India’s avant-garde filmmakers recommend world cinema classics that shaped them
“No, no, no—you couldn’t have got me more wrong,” director Dibakar Banerjee nods emphatically, rejecting the claim that he is less of a movie geek than some of his peers (Anurag Kashyap, Sriram Raghavan and Anand Gandhi, to name a few). “I’m a huge fanboy,” he says, emphasising ‘h-u-g-e’. “It’s just that I have too many gods.”
The maker of Khosla Ka Ghosla, Love Sex aur Dhokha, Shanghai and now, Detective Byomkesh Bakshi starring Sushant Singh Rajput, Banerjee’s universe is one of movies, and he’s quite catholic in his taste. He can talk about a rare Hungarian classic whose name you can’t even pronounce (he can), a long-forgotten silent- era filmmaker’s editing techniques, how Satyajit Ray reinvented himself in his later films or why world cinema is just another name “invented by Europe” to sell films that might put the general public to sleep.
For those who can appreciate intelligent storytelling, world cinema is a goldmine. Much of today’s so-called new age cinema is a clever rehashing of world cinema classics, which itself is usually a rehashing of something utterly profound like, um, a B-movie. In one unusual case involving Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill , considered the King Kong of movies, the trail of inspiration led directly to India. Tarantino, hero worshipped just about everywhere, baffled everyone—including Kamal Hassan—when he cited Aalavandhan, aka Abhay, as a major influence on Kill Bill.
It’s a film that nobody saw—except Tarantino, of course. But what he saw in that utterly disastrous film is what makes Tarantino truly unique. His ability to find hidden gems from the trashcans of cinema history is already the stuff of legend.
Banerjee shamelessly borrows from every movie he watches. “That’s why filmmakers should see other people’s films, to steal techniques and make it their own. And to feel jealous, to feel awed or to feel what you are doing is probably better.” As for Tarantino, Banerjee feels people often don’t steal the right things from him. “Everybody likes to copy men wearing dark glasses, walking in slow mo. It’s daft. That’s the least original part of Tarantino that you are copying. If you’ve got to copy Tarantino, then copy the moment where he brings certain perfection, where funny and brutal meet in the most beautiful way possible.”
Of late, Banerjee has been revisiting the works of Sergei Eisenstein, the director of the influential Battleship Potemkin, a film that is enjoyed mostly by academics and FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) students. According to Banerjee, “You keep reading about Eisenstein but few actually make it a point to watch him. I’ve realised that in some of the cases, roughly between the 1920s and 1930s when sound came in, that’s when they truly invented the jump cut. (Jean-Luc) Godard and the French New Wave and all that, what they did was they reinvented the jump cut. But if you see the silent films, some of those cuts are way ahead of their time. Just the other day, I realised that the more I see of Eisenstein, the more those editing cuts are getting etched in my mind.”
Suddenly, he jumps up in excitement to share an important piece of information he forgot: “Some of those cuts—I’m using them in Byomkesh Bakshi!”
Banerjee was introduced to world cinema via the pre-liberalisation Doordarshan, a time when it was possible to watch good stuff on television. In Banerjee’s case, it led to the discovery of a whole new world: a treasure trove of classics like Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus and works of veteran German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff. “I must have been nine or ten when DD showed Orpheus and I realised that it was something different that I was seeing,” he recalls. “Doordarshan, at that point, had a heavy staple diet of Hindi and regional films. But at the same time, Orpheus shook me up. I also remember seeing Costa-Gavras’ Z (his Shanghai was an adaptation of Z) and then, believe it or not, they showed István Szabó’s Mephisto. How did DD get these classics? I don’t know. Probably, they had an arrangement with some German or French distribution company.”
Though he was too young to make any sense of what these films were trying to say, what Banerjee did find in them was a “promise of something deeper”. He recounts the imagery of these films as being very powerful and as having got “stuck in my mind forever”.
When Banerjee turned filmmaker, these casual viewings came back to haunt him. “Everything that I have seen in my life has impacted me. It impacts all of us. You can’t be free of that impact, ” he says.
And yet, Banerjee can never watch a film as a viewer. He cannot afford to relax. “I don’t think any self-respecting filmmaker can completely watch a film as audience. I went to watch Amour,” he says, of the Academy Award-winning French crossover hit. “Of course, once I was into the film, I was completely sucked into it. But at the same time, I came out determining that I have no business ignoring the film’s tricks and tips that I can get to improve my own work.”
Qaushiq Mukherjee, OR simply Q, is the sort of filmmaker who’s out to offend you. He is eccentric by nature, and it reflects in his films, Gandu and Tasher Desh, among others. When Mid- Day compared him to Andy Warhol, he objected bitterly, “Shit! I don’t want that. I’m not a bourgeois. On the contrary, I lead a very difficult life. I’d rather be India’s Banksy.”
He watches the kind of films that he makes; radical and subversive, something that “jolts you out of your slumber. Wake up, asshole! Wake up!” World cinema, according to him, is very large, rich and varied. “With every cultural shift you see a complete turn in terms of cinematic decisions, logic and narrative quality. Something that I really admire in world cinema is this kind of latitude and flexibility.”
