Cultures of Critical Writing on Film

in Interview
Published on: 09 June 2017

Subuhi Jiwani

Subuhi Jiwani​ is a researcher based ​in Mumbai. She shares her findings through writing and video.

Edited transcript of an interview by Subuhi Jiwani with film theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha in Mumbai in 2015, where he talks about various critical approaches to film in India and his own critical practice

Subuhi Jiwani: What are your thoughts on film criticism as a practice?

Ashish Rajadhyaksha: Speaking autobiographically, one reason I didn’t get into the profession of reviewing (in the narrow sense) is that I have never been interested in the idea of evaluative criticism, where you try to do an objective assessment of a work of art or a film, something a particular kind of aesthetic tradition has done since Immanuel Kant wrote his Critique of Judgement in 1790. In this Kantian tradition, such critical judgement is the ability of a citizen to be able to evaluate or assess a work of art, just as you would assess a social good or a political responsibility.


It’s hard for me to translate that history into our situation because of two very distinct variants or trivialisations of it: one is the reviewer who presumably provides home consumer guidance and advises potential consumers of a work of art about whether it is good or not. Now, critical judgement has often come in direct conflict with the reviewing responsibility, and those are two quite different responsibilities. It’s worth teasing out the difference between them.


Most people writing on cinema will figure somewhere on a spectrum, with the judgmental person on the one end and the person doing theoretical work on the other, and they will dip in when and where necessary. It’s like a pendulum movement.


There’s something really fascinating that exists completely outside of this: it’s when I recognise that the work of art exists as a kind of socially discursive entity; that it exists with all its complexity and when I engage with it, I do so on my terms, as part of what I do, not what it does. I will enter and exit from different kinds of works to further my purpose not its purpose, which is a very different way of thinking about ‘criticism’.


When you have a catalogue of a work of art in all its colour and glory, the work takes centre-stage and anything that anyone writes about it is an appendage to it, however intelligent or insightful the writing. This writing is secondary to the work of art. At the other extreme, you have a situation in which the text dominates and the work of art, which is printed in black and white in a small box, and it is intended to serve a point that the text is making. This text that exists only and solely to serve the critical purpose and has no other role to play in that situation.


So, given my critical interest, how do I engage with the work of art? What I find fascinating is the diversity of ways of doing it. Curation, for example, is one such way. It’s a way by which you can extend the critical purpose of engaging with a work of art but on somewhat different terrains; I’ve been doing it and have been interested in it. Something else I’ve been working on is, an offshoot of To be able to work with digital renditions of a painting, a film or a piece of music as critical work is something I find of interest as well.



S.J.: Would you like to tease out the difference between the reviewer and the critic?

A.R.: The question of the reviewer takes us back to the history of the popular press. As far as film is concerned, you had very interesting reviewers going back to the very early 20th century. There were many journals, like Pravinya in Marathi from the late 1920s, which contained short essays trying to understand what a particular film was about and sometimes, engaging with the larger concerns of that film. But it was really no more than an intelligent guide to what a film is about. In Film India, Baburao Patel’s magazine which started in the 1930s, you would have lots of reviewers’ work. K. A. Abbas, for example, wrote as a film reviewer as well. I remember a very nice essay on V. Shantaram’s Duniya Na Mane from 1937 about how progressive the film was; the piece also asked larger questions about the situation that the film discussed.


For me, personally, the kind of critical tradition I think is important emerges from a somewhat different area and a somewhat anarchist history where people were trying to assemble a theory or an up-and-ready thing for whatever they were trying to do. So D.D. Kosambi, for example, in Pune would say, 'I will tell you about pre-history in Maharashtra and while I do it, let me take you for a walk'. For me, the ability to engage historiographic work with the work of art has been crucial, and I don’t know how far back I can take that history. I think off and on there have been people who’ve done it. This kind of enquiry would be multi-disciplinary and I would move from a text to social context quite seamlessly. For a lot of other people, this would be total heresy. I would have little problem with that.


