On the Challenges of Reading, Writing & Publishing Science Fiction & Fantasy in South Asia

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Cover Illustration: “Enclosed” by Ashim Shakya, from Issue 4 of Mithila Review.

In my new Strange Horizons column, I talk about Geoff Ryman’s story that inspired the Mithila Review / Asian Science Fiction & Fantasy project and my earliest forays into SF as a reader. My childhood revolved around comics and other things but none as vital and transfixing as some of the stories in “Perilous Journey,” a high school textbook edited by Northrop Frye and W. T. Jewkes in 1973. It was a miracle of a book for me. Then there were McLuhan and Gibson, the two towering influences in my life even before I knew it.

I plugged into a mind-space that couldn’t exist in the real world ever since I coded my first website as a pre-teen in the late 90s. The “cyberspace” offered me an escape from the hard truth of reality and violence that was going on all around me. I remain t/here even as I’m still confined, physically, to the fringes of the “empire” that is Anglo-American. That’s why, I think, Ryman’s work means so much to me. But I didn’t know yet which “genre” I belonged to when I thought and pitched my films during my early 20s. Now that I know there is a language in which I exist, I’m truly grateful.

The Capra Hyperbole : One Man, One Film

Meet John Doe is nothing short of a triumph of Riskin the individual over Capra the institution.

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The last day of December demands introspection, and I sense a now all-too-familiar pressure to choose the right words for this end note. The year on the calendar upsets my plans. These plans have now become ‘old plans’; plans that stopped my time a long ago. And to watch Frank Capra now means to freeze this time even further.

Capra’s world is the one of hope—often, the oldest hopes of man. There’s a childlike simplicity that characterizes these men. His women are strong-willed and independent. In this world the greatest villain is self-centeredness. Honesty and kindness come across as something worth striving for, and because you want to believe so. ‘Be nice.’ ‘Be good.’ That seems to be at the heart of his best-known films: It Happened One Night (1934), Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941), among others.

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Screenwriter Robert Riskin with director Frank Capra

It’s a shocking discovery then: the voice in these films doesn’t belong to its director Frank Capra. This voice that we admire so much belongs to the writer of his films who could sympathize with the underdogs, who sailed the boats for Columbus but never got their due share of credit or recognition. Sadly, his partnership with the writer of his best films, Robert Riskin, can be described as the relationship that D.B. Norton had with John Doe in Meet John Doe.

Even the choice of the title of Frank Capra’s autobiography, The Name Above The Title, clearly propels his reckless attitude. The star director refused to visit the lowly writer who was slowly dying in a hospital. Throughout his life, Capra attempted to shroud the genius of the great scenarist. The truth is that Capra eschewed the funeral of a man whose creative vision and distinct voice was widely mistaken to be Capra’s own. Nothing could be more ironical for the man who reaffirms the Christian doctrine of forgiveness in his works.

Robert Riskin seems to have no problem with accepting the true nature of the director-writer relationship in the studio era. Riskin helped to set up the Screen Writers’ Guild and fought as a screenwriter for the screenwriters, and the fight still continues. Riskin needed Capra as much as Capra needed him, or any writer needs a director unless they are both one. The collaboration, between the man with an idea and the man with the means to sustain it, couldn’t be less lopsided:

                        JOHN DOE
Do you mean to tell me you’d try to kill the John Doe movement
if you can’t use it to get what you want?
                      D.B. NORTON
You bet your bottom dollar we would!

Such a reading of Meet John Doe’s text then adds an autobiographical quality, on Riskin’s part, to this last collaboration. And it seems Meet John Doe is nothing short of a triumph of Riskin the individual over Capra the institution. Yet it cannot be denied that the brief marriage between Riskin’s idealism and Capra’s pragmatism was responsible for the birth of some of the finest classics in Hollywood.

In the beginning of the last year or was it the year before that, I left the oblivion of a film that I had co-written to return to the oblivion of advertising. The oblivion grows on you, no matter whether you’re a director-in-the-making or a director who’s made many films.  Capra did his best films with Riskin, and Riskin did his with Capra. On the first viewing, a Capra film is a dialog film—hence a Riskin film. It’s all drama, and then when you keep playing back your favorite scenes over and again, you begin to notice the mise-en-scène. Capra clearly knew how to translate the text on to the silver screen, and all so well. Only if he were less ‘mean.’

