Author Interview: We Have Always Had an Over-Dependence on Hindi Cinema in What We Call Indian Cinema, Says Amitava Nag

Celebrating the golden age of Bengali Cinema, independent film critic and academic Amitava Nag’s insightful release, The Cinema of Tapan Sinha: An Introduction offers readers an essential gateway into the work and life of a luminary director. Talking about Tagore, Indian cinema and the value of literature, a tall, succinct and forthcoming Nag, who claims to be a critic for pleasure, captivated Kunzum with an enlightening conversation on all things creative and filmy. The following is a record of said exchange:

Sashrika: Your book on Tapan Sinha takes us into the life of a director who, while at par with Satyajit Ray, is perhaps not as commonly known. In the context of that, what is the importance of your book and what are you trying to achieve for the common reader?

Amitava Nag: Tapan Sinha is a filmmaker who passed away in 2009, so it’s been a while, and he stopped making films after 2000. His films were talking about an aspect of human sentiment that continues to be valid. He’s talking about human relationships. He’s talking about the urge for an individual to succeed. So that remains, even if we have become more technologically advanced. So I think that is the very important part. 

And secondly, my urge is to write in English so that others can understand what I have written and then go to his films. So the objective is not ending with my writing. It should go to someone picking up the book, reading a chapter and then going and watching the film. But for that we also need the films to be available, right? So that is the other part of it, which is beyond my scope. 

Sashrika: Sinha existed at an interesting modernist moment where regional literature and culture as well as foreign films, both played a prominent role in the type of art and cinema that was being produced. This holds for Tagore’s time as well where the West stood in the visible peripheral as India attempted to fashion an aesthetic of its ‘own’. While both these periods are fairly far apart, this seems to be true for art production at any time. So my question would be to ask of cinema today—what are your views on the state of affairs within Indian cinema? The influence of the West? As well as Hindi cinema’s attempts to adapt regional stories for a mainstream Hindi audience.

Amitava Nag: What is happening over the last 5-10 years… Because I am part of an international film critics circle, which is called ‘Fipresci’. So I have to watch a lot of Indian films, made in different Indian languages from across the country. I have to watch around 50 films in a year, along with the other critics who are part of the jury. And then we rate films like ‘this is the best Indian film’. So it’s not only about Bangla films or Malayalam films or Punjabi films or any particular place… it includes Hindi cinema as well. We have always had an over-dependence on Hindi cinema in what we call Indian cinema. So there had been, for a while, this sort of whitelisting of sorts that Indian cinema is equal to Hindi cinema. But I know that it’s not because there are so many films which are being made throughout the country. In today’s world, I think because of the change in technology, you will find that it has made filmmaking easier. In a way, in a particular way. And there are a lot of filmmakers from different parts of the country who have the courage and also the means of making films. 

So I think that ultimately, at the end of the day, for any writer or any filmmaker, it’s about a search for identity. When I write I am searching for an identity, right? It may be my own. It may be my race’s, it may be my language’s, it may be my country’s, some sort of an identity. So identity-seeking is the main thing for any creator. 

Now, if it is a universal identity, like something that cuts across the classes and the countries, like these filmmakers… Like when you say the relationship between a father and a son as you see in, say, De Sica’s films, Bicycle Thieves, or you see your father and son in Satyajit Ray’s films, it’s it doesn’t need to be an Indian father and Indian son. When we become too focused on our regional and narrow identities then it’s a problem. I think Indian cinema has the diversity to go beyond all this.

The problem is not about the making part of it. The problem is in its reach. So that’s the distribution channel. So I hope that with OTTs and all the stuff… though it’s not very promising at this point, one day will come when people will be able to showcase their films. 

Sashrika: What are your views on the emergence of tokenistic representation, militaristic sentiments of nationalism and a disturbing reverence for political correctness, which has now coloured the way we make literature or cinema? 

Amitava Nag: Because I think individually the filmmakers or the writers, the creators, we are too afraid of losing things. What I mean is that if I’m so-called “politically incorrect”, I fear that that will lead to me not getting certain advantages in certain places. So I think fear is a very important factor that has crept in. And I think fear comes from complacency. Fear comes from feeling comfort in the way we live. The filmmakers or the writers, those who wrote in the last 50 years or so, came from societies from families where they were more rebellious within themselves. We come from elite middle-class affluent families. So we fear a lot in taking risks. 

