Film, commonly known as Cinema, is called the Tenth Muse, a relatively modern addition to the family of the nine Muse sisters, the daughters of the Greek god Zeus who were believed in ancient Greece to be the inspiring deities in the domain of art and culture. This is an apt citation, because of its enormous potential as a creative art form. Being an audio-visual vehicle of thought, supported by highly developed technical inventions in the field, including computer graphics as in the recent past, it enjoys stupendous patronage and response from its clientele, i.e., the traders in the field, the viewers and cinema goers all over the world, in rich, moderately rich, poor and the poorest of poor countries also.
This is amply indicated by the ready fact that India, where a major share of the population still lives below the poverty line, ranks as the No.1 in the world for the highest number of films produced every year in the country and it enjoyed this position for years in succession, also previously. In the other parts of the Globe beyond this peninsula, the popularity of Cinema varies only in margins and this can not always be justifiably measured by the number of pictures made annually in certain countries for socio-political, religious and socio-economic reasons, particularly if the example of India is used as the performance indicator in this respect. Unambiguously, movie making is the most glamorous and remunerative proposition in the present day world of entertainment cum show business. This can assure instant fame, can make one stinking rich overnight and is probably the most sought after success as indicated by the mad rush of money, zeal, energy and the globally common huge public interest it generates for the grapevine at home and abroad.
Against the above backdrop, acknowledging the potential and possibility of Cinema as an art form or at least, as a social document, puts us before a disturbing question. To what extent this genre has come up so far to fulfill its commitment to society, particularly in India?
Feature films which are usually produced and have been so far produced in our country and abroad may be broadly grouped into three makeshift categories, viz.,humane meaning classical and having proper kind of feelings for the human psyche, urbane and profane. For precise grouping, we need to add another category for the films produced more distinctively in India -the mundane.
Films commonly known as 'art films' may be classed together in the 'humane' category. 'Urbane' literally meaning and implying the 'civilized type', usually refers to the class of the 'middle row' films having no austere appearance or apparent ambiguity beyond the layman's comprehension as is commonly associated with the creative art. But quite often such category films deserve and draw definite attention of the sensible viewers including even the connoisseurs of the field, for their overall virtues, i.e., thematic content, storyline, technical excellences and also appeal to the subtleties of our mind. They set a mirror against the hibernating inner self of ours and rouse us to sit up and think. The artistry and dexterity shown in such films in the handling and depiction of human emotions and the characters representing them are sometimes of the best conceivable kind. Most of the films made by one of the all time greats in filmmaking, Charles Chaplin, come into this category. The target viewers are the uninitiated common people the world over, needing no prerequisites of erudition, fundamentals of film appreciation, technicalities of cinematic art or even language. They put us all,- the granny, the parents, the children and the grandchildren on the same merry-go-round under a bright sunlit sky, move us through to explode into occasional laughter and jerk out tears at the end before the merry-go-round stops. But never leaves a feeling of sickness out of a morbid kind of mental trauma. Both in joy and pain, we remain calm and composed and wake up to the enormous possibility, the meaningfulness of human life and the boundless beauty of God's creations, the odds, oddities and the ordeals notwithstanding. They are class by themselves, urbane in their all nuances and humane in their overall mould. Precisely, they are like Mozart's music on celluloid, beyond the reach of even the ordinarily best creators in the fields. They are not art films and not intended to be art films either in the conventional sense of the term, but are capable to equal or even surpass all concepts of the highest forms of art. 'Paras Pathar' (The Touchstone) by Satyajit Ray or 'Mera Naam Joker' by Raj Kapoor may brush shoulders with some of them, but are destined to look diminished before the class of 'Limelight', which is still burning bright with its gold filigrees of sublime music, the story and the theme of the film, the human touch and over and above, the superb character delineation by the actor-director in the role of the protagonist. Such films never remain contained within the narrow barriers of meaning of a particular word. With all their attributes, they are simultaneously humane and urbane, but never mundane or profane. Sublime in sense and sensibilities, they defy to be defined by any conventional meaning and themselves determine the meaning for their own class.
