The moment you are struck with an idea, the search for an ‘adda’ also starts somewhere within you, although the gestation period can vary from person to person. While I was in my village, Kadamakudy, which happens to be an island in the backwaters of Kochi, the village poet Josekuttan was my lone patient listener. When I look back, I realize that I was not being fair to him whenever his turn came. I played the role of my later years’ comrade and critic Vidyarthy Chatterjee in the formative years back in the backwaters. I was a judgmental listener.
The nearby cinema theatre ‘Sri Durga’ was one and half hours away by a country boat ride. Once in a while my mother with her gossip gang of friends used to take me along with my younger sisters for a first show. At around 4 O’clock we had to start from Kadamakudy with packed eatables and drinking water etc. The person who used to row the country boat was known as ‘pottan’ in the village. He was deaf and semi-dumb. He couldn’t speak but used to make some sounds and was still able to communicate well with my mother. He was always available for the hard work of rowing for almost three hours to and fro, for a free film ticket and some refreshments.
My mother was a dramatic narrator of stories. While we row back at night in the lit up backdrop of the Chinese nets which would be going up and coming down with a creak sound in the saline waters and with each rowing of boatman the saline water glows making glaaw-glaaaw sounds. My mother with her attentive audience would be re-telling the story of cinema which all of us had seen just half an hour ago. These narrative sessions are embedded in my memory like carvings in a cave, although I have no distinct memory of the original experience of viewing the cinema. In the midst of this post-screening oral cinema sessions, unexpected interventions of ‘pottan’ with a laughter or an exaggerated facial or hand gesture, stopping his mechanical action of rowing for a while, slowed down the movement of the country boat momentarily. But it added a multi-dimensional performative edge to this unique experience of oral cinema. My mother would improvise and interpret even pottan’s interventions with enviable creative energy.
Yes sir, the moment you are struck with an idea, and the moment you feel that compulsion of trying your idea on someone else, the definite signs of birth pain of a cinema happens. Later, you might have expanded the original spark into a hardbound or spiral bound script, but still with each incident of knocking at the doors of an actor or producer, you might have to still practice some form of oral cinema. Some may call it, ‘one liner’, or ‘the thread’ or ‘story line’. My friend M. Ravi Kumar, who is a gifted Tamil writer was the executive producer of a Kamal Hassan film- ABHAY – which was shot bilingually both in Tamil and Hindi. I had accompanied Ravi with a show reel of this Kamal Hassan film, to en-number of distributors’ meetings. They will be treating you with a cup of tea or soft drinks and speaking with a Gujarathi or Punjabi accented Hindi. Ravi first hypes his film with its special features. Then he plays the DVD. The dance sequences with Manisha Koirala are titillating. The action scenes are terrific. The technique used is trendy and heady. The distributor agrees with Ravi on everything. Now comes the monetary part. The accented Hindi suddenly comes out with an observation – “Ravi Sir, everything is fine. But Kamal Hasanji is not tall enough for Hindi cinema!”
Poor Ravi was stuck. He could have argued out on any aspects of cinema and convinced the distributors. But what can he do about the height of an actor! The end result of these comments were obvious. It brought down the height of the prices on the negotiating table.
Another city. Another aura. Catherine Breillat is a popular and controversial figure in both modern French literature and cinema. She deals with sexuality in both her writings and cinema without any hang ups. As Vidyarthy Chatterjee is an authority on Latin American and European cinemas, I rang him up to get the correct spelling of Catherine’s surname. The conversation didn’t end there. He said that Catherine shoots her own novels into films. The rest of the story is known to me as I had seen her important works, some years ago at Kolkata Film Festival. Ansu Sur was the Director of the festival then.
At the packed Rabindra Sadan auditorium, Ansu Sur introduced Catherine to the audience. The mike was handed over to Catherine. Since you are going to see the film, I should not speak before it and as the film is being screened, I should not speak and disturb you, and once the screening is over, I need not speak at all! This is how another French director introduced his film. But Catherine is Catherine. She spoke at length. She did not tell the story. She did not try to explain the sub-conscious or sub-text. She spoke about her way of making films. Her cast is unconventional. She deals with sexuality as it is done in pornographic films. She uses experienced porn-stars. Ansu Sur was wriggling a bhadralok wriggle. Such things are not discussed at a forum like this. He gave her a sign of ‘time out’, which did not work. Catherine kept on telling the Rabindra Sadan mob about the stark realities of the medium of cinema which most of us tuck under the carpet. How difficult it is for an actor to be natural and aroused for an intimate scene in front of the camera. A male actor turns off when the camera turns on. So she uses porn-actors, who could behave naturally and keep it up too! The audience were with Catherine for her baring of soul without any inhibitions. She added that, the best cinematographer in the world wouldn’t be able to lit up a scene, if the actor doesn’t glow from within. I have never experienced such testing times for a festival programmer. I could understand the festival director’s discomfort but enjoyed it more, as an action/reaction shot, live on the stage. Oral cinema became full blown oral, on that day in Kolkata.
But oral tradition is not all about trivia. When a fellow film-maker becomes vocal about his feelings on a work of art and puts it down in some form, somewhere, it attains an inspirational level for any debate on cinema. It happens in literature without an effort all the time. In cinema these are rarities. At the best cinema could be an external expression of an internal universe and at the worst it is just external and external only. It takes birth in the market. And the market only knows sales talk. In yesteryears’ Bengali cinema, existed universal artistes, not just Globalised Manufacturers. Let me quote: “No one before Ritwik had made a film of this kind. Apparently, it is a dull picture. The Hero is a driver and the heroine, we can say, is a Car. The boldness was in the attempt to impose something human on the vehicle which could be termed as a kind of anthropomorphism. I do not say that this attempt to humanize the car clicked successfully in all the sequences. But having in mind the Bengali audience, it is simply amazing that Ritwik had the courage to make such an experiment. Besides, in ‘Ajantrik’ what I think really worth noticing, apart from the subject matter, are the cinematic qualities that make a film really meaningful. Let me give some examples. There are some particular shots where nothing special is happening and there is very little subject matter. Yet, in a particular context the shot reaches a lyrical depth and a bold dimension which is possible only for a very powerful director, such as Ritwik, to create. A lot of things have been done with the motor-car. Just the car, quietly standing on the edge of a lake in the evening. The angle, the composition, is so striking that the car seems to be talking to us. Then, in another scene, we see only the bonnet of the car. On the bonnet is the cap. Bimal removes the cap, pours water into it and then gives two or three turns to the cap with his hand and in order to close it properly he gives three gentle strokes with his rough hand. And that is all. We see against the background of the sky the front of the bonnet and Bimal’s hand. This is something wonderful.” Thus spoke Satyajit Ray.
Yes, cinema starts with a spark, organically grows into cinema and finally gets seen. The circle of oral cinema hits you very badly, in ‘Meet the Press’ programs of film festivals, where you have to narrate your own cinema orally and on the basis of your oral rendering, questions are asked. Thereby cinema returns to just an idea again! What an idea, Sirji.
Is cinema oral or temporal?
Joshy Joseph is an award-winning film maker and writer