Sashrika: How do you think OTT platforms have contributed to the consumption of regional cinema? 

Amitava Nag: See, I had a lot of hope when OTT first came into being because I thought that… see as a country our geography is limited. And the number of halls and theatres was limited. At the time I made this calculation that par hall the number of films which are getting released and the number of halls which we have, the population which we have, so per hall you have something like lakhs to watch that film within that time period, which is not possible, right? And with the single screens going down, it was even more difficult. At this point in time, this OTT thing came. So I had a lot of hope with OTT. But it has somehow become like a ‘big fish eating the small fish’ sort of a thing. And what was happening in the physical space is now happening in the digital space as well. 

But I generally am an optimistic person. So I think that there will be other ways by which people will try to figure out ways of distributing their films. 

Sashrika: What type of stories do you gravitate towards as a critic? What type of stories do you crave to review and consume? 

Amitava Nag: See, I’m not a professional critic in the sense that no one pays me for doing this. But yeah, I do it. I’m part of organizations on an honorary basis. So I do it on my own for my own pleasure. I think at the end of the day, at my age, the things which speak about human relationship, in whatever form… it may be a couple relationship or maybe a grandfather and a granddaughter or whatever relationship, I think that is what touches the most. It’s not about the blatant showcase of technology. 

Sashrika: And what are things that audience members should perhaps think about or ask when they are consuming narratives? 

Amitava Nag: I think we don’t have a proper upbringing to appreciate… not only films but also art in general. And I happen to introduce films to very young minds, students in classes 8 to 12, in a school, regularly for the last many years. And I tell them to, at a very basic level, just say ‘What are the three things you like in a film?’ and ‘What are the two things which you don’t like in a film?’ Most of the time, many of the children come back saying that this film is so bad that there are no good things. Or that this film is so good that there are no bad things. And I tell them that even if it’s very good, try to figure out one or two things which are bad and vice versa. The reason is— at the end of this you will be better placed to understand what your likes and dislikes are. 

We don’t have a culture of confidence. We don’t have a culture where a young person will say ‘I don’t like this’ when everyone else says that this is very good. So we have to give them that support. So that they can very openly talk about the things that they liked and the things that they did not like. The only ask for me is that whatever you call ‘good’ or ‘bad’, you have to give a justification for it. And in art, there is no one correct answer. 

Sashrika: So going back to the Golden Age of Bengali Cinema, one cannot help but recognize Tagore’s presence in the films that were being made at the time. Why do you think directors took to Tagore more than other Bengali authors? 

Amitava Nag: Tagore’s stories gave a very easy template to work upon. There is an example like Mrinal Sen, whose centenary is going on. He did not make any films on Tagore’s stories. There is only one children’s film, but apart from that, all the 25-27 films he made, none of them are from Tagore stories. 

But yes, as I said, Tagore was a very big influence and there are so many films … like Tapan Sinha’s, which we discussed, a film called Kabuliwala. If you have watched that film or the Hindi version of that film, it’s about an Afghan fruit seller who befriends a girl called Mini. So that talks about such a basic sentiment, where this young girl is not intimidated by a man. A bearded man. A big man who doesn’t resemble anyone in her family. And they can still be friends. If you watch the film, you will find that at one point in time, the father of the girl realizes that the Afghan fruit seller also has a young daughter at home and he is trying to relieve the moments with his daughter through Mini. So then in the actual story, it says: ‘Then I realized that like me, he is also a father.’

So that is where it connects. It talks about such an important and strong feeling. Those are the things that appeal to the filmmakers. Half of the work is done if you pick up a Tagore story. 

Sashrika: How do you think Bengali cinema and its sensibilities differ from those of mainstream Hindi cinema?

Amitava Nag: Now I am not very sure, but I can talk about the 50s, 60s and 70s. Bengali cinema depended a lot on literature. Not on Tagore, but on literature. And in literature, you have very strong authors… like we had Sharad Chandra and Bibhutihushan and many other authors. If you make a film on a literary piece, then a lot of things are very easy. If it’s a good literary piece, then you don’t have to develop the character afresh. So if you make a film that follows the literary path, then too you go somewhere with it. Great filmmakers take it beyond the literary path, like Satyajit Ray. 

