Over the last 100 years, Indian cinema has provided its audience with diversion, wish-fulfilment, vicarious and unavailable pleasures of various kinds, moralising, validation of religious, feudal and familial belief systems, socio-political propaganda ranging from nationalistic jingoism to pseudo-leftist reformism, imaginary revolution, revenge and final justice.
This kind of cinema has been dubbed ‘entertainment’ or ‘mass’ and has been the backbone of the industry’s financial survival.
From the time around India’s reinvention in the late 1940s, a younger sibling of the above kind started providing enquiry, self-criticism (in the form of polemic, satire, and tragedy), socio-political protest and propaganda, investigation, exposé and introspection.
Over the years this cinema has been named ‘art’, ‘art house’ — mirroring its origins in an elitist art salon, ‘crossover’ — implying a compromising softening of its critical edge and reneging to the other side, and ‘parallel’ — predicting a doomed, eternal distance from ‘entertainment’. Financially, this cinema has been irrelevant.
I propose a new classification that may shed some light on what separates one from the other. We could call the former ‘Cinema that helps Forget’ and the latter ‘Cinema that helps Remind’.
Consider two imaginary films — one of each kind — but with the same essential story. Assume that both champion the cause of the ignored and exploited Indian peasant.
One does it by populating the story with well-nourished, beautiful, famous stars who do not resemble peasants anywhere in India.
It then weaves a storyline that has enough personal, sexual, inter-relational and musical material that diverts from the tedium of rural India and its social issues and culminates in a rousing climax, bringing to the forefront the issues again for a trice, but never diverting from the personal triumph of the hero in the sexual and material field.
The reassuring climax affirms the current status quo, ends anxiety through heroic action and gives complete answers to questions on ‘How to Be’. Implicit in this reassurance is the knowledge that these people are other people and we are witnessing something extraneous to our personal existence.
It is a metaphor, an illustration for us and we are not endangered by any of the ills that afflict the characters of the story. The comforting finale appears to have dealt with all the issues in toto within the story, reassuring us that all is well. Hence, now we can forget.
The other film uses actors (or non-actors) who create a fairly believable illusion of them being peasants facing issues real villagers do. The storyline is unrelenting and unforgiving and does not fudge the confrontational immediacy of the characters’ conflict.
There are not that many relieving intimate, personal, sexual or material diversions. Mimicking the Indian reality, the story replicates an often tragic, satirical or ironically ambivalent series of events that culminate in an angry outburst, an ironic critique of things as they are, or an illustration of the pathos of the human condition.
The photography, editing and scripting imbue the film with a discomforting dose of reality. We feel as if the events in the film could, or have happened to us. The illusion of this being a metaphor is shattered. This film does not help forget, it raises questions without ready answers, fuels doubt, dissatisfaction, anger and shame, and remains a nagging reminder of something wrong in our midst.
Both of them can be either excellent or appalling in quality — the former ranging from spectacle to nonsense, the latter from sublime to fake. The reader may substitute the simplified example above with any story and still find the same essential anatomy of forgetting and remembrance underlying our entire cinema.
The former, naturally, has many more adherents than the latter. A post-colonial, schizophrenic, and increasingly insecure India definitely needs its ‘entertainment’ to retain its tenuous hold on sanity. But again, a society defines itself by its tendency to forget and remember.
We, over the last 20 years, have made forgetting and escaping an art form — probably a skill sorely needed in dangerous times. Yet to forget entirely and escape altogether is to doom oneself to disaster. When we forget, we forfeit our right to know.
When we do not know, we cannot make anything better. As things worsen without our knowing how to arrest the rot, we need to escape even more, handing the reins of our lives to others who then control our amnesiac and inept society. This vicious cycle is known to every Indian today.
Cinema does not and cannot change things. Philosophy and religion do. Political faith and literature that follow in the wake of philosophy and religion may. Economics, perhaps. Cinema, no.
What cinema can do, like art and poetry, is to keep alive the possibility of change for the better. This possibility has to coexist with our very legitimate need to have a good time. That is why, today, the ‘Cinema of Reminding’ is perhaps needed a bit more than at any other time in our history.
An Indian director largely defines his or her identity by ranging between these two kinds of cinema. The ones who choose the latter have their work cut out for them.
As they enter the second century of Indian cinema, and the next half-century of India hurtling to its uncertain destiny, they have to firmly align with the open-ended questions, refuse the pat answer, and resolutely be a thorn in the side of the forgetful.
In doing so, they’ll be restoring the balance a bit in favour of remembering.
They’ll need to remember that the ‘Cinema of Reminding’ cannot be boring, didactic, and pretentious. If anything, it has to be more inclusive, inventive, riveting, emotionally charged, alive and kicking than its forgetful sibling. And it can never forget to remind, and never stop doing it.
Dibakar Banerjee is a filmmaker
The views expressed by the author are personal