Whistleblower's musings... Then some trivia. Write to me at ranjanyumnam@gmail.com

Monday, April 23, 2007

Whose cinema is it anyway?

"I used to think; now I read the Economist," says Larry Ellison, billionaire and founder of the Oracle Corporation. Any columnist or a newspaper would only dream to be eulogised in such lofty heights by a genius like Mr Ellison (his company makes softwares that make most of the e-commerce and internet banking possible on the World Wide Web).
Well, for all my admiration for the magazine, the Economist is not without its failings, which is quite human (it supported the Irag invasion). And that's exactly the point I want to convey to the readers. That nobody has a monopoly on truth. That often, in the absence of hindsight and facts that vested interests conceal from us, we can only make an educated guess, a surmise or a wild conjecture at best.
What's important - and I think more important than finding the truth in the post-modern world of hyper reality-is asking new questions, expanding the horizons of public discourse, breaking taboos, challenging the dominant views and giving a chase to sacred cows. And as for the verdict, let's leave it to the history - and if we are lucky to the foreseeable future.
With this note of human fallibility and man's indomitable spirit, beginning today, every fortnight, this writer wishes to start a friendly CONVERSATION with the readers on a flat platform. I say friendly conversation because I believe the era of an all-knowing columnist who pontificates, sermonises and preaches has had its best days.
Yet there are extraordinary occasions when we feel so irritated by something that we might wish to punish the subject of our ire to a gruelling lecture. In this case-no, it's got nothing to do with insurgency, which the Economist called "a racket" a few days ago - it's the Manipur's filmmakers that should be meted out this treatment.
Here's why. There are cinemas and there are cinemas. What distinguishes a national cinema from another is in the degree of originality of their craft, in terms of form, content, thematic treatment and visual aesthetics.
With all my respects to the doyens of the Manipuri cinema, the plain inconvenient truth is: we have been mere copycats of foreign cinemas, movement and trends, right from our first recorded film to the last. From Mainu Pemcha (made in Hindi, ouch) to the slew of today's digital pseudo-films, one word can sum it all: creative bankruptcy.
If it was the so-called French New Wave cinema (smuggled into India by another famous Indian pirate from Bengal) during the seventies, it's now the Bollywood, Tamil and Malayalam films that serve as the stylebook of the Manipuri films along with their inevitable song and dance sequences, pelvic gyrations, musical noise, warts and all.
Yes, our films did win awards at international and national film festivals, but we need to ask on what strengths did they achieve that recognition. I have a suspicion that they got noticed for the simple reason that they conformed to the tradition of the dominant cinema of the times.
The motivation of the directors of the celluloid era was most likely: "Hey, if I make a film like the Bengalis (read: arthouse), I stand a chance at this and that festival". The idea was conformity dressed up as non-conformism, and the product was Bengali realism, that was itself an offshoot of European cinema.
To be fair to the pioneers of the Manipuri cinema, despite their failings, they should be given the credit for introducing this medium in an age where most of the Manipuris wouldn't have seen even a still camera.
Nevertheless, I keep asking whoever is related to the Manipuri cinema a straight question: What is Manipuri about the Manipuri films? Most of the time, I get blank stares, a grin, a snort or a contempt for an answer. I fear there is no positive answer to this poser, and worse, we are in the denial state.
The first thing that pigeonholes Manipuri cinema as a regional cinema is our mindless adoption of the cinematic style, codes, gimmicks of attractions and devices of the Bollywood cinema - hook, line and sinker.
Songs and dances that remotely relate to the Manipuri culture are forced-fed into our films like they are our trademark. In films after films, they have been repeated so often that it has reached what Malcolm Gladwell calls the tipping point, from where there is no return.
I don't say songs and dances per se are bad. One has to see the context. Minus the hysterics, the escapism, the melodrama overdose, the running around the trees, the lavish costume and settings and the songs and dance extravaganza, can one ever imagine Bollywood? To Mumbai based films, songs and dance are as natural to them as phanek is to Manipuri women. It is their identity that sets it apart from other national cinemas.
The problem is if we really want to establish an identity of our own, a distinct Manipuri national cinema in the pantheon of world cinema and not remain contented with the status of a poor cousin of Bollywood, then our filmmakers have got to wake up and stop playing second fiddle to an alien cultural product. Certainly we can't do it on the plank of plagiarism, as impossible it is as a cat trying to become a peacock however much it tries.
All is not lost though. There are young breed of filmmakers who understand the crisis in the Manipuri cinema and are trying to change the status quo of originality void. It's to them that we owe our support and blessings. On the brighter side, the task is not that tough also. We don't need to burn midnight oil to study the obscure film theory of Vsevolod Pudovkin, Sergei Eisentien, European auteurs and rummaged through the archives of great cinemas of the world. The beautiful thing about being original is being effortless. And being effortless means being natural - being ourself.
The audience is also waking upto the great rip off that is happening. There is hardly any film now which runs for more than two weeks in the theatre, and this despite the convenient ban of Hindi entertainers. All this reminds us of the dotcom boom in the nineties and the eventual burst of the tech bubble.
Manipuri films are going through a similar phase. According to a source from the Film Forum, Manipur, in 2005-2006, there were about 70 films released. During 2006-2007, that figure has slid to about 30 films - a drastic reduction of over 50 per cent from the previous year's record output.
The message is loud and clear: no matter which foreign location you take your crew for shooting or hire helicopters and camels to make your actors look like John Abraham, people are not going to fall for your subterfuge. The novelty factor of the digital medium alone would no longer be able to attract the audiences. That era has passed. People now want substance, not some cosmetic layer of sophistication that is showing signs of cracks.
Fret not. Originality in making films or building an identity is not a rocket science either. If you can make a film that portrays the reality of our society, her ideals, values, aspirations, contradictions and conflicts, then you are already starting to make a difference and escape the suffocating mould.
Our films should help us shape the contours of our public debate and showcase Manipuri society to others. Filmmakers should understand that they have a responsibility towards society, besides the commercial motive. Otherwise they might as well as make porn.
It is desirable that filmmakers addicted incorrigibly to the Bollywood approach should start making silent films and documentaries to exorcise the ghosts of Mumbai from their systems. This exercise, I believe, will also force them to use visual metaphors and similes and learn the distinct language of cinema.
Many a time, our directors forget films are not radio plays based on dialogues. Secondly, please spare us the songs out from our films. As long as we have them in our films, our claim to being a national cinema will be ridiculed and forever be doomed. Ask yourself whether you want to be a great copy of Ram Gopal Verma or yourself.
What perplexes me is: Why don't we find lip synching artistes funny as we would if we see Tom Cruise bursting into a romantic melody chasing Drew Barrymore in a Manhattan street in the unlikeliest of events. That's strange to me.
There's one more reason why we should now be ourselves (and it's not asking for moon). Alas, there are no more Hindi/Tamil films to be copied from; such is the speed with which we ape them.
And here comes what might be the slayer of the Manipuri digital cinemas: the very Bollywood potboilers, the mother of our lazy filmmakers, are all coming back to our living rooms, thanks to the DTH technology. And it's nobody's case to say that people would prefer the fakes over the originals.
So how would one define Manipuri cinema at this nascent stage? Perhaps as a visual radio marked by heavy imitation of Bollywood's aesthetics of attractions, songs and dance sequences and melodrama overdose that are incidental to the plot and narrative. And sorry, it's not worthy of being called a national cinema.
I don't know about you; it makes me mighty depressed.