A Personal Note on Screen Education Work in India
By Prof. Satish Bahadur.
I record here briefly the experience of screen education in two organizations, at the Agra university Film Club, where some interesting experiments were made and
at the Film Institute of India, Poona where systematic teaching of Film Appreciation is being organized for the first time in India.It is also in the nature of personal notes, as I happen to be connected with both the organizations, as secretary of the Agra University Film Club from 1960 to 1963, and as Professor of Film Appreciation at the Institute
since then. Though covering a wide range of university level students in India, it has the limitation of being the experience of one film teacher in India, (and embarrassing enough for me, the only one in India.). I record it here because it may provide the guidelines along which further experimentation in India may be attempted.
Based in the Institute of Social Sciences and the Institute of Linguistics and Hindi studies, the Agra University Film Club had about 150 post-graduate student-members. Almost all of them came from a middle-town urban or rural background, and almost
none of them had any background of anything except the commercial Hindi cinema; a few of them, of the popular Hollywood films. The most important thing to do was to run the film society as a very “serious” organization by giving it the Appearance of being a serious organization, so that when students came to a film society show, they were
not going to any film show, but to see a film which deserved more careful attention. This was done by a number of devices. Programme notes were invariably prepared, specially keeping the level of the students in mind, and circulated well before the showing so that students had a chance to read them. Special posters announcing the programmes were displayed, stills (photocopied from film books and magazines) were displayed prominently; sometimes even the photos of directors, so that “Potemkin” was for them not merely a film , but a film made by Eisenstein, the film maker whose photos they had been seeing on display windows, shooting, editing, and with his unit members, etc. Screenings were invariably preceded by a short introduction by a teacher member who had seen the film before. He explained some artistic points which were to be observed carefully in the film. Discussions were organized frequently, over a cup
of tea, and with teachers present.
A great deal of preparation was, of course, done by the teacher leaders. We believed that a good film was a complex construction with many analyzable layers in it, and the function of the discussion should be to help the Students to discover for themselves the layers in it. Thus the teacher would provide only the guidelines for discussion, and himself act as a fly-wheel and a governor, (in the automobile sense).If the discussion flagged, the teacher would provide the momentum and when the discussion threatened to go out of bounds, as can happen, to provide the ordering and structuring out of the half- truths and partial observations, which the individual students believed to be whole truth. An example of discussion plan used in Agra is placed as an enclosure to the which indicates the effort to enable students to comprehend the complexity of the film, and, relate the film experience to other experiences of life. We also organized discussions on popular films running in town and sometimes provided programme notes on good films which were running in town which students would not see unless they were guided to do so. We encouraged students to write about cinema. To give it concrete shape, we ran an “irregular”, cyclostyled magazine FILM CLUB NEWS, which provided a good forum for student writing, and also an occasion for us to put in the hands of students some good writing from books and journals. We thought that to place film “in context” of the cultural and academic life of the university is a very useful thing to do. For instance, showing films like “Overture” and “World without End” on United Nations Day, as films within a film society yet framing them in the context of United Nations and its ideas. An example of how we always thought of placing film “in context” is shown by the plan for presentation of Satyajit Ray’s biographical film on Rabindranath Tagore, in the context of a Tagore Memorial Meeting on the Death Anniversary of the poet.
In a university film society context, the distinction between a “film appreciation” category film and “audio-visual” category of film really gets blurred. The function of the film society is to stimulate the minds of students and any film which does it is valid. While showing Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, an accompanying short was a classroom film like Elizabethan England. And vice versa, I have used Angotee and Nanook of the North as basic material for a concrete discussion on the influence of technological factors in changing the social life of a primitive community, in a sociology class, or Pather Panchali as a study in Family.
Our experience in Agra was that the students are tremendously interested in film study; provided film society activity is organized as serious film study. Standards of appreciation of most students develop rapidly. They bring enthusiasm and a natural freshness of mind to film analysis. But the crux of the problem is to train teachers who would organize the film society as serious study groups, and make students see films as films deserve to be seen. Hence, there is a need for careful training of film society organizers. Of considerable interest is film study course which I conducted at the Agra University summer holiday and Youth Leadership camp, at Mussoorie during May-June 1962, which was attended by teachers and students from 26 University colleges. The camp, located in a pleasant Hill Station, was a “social” holiday gathering with a variety of intellectual and cultural activities.
The course on Film Appreciation was only one of the activities and the objective was to expose the new ideas on film to this group, the experiment with methods, and to stimulate formation of college film societies. I took with me a very large variety of films of all types, borrowed from many sources. The lectures were held in the mornings, where in a darkened room I would also demonstrate the analysis with the aid of sections
of films. In the late evenings, after dinner, I organized the group as a film society, with programme notes, lectures and discussions. The response was extremely heartening and many teachers after returning from the camp attempted to set up film societies in their colleges, though not successfully. Enclosure 3 to this Appendix will give an idea of organization of this course.
