25 August 2013

BLURRING THE LINE: IN REPLY TO KEVIN B. LEE

I want to take some time to offer a reply to an article referring to me by Kevin B. Lee on the Fandor website in regards to a video essay I posted on my blog titled ‘Sticking It To ‘The Man’: Instances of Cinematic Civil Disobedience and Revolt.

Filmmaker Anand Patwardhan - a radical filmmaker from India

Firstly, I want to query my writings in regards to director Robert Bresson. I have only ever posted one entry on Bresson, which was on The Trial of Joan of Arc / Proces De Jeanne D’Arc in 2009. I have made numerous references to Bresson in other writings on my blog but that hardly constitutes as specific writings on his work and whereas on Twitter, I go by the name of Bressonian, I must confess I am a fan but writings on Bresson’s work from myself are limited indeed. Therefore, it seems somewhat suspect to me when Kevin says he admires ‘my work on Bresson’. What this suggests to me is that Kevin hasn’t really done his homework and just taken the information on my blog that says Pickpocket is my favourite film as an assumption that I have also written extensively on Bresson. What this underlines is that we regularly fall into the trap of generalising about other people’s film tastes. I think this tends to happen a great deal to bloggers writing on the Internet so maybe I am making a general observation. Nonetheless, the ostensible lack of knowledge of my writings is supported by the calamity of failing to clearly identify me as the author of the video essay. This resulted in Fandor referring to me as Omer Sayed. You only have to read my twitter handler and blog to authenticate such basic information as my full name. There is a big difference between Sayed and Ahmed. Adrian Martin was first to query this and although it was corrected, it wasn’t done so completely and read Omer Ahmed. As I write this rebuttal, the post still reads Omer Ahmed, indicating either an editorial slip-up or more seriously, a case of cultural ignorance on behalf of Keyframe and Fandor. 

Kevin then fails to point out that the Vimeo channel ‘Audiovisualcy’ (created and maintained by Catherine Grant) which he refers to as ‘the most reliable curated resource for discovering critical video essays’ includes me as a moderator so I have the capacity to reject and approve which videos can be chosen to appear in the channel’s stream. He also argues that the presence of the video essay in such a reputable channel such as ‘Audiovisualcy’ gives credence to his claims that the radicalism I espouse is celebrated and the norms of radicalism are reinforced. That can hardly be true when the video has only been viewed 69 times, with most of those hits coming after Kevin’s article appeared on Keyframe. Yet again, I have to reiterate that my video essay was never about radicalism but interested in exploring ‘instances’ of Cinematic Civil Disobedience and Revolt, as I clearly state in the introduction to the essay. This low viewing figure hardly warrants the notion of ‘celebration’ when so few people have actually seen it unlike Spring Breakers (which I haven’t seen). Additionally, Kevin refers to me as a ‘prolific video essayist’. Yet again this is an exaggeration, if not, a manipulation of the facts. I produced my first video essay two years ago on Apu Sansar and since then have made a total of just seven video essays. Not exactly prolific, is it? Compare my output to say someone like Aaron Aradillas or Kevin himself and you will know what prolific actually means. In many ways, I am a novice at the job of video essayist and lack the finesse of experts like Kevin who is well versed in the language of video essays. I am just a beginner. 

