The precocious students of Ruia College nagged and pestered and forced me to do this – a piece for their film publication “Film Eye” which came out last week (a highly readable magazine too). Asked to choose my own subject, I figured directly addressing the students in the piece (whilst being aware of the context of the publication) might have more value than a generic piece that could have appeared anywhere. It was really for their eyes, and perhaps not very smart of me to put it out here but I just feel like doing it. If nothing else, at least it will make me even more unpopular than I presently am (if that is even possible), even though, contrary to what some think, that is not exactly an objective.
Instead of a general piece on cinema that could be published anywhere, this is an attempt to do a customised piece for this particular publication addressing its readers directly. Many among you may be contemplating a career in the arts – perhaps cinema. That professional world is perhaps inscrutable and even intimidating. Dealing with the clear conflict between the mainstream and personal expression is the toughest battle ahead. This piece uses film references to make its points – for whatever they are worth.
In what is perhaps the greatest documentary series ever made (the “Up Series”), fourteen British children aged 7 were selected from diverse backgrounds in 1964 and their lives revisited on camera every 7 years (director Michael Apted stayed constant too) – in 2012, they were all 56 years old, and there had been 8 films made. From these, the most revealing films are 21 Up (film made when they were 21) and 28 Up – not because of the individual films but because of the transformation that occurred between these two ages. Most of the hopes and aspirations these young men and women had expressed at 21 had been significantly tempered by 28, and a strange sort of auto-pilot acceptance crept into their worldview.
This is not the only evidence to suggest that the age-span 21-26 (or so) is perhaps the most important stage in an individual’s life when his (or her, of course) relationship to his work (any kind of work, not just in the creative fields) is fundamentally determined. It would appear that the majority give up during this time, and focus on stability – in their jobs and family lives. There’s no rocket science required to process why this happens – it is natural and perfectly understandable. Those who develop a different relationship to their work and have a drive and restlessness to reach out for something beyond this assured stability with no guarantees are not necessarily more intelligent or talented; it has more to do with a certain attitude and perhaps it can even be argued that it is often not a voluntary choice one makes but more akin to an urge.
This absolutely does not mean that these people have to achieve something within this age or that people with say, artistic ambitions, have to complete something by then. Many such people may actually take a decade or more to express themselves properly, to create or build something. Some may change several jobs, even professions to find their true calling. What they have in common – regardless of what their muse is, or where their interests lie, is that they don’t stop searching. For some reason, whether consciously or not, the commitment to this mindset appears to be almost invariably made during this 21-26 age-span.
So, this crucial period in your life is now ahead of you when this commitment will be defined, consciously or otherwise. Circumstances have a big role to play here – and no-one should ever be judged on what calls they take on this count. However, given that the vast majority of people (including commercially thriving people) seem to live “lives of quiet desperation” and compromise, some even wearing their unfulfillment on their sleeve, it is likely to be the most important choice you will make as it will define the rest of your life. Perhaps even more than matrimony, as this certainly seems to be more irreversible (as a mindset, not as an act).
However, even if you decide to commit to a life of self-expression (or self-realisation), that would just be the starting point – the long road ahead would still have plenty of potholes to waylay you.
There was an outstanding advertising filmmaker in the late-1980s – everybody believed his transition into feature filmmaking was a certainty (also because he was related to a legendary Bengali filmmaker) and would happen very soon. 25 years later, it still hasn’t. A few years back, he was asked amongst friends why he had never ended up making a feature film – and after some cajoling he said that the idea of matching up to his legendary filmmaker relative intimidated and discouraged him so much that he could never quite get started with any kind of confidence or momentum.
He deserves sympathy not for bearing such a great weight but for getting it so completely wrong. The point of any kind of art is not to match up to anybody (whatever the award shows may suggest to you) – but to put one’s own expression out there – tell one’s own story, try to find and communicate personal truths, whatever it may entail. To get scared of doing that (and there is no other way to quite describe what happened to this advertising filmmaker) suggests a complete misplacement of priorities – where it is craft that is aspired to, not art. The art is in the search and the soul of the work, not in the barebones of craft, however accomplished the latter may be.
We are very emphatically living in an age where how a sentence is crafted is appreciated more than what it conveys. And nowhere is this truer than in India where interpretation (rather than original expression) has been all-important anyway – from folk to classical music, from film songs (where interpretation is happening at every level) to talent shows on television, it has been about getting it “right” first, about technique and “correctness” then individual expression. This, coupled with the post-colonial inferiority complex we are still very comprehensively reeling from, has made creative confidence a very rare commodity in our country.
This is precisely why someone like Quentin Tarantino has destroyed two generations of Indian filmmakers without knowing it. The man who made violence hip and cinematic more than anyone else in film history did it with a slant that was its real dimension but too many in our quarters have gone about mimicking the cool and ignoring the vision (it is this vision that makes Tarantino a great filmmaker, not the craft). Some of our filmmakers discovered that the shock value that could be extracted from this mimicry also provided considerable commercial felicities. Today, the gangster genre (unimaginatively and perhaps typically in our quarters, this is almost the only genre in which this mimickery happens) is the most prolific (and profitable) one in the Mumbai film industry and this brand of quick-shock cinema consistently produces films that amuse more than they last. Some of them make enough money, and even excite enough “critics”, to perpetuate this hollowness.
