I love The Caravan but Aseem Chhabra’s lament in this month’s issue about the nonrecognition of contemporary Indian cinema by the West is severely misleading, misguided, full of self-pity and excuses about that perennial Indian condition of barely falling short of universal success/acclaim not due to any lack of effort or talent, but you know, kismet. So, he never pauses to ask whether the Indian films at Cannes this year or the recent indie Hindi films are actually - gasp! - good. Or even more basically, what the cultural production of art films funded by Western film festivals and the straightjacket of film criticsm might mean for the export of Indian films under the umbrella of national cinema.
First, let’s get the factual errors out of the way. Chhabra states that Miss Lovely was the only Indian film to have been included in a competitive section at Cannes this year. False. It was in the Un Certain Regard sidebar that hands out jury prizes and so does Semaine de la Critique (Vasan Bala’s Peddlers) which showcases first or second films by usually unknown directors. Gangs of Wasseypur was in Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (also has prizes) which is in fact an entirely separate film festival that happens to transpire exactly during the “official” Cannes film festival. (Much like Slamdance and Sundance.) But Chhabra is right in that Miss Lovely was programmed in the most prestigious sidebar at the festival. But Un Certain Regard is certainly not the Main Competition; for instance, Xavier Dolan was vocally upset that his film, Laurence Anyways, was relegated to the sidebar instead of playing in the Competition. Ja, this all sounds like quibbling until Chhabra proceeds to protest that Todd McCarthy’s list of anticipated films didn’t include any Indian ones. This is a bit disingenuous because McCarthy, whom Chhabra refers to as “chief critic of IndieWire," actually writes for The Hollywood Reporter and previously wrote for Variety so I’m unsure what article he’s referring to but this piece at THR lists his anticipated films and only mentions films playing in the main competition and skips the sidebars altogether. Finally, Vimukti Jayasundara’s Chatrak did not have its world premiere at TIFF as Chhabra says; it premiered several months before at Quinzaine des Réalisateurs.
The Orient, in modernity, is not only a European invention but also an Oriental one.
— Amit Chaudhri
Retreat, everywhere, of the image. Offensive, everywhere, of the visual (I remind you that the “visual” is this domain of perception where I no longer risk encountering the other, whoever it may be).
— Serge Daney
Anurag Kashyap, in his introduction before the screening of Gangs of Wasseypur, said something about Bollywood. Either how his film is unlike Bollywood films, or how difficult it was to get his film financed considering the hegemony of the Bollywood aesthetic. Ashim Ahluwalia also had a disclaimer about Bollywood. Several others mentioned Bollywood in ambivalent terms before the screening of Kalpana. (“It’s not Bollywood, it’s a dance film!”) I didn’t go to the premiere of Peddlers so I don’t know how Vasan Bala talked about his film vis-a-vis Bollywood. It’s perfectly alright to situate one’s work within a tradition/genre, improvise, innovate, and expand (or not) the idiom. Nothing to be ashamed of. What I notice, however, is this pervasive laziness involved in excusing new Hindi films’ incompetence/shortcomings with the straw man “Bollywood” apology. Or worse, wondering about the “new” (“alternative,” “indie,” “offbeat”) Hindi films’ lack of global appeal as if success is justified for the sole reason of being different from an industry standard. Is this a neoliberal anxiety of feeling cinematically inferior as the Indian economy booms and chutnified English wins prizes?
Kashyap and his gang with their slick visuals, loud auto-tuned dub step soundtracks, “vulgar material” remind me of the Cinema du Look movement of the ’80s. The quality varies and there are definitely moments of cinematic bliss but touting their relative lack of success abroad does an actual disservice to directors who are more audacious in their work and are entirely ignored in India. Chhabra doesn’t even mention Rajnesh Domalpalli’s Telugu film Vanaja that won the Best First Feature Film award at Berlin in 2007. The film which is as “Indian” as one can get (lower caste girl who wants to learn Kuchipudi is in turn abused by her upper caste employers) was a decent art house hit in the States (I saw it in Urbana) and was praised by Michael Sicinski but failed to open theatrically in Hyderabad or elsewhere in India. Last I heard, Domalpalli was working on a children’s book. Meanwhile, Vimukthi Jayasundara was recently commissioned to make a short for the Jeonju Digital Project and Gurvinder Singh (Chhabra briefly mentions his Anhey Ghorey Da Daan) received funding for a new feature from the Hubert Bals Fund. Moreover, Anand Patwardhan’s Jai Bhim Comrade played at HotDocs, Mani Ratnam had a retrospective at TIFF several years back, Leos Carax programmed Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz ke Phool at Cinémathèque Française in 2004 - all films without “European styles of storytelling.” (I apologize if you cringed at that phrase.) I wonder if Chhabra has heard of Opera Jawa?
What’s infuriating about articles like Chhabra’s is that he bemoans cultural specificity and wonders about Bollywood’s globalized potential (see: that unfortunate quote by Kashyap at the end) in a way that would make Tom Friedman blush instead of discussing how that same cultural specificity presents insurmountable challenges while making art films in vernacular languages within India or how experimenting with different cinematic idioms seems impossible in an exhibitor dominated industry, or maybe how ambitious Indian cinema has to appropriate Western art house tropes to get financing, recognition etc.
Anyhow, I’m done. Didn’t someone once ask Bresson how the audience might react and he replied “What audience?”