What is wrong with Indian film societies?1

In an article he published in 1985,1 the late Ajay Dey, then Secretary of the Federation of Film Societies of India, stated that at that time there were 225 film societies in India. Of these, 77 were in West Bengal, and nearly 30 in Kolkata. Thanks to these societies, films were shown to keen audiences, discussions were held about these films and about cinema in general, and articles were published in magazines. The film societies supported particular good films. There was a film societies movement. Ajay Babu was quite happy. And rightly so. But today, would he be happy? What would he write? I can only hope that he would write something on the lines of what I am about to say.

1. The rise and fall of the Indian film societies Let me start with “purano sei diner katha”.2 The year is 1948. A young artist. He is hardly 27 years old. He has not made any film; he is not a film critic. Yet, he thinks seriously about the Indian cinema. He feels that there are film classics among the Indian films, but he wonders why Indian cinema has not gained a prominent place within the international cinema.  He further wonders why Indian films do not play a greater role among the Indian masses.

Our young artist found an answer to his own question. He wrote that answer in an essay which he entitled “What is wrong with Indian Film?”3 The young writer’s name was Satyajit Ray.4

He had reached the following conclusion :

”The raw material of the cinema is life itself.  It is incredible that a country which has inspired so much painting and music and poetry should fail to move the filmmaker.  He has only to keep his eyes open and his ears. Let him do so.”5

Thus, in 1948, Satyajit Ray dreamt of an Indian film. An Indian film that would be an important part of the Indian culture. For, that Indian cinema would spring from Indian life. To get that new Indian cinema you needed a new type of filmmaker and a new type of film viewer. If in India films and film viewers suffered from any ailment, then Satyajit Ray had but one remedy for both:  “open your eyes, open your ears and learn from life.”

That is why Manikda started to work on two parallel fronts: he began to make films, and he began to spread film education. In some 45 years he made some 35 feature films. At the same time as he started to make films, in collaboration with a few friends, he created the Calcutta Film Society. Later on, and until his death, he was the President of the Federation of Film Societies of India. In that position, he contributed immensely to the spread of film culture throughout India. While Manikda and others created films based on Indian life, the film societies showed films, they held seminars, published film journals, and supported “good”, relevant films.

That combined effort of filmmakers and film societies had a deep influence on the film viewers. As a result, a new form of film criticism began to be published. In fact, there was a need of a new film criticism. In his 1948 essay Manikda had written that inadequate resources had done harm to films, but, he added, ”I have no doubt that equal harm has been done by critics who keep peddling muddled notions about the art form.”6

That was in 1948. Nearly fifty years later, in his 1985 essay, Ajoy Dey could write:

”The journals of Calcutta Film society, Cine club of Calcutta, Cine Central, Calcutta Cine Institute, North Calcutta Film Society and Cine Club of Naihati carried articles and reviews on cinema…. A new type of film criticism emerged through these film society journals.”7

The work of the film societies in Kolkata and in India generally was quite successful. However, to have a more complete picture, one should mention the unique contribution to film education of the Film and Television Institute of India and of the National Film Archive of India. The Archive was one of the main sources of films shown by the film societies. In addition, ever since the mid-1960s the Archive offered every year a one-month course in film appreciation. I myself attended one such course in 1967.

That situation has changed. The activities of the film societies are much less intense. But, above all, the film societies have ceased to come out in the defense of good films. That was shown especially with regard to the last films of Satyajit Ray, the films I like to call the ”Heart trilogy.”

Where were our famous film societies when Satyajit Ray, their President and leader, literally snatching time out of the hands of death, made his film Ganashatru – his ultimate hymn to joy?

Critics mislead the public with their trivial discussions. One critic who had a grudge against Manikda sneaked into a private preview of Ganashatru and, before anyone else could see that film, he wrote a scathing review of it.

Where were our famous film societies when Satyajit Ray shared with the public his reflection on his life as an artist in Shakha Prashaka?

Could not the film societies of which Satyajit Ray was the President, and for whom he had done so much, come out to help people appreciate this gift from the master?

Where were our film societies when Satyajit Ray made Agantuk? In that film he expanded on the message of Rabindranath Tagore, Sabhyatar Sankat (Crisis in Civilization), and he offered the Indian and world public his own reflection on today’s civilizations and barbaric ways.

When critics argued with me that the film did not have the perfection of earlier Ray films, I reminded them of the poor health of Manikda. Their reply was that he did not have to make a film. It is as if one commented on the quality of the voice of Rabindranath Thakur when, at the age of 80, he read in public his essay Crisis in Civilization. Would one say that he did not have to read the essay?

I emphasize the poor critical response to Ray’s film to show that both the filmmakers and the film viewers do need some assistance: the former to help their films reach the public, and the latter to help them reach the films. Unfortunately, that assistance has not been provided by the film societies in the case of even the maestro.

What is wrong with Indian Film Societies? The question Satyajit Ray raised some 50 years ago about Indian Films must now be raised about Indian Film Societies. Raising the question is to continue the work of Satyajit Ray to spread film education.  Fifty years ago, Ray wrote:

”One of the most significant phenomena of our time has been the development of the cinema.”8

Fifty years have passed since Ray wrote that. Today, the most significant development is that of electronic communication. Film is still there, but along with it are video, television and the World Wide Web. That is why we now need a “New Wave” for our old movement.

2. A New Wave for an old movement

The Indian film societies that were doing such a marvelous work have progressively become stagnant. That is because they have not followed the mantra formulated by Satyajit Ray, “Open your eyes, open your ears, and learn from life.” Because they do not open their eyes and ears, the film societies do not realize that the media scene has changed. And even that cinema itself has changed.

