The fact that India was named “the country of honor” at the Cannes Film Market in 2022, which is part of the Cannes Film Festival, has received wide attention. What this actually means is uncertain. Perhaps it’s because Indian cinema has withstood Hollywood’s onslaught on its own turf.
The honor given to Indian cinema at Cannes this year is not due to the industry’s achievements on the international stage. If Indian cinema has performed well commercially outside India, it is thanks to its large diaspora. The fact is that South Asians are, overall, the biggest consumers of Indian cinema.
The last time an Indian film was featured in the Competition section was in 1994 when the Malayalam film Swaham, directed by Shaji Karun, was chosen. Cannes has several sections where Indian films were later screened, but the main competition section has remained elusive. This is also true of Indian cinema at many other major film festivals (such as Berlin, Venice and Sundance), where cinemas from Turkey, Iran and South Korea all did better.
When we study Indian cinema alongside that of the rest of the world, a hypothesis arises. The unassailable aspects of Indian cinema within its diaspora are precisely what makes it fail outside. This may be due to the “Indian mentality”, the way Indians see the world and the way cinema has developed.
In the last years of the 19th century, cinema began as a documentary under the Lumière brothers. Almost immediately afterwards, a magician named George Méliès discovered his ability to create the illusion.
Cinema’s ability to capture reality and create illusion has since represented the twin polarities of cinema. But the sense of ‘illusion’ is not just something unreal but also something imagined or dreamed of and can therefore represent ‘inner reality’ – this is why the two extremities of cinema are occupied by ‘realism’ and ‘expression’. Underneath is an understanding that the ‘real’ can only be grasped through the subjectivity of a viewer.
When DG Phalke made the first Indian films, he explored neither realism nor personal expression. He had seen an obscure film called The life of Christ and started making mythological films. The mythological was – for him – not a fantasy but the “truth” since he gave manifestation to the existing beliefs of his people.
Mainstream Hindi cinema moved away from the mythological genre in the 1940s, but domestic melodrama, which replaced it, used the same type of depictions, albeit in modern settings.
Characters and situations have been made “exemplary” in order to relay the messages and truisms of traditional wisdom. Exemplary, here, does not necessarily mean “good” since even a villain like Gabbar is an “example” of evil.
Internationally, cinema (like all art) has been uncertain of its intrinsic ‘purpose’ and has therefore simply pursued ‘mimesis’ – the imitation of the real world, including individuals with discernible mythologies. Explanations of the purpose of art only follow practice and are therefore tentative.
The avant-garde in art exists because the purpose of art is indeterminate, and it allows for experimentation. Recognized cinema classics – like The Godfather – do not provide exemplary characters, feelings and situations as 3 Idiots, Lagaan or Bangarada Manushya do, but attempt to present a “real world” without a priori “meaning”. It trains us to interpret motifs and situations in ways that Indian films don’t normally do.
The creation of stereotypes in popular Indian cinema, for example, only serves to convey familiar messages. It’s like a fable in which the fox must be cunning and the monkey mischievous. Without this type of typification, the message will not be relayed consistently. But underneath, there is the idea that there are “universal” truths that art must promote. While the truths of world cinema are, by and large, contextual, Indian cinema eschews historical landmarks to make its messages universal.
If we take the representation of the father of the nation (Mahatma Gandhi), the most popular representation is that of Lage Raho Munnabhai. Here, Gandhi’s historic role is ignored, and cherished for his devotion to “truth”, a universal message.
Indian cinema, to relay universal messages, also avoids subjectivity. The eye of the camera is omniscient. Dream sequences in popular cinema should be subjective, but they are generic in processing “universal” emotions like love or fear, and not individually differentiated.
In pursuing realism, art cinema seems to be different from popular cinema, but closer examination reveals that it too pursues universal truths. Only this time the truism comes from a social science text (like Das Kapital) rather than an epic like the Mahabharata.
Very often, the truisms put forward in Indian films contradict each other, but each is presented as a “universal truth”. Bunty aur Babli, for example, praises a couple of fraudsters as having “the business”. Such a message could not have been imagined in the 1970s, but it still appealed to the public.
One criterion by which we decide whether a film is truly major is its “complexity”. The world is complex (and perhaps unknowable) and when art imitates it, its complexity is valued. Scholars and film critics are therefore driven to interpret a film, and its importance is determined by the layers of meaning it generates during interpretation, which involves “ambiguity”.
World cinema from the 1960s tried to actively promote “ambiguity” and noted international filmmakers in this context were those like Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa, Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman.
“Ambiguity” is not necessarily a Western notion, and Iranian filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami have actively pursued the same goal, as has South Korean Bong Joon-ho.
The fact that Indian art cinema focuses on conveying familiar truisms as messages through exemplary characters and situations means that this ambiguity is already being interpreted. Filmmakers who have tried to embrace complexity, subjectivity or ambiguity are just a handful such as Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Aravindan, with Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul trying to support avant-garde cinema. guard.
This leads us to wonder if Indians really want their cinema to make a name for themselves on the international scene, or are content with national recognition and success. This is important because Indians are most at home in their native land and few have left their mark outside of their own cultural terrain.
For Indian cinema to become truly international (and it should, as a cultural powerhouse), India needs new film schools or, rather, film schools with new teachers – not captives of the state of mind that has made Indian cinema what it is. Indians who study cinema abroad are still unable to think differently.
It’s sad that after so many decades, we still only name Satyajit Ray as our big international hit and we haven’t even been able to follow or even copy it.
Ray was self-taught and tried to visualize his cultural space as it had not been; but learning on their own may be too much for most Indian film students. They may be passionate about world cinema, but do they know what to get out of it?
(MK Raghavendra is a well-known film critic)