I am very moved when senior journalists wish me on Teacher’s Day. Especially when it comes a few decades after they have passed out of class. But when they wish me on Guru Purnima — it somehow feels part of the Indian guru-shishya parampara — and I’m not sure I deserve that title. But if the shishya wants to bestow it, and feels an affection after all these years, I am humbled and overwhelmed.
I am often startled when somebody calls me Miss or Ma’am. I have been teaching cinema and journalism, and giving lectures at various institutes since 1990, including the Xavier’s Institute of Communications, Film and Television Institute of India, Whistling Woods International and Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Often, each class had about 60 students, and since I see them only once a week, it takes a while to connect names with faces. And when that was 25 years ago, I panic — OMG, now where did I teach this chap? One of them, a senior journalist who files solid stories on political, social and arts issues, and is of unimpeachable integrity, was miffed that I didn’t remember him from my class of 20 years ago, immediately. But when he came over for dinner with his family, and brought me a saree, I was deeply moved to be able to still nurture the relationship.
Recently, I have been also invited by the Mumbai Film Festival to be India Mentor to its Jio MAMI Young Critics’ Lab. I conduct film critics’ workshops over two weekends, before passing on the baton to Peter Bradshaw, film critic of the Guardian, London, who will be International Mentor. I have been teaching one of my favourite subjects — Indian cinema — to young critics selected from mass media courses in about 50 Mumbai colleges. Having been India/South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival for 18 years and for the Dubai film festival for five years, it has always made me mad that you can see the best Indian films in Berlin, Paris, Cannes or New York, but not in India. Also, most of the young critics are mainly familiar with Bollywood; it is relatively rare that a Tamilian enjoys good Bengali films or a Maharashtrian watches out for good Malayalam films. I told them that India makes films in 39 languages and dialects, and Hindi is only one of them, so there is a rich treasure of films in 38 Indian languages, waiting to be discovered. In the first weekend, we questioned Bollywood conventions (see the hilarious yet astute Shudh Desi Endings spoof of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge), and explored world cinema in Indian languages. The films reviewed included Rituparno Ghosh’s Bariwali (Lady of the House, Bengali), Umesh Kulkarni’s Vihir (The Well, Marathi) and Gitanjali Rao’s Printed Rainbow, the brilliant animation short. At my next workshop, I plan to show Tamil and Malayalam films.
Some of the young critics were impressive. In his review of Bariwali, a young critic tossed a googly, comparing Bariwali to Godard’s A bout de souffle and Vivre sa Vie, in terms of treatment of story. He added that the film had a cubist inspiration, for example in the shots with “Banalata looking at her marriage certificate, or lighting the lamps, shown simultaneously from multiple angles.”
In another review of Vihir, a critic wrote, “One is haunted by Nachiket’s musing about invisibility being the ability to hide in plain sight, to stay in front of everyone, but to go unnoticed. It questions our own beliefs about life and death, about family ties, about individual agency in life, and our responsibility towards our loved ones.” In a review of Printed Rainbow, yet another critic wrote, “The sound design is absolutely brilliant, paying attention to minute details…and in the scene where she enters the palace and a bird flies by her, a feather of the bird falls down - again paying attention to detailing.”
Ah, with young critics like these, I trust we are in good hands. Hopefully, when they now see Bollywood films, it will be with new eyes, and I hope they will continue to watch films in Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali, Assamese and Bhojpuri. No country in the world has a cinema as rich and varied as Indian cinema, and it would be a shame not to be on first name terms with it.
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.