My understanding is that Kevin’s criticisms of my video essay focuses on my supposed attempts to elevate the work of Tarantino and Linklater as somehow ‘radical’. I never claim that these films are ‘radical’. Of course they are not, they are populist, mainstream films but what these films do offer are ‘instances’ of cinematic disobedience/revolt that in my opinion is true of American cinema in the past, using narrative as a means of social commentary. The term ‘the man’ has almost but disappeared from contemporary discussions of political cinema, as it was a term that became associated with the counter culture movement in the late 1960s and black militancy in the 1970s. My attempt to resurrect the term ‘the man’ was to show the way hegemony works since anything oppositional or alternative usually become subsumed into the mainstream. The invisibility of the term ‘the man’ points to the way ‘the man’ has just taken on different forms now such as corporate power. I do find it a little unfair that Kevin also chooses to highlight contemporary films, ‘Fight Club to V for Vendetta to Rambo’ from my video essay as a means of validating the sincerity of his arguments. The three films he chooses to highlight along with Django Unchained are recent films, more open to interpretation than the other genuine anti-establishment films that I also make reference to. This includes Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Do The Right Thing, if…., The Parallax View, Cool Hand Luke, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Dog Day Afternoon. Nor is there is any reference to the two examples of Indian cinema: Deewaar (The Wall) and Lagaan (Land Tax). Why omit references to such films? Who can deny films such as Sweetback and If… are genuinely anti-establishment. Why the latter ends with students gunning down the headteacher in cold blood!

It might be true that these films were never meant to be revolutionary since mainstream cinema does not have the capacity to allow for such radical political address, but it does allow for smuggling in political ideas conducive to the wider context and express those ideas in such a way that we do get ‘instances’ of anti establishment ideology. This was my point about School of Rock. Here’s a film, directed by Richard Linklater as a studio assignment, but given his Generation X status as a Hollywood outsider, he has continually used his films to stress themes such as non conformity. As Mark Kermode says, ‘Linklater understands that a die-hard anti-establishment ethos need not be anathema to multiplex friendly family fare.’ The inclusion of School of Rock in my video essay wasn’t simply to make everything look that much cooler but it focused on a key question being raised: is it not possible to be anti establishment in a mainstream context? ‘Instances’ have occurred before and will continue to do so. This was a point proven by Robin Wood’s work on horror films in the 1970s, especially populist slasher and zombie films, arguing they ‘offer an expose of the contradictions of capitalism’. So it is possible for mainstream films to critique the hegemonic system they supposedly reinforce. Kevin forgets that oppositional cinema that actually argues for a political activism through imagery of resistance ‘exists as a reaction to mainstream commercial cinema and therefore depends on the very practice it seeks to undermine.’ Given constraints to do with upload and length of the essay, I was forced to leave out directors in my video essay who also need mentioning in terms of the way they use narrative and genre conventions to articulate a political discourse that offers instances of anti establishment philosophy. This includes directors such as Oliver Stone, John Sayles and Jim Jarmusch. Besides, aren’t most political notions subjective? Radicalism is purely subjective and largely depends on cultural capital. If this is the case then everyone’s idea of what is radical will also differ. Radical cinematic address has always been complicated by the stark reality that it is usually middle class filmmakers who are in the position of making such films and that the target audience, typically the invisible, oppressed minority, do not have the means with which to access this radical address. This has meant the intended audience rarely enter the equation of radicalism except as subjects. And surely some of the films being screened by the Lincoln Center may in fact be radical works but does something like ‘dancing nude in giant celebratory circles of anti-materialist communion’ make a film particularly radical?

What this leads on to next is the culture of canonisation we are living on today especially in regards to film. Kevin pointed out the Lincoln Center’s ‘Cinema of Resistance’ series to me. It is a very important list of films, which are rightfully categorised as radical. I refute the accusation of being ‘backhanded’ in my response to Kevin’s weblink he highlighted for ‘further consideration’. My reply of ‘Thanks for the esoteric suggestions’ was not supposed to be trite in anyway. The truth is being pointed into the direction of a web page without any context seemed a little backhanded to me. Had the films come as personal recommendations from Kevin then I would have taken his initial comment more seriously. Besides, my video essay was never meant to be intellectual and it was never my intentions to slight radical cinema. Additionally, Kevin’s initial comment was followed by a link to Solanas and Getino’s 1969 manifesto ‘Toward a Third Cinema’, which I am already familiar with and have incorporated into my upcoming book on Indian cinema. I felt disappointed that Kevin simply assumed I had no understanding or realisation of such a manifesto. At the time I did leave a reply to Kevin’s initial criticisms on Vimeo, which I also feel, have been overlooked. Kevin also fails to acknowledge a video essay I produced on Naxalite cinema, a case in point about political radicalism within the strata of mainstream Indian cinema. 


