The New Medium of Cinema: Gender and Empathy As Seen at the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival

The New Medium of Cinema: Gender and Empathy As Seen at the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival

The seven-day visual feast at the Jio MAMI 18th Mumbai Film Festival came to a resounding close on 27th October. Over the days, a plethora of fine visual storytelling was coupled with the growing awareness that the medium of cinema itself is evolving in new ways. With virtual reality making its way gradually into film-making, our movie theatres – as we know them – may soon even be altered beyond recognition.

Virtual reality: bringing people closer through empathy

In India, one of the biggest believers in this future for cinema is Anand Gandhi, director of ‘Ship of Theseus’, whose Memesys Culture Lab has made some of the first VR short films in the country. This year, in fact, saw the first VR lounge being set up at MAMI. Transported virtually to the centre of a temple complex, we could become part of a throng of women activists passionately lobbying for their right to enter the temple’s sanctum sanctorum – through Memesys’ short documentary ‘Right to Pray’. Another VR film takes place in Liberia – a country that has faced the largest outbreak of Ebola in history – where we could meet a young Ebola survivor. Immune now to the disease, she is able to comfort affected orphaned children. As a sick child lies right in front of us, we could viscerally experience the horror of Ebola. And no amount of reading about VR can prepare one for such a deeply moving experience. When employed to generate empathy through narratives like these, VR could truly be a powerful tool for social change. In fact, this film was produced for the UN to bring politicians closer to the issues that they govern over. Recently, at the Comic Con Mumbai, a PETA stall had also availed of VR to enable people to partially experience the life of a chicken that is slated for the slaughterhouse, to help further its cause of veganism.

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Still from VR films ‘Right to Pray’ (Source: TIFF)

The new medium: transcending cinematic language

Perhaps to take stock of this evolution in the medium, the organisers felt the necessity to introduce a program this year called ‘The New Medium’. It was curated by artist Shaina Anand, who muses that the moving image is “only 125 years old and its form and language is far from exhausted.” Amongst this collection was a 1975 interactive work by artist Lis Rhodes called ‘Light Music’ – that had people walking about amidst beams of light, shadow and smoke – making performers out of them.

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The audience participates with the projections in ‘Light Music’ by Lis Rhodes. (Source: Tate)

Another iconic work that was screened was Uday Shankar’s ‘Kalpana’ (1948) – one of India’s earliest independent films. Made by a dancer, it’s been narrated almost entirely in dance form. And of course, any such collection on ‘the new medium’ must necessarily include ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ (1929) by Vertov, a man who believed in abolishing all manners of film-making that were not documentary-style. Driven by his search for an “absolute language of cinema”, this film strove not to rely on either literature (through scenario) or theatre (through actors and sets).

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Still from ‘Man With a Movie Camera’, 1929.

Anand’s curation highlights some other experimental works in documentary-style cinema. Phillip Warnell’s ‘Ming of Harlem’ (2014), for instance, was a curious choice. Based on an incident in 2003 when a Bengal tiger and alligator were discovered on the 21st storey of an apartment building, living with a New Yorker called Antoine Yates, it paints a poetic portrayal of loneliness and companionship. Yates’ argument that “there’s no wild anymore” for the animals, is followed by ample shots of the urban jungle that is New York, where neither man nor animal seem to belong. The bulk of the mid-section of the film has real footage of a bored tiger walking about in an apartment, making for some oddly engrossing cinema.

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Still from ‘Ming of Harlem’ (2014)

Closer home, one person who has approached the genre of documentary-style film-making with boldness, is Nina Shivdasani – probably the first Indian woman to have ever directed experimental cinema. ‘Chhatrabhang’ (1976) is a docu-drama shot entirely with non-actors – villagers who had little idea about the story they were partaking in. It’s a fictional reconstruction of real stories, of caste dynamics between harijans and brahmins in a drought-stricken village – evermore pertinent in today’s age. After the screening, Shivdasani described that she chooses to work with non-actors because of her life-long belief in the Gandhian search for truth. Using actors would only move her further away from truth. The film’s peculiar soundtrack is comprised almost entirely of ‘truthful’ sounds – of stone being laboriously cut and an almost, as she calls it, “erotic” dehati voiceover.

