By Utpal Borpujari
Long before the cinemas of Asian nations had started making waves across the world, when Asian cinema meant largely only Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi to most, and when Iranian cinema was just about to make its first international splash; one sprightly lady devised out of New Delhi what was perhaps the first magazine globally to fully concentrate on cinema made within the geographic boundaries of the Asian continent.
That sprightly lady was Aruna Vasudev, and the magazine was Cinemaya, which later became the official journal of the Network for Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC), the highly-respected organization that to a great extent helped establish Asian cinema’s presence across all major film festivals in the world. Cinemaya later led to Cinefan – the Cinemaya Festival of Asian Cinema – which was later taken over by the art auction house Osian’s.
Unfortunately, both the quarterly Cinemaya and the annual Cinefan have ceased to exist, despite having grown to become a niche but highly-respected magazine that complemented the popular film festival in Delhi. The book: Asian Film Journeys, published jointly by NETPAC (which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary) and Wisdom Tree, is a fine reminder of that Cinemaya was, and a requiem to what was almost a movement for developing a common identity for cinemas from Asian nations, which with their diverse history, cultures and politics, offer such a huge variety of cinemas that it is actually in a way impractical to tag them under the single label of “Asian cinema”.
Edited by Rashmi Doraiswamy and Latika Padgaonkar, the first two staffers of Cinemaya, the book comprises a selection of articles as they were carried in various editions of the magazine over the years, introducing the reader to cinema from virtually every filmmaking nation in Asia. And what a compelling read it is, despite the articles having been reprints from old issues of the magazine the first issue of which had hit the stands in 1988, and from the catalogues of the first five editions of Cinefan which had begun in 1999.
In a sense, the articles, interviews and analyses comprising the book present the story of cinema in Asia, be it in the prolific filmmaking nations like India and Japan or those with smaller industries, such as Myanmar and Cambodia. What was really unique about Cinemaya was that its writers were people who were highly-knowledgeable about their subject. Some of the legendary names who contributed to it, and whose pieces are part of this book, are Tadao Sato, Donald Richie, Mark Schilling and Chris Berry. And the fact that the magazine went beyond mere criticisms of cinematic work to include in-depth interviews with directors, actors, cinematographers et al, apart from extensively covering issues related to cinema, such as censorship, expression of sexuality and political ideologies and contexts, etc., made it a journal that was academic yet accessible.
The editors of the book have tried to include pieces from the magazine giving representation to all Asian filmmaking nations. And by doing so, they have made it a collectors’ item, especially for those who might have got to read Cinemaya. How cinema has moved in all these countries, and how the society and politics of each country has impacted its cinema, come through in some detail through the articles, analyses and interviews included in the book. For example, the interview of Rithy Panh (“Look Back In Pain”), while primarily focuses on one film, brings up a vivid image of how creativity suffered during the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. Noted critic Chris Berry’s piece on censorship in China, Tony Rayns’ analysis of Zhang Yimou’s work and a fine essay on the “fifth generation” of Chinese filmmakers are able to present a comprehensive picture of the Chinese film industry. Then there are gems like a piece on documentary filmmaking in Pakistan and another on cinema in Myanmar, two virtually unknown aspects of Asian cinema elsewhere. There are several other such interesting pieces that make this book a collectors’ item for both serious film buffs and common viewers who love their world cinema. The Indian angle comes through an interesting essay by Ashis Nandy on “How ‘Indian’ is Ray?”, an interview of Mani Ratnam and write-ups on the works of legends like Ritwick Ghatak and Guru Dutt.
It’s a book that has come out at the appropriate time, when NETPAC is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and quite surely, it is the perfect requiem for a belief that was called Cinemaya, which survived amidst all odds for a number of years, even as quite a few other serious cinema journals took birth and died in between. Reading this book, one can only wistfully hope that someday Cinemaya will return. Amen.
(Asian Film Journeys; Wisdom Tree & NETPAC; pp 655; Rs 1,495)
(Published on http://www.dearcinema.com, 21-02-2011)