Authentic cinema brings the real India to Brazil

Two movies of Karnataka’s famed director Girish Kasaravalli were screened all over Brazil recently, a part of an Indian film festival. Being a Kannadiga,  I watched them avidly rejoicing in the sounds of a language which I alone in the entire audience understood, others depending on the subtitles in Portuguese.

The experience made me think about the appeal of a cinema so authentically rooted in a particular landscape and in so alien a language to an audience which was nevertheless seen responding to the narrative.

It is true to proclaim, as we tend to do, that the Indian Cinema has a growing worldwide audience.  Yet this statement needs to be deconstructed. A large chunk of it is Bollywood which today has all the ingredients of glamour, stardom, technical sophistication, world class production qualities and even plenty of money power, to compete with Hollywood. It has indeed commercially come of its own and  has simultaneous releases with Mumbai, in London and New York. It is accepted in the West as a distinctive genre, with the New York Times now bringing out regular reviews, a marker. Who is the audience? With over twenty-five million  PIOs ( People of Indian Origin ) abroad, there is a ready clientele for the lush Bollywood productions in several countries with a million plus Indian Diaspora.  It is also a hit in the Gulf, the Arab world, Japan and other locales with its attractions for a niche section. With all these market forces at work, it is now economically attractive to make much of the movie itself in the west as Karan Johar does.

Then there are the art films or the ‘parallel cinema’ or shall we just call them the ‘authentic cinema’. Even in India, I have seen movies of this genre only in film festivals. The foreigners get to know about Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalkrishnan, Gautam Ghose, or Girish Kasarvalli only through screenings at iconic festivals at Cannes or Berlin or such established loci. Those who attend them are fellow film makers, film-buffs, critics, a small minority dedicated to serious art and at home with Iranian or Italian cinema at the same time. Are these films for the exclusive viewing of such cinema-elite only?

Locally rooted cinema

My enjoyment of “Gulabi Talkies’ and “Haseena” seated amidst sixty Brasilians  made me think about the appeal of good, locally rooted cinema, to a wider audience. A word about these movies first, as not very many in India or even in Karnataka would have had access to them. ‘Gulabi Talkies’ set in rural coastal Karnataka centers around an indispensable midwife needed in all households. Herself being a Muslim she 'delivers' in many communities. Her one passion is movies and as a gift from a grateful rich family who has to summon her from a movie theatre in a crisis, she gets a TV with a satellite dish in her hut. The attraction of the colour TV makes her humble home a hub for other village women. This everyday bonhomie among simple people is disturbed by  the Hindu-Muslim sentiments generated by a very distant Kargil war, and finally she is forced to leave her village and her beloved TV.

To say that Kasaravalli’s style is always understated is an understatement on my part. There is never any melodrama or explicit violence in his delineation. His focus is on ordinary individuals with their day-to-day struggles, but  mistrust and misunderstanding developing because of societal structures. Haseena’s, is a grimmer story depicting the vulnerabilities of a auto driver's wife in  a predominantly Muslim community. It  is told in Urdu-Kannada, a curious mixture which itself was a delight for me with the coinage of compound words using both languages. It is a distressing tale but again without excessive violence or tears and Haseena maintaining her self-esteem. The scenes are semi-urban-rural, the people poor, but managing, there is hope amidst despair, and goodwill despite tensions. It is the extraordinary cinematic craft in telling the very ordinary stories in terms of creating authentic characters that grips the viewer.

So what is it in these uncomplicated stories and underdramatised  narratives that attracts you, I asked several Brazilians. Some clues emerge: the strong family bonds that are sustained in adversity, the arc of an individual’s travails but always intertwined with society, the small-scale ambitions, hopes and  disappointments similar  to lives of their own, the curiosity about  people who are attired so differently say in sarees  or kurtas with esoteric customs and rituals, but with readily understandable everyday concerns, the gentle ebb and  flow of life in an Indian town. In short the life of the 'other', different but accessible. The same factors that I had come to identify as the appeal in R K Narayan's novels that I had written about in these columns earlier at the time of their Portuguese publication.

Granted, it is a specific sensibility that can appreciate such movies. My conversation with the director also made me realise that his movies are not box-office hits even in Karnataka. Some sponsorship, funding or organisational support  is required to make such art available in another country, indeed even in our own country, but as I realised it is an effort that we need to make. Because going beyond the state and  the country, such art will have an audience: sensitive, curious, empathetic and in search of cinema that is real and meaningful.

(The writer is India’s Ambassador in Brazil)

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