Indian New Wave Cinema Revisited
Over two days of screenings and a one-day workshop session, film scholars analysed a controversial period of Indian cinema’s history: The ‘New’ Cinemas of the 1970s-80s. Radical experiments with the film form accompanied the emergence of new themes in different regions of the country. Envisioning novel political alignments, cinema in these years engaged, transformed and extended formal practices, some of which were derived from literature, photography, and theater. The emergence of these cinematic practices led to debates that opened up new frontiers for arguments around the State, national history, political action, indigenism, and realism. A return to that history today poses new historiographic challenges and new archival responsibilities.
This workshop took place following a year-long research project supported by the University of Chicago’s Center in Delhi, in partnership with Cinema and Media Studies, University of Chicago, the Media Lab, Jadavpur University, and indiancine.ma.
We were honored to have Jacqueline Stewart, Professor, Department of Cinema and Media Studies and the College and Rochona Majumdar, Associate Professor, departments of Cinema and Media Studies, South Asian Languages and Civilizations speak with us.
Rochona Majumdar is a historian of modern India. Her interests span histories of Indian cinema, gender and marriage in colonial India, and Indian intellectual thought in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Jacqueline Stewart’s research and teachings explore African American film cultures from the origins of the medium to the present, as well as the archiving and preservation of moving images, and “orphan” media histories, including nontheatrical, amateur, and activist film and video.
Since the screening of the workshop is called the ‘New Wave Cinema Revisited’, tell us something about the title?
Rochona – In some ways calling it the ‘New Wave’ now has something poignant about it because of the filmmakers associated with the new wave, which is a phenomenon that you can really date to 1969 and the release of free films like Uski Roti by Mani Kaul, Bhuvan Shome by Mrinal Sen and Sara Akash by Basu Chatterjee. Mani Kaul is no longer with us, Basu Chatterjee is in his 80’s and Mrinal Sen is 92, so they are not so new anymore. But when the phenomenon began and it coincides roughly with the global new wave in different parts of the world, there was on the part of the filmmakers this very enthusiastic gesture that they were doing something new, exploring new frontiers and breaking new grounds, both formally and in terms of content and also trying to prepare new audiences. So you know it was that time when cinema was worth fighting for. It seemed like a good idea to actually return to that moment and ask ourselves whether there are any legacies of that new wave at this present moment, because this is also a very global moment but in a very different way. Those were some of the issues that we were interested in. Also in the late 60’s – early 70’s, these filmmakers – these were days before the advent of film studies as a discipline grew – had a certain pedagogical interest, not just training audiences to appreciate cinema as serious business but also an interest in reservation, technology, archiving. Now that we have entered a new era with the digital, to ask or revisit some of those issues has become important. Hence, the title.
Jacqueline – This is moment of the global circulation of images and the possibilities of digital technology to democratise the way that films can be made and circulated. I think this is a moment that is drawing up the same questions that filmmakers were exploring through celluloid in the 1960’s and 1970’s but with some significant differences. There was a more artisanal approach that we could see. There was a real effort to articulate oneself as an individual artist even though there were these shared social and political goals. Also, there was a strong sense of increasing the political consciousness among audiences. It had to do with not only teaching political lessons but also training people to look at films in a different way. Not to be passive but to be active.
What was the thought process behind selecting the films to be showcased?
Rochona – We launched this project for creating an annotative repository of Indian new wave films and it’s a huge goal. What we have done is a minute part of that goal. At the moment we have created a complete repository of Mrinal Sen’s films and when I say a repository, I mean not just the films but a lot of background history, reception history of those films, and the reason why it is important is because even though it was not so long ago, these people have become forgotten names. You have retrospectives done, let’s say in festivals, but really outside of festivals and this small group of very avid cinestas – most of whom are not Indian – these people have become mythical names. What we wanted to do was pick on three figures, from three different parts of India. Mrinal Sen would be from Bengal although he made films in Telugu and Oriya. He is one of those people who really moved around in different Indian languages once. John Abraham was a Malayalam filmmaker but he’s extraordinarily interesting because he believed in people’s cinema where he raised, one rupee, two rupee and set up his collective called the Orissa Collective, which speaks a lot about his political affiliations. He made only four films and died an untimely death. And then there is Jhanukar who is an Assamese filmmaker, which is a very neglected area of film studies. We find them exciting filmmakers so we thought it would be worth starting with them and putting them together on one platform that would be readily accessible to students, researchers or anybody who’s interested. We began with those three but the idea is to move this forward.
So what in your opinion are the biggest differences you see between Indian cinema as it was then and Indian cinema now?
Rochona – The opening up of the Indian economy saw big production companies in India, teaming up. If you look at Yash Raj Productions or Phantom, they are constantly partnering with global corporate houses. The question of what constitutes independent cinema today, is what we think, a very interesting one. Is there such a thing as independent cinema? Yes, but where are these films showcased? Which then would take us back to the question – Was there an independent cinema then? A lot of these films were interestingly enough financed by the Film Corporation of India, which is a government enterprise. What people often asked is; Yes you are making these politically radical films but they are being paid for by a state. And this was Mrs Gandhi’s pre-emergence state. What do these say about the politics of these films? When the filmmakers have infact received FCP funding? You know some of these issues have been dealt by scholars but one rough and ready answer would be, the state had a particular interest in not censoring these films, simply to keep up the facade of democracy in India. There is no doubt there was an explosion in themes. A film like The Lunchbox is fascinating but at what boundaries is it opening? In what ways, leaving aside the formal aesthetic dimensions, do you think is it telling us about the city? We are not entirely convinced that it’s changing the way we are looking at the world and we think the moment that began in the early 60’s and ended in the 70’s was a very different and radical one.
In today’s time, very few people understand the true intention of a film. How do we bring about a change in the education towards movies?
Jacqueline – It has been very important for us to know the kind of audience and educational efforts that these filmmakers were engaged in, for us to actually link that in our own work. And provide a lot of opportunities for diverse group of audiences, to see films that we don’t usually see, even if they are incomplete, use historical footage as a starting point to look at broader film cultures that can be represented in the archive. For every film that we have, there are so many more that don’t survive, even in this later period that this project is focusing on. There is a real crisis across non – western archives where only a few of these films survive because they were not prioritized, because they were not commercial products and so it becomes important to find other roots for documenting this history. Even though NFDC is doing a good job in bringing these films out in the open market but the task of educating people on how to watch these films is an important one, you can say it is an elitist exercise or its a pedagogical exercise. We are teachers, that’s what we do. That’s what we want our students to be aware of – not emerging yourself into the narrative of the film. That itself can be political and that makes the task of film studies, very important.
‘New Wave’ Cinema Revisited’; Was held at the UChicago Center, DLF Capitol Point, Baba Kharak Singh Marg from August 27-29, 2015.