DOES WATCHING ART-HOUSE CINEMA MAKE YOU…SUPERIOR??by Monojit Lahiri April 29 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 6 mins, 36 secs
Monojit Lahiri investigates on a topic, which a good, grounded and witty friend, one fine day, brought up in a discussion.
“You are a Bong living in the so-called Culture-capital, so tell me – why is there always a funny smile, a tragic sigh, a soulful nodding of the head, raising of the eyebrows and sentences starting with a fatigued...How can you bear to enjoy those films? I can’t sit through them for more than 5 minutes! This is mostly followed by speeches on the masters, ending invariably, in hushed tones, about Cahier Du Cinema? Do enlighten a lesser mortal, residing in Versova, the heart of Masalaville!”
After I laughed loud, hard and long, I consoled him by admitting that I fully agreed with his observation. There indeed exists one hugely hyper section of people who can effortlessly provide you with discomfort and a complex if you aren’t in love with Fellini, Kieslowski, Kurosawa, Antonioni and Bergman, and make you feel like a moron lacking in the proper cultural pedigree; a 7-star dumbo in the speak-converse-debate-enlighten department.
After I gave him a little brief on Cahier Du Cinema, its importance and significance, he re-entered the conversation with all guns blazing. “Thanks for your Cahier yak, but what’s the big deal about a 50s museum piece, French new-wave mag making such a hoo-haa with a bunch of about-to-pop-it antiquated bozos? This is 2023 for chrissake! We are not historians, academics or critics, yaar. Dump the paralysis through analysis crap and get a vaccine for these kill-joys! As the super song in 3 Idiots went...Give me some sunshine...”
While I disagreed with his sweeping and flamboyant dismissal of anything beyond the Bollywood entertainer, I totally rocked with his pulling the trigger on the species who have a cardiac arrest if you haven’t heard or seen Battleship Potemkin! Or (snored through?), many of the revered gems showcased in the film festivals, raved about by people, most of whom are totally clueless about why exactly they are feeling so viagarised on seeing unfamiliar, grim, esoteric and metaphysical content exploring the human condition. It’s hysterically funny checking out their response when asked about their opinion, post the screening...a confusing, bewildered, ashen smile!
The answer to this million-buck question lies in the fact there are three kinds of audiences that hit this territory. One, a minority who genuinely wants to see, enjoy or be initiated into this alternate space and believes that with time, patience and discussions will get the true meaning of these gems, and begin to connect with them. Two, people who are curious and open about this genre and want to check out these soul-uplifting masterpieces raved about by their arty friends. Three, and this is the section in question, the cultural wannabees desperate to hit the “respectability and fitting in” button.
Ordinary people who can’t be accused of sensibilities or interests beyond the entertaining blockbusters, but are suddenly crazily anxious not to be perceived as people who are frivolous or view movies as time-pass, BUT as sensitive connoisseurs who look at cinema as an agent of change, truth 24 times a second, artistic exploration of linear truths that reside in the human soul. This, they believe, will give them a special aura, status and will allow them to enter the charmed circle where their book-jacket-inspired comments and coffee-table wit will be applauded by the like-minded frat!
To each his own, but the problem with this attitude is the hi-decibel inflicting and imposing of opinion on the unguarded and uninterested guy’s throat with aggressive force! The 'my way or the highway' thing, frequently followed by the (yawn!) gyaan of how masala films have ruined the taste buds of the nation, how compulsory film education must be kicked in ASAP blah, blah, blah.
While the intent may be admirable, it is this fierce, non-negotiable thrust that demands enquiry. The lack of tolerance, the condescending look and tone of the wild-eyed art-wallah at anyone who stoops to sample things beyond the gems could get a weak-kneed bloke to start writing his will, or seriously considering which exact spot is ideal to leap from his 16th floor balcony.
Fact is, taste for the more refined and the desire to want to be challenged (not spoon-fed or catered to) depends mostly on the environment in which one has grown up and influences that have shaped and formed one’s sensibilities. Sometimes, it is also acquired through the company one keeps and at other times (very rare, though), it is instinctive. These are factors to be considered before flaunting cultural superiority because the recipients are creatures of a lesser god. They are therefore unable to connect with complex or thought-provoking content that demands solid participation while viewing a film. To the everyday audience, movies still spell entertainment, a blessed out escapist trip to the never-never-land-of-happy-ever-after!
Their instant retort is: Why should I pay and think? It’s your job to think how best you can entertain me and you better get it right, or else...! Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars... Ultimately, it really boils down to live and let live. Forget the obsession of playing masterji and evangelist and trying to convert every non-art house soul to a disciple. Most will either ponder how you’ve been actually certified sane, vanish from sight every time you enter their frame or wonder what terrible things one did in one’s last life to suffer these OMG moments.
It also reflects poorly on these self-styled brand ambassadors of this genre because it shows them off as uncivilized people, pompous and self-righteous, the definitive, argumentative Indian who must prove his point, come what may. It doesn’t strike them that beyond bad manners, the lesser mortals are not obliged to listen, do cartwheels or go down on bended knees with gratitude for these pearls of wisdom. Labelled Mr. Bak-Bak and boring, they are likely to head their drop-dead list of creatures the world should quickly forget!
At a personal level, the two amazing exponents of the inclusive, pluralistic, accommodating and reach-out school have been my late dad-in-law, Mr. Chidananda Das Gupta and filmmaker Shyam Benegal. Both were curious, interested, attentive and listened intently to your raves about Bollywood films, eager to pick up any new insights they may have missed.
Das Gupta, while not really into the mainstream commercial, was always enthusiastic and eager to remain updated about trends in masala land and I remember how excited he was, years ago, when I explained to him the Angry-Young-Man phenomenon gripping Bollywood and the masses. Benegal was, of course, completely in tune with the times and so, whether it was Kieslowski or the Khans, his takes were always engaging and fascinatingly insightful.
Neither of these eminent personalities ever offered gyaan or flung hard-to-pronounce names of world cinema with affected flourish. Nor were they humouring or indulging you. They simply and interestingly decoded the best of the alternate cinema and suggested, along with the masala stuff, checking out some of their material. It was always done in a warm, friendly and seductively un-threatening manner and always with a good word for the commercial cinema because they genuinely saw lots of good things in many Bollywood films.
In a world filled with Guru-giri or posturing, it is hugely gratifying to follow the itinerary of sane, imaginative and cultured minds, showcasing civilised discourse, drawing readers and people into a space where even the most complex filmmakers and films become intimate companions. Theirs is the art of demystifying cinema without making confusion more confounded!
Clearly there is a lesson somewhere for both, the learned Gurus of Cinema or the one’s posturing as devotees of Cahier Du Cinema...will they pay heed?