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A Sporadic Romance

India’s Film Society Movement: The Journey and Its Impact by V K Cherian, New Delhi: Sage, 2016; pp 219 + xxxv, 895.

The birth of a book in 2016 on the so-called film society movement in India after it has already outlived its life could only be a post-mortem, and for that very reason it can possibly acquire a certain historical–documentary significance and context, even if it has lost most of its utilitarian value at this juncture. This “movement” that right from its beginning was uneven and not remarkably spread across the country, had, in fact, been on a ventilator for quite some time. In an insightful foreword to the book under review, Adoor Gopalakrishnan rightly calls it “sporadic.”

Nehru’s Vision

Though it has lost much of its relevance, the book could become partially interesting if it is read retrospectively as a post-independence cultural–political reader in juxtaposition with the present political–ideological forces, with their cultural agenda at work. Such reading could perhaps serve a more productive purpose for a book of this kind. And in this sense, the book’s first foundational chapter (“A Nation Awaits a Pather Panchali”) among its nine becomes elevating. My reference is to the way Nehruvian cultural vision was crystallising and taking shape in the early years of a developing political economy. Inspired by V I Lenin, the Fabian socialist Jawaharlal Nehru (who was also friends with Charlie Chaplin and several other luminaries) knew the value of the medium of cinema. He was also aware of his mentor Mahatma Gandhi’s disdain for it.

The first chapter of the book mentions:

Nation building in all spheres, including culture was weighing heavily on film industry, and a quest for an Indian idiom in films began earnestly after the country attained its freedom from the British Raj in 1947. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, an Oxford scholar, freedom fighter and writer of many insightful books on India and its history, had already initiated many steps to build institutions in various cultural fields, including films. The government had constituted an expert committee on films with S K Patil as the chairman, ably assisted by the likes of V Shantaram and B N Sircar. (p 6)

The Patil Committee in its report (submitted in 1951) reflected Nehru’s socialist vision:

In our view remedy lies neither in Laissez-faire, nor in regimentation, but curing all the various elements of their defects and deficiencies and ensuring, that they combine and cooperate in a joint endeavor to make this valuable medium a useful and healthy instrument of both entertainment and education, as well a means of upliftment and progress, rather than degeneration and decay. (p 6)

Though many books on Indian film history have written about this committee report, Cherian places it within the context of the film society movement to support his argument of how, later, Indira Gandhi, first as information and broadcasting (I&B) minister and then as the Prime Minister, carried the Nehruvian cultural vision forward, and how closely she was connected with the Federation of Film Societies of India (FFSI) as one of its vice presidents with Satyajit Ray as this apex body’s president.

Following the Patil Committee recommendations, institutions such as the Film Finance Corporation (FFC, now National Film Development Corporation), the Film Institute of India (now Film and Television Institute of India or FTII), and the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) were established in the 1960s. India hosted the first International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Bombay from 14 January to 1 February 1952, which then travelled to Madras, New Delhi, and Calcutta. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in his message to this festival said:

I hope that films which are sensational or melodramatic or as such make capital out of crime will not be encouraged. If our film industry keeps this ideal before it, it will encourage good taste and help pave its own way, in the building of new India. (p 8)

As oldest international film festival in the country, IFFI still continues.

Yet another important reference to the Nehruvian contribution to cinema is the holding of a national seminar under the aegis of Sangeet Natak Akademi chaired by P V Rajamannar.

The planning and conduct of the seminar were placed almost entirely in the hands of reputed artists (sic) and other professionals of the film fraternity. As joint and executive director of the seminar, actor Devika Rani Roerich played an instrumental role in organizing the event, working in tandem with the joint director and actor Prithviraj Kapoor. (p 9)

A young Raj Kapoor was witness to many sessions of this seminar, where Bimal Roy had urged the government for entertainment tax exemption for good films. Besides Indira Gandhi, many film industry stalwarts from across the country had participated in this first nationally significant film-related event. Besides Satyajit Ray, post-independence India’s film society movement in its early stages had several important politician–statesmen, artistes, and other personalities behind its formation and in its fold. The book provides us with such accounts and they become interesting if we treat the information as a political–cultural reader since 1947.

