Amrit Gangar, film theorist, curator, historian and cinephile, believes that the film society movement in India was largely petit bourgeois. Although he was in the thick of it, in the 1970s and the years to follow, he has no illusions about its achievements. In 2005, Shai Heredia invited him to share his concept of ‘Cinema of Prayoga’ at Experimenta, the film festival she has been curating for a few years now. Ever since, they have spent many hours talking about the madness of making, watching, and presenting film. Over a tasty Olympia Coffee House biryani in Colaba, Amrit regaled Shai with delightful stories (peppered with juicy bits of film history trivia) about Screen Unit, the film society he ran for over two decades in Mumbai. Shai calls this the ‘censored version’ of their conversation.
SH: What is a ‘film society’?
AG: The word ‘society’ connotes a coming together, a society of like-minded people. A film society is like any other—a consumer guidance society, a cooperative housing society…. It needs to be registered under the Registrar of Societies Act as also the Charitable Trusts Act in order to get affiliated to the federal body: The Federation of Film Societies of India (FFSI), which in turn is part of the Federation of International Cine Clubs (FICC). It is required to submit annual reports and accounts audited by a chartered accountant. These are the formal restrictions on a cultural body. The FFSI, headquartered in Kolkata, is divided into regions, and our film society, Screen Unit, was part of the Western Region (WR) comprising the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Goa, Daman and Diu.
For some time I was elected Honorary Secretary of the FFSI (WR), which meant I had to remain in contact with all the affiliated film societies in the region. For example, in Gujarat, besides the big ones in Ahmedabad there were many small but active film societies in places such as Vadodara, Paatan, Jamnagar, Bhuj, Diu, Daman and Goa, and I had to see that they were sent films, and some literature about those films, regularly. I had to do all correspondence, organise Regional Council meetings, invite filmmakers, technicians, writers and others to organise debates and discussions with members, organise programmes, get films, hire screening places, write programme notes and post them to members. It was all khoon paseena [blood and sweat].
SH: But what about the romance that so many of us harbour about film societies, the passion and energy that was inherent to film society culture in India?
AG: Strangely, the so-called passion and the feeling of romance came from inaccessibility. We were not living in the DVD age then—I think VHS had just entered India—and we had to screen films on 35 mm or 16 mm. Formal registrations helped us access films; the FFSI would get films from the embassies and cultural wings of various countries, which would be circulated across the country among registered film societies, which in turn had their own individual approach towards cinema, which would determine the kind of membership each had. The levels of romance also included the erotic; many were anxious to see the ‘nude and sexy scenes in foreign films’. But gradually such proclivities were subsumed by interest in serious cinema.
Absences are beautiful and romantic at times—the absence of accessibility. Today youngsters pride themselves in having personal collections of thousands of films on DVD or as data on hard drives, but they may not have watched even five of them! For us, the freedom of access to films we never imagined we could see was what made film societies special. There were the Alliance Française, Max Mueller Bhavan, the House of Soviet Culture, and so on, but they would only show films from their respective countries and on their own premises. Film societies, on the other hand, were spread across the city and you could watch these films in your own neighbourhood—like Screen Unit, which was started in Mulund, and Sahridaya, which was started in Chembur and provided us a rare opportunity to see Malayalam films. For bigger events the film societies were free to hire screening places anywhere in the city. What was special was the experience of seeing [Jean-Luc] Godard or [Miklos] Jancso in our local environment. Imagine the works of masters from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Russia, France, coming to Bombay’s suburbia!
The romance you are talking about was drenched in sweat and perspiration, particularly for the organisers. For every film screening you needed permission from the District Collector’s office. Chitra and Broadway cinemas in Dadar, New Excelsior and Eros in south Bombay had small preview or mini theatres with around 100 seats, and film societies could hire them for their bona fide members. Those days I was working in a private firm and before finalising programmes for Screen Unit I had to stand in the queue to get the requisite form, fill it up making three copies using carbon paper and then submit the application for the formal screening permission. To do this I had to take leave from office, once or twice every month.
