There was never a language as open as the one that the cinematograph proposed
“Every frame of each and every film made in the world has to be preserved,” said Henri Langlois when I met him at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. It was around late 1967 or early 1968; I was helping him mount an event of Indian Cinema at the iconic Cinemathèque Française.
His close collaborator, Madame Meerson, used to sit at the ticket counter herself and issue the coupons to starving cinephiles like me who skipped lunch and dinner to be able to pay the single franc that she charged. (The French franc and the Indian rupee were more or less on par those days.) She had called for Ritwik-da’s (Ritwik Ghatak) films on my advice and saw "Subarnarekha" with me at the Musée de l’Homme auditorium. But she was completely bewildered by the superb stylisation specific to that film and perhaps never showed it, since the programming was based on a different notion of India then prevalent. The prevailing view of India continued to be that of European anthropology with all its unconscious prejudices. Prejudices reinforced by our own indigenous varnashrama, the nascent crisis of global capitalism which privileged the speed of currency manipulation over every other economic activity. In spite of the unprecedented suffering created by the two World Wars, during the Wars and after, this earth continues to reel and lurch backward from the light of life into Jibanananda Das’s “Raatri” (Night).
The only thing that I remember is the taste of ginger – rare in a French restaurant, where I had the privilege of meeting Lotte Eisner for lunch, before I had met Henri Langlois, the other founder of the Cinemathèque. She had been hounded by the SS in Nazi Germany and had moved to France where, again, she had to suffer the indignities equal to thousands of Jewish women harassed by the collaborator French police and the government of 1942. The Vichy.
Wasn’t that the same year that Gandhi had launched the Quit India movement? The German occupation had transformed the everyday life of Parisians. It was especially harsh on artists, intellectuals and film makers. In other words, all modes of knowledge, of finding words and images and sounds were threatened. Above all, those that were most contemporary. The cinema was the newest of all the arts. It encompassed and still does all the previous modes of thought, word, deed—the musical, the visual, the moving spectacle of divinity.
The first images of settled civilisation known to us were those of the angavastra gazing back from their oceanic movement as it flowed over the limbs. These were woven into and dyed over cellulose. Celluloid, the parallel of cellulose, came to take it all over after the birth of electricity. It had to wait for the sound forms to vibrate back with infinitesimal sine curves that find their spatial homes within the interstices of the inner ear to save us from predators and equip us, our whole nervous system, to create rather than appropriate.
Lotte Eisner had to go underground, moving from one dungeon to another, and is actually credited with preserving that outstanding Chaplin masterpiece, The Great Dictator, in the dank dungeon of Château de Béduer. At the instigation of the writer Jeanne Loviton’s lifelong friend and lover Yvonne Dornes, from 1941 until the end of the war the Château de Béduer hid the film archives of the Cinemathèque Francaise where the German Jewish exile Lotte Eisner spent three months cataloguing the films. Thus, the liberation of cinema was simultaneous with the liberation of Paris, of Lotte, of Marguerite Duras and Margerethe von Trotta, of the screen, of the individual of the future and the end of the Eurocentric state.
A couple of years later, the oil mafia and the exhausted European capital left India and the Special Economic Zones, then known as Concessions in China, thereby signalling the possibilities of freedom from the control of monocratic institutions that had already been established by the makers of bombs, airplanes, drugs and guns. The violence generated has led to civilizational entropy, using the episteme to destroy itself.
Many extra-territorial rights almost cyclically return to haunt us, and are even beginning to boomerang on the neo-insurrectionary étatists of every colour, every varna. All acts of imitation, it seems to me, end up in tragic caricature, including the latest one of Artificial Intelligence.
Celluloid had to await its maturity into movement, the refinement of tonal equilibria, the emulsions that bonded upon it in dynamic change. It burnished the here and now into immortality, uplifted noise to the revelatory oscillations of music, when notes are not fixed, just approached and its overtones live infinitely, evoking multiple modes of consonance.