I think that was the main difference— the literary aspect of it. That is why if you look at those Bengali filmmakers who migrated to Bombay during the 1940s and ’47, at the time of the partition of Bengal… Two notable ones: Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. If you watch Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films, most of his films are Bengali films, but the characters speak in Hindi. It talks about those types of families where there is a big brother, there is an affectionate relationship between the sister-in-law and the young… it’s a Bengali set-up. The only thing is that the characters are speaking in Hindi. So that’s sort of a literary aspect is something that the Bengali filmmakers brought in. 

There are also very important and strong women characters throughout Bengali literature and film, and that comes from way back. Because if you look at the place that is Bengal, it used to be inhabited by the Aboriginals. They had their goddesses. The whole of India worships the male gods. Bengal is the place that worships the female gods.  Like Durga and Kali— the Devi. So that comes into our literature as well as our films. All these filmmakers have strong women characters. Both Rey and Tapan Sinha, Mrinal Sen…Rabindranath Thakur and these people… all have strong female characters. That is the differentiator. If you watch Bandini or Sujata, they have strong female characters. 

Sashrika: Can you talk about the books and the authors that have greatly shaped your understanding of the world? 

Amitava Nag: It’s very difficult. Yes, I read a lot. I was fortunate that my parents didn’t have a television at home when we were growing up in the late 70s. And the only thing which we had was access to a lot of books, both in Bangla and English. So I read a lot. Yes, the Bengali writers were there and I picked up a lot of English writers as well. The Russian ones are the ones which were very popular because I don’t know but at our times there were very cheap translations of Russian authors in English and in other languages as well. So I read a lot of Russian authors at a very cheap price. 

Like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev. Those who are growing up in the 70s and 80s, and more or less surely in Kolkata, most of them had those books in their homes (apart from the Bengali ones). So we read a lot. And my parents didn’t judge me based on the books I was reading. They gave me access to read books which they didn’t like, as well as those that they did like. I now feel that a bit of hand-holding would have been better. 

Sashrika: But isn’t it good to have had the freedom to explore? 

Amitava Nag: Yes, to an extent, but then you lose a lot of time. And then you realize that, OK I shouldn’t have read all these things, it cost me a few years. Or anyway, that’s how it is. 

Sashrika: Why is reading important? 

Amitava Nag: Reading is important because unlike anything reading opens your mind. It takes you through an experience that is more than two and a half hours and it makes you think at that point in time and also afterwards. I think nothing can replace reading. It doesn’t matter whether you take a printed book. It can be a Kindle, it can be a mobile screen or anything. But we all have this urge to express ourselves. Everyone. 

I take these courses in film institutes— I start by showing them the cave paintings, which date back to 40,000 years and are the earliest recorded urge of human beings to leave their mark behind. And leaving their mark is not by speaking, it is by writing or drawing or doing something like that. So I think reading opens the mind of every individual. I may not like what you are reading, but I will appreciate that you are reading. So that’s the way it should be. 

I think one problem which we have in India is that younger children are not reading that much. Unless you read— and that’s my belief, I may be old fashioned— but unless you read, it’s difficult to become good at anything. Be it arts or science or anything like that for that matter. So I did my computer engineering. I worked at corporates. And I found that reading anything is important. 

Sashrika: And for someone who’s trying to get a ‘starter course’ for Bengali cinema, what films should they start with? 

Amitava Nag: That’s again a big question! I think the easiest thing to start with are Satyajit Ray’s films, because Satyajit Ray, like Rabindranath Thakur, can be accessed at multiple levels. So you can, as a beginner, access a very basic level. And at a later point in time, you can revisit and you can understand that OK, it meant something different. 

I can give you one example of a film called Mahanagar, whose English name is The Big City, it was made in 1963. So there was this dialogue by Madhabi Mukherjee, who played the role of Arati, and she is asking her husband that when we write ‘Mazumder’, that’s their surname, do we use ‘Z’ or ‘J’? And with that single dialogue what Ray is trying to say is that this woman has never written her name in English. So it’s that subtle. 

You don’t need to have a lot of dialogues like ‘See, I have not written… You are asking me to write a CV in English, so I’m writing, so I’m asking you.’ Nothing of that sort. She’s just asking ‘J likhi na Z likhi?’ So at the highest level, any art should be minimalistic. You say more by saying less. 

Pick up Amitava Nag’s ‘The Cinema of Tapan Sinha’ from any Kunzum store or WhatsApp +91.8800200280 to order. Buy the book(s) and the coffee’s on us.

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