In first person: Goutam Ghose

Cinema in each language is national

Print edition : October 18, 2013

Goutam Ghose. Photo: V. Sudershan

From "Padma Naddir Majhi" by Goutam Ghose. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

100 years of Indian Cinema

RAJA HARISCHANDRA is considered the benchmark for the beginning of Indian cinema as it was the first completed film that is available with us. But even before that, between 1903 and 1907, Hiralal Sen, a brilliant engineer, started making films in Calcutta. We get to know from the newspapers of those days that he filmed an entire play that was being staged, using multiple cameras, and made that into a film. So labelling the year as the centenary year of Indian cinema may be a little contentious, but, nevertheless, we need benchmarks. It is like the Lumiere Brothers showed their small films in Paris in 1896 and that became a benchmark for cinema even though before them Edison, Dickinson and other scientists had worked on moving images.

So let us call it 100 years of Indian cinema for convenience’s sake. Now the question that I want to address is, what is Indian cinema? And how Indian is Indian cinema? The Europeans could foresee a huge market here for this new marvel called cinema. Subsequently, many film companies came up to make movies for the Indian audience. Primarily, they were trying to gauge the taste of the Indian audience and they were taking ideas from plays and mythology, etc. Films were made in Bengal, Bombay, Lahore and later on in Chennai. From the 1920s, Calcutta became one of the major centres of cinema. People from all parts of India, including Prithviraj Kapoor and K.L. Saigal, had all come to Calcutta. New Theatres, Kali Film, Madan Theatre were all big companies operating from Calcutta. They were making double-version films, mainly in Bengali and Hindi, and also sometimes in Marathi. In fact, Telugu and Tamil films were also made here in the 1930s and 1940s.

After 1947, things started changing for the worse, and we lost a huge market in East Bengal. All major music directors, like Bimal Roy, Hemanta Kumar, Sachin Dev Burman and Salil Chaoudhury, migrated to Bombay. The Government of India’s preference for the Hindi language also had a lot to do with it. Now here comes the dichotomy. National cinema has come to mean Hindi cinema. Why so, is my question. In my opinion, cinema in each and every language is regional and at the same time national, and now international, because of the huge diaspora.

Sometimes I like to say that it is the centenary of the so-called Bollywood cinema. Bollywood is a different genre, combining elements from different parts of the country. But hardly do you find anything about the life and culture of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh—the Hindi-speaking belt—in the so-called Hindi-speaking cinema. Of course, there are exceptions. But I think the celebration of the centenary of Indian cinema has more questions than answers.

In my opinion Hindi cinema alone cannot be considered national cinema. We have to consider the nature of our country—the huge diversity, the multilingual aspect of it. I have nothing against Hindi cinema, I have made so many myself, but the point is, if we try to push one particular thing as national cinema or one particular culture as national culture, we are fostering cultural alienation and inviting trouble. We have to do greater research before we celebrate the centenary of so-called Indian cinema. We must pause to think what has happened in one corner of Manipur—they also used to make films; what has happened in Gujarat or in Punjab or in Karnataka and other parts of the country. We must find out what used to happen in the Lahore studios. The great actor Pran Saab (the legendary film star Pran) told me that he started his career in Lahore. And many Punjabi actors came down from Lahore after Partition. We have to take all this into consideration when we celebrate Indian cinema. The problem in our country is that we are very good at announcing things—150th anniversary of Tagore and Swami Vivekananda. But within one year all the funds are exhausted and all is forgotten. Why is there still censorship in Indian cinema, in a world that is wide open through the Internet? This is only creating pressure on film-makers. As a result many of them exercise self-censorship and have a subconscious fear: “If I tell the truth, the censor board might block it.”

In the international arena, Indian cinema has improved a lot, technologically speaking. But we have such a treasure in our collective culture, such diversity in literature and subjects and there is hardly any reflection of that in our cinema. In my opinion, if you compare Indian cinema with world cinema, the former is still mediocre in quality. If you look at the recent films of Indonesia, Iran, Korea, the Philippines, you will see that in spite of great potential, our cinema is not quite of that level. One thing I gathered from my travels to festivals abroad and from my friends outside India is that they feel Indian films lack originality. This once again leads us to the question: how Indian is Indian cinema. Most certainly we get inspired by others’ cinema, but we also need to have our own cinema and our own content.

Frog in a well

Now, as far as Bengali cinema is considered, it is a very small industry. Recently, a lot of films are being made, funded by chit funds. Though the number of productions have increased in the last two or three years, there is no infrastructure, no business model, and no honest attempt to open the market with Bangladesh. Two of my films, Padma Nadir Majhi and Moner Manush, were co-produced in Bangladesh, and they had huge releases and my producers earned more money than normal Bengali films. The wide audience that it could reach made this possible. The mentality of the Bengali film industry, I feel, is akin to a frog in a well. It is not coming out. They should do what the Tamil and Telugu industries have done—they have taken their films abroad to the diaspora. The turnover of the south Kolkata bidi business is perhaps much more than the turnover of the entire Bengali film industry [smiles]. Of course, I say this in jest. But the turnover is very small.

I got into film-making primarily because I just loved the medium. I wanted to make Bengali films because I knew the milieu so well, and we have such literary treasures. I also made Hindi films— Paar, Patang, Guria, Yatra—mainly because I found the backdrop interesting, which is the Hindi-speaking belt. I will again make films in Hindi, but I also would like to make films in a regional language. My last film, Sunya Anka, is a multilingual film, which has Bengali, Hindi, English and a tribal language. You see, we in India speak many languages, so I think it is important that there be more multilingual films. There should be a kind of exchange between different regions—dub each other’s films and release them. There are many brilliant films being made in, let us say, Kerala or Maharashtra, but the people of Kolkata do not have the opportunity to see them.

When I started my career as a documentary film-maker (in the early 1970s), Bengali cinema was financially in very bad shape. Uttam Kumar was the superstar, and he alone was holding the industry aloft. After his death (in 1980), there was a huge crisis. Bengali cinema really went downhill, and then a handful of film-makers started copying from Tamil films and others, which was of interest to a section of the people. There was a bunch of us—me, Aparna Sen, Buddhadeb Dasgupta—who were trying to make films of quality. Then there was the generation that came immediately after us, like Rituparno Ghosh and others, who have been doing very good work. I was lucky in that I never had any problems with my producers. Whenever I wanted to make a film, I could. I have tried to maintain a kind of honesty in my films and I was never really attracted by the demands of this New Economy. Moreover, I also have other interests—I like to travel, meet people, pursue my studies, etc. I don’t make too many films, but I continuously make documentaries. At present, I am making one on Gunter Grass and another on optical images and painted images.

As told to Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

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