As the political and aesthetic importance of art-house cinema in the 1960s and the ‘70s gains increasing recognition, so too does the work of film critic and analyst, Ashish Rajadyaksha. A Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society in Bangalore, India, he’s a widely published author on Indian cinema, and a visual artist. He is the co-editor of the Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema (1991), (published by the British Film Institute), The Last Cultural Mile: An Inquiry into Technology and Governance in India (2009), Indian Cinema in the Time of Celluloid: From Bollywood to the Emergency (2009), and Ritwik Ghatak: A Return to the Epic (1982).
Apart from countless articles, essays, and contributions to publications on art and cinema, Rajadhyaksha has curated You Don’t Belong (2011) – a film package that toured through China – and Bombay/Mumbai for the exhibition Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis (with Geeta Kapur in 2002) at the Tate Modern, London.
Famous for his magnetic intensity and brash confidence, Rajadhyaksha cuts a rebellious figure in the cautious world of cinema. It is an image that he embraces. As a young man, he was an anarchist with a wandering spirit who entered the era of great melodramas in the age of “an incredible upsurge.” Drawing a fine line between the Bombay School, the Calcutta School and the Lahore School of Hindi filmmaking, Rajadhyaksha proposes that contrary to the belief that the Bombay film scene had nothing much to offer on Partition, a large number of films actually did. The refusal of the film industry to die, notwithstanding the lack of institutionalised finances, is itself ‘a history retold’. “The very process of how films are read, internalised, and recycled is itself a textual rendition of a subterranean history.”
In the tete-a-tete below conducted in Lahore where Rajadhyaksha spoke about ‘Lahore and the Missing History of Bombay Cinema’ on the occasion of LB01, he whispers about his die-hard admiration for Ritwik Ghatak’s cinema, his engagement with Mani Kaul’s off-beat cinematic ventures, and the halcyon days of the Bengali celluloid. Excerpts:
The News on Sunday (TNS): What was your earliest exposure to the local cinema?
Ashish Rajadhyaksha (AR): The earliest exposure to cinema obviously takes one back to one’s childhood. I remember my parents taking me and my sister to watch cinema, as children, and deciding as to which films would be suitable for us to watch. Sunday morning screenings at El Dorado and at the National Theatre usually comprised of children’s films. My father was in army — they used to have ‘Public Screenings’ or open-air film projections for the jawaans there. It would be once-a-month screening on 16mm.
Then came the stage when I had to shift schools. I must be in high school when we moved to my uncle’s house in Goa. I spent 3 years there, roughly between the age of 10 and 12. That was an important period in my life in terms of watching cinema.
I remember watching the Rajesh Khanna flick Sacha Jhoota in 1969 there. My sister and I were given tickets and told that we’d be picked up once the film was over. There were often films for children apart from some Indian melodramas.
TNS: How and when did you decide to pursue a career in cinema studies?
AR: Basically, in the late 1970s when I was 18 years old, I got interested in theatre — the first art form I really took to. It was partly because of the independent Marathi theatre in Bombay. At that point it also seemed that film was a greater form of theatre. I remember Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh, the artist, coming back from England, and saying: All Art is dead; Cinema is the only form left.
I believe the New Cinema Movement that began in 1969 was a new awakening for me as for many others of my generation. It was in the late ’70s that I started watching cinema seriously. There was a Film Society Movement, and we began to expose ourselves to European films by Jean-Luc Goddard, etc., and to German and Russian films. Then came around the Film Appreciation Course organised by the Film and Television Institute (FTII) in Pune in collaboration with the National Film Archives. It was in the early ’80s that I attended the course. That led to my keen interest in films by Ritwik Ghatak; I ended up writing a book on him. However, the book on Ghatak, the Bengali filmmaker, came out in ’82, published by the Screen Unit Film Society in Bombay. I was 25 years of age at that time.
TNS: What has been Ghatak’s influence on his progeny like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and others?
AR: They were contemporaries, and not necessarily Ghatak’s progeny. They all made films probably at the same time, and were all more or less the same age, give or take. Add to that the similarity in their careers in the sense that they all made a certain kind of cinema in the early ’60s, which in Ray’s case would be Charulata, and in Sen’s case Baishey Shravana. In 1969-70, they all made the Calcutta films — the big Calcutta projects. In Ghatak’s case it was Jukti Takko Aar Gappo; in Ray’s case they were Seemabadha, Pratidwandi and Jana Aranya; and in Sen’s case they were Interview, Chorus, Calcutta ’71 and Padatik. There was a kind of similarity of interest in the curious little dialogue that took place.
The problem with Sen is that though he’s an incredibly significant filmmaker in his own right, he tends to be overshadowed by Ghatak. I’ve been very interested in Sen separately. I don’t link them anymore although they were contemporaries. Sen is extremely important in the way he brings the documentary content into his fiction films. He used to shoot on streets of Calcutta and the street processions with no exact awareness of how he would use it. He would sometimes splice it in and produce a kind of sound and visual montage which then suddenly took on a peculiar kind of political significance. I suggested that in 1971, the Bangladesh war and Indira Gandhi’s return to power on the Gharibi Hatao manifesto made three things happen (in terms of the arts) that changed our understanding of the modern state: one was the end of the three-act play which was the privileged form of theatre; the second was the end of oil on canvas painting tradition with the arrival of collage (Somnath Hore appears to be the key figure there); and the third was the end of the dominance of fiction film with the introduction of documentary. Mrinal Sen, Somnath Hore and Badal Sirkar working at the same time in Calcutta signalled each of these three.