Lal Salaam! - Naxalite Cinema from Omar Ahmed on Vimeo.

This returns to my intentions with my most recent video essay: is it not possible to question power, authority and the status quo in a mainstream cinematic context? Nonetheless, the problem with film programming is that like most ‘lists’, you have to be discriminatory, selecting and excluding. The Lincoln Center’s ‘Cinema of Resistance’ series does exactly that, whereby certain nations are left completely out of the equation of global radical cinema. A case in point is Indian cinema. My recent open letter to specialist DVD labels raised a number of replies that got me thinking about the role of film programming in arthouse cinemas and film festivals alike. The absence of Indian film titles from the culture of film programming is one of the reasons why Indian cinema rarely appears on the radar of western film discourse. If it does so, it is usually in the service of Satyajit Ray. The ‘Cinema of Resistance’ series could easily have chosen any of the work by documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan especially his 1971 documentary ‘Prisoners of Conscience’ which documents the Indian Emergency (1975 - 1977) through the stark personal testimonies of political prisoners. The absence of India or other significant filmmaking nations shouldn’t invalidate the noble intentions of the series, it just means that film programming is subjective and comes to reflect the tastes/prejudices of the film programmers involved. I cannot help but feel film programming and festivals are caught in this bind to exclude Indian cinema and reinforce ‘trends’. 

It is a default position to simply bring out the old age debate about high and low culture (mainstream cinema = apolitical/appropriates/dismissive vs. radical cinema = political/real/truth/activism) but I couldn’t help feel this is what Kevin was driving towards in his article, legitimising his own position as the self righteous gatekeeper of radical cinema, since his view of radical cinema dismisses any opportunities for oppositional reading in mainstream films, suggesting that mainstream cinema simply replicates the status quo and denies any ‘instances’ for alternative political address. I contest such a claim in my video essay by juxtaposing clips from various mainstream, mostly American, films to underline a continual attempt to smuggle in or explicitly question dominant values. For a lengthy analysis of Tarantino’s Django Unchained, refer to my article titled ‘Re-imagining Slavery’.

Before I finish there are two important final points I’d like to make. The first relates to a refusal to name film scholars and film critics by Kevin. Even when Kevin is discussing Spring Breakers, he never once refers to the writer in question. I haven’t seen Spring Breakers so is it a mainstream film critic you are alluding to? Why the secrecy? However, Kevin goes to the trouble of singling me and thus makes an example of me as a phony radical, suggesting that deep down I am simply part of a capitalist system that trivialises radicalism and positions it as somewhat threatening and even aberrant. I refute such claims. So who exactly are these ‘film scholars and discerning film critics’? Even more baffling is that given Keyframe’s reputation as an on-line scholarly site for new film writing, how would this even get past the editorial process? It makes one question the legitimacy of Keyframe/Fandor as a reliable and scholarly resource for cinephilia. As for, Kevin I have always admired his work but did not expect for him to put me in the firing line for a piece of work that holds little, if any, relevance to his own concerns (a concern I wholeheartedly share) about what constitutes radical cinema today. 

