Cold shoulders. Plastic smiles cut-and-pasted from glossy toothpaste ads. See-through eyes. Smouldering looks. Conversations generously peppered with names like Bunuel, Godard, Fellini, Zanussi and of course, Elisio Subiela. The Nandan air rife with cigarette smoke that smarts our eyes before we can elbow into Nandan 1. Space dotted with video cameras from the numerous satellite channel asking every Hari Babu, Shyamratan and Aloka their views on the Festival. The serpentine queue outside Rabindra Sadan hots up enough for some to get into fisticuffs over a Zanussi. That, in short, is the average Bangali cinebuff, sorry, cineaste, excuse me, cinema intellectual who takes a sabbatical from work every year from the 9th to the 17th of November to make his daily trip to the Nandan complex. Ask him about Ram Gopal Varma’s latest film and he will throw you a look that will make you wish you were Sita incarnate. Ram Gopal Varma? What is that for God’s sake? Is it the name of the latest BJP brand cheese flooding Vardhan Market? Or is it the name of Calcutta’s newest IGP?
Don’t ever ask any of them to spell out the names of these international greats they mouth in every sentence they utter. For, they know them not. But why blame these self-styled cinema intellectuals when the 6th Calcutta International Film Festival had just a single Bengali film within the Indian Select? Nabyendu Chatterjee’s Mansur Miyan-r Ghoda? Just one film, Debi, that pays an apology of a tribute to one of the greatest character actors Bengali cinema ever produced – Chhabi Biswas? Why no photographic tribute to the memory of G Aravindan when there are two to celebrate the great masters Luis Bunuel and Jean Luc Goddard? With due respects to these cinematic geniuses of all time, I must say that we have do have our Indian greats too. And I am not just referring Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen.
The problem with the Bengali intelligentsia in Kolkata is that you are considered an outcaste if you suggest even a hint of an inclination towards a Mahesh Manjrekar film or the latest Gulzar film. And if you talk highly of a Subhash Ghai film, well then, you will be asked to commit suicide – literally. Why, I ask, must the unique, all-embracing, universal art from like cinema be riddled with casteist labels of art and commerce, of geographic labels of Indian and International? Why create dichotomous worlds within an aesthetics that is in essence, the same? Why use different yardsticks to measure Zanussi and Buddhadeb, tell me? There is a Seminar on Bunuel but not even a lip-service of a discussion on Aravindan. Why? By all means bring in international films. But pray, do not marginalize our own films. Few foreign critics are experts on Ray or Sen. But Kolkatta will give you a whole lot of cinema experts on Eisenstein, Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Fassbinder, and the rest. Why? Because we are intellectual snobs who have not been able to shed our colonial ghosts. Because we consider a Buddhadeb too mundane next to a Tarkovsky. Or, a Shyam Benegal too ‘mainstream’ in comparison with a Kieslowski. We squarely accuse Aparna Sen of using the camera for sexual titillation in Paroma. But join the queue outside Rabindra Sadan to watch the same intimacy in an Argentinian or Japanese film. We draw and quarter Adoor for his very slow camera in Mathilukal. Yet we raise Antonioni to high heavens for his aesthetic use of pace and space in umpteen films. Why?
My love for Indian cinema, free from casteist restrictions is by default. Because, my Mumbai upbringing failed to give me any exposure to international cinema. I beg to be far less ‘informed’ than my learned Kolkata colleagues. Yet, it is precisely for this ‘specialisation’ in Indian cinema that made me the very first and till date, the only Indian critic to be invited by the School of Sound, London, to make a presentation on the Culture-Specific Elements of Sound and Silence in Indian Cinema. Thessaloniki invited me to present a paper on the Cultural Identity of Indian Cinema. Mannheim-Heidelberg asked me to chair the Asian segment on International Women directors precisely because of my Indian specialization. Would they have called me for Bunuel or Fassbinder? I doubt it. Yet, this very Indianization edits me out of journalistic meets. They consider me too ‘English’ and too academic. The academics consider me too independent overbearing and non-academic. They neatly keep me away from all seminars, symposia and talks on cinema. Even as an audience or a rapporteur. Because, like it or not, I am a cinema-illiterate, by Kolkata standards. That does not bother me though. Because, I still love my Vidhu Vinod Chopra as much as I love my Goutam Ghose. I cherish my Mrinal Sens as much as I love my Tapan Sinhas and my Biresh Chatterjees and my Ajoy Kars.
Last but never the least, a fellow critic dubs my painstakingly researched book on women in Indian cinema ‘a PR exercise.’ Well, it takes all kinds to make the world…Ram Gopal Varma, anyone?