DOES India have a national cinema? Does it, indeed, require one? Mrinal Sen is not quite sure. Yet, his latest celluloid essay, And The Show Goes On , a British Film Institute-funded tribute to the world's largest movie industry in cinema's centenary year, is quite polemically categorical about what India's filmic output should be.
But can it ever be what it ideally ought to be? Again, Sen, as is his wont, is not forth coming with a clear answer. His prescription, however, is rather unambiguous: cinema should confront social realities, no matter how harsh; it cannot continue being as cavalierly escapist as it is in India and yet expect to be taken seriously on the global stage. As film director and critic Chidananda Dasgupta says on camera: "India lives too much by myth and too little by fact". That, for Sen, is where the problem begins. And ends.
And The Show Goes On, premiered at the recent Venice film festival, is a constantly provocative, always lively, if a bit elliptical, evaluation of the first 100 years of Indian cinema. It touches upon practically everything that is of import from Raja Harishchandra to Hum Aapke Hain Kaun?, —Mughal-e-Azam, Devaki Bose, V. Shantaram, Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Satyajit Ray and the rest of the new wave flag bearers, besides much else. But the assessment of each film that finds a mention in this hour-long documentary is coloured unmistakably by Sen's personal perceptions. And for that alone, And The Show Goes On is a film worth preserving.
But there's much else here. For instance, there's Mrinal Sen himself grilling Mani Ratnam, allowing him graciously to have his say about his brand of seemingly socially-conscious cinema—"I am not ready yet to see absolute reality"—and then cutting away to a sequence from Govind Nihalani's well-received T amas which has Om Puri fleeing in horror from a sight he cannot obviously stomach—the carcass of a pig in front of a place of worship. Are we, asks the film as it fades out, condemned to flee from reality like the character in Tamas? The answer has eluded us for eight decades, yet the show must go on. As must the search for the right idiom. The right balance between dream and reality.