My final point is perhaps the reason why I felt I needed to write this defence. In his final denouncement of myself and others like me who supposedly tow the line, Kevin had this to say: ‘movies aren’t a spectator sport for us to get our rebellious rocks off via proxy, but a call to action: not just take the injustices of the world seriously, and to be motivated to actually do something about it.’ Kevin yet again assumes that I am not involved in taking action against injustices. Let me tell you a bit about myself. I’ve been teaching full time for ten years now, and all in the public sector. I have also been a member of Britain’s biggest teaching union, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) for ten years since I also believe in showing support for my fellow workers and colleagues. Over the last three years, the government has taken a sledgehammer to the education system and this had led to funding cuts for the public sector. Pay has stalled, hours have increased and group’s sizes have got bigger for teachers like myself. The NUT has called on teachers to ‘take action’ several times and I have been on strike on four occasions now. Going on strike has many consequences including loss of earnings. Wouldn’t you agree this is called being ‘motivated to actually do something about it!’, no matter how trivial or minor the cause may be when compared to other injustices. It is clearly wrong of you to categorise me as ‘getting my rebellious rocks via proxy’ since I have been active in seeking to overturn and question injustices, be they local or global ones. Although I don’t have the platform that you may have from which to articulate your criticisms I can only resort to my blog with the small audience I get occasionally. I stand by my video essay since it was never a piece about radical cinema but unfortunately has been pulled into a wider debate from which it should have been excluded since all of my clips are from mainstream films not counter hegemonic cinema. However, since I feel so passionately about the imperative role played by radical cinema and radical filmmakers around the world, as a show of solidarity and mark of up most respect I will be ‘taking down’ the video essay forthwith since I don’t want anyone else to misinterpret my work as a means of denigrating the eternal sacrifices of radical cinema. 

Omar Ahmed 

Teacher/Blogger/Cinephile/Writer

17 August 2013

CHENNAI EXPRESS (Rohit Shetty, 2013, India) - Postmodern 'masala'


This is an uneven action comedy from the Manmohan Desai school of filmmaking. Director Rohit Shetty is one of Hindi cinema’s most bankable directors and while it is tempting at first to lump him together with the likes of Sajid Khan, his postmodern sensibilities are much more palatable. While competency may not seem much to embrace, Chennai Express just about works and does so because of two very straightforward reasons: SRK’s star image and the intertexts to Tamil action cinema. Although it harbours the notorious problem of being thirty minutes too long, Chennai Express is an event film that arrived on Eid and has gone on to break numerous box office records. On a cynical level, it is a tentpole blockbuster purely out to make money, but we could say the same about most mainstream Hindi films. SRK has reached that point in a star’s career whereby self reflexivity has become a source of on screen humour and off screen critical commentary. Underneath the contrived situations are a site of postmodern intertexts that riff on the on screen Rahul persona cultivated by SRK and while postmodernity as a mode of address may be more common in mainstream Hindi films, it still demands a level of cultural capital from audiences. 

In my opinion, Hindi ‘masala’ cinema operates on a number of levels with audiences and its not as simplistic as the narrative some of these films venerate. Since my knowledge and viewing of Tamil cinema is a cinephile blind spot, I probably missed a lot of these so called regional intertexts. It was only later I discovered the father is played by a famous Tamil actor and political activist Sathyaraj, who incidentally has more screen presence than both SRK and Deepika combined. I don’t object to ‘masala’ cinema since it is the lifeblood of populist Hindi cinema and offers more reliable entertainment than many of the Hollywood blockbusters currently clogging up cinema screens. In terms of thematic trends, Chennai Express could be situated amongst recent films like Singham and Dabaang since they all chart a ‘return to the rural’ by re-presenting the village as not only a symbol of tradition but a reminder to audiences that India has been masked over by a new post liberal shift. In many ways, the reinstatement of the village in the landscape of contemporary postmodern Hindi cinema could also be seen as a reactionary attempt to recall more conventional, if not, regressive iconography.