Bringing Ray, Sen and Ghatak together skews the argument in favour of one or the other. The critique needs to be mounted in terms of what they could and what they couldn’t. In Ray’s case, it had a lot to do with the Emergency and his political support of it even though aesthetically, he was against it. Complicated relationships are part of the history of Indian modernism.
Among the latter-day Bengali filmmakers, I became interested in Rituparno Ghosh’s work when he underwent sex-reversal. He became a woman at the end of his career. That leads him to become more interesting, as a result, in terms of his persona. His films then allowed to be seen differently, for instance, Chitrangada. Gautam Ghosh has never been very interesting to me but some of his early films deserve a mention. When I was writing the book on the Indian Celluloid, I did a whole chapter on his Maa Bhoomi – the Telugu film.
TNS: Why do you think Ghatak is relevant even today?
AR: The astonishing thing about him is his understanding of modernism, of the colonial legacy and of what Partition had come to mean, and of the political agitprop. In a curious way, as theories change and our interest in new concepts furthers, Ghatak’s oeuvre becomes more and more important. In other words, his cinema is not ‘periodised’ in the same sense as his films are constantly reinventing themselves, decade after decade. Today, when you watch Subarnarekha or Ajantrik, they appear to be so different from the time they were made. I do not know of any other artiste in India who is as important in independent cinema as him. He continues to fascinate me even today even though I am not, by any means, a great authority on the man. Ghatak’s films constantly allow for reinvention and reinterpretation as one thinks about what secular India might have been like or what progressivism could mean and what radical practices were in vogue, or what the post-Brechtian scenario in terms of ideologies pertaining to popular arts was.
For instance, Meghe Dhaka Tara is a lowbrow melodrama that works within the formulaic structure of Bengali cinema of the time, working with a major star. It was only after the introduction of Douglas Sirk’s theories that Europe realised the possibility of doing something like this that Ghatak had already done. He was incredible!
I’ve been working with the artist Vivan Sundaram who is another important figure in the field of art. People have made great art, great music, great cinema but Ghatak remains the most significant because he was way ahead of his generation, actually beyond the generation-paradigm. He also made documentaries like Sikkim and Amar Lenin which was banned for a while. His last film was based on conversations with the artist Ramkinker Baij — the only film in colour that he ever made!
TNS: Which echelon in independent cinema would you place Adoor Gopalakrishnan on?
AR: I spoke on Adoor in a keynote address on the New Cinema in Chicago, primarily in reference to his film Kodiyettam, which, in my opinion, is his most important film. Subsequently I discovered Mukhamukham. In fact I’ve done a lot of work on both Adoor and John Abraham in the context of the leftist theory around the body politic in Kerala, going back to the early ’60s and the role of male performers in this scenario. In case of Adoor, there’s a focus on decadence and a declining bourgeoisie in southern Kerala. I won’t, however, assign to him the status of a landmark figure.
TNS: What has been the level of your association with Mani Kaul, the avant-gardist?
AR: In my book Indian Cinema in the Time of Celluloid, there’s a whole essay on Uski Roti. More importantly, there was an exhibition I mounted at Jawahar Kala Kendra (JKK) in Jaipur — an enormous arts complex designed by the legendary architect Charles Correa. Two years ago, when Pooja Sood of Khoj took over as its Director General she invited me to curate the inaugural exhibition at JKK’s gallery of contemporary art. I suggested an exhibition dedicated to Mani Kaul called A Very Deep Surface. That is when Uski Roti was converted into a five-channel video installation with the help of a young filmmaker and technicians — all of who had worked with Kaul. We showed Satah Se Uthata Aadmi which I truly consider to be not only his breakthrough film but also the film ever made. It was a pivotal work, and the interest Mani had had in the non-fiction genre or the film-essay format a la Chris Marker was prescient almost to the point of being avant-garde. Had Mani been around today, he would have been in an art museum like Amar Kanwar and many others but, of course, his was the age of the celluloid. I did suggest to Pooja that the kind of material Mani has left behind is potentially translatable into museum art.
Rikhabh did the sound work for us being one of our really important sound workers and technicians today. He did some of Mani’s last films by taking soundtracks and converting them into sound installations, into what he named as Hawa Mein Kaat, borrowing the term from Zia Mohiuddin Dagar — Mani’s teacher.
Then we showed Idiot. Mani had resurrected Dostoevsky’s The Idiot into a four-part television production, Ahmaq. We managed to find the original broadcast-level films from Doordarshan in Delhi and showed them again as installations. In my opinion, this was quite a novel intervention into Mani’s work which I suspect made him more than just a filmmaker who could be seen in single-screen format as someone whose work could be viewed differently. I was encouraged to perform this particular experiment by the fact that Mani’s last films that he made in Holland were made on a low-res Handycam format which already had an experimental edge. I guess that worked well with the new media forms.
Mani found the idiom of working with actors in the same manner, as you would work with a tree or an object. He would use particular actors and get them take on the anxieties in the sense of becoming objects of attention. Initially it sounded very interesting theoretically and he actually pulled it off using a stunning scale.
TNS: Tell us about Bombay/Mumbai — the show that you co-curated with Geeta Kapur at the Tate Modern.
AR: It was a conceptual proposition built around Bombay that I had been interested in because it’s my city. In the early 2000s after the Babri Mosque incident, riots broke out in Bombay fundamentally transforming it. The proposition was conceived substantially around that transformation. We were also interested in the way the celluloid gave way to the digital — the film died and the video took over at the same time as the cinematic city died and was reborn.