But yes, the romance was like a tonic. Often, as I stood in the queue for hours, there would emerge an image of naughty Jean-Luc smoking a cheroot and enjoying Vent d’est [East Wind]. Above my head in the Collector’s office in Bombay’s Old Customs House, the big old fan would fling out warm dusty air, the real East wind, from the Orient. But we always treated our sweat as one of the world’s costliest and most fragrant perfumes. That was our romance, you see! Khoon paseena—I think less khoon, more paseena.
SH: What years were these?
AG: We started in around 1977-78, but it went on for twenty-five years.
SH: So how did Screen Unit start?
AG: My friend Manilal [Gala] was the prime mover, but we were together from day one. Manilal wanted to be a filmmaker. He had applied to the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) but he could not get in, and so he started Screen Unit to be in touch with cinema. I remember the first film we showed was Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal in Mulund at the Maharashtra Hall. It was a community hall that was open to all kinds of functions including weddings; a non-a.c. space, with a big pedestal fan that kept whirring loudly, providing a parallel sound track to Wajda’s film. There was this excitement of ‘watching film together like a social ritual’. I remember introducing the film in whatever way I had understood it through whatever reading material was available. Inaccessibility made us work harder, read more, visit libraries, consult more knowledgeable friends, look at the sky, like Sachin Tendulkar does after hitting a century. Finally the sky was our screen.
SH: So that was the essence of the film society—the joy of the collective experience.
AG: Yes it was this collective experience, but this was only possible because we could get the films. Quite early on Screen Unit had organised an animation film festival showing mainly films from the Films Division. This was perhaps the first independent animation film festival. We showed Kantilal Rathod and Ram Mohan’s films, drawing on the history of Indian animation films, or cartoon films as the Films Division called them.
To catch up with my paseena story again, we were not permitted to carry celluloid film print on trains. Though we were no longer in the age of the inflammable nitrate silver acetate film, and had entered the age of non-inflammable celluloid film, the Indian Railways still considered celluloid as dangerous inflammable stuff. It required any passenger carrying it to obtain a special permission—we were lucky to get a blanket one. The pockets of sweating people are generally empty—though their hearts are large, as Raj Kapoor would proudly sing—and hence we carried those film cans all the way from the Films Division office on Peddar Road by bus to the Victoria Terminus and from there by train to Mulund. And to receive film prints, there were no courier services to deliver them at your door. We had to approach the Railways with proper documents to get the outstation prints—for example from the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), Pune— released. Railways stations could be anywhere: Byculla, Dadar, Bombay Central, Grant Road or Victoria Terminus. You know, it was the romance of the coolie—our great intellectual romantic notion that Mao Tse-tung would like us, and we would join his cultural revolution! The romance gave us the necessary illusion, the necessary energy, the necessary hope, the necessary anxiety, the necessary desire to know more. Towards the formation of a ‘vision’, I think all this becomes necessary. And of course, the physical labour also kept us healthy and fit.
Recently, the well known painter Sudhir Patwardhan and an old-time member of Screen Unit was a bit surprised to look at the added fat on my body and he asked me the reason. I had no answer, but he did. He held DVD responsible. “Earlier,” he said, “you carried the heavy film cans personally and that helped burn your calories but now you can so easily carry a tiny DVD in your pocket!”
Let me recall a story. We had planned the screening of Kumar Shahani’s documentary film Fire in the Belly and the prints were to come from the NFAI since we could not get them from its producers, the Films Division. Suddenly on that day a railway strike was announced. Manilal rushed to Pune early morning by any mode of transport he could get, picked up the prints from the NFAI, and started the same backbreaking way back to Mini Chitra, back in time for the screening at 6.30 p.m.
For practical reasons it was necessary to do screenings at around 6.30 p.m. so that office goers could make it. To travel to Mini Chitra in Dadar by train was hell. Commuters getting into the compartments would not let you get out, and very often we would have the heavy film dibbas with us. We had innovative ways of dealing with this problem. As the train entered Dadar station platform, some of us would start shouting ‘machhi ka paani, machhi ka paani’ [fish water, fish water] as those fisherwomen with baskets full of fishes do; or we would shout ‘Datta Samant zindabad’. [Datta Samant was a leading trade union leader and he had led the longest textile mills workers strike in the city.] Listening to this bunch of shouting commuters, people would move aside and we would royally alight from the compartments, sometimes with dear JLG [Jean-Luc Godard] on our shoulders, or Jancso squeezed in our armpits, or John Abraham held firmly in our hands.
