Utpal Borpujari

November 11, 2010

Cinema: The idea of Asia

By Utpal Borpujari

Celebrated Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien has recently produced a film, One Day, directed by first-time feature maker Hao Chi-Jan. A story that goes beyond the mundane and explores the real and unreal, the film has an interesting character – that of a Bengali-speaking Indian who weaves in and out of the narrative. The character is not like those walk-in-and-walk-out Indian characters we usually get to see in Hollywood movies. Here, it holds its own, and that too without speaking in the typically-Indian-accented English. He speaks his own language throughout, and even the Chinese-speaking protagonists speak with him only in Bengali.

The director’s idea behind writing this character for could be an indirect acknowledgement of the increasing movement of both Indians of all strata to newer shores in search of livelihoods (the character apparently is a shipwreck victim, and though the film does not say it, he might have been an employee on that ship, or a poor Indian being trafficked to another country with the promise of a better life by unscrupulous human traffickers, or just an enterprising man who wants to seek better opportunities in life and hence had embarked on this journey with his own resources).

But at another level, the incorporation of the character could be seen as symbolic of what could possibly happen in the years to come – emergence of a cinema that embraces more than one part of Asia, rather than the current “Asian Cinema” that has a huge variety of socio-cultural backdrops spanning from Japan to Western Asia and the CIS nations, and consequently different markets.

But could it? Is that really possible – to have a composite “Asian” cinema? Purely from the mass market point of view, it’s tough to foresee anything like that happening, given the huge linguist varieties and the socio-cultural nuances that Asia boasts of. Yes, there are niche markets slowly getting developed among cinegoers (the common cinegoers who pay money to watch their movies, not the miniscule number of festival goers who regularly get to savour cinema from every corner of the world) for cinema from various Asian nations outside their shores. But barring some exceptional cases, Asian cinema has hardly been travelling to mass markets within the continent.

Indian cinema (so disparagingly having got identified globally as a poor cousin of Hollywood, thanks to its unfortunate but widely-accepted brand name Bollywood – but which has much greater variety beyond that the usual ‘Bollywood’ or the mainstream cinema has to offer), at least the commercial cinema in Hindi and Tamil, have got large markets in various parts of the continent. And that market has nothing to do with Expatriate populations. In Japan, Rajanikanth is god incarnate for some, in the CIS nations, Mithun Chakraborty drives people crazy, and in Egypt, mention Amitabh Bachchan and you have every chance of getting hefty discounts everywhere. Going beyond the star worship too, Indian cinema is witnessing new windows open up across a swathe within and beyond Asia.

But this is an example of an exception. Japanese movies, in reverse, are not getting a similar mass market in India, of for that matter, in most of the rest of Asia. Or Egyptian cinema is not being found commercially viable in Taiwan. Barring the exception of action movies from Hong Kong and the ‘Bollywood’ creations, rest of Asian cinema has hardly travelled as commercial, mass market propositions outside their own linguistic or social set ups.

Perhaps that explains why it will be difficult to ever really have an “Asian Cinema” brand, a la European cinema or Latin American cinema. Asia is too vast a continent, in fact, it is almost several continents stitched together in terms of area, cultural & linguistic diversity, history and politics. Here, there is no shared history as in Europe, or shared language, as in most of Latin America. Even within India, with its multitudes of languages, cinema from one region hardly travels to another – only Hindi cinema does because the language is understood by the most. In the case of Asian cinema too, linguistic and cultural barriers make it difficult for cinema from one part to travel to another.

Even the storytelling styles vary widely from one cinema to another within Asia, which again perhaps has to do with cultural nuances. India’s (mainstream) cinema is globally identified for its melodrama and the song ‘n’ dance routines, even though Indian cinema is much beyond that in its totality, while Japanese cinema’s eye for cultural details is legendary and Iranian cinema’s spartan-yet-strong storytelling traditions are too well known to be recounted here. It’s a scenario where diversity is the name of the game, and any effort to combine two (or more) cinematic cultures could at the best be an experiment in creativity.

The collaborations to create an “Asian” cinema, if at all there could be something as composite as that, from a more practical point of view could and should be on sharing technical expertise, exploring fresh marketing possibilities, making available more and more cinema of one another through home video and television, and co-productions if the subject demands so. India, with its world-class production facilities in both live action and animation, and China with its state-backed infrastructure, would have to play a leading role in all this, but without playing – or seen to be playing – the Big Brother’s role. Indian cinema – particularly Bollywood cinema – somehow is seen to be so in quite a few countries in its neighbourhood. That will have to be reversed. While it goes without saying that mainstream Indian cinema strikes a chord across geographic boundaries, the Indian film industry will have to play a constructive role in help nurture film industries in its neighbourhood and beyond. Same goes for the Chinese film industry.

Asia is more than just a continent – it is several continents combined in more than one sense. The cinema from the continent will always reflect this fact. But while maintaining their individual identities, the film industries should look for every opportunity that comes their way to foster collaborations, develop newer markets and explore new themes. Celebrated Indian editor A Sreekar Prasad did so sometime back, producing Akasa Kusum (Flowers of the Sky), directed by acclaimed Sri Lankan director Prasanna Vithanage. There are definitely many more examples like this, of individuals from different countries joining hands to make a film. Cinemas of Asia will benefit from such collaborations, but the tag “Asian Cinema” will have to be just a geographic tag that in reality does not celebrate uniformity but immense diversity. Therein lies the strength of “Cinemas of Asia”, as I would like to call it, rather than “Asian Cinema”.

(Published in the official catalogue of the 12th MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, 2010)

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