Kumar Talkies: A repeated shot of Pankaj with his mother indicates they are trying to arrive at the meaning of this theater in their family history but cannot do so.
People arrive at the theater. Kumar uses his film to explore the place that Indian cinema occupies in the life of a small town, and the poverty and lives of these villagers who love popular romance films.
The ticket window, shot from both the inside and the outside, is a repeated motif that alludes to cinema both as a business and a collective cultural sensibility.
Putting up movie posters before the opening of a film. The people whom Kumar interviews often strike poses and speak lines from Hindi films.
The present owner of the theater. In his film, an autobiography, Kumar is not able to confront directly his father’s decision to abandon the theater, which in fact was a pragmatic choice made for economic reasons. He thus frames many shots of the current owner as isolated and trapped in a small town.
Making movie posters and pasting them is a job that is sustained by the movie industry. Now, posters are increasingly generated through computer graphics pushing the workers who painted posters out of work.
Pankaj Rishi Kumar’s Kumar Talkies (1999, 60 min) suggests another way in which a personal approach can be a springboard to examine the political. The film is motivated, as Kumar narrates, by his his father’s death four years ago. Kumar wanted to see what happened to the movie theater that his father had built in Kalpi, a small town in Western India. Beginning from this personal anecdote, the film details the place that Indian cinema occupies in the life of a small town, the marginalization of this town in the Indian economy, and the lives of those who consume Bombay films.
Kumar not only makes explicit the act of filmmaking, he goes on to take apart the conventions by which the authority of the filmmaker is inscribed both inside the film and in the social context of film production itself. The latter social analysis of the mediamaker’s authority sets Kumar Talkies apart from other autobiographical films marked by an “aesthetics of failure.” Those autobiographies have no hesitation in revealing and even highlighting the process of filming but back off from examining the filmmaker’s power.
We see Kumar with a microphone, asking people if they would agree to be interviewed. We hear people advise him to shoot in the morning or evening rather than in the midday sun. We see the way he uses the cycle rickshaw as a dolly as he orders the rickshaw-puller to slow down, reverse and then go forward. No effort is made to establish a false pretense of invisibility or “seamless” filmmaking. People observe, discuss, and address Kumar as he goes around the town with his cameraman.
We also see his authority in organizing the film. One remarkable sequence shows clearly where the power lies. While Kumar stands holding the microphone, a man walks up to him, puts his arm around the director, and announces in words that mimic a sequence from a popular feature film we have just seen clips of that he loves Kumar like his brother and will go with him to Bombay. The man seems quite the star of this sequence. He holds the attention of the camera, which turns off only when he’s finished with his monologue. However, as the shot fades to black, we hear Kumar log that sequence. The man on the street’s attention grabbing moment finally becomes just one sequence in Kumar’s story, and the man’s performance canned as part of Kumar’s film with no hopes of realization in life. It is not he but his image who will travel with Kumar to Bombay.
Further, Kumar makes apparent the power he wields on account of his class and his prestige as a filmmaker. Returning to Kalpi, he is a filmmaker from Bombay and the son of the man who started the only existing theater in town gives Kumar. This role as media figure gives Kumar access to both local elites and working class. At one point we see him request that the next screening in the cinema be postponed by half an hour so that he can finish interviewing the audience!
The camera clearly acts as a provocateur and so uncovers the place that cinema occupies in the imaginative and economic life of this small town. People act out in front of the camera, often strike poses, and speak lines from Hindi films. Their readiness to do so indicates the extent to which Hindi cinema’s themes and postures are part of everyday life. What emerges is a complex picture of the way a crumbling movie theater represents the town’s economic decline. The cinema is also a microcosm of the power relations that surround it. Thus, women cannot see films. And the “A class” people, as the local cable operator describes the upper income families, watch programs on their color televisions and do not fill the theater. Just as cinema replaced community folk performances of an earlier time, it now is being replaced by cable television.
Kumar’s careful attention to the small, repetitive details of everyday village life echoes the mundane quality of running the theater in this town. The cinema faces repeated power outages and reels missed at the whims of the projectionist. Kumar includes repeated shots of the audience and of film reels carried over the small slope into the courtyard of the theater. Interviews and Hindi film songs paint an evocative picture of popular cinema’s promises to lift viewers out of everyday life but its inability to do so.
However, Kumar is quite reticent about his own investment in this story. In particular, he fails to take up the question he starts the film with: to understand his father’s relationship to cinema and to imagine his own life had he continued to live in Kalpi. At one level he raises a deeply private matter most of us have to deal with: coming to terms with a parent’s death and inheriting some kind of legacy from them. At another level Kumar’s choice to leave Kalpi, like his father’s search for a career in commercial Bombay cinema, is about the human dimensions of the economic process known as capitalism. That is, capitalism relies on planned imbalances and areas of underdevelopment and these compel people’s movement into urban centers, a movement experienced quite differently in terms of class. Finally, in recounting his personal narrative of a declining theater in a small town, Kumar appears to grapple with film’s social meaning, especially when it is constrained by concepts of entertainment and profit.
