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An area of darkness
The misplaced affections of Indian film criticism over time is largely responsible for Indian popular cinema being derided across the world as inferior to the best European or Hollywood fare
The study of Indian cinema as a subject of critical engagement and analysis almost coincides with the release in 1913 of Raja Harishchandra. Its maker Dadasaheb Phalke was an avid critic and commentator on the cinema of his day, and even released a 'Making of' featurette, following the release of his film. This precedent has been actively followed. Over the last century many of his successors have held forth on Indian cinema, providing great insight into this new art form. These have included big names like Satyajit Ray and Adoor Gopalakrishnan and the list stretches from litterateur and Tamil cinema scriptwriter M Karunanidhi, whose writings off and for the screen contributed to the strengthening of the mid-20 th century Dravidian movement, down even to Hindi cinema's new game-changer and commentator-filmmaker, Anurag Kashyap.
Outside the filmmaking fraternity, the first burst of 'serious' criticism of Indian cinema in English is often pegged to the 'caustic and critical' Baburao Patel, whose Filmindia (one of the earliest film magazines published in India in the 1930s), spared none, and who went from being an editor and filmmaker to an MP. Saadat Hasan Manto, a prolific Urdu writer and journalist of the era notes: "Baburao wrote with eloquence and power. He had a sharp and inimitable sense of humour, often barbed. There was tough-guy assertiveness about his writing. He could also be venomous in a way, which no other writer of English in India has ever been able to match". K A Abbas, a contemporary of Patel, remains the other notable critic from that era, even if he veered more towards writing for cinema (scripts, stories, dialogues) after independence.
India's oldest surviving film magazine, Filmfare (a Times Group publication) and The Indian Express group's film weekly, Screen, have also been important markers. Their archives provide valuable glimpses into Indian cinema's golden years, as veteran journalist Raju Bharatan had once rightly observed, "A lot more was written on cinema than its celebrities in those days".
Stardust, Cine Blitz, Movie and g were significant film magazine additions in the 1970s and '80s that went beyond their fanzine premise to periodically engage with critical reviews of seminal films of the day.
However, Baburao's iconic success, though not repeated, did set the template for 'critical' film writing by making acerbic pot shots, especially on popular mainstream cinema, a preferred tone of film criticism for most 'elite upper-middle class critics', be it in the writings of his legacy's immediate successor and film historian Firoze Rangoonwala or the revered Marxist film critic Chidananda Dasgupta, who reviewed all Indian films using the canons of Euro-American film theories, models and notions of review.
For instance, Rangoonwala's A Pictorial History of Indian Cinema, while attempting a chronological recording of all Indian cinema, takes an extremely critical position on popular cinema makers, seeing 'rays of hope' only in the works of Satyajit Ray and his legacy's torchbearers like Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, et al. Dasgupta in Seeing is Believing, not only terms Bollywood "a variety performance", but also regrets its "use of a vocabulary not understood abroad (i. e. the West). "
Though well-meaning, this vocal minority of anglicised Indian intelligentsia has, ironically, done maximum damage to the cause and global perception of Indian cinema by nurturing a colonially fixated mindset that has now erroneously made Western appreciation the most desirable barometer for recognising the internal worth of any Indian cinema.
As a result, while the diverse and distinct local storytelling styles of other national cinemas like Mexican, Iranian, Chinese or Korean are appreciated as their USP, the same has become a point of ridicule in the context of Indian cinema.
Rosie Thomas, a champion of popular Indian cinema aesthetics in the West, in Indian Cinema Pleasures and Popularity (2008) contends, "What is disturbing in the writings - of Indian uppermiddle class intelligentsia and government cultural bodies - is the tone of defensive apology to the West and the shamefaced disavowal of what is undoubtedly a central feature of modern Indian culture". This is done by either apologetically playing down or deliberately ignoring the Indian aesthetic traditions that have been shaping and defining Indian cinema narratives since its inception.
A major event in this relegation to the background of any serious engagement with the indigenous aesthetics of Indian cinema was the tremendous international feting of Satyajit Ray's Bengali cinema debut with his Apu Trilogy of films (1955-59 ), which also led to the first ever serious academic engagement with any form of Indian cinema and its filmmakers in the West, drawing plaudits from film theorists and filmmakers.
This possibility of reviewing Indian cinema as 'comparable' (rather than an 'incomprehensible other' ) to the 'first world' European and Hollywood cinema made both its governmental sponsors and elitist critics call for more of the 'Ray-like' aesthetic and art-house cinema. So by default, any film in the popular format, irrespective of its merits, was declared inferior. Its unique culture and performance tradition specific attributes - like epic characters, fragmented narratives, little realism, song, dance and spectacle - were seen as faults.
Western criticism, taking its cue from these generalisations, either exoticised popular Indian cinema - as baroque and pastiche - or superficially dismissed it as simplistic, escapist, populist, massy, low-brow cinema, comparing it unfavourably with its 'parallel cinema' counterpart.
It is not that Ray and his cinematic legacy's much feted successors didn't adhere to the aesthetic traditions of Indian story telling;their films however, confirmed more with familiar narrative conventions of European art house cinema like telling non-spectacular realistic stories spread over short narrative spans with little or no songand-dance.
John W Hood in his Essential Mystery: The Major Filmmakers of Indian Art Cinema, best articulates this mindset when he lists the former category's complete dissociation or playing down of popular cinema attributes to be its greatest edge. The cinema of Ray and his successors like Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shyam Benegal, G Aravindan, Buddadeb Dasgupta, Govind Nihalani and Ketan Mehta, he argues, is "free to experiment with form, style, structure and more polished actors given to greater realism, in the absence of stereotypical roles...". The films of popular Hindi cinema auteurs like Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor and Mehboob Khan, he then dismisses with a cursory acknowledgment of their having "a notable degree of artistic sophistication", which however still remains' inferior to their more artistic parallel cinema counterparts, who shoot with "a more widely developed aesthetic sense like restrained pace, no or fewer song and dance, short narratives, no melodrama...".
Such attitudes prevail. No wonder in every updated international listing of 'iconic world cinema', India's entry is forever limited to Pather Panchali. This is lamentable indeed, in more ways than one.
Clearly, it is high time our criticism went beyond a reactive appreciation of the few perceived to be the best to a proactive enlightening of the signature attributes that define and distinguish the unique pleasures of all Indian cinemas.
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