SH: How did you publicise the screenings? How did you get people to come?
AG: No computer in those days, no e-mail, and the photocopying machine came later. I had bought a second-hand typewriter and used it to cut stencils and get them cyclostyled for multiple copies. My programme notes would run into ten, twelve, sixteen pages with reading material sourced from several books and journals. Earlier, Manilal used to do it, before he joined Ketan Mehta’s Bhavni Bhavai production team. After working from morning till evening in a private firm for my rozi roti [daily bread], I would work on preparing my cyclostyled programme notes through the night in our small house. The takka tak takka tak of my rickety typewriter would not allow my wife and child to sleep, but they did not mind my cruelty; after I got the copies they would help me write addresses on the envelopes, carry the bundles and post them. To save money we would send the notes, not in envelopes but stapled, Under Certificate of Posting. Initially I would address members as just Dear Members, which eventually turned into Dear Folks, which gradually—and passionately, and intimately—turned into Swajan. Swajan means kindred, one’s own people. Interestingly, in Sanskrit, swajah or swajam also means sweat, perspiration or blood! So it really jelled with our notion of khoon paseena romance. I really cherish the memory of this journey that led me to Swajan.
I must tell you that we did not have an office to work in. We would hold our executive committee meetings in open parks—fortunately there were parks in Mulund. But since our meetings would be turbulent with loud arguments and counter-arguments we would attract the attention of policemen and they would drive us away. We could bribe them only with free viewing of films organised by Screen Unit and nothing else; of course they were never interested. Consequently, we would walk the streets and conduct our meetings, walking and talking.
SH: There is an intimacy in the social experience of cinema. A social contract is made between everyone entering the space of the cinema to together watch a film for a period of two-three hours. So by becoming a member of a film society you consciously make this larger social contract with various other people from different strata of society.
AG: Yes we were very conscious of that. Our fee was Rs 36 per year, Rs 3 per month and a member could watch as many as sixty films over a year. Again in tune with our khoon paseena romance, we wanted to help poor students and working class people by offering them discount or free admission—although it was illegal! There were students who got the benefits of discounts. Most of them came from rich areas such as Peddar Road, Nepean Sea Road and Malabar Hill. But later on, many students from working class areas such as Lower Parel and Curry Road also joined. We were really excited about the fact that we were finally reaching other sections of society. My firm belief was, and continues to be, that after a year of seeing films by Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Ingmar Bergman or Jean-Luc Godard and such other filmmakers, it rubs off on you. You become a better human being, a better citizen.
SG: So a community developed through Screen Unit.
AG: Yes, absolutely. Once we had organised a retrospective of Ray’s films in a municipal school classroom, showing films on a hired 16mm projector. People sat on hard wooden benches on many of which students had scratched one-letter or one-sentence love stories. We had also organised an exhibition of books on cinema in a community hall—books borrowed from friends and foes, books even stolen from strangers to be returned to them later with legitimate pride. Such an exhibition had never happened and it was quite a revelation for visitors.
SH: Would you say therefore that film societies were only concerned with showing ‘art cinema’?
AG: No we didn’t even use the word ‘art’. We were just showing and discussing cinema. We just told people, come see these films and decide for yourself what cinema is, and what cinema could be.
SH: Can you trace the growth of the film society movement in India?
AG: By 1964 all the Nehruvian ideas had crystallised: the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), the Film Finance Corporation (FFC), which later became the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), and the Film Institute of India, which soon became the FTII. Cinema was being contextualised. The Indian government in New Delhi took interest in cultural investment, including cinema. With that investment—adequate or inadequate—were made films such as Bhuvan Shome by Mrinal Sen, Uski Roti by Mani Kaul, and Maya Darpan by Kumar Shahani. The media dubbed it the Indian New Wave. Immediately after, we started Screen Unit.
