Reading between the reels

"The course will instill a sense of aesthetics and history to students of Film Studies." Picture shows students in the JNU campus.— Photo: Meeta Ahlawat  

Most people watch films for entertainment but some prefer to go deeper, to understand the hidden messages that cinematic narratives may contain, or to analyse the socio-political statements that popular cinema often makes. Jawaharlal Nehru University’s (JNU) School of Arts and Aesthetics (SAA) has announced that it will be introducing three new Masters programmes — in Art History and Visual Studies; in Film, Television and New Media Studies; and in Theatre and Performance Studies. This is a welcome step, as it will enable serious film scholarship to grow in a country where Film Studies barely exists.

Currently the School offers a Masters course in Arts and Aesthetics under which three streams are taught — Cinema Studies, Theatre and Performance Studies, and Visual Studies. The new programmes aim to make each of these a specialisation. However, as Professor Ira Bhaskar at SAA says, the university does not want to lose the “interdisciplinary vision of these disciplines” either. With 16 seats available in each course, the proposal has been approved by JNU’s Academic Council, but the Executive Council is yet to ratify it. “It will meet by the end of this year. But by then it will be too late to advertise the courses for next year. So we will introduce them in 2017,” says Prof. Bhaskar.

She adds about the Film, Television and New Media Studies course, “Today the delivery systems are completely different. You watch films on television and on your tablets. This changed media environment has to be taken into account.” A student can take as many as 14 courses in the subject of specialisation; 10 is the minimum. Right now, in the integrated course, students take a maximum of five or six subjects of specialisation. “We felt our students are generalists, but not fully trained in these disciplines. Our main idea is to train them in a holitistic way and not just teach them a little of each discipline,” she says.

But why the need for cinema studies? “Films are intervening in a socio-political discourse. Pyaasa is a trenchant critique of capitalist culture. So is Shree 420 . Popular culture can be political. Look at Jodhaa Akbar . It is a big Bollywood film, but is making a point about tolerance. It is about the future of India,” says Prof. Bhaskar.

At present, the avenues for a Film Studies student are similar to those available to a student of Literature: academics or journalism. However, Prof. Bhaskar feels even film companies will value professionals who have a background in film studies. “I remember when I was doing my Ph.D in the U.S. and was also a teaching assistant in New York University, there was a student who wanted to study films, but his passion was in costume design. He is Arjun Bhasin, one of the biggest costume designers in the Mumbai film industry. He also works internationally. He has a sense of design but he knows its history as well. That way a student who knows the history of cinema can intervene on the production side in a qualified way,” she says.

Students of film production learn about technology, but they don’t have a good enough sense of aesthetics and history, she feels. This is what the new course in JNU hopes to offer.