In “John Ghatak Tarkovsky”, Film Historian Ashish Rajadhyaksha Archives a Culture of Protest

In his latest book Rajadhyaksha weaves a world around the student protests that erupted when actor Gajendra Chauhan was appointed Chairman of FTII’s Governing Council.
In “John Ghatak Tarkovsky”, Film Historian Ashish Rajadhyaksha Archives a Culture of Protest

Despite always being surrounded by filmmakers from the Film And Television Institute Of Pune (FTII), Ashish Rajadhyaksha never wanted to be one himself. Since his maternal uncle lived two streets away from the FTII campus, he would sneak into the movie screenings at the main and classroom theatres from the 1970s onwards, and his gaze developed to become broader. His intent had more to do with the written word than the spoken image. He turned out to become a film historian, writing books on Ritwik Ghatak and essays on Jean Luc Godard, trying to distil the amoebic, chaotic history of Indian cinema, first into Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema (1994), Indian Cinema In the Time of Celluloid (2009) and then Indian Cinema: A Very Short Introduction (2016). 

His ambitious writing can feel spread out and daunting, his thinking inflected by too many focal points, too much theory, but there is a clear-eyed determination in Rajadhyaksha’s perspective, and an attention and affection for the moving image. In his essay on the late artist Vivan Sundaram, he had written “History arrived as something to be recognised and retrieved from within the material he saw all around him.” That material, for Rajadhyaksha, is cinema. 

In his latest monograph John Ghatak Tarkovsky: Citizens, Filmmakers, Hackers (Tulika Books, Rs 1500), he weaves a world around 139 days in 2015, when FTII students protested the selection of Gajendra Chauhan as the Chairman of FTII’s governing council. 

A still from B.R. Chopra's Mahabharat
A still from B.R. Chopra's Mahabharat

Chauhan, who is only known for playing Yudhishthira in B.R. Chopra’s teleserial Mahabharat (1988), was called out for his proximity to ministers from the Bharatiya Janata Party government. The appointment was seen as the ruling party tightening its grip on the campus and the students pushed back. It was a strange moment, because what the students were fighting for was “a concept as vague as cinema” (these protests also inspired another mysterious enchantment of a film, the docu-feature A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021) by Payal Kapadia). Rajadhyaksha told Film Companion, “You can fight for human rights. But how can you fight for cinema? And yet, the kind of solidarities they mobilised was fascinating.”

In “John, Ghatak, Tarkovsky”, Rajadhyaksha not only recounts the events by speaking to all those involved, but also tells the story of the university campus — the “campus-nation” — and the cinema that came out of it against the backdrop of digitisation, surveillance, and a strongman state. 

The following conversation with him is edited for length and clarity.

As you note, in some sense, the protest was a failure, what you define as “absence of narrative closure”. Is this book, then, trying to construct that closure for the people involved? 

I don’t think I was trying to construct closure. It is very hard to do that in this moment, because literally, kahaniyan baaqi hai (the stories are unfinished), the story that begins in 2014, is not over. Besides, cinema, which has become this new practice — what I called “hacking”  — opens up a new can of worms for the moving image which filmmakers are interested in exploring. A new kind of cinema that is not explicitly political is emerging, associated with people who were in the strike.

Can you give examples? 

Kislay’s Just Like That (2019) and the work of Vikas Urs, the cinematographer who shot Natesh Hegde’s Kannada film Pedro and now Abhijeet Majumdar’s Body, a film that has just been completed. Body is a drastically different kind of moving image - it has to do with memories, with a collective experience much of which is literally off-screen. There is also Payal Kapadia’s style in A Night Of Knowing Nothing, where she talks of the “off screen” with a poignancy, an ‘invisible protagonist’, invisible stories and references to people only some will know about; her batchmates, for example.

There is an effort in these films to create an “expanded space”, a space that surrounds the cinema, which has been now politicised, which really does suggest that the stories are going to continue to be told. FTII protests are incidents that carry a very long tail. The repercussions will keep expanding. So there is no ‘closure’ as such. 

A still from A Night of Knowing Nothing
A still from A Night of Knowing Nothing

You write about this “expanded definition of the strike, of cinema itself”, about how “campus freedom in this time often came to be defined by the right to make and show film... Its privileged form was the documentary... sometimes as a measure of self-defense, at other times to produce public evidence.”

What is this expanded definition of cinema? Do you think this new cinema is more fractured?

It can indeed appear more fractured. There may even be an element of paranoia associated with it. We haven’t come to terms with the consequence of the digitization of everyday life, and such cinema can in fact spring from a fractured subjectivity that is increasingly around us. In the Seventies, we could disagree but it was unlikely that we didn’t get the same references. If you quoted a book, chances are at least that I would have heard of it or read it. Today, your references are likely to be utterly alien to me. So if I have to understand you, I have to first of all spend a fair bit of time trying to understand your references, the books and films you are talking about, the images and experiences you are invoking. So a lot more work has to happen, both for the filmmaker and even for the viewer, because of this fracturing. 

