7 August 2013

AN OPEN LETTER TO SPECIALIST DVD LABELS ON INDIAN FILM TITLES

Specialist DVD Labels
The Criterion Collection (Janus) 
Masters of Cinema (Eureka! Entertainment) 
Second Run 
BFI 
Artificial Eye 
Mr Bongo 

A word of warning before you read on: This letter is in no way definitive and should be best viewed as a working document that is subject to change. Also I'm not sure how accurate I have been with my numbers on Indian film titles released by specialist DVD labels. 

I have been buying films for little over twenty-five years now. As a self proclaimed cinephile my tastes in film are varied and I have DVDs and now increasingly Blu-ray's that reflect such interests. Conversely, what I have observed over the years is that many of the specialist DVD labels such as Masters of Cinema and Criterion have chosen to make available newly discovered, influential and cult films to a global cinephile community. The significance of specialist film distribution should not be underestimated in terms of enriching our understanding of film. Nonetheless, while many labels have no such obligation when it comes to ensuring they release titles that represent film in its varied global diversity, the absence or should say I say lack of Indian film titles is underwhelming and needs elucidation. 

Firstly, the absence of Indian film titles (I am arguing here for art-house, independent and cult films not mainstream titles which are well supported by most of the major distributors) suggests Indian cinema is not deemed as important as other cinemas, a point I would refute and vehemently argue against. One only has to survey the richness of the Indian New Wave in the late 1960s and beyond to sustain such an argument. In fact, such an absence reiterates the cultural inferiority of Indian cinema that is sometimes perpetuated by mainstream film discourse. Consider even the way 100 years of Indian cinema has been neglected by major highbrow film publications such as Sight and Sound & Film Comment. 

Secondly, the cinema of Satyajit Ray, who has become the most revered Indian film director in the West, does not accurately reflect the contemporary state of Indian cinema. The rise of an educated middle class and a Multiplex film culture in India has led to a vibrant, innovative and edgy independent film scene. No one is denying that Ray is one of the great filmmakers but the unending focus on his films is a default position to adopt since it limits the way we think about Indian cinema. I'm a huge fan of Ray and find it deeply encouraging to see his films gradually being restored and released definitively but whereas French or German cinema has a plethora of auteurs with films that can be accessed easily through specialist DVD labels, the same cannot be said for Indian cinema. Some would reason Indian cinema might have begun with Ray; however, it certainly didn’t end with him.


Satyajit Ray is still Indian cinema's most revered filmmaker.
Thirdly, if none of these aforementioned DVD labels have a duty or obligation to pursue Indian cinema then why is it that French cinema or even Japanese cinema is given preferential treatment? Perhaps one of the answers is that both French and Japanese cinema are more widely respected among the cinephile community since a greater body of scholarly work exists. If the notion of authorial expression is more closely attuned to French or Japanese cinema then we could attribute this perception to academia and the way film studies is taught. Indian cinema is rarely thought of in terms film auteurs. This seems to be an obstacle since many of the films released by specialist labels are predicated on the auteur myth and consequently Indian cinema becomes marginalised in such a context. That Indian cinema doesn’t produce auteurs is of course an absurdist view.

Lastly, many independent and art Indian films don't make it to UK cinema screens so it becomes even more important that DVD labels act as a meditator, making available films that are often ignored or dismissed in the face of mainstream film distribution. Given the way many of these labels now hold real weight amongst cinephiles, academics and critics alike, what they choose to release and make available in a way inevitably establishes a discourse that selectively accentuates auteurs, movements and films. For a film to be given preferential treatment and be canonised, as is the case with films that are given the ‘Criterion treatment’ reiterates their cultural worth, contributing to the flow of cinephile discourse.


Ray films that have been given the Criterion treatment.