KADAL / THE SEA (Mani Ratnam, 2013, India) - Good Vs. Evil


Tamil novelist and co-scriptwriter Jeyamohan describes Mani Ratnam’s latest cinematic venture as a ‘grand spiritual saga’. That seems like a fitting way to sum up Kadal / The Sea. Whenever I want to speak or write about Ratnam my instinct is to position him as an arthouse auteur, which may seem appropriate for a cinephile based outside of India and especially Tamil. Of course, the truth is that Ratnam is a populist mainstream filmmaker and in the past has shown the capacity to transcend his indigenous Tamil roots by crossing over to make Hindi films. He is still one of Indian cinema’s leading filmmakers and although Kadal was met with a mixed response from critics on its release, it is one of the most technically accomplished films of the year with a grand narrative that is both elemental and metaphysically construed. The backdrop is a fishing community and the story weaves together an embittered conflict between two priests and a love story between two orphans. Thematically, the biblical context of Christianity as a source of redemption, is somewhat conventionally played out, climaxing in a cinematically charged case of pathetic fallacy. In terms of genre conventions, Ratnam clearly draws from gangster/crime films, which he has done so in past films such as Nayakan, and one clear recent and ongoing thematic preoccupation seems to be with the accumulation and dissolution of power. 

Ratnam has over the years built up a team of regular collaborators and technically speaking his films are very accomplished, perhaps offering some of the finest lessons in camerawork, editing and lighting in Indian cinema. Both of Ratnam’s last two films, Guru and Raavan, were distributed internationally, mainly because of the star presence of Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan. However, Kadal is a different case altogether since it features two debutantes; Gautham Karthik and Thulasi Nair, in the lead roles. It was terrific to see the comeback of much missed actor Arvind Swamy (a natural screen presence) who starred in earlier Ratnam films including Roja and Bombay. In many ways, Ratnam’s retreat to more regional concerns is to be commended since an engagement with Tamil cinema has often led his most popular and best loved works. It is worth pointing out the notable contributions of cinematographer Rajiv Menon and music composer A. R. Rahman.

SATTAWIS DOWN / 27 DOWN (Awtar Krishna Paul, 1973, India) - Trains


Financed by the NFDC, Awtar Krishna Paul’s debut film 27 Down signalled much promise but his career was tragically cut short when he died while trying to save someone from drowning. 27 Down is a restoration by the NFDC and has been released on DVD under its new Cinemas of India label. Beautifully shot in a noirish monochrome by DOP Apurba Kishore Bir and with a striking production design by regular Ray collaborator Bansi Chandragupta, 27 Down stands out as a key work from the parallel cinema movement. Although the central story about a train conductor and a young typist becomes a study of traditional and modern values, the foregrounding of the train as a key thematic shapes the tactile aesthetic sensibilities. The central character of Sanjay, a disenchanted train conductor, is someone who is born on a train, works and sleeps on a train, and falls in love on a train. Trains define Sanjay’s existence and such a prominent thematic relates to the way trains are such an integral iconographic presence in so many Indian films. In this context, the train becomes a source of refuge for Sanjay. The endless journey that a train can make and the carriages of anonymous passengers also maps an urban trajectory of loneliness for Sanjay, gradually isolating him in the train as a prisoner. Much of the semi documentary footage in the train and on the platform gives the film a realist tone that later complements the cynical decisions made by Sanjay’s father. This is a film to savour and deserves wider appreciation.

7 August 2013

AN OPEN LETTER TO SPECIALIST DVD LABELS ON INDIAN FILM TITLES

Specialist DVD Labels
The Criterion Collection (Janus) 
Masters of Cinema (Eureka! Entertainment) 
Second Run 
BFI 
Artificial Eye 
Mr Bongo 

A word of warning before you read on: This letter is in no way definitive and should be best viewed as a working document that is subject to change. Also I'm not sure how accurate I have been with my numbers on Indian film titles released by specialist DVD labels. 

I have been buying films for little over twenty-five years now. As a self proclaimed cinephile my tastes in film are varied and I have DVDs and now increasingly Blu-ray's that reflect such interests. Conversely, what I have observed over the years is that many of the specialist DVD labels such as Masters of Cinema and Criterion have chosen to make available newly discovered, influential and cult films to a global cinephile community. The significance of specialist film distribution should not be underestimated in terms of enriching our understanding of film. Nonetheless, while many labels have no such obligation when it comes to ensuring they release titles that represent film in its varied global diversity, the absence or should say I say lack of Indian film titles is underwhelming and needs elucidation. 

