It began with a sneeze. On January 7, 1894, an American gentleman called Fred Ott sneezed into a camera. Thomas Alva Edison (who was hardly an inventor; he ran a factory packed with young engineers who worked to develop their own and his ideas, and if something came out of it, he patented it in his name) then applied for a copyright for Edison Kinetoscope Record of a Sneeze immediately at the US Library of Congress.
Things turned hectic after that. Other inventors and innovators rushed in, and many with ideas far beyond recording a sneeze. Patent applications flew thick and fast, mainly from the French, and in 1896, Edison (as canny a visionary as was ever born) caused a huge uproar by releasing The Kiss Between May Irwin and John Rice. The film—if it can be called that—showed the two named worthies kissing, and immediately caused conservative Americans to cry out for censorship.
This was a new art form, and the possibilities were endless (they still are). In 1902, the French filmmaker Georges Melies made and exhibited a film of the coronation of Edward VII of Great Britain months before he was actually crowned, using actors who resembled the characters (Edward VII was played by a man who used to work in a laundry, and his wife by a Paris nightclub dancer), and carefully constructed sets representing Westminster Abbey. The public reaction was, to say the least, mixed.
But Melies, a man brimful with outstanding ideas, was back the same year with a truly pathbreaking film in every sense of the word—Voyage To The Moon—the very first science fiction film and the first one with what we used to call “special effects” and now call “CGI” (computer-generated imagery). Edison, never a man too bothered with intellectual property rights, systematically pirated it, deleting Melies’ credits, and made a lot of money, exhibiting the film in the US. An older, impoverished and embittered Melies (portrayed by Ben Kingsley) is seen in Martin Scorcese’s 2011 film Hugo, one of the most visually enchanting movies ever made (Scorcese will reappear later in this essay).
We would weep at the end of La Strada, and go home discussing what the hell La Dolce Vita was all about... we’d watched it in thrall.
The first time I was taken to a cinema hall (I had no say in this decision) was when I was about a year old, to watch a Bengali film called Ektuku Basha (A Little Home). I became an uncontrollable bawling danger to civil society the moment the lights were turned off, and had to be taken out, cradled, cooed to and pacified by, in turns, my father, mother and uncle. A cinema hall employee who watched the whole debacle, said: “Today you’re crying because you don’t want to watch a film. In some years’ time, you’ll be crying to watch one.” That man was an oracle right up there with those creatures in Greek myths.
Why do people watch films? If you ask a similar question to people who go to art exhibitions or run cellular services companies-sponsored half marathons, you will get simple answers, but they will be incomplete and less enlightening in their own ways. Filmgoers have much straighter and truer answers, though cinema lovers can be graded much more easily and scientifically than people sweating their guts out running from Flora Fountain to Dadar.
From the age of about 16 to 23, I watched nearly every film, however trashy, that was released in Hindi or English (and since the Emergency and Mrs Indira Gandhi’s wacko policies also coincided partially with that, I watched a lot of dubbed Russian films). I went because it was entertainment; sometimes I went in a group, sometimes with a girl, which of course made the occasion rather special. When I went with a girl, I almost invariably chose a horror film, in the fond hope that when the undead appeared with blood-stained lips, or the rats started having a go at the heroine’s face, my companion would shudder, scream, cling to me and want my arms around her, taking her through the ordeal in strong dependable masculine comfort.
Nothing like that ever happened. Several times, I had to cling to my companion. One of them finally married me. Out of pity, one presumes. Though why she does not have the slightest interest anymore in watching horror films is a question that I have no answer to. I must investigate. Bring on all the half a dozen versions of The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers! One of them even has Daniel Craig in it.
Scorcese and Ray, who may never have met in person, still shared a language. And that, in whatever form, can change the world.
But I am lying. At a very early age, my father exposed me to the films of Satyajit Ray, and he would always take me to watch films by renowned directors like David Lean (today, I have a very different view of what David Lean wrought, and his competency, but that’s another story). During my teens, I had the rare good fortune to be studying in a college—Ramnarain Ruia College—in Mumbai which had some of the most wonderful teachers I have ever met. There was a film club, and every weekend, we would marvel at the sheer technical genius—the grammar of film, really—that Eisenstein introduced in Strike or Battleship Potemkin (we would also watch, transfixed, his Ivan The Terrible). We would weep at the end of La Strada, and go home discussing what the hell La Dolce Vita was all about, even though we had watched it in a state of wonder.
Thus Spake Zarathustra reverberated in our heads (it still does) as a strange sun rises and a humanly incomprehensible monolith appears out of nowhere in 2001: A Space Odyssey. (A Christopher Nolan attempt to outdo 2001 in Interstellar, when he had all the bells and whistles of CGI available to him, stuff that had not even been invented when Stanley Kubrick made 2001, fell far short, simply on the vision quadrant. Trying too hard, I suppose, and carrying a very heavy rucksack).
I survived, and I moved on, and still remain in unabashed thrall of this art form.
Art form? What is it? A surrogate child of technology? No, no and no. I have not watched Titanic, simply because the film cost more than what building the ship would cost now. I prefer Chaplin’s Great Dictator, where he packed a wooden crate with hundreds of blackberries and shook the crate gently to create a scene where audiences saw the heads of thousands of people reacting to and cheering the idiotic megalomaniac’s mad speeches. That is art, that is clever thinking, and it costs substantially less.