Postscript from In Capra’s Shadow: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Robert Riskin by Ion Scott:

Jo Swerling, a mutual friend and colleague of Riskin and Capra, and himself a wonderful Hollywood screenwriter, once paced around Riskin’s wheelchair while he was ill, complaining that Capra’s reluctance to visit his old friend was just not right. In the end, however, Riskin lost his temper with Swerling and revealed a deep-seated loyalty to his former partner by dismissing what seemed to be a reasonable claim with the comment, “You’re talking about my best friend.”

Also published on MoiFightClub on Jan 6, 2012

Teach Cinema to Children

“The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.”

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“Who is the father of computer?” I asked my 9-year-old niece. “Charles Babbage,” she replied promptly. Then I asked her, “And who is the father of cinema?” “What is cinema?” the fourth grader asked me. “It’s the art of films,” I tried to explain but seeing the little girl perplexed, I changed the topic. We were soon talking about ants that had found their way into a cupboard where she had kept her candies.

The first thing that a man learns is the language of his people. The language of other arts is an acquired and a required skill. When I was in school, I learned about many great personalities but none of them were filmmakers. Why don’t we teach cinema to children?

There is little evidence that we have understood this modern man’s expression. There are not many people who can ‘read’ films. Is this the reason why film history is still not a part of the school curriculum while other expressions are taught seriously? I discovered the new language of cinema very late during my adolescence. If anything, the idiot box was just a major distraction until my discovery of the cinematic language came along with the discovery of P2P and bit torrents. I had only heard about Satyajit Ray until I was 18. The Apu Trilogy was my first download; The Bicycle Thief was second. Sadly, a majority of us are not unaware of the many potentials and powers of the cinematic medium. But I can at least feel satisfied that I’ve already started.

While Ray was a redefinition of what cinema could be, there was one film that just changed everything for me. I don’t know whom to thank for the inspiration or the creation of this great art form; cinema has no such patron deity. It is truly modern. But I worship Ingmar Bergman anyway; it was his persona, his partnership with cinematographer Sven Nykvist that convinced me that cinema is the art of all arts and it warrants a serious study like other ‘expressions.’

The technology that limited the faculty earlier is no longer an issue. The Kerala State Chalachitra Academy, for one in South Asia, has already taken steps to make cinema an integral part of the school curriculum. NJ Nair wrote in The Hindu this January that the academy has proposed teaching the aesthetics of cinema, the technical aspects of filmmaking, including cinematography, editing and sound recording, in the vocational higher secondary education.

“Students should have a serious approach to cinema and they should learn it like literature itself. While appreciating the intrinsic artistic worth of cinema, they should be able to make use of its employment potential too. Hence, we have mooted a serious study of the technical aspects at the higher secondary level,” the academy vice-chairman VK Joseph told the newspaper.

Ronald Bergman started a similar discussion on The Guardian blog. He writes: Schoolchildren should be taught how to “read” films just as they are taught to read literature. They should learn how films systematize time and space and communicate ideas and emotions; how the patterns and structures of film genres allow us to engage specific historical and social rituals; how different conceptions of film history can direct and shape our responses; how film theory is a pragmatic extension and intensification of our interactions with a film, formal, technical and empirical. They should learn how to explore films from different angles and cultural perspectives.

“Why is film history not taught to schoolchildren?” The question must have occurred to many in the later half of the last century. A majority of us might consider it too modern a notion for our country. All great art form is modern in the true sense. Some might call it a dangerous proposition. All art is dangerous. Before our children begin to ask the same question tomorrow, let’s acquaint ourselves with the art of films. Let’s start “reading” films.

Playing With the Viewer’s Mind

“I think that the interactivity of New Media is a false promise. The game is rigged, and what is invited is not honest contemplation, but merely “figuring out the next movie.”

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Audience Activity

A film, without any visible protagonist, plays with the audience and forces them to become active as the invisible protagonist. The audience feel s/he is there, s/he feels part of the story. Normally the audience can connect to the film through the characters playing on the screen, but is there any film that keeps the gap which only the audience would fill?

