Thanks to Danny Boyle, Indian cinema is being discussed globally. But the west is still largely ignorant of its canon and its subtletiesby Mark Cousins / March 1, 2009 / Leave a comment
The buzz about Slumdog Millionaire has people talking about Indian films again. To those who care about international cinema, this seems like a good thing. It raises awareness; it provokes debate. The only problem is that, to my ear, the discussion itself sounds tinny.
Bollywood is invariably stereotyped by the west, while Indian cinema as a whole is poorly understood. Depending on who you ask, Slumdog either captures the tragic exhilaration of Mumbai or cheapens it; its depiction of Mumbai’s massive Dharavi slums is either precisely accurate or hopelessly out-of-date. Yet Indian film, and its relationship to the real world, is a richer, stranger beast than all of this suggests. I’m in Delhi at the moment and, in the last 24 hours, have met two legendary figures whose work shows why and how.
The first, the director Mani Kaul, came to my bed-and-breakfast as the sun set and turquoise parrots played in the trees. I’ve admired him for years. His 1969 movie Uski Roti helped to launch the new Indian cinema of the 1970s. He has taught at CalArts in LA, at Duke University and at Harvard, and has won the most prestigious award in Hindi cinema, the Filmfare critics’ award, four times. Yet the elegant, greying, smiling man who sat down at my table carried his achievements lightly.
The opening sequence of Uski Roti (in which the actress Garima is pictured, right) shows why “parallel cinema,” as art films are called in India, is so significant. We see the leaves of a tree. A stone is thrown. It hits a guava. This falls to the ground. A man lifts it and gives a woman a bite. Western viewers will immediately think of Eden and Newton, but Kaul’s visionary style points elsewhere. Each shot seems to arrive too early. There a pause between the guava being hit and it falling, a pause when it should, by rights, have started to move. This is a non-Newtonian universe: a place where reality comes second to something else. Kaul explains it to me: he is not interested in making us identify with individuals in his movies. He wants to create a broader sense of what existence is. Mentioning the great Hindu mystical texts, the Upanishads, he talks about human connectivity: the idea that the ego puts barbed wire between people. Such ideas were…