Thursday, May 02, 2013

A cinematic time machine - notes from the centenary film festival

[Did a version of this for my DNA column]

“These films were made during the relatively short period in cinema history when the only way to see a motion picture was to gather in groups in a darkened theatre,” writes George Stevens Jr in the anthology Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The words (and the book itself) are an ode to a time when film-watching was not yet possible in the privacy of one’s home, and I thought about them a few months ago, while watching Billy Wilder’s classic The Apartment in a mini-theatre; it was a reminder that despite my love of old Hollywood, I have seen very few of those films in conditions approximating a traditional theatre setting. And as a professional writer, one can feel like a bit of a fake pontificating about such movies despite being so removed in space and time from the way in which they were first seen (and intended to be seen).

I thought of Stevens’ words again at the Centenary Film Festival in Delhi last week, where I saw movies like the Navketan classic Baazi and Bimal Roy’s iconic Madhumati in a large hall in the Siri Fort Auditorium. Though the screen wasn’t covered end to end (most of the films I saw took up barely half the total screening space) and the prints weren't consistently good, it was still an experience to be valued. Early in Baazi, there is a terrific, symbolism-laden scene where the small-time gambler Madan (Dev Anand) is taken to a swish club and led ever deeper into a den of urban vice; as one door after another opens to admit him, new secrets come into view. I could relate to Madan’s wide-eyed expression: watching these films in this environment, I felt like I was walking through a time portal into a new and exotic place.

It was a place where you could see stars like Dilip Kumar rendered youthful again, on a big screen in a darkened hall, and imagine that this was how the original audiences saw them. You could gape at an opening-credits list that read like a roll-call of legends. (From Baazi: Guru Dutt, Balraj Sahni as writer, S D Burman and Sahir Ludhianvi, Zohra Sehgal in charge of “Dances”, and as assistants in small font size, V K Murthy, who would become one of our finest cinematographers, and Raj Khosla. From Madhumati: Bimal Roy, Ritwik Ghatak as screenplay-writer, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Salil Choudhury, Hrishikesh Mukherjee as editor.) Watching with the benefit of hindsight, you could engage in speculation too. To see an early, vulnerable Dev Anand – before his trademark mannerisms had been honed, and long before he went down the thorny road of self-parody – is to wonder: what if the audience hadn’t connected with this young man’s personality? What if Baazi had been a flop, Navketan had never got off the ground and Guru Dutt’s directorial career had been shelved? What would the history of Hindi film have looked like then? In a dark hall, these questions have a special immediacy.

To clarify, I’m not romanticising the theatre experience for the sake of it. Personally I like watching films on my own time and in my own space, many of my most cherished viewing experiences have been sans company, and there is a wider case to be made for the virtues of non-communal movie-watching. (In the US in the 1950s, home viewing begat a generation of movie students-turned-filmmakers who could appreciate personal, individualistic films without being distracted by other, possibly unresponsive viewers.) Nor was the Centenary Festival shorn of irritants. People walked in and out of auditoria, talking loudly, leaving doors open with light and sound flooding in. The emceeing before some screenings was over-earnest, there were prolonged and self-aggrandising speeches that sometimes led to delays.

And yet there was something special in the air. I felt it when a large section of the audience cheered loudly at the first appearance of the young Dev in his cap, scarf and old jacket – made up to look like a scruffy street vagabond but still an undeniable “star” presence – and when Rajesh Khanna burst through the door of the doctor’s clinic in Anand. Or when rows of viewers whistled at Johnny Walker’s drunken act atop a tree in Madhumati. Or when the man sitting in front of me began humming the opening notes of “Suhana Safar” in anticipation, during the montage of nature shots preceding the song.

Even watching the Fearless Nadia-starrer Diamond Queen – in a poor and poorly projected print – brought its own frisson. I overheard conversations between old people who had a dim memory of what Homi Wadia films were like (“lots of stunts”) but seemed to have forgotten about their remarkable blonde action heroine (playing a liberated “city-returned girl” who would have greatly intimidated Baazi’s Madan). A gentleman behind me, apparently knowledgeable, said a confident “Yes yes, Fearless Nanda” while reading out the opening credits for the edification of his companions.

There are other facets to watching old movies in this way. Performances which seem over-declamatory on TV can sometimes work better in a hall, because you feel like the actor is directing his gestures at a theatre full of people. It is closer to the experience of the stage, and one isn’t preoccupied with “naturalism” because this isn’t a mundane setting like your living room – it’s a special space that you have paid to be admitted into, where you perform the unnatural ritual of sitting quietly in the dark, like an audience at a magic performance, while pictures flash before your eyes at 24 frames a second. “Originally, the idea was to take yourself out of normal time to see a film,” the director Shyam Benegal told me during a recent conversation, “But when you watch a film on TV, you can be doing other things – chatting, eating, answering the door; you aren’t out of normal time.”