A discussion on interactivity in films on The Auteurs.

Excerpt:

The future looks promising for filmmakers who want to exploit whatever interactivity technology might offer.

“I think that the interactivity of New Media is a false promise…. the game is rigged, and what is invited is not honest contemplation, but merely “figuring out the next movie”…. most games that I’m familiar with are, at heart, puzzles with actions to be “figured out.” I sincerely hope the day never comes when movies become interactive…. I don’t think motion pictures stand to gain anything via interactivity. I want To know that Hitchcock and David Lean and Tim Burton have made the choices (this is the Ebert argument that I think holds up.)…. and aren’t leaving it up to me to take the next step. But this isn’t to say I want them to do my thinking for me…. and this is where passivity comes into play. I think motion pictures are often a passive experience, but needn’t be, at the best they aren’t….. inviting critical thought is something that many of the best films do and rely on for their impact. But if a video game is active only because you move your thumbs about and figure out where the medipack is…. or even which corners you can go around in a game like Passages….. than this level of activity doesn’t seem to stretch far from passivity in a very meaningful way. I’ve no doubt that some games can give you a migraine thinking so hard about a given problem….. but by getting to move around on your own, I don’t see this as making you far more active than getting a migraine thinking about the issues and conundrums of a filmed narrative. It may take more active thought and hand-eye coordination to complete a task in a video game, but this thought is limited to the task at hand…. a great movie will give you opportunities to leave it behind and contemplate the world around you, which is a very active process, even if it isn’t interactive.”

Patrick does make a convincing argument. Is it interactivity in true sense? I’m trying to stick to the tradition (deciding the structure for the viewer without giving them you-can-choose options) while exploring new possibilities. However, what matters at the end of the day, is of course if you achieved your goal of telling a story and creating an impact best desired. I think it’s a tough call but this human desire to accomplish something unique and new probably drives all of us.

Being Charlie Kaufman

ee cummings: To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best night and day to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.

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“Here’s a recent quote that I found: ‘we do not talk, we bludgeon one another with facts and theories gleaned from cursory readings of newspapers, magazines and digests,’. That was actually written in 1945 by Henry Miller, and I think it’s timely. I think what it says is that the world has been on its present course it’s on for a long time. People all over the world spend countless hours of their lives, every week, being fed entertainment in the form of movies, tv shows, newspapers, YouTube videos, the internet. And it’s ludicrous to believe that this stuff doesn’t alter our brains.

“And it’s also equally ludicrous to believe that at the very least this mass distraction and manipulation is not convenient for the people who are in charge. People are starving, they may not know it because they’re being fed mass produced garbage. The packaging is colourful and loud, but it’s produced in the same factories that make Pop Tarts and iPads, by people sitting around thinking ‘what can we do to get people to buy more of these?’.

“And they’re very good at their jobs. But that’s what it is you’re getting, because that’s what they’re making, they’re selling you something. And the world is built on this now, politics and government are built on this, corporations are built on this. Interpersonal relationships are built on this, and we’re starving, all of us, and we’re killing each other, and we’re hating each other, and we’re calling each other liars and evil because it’s all become marketing and we want to win because we’re lonely and empty and scared and we’re led to believe winning will change all that. But there is no winning.

“What can be done? Say who you are, really say it in your life and in your work. Tell someone out there who is lost, someone not yet born, someone who won’t be born for 500 years. Your writing will be a record of your time, it can’t help but be. But more importantly if you’re honest about who you are you’ll help that person be less lonely in their world because that person will recognise him or herself in you and that will give them hope. It’s done so for me, and I have to keep rediscovering it, its profound importance in my life. Give that to the world, rather than selling something to the world, don’t allow yourself to be tricked into thinking that the way things are is the way the world must work and that in the end selling is what everyone must do. Try not to.

