Write Angle Ziya Us Salam

The changing contours of cinema

As the who’s who of our serious film fraternity gathers in Goa for the International Film Festival of India, my mind goes back a few years to a nascent attempt by some well meaning critics to form a society of their own. For reasons beyond easy comprehension, the attempt could not fructify. However, the informal meetings of a handful of film critics from different newspapers and magazines did not entirely go unrewarded for me. It was at one such meeting in Goa that I first met M.K. Raghavendra. I had read him for years and often wondered about the man behind some thought provoking words of cinema. In a medium and an age when penning biographies, both authorised and otherwise, is the shortest cut to fame, here was a man prepared to do the hard yards.

He wrote on a variety of films and filmmakers, going beyond the confines of Hindi cinema with aplomb. Most of the works he churned out required patience, skill and knowledge in equal measure. They were not the kind of books one compiled after watching a handful of films or interviewing some directors. They had a rare insight and a width of vision. It was at one such critics’ meeting that I got a chance to pick his brains and soon began to appreciate why he wrote what he wrote. His deep set eyes, somewhat brooding countenance told me he was a serious student of cinema. At our meeting, he spoke a little, largely confining himself to listening. He was not short of opinion when his views were sought, but in general preferred to keep his knowledge bank under lock and key.

Today, as I sit with a copy of Raghavendra’s “The Politics of Hindi Cinema in the New Millennium”, I can almost visualise him putting it all together, painstakingly, slowly but surely. The book talks of the changing contours of cinema in the new millennium with Raghavendra, for once, limiting himself to popular offerings. With the focus on films like Rang De Basanti, Veer-Zaara, Taare Zameen Par, Dabangg and 3 idiots, he comes up with a unique blend of serious middle of the road cinema and the much maligned masala entertainers; thus we have space for films of both Aamir Khan and Salman Khan. However, within the confines of mainstream cinema, Raghavendra is able to give a neat twist, almost like a seasoned director lifting an ordinary story with his treatment. For instance, talking of Taare Zameen Par, he tells us that the film is not simply about dyslexia but actually comes out against the typecasting of children to perform roles determined by adults. He shows his eye for fine details when he talks of the title sequence of the film where Darsheel Safary as Ishaan is shown as an impulsive happy child, trying to catch fish. Then the director uses animation to highlight the child’s prowess of imagination; quietly a message seeps through: it is the adults who have a constricted vision, the youngster, dyslexia and all, suffer from no such limitations. He find draws a parallel with that wonderfully warm film Finding Nemo.

Now, these are not some of the points raised by critics when the film released and won accolades from everybody. It required Raghavendra’s studied approach for these subtleties to be brought to our attention. Of course, later in the book, he is in familiar territory, finding more than a trace of the past when talking of contemporary films with a rural background. Back then at IFFI, we had discussed about Bharat falling off the map of India as far as Hindi cinema is concerned. Here in the book, he devoted considerable time and energy to research and to expostulate. “The economic condition of farmers is not a subject that Hindi cinema has concerned itself with in the recent past. Agrarian issues…were last dealt with as long ago as the late 1960s, although the dacoit genre still thrived in the 1980s. Where earlier agrarian films like Mother India and Ganga Jumna dealt with rural poverty and the exploitative zamindar/moneylender, Upkar explored the manipulation of the peasant by the trader.”

Though expressing his inability to comprehend the slow demise of agrarian issues from mainstream cinema, he does visit Peepli Live, a film that exhibited human concerns without scoring too many political brownie points. Again, he brings his sharp eye into play here when he talks of the film’s credits. “Where the titles of most mainstream films, by and large, appear only in English today, Peepli Live — apart from having its titles only in English — also has a concluding English legend (about the migration of farmers to the cities). Since the legend is important to the thrust of the film, it can be argued, that the film is addressing only those who can red English. In effect, Peeli Live’s authentic vision of agrarian life is consumed by another class than the one the film is about.”

On such little snapshots, Raghavendra builds his essays. With such interesting inputs he forces us to look afresh at some of the films we have seen in recent years. As another edition of IFFI is on, I walk down memory lane, knowing that it was at one such festival one met like-minded critics. Many names have since been confined to the backburner of my memory; Raghavendra though burns bright.

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Printable version | Aug 4, 2021 6:24:16 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Ziya_Us_Salam/write-angle-column-iffi/article6621758.ece

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