Interpreting Indian classics

Interpreting Indian classics

Interpreting Indian classics

50 Indian Film Classics
MK Raghavendra
Collins, 2009,
pp 323, Rs 350

Top 100 or Top 50 lists in any subject always elicits keen interest in the media as well as people. Such lists not only give a peek into the thought process of their creators but also provide a ready reckoner on many things. But ‘top’ lists also provide the basis for arguments, as each such list is the creation of a single mind that has a particular view of things, and thus always remains debatable.

Film scholar M K Raghavendra avoids any such immediate cause for debate by intelligently calling his book 50 Indian Film Classics. Going for this title, he has ensured that nobody can argue with him about why he did not include a certain film in the list, since nobody can argue that the 50 films listed in the book are not classics — either in the artistic term or in the mainstream term.

Raghavendra is known for his strong and unique points of view. His earlier book Seduced by the Familiar: Narration and Meaning in Indian Popular Cinema provided an alternative and refreshing debate about what mainstream cinema is all about. One may or may not agree with Raghavendra’s academically-inclined theses, but they always make for interesting reading and the much-needed fresh breath in the mostly-stale air of Indian film criticism.

This book too is another example of the author’s interesting analysis of cinema, in this case, of Indian cinema. He has chosen to encompass a huge period of 81 years, from 1925 to 2006, dissecting some of the most debated movies of their times. Setting out to pluck 50 best films, even if they are one’s personal choice, from such a time span is no mean task. But Raghavendra takes the plunge courageously, though he admits that it is no mean task to evaluate cinema as disparate as Pather Panchali and Amar Akbar Anthony, both being landmark films in their own ways.

The author’s selection is eclectic, to say the least. On the one hand, the films critiqued by him include art house classics like Parasakthi (Tamil, 1952), Pather Panchali (Bengali, 1957), Samskara (Kannada, 1970), Imagi Ningthem (Manipuri, 1981) and Mukhamukham (Malayalam, 1984), and on the other, they comprise mainstream mega-successes like Lagaan (2001), Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006), Sholay (1975), Deewar (1975) and Satya (1998). But for each of the films selected, he tries to bring in a unique interpretation from the societal point of view.

For example, in the case of Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, he argues that the space in the narrative has been deliberately “emptied” of the Indian nation and tradition — by setting it in the USA and by “playing down” of the symbols representing tradition — to render it suitable for adultery. In the case of Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh, he finds fault in the representation of the tribals who are “singularly disabled” and need to be rescued by a middle-class person in the form of the lawyer. For every film he has chosen, Raghavendra has offered interesting interpretations, making it a fascinating journey through film history.

This is an interesting read, though surely, there can be arguments about why he left out so many other “classics” that are much more interesting than a few included in the book. But then again, it is a matter of opinion, and one should read this book as one such set of opinions.