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Films Then And Now

Films Then And Now

Recently I gave an exercise to my students at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. I asked them to write a piece in English of not more than 400 words on any incident in their life. One wrote about a film he saw, while another wrote about a tremor that spoiled her sleep. My purpose was to edit their copy in their presence so that they did not make some common errors and give them some tips about writing.

The boy who wrote on the film he saw introduced himself as a cinephile. From the write-up it was obvious that he was "a devoted moviegoer, especially knowledgeable about the cinema". I would not call myself a cinema enthusiast but cinema as a communication medium has always interested me. Of course, my interest is not as deep as VK Cherian's.

I know Cherian for at least 17 years though, ironically, we first met in Amsterdam while attending a conference. I knew that he was a film buff but I did not know about his connections with the film industry and his knowledge about cinema until I read his book India's Film Society Movement: The Journey and Its Impact (Sage, Pages 219, Rs 895).

The book makes easy reading, though the author has adhered to the rigours of research the essence of which is inflexible accuracy. There are, however, some repetitions of facts and statements overlooked by the editor. What makes the book riveting are the anecdotes he sprinkles here and there in the book. Cherian personally knew or met many of the persons he mentions in his book. It is a mere coincidence that I, too, met some of the people he introduces in the book to which I would come in an instant. I was happy to know that Cherian also describes himself as a person from Kayamkulam, a small town in Alappuzha district which produced Kochunni, one of the most colourful personalities in Kerala's social history that Kottarathil Sankunny introduces in his monumental work Aithihyamala.

Adjacent to Kayamkulam is Mavelikara, another small town, where Raja Ravi Varma, easily one of the greatest painters of India, who draped Hindu goddesses in sari and made them more mortal-like, got married to Rani Bhageerathi Bayi (Kochu Panki Amma). Why I mention this here is to highlight the fact that Kayamkulam and its neighbourhood have a connection with the growth of Indian art and cinema. Varma did some of his paintings at Mavelikara. There is an art institute there where Sankar, considered the father of Indian cartooning, learnt how to wield the brush. I met Varma's descendant and the present occupant of the Kilimanoor palace near Thiruvanthapuram where Raja Ravi Varma was born. He is Rama Varma who is a vocalist.

We met at a function where two micro films of 13 minutes and 3 minutes duration each were screened. Rama Varma made a claim that if Dadasaheb Phalke was known as the father of Indian cinema, having made the film Raja Harishchandra in 1913. In doing so, he was enormously influenced by the silent movie The Life of Christ.

While it is well known that Phalke worked under Raja Ravi Varma for some time, what is not so well known is that when circumstances forced the great painter to sell his properties in Mumbai and return to Kerala, one of the great beneficiaries of the sale was Phalke. "It was with this money that Phalke made the classic film", claimed Rama Varma. If this is true, artist Raja Ravi Varma is India's first film financier, if not producer.

If Jesus Christ divided history into Before Christ (BC) and After Death (AD), the release of the film Pather Panjali in 1955 marked a turning point in the history of Indian cinema. Such was the influence of Satyajit Ray that Indian cinema is still referred to as before and after Pather Panjali. There are critics who blame Ray for projecting and encashing the poverty of the country. Cherian's thesis is that the film would not have been cleared for release if Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had not taken a holistic view.

Nehru strongly defended the movie in these words: "What is wrong about showing India's poverty? Everyone knows that we are a poor country. The question is: Are we Indians sensitive to our poverty or insensitive to it? Ray has shown it with an extraordinary sense of beauty and sensitiveness".

What's worse, there are even today many who criticise Ray for the film that depicts the story of impoverished priest Harihar Ray leaving his rural Bengal village for work dreaming of a better life for himself and his family. Cherian mentions that he could not meet Ray. I am luckier than him in that I could see the light in Ray's house on Bishop Lefroy Road in Kolkata for a week that my wife and I stayed in an adjoining bungalow that belonged to the Bihar government.

Ray was an executive in an advertising firm. He turned to cinema when he was sent to the London office of the firm. There he saw 90 films in three months. Among them were Italian Victoria De Sica's neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves and Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. Thereafter, he  turned to film-making and became one of the world's greatest film directors. I saw the film Battleship Potemkin while I was in Bhopal in the seventies. In the film, the crew of a Russian vessel named Potemkin are served rancid meat and treated cruelly. They decide to stage a mutiny and thus ignite the wrath of the police. I was simply mesmerised by the film. The screening was organised by The Patriot correspondent in Bhopal, MG Vaidya, whose wife ran the Baliga Institute of Russian Studies.

Vaidya used to bring films from the Eastern Bloc of countries and show them to journalists and friends. Another film enthusiast among the journalistic fraternity was Taroon Coomar Bhaduri, father of Jaya Bachchan. Cherian has paid handsome compliments to Bhaduri who I remember as a great raconteur of stories. His book on the Chambal dacoits served me as a primer of feature writing.