I think the stage was set for film societies to grow more widely across the country. I really doubt whether it turned into a nationwide movement since the northern regions were a desert, and so were parts of the western. The only two states that were very active in film society circuits were West Bengal and Kerala, both ruled by communist governments. It took almost fifty years after film societies had existed elsewhere for them to appear in India. The world’s first film society was born in Paris in 1920, and Britain’s, in 1925, with some of the finest intellectuals associated with the movement: George Bernard Shaw, Julian Huxley, Clive Bell and J.B.S. Haldane. The first two in India were Amateur Cine Society (1937) and Bombay Film Society (1942), but the ‘movement’ could be said to have started only in 1947 when the Calcutta Film Society was formed; the prime movers were Satyajit Ray, Chidananda Das Gupta, and others. On 13 December 1959 the parent body, FFSI, was formed when a small gathering of Delhi, Patna, Roorki, Bombay, Madras and Calcutta Film Societies met in New Delhi. Ray was the President of FFSI. By and large the so-called ‘movement’ in India remained either elitist or petit bourgeois. But Screen Unit had several Dalit writers as members, including Namdeo Dhasal, Daya Pawar and Narayan Surve.
SH: Tell me more about this community and these individuals who mattered.
AG: We were clear, right from the beginning that Screen Unit would not have more than 150-200 members. We never hankered for 2,000 or 3,000 members like other film societies. Being small we would be more cohesive and focussed and carry through our own ideas and philosophies.
Most of our members were students from all branches of knowledge, and there were also writers, poets, artists, architects, meaningfully unemployed youth, young girls and boys, women and men, straight, semi-straight, semi-semi-straight, non-straight, et al. Their average age was about twenty-two, though there were members as old as seventy and as young as eighteen. To be a member of a formal film society you had to be eighteen. This was because film clubs were exempt from censorship laws and were allowed to show films uncut. The age restriction irritated me. A Marathi newspaper had carried an article about Screen Unit and after having read it a boy of fifteen came to my house in Kandivli, desiring to be a member. I found him serious and intelligent. I asked him to fill in a form and put his age at twenty-two in the appropriate column. Eventually he imbibed so much knowledge about cinematography, and also steadfastly helped in our day-to-day working.
And then there was an old tailor from Bandra who didn’t speak English—my programme notes were in English and films were subtitled in English, but that was not an impediment for him. In my programme notes, I would talk not only about films but also about several issues affecting our urban life, pollution in Goregaon [a suburb in Bombay], for instance. Some FFSI office bearers did not like such writings of mine. For me cinema was life, it could not be without life. Usually my notes would reach all members in the first week of the month. If the tailor did not receive them on time he would wait for me at Kandivli railway station, as he knew I caught a train there to reach my workplace. He would stop me and ask, “Saab, aapka programme note abhi tak nahin mila.” [Sir, your programme note has not yet reached me.] That would give me such a wonderful feeling and fill me with energy. I would briefly discuss with him, in Hindi, the forthcoming programme and films. Such was the connection with my Swajan.
When we screened a retrospective of Alexander Dovzhenko’s films, we brought out a slim brochure with small ads from well-wishers. A generous donor, offering Rs 300, had given us an ad—a strip in the name of a well-wisher—and he gave us a cheque in the name of “Alexander Dovzhenko” a/c payee only!
There were moments of deep frustration, too, when we would find only a few people attending our screenings. We would think, what about our donkey-work? Then we would go boozing, drinking cheap desi stuff like mosaambi, santra or eclectic mixed fruit, and think of joining the Consumer Guidance Society instead, to give something back to society.
SH: In my opinion, Bombay’s cinephile culture was created by Screen Unit. Would you agree?
AG: If I say yes, I would sound arrogant. If I say no, I would sound false. So let me be arrogant, if only partly so. Some facts are on record. When we organised a retrospective of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, it was the first time that Tarkovsky’s entire body of work had been shown in India. 35mm prints. Tarkovsky on the big screen. This was the real experience of watching cinema. The city was almost crippled by a taxi strike on the first day of the festival but to our surprise over 800 people turned up to pack the Amar Gyan Grover Auditorium at Haji Ali. The secret of how could they reach the venue, we could never know.
