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How film societies fostered a culture of art cinema in India

In an excerpt from her book Art Cinema and India's Forgotten Futures, Rochona Majumdar writes about the importance of pioneering film societies

Satyajit Ray's ‘Pather Panchali’ was a key film in the development of art cinema and film societies
Satyajit Ray's ‘Pather Panchali’ was a key film in the development of art cinema and film societies

What exactly did the film societies do? Here are two descriptions from a volume published to celebrate fifty years of the Federation of Film Societies in India. The first was written by Chidananda Dasgupta, who was associated with the Calcutta Film Society since its founding years. The second is a summary of the task of film societies, presumably written up by Narahari Rao, the editor of the said volume. In Dasgupta’s words, Film societies . . . by screening, discussing, reading, and writing about good cinema all over the world . . . create a higher level of artistic taste and thus build up a better and bigger audience for good films within the country. By stirring up interest in the creative cinema among cultured people, film societies (much more than even the training institutes) help to bring out new talent.

Dasgupta’s remarks clearly exemplify that in the early years, the establishment of film societies was geared toward creating good taste in cinema. What constituted good taste? As we shall see, most film societies in India shared in the belief that Indian cinema made during the previous fifty years did not exhibit good taste. Dasgupta’s use of such words as “creative” cinema or “cultured” people indicates that film societies in the early years were fired with a sense of cultural superiority and aimed to create “value- distinctions,” in Pierre Bourdieu’s sense, among different kinds of films. Their purpose was twofold: cultivation and dissemination of good taste through films. They would not encourage discussions of films in Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, or Malayalam that were watched by thousands of Indians in theaters around the country. Such cinemas, they believed, produced the image of “a synthetic, non- existent society” that was credible “only within the norms of this make- believe world.”Theirs was instead a search for what they regarded as creative and realist cinema, very different from the products churned out by the Indian film industries. In an article published in the journal Indian Film Culture in 1965, Dasgupta observed that a proper appreciation for cinema came to India only as recently as the 1950s, a good half century after the medium was first introduced into the country. “In India,” he wrote, “the film was an importation from the West, a foreign body introduced into a system unprepared to absorb it. Technology had not made a real impact, and the need had not arisen for a distilling of art through science as it were.” This was followed with an even more trenchant judgment on Indian film luminaries as he remarked: “Put Dreyer alongside Phalke, or Eisenstein next to Barua, and the result is ludicrous.”

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For Dasgupta, it was not until the release of Do Bigha Zamin (Two Acres of Land, Bimal Roy, 1953) and Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road, Satyajit Ray, 1955) that “a new understanding of the medium dawned on its creators.” These were no doubt expressions of prejudice against so- called popular cinema whose importance and depth have been studied at length by film scholars. But these statements help further our understanding of the milieu that fostered the early film society movement. A film society is a membership club where people can watch private screenings of films which would otherwise not be shown in mainstream cinemas. They are, in some places, known as Film Clubs and Cine Clubs, and they usually have an educational aim, introducing new audiences to different audiovisual works through an organized and prepared program of screenings. Th y are involved with people who love films.

Art Cinema and India’s Forgotten Futures, by Rochona Majumdar, Columbia University Press (published in India by Penguin Random House),  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699
Art Cinema and India’s Forgotten Futures, by Rochona Majumdar, Columbia University Press (published in India by Penguin Random House), 699

Thus wrote Narahari Rao of the pedagogical aims of the film society movement in the introduction to a volume commemorating its fifty- year anniversary. Similar sentiments were voiced by numerous film society founders from across the country. For example, Satyajit Ray noted that the Calcutta Film Society he helped found was symbolic of “shackling ourselves willingly to the task of disseminating film culture amongst the intelligentsia.” For the renowned director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, there were “two important reasons” for starting the Chitralekha film society in 1965. He said, “One, I wanted to continue watching the best of international movies. Two, I wanted to introduce audiences to a different kind of cinema. And tell them ‘Look, it is not the song- and- dance kind of cinema alone that is being produced. There are many other kinds of cinema being made in the world.’ ” Or take Muriel Wasi’s recollections about the twelve- or- so people who founded the Delhi Film Society in 1956: “These founding parents were professionals in other fields: educationists, journalists, businessmen, administrators, diplomats— but their common interest was the cinema and the special thing that cinema could do to criticize life.”24 She adds, “They screened films often twice a month and attendance was regular and complete. They met with sympathy, without noise or contention.”

Vijaya Mulay’s recollections tell us about the kind of films that were routinely screened in theaters in the 1940s and 1950s. “The fare offered by the Patna cinemas,” wrote Mulay “was solid Hindi films with a few Bengali films thrown in now and then. All these came after a long run in Calcutta.”26 As for English films, Mulay reported that they were not popular anyway; cinema owners were forced to lower ticket prices by half. Apparently, it cost Mulay more to hire rickshaws to get to the cinema to watch these films than it did to buy tickets. In the limited range of English films shown in Patna, “action films such as TarzanFu Manchu series, Beau Geste etc. would usually be the cinema owners’ preference.”

Occasionally Patna theaters would screen films starring Mae West, Busby Berkeley, and Charlie Chaplin. The atmosphere of the theaters is best captured in Mulay’s own words. Audiences watched these films “amongst the whirring of fans, half open doors with light seeping in and with children whimpering or back- stage whispering in the back ground.”27 Film societies were an attempt to break away from this type of film- going. In their own view, it was a move away from treating cinema as entertainment toward seeing films as serious texts of life.

The 1964 IFSON questionnaire compiled by Anil Srivastava, which discusses the kind of films the societies screened, allows us to see what early film societies meant by good cinema. The responses suggest that not all films were available to all film societies. Indeed, acquisition of “good” films was one challenge that is mentioned in all the journals, reminiscences, and reports that have survived from the early days of the movement. The film societies in the metropolitan cities, Calcutta, Bombay, Delhi, and eventually in Madras (the latter was set up in 1957) were able to acquire and screen considerably more films than their counterparts in Roorkee, Patna, Ranchi, Kanpur, Agra, and Jodhpur. The former groups also had a better supply of film- related journals, magazines, and books in their libraries, although here too there are differences in the degree to which film societies prized access to written material. The CFS started its own journal, Chalachitra, in 1948, but failed to bring out more than one issue.

Subsequently, when the number of film societies multiplied around the city, Calcutta became home to numerous film society periodicals like KinoChitrapatChitrakalpaChitrabikshan, and Chitrabhaash. In comparison, there were two journals that were published by the Anandam film society and Film Forum in Bombay called Montage and Close- Up, respectively.28 In 1964, the CalcuttaFilm Society had about three hundred film- related books in their collection and regularly subscribed to publications such as Sight and SoundMonthly Film BulletinFilm PolskiSoviet FilmFilm QuarterlyMontageMovie, and Indian Film Culture.29 They also hosted seminars by film- related personalities visiting from abroad like Jean Renoir, Marie Seton, James Quinn, and Jean Grémillon.While the other metropolitan film societies maintained a collection of books and journals and hosted a few seminars, the Calcutta- based film societies outstripped the rest in their academic approach to cinema.

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