Just to give you a trivial example: Nandlal Bose’s Haripura posters, as they were called, about everyday life were in the Haripura Congress of the Congress Party in a place called Haripura. I was very interested in what the Congress was doing in Haripura at that time. It turned out that Gandhi who had resigned from the Congress party was there only and solely to support the arts and crafts section of it and Nandlal Bose’s work was there to support Gandhi’s position. To me, that’s important in order to understand what Bose was doing. I am interested in that kind of return of the work of art into the social-historical maelstrom from which it emerges and to locate it within everything else that is happening with it.


S.J.: That, in your opinion, should ideally be what the critic or the theorist should try to do?

A.R.: Except that the mainstream media publications like The Times of India may not be the best places to do it. We do have examples of people who did try to do that, for instance, Sadanand Menon, who edited the arts page of the Economic Times. While he was doing this, ET suddenly took on a kind of quality; it was phenomenal. People also talk of The Times of India itself and the era of Sham Lal and other writers.


What’s interesting to note is that all of Satyajit Ray’s polemical pieces appeared in the press, like The Statesman newspaper, for instance. So, we have had the popular press in India as a location for fairly significant debates and discussions, but normally, it tends to be a little bit of a mismatch. Increasingly, I’m told that mainstream newspapers literally don’t have any space for this kind of work, although Shanta Gokhale and her columns would be an exception.


S.J.: What role did independent or niche publications play in putting out critical texts on works of art, including the Journal of Arts and Ideas, of which you were the executive editor?

A.R.: There is a phenomenal history of little journals or independent journals in India, which largely had an autonomous existence and were community-driven. The journals were being published in different Indian languages, including Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali and Malayalam, to name a few. They started coming out soon after the First World War and during the era of early nationalism, and then, with the birth of regional languages.


Journal of Arts and Ideas emerges from a Left context; it starts out as an artists’ journal in the post-Emergency period of the early 1980s. Its early trajectory sees people in the Communist Party or individuals having some connection with the party, contributing to the magazine. For instance, there’s a very early essay by Ashok Mitra called ‘Nationalism: A Nervous Note’. A lot of artists also presented their art in the pages of the journal, and Hindi literature became an important component. These were the very early years. Soon after, the question of autonomous art practice emerged, an art practice that is not formally or officially affiliated to any political ideology, but exists independently of it. Arts and Ideas straddles the second move quite nicely, because you begin to have discussions among people who are not politically affiliated. It is, at this point, trying to set up the terms of an independent modernism, and the art critic Geeta Kapur belongs to this phase. There is at least one more phase when the professional cultural academic comes on the scene. This is a new development in the journal’s trajectory. I remember a number of volumes being edited by academics like Kumkum Sangari, Tejaswini Niranjana and Susie Tharu, to name three.


As far as cinema is concerned, I have made a distinction between what I call film appreciation and film theory. Film appreciation is the cinematic equivalent of an objective analysis of the arts, a history that goes back to Marie Seton or Satish Bahadur at the Film Institute and lays out the cinematic canon; it tells you how to watch a film. It can be seen as an initiation into the practice of criticism. Then came the era of film theory, which would be the era that I would come from, when we, for first time, started engaging with cultural, rather than arts, practitioners from England. The journal Screen and writers like Peter Wollen become quite important during this time, but we were also reading French writers on cinema such as Andre Bazin and the post-structuralist Roland Barthes. The third phase is Film Studies, which is, in a sense, the most important because it is university-based critical work on film. It exists with the full baggage of academic armory.



S.J.: Do we want critical work to be in the mainstream, disseminated through the popular press, for instance, and what do we see as its purpose?

A.R.: One is not clear about the mainstream is anymore. I have on very rare occasions written for the popular press. I wrote two short pieces, one for Outlook and one for India Today. The India Today piece I got some response on, but the Outlook one came and went. I don’t think I got a response worth responding to. Bizarrely enough, I would get more of a response if I wrote for a blog on wordpress than for the print media. If my criterion is a public out there that’s capable of giving me feedback on what I’m saying, then The Times of India or any other mainstream media would be a great black hole.


One of my earliest instances of doing theoretical work, was when was I involved in a discussion group and once, for several days, we discussed the film Sholay. We also discussed some of the early film theory from England, for instance, Will Wright’s Sixguns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western and the work of Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Subsequently, an essay on Sholay came out in The Times of India. The byline was the writer Cyrus Mistry’s but the entire discussion group was acknowledged. I remember doing a two-part article in the pages of The Times of India, when Shanta Gokhale was editing the arts page, on the art scene in Bombay. It was about the NGMA, which hadn't started being built, and the students from the J.J. School of Art were having a dharna at Flora Fountain. It was a regular half-page piece that came out perhaps on page 5. Those were interesting times and you could occasionally find that space in the mainstream print media.



