Breaking out of the norm of the form
“What has always fascinated me about cinema of South Asia is that it is so completely different from the rest of the world; there is no other country in the world that has this form,” began Shyam Benegal -- seven-time Indian National Film Award winner and recipient of honours as big as Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri, at his felicitation by the International Short and Independent Film Festival (ISIFF), currently ongoing in Dhaka. The event was held at the Dance and Music Auditorium of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy on Sunday, where Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu was present as chief guest.
But before the stalwart filmmaker gave a captivating mini-lecture about the form and content of films, filmmaker and expert Salauddin Zaki and M Omar Rahman, Vice Chancellor of Independent University, Bangladesh – who were co-organisers of the event, spoke at the event.
Benegal spoke of how the concept of dance and songs are so deeply rooted in the films of this region. “It all comes from a common tradition, and it is one that follows a common aesthetic principle that we all naturally follow. And it is based on certain principles that come down in both folk and classical culture, from Sanskrit theatre.” He spoke of the 'Navaras' or the nine essences that is mentioned in classical thinking of the emotions we all have, and the audience derives an aesthetic pleasure from a combination and variation of all the essences in any kind of art or entertainment. Indian theatre, in its effort to provide a totality of the aesthetic experience, brought in other forms of art, like music, dance and even acrobatics. “Even during the silent film era, there would be live performances in between changing of reels. But when sound came, it became easy to integrate everything together. When we made our first film, 'Alam Ara' in 1931, I don't know if you all know it -- but it had 65 songs!” Benegal exclaimed. “This form became so popular that we couldn't get rid of the idea; it became a form in itself. And this is unique to this region; so it can be said that this is a contribution to cinematic arts by South Asia.”
But he then pointed out the problem it brought: “It brought a form so rigorous, that it started to create an unnecessarily rigorous form that dominated any kind of content. It became a Procrustean bed; everything that was made had to fit in the form, or else it would be reshaped to do so. A movement developed against it, but it did not take shape because there was a great deal of pressure from the film business. It wasn't until the 1950s that the triumvirate of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen all made their appearance at the same time, and came up with films with their own voices. While the Indian audience would only be aesthetically satisfied with a film that had all the nine essences, these three didn't reject it; but they presented it in a different form.” The revolutionary and radical movement that essentially started in the Bangla language then spread to other parts of India, in Malayalam and Odissi, but not in Hindi, Benegal added. But that was until Benegal himself, and a few others (in his words) came to the scene all at once. “I was quite conscious that it was important for films to offer a complete aesthetic experience; but it did not have to follow the form.” He however also clarified that such form-defying films remain at the margins and not into the mainstay, in any language or region. “But what it has done is given cinematic art and entertainment a whole new dimension that no one believed existed,” Benegal closed on a positive note.
Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu termed Benegal a “co-fighter” in the struggle for secular, liberal thinking, and sought his help in making the Bangladesh Film and Television Institute a world-class organisation. He handed a crest to the filmmaker, and adorned him with an uttorio. Also present at the programme were organisers of ISIFF and noted film personalities-- including Nasiruddin Yousuff, Manzare Hasin Murad, Morshedul Islam and Moshiuddin Shaker.