July 14, 2011

Understanding Cinema Lecture: Cinema as Art

It is easy to understand the narrative function of film, of studying film as a medium of telling stories, a medium for entertainment. So much so, that soon after its invention, cinema easily, and obviously, helped in the evolution of a commercial industry, with its own rules and surprises. But the medium is not limited to money-making or storytelling, and there are two other important functions of film: one, as a medium of communication (where the filmmaker wants to convey a point-of-view through his film, e.g. political and propaganda films, films carrying a strong social or philosophical message, and so on); and two, as a medium of pure art, free from its obligations of telling a story or communicating a message.

However, since film is one medium born out of form and obvious sensory signals, unlike poetry or music that are more abstract, it is very difficult for film to let go of its narrative function completely. Even an incoherent montage of shots, when perceived by the observer, inspires him to try to understand its ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’. Stanley Kubrick had famously proposed a marked departure from this when he said: “A film is - or should be - more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what's behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” Going by what the famous art critic Walter Pater believes: “All art aspires to the condition of music”, we definitely can observe such a trend in cinema over all the decades of its journey. But the biggest question would still be, whether cinema is a form of art.

Art critics were initially disapproving of cinema’s acceptance as art, and considered it a technological gimmick, a passing fancy. Surprisingly and ironically, Louis Lumiere, who is credited as one of the inventors of motion picture himself believed that “cinema is an invention without a future.” It took cinema some decades and several films to ascertain its position as a form of artistic expression. And the credit for that goes to some of the greatest filmmakers who dared to take cinema beyond the dimensions of commercial entertainment or political statement. One of those masters was Satyajit Ray, and his most famous film, also his first – ‘Pather Panchali’, is considered by many as cinema’s great achievement as pure art.

‘Pather Panchali’ is not an easy film to watch. It requires patience to be enjoyed. It requires multiple viewings to appreciate its effortless beauty. And it requires watching hundreds of other films to realize its unique purity and truthfulness. Roger Ebert says “[Pather Panchali] is like a prayer, affirming that this is what the cinema can be…” This huge compliment is a sharp contrast to the understated, underplayed brilliance of the film, reading which can help us understand cinema’s potential as a form of art.

A musician uses musical notes arranged to form a melody, often based on a certain rhythm to create his music. A poet uses words and syntax, a painter uses colours and canvas. A filmmaker has three basic tools for his expression: the shot and everything contained in it (and eventually all individual shots), the arrangement of shots or the montage, and the sound underlying and connecting the shots. There are sequences in ‘Pather Panchali’ where the narrative is totally forgotten, and the filmmaker uses these three tools in order to create a moody audio-visual segment. If we let go of our preconceived notions about cinema’s narrative purpose and lose ourselves in the sensory effect that is thus created, it can affect us like music does – we react intuitively and instinctively to a sensation that is vague (vague because it does not necessarily ‘mean’ or ‘communicate’ something) but powerful and even memorable. This again is difficult, because cinema is more ‘obvious’ than music and always ‘seems’ to be trying to mean or communicate. Also we can not close our eyes to ‘float’ in it as we do while experiencing, say, a Pink Floyd instrumental number. In fact, I had never experienced ‘Pather Panchali’ like this until recently. Films like these are an acquired taste. Only now, I hope, watching the movie will be easier and each subsequent experience even more magical. ‘The Song of the Little Road’ – which is the literal translation of the movie’s title, seems so much more appropriate, when we are willing to experience it like music – what Kubrick had aspired and Pater had asserted.


  1. I remember, we had quite a talk when i told u i was going to watch 'Pather Panchali' a day. That day, after the watch, i didnt call u to follow up on the film. growing up on masala films of our times, i realised that i had failed to develop taste to appreciate this kind of cimena. the movie didnt affect me much that time, or may be its effect was too subtle for me to realise. i still sulk, feel sad and helpless, whenever i read about the magic this movie weaves on cinema lovers like u, as i fail to understand why. pls send me to a place where i can acquire all that will enable me to feel that magic. i am more than willing.

  2. It is a very common reaction to 'Pather Panchali'. Please do not feel disheartened. It is indeed a difficult film to watch, let alone enjoy. But as you discover the best of world cinema, slowly you will find it easier than before.

    It is like most don't understand when purists say that Test Cricket is the best form of the game. But once you start understanding why they say so, you realize the importance of the form, though you may still choose to prefer T20.

    I would love to guide you discover the best of cinema. I have no hesitation in saying that what we thought of cinema during Vidyapith days was nothing, absolutely nothing. It was good that we developed a craze for cinema back then, but the real beauty of cinema lies beyond the stuff we grew on...

  3. I don't know if you go back to the comments section to your old posts, but I'll post my views here nonetheless.

    First and foremost, I really liked your essay, especially the portion where you've debated whether cinema ought to be more like literature or music.

    As for Pather Panchali, I can understand why you say movies like this call for an "acquired taste". I happen to be a huge admirer of Satyajit Ray's films, so its difficult for me to be on the same page on that one. This undoubtedly remains his most famous film, though not necessarily his greatest work. I hope you explore more of Ray, i.e. if you haven't already.


  4. Hi Shubhajit,
    I get an email notification for each comment, so I do go back to my old posts. :)

    Thanks for appreciating the essay, though nothing is original here - I have just taken things from here and there and presented here. Thanks anyway.

    I have watched 18 Ray movies so far and do believe that he is the most worthy of Indian filmmakers to be famous worldwide.

    It was a revelation to screen 'Pather Panchali' to 19-yr old Mumbai youngsters. Most found it very difficult to watch, esp. for the first time. And it was a difficult lecture for me as well - to convince them about this 'great art'. I think 'Devi' or 'Mahanagar' or 'Nayak' would have been more accessible to them. But 'Pather Panchali' helped me cover topics like - Cinema as Pure Art, Effect of Italian Neo-Realism on World Cinema, Satyajit Ray as the most famous Indian Filmmaker, and Effect of Ray on Hindi Parallel Cinema. So, in the end, it worked.

    A couple of months later I got emails where some students confessed they have started loving the movie! :)