If a law forced these filmmakers to not allow the characters in their films to bear arms, much like the Chambal dacoits who have been surrendering their arms from the early 1970s, one suspects many of them wouldn’t really know what to do with themselves. It could lead to a forced clarity that would almost certainly have very welcome long-term consequences as they would be forced to look at life around themselves then (as perhaps happened to Iranian cinema, thanks to the limitations imposed upon it). Of course this is just flippant fantasy, as thoughts of forcing anything on anyone should be in a democracy.
Also, unfortunately, most of our younger filmmakers seem to think the path to becoming a world-class film director is through imbibing world cinema immaculately. As a result, they seem to live in this cinema more than in life around them and their rootedness, has, for the most part, gone missing. As certain bastions of the elite cinema universe (like Cannes) evoke the Miss Universe/ World pageant in the 1990s in its temporary interest in work that departs from their exotic notions of Indian cinema (which has tragically been Bollywood for about a decade now), their aspirations even appear to be bearing fruit, which the jaunty media here rejoices over. Overlooking the undeniable fact that not a single indigenously-made Indian film ever commercially crosses over internationally outside the time-honoured melodrama markets (like say, Egypt) or captures the imagination of the world cinema audience (precisely because of that lack of genuine rootedness). For the most part, we produce spurious cinema in these times which is such a waste (especially given what diversity these churning times offer us). Why just films, even our books and popular music do not show signs of much originality and honesty for much the same reasons (with rare, but notable, exceptions).
The over-emphasis on detail and craft (which is also derived from foreign shores) is one of the main reasons why very little work has an original voice in our country, and therefore, very little value beyond the ephemeral. Even the people who consume (the audience) and the ones who judge (the “critics”) are more conscious of these details than the big picture or the soul of the work – this has become the predominant cultural sensibility in our country. Leading to the celebration of ersatz poster boys.
Spiritualists of all kinds and persuasions say one thing in common – that the human mind often comes in the way of fulfilling an individual’s true potential, thanks to the distractions of everyday life and its preoccupations. The same could be said for the stories being told around us – their true soul remains unexplored, underutilised, underappreciated, thanks to the focus on the details around them than the core itself. Every aspect of the entertainment industry perpetuates this these days, especially, sadly, the audience.
Of course, there are in-between spaces where new talent can try and find their feet (and some do but they are almost invariably non-commercial spaces). For example, it is curious that just like new acting talent rarely gets the choicest opportunities without familial connections within the film industry, new filmmakers never ever seem to emerge from outside the “camps” and the various coteries. There is a good reason why the industry is considered by many to be run by a kind of internal “mafia”. So, how does someone with no connections negotiate all this?
Besides adopting the path of least resistance and aligning your objectives to the status quo or opting out altogether (and changing professions), there is a new alternative that is gradually emerging in these digital times. A 1 TB hard-disc costing about Rs 5,000 (when in 2006, it cost about Rs 1.2 lakhs) is just a small indicator of how accessible things have got. Digital cameras and sound equipment are personally affordable today. A huge pitfall for some people is their excessive preoccupation with formats and cameras and technology and the rest – it is all nonsense, really. They forget that even the lower-end cameras they get to work with today are better than the high-end cameras the established professionals may have been working with a decade or two ago (and some produced classics with).
However, the commercial possibilities of cutting-edge work are limited in today’s film environment in India and practically no-one who wants to do innovative and personal work without significant compromise can really make much of a living from it. Thankfully, due to the dynamics that are changing so rapidly, it is most likely a temporary state of things.
In the meantime though, how does one keep this promise alive? One option could be to try and make filmmaking a hobby, and find a job or a line of work that sustains you financially, perhaps even something allied to films (though it often helps the cause if you do something that does not exercise the same muscles that filmmaking does, to keep the freshness intact). And work in your spare time in cinema – the digital revolution has made DIY (Do-It-Yourself) cinema more achievable than ever before. Find like-minded people to work with and expand the scope of what is possible within your set-up gradually. With the Internet breaking down old ways of distribution as well, this way of working outside the system should eventually end up transforming the mainstream as well. And it may not even take as much time as many fear. By removing middlemen and having direct access to the final consumer, thereby being able to find your core audience much faster than possible ever before, significant profitability (significant enough to at least allow all its participants to earn a living from it) is not such a pipe-dream anymore.
The ones to benefit the most from these changing equations would be those who keep their desire of personal expression alive in some way. And amongst most of you reading this, this decision will happen in the next 4 or 5 years. Whatever you decide, do it consciously. It will probably lead to the most apt decision, for yourself. Good luck.
– Jaideep Varma
The above writer is a fringe filmmaker/writer (Local, Hulla, Leaving Home) and should have very little credibility for those seeking fame and fortune in the entertainment world. The piece, even if it did not provide any food-for-thought, hopefully at least entertained a bit.