“This is from ee cummings: ‘to be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best night and day to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting’. The world needs you, it doesn’t need you at a party having read a book about how to appear smart at parties – these books exist, and they’re tempting – but resist falling into that trap, the world needs you at the party starting real conversations, saying ‘I don’t know,’ ….being kind. (link)

Resources Online:

On Charlie Rose (Part I & II) (17 min)
On Synecdoche, life, work (with Tom Tangney) (17 min)
On writing, television years (Thinktalk) (12 min)
Charlie Kaufman On Being — And Directing (NPR– audio) (30 min)

Read:

Wikipedia
Being Charlie Kaufman (Salon)
Interview with Kaufman (Bluntreview)
BFI – Screenwriters Lecture Series  (Close-Up Film)
Anurag Kashyap’s notes Kaufman’s master class

Mutilating Classics

What is evident from the debate surrounding whether Pather Panchali should be dabbled into color or not is that the question doesn’t have easy answers.

After watching Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri De biciclette (The Bicycle Thief) in 1951, one 35-year-old artist was tempted to experiment with the visual medium of expression. But he couldn’t convince any Bengali producers to fund his film set in a rural countryside, a film based on a novel that lacked glamour or gloss. Despite these hurdles, this talented young man continued drawing covers for different books to make a living and started shooting his film with a bunch of totally new inexperienced cast. It took him three years to finish the film mostly due to the financial crunch. However this film, partially funded by the government of West Bengal, created history – it was the first Indian film to be nominated for the Academy Awards. The young director was Satyajit Ray as many of you know and the film was Pather Panchali (The Song of Road)which is now regarded as one of the milestones of not only Indian but the world cinema.

For Ray it was Ladri De Bicycette, for me it has been the Apu Trilogy. And before watching a number of Akira Kurosawa classics and The Bicycle Thief itself, I had never thought I’d ever take ‘films’ seriously. Then, Ingmar Bergman’s Personashowed me the power and potential of this ‘new’ medium of art. The emotional and inspirational bond I share with these early works of cinematic art has, therefore, instilled in me this confidence to set out on my own course like many before me. Their works were testimonies to their time and technology. As the contemporary mainstream cinema gets diluted in glamour of color, one should not forget these black and white classics were also the product of creative, compassionate and concerned minds trying to understand the role of man in the society and seeking reform through whatever they had in their hands at their time. They were not just story tellers but above all modern day philosophers, poets and painters who changed the world and other art forms in many ways. Yet the only difference between the great tradition and these new breed of auteurs was certainly their unconventional medium.

While Ray famously wedded art to truth in his films, I admit it is very difficult to find Satyajit Ray in local film stores. I remember searching Guru Dutt’s films in many film stores without any luck. Then at one film store when I finally located them, the owner thought it was for my father. When I said it was for me, the old man asked me what I did. It was hard to find an answer for this difficult question. I could only say, “I’m trying to write.”

Now, the X- and-Y generation of our time may finally get a chance to see Pather Panchali without feeling ‘pride or shame’ in December this year because it would be in color. But that is only if Sankranti Creations, which has already put colored versions of Mughal-e-Azam and Naya Daur to successful reruns, succeeds in its plan to ‘modernize’ this masterpiece much to the dismay of a small ‘minority’ within the industry that want to preserve the artistic integrity of such films. Mughal-e-Azamand Naya Daur doesn’t come anywhere near Pather Panchali. They are three important films in history of Indian cinema but even then any attempt to compare them is not intelligent. The Sankranti Creations’ third ‘choice’ to show off its talents and do ‘a favour’ to this film has certainly triggered concern among the lovers of world cinema. While we have reasons to worry, we also have time to stop that nightmare from becoming a unfortunate reality.

What is evident from the debate surrounding whether Pather Panchali should be dabbled into color or not is that the question doesn’t have easy answers. In late 1980s, American filmmakers, cinematographers and artists fought tooth and nail to stop one of the major studios, Turner Broadcasting System which owns rights to some of the best known classics, from its efforts to put color to these films. However, those who were opposed to coloring cinema had to settle down for a label on the new packages of the same films that stated that they have been materially altered. A notice like we have on covers of cigarette casings today: “This is a colorized version of a film originally marketed and distributed to the public in black and white. It has been altered without the participation of the principal director, screenwriter and other creators of the original film.” I doubt if the same dreadful fate awaits the classics of Indian cinema. I often wonder if the new generation of cinemagoers is afraid of black and white movies or the distributors that they won’t get returns for their money.

