On a hot summer evening in 2002 when I wrested out the television remote from my mother’s hand after a spirited fight, little did I know that my life was going to change forever.
Though I wanted to change the channel and watch some cricketing contest, my attention was grabbed by a scene from a Malayalam movie Chintavisthayay Shyamala (Care worn Shyamala) , showing two young girls pleading with their father not to desert them again.
Ayyo acha pogalle…… ayyo acha pogalle (Oh! Father don’t leave us… oh! Father don’t leave us)
The farcical way in which the girls deliver their lines was so humiliating and tickling that I wanted to turn my gaze away but was loath to change the channel at the same time. It reminded me one such ludicrous situation my father had put me in after becoming sober, following a rather high night-out with his friends. After a long and heated verbal duel with my mother, father realised his folly. However, not the one to accept his defeat, he took me aside and promised me a treat if I cried and tried stopping him when he attempted to leave. When the moment arrived, I, in my over eagerness, cried out asking for the treat he promised, rather than attempting to stop him. My mother soon decoded from my words the under-the-table deal I had struck with my father and took both of us to task.
Enough of my digression. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. And were I to draw a picture of my childhood detailing the impact of cinema, it would not be all that rosy. Bloodshed, fight, romance and songs at the drop of a hat were what I had to come to expect of this art after having grown up on ample dose of mediocre fare based on tried and tested formula, with only names of the movies and actors changing. Cinema in its purest form was an unknown quantity.
What Shyamala did for me was a great service. It jolted me out of my comfort zone and pushed me search for more of its kind. My world had changed from “of and for enjoyment” to a more intense passion of witnessing human mind in its multitude of emotions, ranging from the sublime to the basest. I wanted my protagonists to be more like me, a common man mired in everyday issues of survival and existence, not surrounded by made-up divas vying for his attention.
Ever since that tussle over remote control over a decade ago, I have come a long way. In the bygone decade I have watched movies from across genres and world. My preconceptions about cinema being only a medium of enjoyment, not learning, were corrected over a period of time by stalwarts of this art. Be it Satyajit Ray‘s Aranyer Dinaratri, Kurosawa’s Ran or Majid Majidi’s Rang-e-khoda all have left me richer with experiences of places I might seldom visit, wisdom of people I might never meet and knowledge of the workings of a human mind at its vulnerable worst.
I have come to believe that cinema is an extension of literature and should be taken as such. Until a work of art makes you question the dogmas you have so steadfastly held on to or gives a new dimension to your thoughts, its impact is lost. The same yardstick could be applied to the impact of movies in a common man’s life. Art is the medium through which a mind expresses its creativity to rise above the dreary reality and monotony of existence. Throughout cultures and through the ages, man has invariably placed art on high a pedestal owing to its transcendental nature, as it elevates the practitioner from being a mere mortal to the position of a creator, while transporting the connoisseur to another realm of existence and experience. Were it not for art, man would have been just another animal in the food chain, battling perpetually for a higher position in the pecking order.
The progress of art could be linked to the evolution of man. From rudimentary manifestation of basic skills to elaborate depiction of human imagination, man and art have walked the aisle of growth together. Most of the things that we take for granted in this age were once ideas, scoffed at by many. The very persons that we hold in high esteem now were those persecuted for the mere act of questioning the norms of those days. We have come a long way from believing earth was flat and that our own blue speck was the centre of universe. The sophisticated repository of knowledge that we have become owes largely to the bounty of imagination that nature has bestowed upon us.
However, when the art becomes just another source of revenue generation, it loses its purity. Fame, glory and money, any practitioner worth his salt would tell you, is only incidental. Despite all the paeans one could sing about the glory of cinema, the reality is that quality is on the wane. Notwithstanding the improvements in scale and technology, the art has lost its merit and has metamorphosed into just another medium of entertainment. One among the scores that vie for human attention. The fall in standards is an indictment of the lowering levels of taste among this generation. An upwardly mobile section with disposable income capable of shelling out ₹1,000 for a weekend dash of action and romance has emboldened even those with the least affinity to the art to convert it into a trade.
What this rampant commercialisation of an art is wreaking is the end of another medium through which change could be wrought. While I’m not saying that good movies are not forthcoming, they are few and far in between. While audience taste could be cultivated by dishing out good fare, I’m apprehensive whether the same could be said about the makers, for there is no substitute for talent and love for an art. It is the responsibility of a true artist to mould the opinion of the generation he is part of. Mass frenzy should not be the touchstone he assesses his talent or worth against.
This is where the role of a cultivated critic assumes significance. A true critic has taste, cultivated over a lifetime of indulgence with an art. A review of merits and demerits of a work of art could be undertaken only when the person dissecting the subject understands its nuances, its history and implication. When a person, well versed in all the artifice that constitute the work, knows the sum and parts like the back of his hand and undertakes a detailed study to interpret and equip the lesser trained eyes with knowledge, it’s a mutually beneficial exercise, both for the reviewer and the subject. While on one hand the critic stands the chance of delving deep into the work and coming up with deeper meanings, the artist on the other hand gets an unbiased and meticulous assessment.
However, over the years, the role and importance of a critic has been diluted. From being an expert in the field, the reviewer’s status has been downgraded to that of a secretary, where he notes down the points of interest and minutes of a discussion. The combination of declining standards of these varied factors has placed cinema in a rather unenviable position. While there’s patronage for any kind of work, even if it be based on sorry story, the dearth of a true critic is hampering their chances of ever understanding what they are missing. Even as the makers rake in the millions, it’s the unsuspecting multitude with a buck too many to spare that is driving the final nail into the coffin of another art.