Unlike Kanwar who uses a poetic voice over to weave his own personal and family history directly into that of the nation, Kumar’s personal investigations do not easily trace larger sociopolitical connections. Yet Kumar opens up this task to the audience by making visible his awkwardness and inability to examine the personal so publicly. He does so by leaving images and questions unanswered in the film. For example, he is not able to confront directly his father’s decision to abandon the theater, which in fact was a pragmatic choice made for economic reasons. Kumar displaces this inquiry onto the present owner of the theater, who took over the theater from his father. Kumar frames odd long shots of this man sitting alone on a chair as the camera looks down upon him from a height. The effect is that we see the image of a man trapped in a small town.
Kumar’s interviews with his mother and family members also indicate his difficulties in locating his own motivations for making this film. He leaves unexplored his relative’s claim that the entire film Kalpi is an exercise in nostalgia. Retaining such loose threads narratively speaking can be construed as a weakness in conventional film, both commercial and documentary. In this case, however, it is completely consistent with the whole film’s openness about the mechanisms of its construction.
The autobiographical mode in both the above films, one openly autobiographical and the other resistant, opens up Indian documentary to exploring areas of collective subjectivity, including affect, memory, desire and hope. In Indian culture, there are areas previously left to poetry and song. In fact, the presence of leftist songwriters in popular Indian cinema, such as the late Kaifi Azmi and Sahir Ludhianvi, has ensured the popularity of radical poetry, although Indians otherwise have long appreciated protest verse. Even now people considered technically illiterate will recite poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz or Iqbal, and popular movements have left a rich oral tradition of song. However, while songs are such a staple feature of popular commercial film, they have yet to find their way into the documentary. In the light of that strong poetic and song tradition, then, I would have to conclude that although they incorporate emotion, neither of the two films I discuss comes close to adopting a form that would resonate like a protest song, although this form is now quite common in Indian street theater.
I base this conclusion on the fact that both the films are still quite tied to the rationalist discourse that has predominated Indian documentary, calling upon the audience to study, not sing, its conclusions. What is new is the fact that both the films set out to explore the objective and subjective, the interior and the external, and the human dimensions of economic and political factors. The autobiographical mode through which Kanwar connects his personal history to that of the nation allows him to explore memory and the collective psyche. In choosing a stance that is poetic and reflective, he places upon each individual viewer the responsibility to examine his/her stance on non-violence. This connection between individual responsibility and a collective stance on non-violence is consistent with Kanwar’s largely Gandhian and Buddhist orientation. His aesthetic therefore coheres with his film’s content and political purpose to generate discussion on communal violence.
Kumar’s mode of address, more in keeping with documentary’s traditional intellectualism, nevertheless dissolves into the poetic. It cannot resist its subject matter’s affective resonance. The state of popular cinema in a time of economic decline represents the crushing of dreams by harsh material factors. As I have suggested this subjective experience of objective realities is most evocatively expressed in the gaps in Kumar’s film; in the lyrical empty shots showing the current theater owner, the slope leading out of the theater, and most of all, popular film songs that Kumar does not reduce to sentimentality.
Significantly, both of these filmmakers have gone on to work on projects directly related to poetic expressions of political protest. Kumar has recently finished The Play is On... about the performances of Bhands, folk artists who perform satirical theater across war-ravaged Kashmir. Kanwar has just completed A Night of Prophecy based on diverse social movements’ protest songs and poetry. In the work of other documentarists, this kind of thematic and stylistic shift to the personal has allowed an exploration of sexuality and gender. Examples of these films include Our Boys (Manare Hassin, Bangladesh, 1999), A Rough Cut on the Life and Times of Lachuman Magar (Dinesh Deokopta, Nepal, 2001), Male Train (Shiladitya Sanyal, India, 2000), King of Dreams (Amar Kanwar, 2001, India) and My Friend Su (Neeraj Bhasin, India 2001).
Of course, other Indian documentarists do echo the “Western” postmodern stance of bourgeois self-indulgence, narcissistic dwelling on the self, and identity politics. Any artist working in an autobiographical vein can refuse to connect one’s personal story to the history of the collective or to reveal one’s own historical and material position. Rather than dwell on those works, I have chosen to write about Indian films that extend the scope of the documentary, experimenting with both form and content, while retaining its commitment to interpret and change the world. I and many other filmmakers in and from India reject cynical and jaded postmodern obsessions with form, assertions that there is nothing new to be made but to quote and play with other representations. In the face of claims that there is no reality beyond subjective discursive interpretations, we need to assert that there are stories still to be told, lives to be represented, that cinema still matters. Otherwise documentary filmmakers who take as their subject the historical and material world we occupy may as well pack up and leave. For to engage with this world without humanism, hope or desire for social transformation is the luxury of the bourgeois intellectual, and he has never been on the wrong side of the tracks.