Monday, December 18, 2006

Kaliya Mardan

Kudos to the National Museum for bringing in the 1919 silent Indian film Kaliya Mardan for a screening as part of its opening celebrations this month. Apparently the most extant work of D.G. Phalke (according to the NYT). I hope the Cinematheque (the ostentatious name for the film programme there) will continue bringing in such works -- manna to film buffs and academics!

This was a rare glimpse into what film was like when it was new. When all the conventions that modern audiences are used to hadn't been invented yet. We're so used to movies now that it's difficult to imagine the fear and excitement that cinema once elicited. "Movie magic" has become such a cliche now, but it really was magic once.

What it was like when the world was new?

The screening was preceded by a documentary of D.G. Phalke's life and work, with snippets of him at work and bits from his films. What impressed me the most was the ingenuity involved in creating the special effects. I'm so jaded by CGI that camera tricks look charming in comparison. You knew that the people involved only had camera, film stock and their imaginations to work with. They all basically experimented with multiple exposures instead of manipulating vectors on a computer screen.

The other fascinating thing was that films were shot for audience participation -- hardly the rarefied objects they've since become. For instance, every shot was pretty much at waist-level and the actors keep glancing at the audience. Some of the latter was probably due to inexperience, but somehow there is a charming lack of self-consciousness throughout the film. It feels like you're there in the film with the actors. Intentional or not, this fit in very nicely with religious aspect of "mythologicals" -- audiences would chant and sing to commemorate the deity on screen. Audiences were expected to make noise. Contrast that to present ideas about filmmaking, where filmmakers try to build a hermetic, self-enclosed world and the audience is detached, elsewhere, watching like gods.

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