Utpal Borpujari

February 23, 2011

A Requiem to a Journey Worth Every Step

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)


May 11, 2009

Revival of the masters

By Utpal Borpujari

In India, cinema means big budgets, multiplexes, foreign locations, et al., especially in the popular idiom. In the arena of mainstream cinema, often technology becoming more important than the story itself. Examples there are galore, the recent ones being disasters like Love Story 2050 and Drona. But this is now. There was a time when masters devised new ideas, improvised technology and simply poured passion into moviemaking, creating enduring images that even now are able to mesmerize the viewer.

Unfortunately, the lay viewer of today virtually knows almost nothing about the life and times of these masters who laid the foundation for what is now the world’s biggest movie industry in terms of sheer number of films made every year if not in terms of revenue generation.

Leave aside the critical analyses of work of top filmmakers, or the gushing tomes written about top stars of the day by hagiographers – there have been a large number of both, some highly readable, some nausea-inducing idol worship full of saccharine coatings – and we virtually have seen no concerted effort to introduce past greats of Indian cinema to the new generation of lay film viewers.

There was a time when movies by the likes of a P C Barua, a Sohrab Modi, a Guru Dutt or a Mehboob Khan would take the breath away. But they were people who were in their prime prior to the media, particularly electronic media, explosion. Quite naturally, while their names are taken with reverence, adulation and admiration, not much is known about their lives. Particularly so, if you – as a lay film lover – would want to know a little bit about the environment that contributed to their work and personal lives that invariably influenced their creativity to a great extent.

A series of books, simply titled The Legends of Indian Cinema, seeks to feel this void, bringing to readers handbook-format biographies of some of the greatest film personalities from the past. Published by Delhi-based Wisdom Tree and with veteran film critic Aruna Vasudev as the series editor, the authors of the six books are film historians and critics in their own right. But quite remarkably, each book is a simple recounting of the life and times of the chosen persona, with no trace of academic jargon.

 “There is so much of Indian cinema that young people don’t know about. They virtually don’t know about the great people that made Indian cinema what it is today. And while there have been a lot of books about film personalities and their work, we don’t have a handbook sort of series for people who would love to learn about our cinema but might not be interested in picking up a voluminous book,” says Vasudev explaining the concept.

The first six books of the series are on P C Barua, Mehboob Khan, Sivaji Ganesan, Guru Dutt, Sohrab Modi and Shammi Kapoor. Written by Shoma A Chatterjee, Rauf Ahmed, S Theodore Baskaran, Rashmi Doraiswamy, Amrit Gangar and Deepa Gehlot respectively, they relive the times lived by these people and how their surroundings influenced their work. The authors have extensively researched to bring out the compact books, accessing material from various sources including the National Film Archives of India. “It is very important to know your past to have a better understanding of the present. We should be proud of these great people. Also, there are film study courses in so many universities now, but not much material is available to study about past filmmakers,” Vasudev says.

“How many of us know that it was P C Barua who had introduced jump cuts in Indian cinema, something that is used so frequently by directors like Ram Gopal Varma today, to introduce a sense of tension to viewers? Or that the use of light in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black, that we commend so much, was something that was devised by the Russian great Eisenstein 70 years ago?” she says, explaining why knowing film history should be an important for any film lover.

The whole project concept revolved around keeping the books simplistic, so that they can reach the most lay lover of cinema. “This series is meant for people who are interested to know about our cinematic history but might not be interested in picking up a thick book,” says Vasudev.

Shammi Kapoor is the only living person to be featured in the first six books, and some might argue that greats like Satyajit Ray and Raj Kapoor could have been featured before him. But Vasudev has an explanation for that, “People know a lot about Raj Kapoor, Ray, and even Prithviraj Kapoor as there have been several books on them. Shammi Kapoor was a star in his own right, and his life has been very interesting, but people don’t know much about that.”

The series, says Vasudev, would continue to focus on other greats of Indian cinema in the same format, taking them to the masses. “We have another 7-8 ideas ready, but it is for the publishers to take it forward which they will decide depending on the response, which I have been told has been quite enthusiastic,” she says. “If the response is good enough, there could even be translations of the series in various Indian languages,” she says.

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 10-05-2009)


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