Cinema that arose from legend

In a country with a billion people, out of which two thirds live in rural parts and sixty percent are still illiterate, in a country in which fourteen million film lovers go to the theatres on a daily basis and twenty five radio stations constantly play film music from Bollywood films, the social and political responsibility of film authors is huge

According to a legend, in the old times in the valley of the river Ganges, people started to feel bored and looked for satisfaction of their basest passions. Jealousy, greediness, anger and envy became dominant characteristics of people. Because of that a group of gods from the Hindu Pantheon asked the main creator, Brahma, for help. They advised Brahma to invent a toy (kridaniyaka) for people, something that would distract them from their base passions and restore positive human traits. The gods suggested to Brahma that this should be something that is both visible to the eye as well as something that people will listen to with interest. They also mentioned that this Toy should be intended for everyone even for the lowest caste - Sudra, who had no access to the knowledge of all Vedas. That is how the fifth Veda- Natyaveda (Veda - knowledge in Sanskrit language) was created. The first part of this holy inscription is called Natyasastra*and it is devoted to drama. Brahma created dance and music and told Bharati, a reliable and creative man who had a hundred sons, to create a proper drama. Bharata and his children introduced the term dramatic plot, established theatre as the place of dramatic action, a set that divides the audience from the performers and Apsaras, women who played in the theatre. Dance, music, exaggerated facial mimics and gesticulation, emphasized make up and special costumes were part of the first dramas and after folk, Sanskrit and Parsi theatre made their way into film.

These days film has completely taken the place of rural theatre, folk dances that were previously popular forms of mass entertainment. Today, folk and film music are so intertwined so that at traditional weddings, funerals and religious initiations it is impossible to tell what had a bigger influence on what. One hears Bollywood and tradition at the same time. In India, film became one of the most important manifestations of life itself. Nevertheless, film in India is not mere entertainment. It is also an important factor in the socio-political milieu.

In a country with a billion people, out of which two thirds live in rural parts and sixty percent are still illiterate, in a country in which fourteen million film lovers go to the theatres on a daily basis and twenty five radio stations constantly play film music from Bollywood films, the social and political responsibility of film authors is huge. When Mani Ratnam, Indian director as important in India as Spielberg is in America, made his populist film Bombay, (1995) a love story between a Muslim woman and a Hindu man situated in the context of bloody political unrest which took place in 1992, the official censors managed to keep audiences from seeing this film for more than a year. Some of the Indian states refused to show the film at all and a group of fundamentalists set a bomb under the director’s car. Luckily the assassination of this great film author did not succeed. After almost a year of censorship, the film started to play in film theatres across India and achieved great success. After this film, the young composer, A. R. Rehman, became a musical legend and the leading actress, Manisha Koirala, originally from Nepal, became the biggest female star in India.

Despite the fact that the enormously active production of almost a thousand feature films per year consist mostly of very plain and often dumb melodramas, light comedies and action thrillers, even so a certain number of authors strive to speak up about important social and political issues through the form of masala** film or the so-called art or parallel*** film form. These producers and directors have to count on a numerous and delicate audience and strict censorship. Not only political topics are cause for violent reactions; also, at first sight, ordinary family dramas may provoke the audience as well as the strict censorship commission. Even the biggest names of the film industry, from producers to actors (who often finance their own films), do not know until the very last moment if their film will be shown on the planned date or not. Premieres are often scheduled before the biggest holidays such as Divali, the autumn celebration of light, Holi, the spring celebration of colors, Christmas and New Year, in the Bengal state before the celebration of the goddess Durga and in the Tamil Nadu state before Pongal, a holiday that celebrates the importance and beauty of cows.

One of the directors who bravely tackles political topics and fiercely criticizes the position of women in Indian society is Shyam Benegal. This author has tried himself out in both film forms - in the Bollywood style as well as the so-called parallel film. It is interesting that this film pioneer will be presented to the Zagreb audience with two films, which represents a third of the whole program. His film Mammo (1994) deals with India’s poignant topic, the “humane transfer” of population that happened after the division of land in 1947. Benegal showed how the minority feels in Bombay and how the majority acts through a story about a grandmother called Mammo. His film The Making of Mahatma from 1996 also tackles an important political subject - the life and importance of Mahatma Gandhi, spiritual father of modern secular India. One of the best actors of the new generation, Rajat Kapoor, plays Gandhi. Kapoor has appeared in many Bollywood films as well as art films (one of his most important roles was in the film Charachar by the Bengali director Buddhadeb Dasgupta). Kapoor’s partner, Pallavi Joshi, who began her career as a heroine in a parallel film, is today one of the most talented actresses of the new Indian cinema.
This program, selected by the Indian Embassy in Zagreb, is a good cross-section of Indian film history. We can see masala (or formula) films such as Let us forget it, friends/Who Pays the Piper (Jaahne Bhi Do Yaaron, 1983), a comedy with typical slapstick elements that deals with serious social issues - corruption, police work and others, an historical film Mirch Masala that deals with the problem of taxes and tax collectors in the colonized India directed by the renowned author Ketan Mehta, as well as films from parallel production, which are in fact the least popular at home but which, ironically, brought fame to Indian film in the 1950s in Cannes. It was then and there that the film Pather Panchali (1955) by Satyajit Ray received the jury’s award and attracted international attention to Indian film. Ray’s films, according to British magazine Sight and Sound, belong to the hundred best films of all time. In 1991, after directing his film The Visitor (Agantuk), which will be shown in this program, Ray received an Oscar for life-time achievement. A few months later he died.

