With the appointment of an obscure actor as the director of the most prestigious film school in India, an outrage engulfs social media and the said school erupts into a protest in tandem with a number of other student movements that are going on in different parts of the country.[i] The obscure actor who goes by the name of Gajendra Chauhan happens to be a part of Indian B movie camp, primarily because of his participation in a handful of soft porn belonging to the pre-internet era.[ii] There is an element of moralism at work, a vice from which even the Indian left is not immune, as evident in the Facebook posts on Khuli Khidki (P. Chandrakumar, 1989) and other soft porn ventures involving Chauhan. There are more rational explanations for the outrage available, as Chauhan appeared in the role of the mythical Hindu king Yudhisthira in the well-known Mahabharata TV series (B. R. Chopra Productions, 1988-90). With a Hindutva force in power at the centre and its black shirts on loose,[iii] the appointment of Chauhan as the director has wider political connotations than we can initially assume.
Yet there is another, a third explanation circulating on social media, something which has garnered more popular support from the Indian cinephiles than the other two. It talks about the glorious past of the school that once had Ritwik Ghatak as a teacher and produced almost the entire Indian New Wave, barring a few self-taught filmmakers like Mrinal Sen and Govindan Aravindan. As a cinephile, film society activist and a student of cinema, this is the point that troubles me most. Let me elucidate the reasons why I find it problematic.
The entire Indian New Wave group that came out of FTII, consisting of Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and John Abraham, used to signify a different age of film production. The setting up of the film institute in Pune, the establishment of a national film archive, state’s encouragement in film society activism[iv]and investment in realizing an arthouse/alternative filmmaking practice are associated with each other as part of a statist project. The statist investment in cinema production created a furore in popular cinema industry, primarily because of the latter’s problematic negotiation(s) with the state. Bombay-based popular industry considered it as a premonition of an imminent nationalization and responded with various substantial changes in film form and aesthetics.[v] As opposed to the popular and middle cinema,[vi] the state-sponsored arthouse gradually secured a place in the wider cultural constellations of the 1970s. Obviously not all of them were state-sponsored,[vii] but the most daringly innovative aesthetes, Kaul and Shahani, were able to make films only because of the statist investment. The nation-state was a Soviet ally back then, and the film school-film society-cultural radicalism-state-sponsored cinema model followed its precedents in the East European nations, with FTII Pune keeping in trends with VGIK (Moscow), FAMU (Prague) and Łódź film school (Warsaw).[viii]The statist investment model itself was a transnational model and filmmakers themselves developed their transnational associations, with Shahani assisting Bresson and taking part in the 1968 uprising in Paris.[ix]As Shahani told me in a telephone conversation, Indian cinema was transnational in their days, it has been reduced to be merely global in the age of Bollywood.
Indian New Wave’s liaison with the state began to wane soon with the changing perspective of the state and the evolving economic policies. Film industry journals and popular film magazines featured debates on various problems concerning the economic model of FFC/NFDC. Bharat Rungachary accused Mani Kaul of being more expensive than Manmohan Desai in the pages of Filmfare (Rungachary 1980). Jagdish Parikh, coming from a business management background, introduced corporatized policies during his four year chairmanship of FFC, arousing controversies concerning loan and/or subsidy (Parikh 1980).
The final nail to the coffin is the economic liberalization, which resulted in massive changes in popular film forms, state policies, production-distribution-exhibition circuit and a rapid proliferation of the Indian diaspora worldwide, with the global Bollywood being a part of the emerging superpower’s cultural diplomacy. It is also simultaneous with the meteoric rise of the Hindu Right. The last major interview of Kumar Shahani that I could locate in the NFAI archive shows how sad Shahani was to find that none of his students can make films because of the unavailability of state-funding (Shahani 1992). Incidentally, but not coincidentally, the interview was published on 6 December 1992, a historic day in the history of modern India.
Coming back to the present, what I want to consider as a problematic is the referencing of the New Wave, the nostalgia for a lost cinema in popular parlance. It is quite clear that a non-entity like Gajendra Chauhan should not be appointed as the FTII director, it defies the economic logic behind a film school that works as a supply-line for Bollywood. Hindi popular cinema generates a huge amount of revenue for the state and the state spends a miniscule part of it to subsidize film education. We wonder whether the Modi administration is going to represent itself as an incompetent one, one that fails to realize the significance of FTII in the domain of one of India’s largest industries. Modi’s affiliation to the PRC model of capitalism sounds hollow, PRC would never have appointed someone like Chauhan in Beijing Film Academy, a school that produced all the major fifth and sixth generation Chinese auteurs. But the economic logic hardly features in popular discussions on the FTII fiasco, it revolves around the binary of an art cinema of Ghatak/Kaul/Shahani pitted against the B movie of a Chauhan.
Jeffrey Sconce, citing Pierre Bourdieu’s influential critique on taste preference and class privilege, considered B movies and cult films as ‘paracinema’ (Sconce 1995). The subjective and impressionistic judgement on ‘good’ or ‘bad’ cinema involves wider critical debate.[x] So the outrage over Chauhan’s inadequacy for being a B movie actor cannot avoid the risk of being elitist, especially since there are reasons more valid to oppose this appointment.