We brought out a small book paying homage to Tarkovsky when he died in 1987. For its blue printing paper we called it the Blue Book. It carried Jean Paul Sartre’s letter to an Italian daily defending Tarkovsky’s film Ivan’s Childhood, which was shown in the Venice Film Festival. The Italian communists had criticised the film but Sartre had defended it publicly. Our friend Madan Gopal Singh had translated the letter into English and perhaps it was for the first time that it was published in English!
We chose to screen documentary and short films, which film clubs in general were not interested in. Also, most clubs would not venture to show films without subtitles, even if they were made by some of the most significant filmmakers. As for us, we wanted to familiarise ourselves with the works of important filmmakers, though not at the verbal ‘story’ level but at spatial-temporal levels, as cinematography. Towards this end, we showed the body of works by Dovzhenko and G. Aravindan, even though we were not able to get their films subtitled in English. We were against spoon-feeding.
I personally was not inclined towards writing synopses of films and doling them out to members. The Tarkovsky ‘Blue Book’, for instance, had no synopsis but only the words and expression around his cinematography, his ‘filmosophy’. By insisting upon synopses, film societies across the world have made the viewers too story-conscious and linearly oriented. I often ask students and general viewers to attempt writing a synopsis of Tarkovsky’s Mirror; and not surprisingly, most of them find it extremely difficult to do. I like synopsis-defying films. I think my programme notes played a crucial role in creating an orientation towards cinematography. We were very clear about the way in which we wanted to create a bhavak or connoisseur. Young journalists such as Meenakshi Shedde and all the others who later started writing on film were members of Screen Unit.
SH: Screen Unit published books as well. That’s a particularly special achievement. How did you make that happen?
AG: Books were a natural corollary to my extensive programme notes. The first book that we published was interestingly in Gujarati, in 1982. It was a small but very significant publication, I would say, published when Gujarati talkie cinema had completed fifty years of its existence. We had also organised a big seminar and a festival as companion events. Many non-Gujaratis attended the events and helped us financially too. The publication cost only Rs 5 and it doubled as an entry pass. It contained Manilal’s careful compilation of Gujarati films produced between 1932 and 1982, and a study of Gujarati cinema based on extensive research done by the historian Virchand Dharamsey and myself. We had put forward an argument that many of the Indian silent films were actually Gujarati films: despite the absence of language you could see it in the milieu, costume and overall environment. We had also given a list of studios that had produced silent films.
On Ritwik Ghatak we published two major books. One, titled A Return to the Epic, by Ashish Rajadhyaksha, was published in 1982 and formally released in Calcutta. The late Ghatak’s wife Suromadi was at the function and as she said, the book was the first of its kind in English and it threw new light on Ritwik-da’s oeuvre. This was followed by another major book on him, Arguments/Stories, in 1984. Edited by Ashish Rajadhyaksha and myself, the book was much appreciated for its structure and approach to Ritwik-da’s work and thoughts.
There was the Blue Book on Tarkovsky, which I told you about. Mind you, we had no money whatsoever when we were carrying out all these activities. Hum to bilkul kadke they [We were absolutely penniless] but we had loving members. There was Prof. Mashruwala—a Reader from Bombay University’s Department of Economics, if I remember right—who would pull out whatever chips he had in his pockets and force me to accept them. He would say, “Yeh tu rakh le, tumko chahiye programme notes ke liye.” [You keep this; you need it for your programme notes.] This kind of camaraderie had evolved over the years through our work, our beliefs, and our selfless craziness.
And here I would like to put on record my gratitude to my wife, Kuntal and my daughter Akanksha, who was still studying in primary school and my son Viplav, who was very young. They all contributed by helping me in posting programme notes, writing or pasting names and addresses, and bearing with my reaching home late at night. Unfortunately, it was not possible for them to travel in local trains particularly in the evenings and they missed the films we screened. They had also to do their homework.
