Film-making is story-telling in pictures -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Film-making is story-telling in pictures

By: Farah Zia

Having already done his two days of theatre, Tuesday morning, on Dec 4, was reserved for a talk at the National College of Arts Auditorium where Naseeruddin Shah was the guest of the Film and Television Department. His arrival slightly delayed, the atmosphere became electrifying with each passing moment. His entry in the hall was marked by a standing ovation, something Shah was quite accustomed to by then, having received a full five minute each at his performances at Alhamra.

Introductions and welcome notes were quickly read so that Shah could speak directly to the students. He, too, seemed quite keen. He began by clarifying some myths. “The kind of cinema that was developing in the 1970s was not actually the beginning. Before that, there were others; Khwaja Ahmed Abbas was making films that did not conform, were not formula, nor were they made with the intention of multiplying his bank balance. These were films which were made from the heart…

“In 1973, Shyam Benegal’s first film Ankur was a huge success but it was not the first step; Raj Kapoor Production House had also made some experimental films. V Shanta Ram had made progressive films in the 1940s on the subject of widow remarriage and the caste system and so on.

“I was lucky that I was available in 1975 as an actor when many film makers needed an actor who could look real, an ordinary human being, not a superman. I just happened to be there, an unemployed penniless actor, needing money to feed myself; I did not want to serve art…

“The conditioning of popular cinema is so deep that we don’t even feel it. This is very harmful, I am not saying that such films should not be made; obviously they have a function — to entertain the audience, to take them away from the reality. But since Bollywood has invaded Pakistan full scale, you must beware because Bollywood is an all consuming monster, it’s an addiction and not a healthy one. I am not absolutely negating entertainment. It is absolutely essential but the kind of dumbing down of the audience that Bollywood has done, the kind of mind-numbing impact they have had, the way they take out the essence of all your fantasies and fulfil them, this has played a large part in the apathy that Indian people suffer from. Just because these films don’t claim to represent reality does not condone the absolute shabby nonsense they provide in the name of entertainment…

“The second thing I want to tell the aspiring film-makers is to find your own idiom rather than ape the West. What we have managed to emulate is the superficialities of Hollywood. They did make great films from the 1940s right up to the 1960s and that is because people who loved the finances but they were also the people who loved cinema.

“We, in India are deluding ourselves that the whole world is watching our movies now. Actually, the whole world has stumbled upon Bombay cinema like they stumbled upon Indian/Pakistani food. That food will survive because it has substance; it will always be popular, not loved all over just as a fad. The same will hold true of Hindi movies. They will not survive unless they put their act together and produce something of substance…

“I don’t believe in cinema as art. I am not quite sure about cinema as an instrument of change or a medium of education. It can marginally serve this purpose. I believe in serious cinema because it truthfully reflects the times you live in. Cinema is the only art form which can do that without necessarily resorting to abstraction. Beware of abstraction, that’s another thing I’ll say to the young filmmakers. The essential purpose of cinema is to act as a record of its times. Cinema is the only medium which can capture life as it is which is why documentary film is very important. Consider making documentary films in order to be chroniclers of your times…

“You must not get obsessed with form; it can only be a medium to convey your world view, your beliefs, your philosophies, only after you have mastered the craft. First learn to tell a simple straightforward story through pictures. Don’t try to make a masterpiece. Don’t try and make your first student exercise into a masterpiece. First learn the vocabulary, learn how an idea is conveyed, learn the grammar and get into your heads that film-making is story-telling in pictures. If you can’t get that right, the deepest philosophical statements you will make will not hold any water.

“Tarkovsky or a painter like Picasso or even Salvador Dali, they all graduated to the surreal once they had mastered the real. You cannot draw a caricature unless you can realistically first.

“For documentary your task is cut out for you. For feature films, use your own lives as raw material; it is so rich. There are 16 screenplays in the newspaper every single day. Remember that film-making is a team job; it costs money. No actor is remembered for his acting; he is remembered for the films he has done. I was present at the right time in Mumbai city…

“I don’t accept myself as a theatre person because I had always dreamed of becoming a film actor and to earn lots of money. The magic of both cinema and theatre got me at a very early age. I was an unhappy, lonely child with no friend. At the age of 14, I got some friends together and did a play and showed it to the school. That was the day my life changed. From a nobody, I became that actor for the school. That is why I have such deep association with theatre and have never given up theatre.

“Over the years, I have realised that the kind of theatre done abroad, in Broadway and West End that relies too much on spectacle, is moving in a completely wrong direction. You don’t understand whether you are watching drama or cinema. It’s a wild goose chase because you can never create on stage the illusion that you can create in cinema. So why try.

“Does that mean that the function of theatre has come to an end? That is not correct. Theatre has its utility. We should stop cribbing about lack of venues, theatres and scripts. Whenever two people sit together and talk, communicate, that is theatre. All you need is an empty space, just as Peter Hall said, one actor, one audience and one text is all you need.

“To those who wish to work in theatre, do not feel limited. Get material from your own lives; you have brilliant writers who have written best short stories, try to tell those stories.”

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