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Ways of seeing

Seeing is Believing: Selected Writings on Cinema, a collection by one of India’s foremost film critics reminds us how to read movies, reports Sayandeb Chowdhury.

india Updated: Jun 30, 2008 13:32 IST
Sayandeb Chowdhury

Seeing is Believing: Selected Writings on Cinema
Chidananda Das Gupta
Penguin
Rs 499 PP 295

Chidananda Das Gupta is an old-school film critic and thank god for that. In Seeing is Believing, he brings into his analyses of cinema a rare rigour, without letting his scholarly text collapse into set-piece jargon. In fact, his ways of looking at Indian cinema are infused with the confidence of someone who knows his art well and can render it with unfailing insight.

In this selected compilation of his writings over the decades, Dasgupta discusses Indian and Western modernity, Jungian archetypes, psychoanalysis, European visual anthropology, the political vacuity of postmodernism and other heady issues with the ease of a seasoned pedagogue. He can do so because he is a film critic in the original, elementary sense — someone who is part-historian, part-sociologist, part-cinema lover, part-cinema student and, above all, a man of deep intellectual and passionate engagement with the delightful spectacle that is the cinema.

For Dasgupta, the visual element of cinema is sacrosanct and he detests treating cinema as a pictorial version of written text — a mistake that he says film studies departments everywhere keep making. To him, comprehending visual signs without allegorising them is the key to understanding cinema, simply because cinema is the convergence of multiple forms of the arts and sciences.

To illustrate his point, he mentions Charles Babbage, John William Herschel, Etienne JulesMarey, Eadweard Muybridge — none of whom are linked to the invention of the bioscope but all connected to the “optical illusion of movement”. It was because of this prehistory of cinema, feels Dasgupta, that its artistic imperatives and its language have emerged from its own means — and not from other disciplines of thought.

He eloquently argues to rein state the divide between ‘popular cinema’ and parallel cinema (he calls the latter “unpopular cinema” with all the irony he can muster). For him, the dichotomy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cinema is simplistic and evades the composite demands that cinema makes of its audience.

With such clearly defined intentions, Dasgupta carries the reader headlong with him. There’s no irony that his five tributes are dedicated — predictably — to Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Shyam Benegal. Not for a moment does Dasgupta flinch from taking them to the critic’s desk for a post-mortem — but without ever hiding his admiration for them.

For example, he takes Ray to task for trying to downplay his ‘Indian sensibility’. For Dasgupta, Ray was a master in bringing a European sensibility to Indian cinema, but the meditative calm of Ray’s narrative pace is very Indian, a fact that Ray often tried to believe.

He is also annoyed at Ray’s refusal to naturally sexualise women, a problem he traces to his Brahmo extraction. In Ghatak, who like Ray, was bred under the Tagore tree, Dasgupta sees a rare marriage of rationalist, Marxist cultural ethic and indigenous, folksy symbolism, a marriage that Ghatak was deeply and embarrassingly aware of but had never consciously acknowledged. In Mrinal Sen, he finds a juggler of genres; in Adoor Gopalakrishnan a leanness of thought and form, and in Shyam Benegal, a disturbed portent of the Nehruvian dream.

But Dasgupta’s wide-angled camera does not fail to perceive the history of Hindi cinema. The essay on why popular Indian cinema has the song-and-dance routine — as a synecdoche for sexual union (an original argument, later imported into collective wisdom) — shows his acquaintance with the mores of Indian modernity, whatever might be its contours. This Indian modernity is also palpable in Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor’s films that for Dasgupta are perhaps as much claimant to the glories of Indian ‘unpopular cinema’, as are the masters of European New-Wave.

In whatever ways Dasgupta tries to defend the divide in cinema, his critiques show how tantalisingly inter-dependent rival forms in Indian cinema have been and continue to be. The interconnections of populist and artistic cinema at various levels is unique and magical. And Dasgupta, thanks to the breadth of his vision, has somewhat grudgingly mapped them for us.