It is not the first time cinema changes. Looking at the history of the cinema, one can see that film has changed several times. Each time, self-styled prophets of doom have proclaimed, “Cinema is dead.”9

Cinema, however, is not dead. Cinema is not dying. But the cinema that we, persons having over forty years of age, used to see earlier on, that cinema is no more. But cinema itself is quite alive. Open your eyes, open your ears. Otherwise, the film societies will become irrelevant, and it is of them that we shall proclaim the death.

A/ Let us first examine some of the changes that have taken place. The main change is that cinema is no more the important medium it used to be. It remains important, but along with other media. That the cinema is less important can be seen from at least three points of view.

First, ideologically. Cinema still creates on the screen of the viewer’s mind the dream from which the viewer understands his or her life more profoundly: memory of the past, image of the present, blueprint of the future.

Cinema never was alone to create these dreams. But today, television too projects powerful dreams in the mind of the viewers, through the news, advertisement, serials, telefilms, and, above all, music television.

Second, aesthetically. At any one time film aesthetics is consonant with the dominant socio-economic system of its time. For instance, the aesthetics of classical cinema (1940-1960) was consonant with Monopoly Capitalism.

At that time space was very important. Because colonial powers were appropriating new places to extend their markets. But today, another phase of capitalism has set in: transnational or Late Capitalism. Now space is not important as it used to be. Hence, in current film aesthetics real or realistic space is ignored. You can see that in music television, especially foreign music television.

And, third, financially. Even though the production of a film involves huge amounts of money, at times other media can bring in more revenues than cinema.

B/ Let us now state the objective of the film societies and, more generally, of film education.

In 1970, when I wrote my book Chitra Bani, my aim was to contribute to an understanding of society. I used to say, “If you want to understand society, then study the communication media. And if you want to understand the media, study films. Open your eyes, open your ears.” Indeed, the study of film has long been the royal road, or marga, to understanding society.

Today also, my objective is to understand society. Today also, I say, ”If you want to understand your society, study its communication media. And if you want to understand the media, then study not only films, but also the news, advertising, media sports, serials, telefilms and, above all, music television. For, to understand films, you need to understand the other media. For instance, you will find that the style of media sports can be observed in films, like in Lagaan. Again, the exuberance of music television is felt in films, like Kutch Kutch Hota Hai.

But that is not enough. Today, if you want to understand the media, you have to study the phenomenon of Internet.

At one time, one went to see films on a large screen in a cinema hall. Now films come to you through television in your home.  We soon got used to see films on a small screen. We perhaps did not notice that the film experience from large to small screen had changed completely. Indeed, to go to see a film in a cinema hall, and to see a film at home on a small screen are two different experiences. Just think of Laagan on your teevee monitor after you have seen it in a hall on a large screen with Dolby sound system. Thus, there was the 35mm film, then the 16mm film, then the 8 mm, then Super 8mm film.  Then came the videocassette. Then came the compact disc, and finally the Internet. One will soon be able to see any film on one’s computer, and on one’s cellular phone, the so-called mobile phone. Already, you can see feature films on a pay by viewing basis. As I said, we used to go to the movies, but now the movies come to us. In that reversal, a profound change has happened in our film experience.

This is the era we are living in. In that new media scene, what can the film societies do?

C/ A militant program for film societies.

The media environment has changed. Therefore, we need to do something new if we are to participate in social life meaningfully. Earlier, in order to spread film education, it was necessary to show films. Today, it is less necessary to show films, because films are in the hands of not a few people in the form of video cassettes or discs.

Moreover, film education does not suffice. We need media education. And to spread media education, we need a new form of action. It will be great if our film societies can do that work. If they cannot, then a new type of societies will have to be created. I firmly believe, though, that our film societies can do the job of spreading media education.

Film education is part of media education. But today to understand films you must understand the other media. In addition to film seminars and film festivals, therefore, we shall have to organize other types of seminars or workshops where advertising, media sports, serials, telefilms, music television will be discussed. We shall have to also consider the communication rights of the citizens as they are formulated, for instance, in the “People’s Communication Charter.” We shall have to also consider the role of community radio. We shall have to discuss Internet. Not only discuss Internet, we shall have to use Internet in our work. All this in order to discuss films in more depth.

One more thing will have to be done. Film societies will have to come out in support of particular films, relevant to contemporary society. For, the responsibility of film societies and of film critics is to help both the film’s maker and the film’s viewer.

Unfortunately, there are still many who think that the duty of the film critic is to find faults in a film. On this subject, an Indian theatre expert has written that the production of a play involves so many technical details that ”No play can be devoid of any merit or totally free from faults. Hence, faults in the production of a play should not be made much of.”10

The name of the author: Bharat Muni. His book: Natya Shastra.  That was over  2,000 years ago. Can we not receive that two thousand year old advice?

History shows that film societies were at their best when they supported particular films. That is, films that were relevant to contemporary society. But what is a relevant film? Any film that helps me to understand my society is relevant to me. Any film that develops my sympathy and even love for people is a relevant film.

I was fifteen or sixteen years old when I first joined a film society. I still remember the first film I saw as a new member: it was The Battleship Potemkin. The second film was Bicycle Thieves. I observed that film societies were attractive when they supported films relevant to the viewers. In other words, film societies in India and abroad were vibrant when they were militant and defended a cause.

3 Conclusion

At the beginning of this presentation, I asked, “What is wrong with Indian Film Societies?” What is wrong is that they don’t open their eyes and ears. If they only open their eyes and ears, then they will receive inspiration from Indian life, and under that inspiration they will begin to do new things. And, while singing “purano sei diner katha” India will take a special place, at least in the field of film and media education, in the international community. Bharat abar jagata sabhay shrestha asan pabe.” 11