Experience at the Film Institute of India
At the Film Institute of India, the problem is of a different kind, as the students are themselves training for different branches of film making, direction, script writing, cinematography, sound recording and sound engineering, film editing and film acting. Film Appreciation is not an independent course yet, but an integral part of the training of young film makers themselves, who are training to make up different professional assignments in different branches of film making. Hence the objectives of film appreciation teaching here are different from what they would be in a screen
Education course, where it would be just one subject or be an extra mural activity. All students are of a graduate level, many of them come even after postgraduate
Degrees. The students come from every part of the country, literally from every state of the Indian Union, with widely different family and cultural backgrounds, as is inevitable in a complex country like India. Yet there is one characteristic common to them, when
the Join the Film Institute. They are very enthusiastic about the cinema, (which itself is a great asset), but they are all (barring a few exceptions, who have been in film societies before) enthusiastic for the commercial Indian style feature films; some acute cases or even glamour struck.
Thus, though they are enthusiastic about the cinema, they are almost all enthusiastic about it for the wrong reasons. The standards of judgment are derived from popular box office criteria. They have solid background of screen education but it is all derived from the writings of the popular fan-magazines! Thus, my objective in the first year of the film
appreciation teaching is a very simple one. The students have enthusiasm for cinema, but for the wrong reasons. I try to convert it to enthusiasm for cinema for the right reasons. This is attempted by a dual process: by taking them through a process of
disillusionment and debunking about cinema, (I call it deglamourizing) and by providing the opportunity to see for themselves, the great beauty, and depth and power and originality and modernity of the film medium, which are valid reasons for enthusiasm
about cinema. I will describe this dual process in some detail, as it has some interest for pedagogical methodology of screen education. This is a basic difficulty in teaching film.
In many subjects, graduation of stages of exposition of the subject is inevitable; one learns by stages. For example, in mathematics, the student simply has got to learn
differential calculus before learning Integral Calculus. Or, in Economic analysis, the technique of Demand curves has to be understood before one goes on to
Complex Market Systems. Even in Literature, the obvious complexity of
expression of language (or even of the size of the books) makes for acceptable graduation of the material suitable for the progressive steps of study. But
not so in film.
All films are for everyone. They are, in spite of being mass medium, very intimate personal experiences, and the student feels that he KNOWS all
there is to KNOW about them. Hence, when students start their “study” of film in a
formal classroom situation, all possible questions can be, and are actually shot at the teacher by the fresh students; questions from the complicated area of film
aesthetics, or from the area of film technique, or from the yet imperfectly understood area of film psychology and film sociology. It would simply be disastrous for
the teacher to reply to a young inquisitive student : “Well, this is a more advanced question, and you will understand it after one year or more, when you have
understood this and that and that”.
The fact of the matter is that the student is asking the question because the problem is important for him now. Quite likely the student has already an answer with him, probably derived from fan-magazine reading or from a rationalization of something which film did to his own mind. He must be answered, even though the answer may not be complete, or be completely understood. I find it absolutely necessary in the earliest stages of my teaching to give students a few models, frame of analysis, in which all possible questions on film can be hung, and thus, understood, up to a point. I use two such models, the model of film as language, and the model of film as communication process, and I give these to the fresh batch of students as early as possible.
I keep on explaining the models in various ways and whenever any question is discussed I try to bring it within the framework of these models. The “proof ” of the usefulness and the validity of these models is that all possible questions can be brought in these frameworks. Film as a language model is the familiar one due to Struckrate, Peters and Hodgkinson. I elaborate a little more on its implications as follows; which gives me carious categories or pegs around which I can hang many questions asked by students. Some of Plan for Discussion on “Bicycle Thieves” Highlights: Important example of Italian Neo-Realist School/ Film shot on real locations / non-professional actors / Landmark in International cinema for cinematic qualities and path breaking technique.
Lines of Discussion:
On the Plot: Did Antonio do the right thing in attempting to steal the cycle? Is it better to starve than to steal? (Relativity of moral behaviour in different situations / examples from students’ experience) Antonio did not succeed in stealing the cycle. Would
it have made any difference to the moral tone of the story if he had succeeded in stealing it? He was not handed over to the police. Would it have made any difference to the moral tone of the film if he had been handed over to the police? (Plot Construction)
Poverty and economic stress as the cause of crime (social pathology / any examples from literature and from the experience of the students) Nature and causes of post-war unemployment in European countries. Its difference from the unemployment problem in
India (economics) / the family in distress/ effect of unemployment on family life / comparison with other families in distress in films/ Pather Panchali/ examples
of families that are known to students/(sociology of family)/ the family in Bicycle Thieves and the family in any recent Indian film (compare characteristics).
On Film : The post-war urge for realism / neo-realism and its place in Italian and world cinema/ its impact on Indian cinema (Satyajit Ray and the Calcutta sequences in Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin, the postwar neo-realist movement in other arts/ the social and
political causes of neo-realism. Non-professional actors/ compare with Pather Panchali and Louisiana Story, Absence of songs in film / contrast with Indian films and its song-filled situations/ why do Indian films have so many songs? Why did Bicycle Thieves not
have songs? (Sociology of audiences) Outdoor locations / the fluid street scenes/comparison with possible studio work/ Imagine Bicycle Thieves being made with studio sets. What difference would it have made to the sincerity and moral quality
of the film? / Compare with similar work in Indian films. Relationship between the artistic texture (visual and sound) of the film and its moral purpose. The message of the film/ absence of any moralizing.
(Thanks to Shyamala Vanarse,Pune)