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Cinema Scope

An interview with Richard Peña, professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, on American cinema and its connections with the Indian film industry.

Richard Peña is the former program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York and the director of the New York Film Festival. At the Film Society, Peña organized retrospectives of many film artists, including Ritwik Ghatak and Amitabh Bachchan, as well as major film series devoted to international cinema. A frequent lecturer on films internationally, Peña is a professor of Film Studies at Columbia University in New York. He visited New Delhi and Mumbai in March to talk about independent American cinemas with students, film school faculty, mediapersons, cinema experts and filmmakers.

Excerpts from an interview.


How important are independent cinemas to the film culture of a country?

Very few of the [independent] films get seen by wide audiences. But, I think, they impact other filmmakers. Sometimes, filmmakers learn things or become bolder because they have seen something in an independent film, which they would like to repeat in a bigger-budget film. But, even successful independent films make a fraction of what the blockbusters make. So, I think, they have a critical and, sometimes, aesthetic relevance, but I can’t say they have much of a popular commercial one.


What would you say are some of the challenges independent American cinemas face?

Well, you are up against the biggest cinema model in the world, Hollywood. Those of us who work in the alternate film field have to remind people all the time that it’s not only Hollywood; there are other options as well—from foreign films and independent films to documentaries and avant-garde films. So, we try and make those works available.


Could you please share an example of the contribution made by an alternative film?

There are many subjects that get treated in alternative or independent films, which only make their way into the mainstream many years later. If you look at say the 1954 film “Salt of the Earth,” it talks about racial prejudice, workers’ rights and women’s rights. No one could imagine films in Hollywood of that time talking about these [issues]. “Salt of the Earth” started that discussion and, then, bit by bit, you can see that filtering into the mainstream.


Has the influence ever happened the other way?

There are a couple of rare cases of films like “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It was a wonderful film in many ways, but one of things [director] Stanley Kubrick did was, he looked at a lot of experimental and avant-garde films and asked some of the earliest computer art and animation people to work on the film. Also, there is a very famous experimental film called “Scorpio Rising.” It’s well-known for having like a wall-to-wall soundtrack of pop songs. [Director] Martin Scorsese says the use of pop music in that film inspired him to use pop music that way in “Mean Streets.” Sometimes, the influences are a little bit refracted, not always direct.


How did technological developments revolutionize documentary filmmaking in the United States?

The history of documentaries has been intimately linked with technological developments—probably the biggest one was the arrival of sound. When synchronized sound first came to cinema, one of the problems was sound machines were very heavy, very fragile. They had to be in fixed places in order to record sound. So, they were fine for fixed studios for fiction films, but not so good for documentaries, if you wanted grabs of the field, film people where they live, where they work. It certainly changed the style of documentary for many years into a kind of cinema that was more narrated in a way, rather than capturing the world on the run. But, by the 1950’s, when magnetic sound recording came around, a new generation of documentary filmmakers seized on that and created a whole movement of cinema. Later on, when digital cinema came in, that gave yet other possibilities to documentary filmmakers.

I think, there are a lot of ways in which documentary, probably old forms of film, has been most sensitive to changes, because each one has allowed it to move into areas it would have found difficult to move in before.


What are some of the major differences between the cinemas of India and the United States?

The basic one, I think, is narrative. American narrative model was set up based on cause and effect, and action. Indian narrative is very different. Your great literary classics are quite different from our literary classics in the way they are structured and in the way they introduce characters. There is a story, but it goes off into many different directions. Whereas, I think, our major tradition is much more linear, focused and direct.

Also, the American [film] industry is much more structured and organized. The studios which were independent companies, those big studios from Paramount to Fox to Warner, are part of much larger conglomerates. For instance, Warner is part of Time Warner Inc. and Fox is part of News Corporation. It seems like they are very tough establishments because these people control everything from movie theaters and television shows to music publishing and video games. It’s not nearly that in the studios in India; they are much, much scattered. You don’t have one or two Indian companies, or five or six for that matter, that are really dominant in terms of production. You have hundreds of companies, each one making one or two films a year. You also have a phenomenon we don’t have in the U.S., which is regional cinema, like in Bengal and Kerala, which are quite active and excellent.


What scope for collaboration do you see between the film industries of India and the United States?

Reliance’s financial interest is certainly making itself felt in Hollywood. It’s a major international corporation which has expressed desire to be involved in films. Hollywood is already a very globalized business—we have had French, German, Italian money in the U.S. for a long time; why not Indian money?

More interesting would be if we develop coproduction that spoke to both nations. I think, now with our very large NRI community, plus millions of Indians who spend time in the U.S. frequently, we can create some films that can talk about our shared experiences. I would love to see that happen.


Who is your favorite Indian director?

I am a great fan of older Indian cinema. I am passionate about people like Ghatak, Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt, and a number of filmmakers of that generation. I think, it was a wonderful time for Indian filmmaking. I would like to work with Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen and Girish Karnad. I would like to know more about Tamil cinema; I am a great fan of Mani Ratnam.


Please tell us about your recent interaction with Indian audiences.

I offered a series of lectures on the history of Latin American cinema. I was really touched and excited by not only how much people seem to enjoy the films, but how much they read the films in Indian context. I was very happy to be a little bit of conduit to it.