My love for books was inherited. My affair with films came much later and was wilfully nurtured.
My parents, like many middle-class youth of their generation were fond of world, and national, literature and ‘selective’ cinema. They were a romantic bunch, having done the still rarely common in those days, orchestrating a love marriage. It continues to amuse me how, my tradition-abiding and Bangal-loathing father, with my formidable maternal grandfather squarely in picture, managed to find a partner in this non-prissy, ultra-mod, Bangal lass.
Uttam-Suchitra, I’ve long suspected, had a hand in this unlikely kindling. I’ve watched my parents swoon over their screen romances, watch as many repeat telecasts as Doordarshan would offer on the Saturday evenings in those pre-satellite days.
The television would not come to life before six in the evenings, which still explains for my abhorrence to having one switched on during the day. If it’s a Sunday, and no earlier than nine a.m. for an hour, or for the rare day-long cricket match, I’m willing to hold my peace. But for those of us who’d lived a considerable part of their formative life before the advent of the box, who’ve known of an existence earlier than this passive, largely one-sided interactivity, can perhaps relate to the hesitation I suffer.
In its advent, ‘intellectuals’ looked down upon televiewing as a lowly sub-culture of the subaltern; it symbolised material upward mobility but also drew a consequential condescension on the qualitative value it served up. Television was certainly not granted today’s demi-god status in the living rooms. People went to actual theatres to watch plays, bought season tickets to unimportant matches, queued in cinema halls, performed and participated in live concerts, visited relatives, swapped dishes, cultivated hobbies like bridge clubs or recitation.
And yes, read books. Listened to music.
My parents would buy long playing records of Sandhya Mukhopadhyay, Geeta Dutt, Hemanta Mukherjee, Manna De, Shyamal Mitra. Many evenings were spent in rapt attention to their favourite romantic film songs, Rabindrasangeet, Nazrul geeti and Salil Chowdhury adhunik.
Their range of cinematic fascination lapped up the Indian New Wave and multi-lingual international films. The one cinematic expression firmly condemned in our house was Bollywood. Was it a language barrier? More, a cultural one, I think. In my growing days, Amitabh Bachchan’s name was forbidden to be pronounced within our threshold. The Hindi films’ way of romancing was found ‘vulgar’ compared to ours. Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Guru Dutt, Ashok Kumar, Suraiya, Nargis and Meena Kumari found favour within my parent’s eclectic selection. Auteur, or a particular school of film making, more often than divisimo, the all-out allure of star presence, decided their choice of what was worth viewing.
It was in 1992, the summer I was eighteen, that the taboo was finally broken. With the haunting Roja janeman emanating day and night from a neighbour’s, making us sufficiently curious-er, a classmate of my sister’s handed her a cassette. “It is Hindi, but I promise it is not the usual.”
Soundtrack, which Time included in its list of 10 best -s, proved its power. Rahman was born that summer, a video player was bought and dad reluctantly gave on his hold-out against a cable television subscription. Roja was the first Hindi film we watched on that player.
A new consciousness of cinema was born. Till then fed on the once a year visit to the theatre for a wild life feature or documentary, or the Charlton Heston epics, my vista was yanked ajar. My non-judgemental, universal tasting of printed text got extended to equally expansive screen offerings. I began to appreciate the close parallel between printed and screen narratives, the similarities and essential differences between these two media of presentation.
My college was the closest to Nandan, the state government’s sponsored auditorium. A teacher from school had once remarked how the college authorities would baulk from marketing this proximity to the campus’s advantage.
My affair with cinema was sealed, when on the first day of college, a friend and I bunked afternoon classes to watch All Quiet on the Western Front. We had read Wilfred Owen the previous fall; Remarque was too big a temptation.
Most youth have their college years pickled with romances. Mine was one long, leisurely tryst with movies. In the two years, I saw more of the insides of Nandan auditorium and British Council library than any of my classrooms. I was hooked, from start credit to finish, by how narratives and allurement were woven on the reel, how the shimmering dots of light beamed from the projection room, reflected back in the black emptiness. In the darkness you are alone with the story, the techniques of camera angles and editing, the director’s vision and the actor-character’s unfolding. Till this day, an engaging film gives me the goose bumps the same way an intricate book does. I enjoy as much to pop in alone for a screening, as my cinematic experience has evolved from a once-a-year grand family outing to an intellectual negotiation in personal space.
I began to see the same film multiple times, on each occasion picking at a different thread of technicality or layer of plot. Back in the college days, Nandan’s Rs 5 ticket was the cheapest of city halls, and accommodated my exuberant flights of fancy.
Last autumn, when I finally managed to study a module on Film Introduction, it gave me the kicks, closed a circle and got an item ticked off my bucket list. I gushed as I called home to my mother: the same Italian film traditions she would prattle through my childhood was the fodder of my examinations.
My professor, an Irishman with the famed quick wit of his race, had taught in Mumbai and Delhi universities earlier. He indulged my off-syllabus questions, pointed out references, did everything he should have not to distract me from attending more studiously to my more difficult modules. “Thik haye, thik haye,” he smiled benignly then I interjected “Achha” to an explanation. Dr O’Leary also put my love for Bengali experimental cinema in its place when he said that Bengal’s self-image of its achievements as the ultimate and absolute ran into an off-putting excess.
My first film critique, The Mother (2003): Crossing Lines has been published by Mirrorfect, this thought-provoking e-journal put in circulation by a group of young academics of varied disciplines. I chose Mirrorfect for the writing is of high quality – barring a few typos - their concerns topical, diverse and stimulating. This is the kind of Indian youth I want to see flourish; I hope the coming years will not gobble up their energy and enthusiasm into personal, commercial persuasions completely and Mirrorfect will have more than flicker presence. Long live the fine Indian tradition of little magazines, in newer avatars.