It is a pleasant surprise then to read a set of essays on Indian cinema as combative, as vigorous, and as cogent as those in Das Gupta’s Seeing is Believing. In these pieces, published in different books and journals over the last 25 years, we see a powerful analytical mind at work, able to make searching connections between our movies and our society, our literature, our art, our music and our religion. But we also realize that we are reading a critic in whose work conceptual and analytical rigour and the desire to build interpretative structures is not used as a substitute (the distinction is one made by Das Gupta himself) for the play of sensibility: the attention to the unique rhythms and personality of each work of art, and to our aesthetic experience of the work.
Das Gupta’s attractive title refers to the powerful illusion intrinsic to cinema, more than any other art form, that what we are watching is real. He then takes this thought and runs with it, showing how, although film originated in the West, its transplantation to a pre-industrial society heavily invested in faith and myth instantly made it a very different thing in India. Most of the early Indian feature films were mythologicals, which enraptured audiences by bringing the gods and goddesses of Hindu myth from the hinterland of the imagination (where they had always resided) to visible, palpable life. Here is Das Gupta's winning recreation of that experience:
When films began in earnest in India, with Phalke’s Harishchandra in 1913, suddenly the gods and godlike men of mythology came to life. [...] Hitherto the Hindus had seen the trinity and pantheon in their minds and in images of clay, wood and stone; now they saw them walking, flying in space, throwing flaming discuses, setting offenders aflame with a burning look, making the dead come alive, appearing out of, and vanishing into, nowhere.This is how the gods had dwelt in the mind’s recesses, held aloft by a network of myths and legends spawned by the epics and the Puranas. The loves and hates of the gods had been seen as leela, divine play, evoked by the bhakta or devotee in his imagination. These now became reality; here was Raja Harishchandra walking barefoot through the brambles, giving away his son Rohita, his wife Taramati, for the sake of charity; and there, Rama roaming the Dandakaranya forest with Sita. Inside the cinema theatre, the devout took off their shoes, sat with folded hands, and even threw offerings at the screen. [...] As the screen lit up in the vast night in the open air or inside the dark womb of the theatre, before their eyes a primeval dream unfolded in which the gods lived and had their being, emerging from an ancient communal memory secreted within the self.
[...] This was different from seeing [the actors] in the folk theatre. The actors in the folk theatre were too real; too often you knew where they lived, and saw them paint their faces before they entered the arena. In the cinema they were real and shadowy, not gross enough to lose their distance and dignity.
"Too often you knew where they lived, and saw them paint their faces before they entered the arena"— there is a kind of rapture to be felt in lines like these, lines that allow us not just to register but actually to enter the worldview of that early Indian film audience Das Gupta is describing.
Cinema, then, was a product of science but, in this case, science had "reinforced faith and blurred the distinction between myth and fact”. Although the pure mythological film has made a retreat with the passage of time, Das Gupta argues that the basic accord between cinema and religiosity has not changed. Even where the exterior of what is being depicted is modern, beneath the surface, the present is being mythologized constantly and the currents of traditional belief are being kept alive. Again, Das Gupta is very good on the Hindi film song, and on why the songs are so often better than the films themselves. The Hindi film song
is the transcendental element in the language of popular cinema. It expounds philosophies; proposes inductive and dedeuctive syllogisms on the truths of individual life in relation to the social universe; explains hidden meanings; comments, like a chorus, of the worth or consequences of an action, besides providing aural enchantment to the otherwise music-less urban world at its rural grassroots.
[...] The song is like divine speech, filling the firmament, and all vacant space on earth. It flows into the poers of the mind, like balm on wounds inflicted by the daily battles of existence. It represents an experience shared by a vast, varied, divided populace in the cinema theatres, in roadside restaurants for the poor, at fairs, festivals, temple yards, weddings, and all celebrations.[...] Film music blares forth everywhere for everyone, including the unwilling ears of those who are used to high art. This imminence of the film song shared by all lifts it way above the bounds of realism required by particular films and gives it an autonomous, transcendental presence in society.
But Das Gupta does not succumb to the glorification of Bollywood drama, increasingly prevalent in film studies, as the most authentic kind of Indian film. Popular cinema, he argues, must inevitably be populist, because it is made on large budgets and for the delectation of mass audiences. But, for criticism to follow the line of “what is most popular is best” is to truckle to this populism, and that would be a fatal mistake.
Accordingly, a number of Das Gupta’s essays are vibrant appreciations of work, socially engaging, psychologically complex and technically innovative, produced in parallel and regional cinema: not just Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and M.S. Sathyu, but also lesser-known figures such as G. Aravindan and Girish Kasaravalli. Indeed, he shows how there has been, and still is, a strong current of Indian cinema that wishes to challenge societal prejudice and entrenched inequalities, and that promulgates, often without didacticism, a concern for the deprived or the oppressed sections of society whom our expanding middle class would rather turn its eyes from.
One exceptional essay explains how M.G. Ramachandran and N.T. Rama Rao ascended the throne of politics on the back of their on-screen personae in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh: Here again was an example of “seeing is believing” on the part of the audience. Another argues that Indian film studies rely too reflexively on trends in Western criticism, and on Western ideas such as catharsis and alienation, instead of drawing from our own rich native traditions. This is one of the richest and most satisfying books of criticism I have ever had the pleasure of reading.
An essay by Das Gupta on Ray's Pather Panchali is here.