And I can say similar things about my colleagues who were also putting in hours of work. Nobody expected anything in return; in fact, we were spending money from our own pockets. Those days were different; there was still some idealism left. But gradually, the only cultural centre in the city of Mumbai was the Stock Exchange building. After Harshad Mehta [the stock-market scamster] everybody had started “thinking big” and making money, more money… It wasn’t strange that such an environment had an impact on the film society ‘movement’. The membership of several film societies, and hence of the federal body, had begun to dwindle while the Stock Exchange was growing taller. As money-making dreams could not be realised, longer queues formed outside temples in the city; the city was experiencing a kind of deep vacuum that culture could not fill. Unfortunately, film societies were finding themselves mired in this vacuum, losing social contact somehow. I think this could be an interesting subject of research.
SH: Which in your view were some of the more interesting film societies in the country?
AG: Though scattered unevenly across the country, according to my guestimate there were over 250 film societies affiliated to the FFSI which once had 150,000 members. To my knowledge and firsthand experience, there were a few smaller film societies across the country, in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in southern India, Maharashtra and Gujarat in western India, West Bengal in eastern India, and barely any in northern India, except perhaps Delhi, though there were some film societies in small towns there.
In Mumbai, there was Sahridaya, which I had mentioned earlier. They showed Malayalam films and also came out with a book that provided valuable historical information about the Malayalam cinema in English. There was Cine Society run by an indefatigable old man, Abdul Ali, whose obsession was films produced by New Theatres, and he would do anything to obtain them and show them to his members. He had discovered prints of some Hindi films from Chor Bazaar and railway godowns. He also came out with informative brochures whenever he had bigger events. Those days when many Indian films were not easily accessible or even seen on television, Cine Society provided an opportunity to see them on celluloid. Abdul Ali was always dressed in white khadi bush shirt and trousers. He was a trade unionist who headed some hotel unions, including that of the Ambassador hotel in Mumbai. It was really fun to see old Hindi films along with his members, most of them past fifty or sixty years old, clapping at dialogues and singing along with heroes and heroines like K.L. Saigal and Kanan Devi. He liked P.C. Barua films and music composed by R.C. Boral and Pankaj Mullick. In his youth, he had personally met Subhash Chandra Bose. I would sometime attend his screenings held at Tarabai Hall near Marine Lines railway station.
Also in Bombay, there was a film club on the Bombay University campus, and another one in Ruia College run by students—Hira Stevens, a professor there, was associated with it, and if I remember right they published a cyclostyled journal, very well produced and rich in content. There was Film Forum, which had its own office and library of books in Dadar, and many filmmakers and technicians from Bombay film industry as its members; it also published an interesting journal.
In Nagpur, there was Gora Ganguly and his colleagues who quite imaginatively ran a film society called Cine Montage. There was one in Latur which young thinker Atul Deulgaonkar was associated with. Down south, in Trichur there was an interesting film society run by the academic and writer I. Shanmugha Das, cultural activist and media person Neelan, and their colleagues. They were responsible for bringing out an important journal in Malayalam called Drishyakala. And in Chennai there was Chennai Film Club in which then upcoming short filmmakers such as Siva Kumar were active. They all brought out programme notes and other publications in their respective languages. In Calcutta, there were several but the Cine Central was huge, with its own office. They brought out a monthly and were able to bring out some important special issues on Ritwik Ghatak. In Jodhpur there was an interesting film society run by Prof. Maheshwari. There was one in Jamshedpur. These smaller film societies with enlightened leadership, if I may use this word, were quite focussed and developed their own character and commitment.
SH: Do you think film societies have nurtured film culture in India?
AG: To my mind, the film society ‘movement’ in India had remained largely petit bourgeois. Most of the film society organisers were middle class careerists hankering after little benefits such as getting passes for film festivals, and attending meetings, seminars and parties organised by foreign consulates and embassies. By and large the ‘movement’ has not contributed significantly to developing deeper aesthetical roots. I also feel that this ‘movement’ has failed to develop a critical attitude towards cinema.
SH: With digital culture nowadays, people barely leave their homes to go to the cinema. So what happens to that kind of collective viewing of film?
AG: Social and cultural clusters keep on redefining themselves and with increasing technological interventions, they find themselves lost sometimes in real spaces but found in virtual spaces. Social dialogue is taking place almost anonymously in cyberspace, through Facebook and all that. The physical get-togethers for viewing films in darkened auditoria during film society screenings, for example, have almost disappeared, and with that the dialogic space, the space for thought articulation, has either shrunk or changed substantially.