But is it even necessary to plead with specialist DVD labels when so much of Indian cinema is readily available today? This truth is that the biggies have no problem appearing on DVD. The problem remains that much of regional, art and independent cinema receives inadequate distribution in the UK. Nonetheless, today the situation for a discerning cinephile in India may in fact be the reverse since accessibility has become less of an issue. Getting access to Indian films has never been easier especially with YouTube and various VOD services. Additionally, DVD labels like UTV Motion Pictures, Yash Raj, Shemaroo and NFDC to name a few distribute varied Indian film titles. I am not arguing specialist DVD labels should enforce a more balanced policy when it comes to selecting films since this would inevitably lead to a kind of cinematic political correctness. Films need to be judged on their artistic merits alone and film canons have never been compiled solely on the basis of ‘country of origin’. Yet if this is the case then why is it that Indian cinema is so poorly represented in the catalogues of so many DVD labels. In an attempt to support such a claim I surveyed the number of films from India that have been released by some of the major specialist DVD labels. It was fairly obvious what I learned:

The Criterion Collection (owned by Janus) - 7 titles 

Eureka! Entertainment (which owns the Masters of Cinema label) - 1 title (Abhijan by Ray which is currently listed as out of print) 

BFI - 6 titles (although I have not included films by Franz Osten) 

Artificial Eye - 16 titles (all of these except for one are films directed by Satyajit Ray) 

Second Run - 3 titles 

Mr Bongo - 4 titles (all films by Ray again) 

Artificial Eye wins hand down and it certainly has the strongest track record in terms of making available titles from the Middle East, Iran and even Africa. However, Satyajit Ray dominates the titles, which is not surprising since he is still promoted by western film discourse as the only Indian filmmaker with widespread acceptance amongst a predominantly middle class western audience. Dare I say it but has Ray become a problem in the way we perceive Indian cinema today? It may in fact be a problem exacerbated by the way Ray continues to a primary focus whenever Indian cinema appears in mainstream film publications such as Sight and Sound. Criterion, perhaps the most reputable specialist DVD label, has seven Indian film titles in their catalogue (I decided against including the Merchant-Ivory films) and aside from Monsoon Wedding, which one could argue isn't even indigenous, Ray dominates again. In fact, Finland is better represented than India, which seems especially bizarre given the exponential output from the Indian film industry. Eureka! Entertainment, which owns Masters of Cinema have just one Indian film title; Abhijan. This is yet another Ray film and since it is currently out of print, one could argue a complete absence of Indian cinema in the catalogue of Masters of Cinema seems perplexing considering so many contemporary Indian indie titles have bee made of late that are artistically significant and commercially feasible. Peepli Live, the only recent Indian film title that appears in the catalogue of Artificial Eye, is representative of a new wave of Multiplex indie films that have emerged more frequently over the past few years but one title hardly accounts for the prolific creative output of this particular lively film scene. The BFI, which relies partially on public funding is exemplary at promoting British film culture yet has only six Indian film titles in their catalogues. All of these films are quite old now and while the BFI were the first in the UK to make available the films of Ritwik Ghatak, such a concern for Indian cinema in terms of specialist distribution has been inconsistent to the say the least. 


Non-Ray films that have been given a specialist film release by DVD labels include few contemporary Indian films.

One reason, often cited, why Indian film titles are rarely distributed by specialist labels is related to the complicated area of distribution rights in India which I am told are highly problematic when compared to other countries. Unfortunately, my reluctance to expand on this argument is to do with a lack of information about the process. I'm guessing locating an adequate print, usually from an archive, is just one of the obstacles complicating this process. It may be the case that some Indian films have been released on DVD and are available to buy but we can say the same for some of the films that have been acquired by Masters of Cinema and Criterion. Consider the way Double Indemnity, Touch of Evil and Two Lane Blacktop have been re-released more definitively than ever before. Acquiring distribution has been in an issue in the past especially for classic Indian films. I doubt the same circumstances exist for contemporary independent films since they depending on alternate platforms in terms of reaching the widest possible audience. Another question arises here: why should it be the responsibility of DVD labels in the west to reclaim Indian films from the past? Such a question may seem pertinent at first but given the way DVD labels in both the US and UK have fallen over themselves to focus squarely on Europe as a benchmark for quality arthouse cinema renders such a question irrelevant because isn’t it the case that cinephilia is predicated on a singular motivating factor; the promotion of good cinema?