Within this context, the book stretches itself up to the controversial appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as chairperson of the FTII in 2015. We can read all this within the context of the nation’s present culture–politics:

It is rare for any prime minister of a country to be featured as one of the pioneers of a Film Society Movement, but the history of the ‘Indian Film Society Movement’ cannot be written without Indira Gandhi (1917–84), the former prime minister. (p 50)

The Working Group on National Film Policy was established in 1979 under K S Karanth, eminent Kannada litterateur, during the rule of the Janata Party government. By the time it submitted its report in 1980, Indira Gandhi’s Congress party had returned to power. The book commits an error about its historicity, which I will make a specific reference to subsequently.

Drawing histories of early pioneering film societies such as the Calcutta Film Society, Delhi Film Society (DFS), and Chitralekha Film Society (Thiruvananthapuram), the author provides us some crucial information about their programming strategies and the names of several eminent people associated with them. For example, talking about “one of the privileged of the film societies in the country, the Delhi Film Society founded in 1956,” the author lists out dignitaries as its early members: Indira Gandhi, Aruna Asaf Ali, I K Gujral, besides regular guests such as Krishna Menon (p 25). In short, we know how our politicians then were interested in arts and aesthetics. That breed of politicians is missing today. Call them elitists, but they were certainly well informed and enlightened, and therefore could think on a universal scale and not parochially.

Omissions and Errors

While on the one hand, the book has such bright sides to it, on the other, it suffers seriously on both macro and micro levels in its wrong deductions and misinformation. At a macro level, it suffers in its perceptional and deductive arguments: (i) the governmental decision to exempt film societies affiliated to the FFSI from censorship leading to a gradual erosion of the movement, a generalisation largely deduced from the DFS case, and (ii) an uncritical and romantic view of the linguistic regionalism vis-à-vis the spread of film society movement particularly in the case of Maharashtra.

Being a film society activist myself in Mumbai for over two and a half decades, and once the secretary of the FFSI’s western region, I know how parochial this so-called regionalism had become, myopically damaging the film societies’ inherent ethos and growth. Though the author confesses that the book takes into account the pioneering and major (“star” to him) film societies, he does extend the book’s scope up to 2016, to the National Film Heritage Mission and the National Museum of Indian Cinema, yet to open for public. If this is the time-span of the book, the author should have recorded notable work done by smaller film societies particularly in West Bengal, Kerala, and Maharashtra. In not doing so, the book cannot claim to have really traversed the “journey” and judged its “impact” of India’s film society movement (as the title claims). This is a serious defect as I personally know of some concrete examples in this context and realm.

The book as a post-mortem has to have a strong, reliable, and authentic information base. It cannot afford to go wrong both at the macro and micro levels but it does so abundantly, and in the process, risks the loss of our interest and trust. Let me cite some of the glaring examples or bloopers at random to comprehend the scale of what I am saying.

The author talks about the Nandan cultural complex in Kolkata:

Kolkata, where the Film Society Movement shaped into an all-India activity, led the way in the new phenomenon too. Nandan, the cultural complex in the middle of the town, was the pet project of Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, who was the then information minister. He even designed the logo of Nandan and had a room there to meet his cultural activist friends, as long as he was in power. (p 181, emphasis mine)

How could the author of this book dedicated to Pather Panchali (and hence to Satyajit Ray) go so grossly wrong in telling us that the Nandan logo was designed by the minister? It is a well-known fact that Satyajit Ray had not only designed the logo but also given the name “Nandan.”

On page 155, the author expects us to believe that Mrinal Sen’s 1969 film Bhuvan Shome was “produced by Arun Kaul from the Film Forum.” Collaterally financed by the FFC, Bhuvan Shome, which is said to have launched Indian cinema’s New Wave, nowhere in its credits or acknowledgements mentions Arun Kaul’s name; the film was produced by Mrinal Sen Productions. This error appears at more than one place in the book. In fact, Arun Kaul had produced Mrinal Sen’s film Ek Adhuri Kahani (1972) about which the book remains silent. Sadly, a single paragraph on this page makes two more gross errors: it says that the Amateur Film Society of India had merged with Film Forum—an incorrect information—and constantly confuses Bikram Singh with K Bikram Singh. The Delhi-based K Bikram Singh who had served the central I&B ministry was never even a member of the Mumbai-based Film Forum, but Bikram Singh, the former editor of Filmfare and then chairman of the film censor board was. The real Bikram Singh of Film Forum never appears in the book, which obviously shows how poor and defective research work has gone into the book, and these are not mere excusable typos.