Cinema as an influencer of gender perceptions

While one may think that the number of female filmmakers, like Shivdasani, has risen greatly since the 70’s, the reality is quite different. Even today, in Hollywood, only 4% of directors are women. Filmmaker Kiran Rao brought up this glaring statistic while introducing a discussion on ‘Women in Film’. Sharing how difficult it is to get financial support for female-driven stories, were Christine Vachon – producer of ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ and ‘Carol’ – and Leena Yadav, director of ‘Parched’. While directors struggle to create such women-centric films, UK-born Tala Hadid had another angle to share. Although she was making a film with a male protagonist, an interviewer from the BBC had asked her a question once to the effect of – “what makes you think you can tell the story of a man?

In addition to these hindrances still facing women filmmakers, it appears that the film world is only gradually waking up to its role in shaping gender perceptions. While the wave of ‘item numbers’ in India, that purely objectify women, has thankfully died down today, much is still left to be done. Actress Tillotama Shome of ‘Qissa’ fame pleaded that, since male supremacy still rules the industry, if we must make male-centric films then perhaps they can be centred on men who are more well-rounded, who are vulnerable, and not necessarily the archetypal alpha-males. For the “stalker” archetype – and here she recalls Raj Kapoor insisting on following Sharmila Tagore home in a particular film – has too long been at the “bedrock of romance” in Indian cinema. Often the most “convenient excuse”, in fact, that helps to abdicate cinema’s responsibility is the claim that it’s “just a mirror to society” – says moderator Rahul Bose. “But surely, it’s the function of art to sometimes take society by the hand and take it to a place which is a kinder, gentler, more evolved place,” he adds.

However, Bose went on – “to lay the blame at cinema’s door for every single evil that’s plaguing India today is a crop of nonsense.” Activist Nisha Agrawal though argued back that cinema can at least start a conversation – “In India, Bollywood and cricket (stars) are the role models that our young people follow. That’s what they tell us.” Cinema is, anyhow, only one institution in the broader picture. Vachon described how American television has been quick to diversify its onscreen talent, although cinema has been slow to do the same (recall “OscarsSoWhite”). And Bose cited how an anti-smoking campaign in California had succeeded tremendously only owing to efforts across mediums – like street art and music – because films generated in California had not seized to portray smoking. Though examples like Vachon’s ‘Boys Don’t Cry – which had opened the door “by a crack” for more transgender stories to surface – are inspirational, he added that one film cannot change much. “Cinema has to keep on banging away at four or five key issues, which – looking into ourselves, (though) it’s (been) a good year this year – we haven’t had that consistency when it comes to perceptions of gender.”

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Still from ‘A Death in the Gunj’ (Source: BookMyShow)

While one also hopes to see more such gender fluidity in the world of cinema – take for instance the terrific case of Cate Blanchett playing the role of Bob Dylan in ‘I’m Not There’ – it’s not just the portrayal of gender that needs to evolve, as Kiran Rao pointed out, but an “increased participation of women storytellers” is equally necessary. To encourage this, MAMI had introduced a special Oxfam award for “Best Film on Gender Equality” this year, which went to Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under my Burkha’, as well as the Mastercard Best India Female Filmmaker 2016 Award, which went to Konkona Sensharma for her directorial debut A Death in the Gunj’.

Additionally, the top awards this year went to the Indian film ‘The Lady of the Lake’ and the international film ‘Diamond Island’. ‘The Salesman’ emerged as the most popular film amongst audiences, with hushed whispers overheard now and then about the ominous mile-long queues that preceded its every screening. Currents of a rising documentary scene – which is otherwise a struggling genre in India – were very visible, through powerful films like ‘Cecilia’ and ‘The Cinema Travellers’ (which bagged two awards). By bringing out emerging forays into gender-sensitivity, documentary film-making, experimental cinema, and new mediums like VR; a promising picture of cinema is what this year’s MAMI brought out – optimistic news indeed for film lovers and storytellers.

Cover Graphic : Romanch Soni

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