Ways of seeing
This was no ordinary film screening and the audience sat riveted.
PHOTO: VIVEK BENDRE
All for art: Taking films to the people.
IN a small hall in the urban sprawl of Dharavi, a group of youngsters watched Sergei Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin". Cameras tried to capture close ups of the audience and journalists watched keenly for reactions.
This was no ordinary screening. Before the film began, members of Drishya, a film appreciation and research group from Kolkata, explained the significance of the 1925 classic.
"There is no hero or beautiful heroine," said Chiranjeeb Mukherji of Drishya. "It reflects our daily struggle for a decent meal. Hunger has no language and it is so easy to understand. Everyone can understand Eisenstein," he concluded.
For many youngsters, it was the first time they were watching a film in black and white. For most, it was a first without the usual Bollywood formula. They voiced disgust at the maggots in the meat the sailors of Potemkin were asked to eat, outrage at the merciless massacre of the people of Odessa and watched, in shocked silence, the famous sequence of the pram with the baby slowly stumble down the steps.
After the screening, some said that the film must be shown in every by lane with Hindi subtitles. Gopal, the electrical engineer setting up the sound system, said he liked the film as he could learn something from it. Naresh Pol, a standard nine student said, "We see Shahrukh Khan every day, so this is a change for us."
Santosh Singh, a young maths teacher from Dharavi, pointed out that this was a social film.
"Bollywood does not make such films and every shot was so important. Having just seen Mangal Pandey, which I also liked, I realise how films can be so different." Utpal Das, a writer, said that it was important for such films to have a wider audience. Except for one man who questioned the need to show such a film, the audience felt that more people should see films like this.
Such reactions are not unusual to Drishya members Chiranjeeb and Sunetra Banerjee. Young students of the Universities of Jadhavpur, Calcutta, Delhi, and Jawaharlal Nehru University, among others, who felt that everyone should have access to good cinema, formed Drishya in late 2002.
Exposing people to classics
"Our idea of forming Drishya was to expose people in cities and rural areas to other films and classics so that they think about issues and their rights. Watching Bollywood films, people are so smitten by the hero and the heroine, the hero's extraordinary abilities that they take all this seriously. They actually believe that city water makes actresses like Madhuri Dixit so fair," Chiranjeeb said.
Often Bollywood heroes are larger than life and their leadership qualities are totally at variance with reality. The hero has a monstrous capacity to lead people against injustice and oppression.
According to Chiranjeeb, "Films like `Battleship Potemkin' show us that common people can be heroic too and are capable of fighting a huge army and taking on injustice. In real life the heroes are ordinary persons. Since the audio visual medium is so powerful, its messages are taken very seriously."
When Drishya shows its films to a rural audience, often they are asked not to explain sub-titles, as the people understand what is happening. The stories have a universal language Drishya discovered.
Very often the screenings in rural areas are funded by the people and in Amragachi, a village about 70 km from Kolkata, the women contributed for a repeat screening of Ritwick Ghatak's "Meghe Dhaka Tara". In Naduria village in the North 24 Parganas in West Bengal, school authorities took the initiative to screen Ray's "Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne".
Cut across barriers
Drishya has about 250 members in Kolkata, New Delhi and Jharkand and they are trying to garner support in Mumbai too. Many are young students doing their post-graduation.
"We are opposed to the notion that art is meant for the privileged only. The research at Jadhavpur University showed us the opposite that there is a language to film and art, which can cut across all barriers," said Sunetra.
He feels that more people need to be exposed to good cinema. "We cannot take people for granted. Initially we were sceptical if people would understand the language of world cinema but the visual medium is so powerful that directors like Ray and Ghatak draw a huge response from audiences," he remarked.
And in Dharavi too, the brutal death of Vakulinchuk, the sailor who starts the revolt on Potemkin, evoked anger. Later in the film, his body in taken to Odessa where it is placed at the quay with a board saying he was "killed for a plate of soup".
As the outrage grows in Odessa over his unnecessary death, one woman gives an impassioned speech saying, "We won't forget."
And that in a sense, too, is what cinema is all about. Not forgetting. That is the reality the young audience in Dharavi was exposed to, perhaps for the first time.
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