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Now that I write about movies for a living, I have little excuse to remain ignorant about the world’s second-largest film industry. For that matter, I have little excuse to remain ignorant about India, period, as it’s home to one-seventh of the world’s population and one of the oldest cultures on the planet. And since this culture evolved for thousands of years in relative isolation, its traditions and social mores can seem impenetrable to an outside observer. Yet the same can be said of Japanese culture, which I found increasingly fascinating as I watched more Japanese films. I hope that spending more time with Indian cinema will yield a similar result.
The few Ray films I've watched in the past month presented me with images of the Bengali middle-class, of which I’d known practically nothing, and they’ve challenged my reductive concept of Indian culture as insulated. Indeed, a 1984 documentary on Ray (included on the Criterion Collection’s superb new reissue of The Music Room) features the great director discussing the influence of Italian, French, and American movies on his work. From the little I’ve read about Ritwik Ghatak, another great Bengali filmmaker, I suspect this Western influence is not uncommon among Indian directors.
The earthiness of Ray’s films—regardless of whether the setting is rural or urban—reflects a distinctly non-Western concept about human beings’ relationship with nature. And the spectacular musical numbers of 1978’s Don (my first introduction to Bollywood cinema, thanks to a recent screening at Logan Square’s The Whistler) emphasize different aspects of performance than I’m used to seeing in Hollywood musicals. In short, these films offer a way of seeing the world that I haven’t engaged with much. The fact that I can discover this perspective through entertaining two-to-three hour sessions is a reminder of why I love movies in the first place.
This year, I want to catch up, finally, with this subcontinent's film history. And I’d like to go outside my small comfort zone of Ray and Ghatak. Given the number of Indian video stores around Devon Avenue (and the number of Indian classics in the Chicago Public Library’s movie collection), I know this won’t be difficult. If there are any Indian movie buffs reading this, feel free to drop me a line with any recommendations. The only title Ahmed told me to check out was Don, and I’ve seen that one now.
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