Can you talk about how this ties to Gene Youngblood's idea of “expanded cinema”, where cinema grows beyond its limits. This initially sounds like theory trying to idealise the act of cinema. 

There is an idealisation to the concept of expanded cinema. It is literally the spread of the collective experience of the moving image now defining all of everyday life. It also has a grisly, dark underside to it, associated with low-res circulation of images, ghostly sensory violations of copyright; the zone occupied by the kind of criminals the Information Technology Act of 2000 produces — a combination of a thief, an impersonator and a squatter. The pirate is the one who occupies these ghostly liminal spaces of cinema.

What is also interesting is how you are thinking about this new expanded cinema. You write “Originality became anathema. Shared footage and collaborative work extended into projects no longer made from scratch, not ever completed”. What happens to these films? Do they languish in incompletion? 

The argument I make is that celluloid did not die a natural death, it was killed off. It was eliminated because a certain kind of economy had no use for it. You see it in the redefinition of one of the most famous identities of film, its director - once known as the famous “name above the title”. The way filmmakers collaborate, build on other work, use found footage, explore whole new ways of seeing, all this defines what is to me a new kind of filmmaking, a new persona of the filmmaker.

The assumption we have historically made is that films made on celluloid die: they languish in cans, they decay, or they get trashed. But increasingly we have seen that many films we thought were dead haven’t died. Last week at the Bangalore International Center, where we had an event, we showed the original climax of Sholay (1975) that Ramesh Sippy had actually shot, without the police, in which the Thakur actually kills Gabbar, which he had to change because of the Censors. That original was believed lost for decades, but has now resurfaced and has become the authorised way of showing Sholay

Another, rather different example is Kamal Swaroop’s Om-Dar-B-Dar (1988). Kamal is a good friend of mine. He completed the film, and at that time you had to submit a VHS tape to the Censor. Kamal made two copies — one for the censors, the other was lying in his house. I borrowed it, took it to Kasauli on a whim, where I was attending an art camp. I showed it. There was Geeta Kapur, Madan Gopal Singh, Vivan Sundaram, Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, all of whom were utterly captivated by it. People made copies of that tape which circulated further. Kamal talks about that event being where the film took shape, because the film itself was never released. This particular VHS tape, he suggests later, becomes a ritual object. A film the NFDC was not going to let survive, survived, and it came into its own in this peculiar afterlife. 

This refusal to die, this strange survival cinema has shown its capacity for, has been interesting.

A still from Sholay
A still from Sholay

A core theme of your book is cinephobia, the state’s fear of cinema. How does this cinephobia manifest today? What do you make of the merger of the Films Division, Directorate of Film Festivals, National Film Archives of India and Children’s Film Society into NFDC. Would that be a form of cinephobia? 

I don’t know enough about how institutionalised cinephobia is going to play out in this new dispensation, with NFDC taking charge of all the institutions. But I know the fear of cinema can be ubiquitous, and there will be consequences. Cinema arrived in India in the 20th Century under such a cloud, this peculiar entity which Gandhi associated with drugs, gambling, calling it “satanic”. Cinema is always something the state feared, as something that could destabilise the state. So the Cinematograph Act of 1952 was really to protect us from cinema. It is not to protect the film or the filmmaker.

The Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry, under which cinema came, has its origins in the British Ministry of Information which in turn has its origins in the German Ministry of Propaganda. It was a ministry defined for the war. This particular film institute (FTII) was meant to create technicians for the film industry which was meant to exist at the service of the state. That was the model, which of course never existed in reality. The I&B Ministry was then charged with the responsibility of cinema.

Now in 2023, along with expanded cinema, we also see expanded censorship. In 2017, the Justice Mukul Mudgal Committee reexamined the Cinematograph Act and he had an idea of an expanded Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT). He wanted not just the film, but the songs and posters to be censored, too. The government achieved what he wanted in another way: they actually did away with FCAT entirely, but now have a slew of new arrangements, including the amended Cinematograph Bill, the draft rules for OTT regulation, the Digital Data Protection Bill. Put all these together and you are getting a more diversified idea of what censorship is today. 

Can you expand on the “campus-nation” that is at the centre of your book? You write, “The campus as a nation in microcorms, rediscovering the democratic values that the larger nation had apparently abrogated”. Do you really think the campus-nation exists given only a third of Indians between 18 and 23 are enrolled in it?

The point isn’t how many people are in it, but it is a nation-microcosm given the cultural and social diversity on campus, representing what is India. It is an idealised imagination that specifically emerged in JNU in the Freedom Square protests with the free associative, intellectually diverse, liberal conception of the free flow of ideas which historians argued was at the basis of the Nehruvian idea of the nation. 

More than anything the campus becomes a metaphor for the imagined idealised other of the actual reality. I am talking of state campuses, not private campuses, because they can’t accommodate protest. Right to dissent is a central component of these state campuses. Whistling Woods, for example, which FTII wants to become, will never have that kind of freedom.

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