Q’s primary influence is Dogme 95, an avant-garde movement started by the Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. “These directors had come up with a set of ten rules to break all rules and hierarchies of filmmaking and that altered my perspective on how cinema should be viewed from there on,” Q says. His top choice for Open’s readers is Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, which is just about every art filmmaker’s favourite movie these days. Q explains, “It’s about a family on vacation in their summer home, which is on an island. Once there, you’re cut off from the world. On the very first day, they meet these two boys who go on to terrorise them—the way they terrorise them is on another level of anarchy. There’s this one sequence where one of the boys gets shot and at that point the other guy, shocked at this event, starts frantically searching for something. You don’t know what he’s searching for, why he’s searching for something when the opponent has a gun. Finally, he finds, from under the sofa, a remote for the TV. He turns to the camera and presses the ‘rewind’ button. And the film rewinds. How can you do that in an utterly realistic film?”
Fond of Japanese culture, Q has a must- watch list that includes all the films of Takashi Miike and Sion Sono. Follow it up with the beloved Run Lola Run, a breakout German film that shows a character running for much of its length. What to look for in it? “The narrative— the way it is approached,” Q replies. “The classical format of filmmaking that’s been going on for ages was broken, in a way, by Run Lola Run. It represented the new culture that was emerging out of the 1990s.”
In Gandu, the character Angel wears a red wig like the protagonist Lola, which was, “a deliberate and direct reference to Run Lola Run”. He goes on to recommend a Spanish and a French film, both with a great influence on his upcoming fantasy film, Ludo. “Ludo has a lot of referencing, cross-referencing and mixing up and mashing up of references. You must watch this Spanish film called Rec and this bizarre, mind-tripping film called Sheitan—not the Hindi one, the French one,” he says, laughing.
Q calls his work absolutely homage- oriented. Much of his thinking is shaped by world cinema. “I don’t think I’ve a single frame that’s original. I firmly believe in the fact that we’re living in a post-modern world and everything’s been done before— and done by some very brilliant people. We can only try and improve on that.”
UNLIKE BANERJEE AND Q, Anand Gandhi who directed the critically- acclaimed Ship of Theseus, finds science a big turn-on. He calls himself a rationalist/ scientist/case-builder who’s engaged in making films.
Talking to him makes you feel like you’re in a science practical. In between discussing science, neuroscience and why VS Ramachandran deserves a Nobel, Gandhi talks about the Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr’s work and refers us to his recent blog post, titled ‘10 Great Films!’, in which he overwhelmingly praised Tarr’s The Turin Horse . “If nightmares are our mind’s way of preparing itself for eventualities,” Gandhi wrote, “this one prepares us for the worst—the end of the world, the suspicion that daily rigmarole is indeed absent of purpose, and the realisation of the complete absence of meaning. The tragedy of day-to- day existence is the other side of the inch- by-inch destruction of the world. From the haunting images by Fred Kelemen to the hypnotic score by master composer Mihály Víg, the genius of Tarr and [co-director Ágnes] Hranitzky is in setting up the right triggers for every member of the audience to have their own personal enlightenment. If there is such a thing as a peaceful, soothing death, Béla Tarr’s masterpiece is an insight into what that might be like.”
If that’s too disturbing for your liking, watch Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The Peddler and The Cyclist, clinical examinations of regressive Iranian society. And, more recently, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors: “Fantastic. For a long time, I haven’t seen anything like that.”
Movies were never a part of Gandhi’s childhood. Plays and theatre were. He comes from a family where his mother, a fan of Mahesh Bhatt and Yash Chopra, constantly badgers her son about his choice of “bizarre” movies, asking why his friend Anurag Kashyap makes films that are so dark, ugly and violent. “Who watches them?” she recently asked him, and all Gandhi could do was laugh.
Who watches them? An elite minority that wants to be challenged, rather than be entertained. We all know that this viewership is limited. “The Lives of Others won the Oscar for the best foreign language film but you should do a headcount of how many people actually went to see it,” says Banerjee.
In such a scenario, film festivals have become a lifeline for world cinema. “They have held the front against commercial justification being the sole justification of the film. That’s what a film festival does—it upholds originality of vision, newness and a certain commitment to a personal integrity,” says Banerjee. Few films have travelled as far as Ship of Theseus and its director’s biggest revelation so far is that all film festivals are, more or less, inconsistent.
Of late, Gandhi is noticing a sharp decline in quality. “I’ve become increasingly impatient with the cinema of the world. I’m barely able to stand a film that’s made anywhere. I guess I’m over consumed,” he says.
World cinema is nothing but what is otherwise known as art house or personal cinema. “Earlier in the 1980s we used to call it parallel cinema. Right now, we are calling it world cinema because art cinema cannot be sold. It’s marketing with another name,” says Banerjee, adding, “And it’s always been there—the cinema of the other kind, cinema that does not pander to popular taste and sensibility or any sort of market forces and tries to remain a true art form by itself.”
Banerjee has an interesting theory. Art cinema, or world cinema in this context, was meant to be a replacement for paintings. “In Europe,” Banerjee explains, “we saw the migration or the tentative migration of a lot of artistic minds towards cinema; like Buñuel, Dalí and Renoir. They started playing with cinema as an alternative to the canvas, and going to the cinema hall sometimes became synonymous with going to the museum or a salon. This could be the origin of ‘art cinema’.” He adds, “That’s a surmise. You can check.”
Break out the DVDs, crack those subtitles and find out, in an hour or so.