S.J.: What role did film clubs play in cultivating and nurturing critical cultures around film? Screen Unit comes to mind but were there any other clubs that you felt made an important contribution?

A.R.: The Alliance Française was crucial in developing such a culture in Bombay. I was a part of Screen Unit too, which was set up by Amrit Gangar; it had a theoretical interest. This was unusual for its time. There was Cine Society, which was mostly into the glorious era of black-and-white cinema. But Alliance was the really key venue, from the late '60s through to the '80s, and the film critic Rashid Irani ran that club. There was also a group called Friends of the Archive, and Suresh Chhabria and others would manage to get 16-mm films from the National Film Archive in Pune and screen them; we just would sit there and gawk.


Screen Unit would almost always have fairly structured discussions after a film screening, and we would even do courses and so on. Once we had actually mounted a 16-mm photophone projector in the empty classroom of a coaching classes venture in Dadar, mounted prints on it and had pretty extensive discussions on those films. This was before the era of video, which made congregating, screening and having discussions much easier.


Such discussions would happen formally right after the film, but typically, they followed the film appreciation model. Discussions would also happen in Irani hotels and coffee shops, and the need to talk about a film and pull it apart threadbare certainly gripped people.


The Alliance Française, the Max Müller Bhavan and the Cultural Centre of Russia, much less the British Council, were all interesting venues in Bombay for this kind of activity.



S.J.: What has been the contribution of film theorization work happening in India to developing a critical culture around film?

A.R.: If I were to say that the '80s becomes the era of theory, it is also the time when certain sorts of faultlines emerge in the independent Indian cinema. There are key kinds of oppositions, the debate between Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini in Italy, and François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard in France are inherited in India by the Satyajit Ray vs. Ritwik Ghatak kind of divide, or Adoor Gopalakrishnan vs. G. Aravindan. We end up with certain sorts of faultlines across the topos of realism, which becomes the key problem that film studies or film theory takes on at that time.  


Film theory, in my opinion, is primarily defined by positions for and against cinematic realism. The pro-realists would be supportive of Ray and that history, while the anti-realists would try and bring in modernist oppositions into it. In the visual arts, this becomes important and you’d use M.F. Husain to be able to shore up positions critical of this school of cinematic realism. It becomes extremely important because in the mid-1970s, when Indira Gandhi’s government declares the Emergency, there is an effort to establish a statist ideology for cinematic realism. Interestingly, both Satyajit Ray and, to some extent, Shyam Benegal get co-opted in by the state, notwithstanding their own political opposition to the Emergency. The form that they’re talking about is a form that eventually gets adopted by the state.


So film theory at that point in time would emerge on that specific issue. Ray’s attack on Mani Kaul in the Film Society journal and the rather vicious attack on independent filmmakers, and the defense of those filmmakers by Vikram Singh in the pages of Filmfare, would probably be among the key markers of film theory as it comes to be.



S.J: If we were to attempt a definition of film theory, what would it be?

A.R.: You’re starting at that point of time to get an initial grasp of the great European filmmakers and, to a lesser extent, the great Latin American filmmakers. You’re beginning to get a sense of the larger global pantheon within which you’re locating your own films. To have someone like Ghatak on par with someone like Nelson Pereira dos Santas or Glauber Rocha… The other thing is the familiarity of film theory, again, with European film work in '70s and so, the Cahiers du Cinema, to some extent, and Screen in England and the availability of those theorists becomes a really important moment in finding a new vocabulary for film theory in India. Both these are rendered possible a) by film societies and b) by film festivals, like IFFI retrospectives.


A lot of the attacks were taking place on a filmmaker like Roberto Rossellini in the pages of Screen because he was a religious figure. This was a completely new way of looking at film itself, as an object of enquiry. Increasingly, we also had access to the work of people who wrote these pieces. My own access to Paul Willemen, for example, with whom I did the Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, was mind-bending. We couldn’t imagine someone attacking Tarkovsky because he was for us a god—we knew nothing about Tarkovsky other than what the Cultural Centre of Russia would tell us—and to actually have someone in England attacking Tarkovsky was unthinkable.  