It would be wrong to bring forth accusations to do with discrimination but I feel film canons that have popularised movements, auteurs and films in the West have done so at the expense of Indian cinema. This was evident in Sight and Sound’s recent poll. The Eurocentric bias that I have written about before continues to circulate in the way film is written about in mainstream film journalism and academia and I personally feel this is a decisive factor in the way discourse on Indian cinema takes place within a marginal space obfuscating the rich output of regional cinemas. The recent London Indian Film Festival which is currently touring the UK with examples of new Indian cinema needs to be embraced for it’s programming since it draws attention to an alternative counter hegemonic cinema which is very much alive in India. An interesting case in point and one that allows me to test my theory of the way edgy, independent and art films never reach UK shores especially in terms of specialist DVD distribution can be illustrated by simply looking at the 2012 programme for the London Indian Film Festival. Although these films were exhibited before a select audience, how many of them actually saw the light of day in terms of home video distribution? The answer would probably be a handful. Many of these films will probably be available in the Indian domestic home video market, creeping through on VOD but most of the still remain unreleased in the UK, failing to get either a theatrical or home video release. This in many ways doesn't seem particularly revelatory considering so many films in general, regardless of the country in which they are made, face such a struggle when it comes to getting an adequate distribution deal.


A key festival in the Indian film calendar which is playing a hugely significant role in helping to offer an alternative to populist Hindi cinema or Bollywood with an emphasis on the Indian 'indie' film scene.
Recommending a body of film titles suitable for distribution on DVD/Blu-ray may seem a little presumptuous but I am going to anyway. An invaluable starting point is a list of ‘landmark films’ compiled by the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), to mark 100 years of Indian cinema. Films canons obviously discriminate but this list avoids the crime of simply defining Indian cinema by the populist Hindi films, instead striking a tone of inclusivity by accounting for regional output. In spite of some of these films having been released on DVD, a release via a specialist label would not only bring the films to a wider audience but force the cinephile community to reformulate their understanding of Indian cinema by entering into a new dialogue with the contemporary scene rather than remain fixated on a singular film auteur. 

Another false perception of Indian cinema is through the prism of Bollywood (mainstream Hindi cinema in Mumbai). Extravagant 'masala' spectacles offer hyperbolic narratives that can still be equated with lowbrow culture. In spite of that, Indian cinema has its fair share of auteurs, from the past and present. For example, just consider the work of documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, who has had a retrospective at the BFI Southbank yet whose work is unavailable in the UK unless you purchase directly through his website - Patwardhan’s output in itself calls for a substantial box set treatment. DVD labels like Criterion and Masters of Cinema excel in their comprehensive approach, ensuring each film title is presented with the finest transfer, recompensing extras and striking packaging. 

Whereas I am in agreement with the NFAI’s list, I want to finish by proposing a personal list of ten films that I would argue deserve a specialist release: (the films appear in no particular order) 

1. Gulaal (Anurag Kashyap, 2009) 
2. Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan / Alms for the Blind Horse (Gurvinder Singh, 2011)
3. Road, Movie (Dev Benegal, 2009)
4. Garam Hawa / Hot Winds (M. S. Sathyu, 1973)
5. Calcutta 71’ (Mrinal Sen, 1971)
6. Uski Roti / Our Daily Bread (Mani Kaul, 1970)
7. Neecha Nagar / Lowly City (Chetan Anand, 1946)
8. Hey Ram (Kamal Hassan, 2000)
9. Ganga Jumna (Nitin Bose, 1961)
10. Baazi / Gamble (Guru Dutt, 1951)


Some personal choices that deserve a specialist release by DVD labels.

Understandably DVD labels have to think commercially about film titles and this can be an abiding, if not, fundamental principle guiding their selection. If this is true and Indian cinema is considered commercially unsound in terms of the cinephile consumer then perhaps the changes I am advocating are unrealistic, hence the exclusion of Indian cinema from specialist cinephile distribution is without prejudice. I want to end by saying that specialist labels that have the means to distribute must take more of a considered approach when it comes to selecting film titles but this means taking Indian cinema seriously as a genuine cinephile concern. Even if a label as influential and revered as let’s say Masters of Cinema were to release at least one film each year in this way, it would be a step in the right direction. 

