Evaluating popular cinema

Published : Aug 09, 1997 00:00 IST

SUNIL DUTT says that the idealism of the early post-Independence films is a thing of the past, reflecting the social reality that today the common man is sceptical about ideals like patriotism.

What, in your view, have been the main features of the development of commercial cinema in India during these 50 years of Independence?

First of all, I don't believe in dividing cinema into commercial and art categories. I feel that what you have is good cinema or bad cinema. Pather Panchali represents good cinema. So does Mother India.

Indian cinema suffers from technical limitations. We don't have advanced spotlights, cameras or sound systems. Our laboratories also have their limitations. It is not that we don't want to improve in these spheres. The problem is the high level of taxation - particularly import duties - which makes high-tech equipment prohibitively expensive. With all these limitations, however, our cinema has made a great amount of advancement technically - in terms of visuals, sound and settings - over these 50 years.

I remember that when Satyajit Ray made Pather Panchali, the famous American director John Huston came and saw a few rushes of the film. He was amazed at the creation of such beautiful visuals despite the limitations.

Raj Kapoor in Shri 420.

When I look back, I think of Ray, who took Indian cinema to the international arena. I think of Raj Kapoor, who did likewise with films like Awaara and Shri 420. His films gave the people new hope: after Independence there was so much of frustration in the country, partly because so many people had migrated and had to build their lives anew. Other pioneers were Guru Dutt, who made Pyaasa and Sahib, Bibi aur Gulam; Bimal-da (Bimal Roy) who made Do Bigha Zamin, Sujata, Bandhini and Madhumati; Mehboob Khan, who made Aan, India's first technicolour film, Andaaz, a most advanced and modern film on gender relations, and Mother India; V. Shantaram, who made Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje and Do Aankhen Baarah Haath, which won him an international award; and, of course, Shyam Benegal. All of them made films with a purpose and with total conviction. On seeing their films you could see that they were totally committed to the film medium.

Mehboob Khan made Aan with amateur-quality 16 mm Kodachrome negative, the only colour negative compatible with the Technicolour process that was then available in the country, and had it blown up into 35 mm in London. This experiment, involving great risk, was very successful. Mehboob Khan's Mother India was nominated for an Oscar award for the best foreign film. To the best of my knowledge, it is the only Indian film to have been so honoured.

In Bengal, besides Ray, there were Mrinal-da (Mrinal Sen) and Ritwik Ghatak. Even before Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Kerala had made an impact with Chemmeen, directed by Ramu Kariat, which won the President's gold medal. In Madras we had pioneers like AV. Meiyappan Chettiyar and S. S. Vasan - who gave a feeling of bigness to films. One remembers the scene in Chandralekha depicting many girls dancing on drums.


Then there were some great performers, like my wife (Nargis). My wife got the first international award - at the Karlovy Vary film festival - for her performance in Mother India. She received two more overseas awards for that performance. For her performance in Raat aur Din, she won the first Urvashi award, instituted by the Government of India.

Coming to the present period, we have dynamic film makers like Mukul Anand, Subhash Ghai and Mani Ratnam, who made Bombay. I saw Raja Hindustani recently. It is a lively picture. It is a very intense love story. I think the main reason for the success of the film is that though the Indian girl has lived and studied abroad, she firmly rejects the idea of divorce, saying that her differences with her husband will be resolved some day. Indian values determine her approach to marriage.

Madonna-Mother-Madhuri, water colour painted specially for this issue of Frontline by M.F. Husain, 1997.

But unfortunately, of late our cinema has generally been drifting away from basic Indian themes and Indian values. That, I believe, is because of the influence of the different television channels that we view. That has influenced our film-makers a lot. Some of the South Indian films are an exception in that they maintain our tradition, our basic values. I foresee a receding of this wave of aping an alien culture - because the common man will be fed up with it - and a return to our basic values. The films of Bimal-da, Mehboob Khan, Guru Dutt and Shantaram had an undercurrent of India's social problems. Their films reached even the remote corners of India as their basic themes were such that they touched the heart of every common man of India.

From about the mid-1980s, Indian film-makers took to depicting contemporary social problems like smuggling, including trafficking in drugs, and corruption in the political arena and in the police force. The growth of violence and gangsterism in India was reflected in the films produced in the country. The idealism of the early post-Independence films is a thing of the past, reflecting the social reality that today the common man is sceptical about ideals like patriotism.

What, in your view, has been the contribution of Indian cinema to Indian society over these 50 years?

The best contribution of Indian cinema, Hindi cinema in particular, has been the one it has made to the national integration - and that, too, without sloganeering. I'll give you an example. At a restaurant in Delhi some years ago, I heard a girl with a fine voice singing Hindi film songs with perfect diction. After my dinner I met her and complimented her, speaking in Hindi. She gave me a blank look. A man who was singing with her said, "Sir, she can't speak Hindi." It turned out that the girl was from Mizoram and that she had learnt Hindi songs by listening to tapes. n

Interviewed by R. Padmanabhan in Mumbai.
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