Godard's classic 'Eight & Half' was made with a hand driven movie camera without any prior schedule of work, planning in respect of the story to be adopted for the film, locations to be used and even shots to be taken. As if like the young princess of 'Roman Holiday', Godard went out on the street one fine morning, roamed about places as his fancy would take him to and took extempore shots looking deep into the pulsating world around him, rich in its multiple shades and colours and varied in aspects. When taking shots for eight reels was complete and he was through to the middle of the next reel he considered it to be enough and stopped. The film was released under the name 'Eight & Half' and took the cotemporary film world by storm. The film has remained at the top among the best of the world of cinema classics. This film and their likes which include Francois Truffaut's 'Fahrenheit Four Fifty One', De Sica's 'Bye-cycle Thief', Bergman's 'So Close To Life' or 'Wild Strawberries', Kurosowa's 'Ikiru', just for a few random examples, speak of the enormity of lengths and heights an individual talent can reach through the powers of his imagination, sympathy and subtle feelings for life, sensibilities to what is happening in the world around him and finally, sheer depth of perception. All these films are common in one aspect. They are unique human documents, speaking of ordinary men and women, moving us to identify ourselves with their sighs and sorrows, to sympathize with the struggles of their journey to metamorphosis through trials and tribulations. So in Truffaut's 'Fahrenheit Four Fifty One', which is a robust protest against cultural barbarism of the Nazis, Hitler, Himmler, Goering and the height of their sinister powers symbolized by reference to the formidable quantum of heat liable to be generated at 451 degree Fahrenheit and capable of reducing books or any paper document directly into gas, become nonentities at the end for us. What continues to remain in our mind and memory is the hope for a new dawn of promises, free from atrocities and indiscriminations. Similarly, the protagonist in Akiro Kurosowa's film 'Ikiru', a patient of terminal carcinoma, becomes immortal at the end by finally achieving what he had dreamt of all through the concluding painful days of his life, viz., to complete a children's park he was entrusted with as a municipal overseer. So, when the film ends with the spectacle of a poor, helpless old man seen as lying dead at the breaking of a new day on the open ground of the children's park all covered with white snow, it is not the pity of the scene which matters much to us, but we leave the cinema hall with the satisfaction that the man could ultimately conquer his adversities and we return with the renewed faith in ourselves, our abilities to challenge and stand equal to our hurdles and to ultimately surmount them. The film named 'Anand' made in Bollywood was a poor adaptation, to be frank, of 'Ikiru', marred by its overdose of sentimentality, melodrama and commercially biased excesses of theatrical acting by the then 'megastar', leading to poor characterization of the man at the center and spoiling the message underneath. In India, the films which we can call into reckoning by some concessions to match this class are not many and the names which readily occur in my mind are 'Nishant' and 'Manthan' by Shyam Benegal, 'Paar' by Gautam Ghosh, Apu trilogy by Satyajit Ray, 'Sparsh', 'Sarangs', 'Aakrosh' and 'Ardh Satya', superbly acted by Nasiruddin Shah, Anupam Kher and Om Puri as the main male characters. A few other films by Govind Nihalni, Gulzar, Buddhadev Dasgupta, Mira Nyaar, Kalpana Lazmi and some regional films by Girish Karnad, Tapan Sinha, Aparna Sen deserve mention in this category. Though not a film in the conventional sense, we have the encouraging example of a TV serial, 'Mirza Ghalib', which unveiled for us the world class genius of Nasiruddin Shah as an actor and where Ghalib, the poet and the aristocrat becomes the Ghalib, the man of the masses at the end. These films are examples of cerebral poetry written on celluloid and can not be expected to come in a row. All beautiful things in the world, we know, are rare to come by.
Films which rely on the powers of sensuous appeal, often verging on the obscene, purposely cater to depraved taste aiming at raw business and nothing but business. They are decidedly profane and render marked disservice to society. Such films keep the box office ringing for some weeks, put the mob into frenzy and achieve phenomenal success in their own relative sense and then are heard no more. But the impact they leave on society and masses and affect the adolescent psyche more precariously, particularly in countries like India where the old value system is still operational to some extent, is of no insignificant concern by any consideration. We have the examples of 'Casanova 70', 'Blow Hot, Blow Cold' and falling in line at our homefront,- 'Satyam, Shivam and Sundaram', 'Ram Teri Ganga Mailee', 'Parinda' and their likes. Often such films attempt or pretend to attempt an underlying message like 'beauty lies in the eye of the beholder' or 'erosion in values is an all pervasive process which affect both the physical nature and the social mores' and so and so. This aspect readily tends to attract reference to a never ending debate whether baring and nudity in cinema should be denounced as obscene in absolute term and be discarded. The answer is simple. There can not be any absolute verdict in judging films on this count. What needs to be put under the scanner is whether the purpose is bonafide, i.e., an integral necessity to highlight, establish or justify a theme or even a partial viewpoint intended by the filmmaker to communicate to his viewers. If it is malafide, it is liable to provoke the crude senses only dishing out merely perverse delight and can not fool even a congenital idiot, however strong the pretensions may be. Such films like 'Thirty Six Chowringee Lane' or 'Sati' by Smt. Aparna Sen, 'Two Women', 'Maya Memsaab' and possibly one of the shortest ever feature films made in India and by Satyajit Ray, 'Pikur Diary'(Only 3 reels) or not so famous 'Striptease' can never be written off as obscene. 'Striptease' develops on the story of a young girl, the estranged wife of a roguish husband who for the sake of his sadistic satisfaction is perpetrating psychological torture on the girl by not agreeing to make over custody of their little girl child to her mother. The separated wife, an utterly devoted mother, is hell-bent to secure custody of her beloved kid and is desperately fighting a legal battle. For her own living and for the necessity to earn some quick money to meet the legal expenses she has chosen to perform striptease dances in a night club and has to bare herself every night before her lewd admirers. The emphasis is on the ordeals she faces in her mission and the phases of mental trauma she has to pass through, the sympathy, compassion she is enjoying from the end of her colleagues including the other similarly unfortunate dancing girls and not on her vital statistics or the glow of her skin. The end result is a mollifying dose of humanitarian appeal to the finer senses and sensibilities of the viewers. The higher self within us gets spontaneously roused to sympathize with the seamy side of our life which is not too far for most around us. Juxtaposed to this, in 'Titanic', despite being a fine film for several of its outstanding qualities like the vast canvas, brilliant technical and cinematic details, music and occasional humane touches like the Captain of the ship refusing to leave the sinking ship, the Architect setting the time of the final disaster before his imminent death, the Band playing on till the last and the Priest reading out from the Holy Scripture and consoling the elderly passengers before the beginning of their last journey,- the scene of togetherness of the hero and the heroine inside a car on the deck seems to be unnecessary and offensive to our taste.