Omar Ahmed 
Cinephile/Teacher/Writer 
oahmed5@gmail.com
@bressonian

3 comments:

  1. Well said Omar. I do find it hard to believe in this day and age of easier availability to a vast range of Indian films, an almost complete ignorance still exists. As you say, for some Indian cinema started & ended with Ray. For a few others, it was with Ray & Ghatak. Even though numerous Indian films have regularly shown at various film festivals over the last few years, many are still not willing to dip into Indian cinema.

    Take the case of Anurag Kashyup. His films have shown at most festivals and are readily available by official means in various cities. Yet, only a few North American critics have seen anything by him. Then some of these critics regularly talk about death of cinema. How can one trust someone who is not familiar with Indian or even a vast portion of International cinema when they talk about cinematic trends?

    As an aside, Criterion's Indian titles will be increased by 18 but all are Ray.

    http://criterioncast.com/news/criterion-to-restore-18-films-from-satyajit-ray/

    I had hoped this would be the beginning of getting other Indian directors a proper transfer but given the past, I am not sure.

    I am thankful however that at least Uski Roti got a nice transfer thanks to Shemaroo's 3 film DVD pack. It is indeed much better than the original print I saw of the film whose sound & images were hazy. This new DVD transfer made it look like I was watching a completely different film. http://www.shemaroo.com/shopping/Product.asp?pid=4551

    You mention Shemaroo & also NFDC whose Cinemas of India label has released many films that I never thought I would see on DVD. Incredibly, here in my local Canadian library, a lot of these new NFDC DVD's are available and the quality has been much better than what I grew up with.

    But there are so many other Indian films that are out of reach. For example, I never saw proper DVD releases of Mrinal Sen's films on my last trip to India.

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  2. Thanks Sachin. Wow, 18 titles! It seems as though they we are heading towards all of Ray's greatest works being available in definitive versions soon. You are right about film festivals, a point I have overlooked, since they also play a role in perpetuating such an ignorance. I just want to second what you say about the NFDC's Cinema of India label which one could foresee developing into a significant specialist DVD label. Perhaps a greater response needs to come from within the Indian film industry and a push for more indigenous specialist DVD labels akin to Criterion. Finally, I agree with your point about Mrinal Sen, here's an auteur who has been left out of the loop and whoever manages to make his films available in the West will surely be offering the cinephile community a new way of looking at Indian cinema. To be honest Sachin, if I had the means I would do it myself! but that is just a pipe dream...

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  3. That's a great letter. I've long felt, though, that Indian (as well as Middle Eastern) film is under-represented mostly at grassroots level, especially at universities and festivals. Only Ray is generally taught at universities. Lots can be done at these levels to raise awareness and appreciation. Increase awareness and demand at this level, it would make it more profitable for specialist labels to acquire titles. That in turn would increase what's available to them to acquire.

    Many specialist labels are under pressure from falling DVD sales and demand for new marketing strategies. They are trying to strike a balance between innovation and profitability. As you point out, there just isn't enough demand for the type of Indian film that you address, outside of Ray. There undoubtedly should be. So my feeling is to work on the building blocks. If more exposure is given at universities, there will be more appreciation and demand for it. If festival curators were more willing to take risks, and make more effort to acquire Indian films (I appreciate it is difficult), it would be easier for distributors to market titles off the back of festival exposure. LIFF does a great job in promoting Indian cinema, but by its very nature it preaches mostly to the converted. Other festivals should be encouraged to offer a wider range of Indian cinema.

    On the other hand, there are several specialist labels out there that are indeed growing and could, if they wished, take more risks. Given the recent Patwardhan exposure in London, I'd love to see some of his titles become more available. I loved your letter, I hope it's seen by as many people as possible; distributors, academics, programmers and cinephiles alike. I think the issues concern everyone, not just distributors.

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