This list of bloopers could be much longer but let me conclude with a few of them: (i) Sasidharan (sic) “the NFAI director, who succeeded P K Nair” (p 103) is completely wrong because K Sasidharan had succeeded Suresh Chabria. Unfortunately, the book has not a single reference to Chabria who was responsible for publishing the first book on Indian silent films, Light of Asia: Indian Silent Cinema, 1912–34 published by the National Film Archive of India and Le Giornate Del Cinema Muto, co-edited by Suresh Chabria and Paolo Cherchi Usai. It was released on the occasion of the retrospective of Indian Silent Cinema in Pordenone (Italy) held between 8 and 15 October 1994. Its second edition has been published by Niyogi Books in 2014. This is a significant fact which the author unfortunately decides to ignore. Chabria was also part of the film society or group called Friends of the Archive in Mumbai, formed when P K Nair was facing a critical time at the NFAI. All this we miss amidst repetition of information that irritatingly galore in the book.

The author claims that the Shivaram Karanth Committee on films was instituted by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (p 10). This is incorrect. The Working Group on National Film Policy as it was officially called was established in 1979 during the Janata Party rule, but by
the time it submitted its report in 1980, Indira Gandhi’s Congress party had returned to power.

The author also mixes up Suchitra Film Society, Bengaluru with Mumbai’s film society of the same name, and in this mix-up, he does not make any reference to Mumbai’s Suchitra at all. The more serious errors occur when he attributes publication of the fabulous special number of the journal Montage devoted to Satyajit Ray to Bengaluru’s Suchitra Film Society! (p 56). This rare issue of Montage was published by the Anandam Film Society in Mumbai about which the book not only remains silent but gives grossly wrong credit. The special Ray issue (No 5/6) of Montage was published in July 1966 and it was edited by Uma Kripanidhi (now Uma Da Cunha) and her joint editor was Anil Srivastava. Montage was the official organ of Anandam Film Society whose main drive was Gopal Dutia, also about whom the book remains mostly silent, a cursory mention of his name is not only spelt wrongly but associated with a wrong film society (p 156).

On page 210, the author says that the first Indian movie released in India was Shree Pundalik, “a silent film in Marathi by Dadasaheb Torne on 18 May 1912 at the Coronation Cinematograph in Mumbai. Torne (sic) is also considered the ‘Father of Indian Cinema.’” While the term “silent film in Marathi” sounds contradictory, the author cites the title wrong. The film’s advertisements of the time spell the title as Pundlik, the more generally accepted one is Pundalik and according to the recent research this “silent” film is credited to Torne only marginally; it was Narayan Govind Chitre who had requisitioned the services of Johnson, apparently a Bourne & Shepherd cameraman, and completed the film with the help of
P R Tipnis (Dharamsey 2014).

The Bombay Film Society, the author says, was closed in 1962, and the first Indian film to be screened by the society was Uljhan, produced and directed by N R Acharya; in the same year Chetan Anand’s Neecha Ghar (sic) and Ishara were shown. The author spells the title of Neecha Nagar wrong but he also gives us the impression that Ishara was Chetan Anand’s film, which is again incorrect. As is well known, the 1946 film Neecha Nagar was the first Indian film to gain recognition at the Cannes Film Festival, and Ishara (1943) was directed by J K Nanda.

I can still continue with this list of bloopers, but let me briefly point out to the errors in spelling proper nouns or individual names incorrectly: Vittorio De Sica as Victoria De Sica, Shanti P Choudhary as Shanta P Choudhary, Gopal Dutia as Gopal Doothia; some names are variously or improperly spelt, for example, Ference Berko (p 28) becomes Ference Borka somewhere else; more glaringly in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s quote, Raja Harishchandra’s queen Taramati becomes Chandramathi. Obviously, some innocuous spelling errors could also change the person’s gender.

All said and done, the book still has its saving graces in the foreword written by Adoor Gopalakrishnan and a note by Shyam Benegal, both internationally renowned film-makers and film society activists, both most senior and practising film-makers in India today, after the legendary Mrinal Sen and Aribam Syam Sharma. The book has a cursory reference to the latter, but with his name wrongly spelled as Ariban Siyam Sarma (p 171). The book is rich with so much information with individual contributions, but the inadequate and sketchy index at the end of the book makes it difficult to retrace them.

 

Amrit Gangar (amritgangar@gmail.com) is a film scholar and historian based in Mumbai.

Reference

Dharamsey, Virchand (2014): “Indian Silent Cinema 1912–34: A Filmography,” Light of Asia, Suresh Chabria (ed), revised edition, New Delhi: Niyogi Books.

Updated On : 10th Jan, 2018

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