In this program viewers can learn about this expressive film culture characterized by a unique storytelling and musical style, symbolical motion and dance, finger movement (mudri) and gesticulation, the importance of costume colors and set design, as well as different shooting styles. In addition, audiences can meet some of the best Indian actors. One of them achieved great international acclaim and appeared in several American films (City of Joy) as well as British projects (My Son the Fanatic). We are speaking of the actor Om Puri, an actor with a distinctive face and abilities for impressive dramatic interpretation. The other actor worth mentioning is Naseeruddin Shah who, like Puri, appears in several films from this program. Shah is always, no matter if he appears in a comedy or in a tragic role, in a popular or art film, equally good and original. The actress that stands out in this program is, along with the aforementioned Pallavi Joshi, the middle-aged artist Deepti Naval who for more than three decades has been working with the greatest names from Indian art film, such as Girish Kassaravallia. This author from southern India, like many other authors of parallel film (along with the aforementioned Ray and Benegal, they are Mani Kaul, Kumar Sahani, Buddhaddeb Dasgupta, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, etc.) openly show emotions and eroticism on film, often treating them realistically and almost poetically. This is the complete opposite of masala or formula film from the Bolywood production.

Indian viewers that I meet on festivals in Mumbai, Kerala or Calcutta, reared on popular commercial films, often ask me: “Don’t you Westerners do anything else in your bedrooms apart from what we see in your films?”

In Indian classic literature, drama and film, LOVE is larger than life, it is holy, a mythological category. Love means sacrifice. Love’s holiness and grandiosity always overcomes all obstacles. Practically, this means that an Indian screenwriter, even when he “borrows” his story from a Hollywood movie (there are many popular Indian films that are in fact remakes of American films, such as Pretty Woman, Mrs. Doubtfire, Face Off, Sense and Sensibility), adapts any possible story to Indian standards and Indian way of thinking. For example in the Indian remake of Fatal Attraction (Pyar Tune Kya Kiya), a married man cannot and so does not engage in a one-night-stand with another woman. The meeting of the two characters happens in a different way. The most important rules of popular film are:

·No sex before marriage

·No sex outside of marriage

·A woman can love only ONCE in her life (everything else is a result of a misunderstanding)

·A sinful woman always gets punished (she is either killed or gets cancer)

Even in West Africa where Bollywood films are very popular, its biggest trait is described as follows: “Until recently (when big changes occurred regarding showing kisses and eroticism on film, -- author’s comment), Indian film showed great respect towards women. The problem with Hollywood production is that these films have no shame. In Indian films women are dressed properly, men and women kiss each other very rarely and you will never see a woman without clothes. Because of that, we think that Indian films have the culture that Hollywood films completely lack.”

However, sex or erotica is not what denotes Indian film. What characterize Indian film above all are music, dance and poetry. These three creative elements denote every Indian film, no matter if it is a masala production with dance sequences or a parallel film in which music and often dance and poetry are integral parts of the story and, unlike in the masala films, they emerge from the plot itself.

“Song is like God’s speech, it fills up the empty space on Earth. It represents an experience shared by masses of people, rich and poor, in theatres, at fairs, religious or political parades, at weddings, in temples, street bars and huge halls. Music unifies people always and everywhere. These days the only real music is music from films.” (Chidananda Das Gupta, Indian critic in the book Colour of Film).

Rada Šešić (professor of Indian film at the University in Amsterdam, Netherland and selector of South Asian films at Rotterdam Film Festival and film festival Kerala, India)

* Bharata Nathyasastra- writings about the origins of dramaturgy in Indian tradition, technique of acting expression, dance and music.

** masala, a concoction of spices in India used for salty food as well as tea and fruit salads. In Indian popular film the term stands for the tried-out, magical combination of different elements that usually work well with the actors (the main ingredients are love drama, action scenes, comical elements, dancing and singing sequences, pronounced message of the film and happy end).

***Paralel or art film is the official term in film theory for author film in India. It refers to production that exists parallel to the so-called mainstream or popular film (commercial or masala, formula film). Parallel films are in complete opposition to popular film. The main characteristics of parallel film are treatment of reality in a realistic manner, no dance or singing sequences in the dramaturgical structure, no happy endings and pronounced messages, acting is not exaggerated and the authors criticize the socio-political issues surrounding them. These films have a pronounced author’s signature written all over them; they are usually low-budget films and address a smaller group of viewers, those who are educated and literate.