Why cinema is more than recreation

In the case of many who grew up during the early morning years of India’s freedom, cinema meant more than entertainment.

 |  5-minute read |   30-07-2020
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Imagine a museum of South Asian cinema in the Kapoor Haveli. Lingering on for years in Peshawar, this crumbling structure standing strong in the face of decades of harsh monsoon rains and neglect is reportedly close to being replaced by a shopping mall. That is not an unusual fate for an old building these days. An alternative fate was contemplated for the Kapoor Haveli, but a shortage of funds seems to have blocked that possibility. Whatever fate awaits this ancestral site of the famous Kapoor clan, this ancestral mansion deserves a moment’s pause. This will give us a chance to contemplate how Bollywood shaped its many layers in our formative years.

Poetic influences

In the case of many who grew up during the early morning years of India’s freedom, cinema did mean more than entertainment. Mera joota hai Japani continues to carry poetic substance for a vast section of India’s urban society deprived of any exposure to poetry and music at school. It was composed by Shailendra who may not be mentioned in Hindi literature courses, but whose lyrics contributed a rare lilt to modern Hindi.

main_shree-420_073020103250.jpgMera joota hai Japani from Shree 420 (1955) continues to carry poetic substance for a vast section of India’s urban society deprived of any exposure to poetry and music at school.

It is astonishing to know that the proposal to turn Kapoor Haveli into a museum is facing a financial problem. How can that be? If there is one thing we can be certain about Bollywood, it is wealth. The combined financial strength of Lollywood and Kollywood (i.e. the film industries of Lahore and Kolkata), must be greater than Hollywood’s. And if you include the money that sustains the film worlds of Chennai and Dhaka, you will have more than plenty to fund the museum at Peshawar. And not just to fund it; the contributions from these subcontinental cinemas would also ensure that the museum represents the bigger, plural film heritage of Bollywood which carries the indelible imprint of Raj Kapoor’s artistic excellence.

That needs further correction. Cinema in our part of the world is not just a film, with its story and imagery. If Raj Kapoor’s famous Shree 420 (1955) or Awaara (1951) continue to be a significant presence on the internet, it is because of their songs. In movies of that era, a song came after every 10 or 15 minutes. The story was usually silly and the acting exaggerated, but the songs carried a sense of perfection. They were predictably short — exactly three and a half minutes — and sung in a voice that you knew wasn’t the actor’s own, and that gave the songs a life of their own.

Vivid memories

Watch Joota hai Japani. The winding country road, the camel ride, and the village women don’t make the imagery one bit more convincing than Raj Kapoor’s own facial gestures and body movements. It all looks so awkward today; to make it feel like a classic, one has to invoke Charlie Chaplin’s influence. Now, switch off the imagery and listen to the voice of Mukesh singing Shailendra’s verse. You will instantly recognise what cinema has done for our educationally starved society. Millions of boys and girls, to this day, grow up without a single experience of attending a worthwhile music class but they have listened to thousands of hours of singing, from Lata to Sonu Nigam.

main_pather-panchali_073020103411.jpgIf nothing else, images from Pather Panchali (1955) might soften the teacher’s desire to harangue students and instead use kindness from time to time.

I recall being stunned some years back at a conference of Directors of all the State Councils of Educational Research and Training. Not one had seen Pather Panchali (1955). I was relieved that the Director from West Bengal had at least heard of it. We spent the whole morning discussing why our schools are so hostile to art, including films, and including those made by Satyajit Ray. After the Directors had sat through Pather Panchali that afternoon, they agreed that it should be shown to every school teacher in India. If nothing else, images from the story might soften the teacher’s desire to harangue students and instead use kindness from time to time.

Purpose of films

That loads of money will pour in from the film industry to turn the Kapoor Haveli into a museum is, of course, a fantasy although it would be a fitting tribute to the hopes and yearning that our greater actors and actresses have kept alive over the decades. Today they are a divided lot, shooting off tweets against one another. They are also polarised, like the rest of society. The court scene in so many Bollywood movies threatened to cause the final spasm after which the heroine’s fate would be sealed. As men and women in the hall watched, the court turned on the light of truth, and all went well in the remaining minutes. This was always fantasy and remains so. It belongs to an era when courts did not imagine that their own senior lawyers might harbour contempt. Maybe that is all we can say about our cinema: it gave us the strength to keep fantasising when we were at an evening coaching class after a gruelling day at school.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: Can films usher in social change?

Writer

Krishna Kumar Krishna Kumar

Author is former director of NCERT.

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