work fascinating but a complete break from the art cinema I have discussed in my book. I agree with film scholar Sangita Gopal who describes Ghosh’s work as “Bollywood local”. Art cinema belonged to the pre-globalisation era. While some of its important formal features remain in our times, namely realism, the political bite of the earlier period seems absent. 

That said, in recent years I have watched with much pleasure and profit films by several filmmakers — both feature and documentary. They include Chaitanya Tamhane, Suman Mukhopadhyay, Nagraj Manjule, Ivan Ayr, Arun Karthick, Paromita Vohra, Konkona Sen Sharma, Neeraj Ghaywan, and Nandita Das. I think a lot of interesting and challenging work is happening on OTT platforms.

The Kerala-based writer is an award-winning critic, curator, director and translator.

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