Firstly, the absence of Indian film titles (I am arguing here for art-house, independent and cult films not mainstream titles which are well supported by most of the major distributors) suggests Indian cinema is not deemed as important as other cinemas, a point I would refute and vehemently argue against. One only has to survey the richness of the Indian New Wave in the late 1960s and beyond to sustain such an argument. In fact, such an absence reiterates the cultural inferiority of Indian cinema that is sometimes perpetuated by mainstream film discourse. Consider even the way 100 years of Indian cinema has been neglected by major highbrow film publications such as Sight and Sound & Film Comment. 

Secondly, the cinema of Satyajit Ray, who has become the most revered Indian film director in the West, does not accurately reflect the contemporary state of Indian cinema. The rise of an educated middle class and a Multiplex film culture in India has led to a vibrant, innovative and edgy independent film scene. No one is denying that Ray is one of the great filmmakers but the unending focus on his films is a default position to adopt since it limits the way we think about Indian cinema. I'm a huge fan of Ray and find it deeply encouraging to see his films gradually being restored and released definitively but whereas French or German cinema has a plethora of auteurs with films that can be accessed easily through specialist DVD labels, the same cannot be said for Indian cinema. Some would reason Indian cinema might have begun with Ray; however, it certainly didn’t end with him.


Satyajit Ray is still Indian cinema's most revered filmmaker.
Thirdly, if none of these aforementioned DVD labels have a duty or obligation to pursue Indian cinema then why is it that French cinema or even Japanese cinema is given preferential treatment? Perhaps one of the answers is that both French and Japanese cinema are more widely respected among the cinephile community since a greater body of scholarly work exists. If the notion of authorial expression is more closely attuned to French or Japanese cinema then we could attribute this perception to academia and the way film studies is taught. Indian cinema is rarely thought of in terms film auteurs. This seems to be an obstacle since many of the films released by specialist labels are predicated on the auteur myth and consequently Indian cinema becomes marginalised in such a context. That Indian cinema doesn’t produce auteurs is of course an absurdist view.

Lastly, many independent and art Indian films don't make it to UK cinema screens so it becomes even more important that DVD labels act as a meditator, making available films that are often ignored or dismissed in the face of mainstream film distribution. Given the way many of these labels now hold real weight amongst cinephiles, academics and critics alike, what they choose to release and make available in a way inevitably establishes a discourse that selectively accentuates auteurs, movements and films. For a film to be given preferential treatment and be canonised, as is the case with films that are given the ‘Criterion treatment’ reiterates their cultural worth, contributing to the flow of cinephile discourse.


Ray films that have been given the Criterion treatment.

But is it even necessary to plead with specialist DVD labels when so much of Indian cinema is readily available today? This truth is that the biggies have no problem appearing on DVD. The problem remains that much of regional, art and independent cinema receives inadequate distribution in the UK. Nonetheless, today the situation for a discerning cinephile in India may in fact be the reverse since accessibility has become less of an issue. Getting access to Indian films has never been easier especially with YouTube and various VOD services. Additionally, DVD labels like UTV Motion Pictures, Yash Raj, Shemaroo and NFDC to name a few distribute varied Indian film titles. I am not arguing specialist DVD labels should enforce a more balanced policy when it comes to selecting films since this would inevitably lead to a kind of cinematic political correctness. Films need to be judged on their artistic merits alone and film canons have never been compiled solely on the basis of ‘country of origin’. Yet if this is the case then why is it that Indian cinema is so poorly represented in the catalogues of so many DVD labels. In an attempt to support such a claim I surveyed the number of films from India that have been released by some of the major specialist DVD labels. It was fairly obvious what I learned:

