UWC Mahindra College monthly newsletter

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Cinema in the City

Professor Ranjini Mazumdar teaches Cinema Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, a highly reputed university in Delhi. She was a documentary filmmaker before she became an academic. Her talk discussed cinema in the city, the current topic of the college evening seminar (an optional university-level course), and how formal cinematic elements -- in particular, the way films shoot and frame space -- reflect the rapidly changing conditions of cities.

Initially, cinema created the impression of the experience of modern life. Skyscrapers, elevators and airplanes gave people the possibility to see the world from God’s vantage point as a complete transformation of the urban spaces driven by new technology took place. In the early part of the 19th century, the advent of the spectacle and "aesthetics of astonishment" depicted the outsider’s initial contact with the “big and daunting city”; the beginning of a very new collective experience; the crisis of attention and the need to distract.

Cinema is about perception through movement, which at this time was heavily influenced by the invention of the train, to become an important vehicle from which kinetic perception was portrayed. It was all about speed and how to express it correctly. Cinema gives the illusion of being able to show it all but can never achieve this because it is also a censored medium, giving an impression of reality sometimes larger than life itself. The “chase” is a way of mapping the city, first used in the early slapstick silent films. These films showed that the accident is always around the corner. They portray chaos with the notion that modern life is about order tending toward disorder.

From the 30s darkness became the main theme in cinema, leading to the “film noir” genre, the popularity of which continues to the present day. This again is built around the continuing experience of modern life. Here however the characters are everyday people you cannot relate to ("I wouldn't do that!") and the environment is centred around dirty, dark streets, garbage, dark corridors or alleys, creating a subterranean experience of modern life through the use of deep contrasts in lighting. This movement began in Germany and continued in the US during the 40s and 50s. It was a response to the after-effects of the second world war and has been seen as the most powerful influence on modern cinema in the West. Impending doom is personified and fascination with death is studied, a response to the postcard idea where the most beautiful scenes are always portrayed.

To illustrate the development of cinema in the city Prof Mazumdar showed a variety of clips from important films of their day. It was a tremendously interesting and extremely well structured talk which interested all those present and could have gone on for much longer had check-in not drawn the evening to a close. Everyone was looking forward to the next evening’s discussion on the evolution of Bombay cinema in relation to these European and American trends.......

The second talk on the following evening concentrated on the development of Hindi cinema in Bombay, from Raj Kapoor in the fifties setting out the Nehruvian ideal for the future of India, to Guru Dutt who was against this colonial stylized India and who supported traditional values and culture, right through to present day cinema. Nowadays the children of the famous directors of the past no longer know the city as their lifestyles encourage travel and while they live in air-conditioned, sterilized environments these do not permit them a window on the city in which they live.

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