There was a lot discussion at the time about whether all this theory made sense in India. There was a very famous conference that Ravi Vasudevan had organised in Simla called ‘Making Meaning in Indian Cinema’. I’ve often seen the arrival of film studies in India as being coincident with that conference. There was also the opening of the Department of Film Studies in Jadavpur University, Calcutta, in 1993. This was when Madhava Prasad’s Ideology of the Hindi Film came out in 1998 and it is a big landmark in this history. Many people have also seen the Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema as a landmark, not necessarily as a theoretical initiative, but because it opened up the historiography of Indian cinema well beyond its usual spaces, those being silent cinema after the '50s, and more particularly, the New Cinema. The Encyclopedia also casts such a wide net around Indian cinema.          


S.J.: Could you talk about what the writings of filmmakers like Satyajit Ray and Mani Kaul contributed to the critical culture around film?

A.R.: It was hugely important! Ray wrote excessively and with a lot of energy—in fact, Ray the polemicist is something we’ve not really had enough understanding of. He was very aggressively polemical: he would take sides, debate. Filmmaker Kumar Shahani’s writing had a somewhat more niche audience; he would be known mostly in spaces like Screen Unit and the Pune Film Society. He was often invited to speak as part of the FTII Film Appreciation course and to lecture elsewhere.


Another very important landmark was the Montage programme on Bombay Doordarshan in the early '80s. The series would show films like 400 Blows by Francois Truffaut or Closely Watched Trains by Jiri Menzel or other classic film appreciation texts. And they would have extensive discussions, lasting up to an hour on TV! Kumar Shahani actually hosted Montage for a while; he must have done 10 episodes and there were others with him too, like Salomi Roy Kapur. There would be detailed discussions about, say, the effect created by the smoke coming out of a chimney seen on-screen and so on.


While Kumar Shahani wanted to discuss things like the sheer construction of a film, you couldn’t avoid the appreciation mode. Helping audiences develop the ability to intelligently watch a film and observe its nuances was one of the purposes of the programme. In a sense, it was a kind of a film literacy programme, which is why Doordarshan would have taken it on. But it was open at that time to people who weren’t necessarily wedded to that purpose, who came on the show and spoke about things that didn’t necessarily have to do with enlightening illiterate audiences about how to watch a film. A lot of the discussion on the New Cinema taking place in India also happened on television at that time.



S.J.: The turn, then, from looking at the way a film was constructed (something that occupied the New Cinema filmmakers) to Cultural Studies happened around the mid-'90s?

A.R.: Personally, I think this happened only when the ability to think of a social history of the cinema emerged. So it wasn’t merely this text and that text but the desire to look at cinema in India as a social force. Interestingly, Shahid Amin, one of our great historians of nationalism, had written an essay on M.S. Sathyu’s Garam Hawa in some publication and he didn’t think of it as an academic thing. And we kept asking ourselves why was that so? Even the Subaltern Studies scholars from Calcutta would be voracious film enthusiasts, but could never see cinema discussed as part of what they did. The joke with Partha Chatterjee was that film was only something you saw after 6:00 pm; you were a theorist before that. It wasn’t only cinema; these scholars were into theatre, music and so on but never really saw it as something worth discussing. I think it was the ability to bring some of the tools of historiography and political science to look at textual works, to look at cinema, and to develop a historico-textual way of looking at films—that really constitutes the shift. For me, Madhava Prasad’s The Ideology of the Hindi Film is the point at which that happens.



S.J.: How has the coming of the internet impacted the way film critics or theorists practise what they do?

A.R.: To be brutally honest about it, I don’t think our film theorists are digitally literate. It’s been a problem I’ve always had; a lot of film theorists will not know the difference between a tele lens and a zoom lens. That’s an old problem. But today, the sheer possibility that the internet provides is amazing! I’ve been fascinated by If you were to simply look at a digital rendition of a film as a pure source of information, which is what it literally is, you could mine it for anything and everything that you like. To give you an example: K.A. Abbas’s Dharti ke Lal on If you look at the annotations, you will find that we have linked up Abbas’s text about the film to the film itself. He says that for a film that is often seen as a documentary realist film, there are only two documentary shots in the film, one of which was taken covertly with a garbage dump in the foreground and American GIs and British Tommies walking by. Apparently, they were arrested very quickly after they took that shot. So, it became a film historiographic exercise to find that shot and we found it!


