On national cinema or, all you want to know about India, but are afraid to ask the tourist bureau


Any nation can have a national cinema, even those without a national film industry. But what makes the study of a national cinema valuable is its contribution to cinema as a global phenomenon, whether economically, technologically or stylistically. We study the classical Hollywood cinema because it initiates and perfects a series of conventions that prevail the last century; we study Italian Neorealism since it constitutes a radical yet valid revision of the Hollywood convention, both in form and content. But we are less interested in pre-war Italian cinema from Quo Vadis to La Corona di ferro, since it is, as Bazin said, “a poor taste for sets, idealization of the principal actors, childish emphasis on acting, atrophy of mise-en-scene, the dragging in of the traditional paraphernalia of bel canto and opera, conventional scripts influenced by the theater, the romantic melodrama and the chanson de geste reduced to an adventure story.” (II, 18) (see note 1)

I image similar things, mutatis mutandis, can be found for Indian cinema. But these days such an observation seems obsolete, if not only politically incorrect. Now the study of national cinemas mainly serves to question, and ultimately to assert, I imagine, the national identity. And along this line one has sub-national (Basque), pan-national (China, Hongkong and Taiwan) cinema and trans-national cinema (anything starts with trans is good). What divides or unites here is the issue of identity and cultural heritage. Simply put, such groupings no longer maintain much interest in the issue of style.


Is Satyajit Ray representative of Indian cinema? Of course not. But the reason we appreciate him in a film history course is not because he serves as a spokesman for Bollywood. Bollywood has its value and raison d’être, but it has not yet find its way into a general survey of aesthetics of cinema. The issue, obviously, is that we mistakenly believe that we are studying national cinemas while we are actually looking at auteurs whose position is not defined by the culture, the nation, but rather the stylistics. The textbook has not been clear on this.

My theory is that a film can have three dimensions; on the plane it shows its cultural and political coordinates, but only in the third dimension, one upward, you see how much the film qualifies as art. Today much of the film studies sticks to the plane and ignore this third dimension. I guess this is a karma for that we have been ignoring the film as cultural artifact in the past and it is taking its revenge.


Now for a film that is set in India, with all India cast, but not Indian cinema. I remember someone says La Roue is a film that is stylistically innovative, but the story is somewhat maudlin (she is not happy that the story is not like Anna Karina). But that is perfectly all right for one occasion—the Oscar. One important note though: Slumdog Millionaire is not stylistically innovative. This is nothing new for Danny Boyle. He happens to be the kind of director who “seems to think that we need to see even the simplest action from every conceivable angle.”

Whenever there is a choice, it is hard to decide which of the following,“what presentation” or “who presents”, is a more important question. A British director and writer use British and American money to make a film about Mumbai life, and go on to win the Oscar, isn’t that perverse? If what Boyle  says can be true to Indian life, Indian culture, Indian cinema—of which I know practically nothing, would that put him on the same level of Salaam Bombay?  


1. It is quite understandable Bazin fails to see anything of artistic value of this period--for someone who is so overwhelmed by neorealism. It is meant to be a generalization, which is never entirely true. Among white telephone films there are la Signora di tutti; Fabrizi's dialect comedies look forward to neorealism; and last but not least, Blasetti.



Unknown said...

Ahem...Dong, have you actually SEEN Salaam Bombay??? You must be thinking of another film, with your indicating the movie's "political correctness of depicting the rich while ignoring the majority of the population—they are rendered the cause of traffic jams." There are almost no rich in Salaam Bombay. It, even more than Slumdog is, depicts only hookers, pimps, and street-kids. Slumdog is kind of a bleached, dedramatized Salaam Bombay. There is no hope in Salaam Bombay's story, milieu, character arc (just relief...). The latter film, incidentally, contains the best homage to Truffaut's 400 coups. The homage, in the very last shot, which alludes to the very last shot in Truffaut's film, is not merely clever, as in Truffaut. It contains all the sense of hopelessness, sadness, despair and anguish that Truffaut never even approaches with his light touch. Mind you, filmmakers (Mira Nair in the case of Salaam) like this are greatly in danger of sentimentality when they are capable of this...

Dong Liang said...

Sorry for the mistake, you are right, Thoth.
I was thinking of Monsoon Wedding by the same director.

Dong Liang said...

I took the opportunity to revise the text. Thanks for watching my back.

nitesh said...

I agree with Toth. Beside its hard to bracket both Slumdog and Salaam Bomaby in the same plane. The former feels more like Bollywood fantasy the latter still close to a social docu-drama.

Being an Indian, I loved this film and found nothing wrong with the movie. It was strange to see the euphoria of people getting crazy here against the film.

Esp those section of people who routinely shut you up for saying don't ask anything close to realism from Bollywood let it be fantasy. But when Boyle gives a piece of our own medicine, we find it hard to take.

As a matter of fact the main industry here produces close to 1000 films and most ignore the 2/3 face of India. So I guess this " absence" is a bigger crime than Boyle depicting poverty- which is well... very much a reality in India.

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