The Criterion Collection (owned by Janus) - 7 titles 

Eureka! Entertainment (which owns the Masters of Cinema label) - 1 title (Abhijan by Ray which is currently listed as out of print) 

BFI - 6 titles (although I have not included films by Franz Osten) 

Artificial Eye - 16 titles (all of these except for one are films directed by Satyajit Ray) 

Second Run - 3 titles 

Mr Bongo - 4 titles (all films by Ray again) 

Artificial Eye wins hand down and it certainly has the strongest track record in terms of making available titles from the Middle East, Iran and even Africa. However, Satyajit Ray dominates the titles, which is not surprising since he is still promoted by western film discourse as the only Indian filmmaker with widespread acceptance amongst a predominantly middle class western audience. Dare I say it but has Ray become a problem in the way we perceive Indian cinema today? It may in fact be a problem exacerbated by the way Ray continues to a primary focus whenever Indian cinema appears in mainstream film publications such as Sight and Sound. Criterion, perhaps the most reputable specialist DVD label, has seven Indian film titles in their catalogue (I decided against including the Merchant-Ivory films) and aside from Monsoon Wedding, which one could argue isn't even indigenous, Ray dominates again. In fact, Finland is better represented than India, which seems especially bizarre given the exponential output from the Indian film industry. Eureka! Entertainment, which owns Masters of Cinema have just one Indian film title; Abhijan. This is yet another Ray film and since it is currently out of print, one could argue a complete absence of Indian cinema in the catalogue of Masters of Cinema seems perplexing considering so many contemporary Indian indie titles have bee made of late that are artistically significant and commercially feasible. Peepli Live, the only recent Indian film title that appears in the catalogue of Artificial Eye, is representative of a new wave of Multiplex indie films that have emerged more frequently over the past few years but one title hardly accounts for the prolific creative output of this particular lively film scene. The BFI, which relies partially on public funding is exemplary at promoting British film culture yet has only six Indian film titles in their catalogues. All of these films are quite old now and while the BFI were the first in the UK to make available the films of Ritwik Ghatak, such a concern for Indian cinema in terms of specialist distribution has been inconsistent to the say the least. 


Non-Ray films that have been given a specialist film release by DVD labels include few contemporary Indian films.

One reason, often cited, why Indian film titles are rarely distributed by specialist labels is related to the complicated area of distribution rights in India which I am told are highly problematic when compared to other countries. Unfortunately, my reluctance to expand on this argument is to do with a lack of information about the process. I'm guessing locating an adequate print, usually from an archive, is just one of the obstacles complicating this process. It may be the case that some Indian films have been released on DVD and are available to buy but we can say the same for some of the films that have been acquired by Masters of Cinema and Criterion. Consider the way Double Indemnity, Touch of Evil and Two Lane Blacktop have been re-released more definitively than ever before. Acquiring distribution has been in an issue in the past especially for classic Indian films. I doubt the same circumstances exist for contemporary independent films since they depending on alternate platforms in terms of reaching the widest possible audience. Another question arises here: why should it be the responsibility of DVD labels in the west to reclaim Indian films from the past? Such a question may seem pertinent at first but given the way DVD labels in both the US and UK have fallen over themselves to focus squarely on Europe as a benchmark for quality arthouse cinema renders such a question irrelevant because isn’t it the case that cinephilia is predicated on a singular motivating factor; the promotion of good cinema?

