In a couple of weeks I’m going home to visit my parents in Chennai; it’ll be my first trip back to India in 10 years. Watching films with my parents is a ritual I’ve enjoyed all my life, and the last few weeks I’ve been warming up for my trip by embarking on a ‘70s Hindi cinema bender. It’s been startling to revisit films I haven’t seen since I wore short pants and sported a topknot. There’s so much more swirling around in these movies (aesthetically, socio-culturally, politically) than I even began to suspect as a kid.
Below are some thoughts following a viewing of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s didactic comedy, Guddi.
I’ve supposed the word “didactic” to always possess a slight whiff of disparagement. Perhaps I’ve been mistaken. The word has three definitions in the American Heritage dictionary: (1) “Intended to instruct”; (2) “Morally instructive”; and (3) “Inclined to teach or moralize excessively”. The first of the three definitions doesn’t necessarily have a negative connotation, and can be associated with the word “pedagogical” (“concerned with instruction or teaching”). This is the sense in which I’ll be using the word here.
Guddi (1971) contains one of the most famous screen debuts in Indian cinema history—that of Jaya Bhaduri, who later married India’s great screen icon Amitabh Bachchan. She plays a movie-mad schoolgirl, Kusum (Guddi is her family nickname, meaning "little doll"), who ‘bunks’ class to go play hooky and see Anupama, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1966 film. She falls hopelessly in love with the movie’s star, Dharmendra. This upsets her family’s plans to ‘arrange’ her marriage to a young man they've chosen.
Utpal Dutt, that great axiom of Bengali cinema, plays an “experimental psychologist” who hatches a plan to dismantle Guddi's confusion/conflation of illusion and reality by taking her behind the scenes of a Dharmendra film shoot. As you might expect, the “filmi duniya” (film world) stands in inverse relation to its appearance on screen. The glamour of cinema disintegrates, in the context of shooting, into a succession of banal, boring, day-to-day tasks. (Truffaut managed to color even these tasks with a certain wonderstruck quality in Day for Night, but not so here.) Dharmendra is revealed to her as a mere human being, a little full of himself, a bit dull, a star surrounded by a large crew and supporting cast, all of whom work harder than he does. Disenchanted, Guddi falls out of love with the star and consents to the arranged marriage. The patriarchal order is predictably restored.
Ousmane Sembene has likened the modern African filmmaker to the figure of the traditional oral storyteller (or griot) with a pedagogical purpose. Griot characters also appear in several of his films. Sembene moved from novel-writing to films for two reasons: the ability to reach African audiences in a wider variety of language groups, and also the capability to communicate with nonliterate audiences. Francoise Pfaff writes that Sembene’s films are accessible to popular audiences in Africa because
they represent a collective experience based on visual and aural elements with characteristics that can be compared to the griot’s delivery. Anyone who has attended a film screening in a working-class district of Senegal is struck by the intensely vocal participation of the viewers who comment on the plot of the film, respond to one another’s remark, address the actors and laugh at their mishaps just as they would during the griot’s performance in which dramatic mimics and gestures are used to encourage audience reaction.
Indeed, this kind of active audience participation is also quite common in India. I remember audiences at Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (1975) vocally echoing or anticipating not just dialogue but also music cues and sound effects (like bullets ricocheting off rocks!).
Brian Goldfarb, in his essay "A Pedagogical Cinema," recounts an interesting turning point for Sembene:
In his successful career as a novelist and in his earliest films, Ousmane Sembene worked most often in the language and cultural conventions he was taught by the French colonial educational system in Senegal. Sembene recalls that using the colonial tongue seemed appropriate at the time: French “was a fact of life.” However, when he began to show his films in Senegal, peasant audiences criticized his language choice, identifying it as emblematic of an internalized Eurocentrism. “The peasants were quick to point out to me that I was the one who was alienated,” he explains. “They would have preferred the film in their own language, without the French.”
A couple of more examples in the category ‘didactic/pedagogical cinema’: Rossellini’s late-period history films made for television; programmatic documentaries like The Corporation or An Inconvenient Truth; essay films like Varda’s The Gleaners and I, etc.
Your thoughts on didactic/pedagogical cinema? And any other examples of films from cinema history that set out to perform, however unconventionally, a teaching function?
A few links:
-- Michael Guillen hosts his first blog-a-thon at The Evening Class, on Val Lewton, during the week of January 14.
-- Shahn at Six Martinis and the Seventh Art has been posting screengrabs of snow images all month.
-- Chris Fujiwara on the traveling Max Ophuls retrospective.
-- Scores of critic top 10 lists from the past at Eric C. Johnson's website.
-- Keith Uhlich's photo essay for the movie year 2007, at The House Next Door.
-- Steven Shaviro on Richard Kelly's Southland Tales.
-- Errol Morris responds at length to his blog commenters at the NYT.
-- Pacze Moj, at Critical Culture, has an image-laden post on Rossellini's Francis, God's Jester.
-- Frederick Wiseman's films are now available on DVD at special prices for individuals (as opposed to institutions).
pic: The schoolgirl Guddi (Jaya Bhaduri) imagines her wedding night with the star Dharmendra.