However, the campaign to ban colorization did get some success when the Congress agreed to initially place 25 American films on the National Film Registry as ”culturally, historically or esthetically significant”. In another incident related to the controversy, a high French court had blocked the first screening of a colored version of John Huston’s Asphalt Jungleciting that coloring would cause ”unmendable and intolerable damage” to the film’s integrity and infringed on the late director’s estate and moral rights in 1988. Until his death in 1987, Houston had lobbied Congress in favor of a law that would prevent coloring a film against its creator’s wishes. Huston had described watching the colored version of one of his own filmsThe Maltese Falcon, the first of noir films, as “disgustful”. In a videotape message for a Congress panel which was to decide whether a bill proposing to ban colorization of black and white films be introduced, he had complained, ”Why should this mindless insipidity be allowed? Why should Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, who were so careful about their images, be bushwacked by the coloroids?”

Yet, three years after Huston’s death, his gangster classic “Key Largo” was repackaged with the same ‘colorized’ tag which served no purpose than the ‘statutory warning’ printed on its cover.

The 1988 French court decision to block the screening of colored Asphalt Jungle was based on French copyright law according to which filmmakers had the right to control how their works were exhibited. Do we have any laws that protect films like Pather Panchali? I’m afraid we don’t. Sankranti Creations has unveiled its plan to work out an arrangement with the West Bengal government for sharing revenue generated from the screening of the tinted Pather Panchali. It is yet to be seen whether the West Bengal government upholds Ray’s moral artistic rights or not. However, Sandip Ray, his son, has been strongly opposed to the idea. He said his father never wished to color the film though he had some dissatisfaction with the editing of the first part of the film, according to Arup K De, CEO of the Satyajit Ray Society.

In his cover story ‘Hands Off’ published in the 8th Day (Sunday Statesman, April 6, 2008), Arun K De wrote that a host of actors and directors including Mrinal Sen, Pradip Mukhopadhyay, Barun Chanda, Buddhadeb Dasgupta and Gautam Ghosh were opposed to the idea. He wrote, “For the question is not whether one should or should not add color to black-and-white movies, but whether a film chosen for color-transfer needs such a makeover at all. A Kolkata-based TV channel, 24 Ghanta, conducted an SMS survey on 28 March, and 96 per cent of those who responded said Pather Panchali needed no support of color to improve its quality or make it appear more attractive to contemporary viewers.” I believe the West Bengal government is listening and will respect the people’s will than permit Sankranti Creations, or for that matter anyone else, to mutilate ‘a poem in celluloid’ out of greed for some extra bucks alone.

Today the debate is about coloring the films but where will this lead us tomorrow? With the development in digital technology, we now have enough ‘resources’ to technically ‘improve’ these films. ”Why not jazz up a little the music in ‘Gone with the Wind?’ Kids are today heavily into heavy metal, so let’s replace the soundtrack with electric guitars and drums,” was all a ‘frustrated’ director Milos Forman could say when he was lobbying to ban colorization of the past cinematic works back in 1987. Film, due to its mass production capabilities, could be cut and paste and used again and again in different forms and for different purposes by different people. One argument from those who favor such trend is that they are producing new cinematic works in one hand and also not destroying the original. But then the choice is ours because the confrontation of the two choices is soon going to become a reality.

At one side, there are parties that want to commercially exploit a piece of art. On the other, there are very few but powerful voices fighting to protect the artistic integrity of such works. Is it justifiable to colorize a film just to suit the taste of contemporary viewers? I really don’t feel so because a film won’t be a film at all after that kind of mutilations. Those with even a slight respect of such great filmmakers and their works vow that it would be completely unacceptable. It is thus that the government of West Bengal needs not to think twice to outrightly reject Sankranti Creations’ proposal. The dilly-dallying in publicizing its official decision is only adding worries to everyone awaiting their disposition with great concern. When even today’s filmmakers often prefer to return to the black and white stock to shoot poignant tales, one wonders what makes Sankranti Creations anticipate support for its evil proposition.

April 2008