From the twisted surreal diegeses of Luis Buñuel to the magically crafted imaginative wonderlands of Peter Jackson, films in some deep way reflect the society from which they emerge. Since I came to Mumbai, a lot of times different people have said to me, ‘’jo film wale dikhaye, wohi sach hai” (‘’whatever the filmmakers show on screen is the truth”). Of course they were implicitly recognizing and articulating the manipulative nature of cinema without realizing it, but there is more to this cheesy statement than that.
The basic universal imprint of our existence and our core morals and values are coded in every form of storytelling, sometimes adversely, in opposition or in absence to what is immediately depicted. Like every other form of artistic outlet, cinema is also a human-centered or anthropocentric medium. Even when people are making animated movies starring elephants and clowns, we impose our understanding of ethics and our way of living, upon non-human characters, through modes of personification and especially in popular cinema. Essentially, that is because our imaginations are constricted within our understanding of the world we inhabit and our imagination can only travel so far before diving head first into epistemological voids. At the center of the arts, all sorts of ontological questions concerning being and world form the building blocks from which storytelling unwinds towards its uniqueness and specificity.
Technically, cinema is a synthesis and modification of different pre-existing technologies and its soul lies in its ability to dismantle and rebuild the domains of time and space. The pioneers experimented more with technique than with content and that shouldn’t come as a surprise considering how the earlier audiences were baffled by the most mundane clips, like Lumiere Borther’s Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat in which a train simply arrives at a station. The very idea of watching moving images on a plain white sheet to the audience was enticing enough in that day and age. The focus was more on the capabilities of technology than on the medium of film itself. The power of cinematic language was yet to be recognized and not many people would have predicted that cinema, from the corners of penny arcades showcasing acrobats and silly practical jokes, would end up becoming the most popular artistic medium of the 20th century.
Structurally, on a minuscule level, films are carefully shot images organized in a congruous manner, just like geometry is centered on the properties of the straight line; cinema is centered on the properties of the image. Each image on an average lasts only for a few seconds until it is replaced by the next one, and each image is a symbolic goldmine, which cannot be revisited again and again like we sometimes do with complex texts in books. Each image contains a copious amount of information presented simultaneously as an event, and layered with symbolic gestures that represent the essence of the image. It looks plain from a distance, but upon careful inspection, all the components start settling in and the intactness of the image reveals itself to us.
In this age, cinema is a global phenomenon. Movies mostly tend to pander to popular culture and are genre-specific, but there are some films that have an individual identity of their own. They reflect a particular part of the world and its culture. Cinema is essentially an institution of modernity in that at one level it is a machine engaged in the mechanical reproduction of images. It has a strong impact on how reality is refracted through its mechanisms, but at the same time it also carries modernity on its back in a social institutional sense, due to which, in the domain of representation, it is an active participant in the elastic field of space-time relations. The popularity of cinema affords it the power to engage with and change societies, primarily because it is inherently encircling and shaping subjectivity.
In cinema, like in any other form of art, for a truly indigenous style of art to emerge it is very important to engage with one’s heritage and culture and be aware of the contemporary environment. In a zone of conflict, where people are dying just to voice their opinion, any form of art should serve as a political intervention intended to counter the sanitized imagery perpetuated by the counter-narratives of the state. No matter how surreal or imaginative a film is, inevitably and inherently it should be a reflection of our realities. Bollywood, it seems, has come up with a formula to keep audiences enticed with meaningless soppy sentimentality and brainless entertainment with formulaic plotlines and standardized narratives. But what of our own films?
Kashmir unfortunately is still in its initial stages of developing a visual language of its own. We are slowly getting introduced to the culture of filmmaking and even then whatever a few people are trying to make these days seems like a reflection of what outsiders have made about us in the past. So far, films about Kashmir have been strictly topographic. When Indian filmmakers make films about us, we are but absent in them. Our existence is acknowledged vis-à-vis our lakes and mountains and an othering of the Kashmiri subject that is suitable to a narrative of representation governed by power and servitude. Very seldom in such films do Kashmiris speak to each other on screen unless they reveal the exotic faux mystique the filmmakers have carefully constructed around our collective existence. If any depiction is made, it is in tune with a variety of historically developed clichés and stereotypes such that even a Kashmiri protagonist is limited to reductionist representations as if they either come across as flat characters or fit it to characterizations based on imposed virtues and flaws, many of which are black and white and lack a human depth. In turn, the caricaturesque takes predominance in such characterizations.
As Kashmiri filmmakers, we have to be very careful of not rearticulating such superfluous perceptions or else we will end up objectifying ourselves through the gaze of such filmmakers and that too by mode of adaptation and imitation. To develop a language of our own, it is an obligation upon artists of any kind to study and analyze their past and their present, from a subjective to a collective perspective. Considering the aforementioned, it is not hard to foresee the thin line between propaganda and truth in cinema. In the context of Kashmir, the setting of the reproduced image or the re-presented image should be in sync with the social, political and historical realities of its time, at least to some extent if not completely. For an image to be considered truthful, it must endeavor to achieve both historical and anthropological authenticity. It is important to remember that films transform into rich artifacts for the future and as any art form acquire a certain cultural and social value through the passage of time. We are essentially documenting our lives and perspectives and passing it all down to our future generations, so we have to make sure we get our angles right.
In this era of post-truth, it is important to fictionalize our narratives; facts unfortunately have become obsolete and far too much, it seems, is driven by sentiments. I am quite aware there may be some people who think we have bigger things to worry about than develop a cinematic voice of our own, and they are not entirely wrong. Having said that, in this era, where information is consumed in packets, where reading is becoming a dying pass-time, and where people wait for a book to be made into a movie so that they can experience both in less time and where information jumps, it is very important we don’t lag behind. There is a huge void in our visual spaces that is being exploited by the state. Unknowingly, we are giving them the space to displace our reality with their narratives. When you deny yourself of your agency, you are letting somebody else encroach upon it, project their own views, narratives, discourses and frames of representation and understanding.