By Anil Srivastava, Pioneer and techno-evangelist.
The film society, Pather Panchali, and Nehruvian ethos shaped my being, and I find it difficult to talk about the underlying theme of this volume without bias. I believe it is the intersection of these three that contributed to the New Indian Cinema in its various manifestations, whether it was Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome; Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Anantharam; Girish Kasaravalli’s Ghatashraddha; Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi; or, for that matter, New Indian Cinema manifesto authored by Arun Kaul and Mrinal Sen—some of the landmarks in the journey that Cherian charts in his book.
My own journey began in 1959 as a schoolboy, when I happened to find an old 16 mm projector in a friend’s home and started thinking about what to do with it. One thing led to another. We organized ourselves into the International Film Club at St. Joseph’s Convent in Bhopal and began regular film screenings. It was so long ago that I can’t quite remember, but our first film was probably 3:10 to Yuma.
This was the beginning of my real education. A world view began to emerge, film by film. In programming the screenings we discovered in ourselves citizens of a much larger world, well beyond the boundaries of our small town of Bhopal.
Then one day, a news item mentioned an Indian film, Aparajito, which had won the Golden Lion and Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival. My father was an engineer in the telephone department; so I didn’t think much of finding out the phone number of the filmmaker Satyajit Ray from the Calcutta directory enquiry and calling him.
By then a celebrated filmmaker, Ray was probably startled to get a phone call from a schoolboy asking for a print of his first film, Pather Panchali, for a showing in Bhopal as part of the Tagore centenary celebrations. He arranged for the film to be sent to us. Watching the film was a revelation. It was as if the world was changing again. And this time the unknown was at my doorstep waiting to be discovered—in the joys and sorrows of a family in a Bengali village, in the poignancy of Apu’s discovery of the stolen necklace after Durga’s death.
Earlier this year, I was invited to watch the re-release of the digitally mastered Pather Panchali on the 60th anniversary of its world premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I sat in the darkness wiping my tears and reliving my viewing of the film in Bhopal. My involvement in the film society brought me to Pather Panchali and that was the beginning of a life long journey of learning to be a human being and not just another animal walking on two legs.
Chacha Nehru was the universal uncle. We wrote to him about our film club in Bhopal. Our film projector was old and rickety. He was visiting Bhopal so it was natural to ask our beloved ‘uncle’ to gift us a new film projector. Lo and behold, he wrote back and promised to meet us. Marie Seton was a guest at Nehru’s residence in Teen Murti Bhavan. On his return to Delhi he mentioned us to Marie and that brought me into the fold of the larger Indian Film Society Movement.
In the Nehruvian view, culture was important for creating a new nation, and needed equal attention as economic growth. In recognition of his stature as a filmmaker, Satyajit Ray was made the President of the Federation of Film Societies of India (FFSI). Indira Gandhi served as the Vice President and Inder Gujral as the Treasurer. Later, as the minister for Information and Broadcasting, Mrs Gandhi ruled that a certification of artistic merit of a film by Satyajit Ray, in his capacity as president of FFSI, would suffice to exempt the film from examination by the Censor Board. Many great and even controversial works of cinema thus found their way to film society screenings.
Often Marie would poll us about films to be screened for the Prime Minister. And often we learnt from Marie what the reaction of the great man was even when matters of state were worrying him. It was not just superficial comments but deep reflections on the films.
It is not possible to include everybody in a history of the Film Society Movement in India but it is important to mention some who shaped the course of the movement. Also there are many histories that need to be written because each film society sprang from its own milieu. Film Forum was very different from Anandam, or Calcutta Film Society from Cine Cub of Kolkata.
Marie Seton brought together many of us in the Film Society Movement and through her long letters urged each one of her correspondents to actively participate and promote the national effort toward film appreciation. She was untiring. She found me as a boy, and connected me to all the wonderful grown-ups who were bound together in the movement, including Satish Bahadur. I hope someday, someone will write a book about Marie. Her biography of Nehru and Ray demonstrate her love and intimate knowledge of India.
The energy and enthusiasm of Vijaya Mulay (Akka to all of us) was only matched by her affection and hospitality. Together with Marie Seton and Usha Bhagat she kept the Film Society Movement moving forward with little or no funding and a great deal of hard work, bolstered by support and encouragement from the government.
This resulted in the Antipodes—a package of great examples of world cinema; or the extended visit of great teachers of like Jerzy Toeplitz of the Lodz Film School; or cultural exchange programs which invariably included films from those countries for screening through the film societies across India.
As a teenager, I remember, sitting and discussing the Odessa step sequence, the Wajda trilogy, or the tradition of city documentaries with Devendra Mishra, Chidananda Das Gupta or Jag Mohan. Each of those conversations opened my mind to new vistas.
For me, above all Satish Bahadur was the greatest sounding board and inspiration, a man totally absorbed in the study of cinema. I cannot forget days and late nights of conversation analyzing films, delving deep into semiotics, way out of my depths but continuing to catch up. Those were wonderful days of walking through the campus of Prabhat Studios in Pune dreaming of great Indian cinema emerging from the appreciation of world cinema. In many ways, Satish created and nurtured the love of cinema in many of his students who became the new generation of filmmakers. Perhaps he opened their minds more than anyone else by exposing them to great works.
Satish could not have done it alone. He had another equally dedicated soul in PK Nair for whom the smell of celluloid was what he lived for. Like Henri Langlois he was great curator—without judging he relied in the importance of preservation of the film heritage. Between Satish and Nair, Pune became a haven for anyone who loved cinema. All you had to do was go up the Deccan Hills and feast yourself on the great works of world cinema and partake of stimulating conversation over tumblers of sweetened tea.
Unknown to many, Satish would not have moved to Pune and Prabhat Studios would not have become the Film Institute but for the behind the scene push by Marie Seton and Vijaya Mulay.
Why have I labored through this narrative in my introduction? It is because Cherian, in telling the story of the film society in India, has put the movement in the context of the greater political interest in culture and the building of a new generation. India was indeed ‘…the great success story of political gradualism—of a kind of “evolutionary” independence,’1 where cultural movements like the film society in the Nehruvaian perspective were an important and integral part.
This brings me to today. Now we seem to prefer a more mechanistic view of socio-cultural development. Technology is transforming the way moving images are created and projected. Gone are the days of the rickety projector, the noise of the moving sprockets, the celluloid. The iconic Kodak is no longer pivotal. Recording a moving image is as simple—and often better in quality—as pointing your iPhone. You can stream Battleship Potemkin or find The Louisiana Story from Netflix on your television or even your tablet. All of this is making possible a new culture of cinema where everyone can participate.
As the country talks about big investments in broadband to the village and a Digital India, we need to think of an effort at sustaining our film culture, the moving image re-telling of stories that bridge all cultural divides. I am not being facetious in my hope for a ubiquitous cinema as the next incarnation of the film society in the new India. Cherian’s book comes at that tipping point where culture needs to pervade through technology and reach out to touch and inform the lives of the people. There is a good collection of films with the National Film Development Corporation which can be the starting point for a Digital India initiative to stream to remote corners of India and the world, films that aim to alter people and their thinking, broaden their vision of the world, and bring new experiences into their lives—a growing movement of inclusion that will transform the cultural isolation of the protagonist of Kasaravalli’s Gulabi Talkies, glued to her television in her small island village, listening to the whispers of the world far away.