These screenings mostly took me out of “normal time”, but there were some unseemly ruptures in the fourth wall too. During a screening of Saeed Mirza’s Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai, the sound vanished for a few minutes until someone yelled in the general direction of the projection room. Shortly afterwards, the framing went awry, and finally there was an alarming moment when the film seemed to dissolve and burn in front of our eyes mid-scene. (The effect was akin to what Ingmar Bergman did in Persona, deliberately fraying the reel to interrupt the film’s narrative. But formally inventive as Mirza's film is in its own ways, that definitely wasn't what was going on here.)

For a tense five minutes, some of us wondered if we had been unwilling witnesses to a crime against art – the grisly destruction of an important print – but the film resumed and we were sucked back into the illusion. Still, it was a sobering reminder of what has and can be lost. The centenary fest was a welcome initiative, but on the 100th anniversary of the first public show of Raja Harishchandra, the poor state of film preservation and careless attitudes to screening often beg the question "Dadasaheb Phalke ke bhoot ko gussa kyon aata hai?"


  1. Interestingly I watched Madhumati last weekend. Though on a screen that is a few square inches larger than my face. I did wonder if the film was inspired by the great Welles short film - Return to Glennescaul which is of 23 mins duration involving a visit to an old manor inhabited by ghosts.

    Madhumati should also rank among the great musicals. Few films have as many eminently hummable songs!

  2. Shrikanth: as a brief continuation of things mentioned in this post - I felt like Dilip Kumar's performance in the opening scenes (where he is playing the more reserved Devendra) was almost too understated for the big screen. While Dev Anand in Baazi and even Rajesh Khanna in Anand seemed more effective, precisely because they seemed more aware of the camera and were playing to it once in a while. (Don't want to form any major theories about screen acting based on this limited set of examples, but I did find it interesting.)

  3. That was just an anachronistic homage to the celebrated ending of Two Lane Blacktop. Essayed by the wily, cinema-smart projectionist, of course.

  4. Yeah. In those early scenes he seemed as real and prosaic as the guy sitting next to you.

    I am beginning to like Dilip Kumar a lot more. Also watched Paigham and Gunga Jumna - the former a curiosity made interesting mainly by Dilip Kumar, the latter a veritable masterpiece in most respects.

    While Dev Anand in Baazi and even Rajesh Khanna in Anand seemed more effective, precisely because they seemed more aware of the camera and were playing to it once in a while

    Good point. Rajesh Khanna in Anand can be cringe-worthy and embarrassing on small screen though the hamming may be effective in a movie house setting.
    It's a bit like the old-world actors in Hollywood such as John Barrymore and Greta Garbo who were perhaps huge hits among movie goers back in their day but very embarrassing on a small screen!

    In contrast understated actors like Dana Andrews look and sound better to modern movie goers probably because we see them on a small screen.

  5. Sudipto: wait, you were in the projection room in Audi 4?! Couldn't you have spliced bits of Mondo Trasho into the film?

  6. I watched Dharmputra. I loved it. I wonder why YC took to Switzerland, chiffon sarees, and tendrils of smoke in later years when he could pull off Dharmputra.

    However, I was deeply disappointed when they called off the premiere of Bombay Matinee, and Anurag Kashyap didn't turn up.

    To be very honest, I expected YOU to anchor the discussion panel instead of Kaveree Bazmee (I agree she did a wonderful job, but still).

  7. @ shrikanth...

    I did wonder if the film was inspired by the great Welles short film - Return to Glennescaul which is of 23 mins duration involving a visit to an old manor inhabited by ghosts.

    I don't think so. First of all watching a short film by Orson Welles is quite difficult in those times. (Though Ghatak might have have seen the film.) I have heard Ghatak wrote the film just to prove he can come out with a blockbuster screenplay.

    But the film works because Bimal Roy builds from the screenplay a classic drama. If Ghatak directed the film would have been good or excellent, but different and may be even less many ways something like 'Meghe Dakha Tara'.

  8. But the film works because Bimal Roy builds from the screenplay a classic drama

    The movie works because Roy leverages the much maligned melodramatic devices and the great song-and-dance tradition of "commercial" Bollywood.

    A spare film bereft of these devices would've been less memorable and more pretentious.