Laura Mulvey has said that with the arrival of video and the digital, you’re able to see film with a degree of intense watching that was never possible in the history of cinema. It’s very important to consider what the era of digital is doing to material that was on celluloid and is now available on digital platforms. That is something film studies has really not explored; it’s still just too ostrich-like pretending that film is still a pristine thing.  



S.J.: What is your hope or dream for film studies, theory and criticism?

A.R.: I would, of course, like many more departments of film studies across India, like Jadavpur University has had. It’s true that there is a lot of interest in the field and there are universities, like Whistling Woods for example, that bypass the discipline and move towards film appreciation. In a decade from now, it is anticipated that the entire history of the moving image could be stored on your hard disk of a few hundred terabytes. I suppose film studies would have to fundamentally reinvent itself and become a combination of understanding technology, aesthetics and texts to transit into this era, or and most likely, I suppose, face obsolescence. I can’t see film studies in India being able to handle this challenge if it keeps itself intact.



S.J.: Are the new departments of film studies or media studies contributing scholars of film who’re doing interesting work today?

A.R.: There have been some very promising PhD dissertations on film that I have seen, including those of some of our own students at the Centre for the Study of Society and Culture, who have done some very, very unusual work. For instance, S.V. Srinivas’s critical work on Telugu cinema is one of the first studies of its kind for that language’s cinema. Elsewhere, there’s also a lot of work being done on Bhojpuri film, a film tradition that hasn’t been adequately dealt with. The quality of the archives has increased exponentially as well. At the time we did the Encyclopedia, none of this information was available. A young generation of film writers, including those who write in the popular press and in academic contexts, has emerged. They are familiar with these histories and have archival resources that are enviable. In that sense, these departments have done their work. Unfortunately or fortunately, the really, really important work in film continues to be by scholars trained outside India.  



S.J.: Should film theorists contribute writing to the mainstream media in order to develop rasiks of film?

A.R.: Years ago, when Khalid Mohammed was writing in The Times of India, he had no theoretical ambitions and yet he did an extraordinary, two-page interview he did with Subhash Ghai, which was a landmark. Even the writing in Debonair was of immense importance. That said, I wonder sometimes about the quality of the mainstream. If there was a mainstream, one would’ve said, yes, let’s be a part of it but because the mainstream has become so diverse and so plural it’s very hard to figure out what it is. Baradwaj Rangan at The Hindu is very interesting—he does have theoretical ambitions—and Venkatesh Chakravarthy has occasionally written for the mainstream as well. It would nice if more people did write in the mainstream, but it’s not easy to make that transition either. Some people are interested in doing that as against going into the academic publishing context and have tried, but faced certain difficulties. There are some autonomous websites where people do contribute, like Film Philosophy or Passion for Cinema, although these are cinephiliac kinds of spaces.



S.J.: What do you see as the purpose of critical writing and theorising on film? Is it to develop audiences, rasiks, to inform them and enlighten them? Has it been helpful in creating dialogues with practitioners so that they can fine-tune their own practices? Or has it been to create writing that takes off from a film and does other things with it?

A.R.: My own interest is in the latter category. This idea of improving the mind of the spectator… we have had a long history of reformist film criticism. Dadasaheb Phalke (1870–1994), known as the father of Indian cinema, wrote those five essays that were brought together as Bhartiya Chitrapat and in these essays, he tried to find a way to make people who didn’t know anything about cinema take it seriously. K.A. Abbas’s own interest in doing something similar is worth consideration.


It’s not clear to me if most people writing today are writing with the intention of improving anyone’s mind. The best writing is the kind where I, as the reader, am interested in the writer and what that person is trying to say about a film. I’d like to track a particular way of writing and thinking about film, through which a film enters and exits, rather than a kind of writing that tells us what is of significance in a particular film. And sometimes, even stray statements about a film are more interesting than a full-scale assessment of a film.