Today, serious cinema is far ahead of serious film criticism.” This remark, taken from an essay written in 1982 by film critic Chidananda Das Gupta, seems even more true today than it must have been then. Most newspaper and magazine film reviews in the country offer little more than plot summaries and a few desultory remarks of praise or condemnation. Their original perceptions, if any, are limited to telling the reader which foreign film the movie being discussed has been copied from.
They are published because of the enormous enthusiasm and appetite of Indian viewers for cinema, but they very rarely enhance the experience of a movie for a viewer, which may be thought of as the first prerequisite of criticism.
A critical eye: Satyajit Ray’s works, especially ‘Pather Panchali,’ are central to the essays in this book
It comes as a pleasant surprise then to read a set of essays on Indian cinema as combative, as vigorous, and as cogent as those in Das Gupta’s Seeing is Believing. In these pieces, published in different books and journals over the last 25 years, we see a powerful analytical mind at work, able to make searching connections between our movies and our society, our literature, our art, our music and our religion (I went through half the lead of my pencil making notes). But we also realize that we are reading a critic in whose work conceptual and analytical rigour and the desire to build interpretative structures is not used as a substitute for (the distinction is one made by Das Gupta himself) the play of sensibility: the attention to the unique rhythms and personality of each work of art, and to our aesthetic experience of the work.
Das Gupta’s attractive title refers to the powerful illusion intrinsic to cinema, more than any other art form, that what we are watching is real. He then takes this thought and runs with it, showing how, although film originated in the West, its transplantation to a pre-industrial society heavily invested in faith and myth instantly made it a very different thing in India. Most of the early Indian feature films were mythologicals, which enraptured audiences by bringing the gods and goddesses of Hindu myth from the hinterland of the imagination (where they had always resided) to visible, palpable life. Cinema was a product of science but, in this case, science “had reinforced faith and blurred the distinction between myth and fact”.
Although the pure mythological film has made a retreat with the passage of time, Das Gupta argues that the basic accord between cinema and religiosity has not changed. Even where the exterior of what is being depicted is modern, beneath the surface, the present is being mythologized constantly and the currents of traditional belief are being kept alive. Again, Das Gupta is very good on the Hindi film song, and on why the songs are so often better than the films themselves. But he does not succumb to the glorification of Bollywood drama —increasingly prevalent among foreign academics—as the most authentic kind of Indian film. Popular cinema, he argues, must inevitably be populist because it is made on large budgets and for the delectation of mass audiences. But, for criticism to follow the line of “what is most popular is best”, is to succumb to this populism.
A number of Das Gupta’s essays are vibrant appreciations of work, socially engaging, psychologically complex and technically innovative, produced in parallel and regional cinema: not just Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and M.S. Sathyu, but also lesser-known figures such as G. Aravindan and Girish Kasaravalli. Indeed, he shows how there has been, and still is, a strong current of Indian cinema that wishes to challenge societal prejudice and entrenched inequalities, and that promulgates, often without didacticism, a concern for the deprived or the oppressed sections of society whom our expanding middle class would rather turn its eyes from.
One exceptional essay explains how M.G. Ramachandran and N.T. Rama Rao ascended the throne of politics on the back of their on-screen personae in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh: Here again was an example of “seeing is believing” on the part of the audience. Another argues that Indian film studies rely too reflexively on trends in Western criticism, and on Western ideas such as catharsis and alienation, instead of delving into our own native traditions. This is one of the richest and most satisfying books of criticism I have ever had the pleasure of reading.
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