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What Can Chinese And Indian Cinema Have In Common? This Filmmaker Has Answers!

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By Rohini Banerjee for Youth Ki Awaaz:

Editor’s Note: As part of our coverage of PSBT’s Open Frame Film Festival And Forum 2016 that is going on in Delhi (13th – 20th September), Youth Ki Awaaz will be featuring reviews of films and interviews with directors. This year’s theme is “Reflections and Ruminations.” Scroll down for schedule details.

Ever wondered what Chinese and Indian cinema could have in common? Here’s a documentary which explores just that.

“Electric Shadows”, directed by Avijit Mukul Kishore, explores a film festival in China where Indian films were screened; and reflects deeply on the impact of cinema on these two cultures, on the act of documentary film-making and the politics of history and memory. Kishore is a documentary filmmaker whose love for cinema and visual art is keenly represented in his work. While he’s also worked on shows like Kaun Banega Crorepati, this FTII alum has made films that explore various social realities while simultaneously exploring how those same realities get reflected in cinema. He is actively involved in cinema pedagogy and is even the co-curator of a national film archive! We caught up with him for a quick chat on “Electric Shadows” and on his film-making process:

Rohini Banerjee (RB): ‘Electric Shadows’ explores the art of documentary filmmaking from both historical and cultural perspective. Why do you think that the documentary is an important genre, especially in a country like India where documentaries are hardly watched or recognised?

Avijit Mukul Kishore (AMK): The documentary, like its fraternal twin, the fiction film, is a record of the culture, history and artistic expression in a country at a given time. Both genres re-create narratives and experiences of lives, real or imagined, in their own specific ways, which we often struggle to differentiate from each other, as there are many similarities between them. You might say that the documentary is often burdened with reality, while the fiction film seeks to represent versions of that, but maybe without being burdened by it. Fiction filmmaking might be more flamboyant, but so can the documentary, which can be as fictitious, if not more than its fiction counterpart. In the end, both are mediated interpretations of subjective reality. We often settle at defining their boundaries by the venues and platforms that are screened at! Everything else could be common, in terms of scale, treatment, use of technology, actors and budgets.

India has a very vibrant documentary culture, both in terms of making and viewing. It is not about the numbers of people on the seats. It’s a subculture which has its specific audience and philosophies. In fact, it will only flourish in small groups, with concentrated audiences. That will prevent the homogenisation of its themes as well as the standardisation of audience and market expectations. As the curator of many film programmes, I feel that the ones that work the best for the audience are those that include an introduction that sets up a framework for viewing the film and/or a discussion with a filmmaker or an invited expert. Nothing beats the collective viewing of film. But of course, that is a luxury, so any means of accessing film, whether theatrical, or for individual viewing works well.

RB: Other than “Electric Shadows”, you have also explored the relationship between art and social and cultural politics in your other films (like “To Let The World In”). How did you get interested in this theme?

AMK: I like to examine and make porous the boundaries of different disciplines. It is a challenge to find the intersection between film and other art forms, whether visual or performing arts. I like working with the specificities of the film medium and adapting them to theatre, music, painting, installation or performance art. “To Let the World In” was a component of an exhibition organised by Art Chennai in 2012. It sought to examine the history of contemporary Indian art in the last thirty years through conversations with three generations of visual artists. It was a great learning experience for me.

RB: Through the film, we learn a lot about how cinema can draw together two seemingly disparate cultures like China and India. Do you think that cinema can be instrumental in bringing together people or cultures more often?

AMK: It is a cliché that the popular cinema of a country is its foremost cultural ambassador. For such major film producing countries as India and China, the first impression of each other’s cultures might get formed by our cinemas. This is most often a skewed, fictional image. That is where the fun is. That is where the challenge is – in imagining that China is not all Kung-fu, Tiananmen Square and mass-censorship, while India is not all slums, yoga and call-centres, with people breaking into song and dance every now and then. “Electric Shadows” as a film enjoys examining the perception of cultures as formed through the cinema and propagandist ideas.

RB: Documentary making involves both personal interviews and the consulting of official records (which this film also explores). Do these two different kinds of accounts often clash or differ, in your experience? Did you ever face this clash while making “Electric Shadows”?

AMK: “Electric Shadows – Journeys in Image-making” is about the clash between the mainstream images of cultures, which seek to be monolithic, easy to consume and the myriad independent and nuanced voices that get subsumed within those. It is based on ‘You Don’t Belong: Pasts and Futures of Indian Cinema’, a festival of Indian documentary, feature film and experimental video held in China in 2011. This was organised by ‘West Heavens Project’ and was an unprecedented exchange between the art, cinema and academic circuits of India and China. It was a privilege to be part of this festival curated by Ashish Rajadhyaksha, with help from Gargi Sen of Magic lantern Foundation.

The film got made on a subsequent visit and was more interested in the idea of how the iconic image of a culture gets created and propagated. This was deconstructed by revisiting the Indian films screened at the festival in 2011, pitting the idea of the iconic with the independent and alternative.

RB: The concept of the ‘archive’ becomes a central theme of the film. How do you think the documentary can become a legitimate way of archiving or recording history?

It has always been one! And more than that, it has been a record of the subjective proclivities of cultures towards recording and representing themselves. What might be considered propagandist or even bad film making by different people at different points of time, is an important record of how different points of view in a nation wanted to present themselves. In India, we have had a very diverse and vibrant culture of non-fiction film making over the last 70 years, which started getting more and more interesting and complex post the 1970s. This collective archive of moving images has always fascinated me for what it stands for and seeks to achieve.

Catch Avijit Mukul Kishore’s “Electric Shadows” at 7.00 pm on September 17 at India International Centre. To see the full Open Frames Festival programme, click here.

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