Zibahkhana (Hell’s Ground, Pakistan, 2007)

By Devapriya Sanyal.

MK Raghavendra, a film critic and leading scholar of Indian cinema, has authored eight books with leading publishers to date. He offers fresh and invaluable insights into the world of Indian cinema not only restricted to studies of Hindi or Bollywood (as it is more popularly known) but also on Kannada cinema. His book Locating World Cinema: Interpretations of Film as Culture (Bloomsbury, March 2020; 1299 INR) takes a deeply analytical look at some of the greats of world cinema who have not been written about much. Raghavendra opts for a close reading of texts that include the films of directors as varied in their milieus, styles and concerns as Robert Bresson, Jacques Rivette, Kenji Mizoguchi, Zhang Yimou, and Aleksei German. Elsewhere, he compares the treatment of heterosexual attachments by Martin Scorsese, Eric Rohmer, and Abbas Kiarostami; he studies Indian and Pakistani horror films in relation to the respective national ideologies; he critiques the global art film of today and its creation by the film festival network; he enquires into how form developed in Soviet and Russian cinema from the silent era to the present. This gives an idea of the range of the author’s explorations in which the ‘local’ is preferred as the source of meaning instead of the ‘universal’. Raghavendra phrases it thus: “knowing the cultural location of a film leaves one open to meanings/significances that a ‘universalist’ reading cannot accommodate.” (Introduction, xvii)

You began writing on Indian cinema with Seduced by the Familiar published by Oxford University Press in 2008 – one of the most definitive and analytical studies of Hindi cinema; what made you write about world cinema in your new book with Bloomsbury Academic?

My approach to Indian cinema is socio-cultural, which means I interpret it in the light of social developments. I think Indian cinema can be understood this way only if you understand something about cinema in general, how meaning is constructed, especially narration and its conventions. Indian cinema is not a microcosm of world cinema and world cinema cannot be understood by those who only see Indian films. My fascination with cinema began with world cinema and then moved onto Indian cinema since Indian cinema tells you an enormous amount about India and Indians, if you know how to interpret it. I love world cinema because it is cinema and Indian cinema because it is Indian.

How do you locate Indian cinema in world cinema?

Indian cinema is very different from cinema in the rest of the world and the primary difference is that it is not mimetic. It is not content with observation and respecting the dictum that reality is essentially unknowable. It is only because reality cannot be known that complexity and ambiguity are valued and interpretation is necessary. Indian cinema is hardly ever complex and almost never invites interpretation from the audience. Academic interpretation is different and goes beyond artistic intent. Indian cinema, by and large, proceeds from truisms and messages which are illustrated through the narrative. Indian films are like fables: a fox must be cunning and a monkey should be mischievous in a fable for its message to be relayed unhindered. Even in art films (with some exceptions) the meaning is transparent. World cinema has three basic components: the capture of reality, authorial subjectivity (what the filmmaker wants to say) and character subjectivity (what a character is seeing or imagining). In Indian cinema, character subjectivity can hardly be found, and the filmmaker never has a personal viewpoint to offer. The achievements of some filmmakers like Ray, Adoor and Aravindan are that they introduced subjectivity and personal expression. Ghatak should also be mentioned here.

Can Indian cinema integrate?

Only the film schools like FTII could have taught film-making that might have helped Indian cinema integrate but they have not done it. They have not even begun to think on those lines. Indian cinema – like literature – is the product of a very specific culture and, to integrate, they have to consciously try to see things differently, step outside their culture. For example, Indian film academics should also not write only about Indian cinema as they have been doing. I have tried to break the rules and ventured to write about world cinema. Indian film critics are usually very uncomfortable writing on world cinema. But as a parallel, few Indians have done well in any of the arts on the world stage. In classical music, Indians only learn Indian music. Indian music is great but it uses melody and not harmony, which is a seminal characteristic of western music. To integrate, Indians will have to first understand what makes them Indians, and that theirs is a very special cultural case with few parallels outside.  

What is the future of Indian art cinema?

There are two sides to this problem. Until filmmakers try to integrate – i.e. see things in non-traditional ways, they cannot make a mark outside. Ray is still the only filmmaker from India who is internationally respected. But on the other hand, there is a huge and growing market in India for Indian films of all kinds and internally, Indian cinema will do better and better. But this implies that the cultural ghetto in which India seems to live will remain; but the Indian diaspora will be a huge component of the international market for Indian cinema. There are so many South-Asians in the world interested in Indian films that books about Indian film stars are being published by university presses in UK and USA.

