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New audiences, new horizons

Classical narrative is much older than films and has survived in different forms in different eras. Technology may change but the storyteller shall remain, observes ANIL ZANKAR in defence of Cinema.

"CINEMA IS dead, most contemporary cinema is extremely boring," pronounces Peter Greenaway. This lament is repeatedly sung by a certain kind of European filmmakers. The Americans, the Indians or the Iranians are not writing any such obituaries. Thereby hangs a tale. And it is told differently in the two hemispheres. First the western part of the story.

But first, who is Peter Greenaway? Peter Greenaway (60) is a British painter turned filmmaker who began making avant-garde or `provocative' films in the mid-1970s. His films vary from the fine ``The Draughtsman's Contract" to some extremely experimental ones that can truly try one's patience. His kind of filmmakers were so driven by ideology, that they took cinema to be totally independent of all `other' considerations including general audience.

The 1960s in Europe saw the growth of some cults with the ostensible aim of `liberating' cinema from the influence of novels, theatre, story telling, etc. Peter Greenaway too declared his distrust of ``narrative cinema that came out of the 19th century novel." Some filmmakers like him wore their totally formalistic intentions on their sleeves. For them cinema was what they themselves were doing. The experimentation they engaged in has only the European reference. For some of them the world outside Europe did exist, but more as a political reality than as any kind of human experience. And there was always a sharp distinction in the works of European masters like Fellini, Bunuel and these avant-garde. While the masters spoke to everyone, the avant-garde spoke to an initiated minority. The masters understood, depicted and challenged the world through compassion. Their cinema was universal in appeal. The avant-garde, led by Jean Luc Godard, occupied themselves with revolutionising the medium per se. Their cinema was euro-centric. Over a period of time, they got so preoccupied with themselves and the reel world created by them, that they lost touch with the real world in which the cinema audiences lived. This was to turn out the dead end for their art.

Now to the Eastern part of the story. A student from Senegal surprises his teacher and classmates in FTII, Pune, when he informs them that, he has seen ``Sholay" three times and ``Zanjeer" and ``Deewar" twice. Where? Back home of course! But what about the language? No problems as they come with Arabic and French subtitles! And Hindi films have been popular over the decades in the African countries and in South-East Asia too. In previous years, Raj Kapoor films were a rage in the USSR, although the Soviet Union has a great film tradition of its own. But who has ever paid any attention to this phenomenon? Did anyone in the West or in India ever feel like studying this? Was this topic ever deemed respectable? Did it deserve to be made a part of the sacred culture studies? Would the holy cows like Indian Universities touch this subject until it becomes fashionable in the West? Were Hindi or Tamil or Malayalam films considered cinema at all? One knows that the quality of the majority of them is poor. It is not high art, not meant to be. Yet it is a kind of cinema that has communicated successfully over the years to audiences not only in India but in the third world too. And even though a lot of it is kitsch, it is our own kitsch. In contrast, today the area of popular films in Europe is dominated by Hollywood. About 60 to 80 per cent of their playing time is hogged by Hollywood films. That is suffocating them. And according to them, India and China remain the last bastions not yet stormed by Hollywood.

The last two decades have been turbulent. The cold war and apartheid ended. The USSR broke up. The Berlin Wall came down. Amidst all these, globalisation, based on massive technological changes, has been ushered in. ``It was not a good time... I had the overwhelming impression that... people... didn't really have a clear idea of why they were living... by the mid-1980s politics had ceased to interest us. We didn't believe that politics could change the world, even less so for the better." This is what Kieslowski, the famous polish filmmaker, had to say about the world in 1990.

A sea change has occurred in the composition of the audiences in the last decade. It is predominantly the young generation that visits cinema halls all over the world nowadays. Moreover, this is an audience brought up on television culture and in a totally different reality than of the 1960s and 1970s. In this context it is revealing to see the masters adapting themselves to the changed world. One has to see Kurosawa's last film, ``Madadayo" along with a young audience to realise how close he is to them. The film was made in 1993 and the man was only 83 years old! Similarly Zanussi's ``In Full Gallop" made in 1994 is yet another illustration of a successful search for a simple idiom in keeping with the times. The subject is again very grim. It is the story of the Polish childhood under suffocating socialism of the Russians. But the film is warm and hilarious. Kieslowski himself made the Decalogue — a series of 10 films for TV, wherein each film is based on one of the Ten Commandments of Christ. But why the Ten Commandments? Because ``... no philosophy or ideology has ever challenged the fundamental tenets of the Commandments... yet nevertheless they are transgressed on a routine basis." Kieslowski's reasons are humanist and not religious.

In contrast to all this, Greenaway's lament goes on. "My greatest artistic fascinations have always been antagonisms, the contradictions and the interactions of the text and image." In what time period is he, one wonders. He also goes on to make two major remarks. First, according to him cinema will survive in three different camps — there will be an archival cinema, there will be a Walt Disney type of 360 spectacular entertainment and the there will emerge the new digital and CD-ROM culture. Secondly digital technology will do away with classical cinema narrative. As regards his statement about cinema being split in three camps there is nothing very original about it. These tendencies have always existed. His grouse about CD-ROM culture is clearly antediluvian. VHS cassettes, VCDs and DVDs have made cinema accessible to the larger public ending the monopoly of the archivists. This was a phenomenal change. It made great films available to us like pocket books. It has its flip side no doubt like miniaturisation of sound and images. But that is being overcome through projection technology. In terms of media technology as well as in social life this has to be seen as the democratising process of the media. And his statement regarding the digital media doing away with classical cinema narrative is hard to accept. Classical (cinema) narrative is in fact much older than cinema and has survived in different forms in different eras.

Only the technology may change henceforth. But the storyteller shall remain. "Maine Pyaar Kiya," dubbed in English, breaks all box office records in the West Indies. ``Muthu" becomes a hit in Japan. ``Dil Se," a failure in India, is one of the top ten grossers in the U.K. In Greenaway's own country, a lively film like ``Bend It Like Beckham" has been successful at the box office.

World Cup soccer match on TV heralds the entry of globalisation into the closed world of Buddhist monasteries. A charming Bhutanese film, ``The Cup," shows us how. The Iranians have been producing amazingly humane films for the past several years. Hollywood, despite its ultra violent action films and morbid techno-heavy sci-fis, still produces some meaningful films. In India, film production in numbers has not dwindled, although the same cannot be said of the quality. And yet new themes do seem to be emerging. What does all this mean? A lot, i.e., the world is changing. There is traffic in all directions now. New Diasporas are coming up and that means new audiences, new possibilities in cinema. It is a world with ``Disappearing Borders — (1989 Germany, 1990 USSR... 1991 Australia)" as a witty Australian cricket spectator informed us through his banner.

The days of cinema headed for academic tombstones are over. And there are signs of life everywhere for one prepared to see. For, there is not one but many cinemas in the world. The evidence is definitely against Greenaway. I recall a small incident that took place in India a few years ago. Some noted Indian filmmakers were in conversation with a foreign guest. Everyone present was lamenting the bleak future of cinema (implicitly their own too). Our guest took a deep breath and said to them, ``Look, who knows what is cinema! Do you?" Complete silence followed this question.

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