It has been argued that art cinema abruptly disappeared from the Indian film scene in the mid-1980s, but the writing had been on the wall since the late seventies. The first blow to art cinema came with the restructuring of the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) at the end of the decade. As already noted, Indian art cinema never received sustained support from the state like in Europe, where post-World War II recovery and competition from Hollywood impelled governments to extend support to their respective film industries. The most consistent period of national funding came during the activist phase of the Film Finance Corporation by way of small loans given to a number of filmmakers.
That ended in July 1979. Under L. K. Advani, the minister of information and broadcasting, the Indian Motion Picture Export Corporation (IMPEC) and the Directorate of Film Festivals were merged into the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) – now envisioned as “a single integrated body to cover various aspects of cinema.” Thereafter, a few state governments in Karnataka, West Bengal, and Kerala continued to support art films, but these efforts were not systematic.
The revamped NFDC noted that its main goal was not “to finance movies” but to import “the most up-to-date cameras and other equipment” to modernize the production sector and expand exhibition facilities. A far better use of resources, it was argued, was to deploy them for the “development of cinema rather than ‘good cinema.’ If cinema prospered ‘good cinema’ would also prosper.”
When proponents of art cinema rallied to oppose this move toward integration, they were rebuffed as “pseudo- intellectuals whose films nobody wanted to see.” Defending the NFDC’s stance, a group of film producers, directors, and artists observed in a memorandum submitted to the government of India that “the spokesmen of the ‘serious cinema’ . . . appear to be interested only in personal benefit and glory. Having got accustomed to public financing of their films, they have developed a vested interest in the perpetuation of the NFDC as a losing public institution. How can such elements be entrusted with the custodianship of the corporation intended to place the film industry on a sound economic footing?”
Yet in a complete volte-face of such proclamations against financing films, one of the earliest projects that the NFDC undertook was to support Richard Attenborough’s blockbuster biopic, Gandhi (1982). The government of India’s financial backing of this film, I argue, was the second event of significance in the waning of Indian art cinema.
The ‘Gandhi’ experiment
When Indira Gandhi returned for a new (and final) term as the prime minister in 1980, she authorized the Government of India, through the NFDC, to give “$6.5 million toward the $22 million” required for the biopic. Never had the Indian state paid such a gigantic sum for a single film. The rest of the film’s budget came from the “UK Goldcrest Company and some American private sources,” while Columbia Pictures distributed the film.
Rachel Dwyer situates Gandhi in the context of a “Raj revival” occasioned by the “uncertainty in British society as part of Margaret Thatcher’s social engineering and the height of the Cold War,” as well as in Indira Gandhi’s attempts to salvage her image after the infamous Emergency of 1975-77, which had scarred both the nation and Indian cinema (art, popular, and documentary). Financing Gandhi, a global film with an international cast and an epic feel, was an effort to undo some of that damage.
Although the film predated the opening up of the Indian economy by almost a decade, it was a portent of things to come. Gandhi’s resounding success in the Academy awards validated the Indian
government’s stance toward film funding, especially since the NFDC received a third of the film’s global profits. Attenborough’s biopic was also touted as a successful pedagogical experiment with film sponsored by the government of India. A poll conducted during the controversy that erupted around Gandhi revealed that many “well- educated, young people in urban India” knew little about Gandhi other than the fact that he “cleaned his own toilet and was for self- dependence.”
Indira Gandhi issued directives to all state governments to grant tax exemptions on the film’s shows for weeks on end, and theater owners were instructed to reserve seats for school children who were required to watch it as part of history lessons. The irony that it was a “viewing of Gandhi through Western eyes – with attention given to American characters whose roles in Gandhi’s actual life pale in comparison with those of many Indians overlooked by or barely shown in the film – was ignored in favor of its international “galvanizing effects.”
Gandhi dovetailed with other changes that were contributing to art cinema’s continuing marginalization through the 1980s. One of these was the boom of India’s televisual and video sectors and the “migration of socially relevant content to television.” That process, too, began with Mrs. Gandhi’s separation of television from All India Radio and establishing it as a separate entity called Doordarshan in 1976.
Around 1987-89, Doordarshan teamed up with NFDC to fund a handful of films for theatrical release – Salaam Bombay (Mira Nair, 1988), Main Zinda Hoon (I am alive, Sudhir Mishra, 1988) and Ek Din Achanak (Suddenly one day, Mrinal Sen, 1989). But its main focus was on funding a considerable number of telefilms – including some by artists associated with art cinema such as Amol Palekar, Basu Chatterjee, and Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Despite its commitment “to breathe new life to good cinema” in the model of Channel 4 in the UK and RAI in Italy, many of Doordarshan’s films, namely Daasi (A Bonded Woman, B. Narsing Rao, 1988) and Marattam (G. Aravindan, 1988) never left the cans.
