29 April 2009

Hindi Cinema - An Insider's View

Author: Anil Saari
Published In: 2009

Publishers: Oxford
Price: 495
Genre: Essays


Method In Madness

Along with the fact that Hindi cinema seems to fall in a rut of its own ever so often, the other major disappointment comes from the fact that unlike in the West, film journalism in India languishes in a kind of ignominious state.
The electronic media today thrives on minute-to-minute film gossip, displaying a sort of obnoxious aggression that has never been seen before. The paparazzi culture exists all over the world but in India, it seems to be blurring lines, leaving precious little space to any sort of analysis or thought.

It is in this context that I would like to introduce film journalist Anil Saari and his posthumously published book, Hindi Cinema - An Insider’s View - that is a compilation of his essays right from the 70s to as late as 2005 - the year he died. Most of these writings have appeared as columns in various newspapers and magazines.

The book has an comprehensive introduction from filmmaker and critic Partha Chatterjee, enumerating Saari's vast and in depth knowledge of cinema and most importantly, his ability in recogonising the Hindi film idiom as an important indicator of socio-cultural trends.

In an important pointer to why popular Hindi cinema mirrors life as it is and does not deptart from it dramatically (thereby never really being progressive), the author argues, “Mass media cannot introduce a greater rationality than that which already exists within society. Indeed, in many ways, the media must place itself on the lowest level at which certain mores and values are commonly accepted.”

He also has something interesting to share about the relevance of songs in films. “Given the episodic, fragmentary structure of our films, the sprawling patchwork of plots and sub plots are ultimately anchored and united thematically through songs which provide the philosophical world view that the film subscribes to and expostulates,” he says in the essay. For this reason, Saari believes songs have a definite and important role to play in Indian films.

The other noteworthy essay he writes is about 'Hindi cinema and its compelling world'. Even though films never tampered with the established social fibre, it still fired the imagination of the common man taking him through sensations he had never felt before. So Shree 420 became one of the biggest money spinners of the times, "blending traditional Buddhist ideal of renunciation with sensuality” Also, “in its own inelegant way, it taught a million young Indians how to accept their natural attraction for the other sex.” “Shammi Kapoor may well have been the terror of the middle class mothers. But his brashness in Dil Deke Dekho prompted youngsters to discard the Devdas concept of the suffering lover”
So he concludes that even with its conservatism, Hindi cinema became the standard bearers of fashion and modernity.

One of the most important sections in my view is his take on art cinema vis a vis popular cinema. Saari believes that mainstream commercial directors did a more sincere job of assimilating some of the strengths of art cinema into the commercial mould than what parallel filmmakers achieved in terms of reaching out to a wider audience. According to him mainstream cinema - taking a cue from art cinema- curbed its tendency to be too verbal and switched course and became more visual in its approach. The camera came alive and even the crassest of stereotypes was given some semblance of social relevance and reality. This naturally helped popular cinema to revive and rejuvenate itself.

Saari, while appreciative of the efforts of parallel filmmakers, is vocal in his criticism of them too. The New Wave movement - that relied on state sponsorship in the 80s - did not throw up even one name who tried to bride the gap between art and commercial, he says. And this remains his biggest grouse against the art film movement. “They could not reach out to a wider audience because many of these makers alienated themselves from the very people for whom they were supposed to be making the films for....they forgot that a genuine movement in film could come only through a strong relationship with the people.”
While he's extremely appreciative of the earliest art film movement brought about by masters like Satyajit Ray, Ritwick Ghatak, Mrinal Sen and Adoor Gopalakrishnan, he remains disappointed that though their works found acceptance internationally, within their own country, the masses at large couldn't really be drawn in to see their films.
His emphasis through his essays in this section is that art need not stand in opposition to popular cinema and in fact, parallel films can offer mainstream films with an array of styles and ideas that can enrich it.

Another insightful essay is on ‘violence in cinema’ and how for the longest time there were no action sequences in Hindi films. But this he says was only a temporary ‘repression’ - the influence of Gandhi and emphasis on non-violence. “Violence has been an obvious, but unfortunately ignored characteristic of the actual history of the subcontinent.” Action came to films towards 1968-70 and this curiously coincided with the political atmosphere in the country. It was the time of the Naxalite upsurge, then there was the Bangladesh liberation. “The new consciousness responded to new motifs and new visual patterns on the screen,” he notes.

There are also interesting observations he makes about screen idols, right from the troika of Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand to screen goddess, Nargis, Madhubala and Waheeda Rahman. He also shares his deep appreciation for filmmaker Guru Dutt, who served his art above all other considerations.

To give an example of how he offers valid criticism on a film, his essay on Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas is useful. According to him Bhansali's (undeniably gifted, he says) interpretation of Sarat Chandra’s novel tries to be closer to poetry than to storytelling. “What almost invariably happens when an Indian filmmaker wants to create ‘poetry on celluloid’ is that he wishes to make every single moment in his film a great moment. - of high emotion, grand gestures, extraordinary feelings.” According to Saari, such intensity creates its own one dimensionality, a monotony that in a short time destroys the dramatic rhythm that is so essential to any work of art.
In T S Eliot's words, poetry happens when ‘a work transcends from the ridiculous to the sublime’ And our cinema follows Eliot's recommendation. ...wherein amidst the ordinariness of living, a great film sets its dramatic surprises, narrative twists and heart wrenching moment. This juxtaposition is important and Devdas sadly ignores that aspect, he feels.

There’s a great deal of insight in Anil Saari’s book. Though academic in nature, it’s a valuable read for anyone looking for comprehensive analysis on Hindi cinema. The essays that have been compiled are all mostly written at least a decade ago, which means some of its contents, concerns and the book’s overall tone could appear a bit dated. For example, while the art verses popular cinema is an interesting part of this book, that distinction has all but vanished in today’s multiplex era and Saari would be the one to be most delighted by it.
Also, there are chapters like ‘the Southern locale for Hindi films’ ‘Rags to riches made Real’ ‘Black money as mainstay of Hindi cinema’ - which don’t really say much other than the obvious.
Another gaffe is the title of the book. Hindi Cinema – The Insider’s View – which gives a grossly unfair picture. If anything, Saari’s observations are so fair and well thought-out precisely because he is no ‘insider’ beyond his great love for cinema.
Ultimately, this kind of writing is refreshing to revisit at a time when there is near bankruptcy of ideas relating to film criticism in popular Indian cinema.

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Anonymous said...

thanks for the great review, i cant wait to start reading the book!