It seems all of last fortnight people have been very anxious about our cinema. Cannes seems to bring out this anxiety in ways that other major festivals such as Toronto and Berlin, which have actually taken the cinemas of India quite seriously for a long time, don’t. But then those other cinemas which have been at film festivals over the last few decades aren’t coming out of the Mumbai film industry-allied “indie” scene.
We worry that the world is laughing at Hindi films, or at least, laughing in the parts where they should be crying. Why does it matter? We want to be taken seriously only for those films that are not like Bollywood, the ones made in realist mode, even if they’re sometimes sort of dull, and more well-intentioned than good. Look, they have no lip-sync songs, they’re about a social issue. So they must be good. Even so, they must still come out of the Mumbai film industry.
Why this critical enslavement to making what comes out of the Mumbai cinema the only representative cinema of India? Our critical culture doesn’t seem to function as if there are many cinemas here. There are films made in many Indian languages, most notably of late, in Marathi and Tamil — some superb, some as derivatively arty as many world cinema films, some simply interesting. They appear as italicised names the week the National Awards are announced but there’s barely any follow up. Not even the so-called independent film bloggers who could out-pirate the best seem to obsessively seek these and write about them.
There’s a vibrant and diverse documentary film culture in our country, a push to find an Indian language of documentary outside the rather fetishistic one-character driven, observational form favoured by European broadcasters and film festivals. These films have significant growing audiences.
But our critics and film writers seem largely clueless about them. I’ve rarely read a documentary review that moved past words like ‘worthy’, ‘hard-hitting’, ‘significant issue’ to really talking about these films as films. It’s as if we don’t know how to judge India’s premier independent film form —until it gets censored, of course. Must be nice when that happens — the media knows for sure it counts now and it don’t hurt the filmmaker even if no one cares how good or not good the film is.
And anyway, why are we so keen to be ‘world cinema’, whatever that means? What is this world? The US, Western Europe? What if they like it in Khambatta, Cairo, Shanghai, Bangkok, Kolkata and Colombo? Does that not count as the world (yes, I know the answer is no.) Such touching belief in the purity of festival selections — as if they are not limited by their own agendas and prejudices and simple personal taste, like anything else.
This wannabe world cinema is becoming to film what the Indian novel in English with the fat advance is becoming to writing. It creates a neurotic second-guessing culture where we need someone else to endorse something before we’re easy in our pride of it.
Sure, there are some basic objective criteria a film must meet to be considered good — but that’s the basic. And it’s not that big festivals, prizes, don’t count. But we cannot make them the means by which we judge what our films mean to us, what kind of cinema language we want to celebrate and push for. If we do that, we’ll start making formula films that fit those boxes instead of setting free our imaginations and enlarging the space for good films at home.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.