Profane class films, though unwarranted, is a hard reality like many other modern vices in both the hemispheres of our Globe,- HIV, cancer, apartheid, neo- colonialism, neo-nazism which most of the Nations of the world have to bear with. They are born out of our own vitiated psyche, our never ending greed for what is yet to be gained. They can be checked, can be sobered, may perhaps be tamed by administration of occasional doses of palliatives but can not possibly be altogether uprooted. They are like the poison in our blood which feels and works better when let out. They are not as much threat to the western viewers as to the gullible young masses in our country and the sensible film makers in India can be of substantial help by simply keeping this in mind.
Thus, leaving aside the profane category films what we need to be really bothered about is the proliferation of mundane class films which have brought us the not so reputable distinction of being the largest film making country in the world. They come and go every year in continuous succession like muddy flood water released from a dam and get lost into the ocean of eternal oblivion. What purpose do they serve is a perpetually unanswered question,- for the viewers, for the film industry and even those who produce them, as many of such films reduce the makers to the position of an absolute broke, financially, socially, even psychologically, they having desperately staked their last farthing in the hope of getting their money's return in double fold. Most of these are neither entertaining nor carry any sense or meaning worth moving the spectators. They destroy a huge mass of celluloid every year, energy and investment and also the career of the lead actors/ actress at times. What benefit can we expect to get from the never ending tide of such films as 'Na Tum Jano Na Hum', 'Dil Hai Tumhara', 'Kitne Dur Kitne Pas', 'Yeh Hai Jalwa', 'One Two Ka Four', 'Chori Chori Chupke Chupke' and etc.etc.? If entertainment and money's return are our principal concern, why can't we think about making such films as 'Akele Hum Akele Tum', 'Kaas',- both being excellent adaptations of 'Kramer vs Kramer', or 'Sadma', a Hindi remake of a film from the South and released years before, in which both Sri Devi and Kamal Hassan acted brilliantly or even 'Ghulam', 'Fiza' or 'Hare Ram Hare Krishna' which at least show inclination to look around to some aspects real life crisis, even though with a fleeting insight. One can be excused to comment that considering from the standpoint of sense and sensibility of film making, such films are better than 'Koho Na Pyaar Hai', 'Bobby', 'Spiderman' or 'Godzilla' which mint money and end like 'sound and fury signifying nothing'. We can justly appreciate that if we can not afford to produce such films as 'Aviskar', 'Anubhav' or 'Teesri Kasam' of Basu Bhattacharya very often, we can care about making films like 'Chitchor', 'Rajnigandha', 'Chhotisi Baat' or 'Golmaal' by Basu Chatterjee more often. When should we stop indulging in the habit of crowning mediocrity and mind to spare ourselves of the meaningless tension over the unjust expectation that 'Laagan' or 'Devdas' will own international acclaim and award abroad? How long should we continue to opiate our viewers with the clich'd stories of the hero coming victorious at the end with all his bravado and winning the hand of the village damsel or the hero losing his heart, turning alcoholic and falling absolutely at the end for his chosen maiden? If we can't produce more Mani Kauls of 'Uski Roti' fame, can't we expect to see a few more Mani Ratnams and films like 'Bombay', 'Roja' or 'Dil Se', adorned with some unique insights into our contemporary crisis and wonderful music by the prodigious A.R. Rehman?. We can be proud that a film of an epic dimension like 'Elizabeth' was conceived and directed by an Indian and could drag the attention of Oscar juries. We should grieve that Shekhar Kapoor was not adjudged the best director for Oscar award and can wonder how 'Harry Potter'or many years in the past, 'Love Story'( Ryan O'neil playing the lead role), not 'Vertical Limit' could raise so much furor. We can boast that Ismail Merchant and James Ivory duo have given the world such classic films with Indian ambience and brilliant musical scores like 'Shakespeare Wahllas', 'Guru', 'Bombay Talkie' and such other highly acclaimed films like 'A Room With A View', 'Heat and Dust', 'The Europeans', 'The Savages' and more like them, winning admiration from all quarters.
So, is this not the high time for the sensible movie moghuls to sit back and invoke the grace of the youngest of the Muse sisters, the tenth Muse, for inspiration to instill some more sense and subtleties in their films and to put to use the potentials of a substantially rich art form, for the sake of self and the society too?