Will Indian popular cinema be globally consumed?

It will be but mainly in the diaspora. I think the attraction it had for Third World countries like Africa has also declined but, as a global earner, it will do better and better.

You have a very interestingly titled book. What do you mean by the wordsLocating World Cinema’ in your title?

I think all cinema will have to address local audiences before it appeals to outsiders. For the critic, therefore, the local meaning of a film becomes very important. I have in several chapters in my book tried to understand the local meanings of a variety of films from milieus like USA, Russia, China, Japan, France, India, paying great attention to filmmakers who are acknowledged as great. I have also looked at the growth of film festivals in the global circuit and how they have created a new class of art film that appeals directly to festival-hopping global audiences. Some Iranians, Europeans and Russians are doing this, seeing acceptance at film festivals as more important than appealing locally to their local audiences. Filmmakers like Asghar Farhadi (A Separation), Andrei Zvyagintsev (Loveless), Michael Hanneke (Amour) are producing a new artifact that is the global art film. 

What is your rationale for choosing certain films and filmmakers to write about in Locating World Cinema?

I have looked, by and large, at filmmakers widely acknowledged as great but about whom not much critical writing is available. Secondly, I have picked from a variety of milieus so that my thesis can be plausibly demonstrated. Thirdly, I have chosen milieus in which important historical happenings widely known about have taken place so I can make an association between history and the qualities of the cinema. One essay, for instance, is on how Kenji Mizoguchi’s Japanese films underwent transformation because of Japan’s military defeat. In another, I look at Zhang Yimou’s Chinese films. He is the best regarded Chinese filmmaker and I demonstrate that to him communist China is only a continuation of the Empire with Mao Zedong as the last Emperor. I also look at Soviet/Russian cinema and how it transformed between 1910 and 2010.

Lastly, I also picked films that personally fascinate and challenge me. Robert Bresson, Jacques Rivette and Aleksei German are among the greatest and also the most difficult of filmmakers. I think German is greater than Tarkovsky but the world is beginning to recognise him only now. Rivette is from the French New Wave but more intellectual than Godard or Truffaut. Another of my personal favourites is Eric Rohmer, also from the French New Wave. Robert Bresson is normally regarded as a Christian filmmaker but I look at him differently. He is a great filmmaker which has little to do with his being a Christian.     

How do you think of cinema as an art form?

The earliest pioneers were pretty crude and there is no way that by looking at DW Griffith’s films like Birth of a Nation, you can expect cinema to be a great art form. That was the period of high modernism in literature and the arts, and Griffith was making racist films in which the greatest horror is an African-American wanting to marry a white girl. But the filmmakers from the Soviet Union had already begun putting cinema on the right path.  The French (Jean Renoir) and the Germans came into their own in the 1930s when Soviet cinema was in decline and American cinema also gained ground a little later as art, perhaps in the 1940s.

But I think expressivity in film improved substantially after World War II and reached its pinnacle in the 1970s. Most of the filmmakers I have looked at in my book, I believe, represent the greatest in film art and the criterion would be the complexity of what is being said. You could say that what film directors achieved was comparable to anything in literature and art. In India, for instance, Satyajit Ray is not inferior in any way to Indian writers and poets, whoever you wish to name and in any language. But from the 1980s onwards, cinema as art has been in decline but so has literature and virtually every other art form. There are great artists in every field but they have grown fewer and fewer with each passing decade. Film festivals were the places where the greatest in cinema were discovered but there is not so much to be enthusiastic about in today’s film festivals.   

What are some of your latest writing projects?

There are several in various stages of completion. The first is to study the Indian philosophical mindset though various aspects of Indian cinema, chapters around terms like realism/reality, meaning and content, causality, melodrama, character, patriotism, radicalism etc. which has already been published by Routledge in December 2020. The second is an examination of satire in world cinema by studying directors ranging from Luis Bunuel to David Lynch. The third is my first book-length venture outside cinema. I am looking at important Anglophone writing about India after 2000, various genres ranging from histories and travelogues to histories and socio-economic surveys. The British created an English-speaking elite in India, and the logic is that by studying how this elite write about India, one could get a sense of their politics and relationship with the nation. Again, this is on its way to being published.

Devapriya Sanyal has a Ph.D. in English Literature from JNU, India. She is the author of From Text to Screen: Issues and Images in Schindler’s List and Through the Eyes of a Cinematographer: A Biography of Soumendu Roy (Harper Collins, 2017).

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