The annual conference of the Yale Film Studies Program brought Indian cinema to campus this past weekend.
Six 35 mm films by Indian directors were screened at the Whitney Humanities Center as part of “The Avant-Garde in the Indian New Wave.”
The three-day conference, organized by Film Studies Professor Dudley Andrew and Ashish Chadha, a lecturer in Anthropology, Film Studies and South Asian Studies, brought together renowned scholars from the United States and India to chime in on their interpretation of “avant-garde” and “new wave” in the context of Indian cinema over the past 50 years.
“Avant-garde” describes unconventional and pioneering art, while “new wave” was termed by critics to define the radical and innovative cinematic style of directors such as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, in the late 1950s and 1960s reacted against established French cinema. But in his keynote address, Ashish Rajadhyaksha, a scholar from Bangalore, said the Indian definition of avant-garde doesn’t map exactly to the European version and it is misleading to label Indian new wave filmmakers as the Godards of India.
In fact, Amrit Gangar, an independent film critic and scholar from Mumbai, questioned the very use of “avant-garde” to describe such cinema since he said he disagrees that they are pioneers. Instead, he said he prefers to use the term “cinema prayoga” — a Sanskrit word that means “experiment” or “representation.”
In deciding the theme for the conference, the organizers said they chose to focus on the Indian new wave because it is largely unexplored.
“We decided to not do Bollywood because there is a huge amount of scholarly literature on Bollywood,” Chadha said. “Bollywood is common. Bollywood is popular.”
But Indian cinema is not just Bollywood, Andrew said.
“I didn’t want to have the intelligentsia of the Indian art cinema to get completely smothered under the hullaballoo of Bollywood,” Andrew said.
Guest speaker Manishita Dass, assistant professor of screen arts & cultures at the University of Michigan, spoke about the role of politics in the new wave and explained how left-wing members of the Indian People’s Theatre Association in the 1940s became directors of new wave cinema.
“The impatience with the dominance of commercial cinema created a political cinema within commercial cinema,” Dass said.
Dass also noted that directors within the avant-garde and new wave movement were preoccupied with different things: Directors Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani, she said, were much more interested in experimenting with cinematic form, while others suspended narrative altogether.
Within India, new wave was a label used to refer to films mostly produced with state funding between the late 1960s and early 1980s. The government-controlled Film Finance Corporation funded these new wave films under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who declared an emergency and suspended civil liberties in the country. In a time when most people could not express their views publicly, Gandhi allowed these films to persist because she knew they were not being consumed on a massive scale, Dass said.
The conference attracted viewers from Los Angeles, the Midwest, New York, Boston, Bangalore, Kolkata and Mumbai.
Chadha called it “a historic conference,” probably the first conference in the world dedicated to the Indian avant-garde.
Buying a film in 35 mm can cost upwards of $1,000 — as much as a roundtrip ticket to India, Chadha said.