Marie Seton’s lament in 1975 that Indian television authorities did not step up to the plate to promote art cinema was true of Doordarshan into the late 1980s. Seton argued that only when television channels devoted considerable time each week to promoting knowledge of them did art films “become a part of general cultural life” in the UK and Europe, so that “an Iranian film, an Egyptian film, a Bengali film is just as acceptable to a wide public as a Swedish, French, Spanish or German film.” Neither happened in India.
Even as these changes marginalized art cinema, it was the arrival of globalization from 1991 onward that completely transformed India’s media ecology. Economic liberalization has steamrolled and reconstituted large segments of India’s society and polity. Since then, the distinction between art and popular cinema has ceased to be as resonant as it was during the first four decades of
Indian independence, as all aspects of cinema – technology, finance, aesthetics, audience, genre, publicity, and demographics – have undergone profound change. While there is a growing body of work that analyzes the changes in the cine-scene during the globalization era, I want to single out for remark the multiplex, which arrived in India in 1997.
The multiplex myth
Recent work has shown that the multiplex absorbed cinematic multiplicity and retailed it to a growing Indian middle class. They made available to their audiences a mix of “parallel, regional and art cinema” along with mainstream domestic and foreign films. Multiplexes do not identify with “particular kinds of films” but are rather “a theatre for accessing the ‘latest’ from a wide spread of cinematic fare – mainstream or fringe – in comfortable, colourful and inviting surroundings.” They have unarguably birthed a “sophisticated media environment” whose middle- class consumer base exercises “disproportionate influence on filmmakers.”
A well-known critique of art films was their cultural elitism: they proclaimed to be for the people, but the people did not watch them. But the multiplex symbolizes another, more pernicious economic elitism of a new and emergent middle class that is coalescing around globalization and claims of a particular Indian identity. With private security guards as gatekeepers, the multiplex signals the unabashed segregation in India’s leisure economy between India’s aspirational and growing middle class and vast sections of the poor.
The importance of the multiplex is captured well by Adrian Athique and Douglas Hill when they remark: “While Jawaharlal Nehru . . . saw cinema halls as (literally) a waste of concrete, it has become abundantly clear that the leisure economy has to be understood as much more than an ephemeral activity. For good or ill, the status of the multiplex in India today is a powerful indication of how the infrastructure of consumption has replaced industrial output as the symbolic measure of progress.”
Congruent with the multiplex and economic globalization has been the rise of the phenomenon Sangita Gopal christens as “new Bollywood,” characterized by “a multiplicity of genres” and “stunningly diverse” output. Unlike classical Hindi cinema, whose ambit was Bombay, this new Bollywood cast a more powerful spell upon the imagination of regional cinemas.
Gopal’s study of Bengali filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh, often regarded as a maker of art films, is a persuasive instantiation of the phenomenon she calls “Bollywood local,” a Bengali cinema in the new Bollywood mold. Ghosh’s ample citations of Satyajit Ray, and art cinema in general, should not mislead us into seeing his films as a continuation of the art film. Rather, the citations must be situated within an aesthetic of opulent mise-en-scene borrowed from new Bollywood filmmakers like Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
Let me conclude this brief discussion about the disintegration and repackaging of art cinema in the contemporary media environment, a return that lacks its earlier political energies, with two quick examples. “You have to make commercial cinema with the discipline of regional cinema. That’s what Ray used to say. If we can achieve that it’s a giant leap for mankind.” This is how Bollywood filmmaker Sujoy Ghosh expressed the advantages of making the Hindi thriller blockbuster Kahaani (The Story, 2012) in Kolkata instead of Mumbai.
Ghosh’s remarks were made during a televised adda with two other successful Bollywood (and Bengali) filmmakers – Dibakar Banerjee and Pradeep Sarkar. The time limit on a made-for television adda transforms the Bengali practice of free flowing, unstructured, long, and informal conversation into a halfhour module. So, too, is Ray transformed into a model for low-cost regional productivity in a globalized marketplace, repurposed for neoliberal corporate cost-saving standards, his ethos and work practice used to stand in for time discipline and efficiency – traits that would serve the contemporary filmmaker well in hypercompetitive Bollywood.
The second example is from 2011, when several Bengali filmmakers and theatre personalities –Aparna Sen, Suman Mukhopadhyay, Srijit Mukherji, Sandip Ray, and Gautam Ghose – came together with a call to revive the Calcutta Film Society as a vital part of Kolkata’s hallowed intellectual tradition. There was much talk of reviving film seminars and film appreciation courses as part of art cinema’s resuscitation. Art cinema was pitched to the public as an integral part of Bengali heritage, whose memory is nostalgically invoked as that past recedes from living memory.
Low-cost filmmaking and issues of heritage and cultural preservation, as illustrated by the two examples above, are seen as art cinema’s lasting legacy in the era of globalization.
Excerpted with permission from Art Cinema and India’s Forgotten Futures: Film and History in the Postcolony, Rochona Majumdar, Columbia University Press.