It would be wrong to bring forth accusations to do with discrimination but I feel film canons that have popularised movements, auteurs and films in the West have done so at the expense of Indian cinema. This was evident in Sight and Sound’s recent poll. The Eurocentric bias that I have written about before continues to circulate in the way film is written about in mainstream film journalism and academia and I personally feel this is a decisive factor in the way discourse on Indian cinema takes place within a marginal space obfuscating the rich output of regional cinemas. The recent London Indian Film Festival which is currently touring the UK with examples of new Indian cinema needs to be embraced for it’s programming since it draws attention to an alternative counter hegemonic cinema which is very much alive in India. An interesting case in point and one that allows me to test my theory of the way edgy, independent and art films never reach UK shores especially in terms of specialist DVD distribution can be illustrated by simply looking at the 2012 programme for the London Indian Film Festival. Although these films were exhibited before a select audience, how many of them actually saw the light of day in terms of home video distribution? The answer would probably be a handful. Many of these films will probably be available in the Indian domestic home video market, creeping through on VOD but most of the still remain unreleased in the UK, failing to get either a theatrical or home video release. This in many ways doesn't seem particularly revelatory considering so many films in general, regardless of the country in which they are made, face such a struggle when it comes to getting an adequate distribution deal.


A key festival in the Indian film calendar which is playing a hugely significant role in helping to offer an alternative to populist Hindi cinema or Bollywood with an emphasis on the Indian 'indie' film scene.
Recommending a body of film titles suitable for distribution on DVD/Blu-ray may seem a little presumptuous but I am going to anyway. An invaluable starting point is a list of ‘landmark films’ compiled by the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), to mark 100 years of Indian cinema. Films canons obviously discriminate but this list avoids the crime of simply defining Indian cinema by the populist Hindi films, instead striking a tone of inclusivity by accounting for regional output. In spite of some of these films having been released on DVD, a release via a specialist label would not only bring the films to a wider audience but force the cinephile community to reformulate their understanding of Indian cinema by entering into a new dialogue with the contemporary scene rather than remain fixated on a singular film auteur. 

Another false perception of Indian cinema is through the prism of Bollywood (mainstream Hindi cinema in Mumbai). Extravagant 'masala' spectacles offer hyperbolic narratives that can still be equated with lowbrow culture. In spite of that, Indian cinema has its fair share of auteurs, from the past and present. For example, just consider the work of documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, who has had a retrospective at the BFI Southbank yet whose work is unavailable in the UK unless you purchase directly through his website - Patwardhan’s output in itself calls for a substantial box set treatment. DVD labels like Criterion and Masters of Cinema excel in their comprehensive approach, ensuring each film title is presented with the finest transfer, recompensing extras and striking packaging. 

Whereas I am in agreement with the NFAI’s list, I want to finish by proposing a personal list of ten films that I would argue deserve a specialist release: (the films appear in no particular order) 

1. Gulaal (Anurag Kashyap, 2009) 
2. Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan / Alms for the Blind Horse (Gurvinder Singh, 2011)
3. Road, Movie (Dev Benegal, 2009)
4. Garam Hawa / Hot Winds (M. S. Sathyu, 1973)
5. Calcutta 71’ (Mrinal Sen, 1971)
6. Uski Roti / Our Daily Bread (Mani Kaul, 1970)
7. Neecha Nagar / Lowly City (Chetan Anand, 1946)
8. Hey Ram (Kamal Hassan, 2000)
9. Ganga Jumna (Nitin Bose, 1961)
10. Baazi / Gamble (Guru Dutt, 1951)


Some personal choices that deserve a specialist release by DVD labels.

Understandably DVD labels have to think commercially about film titles and this can be an abiding, if not, fundamental principle guiding their selection. If this is true and Indian cinema is considered commercially unsound in terms of the cinephile consumer then perhaps the changes I am advocating are unrealistic, hence the exclusion of Indian cinema from specialist cinephile distribution is without prejudice. I want to end by saying that specialist labels that have the means to distribute must take more of a considered approach when it comes to selecting film titles but this means taking Indian cinema seriously as a genuine cinephile concern. Even if a label as influential and revered as let’s say Masters of Cinema were to release at least one film each year in this way, it would be a step in the right direction. 

Omar Ahmed 
Cinephile/Teacher/Writer 
oahmed5@gmail.com
@bressonian