Review: Art Cinema and India’s Forgotten Futures by Rochona Majumdar

Art cinema is a much debated and often misunderstood term. Filmmakers are increasingly wary of these mints, fearing they will limit audience access and jeopardize the economic prospects of their films. Some characteristic traits that have become synonymous with art cinema in India might include its slow pace, narrative treatment, choice of subject matter, selection of actors and their style of performance. In many ways, the term helped identify a type of filmmaking practice that defied the demands of mainstream or blockbuster film. Over the years, art cinema has also evolved into multiplex cinema of a certain type that caters to a class – urban, elite, English-speaking and upwardly mobile.

307pp, ₹699; Columbia University Press

The foundations of art cinema in India, however, were very different. In his new book Art Cinema and India’s Forgotten Futures – Film and History in the Postcolony, Rochona Majumdar traces the trajectory of art cinema in the country. In the second half of the book, she deepens this conversation through a selection of three Bengali filmmakers – Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray, hailed by many as the holy triumvirate of avant-garde sensibility in Indian cinema. It could also be seen as an extension of Majumdar’s earlier scholarly work which focuses on Bengal. In his introduction, Majumdar also mentions that while the history of popular Indian cinema, or Hindi cinema to be precise, is quite well documented with a section of academia and mainstream publishing producing histories of popular cinema across star biographies and film monographs, among other paraphernalia, the same courtesy does not extend to art cinema.

That said, one cannot help but think that the sustained attention given to art cinema luminaries such as Ray, Ghatak and Sen has also overshadowed the works of several other Bengali filmmakers such as Tapan Sinha and Tarun Majumdar; two important filmmakers who enjoyed commercial and critical acclaim. Their films haven’t received the kind of serious critical attention they deserve. Are we too comfortable in academia to probe beyond the avant-garde mainstream? Majumdar also identifies this gap, and hopefully this observation will inspire other researchers and filmmakers to explore the work of several other filmmakers. After all, the history of art cinema in India, or any history for that matter, is not a monolith. To do justice to the many stories, our reach must extend beyond Ray, Ghatak, Sen and even Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, Adoor Gopalakrishnan et al.

Art cinema, as we know, flourished thanks to state support. This is often interpreted as the role of the state in trying to create good realistic cinema or benchmark standards for good cinema. This also raises the question: is all art cinema good cinema? Is experimentation necessarily progressive? We could all benefit from a critical history of art cinema that assesses films through their content. While art cinema introduced a new aesthetic for cinema in India, its influences were mainly European. Many of these films also struggled to fuse their European influences with an Indian setting and script, often appearing very disjointed. European experimental cinema, let’s not forget, comes from a very particular context.

Author Rochona Majumdar (Courtesy of the publisher)

Majumdar devotes a chapter to the film society movement which played a major role in the spread of art cinema in India. She also says that these film companies acted as gatekeepers or purveyors of good taste by showing films labeled as intellectual. Furthermore, the book also mentions the role of critics and opinion makers like Marie Seton who made Satyajit Ray an icon of Indian art cinema. The elitism of Indian art cinema, like other niche art forms, is indisputable. While directors claimed their films were grounded in reality or portrayed the marginalized and oppressed, the same sections had little or no access to these films. The lives of the filmmakers were also very different from the subjects of their films. The audience was mostly made up of urban intellectuals or foreign film festival goers. In fact, it has often been said that these films were made for foreign film festivals. The binary between popular cinema and art cinema is dated and false, so to speak.

Moreover, the filmmakers who championed the art cinema movement in India were mostly men from similar classes and castes, reinforcing the extreme elitism of the movement. I wonder about the intended reader of this book. There are no new discoveries for those familiar with Indian art cinema. Would Columbia University Press have published this book if it had been written by a lesser known Indian scholar?

Kunal Ray is a cultural critic. He teaches Literary and Cultural Studies at FLAME University, Pune

Christopher S. Washington