Everyone wants to have big film festivals with glamour and glitz. Mediocrity and brazenly low-quality stuff are masquerading as the best and people don’t really have many choices in the world’s largest democracy. In this atmosphere, whatever is small yet intellectually rigorous gets brutally pushed out, but nevertheless there is always hope, since the whole of humanity is not homogenous or media-driven. You just have to have faith in yourself and keep doing what you believe in.
Talking is important. Writing is important. Articulating your thoughts is important. And it’s rigour. You have to read a lot. That is not happening. Maybe someone can talk about kachra [rubbish] in a very significant manner. Hum Aapke Hai Kaun has produced so many thought-provoking essays within social theories. We are not even paying attention to our own films. In fact at Screen Unit we also thought that it was important to study popular culture so we had a seminar on Sholay. You can’t just reject it. When ten million people are seeing a particular film, you have to talk about it: that was the postmodernist argument.
SH: Do you think television has had a huge role to play in these changes in viewing?
AG: I don’t think so. Whether to watch it or not is a conscious, personal choice. Television is just a piece of furniture. Yes, it does challenge the human sense of discretion. As a matter of fact, television with hundreds of channels does not really offer you many choices. There could be many channels catering to stock markets, many more catering to sadhus, still more catering to family feuds. The world’s largest democracy is in many senses an illusion, maya. Television is maya, and humanity’s natural function is to understand this maya.
The film society’s function was to develop a critical sense, which I don’t think happened.
In fact, when television serials such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana started, most film society members chose to see them uncritically sitting at home on Sunday mornings rather than going to New Talkies, Bandra for the FFSI joint screenings of film societies to see a Bergman, a Ghatak, an Ozu, a Mizoguchi or a Ray or any other classic. But why blame television? You cannot stop the way technologies change but you can perhaps guard yourself against their undesirable grip on your life; if not, you will increasingly crave for censorship and at the same time extol the virtues of democracy.
SH: It’s true… there is a space to develop a critical sense whether new technologies come or go.
AG: Exactly. Technology is not your master, you know. You are the master of technology. My personal observation is that there is hardly any difference between a human being watching a television and a cat doing it. Motor responses purely at retina level are almost the same, and television viewing is mostly at retina level. Passive. The older you grow, the more you like television’s company. It’s passive-to-passive time- pass. It is difficult to contemplate and imbibe while reading a book on the computer screen. As a consequence, the world is growing in superficiality of thought. It is a serious matter that we need to counteract. It is not technology per se that is responsible; it is the human decision.
SH: Do you think that there still is a space for a film-society-type community to exist today, and that one should pursue building that community?
AG: Community is a human need. And that keeps happening in one form or another, maybe not on a large scale. In Kandivli where I live, we started screening films late night —around 10 p.m. or so—in a local school, thinking that people would come with their families after dinner and leisurely watch some of the classic films that we would enable them so see. But what happened most of the time was that it wasn’t the people from the neighbourhood who turned up, but people coming all the way from Malabar Hill and Nepean Sea Road. This was a very strange phenomenon.
Unfortunately, this is the age of fast food and shortcuts; everybody wants to learn in the shortest possible time. Even Tagore’s Santiniketan is shortening some of its courses’ learning duration! However, talking about a community existence and experience, Ninasam in Karnataka still exists. What is also of concern is that in this country of over one billion, there are hardly any good film studies departments in universities or outside them. To our young students we have given the fake choices of ‘mass media’ and ‘mass communication’ and in the process have created mass(ive) mountains of kachra. There are so many Everests in this country, the filth-capped Everests that we don’t see but are proud of, many more than the real majestic one in the Himalayas, whose purity we don’t seem to be concerned about enough to preserve.
The problem is that people have less time to think, to introspect, to ponder, to read, to listen to music, to really meditate, or look at the sky to feel the moon. Even I don’t remember when I last saw the moon! Being unable to look at the sky at our will, we are missing the cinema.
This interview was first published in the IFA publication ArtConnect (Vol. 5. No. 2, July-December 2011)