How does a new movie channel go about announcing that it is “different”? Judging by its promos, UTV World Movies—the first Indian world cinema channel, which went on air early February—seems to feel that clips of sword-flashing samurais, bloodsucking vampires and a classic Hong Kong fight sequence should do the trick. More likely, this could just be the channel’s way of attracting unsuspecting viewers, before surprising them with high-quality world cinema (usually defined as non-English language foreign films that are different from mainstream commercial cinema of the Hollywood variety).
Yet, some of my movie-buff friends feel a bit let down. Their verdict on UTV World Movies is less than encouraging. “Do they even know what world cinema means?” they ask, somewhat agitated.
Up until recently, in India, world cinema was considered the preserve of non-commercial screenings. Non-English foreign titles were hardly ever released in theatres or aired on television, and foreign film buffs looked to film societies, international film festivals, DVDs and, of late, the Internet for succour.
World cinema came up either as a response to Hollywood or from a sense of dissatisfaction with native commercial cinemas the world over. Some milestones in world cinema, such as French New Wave, Italian post-war Neo-Realism and Dogma 95, were as much political statements as they were explorations of a new film-making sensibility, and the term is often understood to have ideological undertones.
Decades of non-profit initiatives in India have created an audience for world cinema, and new players such as NDTV Lumière, Palador Pictures and UTV World Movies are now looking to tap an audience with a different set of expectations.
Naturally, for a producer, distributor or exhibitor, the returns at the box office are what count, not the film critic’s accolades or a standing ovation at a film festival. Which is why, if you are expecting UTV World Movies to be the television version of the local film society or the French cultural centre library, you should temper your expectations.
UTV calls its offering a channel that shows “contemporary, entertaining box office hits from around the world!”—in effect, a mass entertainer that speaks multiple languages. So, will a subtitled channel hook viewers? Time will tell.
When I asked UTV World Movies for a list of 10 films that defined the vision behind the channel, here is what I received: A Tale of Two Sisters, 3 Iron (Korean), City In Heat, Queens (Spanish), Le Placard, Priceless (French), Eye in the Sky (Cantonese/English), Kikujiro, Hidden Blade (Japanese) and The Man Without a Past (Finnish). The last garnered an Oscar nomination in 2003, Hidden Blade was nominated for the Golden Bear at Berlin in 2005, and Kikujiro for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1999. The other seven films in the list were all relative successes at the box office in their native countries, and won awards at smaller film festivals.
And, if you are satisfied by nothing but the works of the great masters, there is reason to cheer—as part of its Absolute Masters series, UTV promises to showcase films by Francois Truffaut, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Akira Kurosawa. The channel has also acquired Spanish master Carlos Saura’s latest film, Fados, a musical inspired by the Portuguese musical tradition of Fado, and plans to broadcast his earlier work, Iberia, about a series of dances inspired by composer Isaac Albéniz’s Iberia suite.
It is apparent that the channel is not aimed at seasoned cinephiles, but more at first-time viewers who want to experience cinema beyond the constraints of Hollywood and Bollywood. Even so, the channel has been able to bring into our living rooms some world class cinema such as Kieslowski’s masterpiece Three Colours: Blue. Other prized offerings include Georgian director Géla Babluani’s debut feature film Tzameti 13—a breathtaking thriller that won the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006—and Machuca, a heart-warming Chilean coming-of-age tale about two boys who grow up amid unprecedented social and political upheaval.
UTV has also acquired rights to this year’s foreign film Oscar winner, The Counterfeiter. Could you have imagined watching Tsotsi, the Oscar winner in 2006, on your television screen two years ago?
I would say that UTV World Movies is a very good start. Its presence has already spurred other movie channels to broaden their offerings. That alone is an impressive leap in the hitherto arid landscape of world cinema on television.
Bikas Mishra is editor of DearCinema.com, a website on world cinema
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