Bhopal had many film societies. I remember to have seen many movies at the BHEL township. It was this desire to see  classics that enthused me to apply for the one-month film appreciation course that the Film Institute of India organises every year. It would have given me an opportunity to see some of the greatest movies. Alas, that was not to be as I never heard from them after I sent the application. In retrospect, had I been chosen for the course, the watching of so many films might have even changed my life and I might have written more about films than about Modiji.

Films can change a person. I experienced it when Pradipta Shankar Sen joined The Hindustan Times as Resident Editor at Patna. He was truly a man of varied interests. He had an endless stream of visitors who included artists, singers, writers and cinephiles. Every now and then he would organise film shows though I doubt whether it was under the auspices of any film society. Sen helped me watch some good movies. It is from Cherian's book that I learnt that Sen was one of the leading lights of the film society movement in West Bengal. Having said this, I must also mention that at one time film societies were also infamous for screening movies that showed uncut steamy scenes. Such films were censored and cut if they were to be shown to the public.

In the seventies, one of the films shown during the International Film Festival held in New Delhi was the Last Tango in Paris. It was screened in the non-competitive section. Anybody in Delhi who had any contact in the I&B Ministry tried to use the influence to get a pass to see the movie, not for its artistic accomplishments but for a scene in which Marlon Brando’s character uses butter as a lubricant before forcing himself on 19-year-old Maria Schneider's character.

Today anybody with access to YouTube can view the clip without having to contact a Press Information Bureau official for pass. In fact, most old classics can be seen in this manner. To illustrate, I recently read a short story by the well-known writer Zachariah. It was based on a Malayalam film song from the film Ulkadal. Immediately, I saw the scene on YouTube.

I also wanted to see the whole film which was not available on YouTube at that time. Recently I did a search and, lo and behold, it was there. I could see the whole film on my mobile. Does this mean that the relevance of the film society movement is over? No, it is not. There are innumerable films which are unable to find distributors because they are not considered masala films.

Clone is a film society initiated by my friends Ramdas and Vijayan Punnathur. I have seen several films shown by Clone at either Kerala Club or the Films Division Theatre. Cherian narrates the story of Swayamvaram with which Adoor Gopalakrishnan made his debut. The film was a flop at the box office but when it won four national awards, people began to flock to the theatres. "It fetched in a few weeks four times the investment made on the film -- Rs 1.50 lakh". Though I found the film a drag at that time the fact remains that many of the scenes in the film are still etched in my mind. That is the quality of a great film.

Elippathayam (Rat Trap) is a film about the decline of an ancestral Nair family but it appeals to people all over the world. "Because of this film, Adoor is often invited to film festivals in Latin America. The Latin American viewer is able to relate the decay in his own society to the decay depicted in the film. That is the greatness of the film", said Cherian answering a question at the Kerala Club. Film societies will have relevance so long as there are people who are interested in seeing a film together and discuss it after the screening. There are now larger viewers of movies than was the case earlier.

The cost of production of films might have increased over the years but distribution of films has become easier and cheaper. If, earlier, a Malayalam movie had 20 or 25 prints, which were shown only in Kerala, today a film can be released simultaneously in Trivandrum and New Delhi and New York and Port Louis. In the forties 80 per cent of the films shown in India were from Britain or the US. Today most films shown in India are made in India. There is a studio in Hyderabad, comparable to Hollywood. More films are produced in India than anywhere else.

There is greater fun in watching a movie in a theatre than in a home theatre. Even the catcalls and hooting heard in the theatre lend a unique charm to collective film-watching. After all, such noise is also a reflection of popular mood and culture. Cherian may or may not be a Nehruvian but he pays fulsome compliments to Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi for fostering good cinema in the country. Such was Indira Gandhi's respect for Satyajit Ray that she even agreed to become the vice-president of the Federation of Film Societies of India headed by Ray.

Today we have a third-grade actor as director of the Film and Television Institute of India, a post once held by some of the greats of Indian cinema. The appeal of films can be measured by the fact that almost all entertainment channels use cinema clips and personalities from the world of cinema to entice the viewers.

Technology has become so cheap that it is possible for a person armed with just a smartphone to produce a film, upload it on YouTube and let the millions watch his production like a recent micro film which had no characters but some clothes hanging from a cloth line. Millions of people watched the movie in no time when it was shared by Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp users. Cherian did a great service to the film society movement by writing this book. I am sure that a tightly-edited and less expensive version of the book would be lapped up by film lovers.

The writer, a senior journalist, can be reached at   ajphilip@gmail.com

#(Published on 06th March 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 10)