Wednesday, September 16, 2009

…And Then There Was World Cinema

Here's a li'l piece I had written for a UTV World Movies E-zine. This is perhaps the shortest, yet the most inclusive possible introduction to the World of Cinema. For those of you who are beginners, its like a beginners guide, for those who know, it will reinstate a few lost ideas. Of course I had to leave out more than I could include, but this is a birds eye view of the major trends, which hopefully will inspire you to dive down, and have a closer, more intimate view. Trust me, you'll enjoy every bit of it...

World Cinema is the latest buzz in town, a term which guarantees instant awe when dropped in conversations. Yet ask anyone to define it, and all you’ll get is a vague generalization about ‘art films’ . “So what about creative commercial cinema?” you wonder.

Ask Wikipedia, and it makes ‘World Cinema’ synonymous with ‘Foreign Language Films’. Does that mean that good films made in one’s home country do not belong to World Cinema? You have a lingering doubt that perhaps the truth about World Cinema lies beyond these.

And it does.
The special effects of this 1902 film 'A Trip To The Moon' by a professional magician Georges Méliès , had audiences tripping inside their heads more than what 'Matrix' did for us in our generation. This movie's available for free from

When the Lumiere brothers first made and demonstrated ‘moving images’ to a Parisian crowd in 1895, they weren’t thinking ‘World Cinema’. Neither were the audiences who thronged town fairs across America and Europe and paid a nickel (hence the term nickelodeons) to watch them. Back then, cinema was merely a novelty.
The four musketeers who founded United Artists in 1919, from left to right: Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin and D.W. Griffith.

It was the vision of one man, D W Griffith, that changed this status quo forever in 1915 with ‘The Birth of a Nation’. Besides pioneering numerous cinematic techniques, he is also the first man to shoot in Hollywood.

Though World War I hampered the growth of cinema in Europe, it did not stay far behind. Hence, while Hollywood had its masters in Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille and Buster Keaton, Europe had its own in Fritz Lang, Sergei Eisenstein and F W Murnau. Yet, as the years went by, Hollywood emerged as the cinema capital of the world.

Then the patron saint of cinema breathed sound into moving images in 1927 with the birth of ‘talkies’. Despite the initial chaos, the result was the Golden Age of Hollywood. Directors and actors worked exclusively with studios, and films were made at assembly-line speed. Yet, directors like Frank Capra, John Ford, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock made it the most creative filmmaking period ever.
Al Johnson was only playing Nostradamus when he walked on screen in the October of 1927 in the film 'The Jazz Singer' and sang out 'Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet...', the first words ever heard from a film, heralding the wave of sound films.

For Europe, World War II brought opportunity in the form of adversity, and a new form – Italian Neorealism – took shape. Filmmakers like Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini abandoned the comforts of a studio and took to the streets to shoot films like ‘Bicycle Thieves’ and ‘La Strada’ that inspired the world, including a certain advertising executive in India named Satyajit Ray, to make ‘different’ films.

In France, a breed of critic-turned filmmakers, who were inspired as much by Hollywood as by Italian Neorealism, took up the baton. Directors like Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard changed cinema with landmark films like ‘400 Blows’ and ‘Breathless’, respectively.

Japan, meanwhile was on a unique tangent. One breed of its filmmakers led by Akira Kurosawa was inspired by Hollywood, while others like Yasuziro Ozu and Mikio Naruse developed their own distinctive style.
More than 40% of films made before the 1940s in Japan are lost forever and nothing remains of them but their names. An unspeakable loss to the world of cinema.

Staying with Asia, the intellectual fervor in Iran in the 1950s and 60s led to a new and gritty kind of literature that fuelled its cinema. The result was the Iranian New Wave, a humanistic approach to filmmaking that blended fiction and documentary styles with directors like Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf
and Majid Majidi taking the lead.

Ironically, when good, low-budget films made by the French New Wavers did well in the US, Hollywood was forced into realizing the importance of supporting new talent. The result was the ‘New Hollywood’ of the early 70s, with directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg.

India had its own new wave in the 70s as well, with directors like Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen and Adoor Gopalakrishnan making low-budget but intelligent films whose success challenged the stronghold of the so-called ‘commercial cinema’.
The tremendous success of the low budget, but creative film 'Bhuvan Shome' directed by Mrinal Sen, heralded the Indian New Wave in the 70s, perhaps the most creative filmmaking era India has seen.

This brief history of World Cinema thus brings us to its elusive definition, which is actually deceptively simple. Films that have pushed forward the art and craft of filmmaking with its intelligence and creativity can be classified under the omnibus term World Cinema. And while once there was no need for a separate categorization, this has become necessary today due to the formulaic nature of commercial filmmaking across the world.
Yet, works of commercial but creative filmmakers like Capra or Hitchcock find as much place in the roster of World Cinema as those who made films only for art’s sake, such as Tarkovsky (Russia) or Kieslowski (Poland). Awards given at reputed film festivals like Cannes, Berlin, Locarno and Toronto are a good, if only limited, anchor for identifying trends and movements in World Cinema.
World Cinema is inclusive, not exclusive. Hichcock and Capra find as much place here as Tarkovsky and Kieslowski.

Thus, what emerges is an inclusive and even benign class of films and not an obscure and exclusive one as some intellectuals would make us believe. World Cinema, with its good, clean, entertaining, enlightening and provocative appeal, is as much for the ‘masses’ as it is for the ‘classes’. And the world is much the better for it.

(Thanks to Tanmoy Goswami for the wonderful and tight edit.)


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