For new approaches

Print edition : November 25, 2016

Girish Kasaravalli. A series of essays on the films of Girish Kasaravalli elaborate upon the central sociopolitical and aesthetic concerns of the book. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

MANY film scholars have reiterated the identity crisis that haunts non-Western film writing, theory and criticism. It is worse in the case of critics who write on “vernacular” (read “vernacularised”) films, where they are forced to live a divided life —one torn between deep empathy and understanding about the complex imageries and narratives of one’s own cinema and the need to engage with them using concepts, examples and theories often with organic roots elsewhere.

On the one hand, it becomes difficult to develop theories based on vernacular cinemas as they are not watched by one’s potential readers and peers afar, who are more or only conversant with “global” films. In the process, vernacular films lack “reference power”, forcing writers to use examples and instances from “global” cinema (read Hollywood or European, or Hindi in the Indian context) while substantiating a film’s theoretical point. Although these tools and concepts may be versatile enough to be “universal” in some instances, they may not suffice to understand or appreciate fully non-Western films in all their cultural complexity, subtextual dimensions, symbolic wealth, socio-religious connotations and political implications.

Even in regions such as India, which has a long and rich tradition in aesthetic theory, seldom does one find theoretically exciting engagements bringing Indian concepts and approaches into creative dialogues with film texts. This may not fully be due to the Eurocentrism of the critic/writer, but it definitely owes a lot to an overwhelming but unconscious conviction about the Western as the “’universal”, “new” and “contemporary”. As a result, a certain strain or dissonance is felt when one attempts to employ non-Western theoretical frameworks and concepts.

One is constantly forced to justify, valorise and legitimise them, as if they are always essentially location-bound and society-specific. Unable thus to connect with the global/universal, they are destined to remain local exceptions, “culture-specific” or regional idiosyncrasies incapable of explaining the whole, the outside, the external or the other.

Manu Chakravarthy’s collection of essays is an attempt to seek alternative paths to develop a non-Western cinematic perspective. As he mentions in the introduction: “The huge theories of cinema and the long tradition of film-making of the West [have] become centres of power and authority making it almost impossible for those who believe in the creative energy of non-Western cinematic traditions to establish their value and significance. Western cinema is indeed a canon that rules, even controls, film-makers and theoreticians of the non-Western world.”

The author laments the tendency to use Western thinkers without rooting them in the Indian social experience, which for him “is not only unproductive philosophically, but also tends to become, paradoxically, politically reactionary and obscure”.

Theoretical bondage

It is this critical awareness about theoretical bondage and the urge to think away from it that prompts and provokes film writings and investigations in this book. The author describes the attempt as “the initial steps towards building a Third World theoretical approach to cinema... (for) .. Third World cinema creates different ‘moving images’ that mirror and illuminate the ‘multiple realities’ of diverse societies and cultures”. For him, it is modernity’s refusal to acknowledge the heterogeneous schemes of action and plurality of imagination in the lives of the oppressed.

Obviously, it is such a huge task that a book or writer could never accomplish it single-handedly. But the essays remain true to the author’s theoretical mission. The book includes panoramic overviews of the evolution and changing concerns and styles of Indian mainstream cinema and Kannada cinema, along with an interesting essay on the rise of film icons such as MGR and Rajkumar. A series of essays on the films of Girish Kasaravalli elaborate upon the central sociopolitical and aesthetic concerns of the book, which are further enriched and substantiated with short studies on select films by Akira Kurosawa, Abbas Kiarostami, Satyajit Ray, M.S. Sathyu and Maniratnam. The last part of the book carries interviews with Sumitra Bhave, Sunil Sukthankar and Girish Kasaravalli, and a note on the ace cinematographer C. Ramachandra. This section is an attempt to engage with the theoretical concerns expressed in the first half from the point of view of creators or image makers who, too, are caught between the hegemony of global trends and the urge to create expressions that are local and located.

On the whole, the anthology probes various possible trajectories of film criticism, bringing into its purview the tenuous links between myth, history and truth, the ravages of urbanisation and displacement; the changing dynamics between individual autonomy and social authority; and the fatal encounters with modernity, developmentalism and global capital.

Take, for instance, the observations about the transformation of a metropolis like Bengaluru in the cinematic imagination: the author points out that the shift is from being a site of hope to something that evokes fear/terror. At the film-theoretical level, the author urges film writers to consider the possibilities of redeploying the idea of mise en scene as enunciated by Andrei Tarkovsky for a deeper understanding of Third World cinema.

Mainstream cinema, according to him, had a certain kind of idealism and radical vision that connected with the masses during the post-Independence era, but it gradually fell into a kind of moral vacuity: “It is the death of an organic relationship between communities and mainstream cinema that has brought about a moral and aesthetic fatigue in the latter.” He finds that the middle-class family ethos and the domestic framework, offer for the individual, “a very important private space from and out of which the entry into the public realm is made. There is no meaning to a public self if there are no domestic resources to fall back on.”

The essays probe and pose politically charged and aesthetically intriguing questions, but they are brief and desist from explicating the arguments with instances and explanations, and connect with the larger picture, though there are mentions about movements such as Imperfect Cinema and the New Wave.

The prime intention of the book seems to be to wake up Indian film writers from their Western slumber and to emphasise the inadequacy of Western thought and concepts in understanding the Indian reality, ethos and aesthetics. One would also expect a book like this to engage and converse with other books and critiques of a similar kind. But the author refrains from such openings as is evident from the lack of quotations in the book.

Many essays, though they start off with a grand and exciting critical design, do not exhaust the very possibilities they open up at various levels of film criticism and analysis, and end abruptly. The inconsistent use of capitals and several typos mar the ease of reading.

Despite all this, the book is a stimulating read because of its passion for cinema, its political anxieties, ethical concerns and the effort to break away from conventional analytical modes to seek new approaches and “cut-aways”. The book is an open invitation to film writers, critics and theoreticians in the non-Western world to interrogate, critique and expand upon its insights and concerns, questions and challenges.