The fact that India has been named ‘The Country of Honour’ at the Cannes Film Market in 2022, which is part of the Cannes Film Festival, has received widespread attention. What it actually means is uncertain. This could be because Indian cinema has withstood the onslaught of Hollywood on its own turf.
The honour bestowed upon Indian cinema at Cannes this year is hardly because of the industry’s achievements in the international arena. If Indian cinema has done well commercially outside India, that is because of its large diaspora. The fact is that South Asians, by and large, are the biggest consumers of Indian cinema.
The last time that an Indian film was featured in the Competition Section was in 1994 when the Malayalam film Swaham, directed by Shaji Karun, was picked. Cannes has several sections where Indian films have been subsequently screened but the key Competition Section has remained elusive. This is true of Indian cinema at many other top film festivals (like Berlin, Venice and Sundance) as well, where cinemas from Turkey, Iran and South Korea have all done better.
When studying Indian cinema alongside that of the rest of the world a hypothesis presents itself. The aspects of Indian films that are unassailable within its diaspora is precisely what makes it unsuccessful outside. This can be because of the ‘Indian mindset’, the way Indians regard the world and how cinema has developed.
In the last years of the 19th century, cinema started off in the form of a documentary under the Lumière brothers. Almost immediately after, a magician named George Méliès discovered its capacity for creating illusion.
Cinema’s ability to capture reality and create illusion have since represented the twin polarities of cinema. But the meaning of ‘illusion’ is not simply something unreal but also something imagined or dreamed and can therefore represent ‘inner reality’ — which is why the two extremities of cinema are occupied by ‘realism’ and ‘expression’. Beneath this is an understanding that the ‘real’ cannot be grasped except through an onlooker’s subjectivity.
When D G Phalke made the first Indian films, he explored neither realism nor personal expression. He had seen an obscure film called The Life of Christ and began to make mythological films. The mythological was — to him — not fantasy but the ‘truth’ since it gave manifestation to existing beliefs of his people.
Mainstream Hindi cinema moved away from the mythological genre in the 1940s but domestic melodrama, which replaced it, used the same kind of representations, although in modern settings.
Characters and situations were made ‘exemplary’ in order to relay messages and truisms from traditional wisdom. Exemplary, here, does not necessarily mean ‘good’ since even a villain like Gabbar is an ‘example’ of evil.
Internationally, cinema (like all art), has been uncertain about its intrinsic ‘purpose’ and has therefore simply pursued ‘mimesis’ — the imitation of the real world, including of individuals with discernible psychologies. Explanations of art’s purpose only follow practice and are therefore tentative.
The avant-garde in art exists because the purpose of art is indeterminate, and that allows for experimentation. Acknowledged film classics — like The Godfather — does not provide exemplary characters, feelings and situations the way 3 Idiots, Lagaan or Bangarada Manushya do but attempt to present a ‘real world’ with no a priori ‘meaning’. It draws us into interpreting motives and situations as Indian films do not normally.
The creation of stereotypes in Indian popular cinema, for instance, is only to carry forward familiar messages. This is like a fable in which the fox must be cunning and the monkey mischievous. Without this kind of typification, the message will not be relayed coherently. But underneath is the idea that there are ‘universal’ truths that art must promote. While truths in world cinema are, by and large, contextual, Indian cinema avoids historical markers in order to make its messages universal.
If we take the portrayal of the father of the nation (Mahatma Gandhi), the most popular portrayal is in Lage Raho Munnabhai. Here, Gandhi’s historical role is ignored, and is cherished for his attachment to the ‘truth’ – a universal message.
Indian cinema, in order to relay universal messages, also avoids subjectivity. The camera eye is omniscient. Dream sequences in popular cinema should be subjective but they are generic in dealing with ‘universal’ emotions like love or fear, and not individually differentiated.
In pursuing realism, art cinema appears to be unlike popular cinema but a deeper scrutiny reveals that it too pursues universal truths. Only, this time, the truism is from a social science text (like Das Kapital) rather than an epic like the Mahabharata.
Very often the truisms furthered in Indian films contradict each other but each one is presented as a ‘universal truth.’ Bunty aur Babli, for instance, eulogises a couple of fraudsters as people with ‘enterprise’. Such a message could not have been imagined in the 1970s but still went down well with audiences.
A criterion by which we decide whether a film is a truly major one is through its ‘complexity’. The world is complex (and perhaps unknowable) and when art imitates it, its complexity is valued. Film scholars and critics are therefore driven into interpreting a film, and its importance is decided by the layers of meaning it generates on interpretation, which implies ‘ambiguity.’
World cinema from the 1960s onwards tried to actively promote ‘ambiguity’ and the international filmmakers noted in this context were those like Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa, Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman.
‘Ambiguity’ is not necessarily a western notion and Iranian filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami actively pursued the same end, as does the South Korean Bong Joon-ho.
The fact that Indian art cinema focuses on delivering familiar truisms as messages through exemplary characters and situations means that this ambiguity is already interpreted. Those filmmakers who have tried to embrace complexity, subjectivity or ambiguity are only a handful like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Aravindan, with Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul trying to hold up avant-garde filmmaking.
This brings us to ask if Indians truly wish their cinema to make a mark in the international arena, or are content with national recognition and success. This is important because Indians are most comfortable on their home ground and few have made a mark outside their own cultural terrain.
For Indian cinema to become truly international (and it should, as a cultural power) India needs new film schools or, rather, film schools with new teachers — not captive to the mindset that has made Indian cinema what it is. Indians studying film abroad are still unable to think differently.
It is sad that after so many decades we still only name Satyajit Ray as our great international success and we have not even been able to follow or even copy him.
Ray was an autodidact and tried to visualise his cultural space as it had not been; but learning on their own may be too difficult for most Indian film students. They may be passionate about world cinema but do they know what to learn from it?
(M K Raghavendra is a well-known film critic)