Every frame of every film is singular. Because, the convergence of light, sound, the evocation of the other senses through synaesthesia is unique at every moment, intensifying the celebration and the joy of knowledge, not just simulating it in a pre-set programme.
We know that we have to look at images as modes of addressing the outer and the inner world, not just mirroring it, but moving on to something else. The Lumière Brothers themselves did more than mirror reality by the sheer placement of camera. Dadasaheb Phalke made reality accessible to itihasa, to myth, centralising the role of the imagination, seeing in his own daughter the avatar of Krishna. Griffith created the episteme of screen size and visual volume to assert that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. Eisenstein created synaesthesia with overtonal montage. Chaplin mocked himself in the celluloid mirror when he said that the Great Dictator had stolen his moustache.
In the sphere of still photography, our own Vivan Sundaram has taken his grandfather’s glass plates through the celluloid era to digitise ‘retakes’ of Amrita Sher-Gil, simultaneously re-examining self-determination and personal history.
Both the still photograph and cinematography, with their own counterpoints of colour, light and tone, in movement, evoking multiple emotions, developing epistemes with word, action, went on to include noise, the fortuitous and the random, to enrich the aesthetic of cinema. They opened up unsurpassed spatiotemporal sequences, sensed changes in the various fields of emotion, rasa, in reason and the extra-rational.
There was never a language as open as the one that the cinematograph proposed. There was no pre-set grammar. The cinematograph redeemed our experience. It freed our body from its inhibitions. It condensed and elaborated the interwoven threads and folds of light through the punch cards of the laboratory. Each frame of its continuous process consisted of the creative error that change and flux bring about at every moment. The moment can last forever.
Langlois had let the flow of a Jodhpuri tie-and-dye chunni decorate the curved surface of a wall by multiplying the creases, saying: “The irrational carries greater signification than the rational.” I think he believed it on that particular evening. He was combatting the Gaullist order. I had not quite grasped the full import of what he had said. Nor perhaps, after all these years, will anyone understand the full meaning of what that statement implies. But today, I begin to comprehend it better.
Where you have the persistence of vision and sound, there is the possibility of continuous synaesthesia. It evokes thought processes that go beyond identification and representation. It releases the imaginary from the concreteness of the real world. We move beyond the boundaries of form and language, of area and organisation in uncalculated rapports.
The discords delve into deeper undertones. I believe that the emulsions on celluloid create porous bonds that subtly differentiate each moment. In near random intensities, they enhance the sense of lived experience. The more understated the reality, the more accessible it is in its warmth and the blossoming of truth.
Unfortunately, the advances in imaging are being used to signal commands. These are mainly restrictive, while maintaining the illusion of freedom. They are co-opting people into submission. They terrorise all of us, often without our knowledge. Our spiritual and material being is constantly threatened. For, these signals cater to the needs of the surveillance state which is itself vulnerable to the toxic aggression within the matrices of the globalised arms race. These matrices are opaque to us because we are nowhere near the margins of power.
This had led to the disenfranchisement of the Imaginary. It has deprived the individual of the conjugations and declensions that guided both thought and action through life in all its varied situations. There were more options in classical times than those offered in the market today. Therefore, all initiatives are being scotched by false consciousness. The new imaging technologies have lifted medical science, distant communication and the precision of contingent and coincidences to new areas of the conquest of the universe.
But, our probe into our inner life of each person and event is still not able to transcend the abuse of these technologies. I still dream of the jouissance that will bring forth the realisation of the imaginary, in every mundane gesture that we make, in every babble of the child, in every inflection of light and sound and electrical activity. I want to lift off from the signal to a synapse to get the glimpse of the kind that we sense, that we count as an illumination.
Kumar Shahani is a National Film Award winning Indian director. The article is a part of the “Satyajit Ray Memorial Lecture” at the 25th Kolkata International Film Festival