Five Films Representing a Century of Indian Cinema
Five films have been chosen by curator Raman Chawla for this year’s Abu Dhabi Film Festival’s tribute to the 100 years of Indian cinema. Given the sheer diversity of Indian cinema that has for years now produced the maximum number of feature films in the world, to represent a century of Indian filmmaking with five films is a brave gesture indeed. Such a slim selection from so much needs to be backed by a strong curatorial vision to justify such a package as being representational of the task at hand.
So what unifying logic(s) bind this set of five films? For one, all the films in the package belong to a high period of Indian cinema between the 1950s and 1980s when all kinds of cinema flourished in Bombay and in the regions. Amongst the films on view here, Guru Dutt’s Eternal Thirst(1957) and Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak’s The Golden Thread (1962) belong to the early phase of this period and come from the fringe of popular cinema in Bombay and Bengal, while In Two Minds (1973) made by Mani Kaul, and MS Sathyu’s Scorching Winds made that same year are landmarks of the early phase of the substantially State-sponsored arthouse film movement. Jahnu Barua’s Assamese arthouse classic The Catastrophe (1987) that rounds off the package was made around the time the arthouse film movement was winding up. Ritwik Ghatak, a still-neglected master of World Cinema, remains a pivotal figure in the package between Eternal Thirst’s Guru Dutt who was very much influenced by the Bengal film tradition to which Ghatak belonged and In Two Minds’ Mani Kaul who was taught film by Ghatak.
But beyond this there remains a critically important ideational logic that unites the films in the package. Here, one may take a creative detour to highlight the fact that the first-ever Indian feature film made in 1913, Raja Harishchandra, retold a popular tale about the most honest king of Indic myth. Thus Indian cinema was born under the sign of the quest for truth, a quest for an honest king, a just ruler who would set up a just kingdom/nation-to-come for his subjects. And each of the five films chosen here to represent the high points of Indian cinema in one way or another refers back to its inaugural moment in a film such as Raja Harishchandra. These films belong to a stream of Indian filmmaking that has queried the Indian nation’s value systems, its governance and its commitment to truth and honesty, even an aesthetic truth, in a critically constructive way.
Eternal Thirst the earliest film in the package was deemed by the esteemed film critic Iqbal Masud as the first Indian film to express a strong disillusionment with the condition of India under its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The film was a reworking of the most legendary mythic figure of Indian cinema – Devdas, a hypersensitive young man who unable to come to terms with the cultural contradictions of Indian society, unable to love the women in his life, withers away to an early death in alcoholism. Guru Dutt casts himself as a modern day Devdas figure playing the poet maudit and sings some of the most famous songs of Bombay film history to critique the loss of nationalist idealism amongst the Indian elite. Woh kahan hain jinhe Hind par naaz hai? (Where are those who are proud of India?), sings Dutt at one point in the film expressing hopelessness about the nation he inhabits. Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak’s The Golden Thread, the third film of his famed Partition Trilogy and arguably his masterpiece, too depicts the gradual loss of the idealism of a refugee intellectual and his spiraling down into existential disaster ensuing from the psychic impact of the Partition of British India in 1947 into India and Pakistan. Ghatak, himself a native of East Bengal that went to Pakistan in 1947, saw the Partition of India as the ultimate betrayal of the ideals of the nationalist freedom struggle against colonialism.
The Partition also forms the primary context for MS Sathyu’s Scorching Winds that depicts the dissolution of a feudal Muslim family of North India as Partition approaches. The film is widely considered as the most authentic depiction of an upper class Muslim household in Indian cinema, a household that is torn apart by conflicting interests and emotions as the moment to decide whether to stay on in India or migrate to Pakistan forces itself on to its erstwhile idyll. Mani Kaul’s In Two Minds too is set in a north Indian feudal ethos, this time in Rajasthan. The film examines the fallouts of deathly isolation in which women in traditional households of that region live. A woman’s husband goes away on a business trip while a ghost who has fallen in love with the woman takes the shape of her absent husband cohabits with her leading to tragic consequences. Finally, Jahnu Barua’s The Catastrophe made at the far end of the arthouse film movement and a winner at Locarno in 1988, represents the spread of this movement into the regions of India, this time Assam. The film remains a stinging critique of the exploitative conditions of peasant life in an underdeveloped frontier region of India during a time when the State was proudly broadcasting the achievements of the agrarian Green Revolution. By 1987, it seems, the civic critique of the Indian state’s policies had reached the nation’s frontier regions.
A journey thus from the first inklings that all is not well with the newly-independent India expressed in one corner of the nation by a few elite intellectuals to a nation-wide insurrection against the State sweeping in millions of people. The critique of society is depicted in hard-hitting storytelling and nuanced play on the emotional planes expressed in the films. But through the melodramas projected rings the voice of the citizen, uneasy with the present, ill at ease with society around him or her, restlessly showing up that facts contradict propaganda that India is progressing, that all’s well. And if all’s not well then these films also seem to be saying – the just king for India is yet to come, the quest for a Harishchandra will have to go on. And many would say that the quest is still on…the just king is yet to come even as we speak.
*Scorching Winds director, MS Sathyu, in attendance