I tend to disagree with the concept of art for art’s sake and view all creative activity as purposive – be it literature, art, music or even cinema. However, I have often wondered too how these purposes have been achieved and in attempting to understand the entire process have come to agree with scholars of yore who view all art experience as a tripartite event which includes the author, the medium of expression and, finally, the empathiser who is either the reader, the listener or the viewer, according to the medium of expression. The onus of achievement, however, lies in the ability of the work to be able to inspire a response in the mind of the empathiser. All creative activity is actualised when and only when it finds a resonance in the empathiser.
Having danced for the last thirty-five years and written for about half of those many years I tend to view my audience and my reader with a healthy respect and treat each of their responses with due consideration. It took Film South Asia to teach me that the same goes for every other form of expression.
I was admittedly apprehensive when asked to be a member of the jury of Film South Asia ’03 in September 2003, together with Mark Tully, of radio fame, and Mizorams’ Lalswamlani, of the India International Centre Film Club (Delhi). Films are not my line of expression. I wondered if I would be able to do justice to a medium which used celluloid images and a specialised technology that I knew nothing about. I motivated myself for the juryship by convincing myself that visual images are just another tool for expression and could possibly, at one level, be judged merely on their success in articulating just what they had intended to, irrespective of the technicalities inherent in the mode.
Watching the 43 films in final line-up at FSA ’03 with my fellow jurors, I was not proved wrong. However, in those three and a half days of intense viewing I added another criterion, subjective though it was. Documentaries, I had thought, differed from features by the fact that they presented reality as it is without editorialised narration. I came to realise that, on the contrary, documentaries were all about editorial interpolations which were all the more forceful when they came not just as verbal narratives but as visual images; images that made you ‘see’ the world, that you had grown up with, anew. For me that principle became the determining factor. Did the visuals add to the discourse on that subject in the print media thus justifying their usage? I searched for convincing visual tracts that enhanced my knowledge of a particular subject and in this way gauged their efficacy.
There was, of course, another major concern. Through the years, FSA has come to stand for a platform where liberal filmmakers are assured uncensored screening of their work. If not explicitly, implicitly it is the activist’s stage. FSA is all about documentaries that speak for the people of South Asia and about issues that are tearing the region apart. FSA can proudly say it stands for the voice of the people of South Asia – be they marginalised segments of society, or unheralded men and women on the streets and in the villages. Given the character of FSA, we, the members of the jury wondered if we were to make a political statement through our choice. After some soul searching we decided otherwise. The bottom-line was to be the craft itself.
As such, I emphatically feel that our choice of P. Balan’s The 18th Elephant – 3 Monologues allowed us to remain true to our conscience while awarding the young filmmaker from South India for his exquisite use of the moving picture to document the unscrupulous attitude of mankind towards mute fellow creatures. Kawsar Chowdhury’s documentation of the atrocious happenings of 25 March 1971, when the Pakistani army had attacked academic quarters in Dhaka, was the cause of much personal angst for myself. While we had, all of us, been convincingly touched by the stark recreation of that dark night, I was personally of the opinion that such films served only to deepen divides while jettisoning the need to forgive and move ahead with our lives. I reminded myself that the awards were not a testimony of my beliefs and the Tale of the Darkest Night was definitely a fine example of the genre of reconstructed reportage. I set aside my reservations. The visuals of Sand and Water, truly, told the tale of the unknown heroes of South Asia. The unadorned blend of sorrow and joy, filmed in the Bangladeshi delta, speaks of the resilience of South Asians as a people and could have been filmed anywhere in the Subcontinent. Our choice of Fire Within was absolutely undisputed. It had brought to life the unfair marginalisation of ethnic minorities true for all the nations of South Asia. And of course with Bhedako Oon Jasto we gave in to the sheer joy exuded by the entire exercise of ‘searching for a song’ in the hills of Nepal. There were undertones in the films which said much through suggestive images alone.
The choices for the outstanding films of Film South Asia ‘03, though initially difficult, were made unanimously and left us satisfied about a job well done. It was not to be.
The awards ceremony over at the Jai Nepal Cinema Hall, the efficient team of festival organisers gathered together the assorted group of participants (filmmakers, volunteers, jury members) and drove us to the exquisite premises of the Patan Durbar Square for a sumptuous Newari feast signalling the closure of festivities. As judgments are bound to do, ours too had brought with it its fair share of concurrence and conflict. It was of course just as expected. So far so good.
Then I was introduced to this handsome filmmaker who looked at me down his nose. After a brief brooding glance, Anand Patwardhan accosted me outright about the absence of any ‘anti-fascist’ films in our list of awards. I had not been expecting such a direct confrontation and quietly replied that as jury we had felt that these films could have been better crafted. Patwardhan was grossly affronted and challenged my credentials for telling off a filmmaker like him who had been in the business for 30 years and went on to inform me that documentaries were not about aesthetics and ‘beautiful sunsets’. On hindsight, I do concede that I could have been more sensitive towards a filmmaker of Patwardhan’s stature and skill, for his War and Peace had deeply impressed us all. What I should instead have said was that the films that had been awarded were, we felt, better crafted.
Of course, I realise that that too would not have pleased Patwardhan. Undeterred I had asked him if he thought that the 18th Elephant film was not made well enough. My adversary replied in disgust, “It is a good film, but how many people do you see taking up arms for mere elephants? Our country is under the siege of fascists and you play it safe by awarding a film on elephants! It really doesn’t say much about your beliefs and your understanding of documentaries”. This time I firmly stated that the awards were not a statement of our politics and went on to disclose that taking into consideration the vision of South Asia that FSA held to, most of the ‘activist’ films were in fact being included in the 15 films for Travelling Film South Asia which would be screened at venues throughout the various countries of South Asia and overseas. This proved to be the final straw, and Patwardhan spoke to me no more.
Back home now, I continue to believe that we made the right choices. I firmly believe that South Asia is fortunate to have a large number of people who continue to be concerned about the sorrowful plight of humanity in all our countries. Of course each finds his, or her, own cultural response and modus operandi to confront the situation. It is unjust to discard P. Balan’s film as a mere documentation of elephants. While the film may not implicitly be about fascism in saffron or bearded garbs, it too brings to light a fundamental question about man’s tyrannical and uncaring attitude towards his fellow creatures and also towards the environment in general. The 18th Elephant does make us question our personal mores and values, which go a long way in contributing towards the generally unhappy situation in our countries. A little compassion for each other’s battles would go a long way in improving our lot. After all aren’t we all fighting for the same end?
Documentaries have played a major role in disseminating information and creating an awareness of issues crucial to our lives. That does not go to say that the craft and technique cannot be improved upon. Saying the right thing doesn’t necessarily guarantee that one has said it to the best of one’s abilities. I agree with Patwardhan that aesthetics is not about ‘beautiful sunsets’. Any aesthetic experience is all about the force with which images touch your heart. And, incidentally, I do believe there isn’t a single sunset in the films awarded at FSA ’03, while a few have scenes that are gruesome enough to leave one nauseous and gasping for air.
Furthermore, entering one’s work in a festival necessitates the need to understand that this immediately entails a brush with critique. The jury panel seemed to be a balanced mix of the lay and professional observer. I do, too, however believe that every viewer as an empathiser has the right to critique a work. The Film South Asia is a festival for the people of South Asia and will at the end of the day be judged by them alone. I see myself as a representative of this mainstream audience who form the benchmark for the success of our films. After all, the more people one can reach out to the more successful is a venture.