What is worth looking for in this quagmire is the nostalgia for a cinema that is lost. As a researcher working on the Indian New Wave, this is what makes me curious about the ongoing social media movement, especially since the spectre of the New Wave is haunting the cinephiliac memory for quite some time, with the global resurgence of art cinema, the emergence of digital cinephilia and a number of other contemporary developments. With the resurgence of realism and the formation of a transnational ‘slow cinema’ collective,[xi] Kaul and Shahani become much more relevant than what they were in the 70s. They reappear in cinema studies scholarship and in the popular cinephiliac imagination.[xii] What Chauhan and the Hindu Right encounter is this nostalgia for the light, and nostalgia, as Susannah Radstone shows, is an intrinsic part of the epoch of postmodernity (Radstone 2007). Besides, nostalgia/memory is often shaped by cinema and cinephiliac experience, the reason why Radstone takes up texts like The Long Day Closes (Terence Davies, 1992) and Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988) as obvious examples of cinephiliac memory.
The title is adopted from Chilean auteur Patricio Guzman’s non-fictional work Nostalgia for the Light (2011), a film set in the Atacama desert that explores humanity’s relentless search for its past in various ways, be it the astronomer’s search for a cosmological history or a group of Chilean women’s search for the remnants of their relatives executed during the Pinochet dictatorship. Guzman’s titling seems so apt, what is cinema if not a kind of nostalgia for the light?
[ii]The Hok Kolorob movement in Jadavpur University and the recent student unrest at Presidency University are cases in point.
[iii]Soft porn is an ambiguous realm when it comes to the Indian exhibition-distribution circuit. Soft porn clips have often been inserted into the body of a film text in various semi-urban theatres. In Kerala, European classics such as O Melissokomos (The Beekeeper, Theo Angelopoulos, 1986) used to be screened as soft porn. See Radhakrishnan 2010.
[iv]Attacks on minorities have multiplied after the ascension of the Hindu Right, the latest instance being a Muslim boy manhandled, stripped and beaten in Mangalore for accompanying a Hindu girl.
[v]Satyajit Ray involved Indira Gandhi in the Federation of Film Societies of India (FFSI) when she was serving the Lal Bahadur Shastri cabinet as the Minister of Information and Broadcasting. In return, Gandhi exempted film society screenings from the entertainment tax.
[vi]Hindi popular industry responded to the challenge by realizing a middle cinema and a radically refashioned popular cinema form, and the latter will eventually be characterized by Madhava Prasad’s coinage, the ‘aesthetic of mobilization’. See Prasad 1998.
[vii]Malayalam cinema scholars like Bindu Menon have shown that these demarcating terms appeared in Indian cine-journalism only in the 1970s and not before.
[viii]New Wave exponents from Kerala, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and John Abraham, laid emphasis on forming collectives like ‘Chitralekha’ and ‘Odessa’, without depending entirely on the statist initiatives.
[ix]FAMU was instrumental in realizing the Czechoslovak New Wave, and most of the internationally renowned Polish auteurs are from a Łódź background. VGIK can boast of having the greatest of the Russian auteurs as either teacher or student, even filmmakers from other parts of the Warsaw block studied in VGIK, Hungary’s Marta Meszaros for instance. Meszaros features scenes from her VGIK days in the first of the Diary tetralogy, Diary for My Children (1984).
[x]Shahani assisted Robert Bresson in the latter’s Une femme douce (1969) and participated in the movement demanding the reinstatement of Henri Langlois to the Cinémathèque Française.
[xi]See Perkins & Verevis 2014.
[xii]Slow cinema stands for a specific cine-aesthetic involving long take and other means, the major exponents of which are from various national cinemas, Lav Diaz (Philippines), Pedro Costa (Portugal), Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey), Béla Tarr (Hungary), Albert Serra (Spain), Lisandro Alonso (Argentina), among others. Cinema scholars like Matthew Flanagan and Tiago de Luca have written extensively on slow cinema. For its cinematic implications in India and association with the long-lost New Wave, see Biswas 2014.
[xiii]Laleen Jayamanne, Colin Burnett, and Richard Suchenski are some of the contemporary scholars to contribute in their reappearance in cinema studies scholarship.
Biswas, Moinak. “For a Political Cinema to Come.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XLIX, no. 33, August 2014. 23-26.
Parikh, Jagdish. “Loan or Subsidy?” Interview, Cinema Vision, Vol. 1, no. 3, 1980. 20.
Perkins, Claire & Constantine Verevies. B is For Bad Cinema: Aesthetic, Politics, and Cultural Value. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2014.
Prasad, M. Madhava. Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Construction. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Radhakrishnan, Ratheesh. “Soft Porn and the Anxieties of the Family.” In Women in Malayalam Cinema: Naturalizing Gender Hierarchies. Ed. Meena T. Pillai. Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2010. 194-220.
Radstone, Susannah. The Sexual Politics of Time: Confession, Nostalgia, Memory. NY and London: Routledge, 2007.
Rungachary, Bharat. “Mani Kaul is More Expensive than Manmohan Desai.” Filmfare, 16 November 1980. 35-7.
Sconce, Jeffrey. “‘Trashing’ the Academy: Taste, Excess, and an Emerging Politics of Cinematic Style.” Screen, Vol. 36, no. 4, 1995. 371-93.
Shahani, Kumar. “Why Imitate the Bold and the Beautiful?” Interview to Khalid Mohamed, The Times of India, 6 December 1992.
Parichay Patra is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Film & Screen Studies, School of Media, Film and Journalism, Monash University, Australia. He has co-edited Bollywood and Its Other(s): Towards New Configurations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).