A film is a very complex thing. It is not visual art, and it is. It is not literature, and it is. It is not theatre, but it is. It is not a piece of aural creativity, but it is. It is also the bulls that our early ancestors painted on walls of caves. It is the handprints they left on those walls.
A film is an enormous enterprise, which, in 90 per cent of cases, involves hundreds of people. Just sit through the credits that roll at the end of each film—from stuntmen to hairdressers to continuity people to the key grip (what or who is a ‘key grip’? Yes, of course, I can look it up on Wikipedia, but let’s stay with the mystery). Of course, films have also been made on pin money; there are instances where film-makers—now famous and lauded—made their first films using their credit cards. But what cannot be denied is that, unlike writing or painting, cinema is not a solitary pursuit at all. You may make your film with a gang of amateurs—the way Satyajit Ray made Pather Panchali—but you still need a gang. You also need at least one camera, an editing suite, actors and cooks who will serve you meals when you are shooting in the outdoors.
And then you hope some magic happens. It often does, and very many times, the creator—the director, or the auteur, as the Godards, Chabrols and Truffauts of Cahiers du Cinema, perhaps the first serious (or at least fervently ideological) film journal in the world, defined the role—discovers it with the same wonder that would get transmitted to the audience.
And here is the paradox. Cinema is a team effort, often involving very large teams (I can’t even begin to imagine how many people would have been involved in the making of Titanic), but it is also one person’s vision, whether realised “wholly or in full measure” (to quote Nehru from his “tryst with destiny” speech, in which he completely, deludedly believed that the world was asleep while India woke up; people in San Francisco were about to head for lunch). We will never know how much the financiers or studios interfered with the creative process, but a Citizen Kane will always be seen as an Orson Welles film, just as Seven Samurai will be a Kurosawa film, and Manthan a Shyam Benegal one.
Yes, cinema is magic, and that magic is felt uniquely—in her or his own way—by every individual who watches moving pictures on a screen of whatever size. I have seen people burst into tears watching the Disney animation film Cars, and I have seen people unmoved by scenes that have been termed “heart-rending” by the world’s best critics. That is normal. Very few people who sit through Beckett’s Waiting For Godot would spend their hard-earned money watching Monty Python’s West End play Spamalot (I watched it, and it cost a lot of money, given the pound-rupee exchange rate. I have no interest in watching Godot).
But there are differences. I find it astonishing that a director like Martin Scorcese (I warned you that he would appear again in this essay) would campaign for years to give a Lifetime Achievement Oscar to Ray. There is almost nothing in common between the films that Scorcese has made and the ones that Ray made—in theme, tone, treatment, technique. Yet they spoke and understood the same language—the language of cinema. The very fact that Scorcese could love, even revel in subtle films steeped in Bengali culture, history and way of life is astounding.
Scorcese (who, in my opinion, is the greatest living American director, just as, in my opinion, Ray was the greatest Indian film director) grew up in an unsafe Italian-dominated New York suburb. Most of his films deal with gangsters, violence and people with psychological/identity problems that you, dear reader, (I hope) wouldn’t even be able to think up. But these two men, Scorcese and Ray, who possibly never met in person, shared a language. Sharing a language, in whatever form, can change the world. To quote that apostate, and my favourite writer, Graham Greene (and I paraphrase him, I don’t have the book nearby right now): “All violence is basically about a breakdown of communication.”
Cinema is about communication. We are at a particularly scary stage of history. Innocent people are being beheaded and videos of the beheadings are being triumphantly spread on the net. Putin will possibly bomb Turkey tomorrow, if he wakes up in the morning and feels in the mood. The US and Europe don’t have a clue about what they should do. Perhaps we common people need a break.
Cinema, inadvertently, provides that break. The world’s best film critics write with a passion for the medium, and not as analysts. The two critics I have admired all my life are both dead now—and both, incidentally, are American, Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert. Please allow me to quote Ebert, who watched three films a day for 40 years as part of his job: “We can consider movies that affect us with as much power as experiences in our real lives. Such movies can be comedies as well as tragedies; to laugh deeply and sincerely is as important as to weep. What must happen is that, for a scene or for a whole film, we are swept up in thoughts and emotions not of our own making. We are guided through an empathetic experience by those who have felt it already and seek how best to share with us.”
This is what I believe of cinema, or any work of art, however inept or amateurish. Someone is trying to find herself and she wants to share that with you. I think it is your duty to encourage her on her journey.
But. Ebert passed away before ISIS was born, and YouTube became the most powerful source of visual communication on the third rock from the sun. Some things cannot be shared, and those things, themselves, must be stopped—more than stopped, annihilated. We must today come to terms with reality, that a digital video camera can be bought by anyone on the planet, and he can upload his atrocity freely on the net. That is not what anyone with an above-double-digit IQ wants. The complete democratisation of the visual media is both a good thing, and a very bad thing. Like most things.
However, I have not been asked by Outlook to write about these things. We are here to celebrate cinema. What are the greatest films ever made? I, speaking for myself, enjoy Jason Statham’s Transporter films as much as I do Godard’s Masculine Feminine, or Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (though ‘enjoy’ may be the wrong word to use here), or Singing In The Rain, the greatest anti-depressant film ever made. They speak to me, and I feel grateful. Cinema is the most complex, hard-work- demanding and the most mass-gratifying art form ever developed. There are of course more business interests here than in any other art form. That is unavoidable.
The best films ever made? They are the ones who make me laugh and cry, and the very best of them make me do so at the same moment.