A living cinema
By: Sarwat Ali
The books published on cinema in India have been on the increase. In the beginning, the printed material revolved around scandals and most of the stuff was purely sensational but, with the passage of time, as the profile of the industry has become bigger, the writings too are more varied and diverse.
As cinema has built on its initial image and progressed more towards a serious expression, correspondingly, criticism too has dwelled more on cinema as a form of art the evolving schools of criticisms during the course of the century of its existence.
As the Indian cinema nears its century, the writings on probably the biggest industry is focusing on analysing and evaluating the journey of the years from the first film made by Dadabhai Phalke, a silent ‘Raja Harishchandra’ to the advent of the talkies, the surge during the early years of independence and then the current phase of the last 20 years. It now expresses a new confidence about the achievements that have characterised this century of filmmaking.
When Anupama Chopra joined film journalism after returning with a degree from the United States around the mid-nineties, her mother was ashamed of mentioning her profession in her social circle. Now that blot or stigma associated with the films has been washed away. Initially the upper classes and the socialites thought it was beneath them to see an Indian film, let alone discuss it in their drawing rooms, but now they feel more confident in making it the topic of their conversations — holding their heads high due to its growing stature.
According to Chopra, the ill repute was due to the old school with its rigid hierarchies and conservative mores. The producer was oily in a safari suit, clutching a suitcase full of cash, the stars worked on multiple projects and rushed like headless chickens from one set to another and the distributors gave creative inputs demanding sensuous rain scenes or bloody fist-fights. The directors were always over 45, the producers asked for ‘original’ scripts, which had been done before, all based on lifting and awash with ill-gotten cash — a cohabitation of the underworld and glitz.
Shah Rukh Khan, who has penned the foreword to the book, has particularly focused on the last 20 years and has described the change as being very fast, almost like an upheaval. When he was making a debut, he was told that he had to pay money to become a star that his image as an actor was to be of a man not well-educated but hailing from the boondocks, that he was not to ask for a story of the film but the stars that were cast in it. The importance was to be given to the appearance of the actor, the producer stayed back in the shadows, while the director insisted on a lot of song-and-dance. The shooting at times went on non-stop for 72 hours. There were no bound scripts and, more films meant brighter chances of becoming a star.
“Doing film in those days was like doing street theatre. You made up as you went along,” he writes.
He insists things have changed; however he does not take credit for it entirely — there are stories, the shootings take place according to schedule, the production is more planned, scriptwriting and writing softwares have come in, the banks offer credit and, whether through multiplexes or single screen theatres, the retail section is more organised.
Though Shah Rukh Khan Misses the madness of yore, people becoming bankrupt making the film and selling their house for putting up with the expenses and money coming in from shady sources. The chaos of the films being made on hope and destiny was a passion like maddening love.
All this is captured in the book and, though much has changed, many aspects of the industry still lie rooted in its ethos and its initial years that chartered its course. Many would insist that little has changed and the essential core of the industry has remained the same.
But since nothing succeeds like success, one has to sit up and take notice of what is being written about the biggest show business machine next door. Where does all this leave us because we shared the first 35 odd years of this cinema and even till now many outstanding personalities of that cinema either migrated from what is now Pakistan or have their roots here.
In Pakistan, the critical writings on cinema never went beyond the sensational. The beginnings were quite promising, as in the ‘Pakistan Times’ Faiz Ahmed Faiz paid particular attention to what was being written on cinema, particularly the Pakistani cinema, and the first cinema critics were the likes of I.A. Rehman. Much later, in the 1970s, he went on to edit the only serious magazine that was published under the aegis of NAFDEC from Islamabad, but, unfortunately the magazine too folded up with the demise of the PPP government and NAFDEC coming under a cloud.
It is an axiom that film criticism only thrives if films are being made. A living cinema spawns criticism that is meant to place those films within an enveloping climate of meaning by unleashing various levels of relevant interpretations. It can also put the cinema on a corrective course and also arrogate upon itself the right to set its direction.
For Pakistanis, can writings about cinema in a society that does not produce a sufficient body of films, be the source of inspiration for it to kickstart the process of production is the only valid question.