Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Begum Jaan: Review

Begum Jaan packs more Partition into 130 minutes than one could possibly hope for. It’s dedicated to Manto and Ismat Chughtai, even though its brand of wit suggests cudgel, not scalpel. The film has migration, communal violence, multiple rapes, a brief scene of interreligious harmony, burnings, lynchings, dismemberings, the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, and more symbols of spatial, geographical and emotional division than you could shake a Ritwik Ghatak memoir at. This isn’t historical drama, it’s Partition porn.

There is, at the heart of it, the germ of a good idea. It’s 1947, and India is about to gain freedom—and become two nations. When the authorities get down to the construction of a border fence, they find out the line passes through a brothel run by the formidable Begum Jaan (Vidya Balan). She’s handed an eviction notice by two officials from what will soon be India and Pakistan, Srivastava (Ashish Vidyarthi) and Ilyas (Rajit Kapoor), old friends who now find themselves estranged (there’s a metaphor in there somewhere). She tells them that she isn’t moving, and that if they try anything, she’ll see that their legs and hands are partitioned from their bodies.

Though it’s set almost entirely in 1947, writer-director Mukherji (remaking his own Bengali film Rajkahini) has no problem appropriating modern-day crises to fit, or awkwardly dangle off of, his narrative. Take the opening sequence, which begins on a bus in Delhi in 2016. A group of drunk men board and start hassling a young couple, forcing them off the vehicle. They start pummeling the boy, and two of them bear down on the girl. Just then, an old woman with braids in her hair comes forward and, to their horror, starts to strip. The allusions to the 16 December Delhi rape case and the 2004 anti-AFSPA protests in Manipur are impossible to miss, and their twin use in this scene has a lurid, opportunistic quality.

This scene starts the film off at a level of hysteria that never really abates. The women of the brothel are from Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Bihar and Rajasthan; their conversations are a cacophonous mix of accents, none of which sound quite right (including a variety of north Indian dialects in your first Hindi film seems like quite a risk). Balan initially plays Begum Jaan as a steely manipulator but, as the film progresses, she’s made to hyperventilate and flail about like a less capable actor. The film gathers a number of dubious, if specific, honours along the way: worst throwing-stones-in-a-river-as-an-outlet-for-feelings scene, most implausible averting of attempted rape, worst Mexican standoff ever.

This film has nothing new to tell us about this tumultuous time in our history: the British were apparently very bad, so were politicians on both sides, so were royal families. This is the kind of broadly simplistic film in which a little girl can ask, “Is it the same thing to kill a Hindu and a Muslim?” The awkward combination of Partition-era exploitation and TV serial-ish melodrama is further exacerbated by occasional arty touches. One particularly jarring visual effect recurred in the scenes with Srivastava and Ilyas. Whenever there was a close-up on either, only half the face appeared onscreen. I’m partitioning their faces, Mukherji appears to be saying. Go figure.

Begum Jaan harks back to two films from the heyday of parallel cinema. The first is Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983), a far superior film about a group of prostitutes bossed around by a fearsome madam. There are also several nods to Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala (1987): Naseeruddin Shah appears in both films as a rapacious man with a taste for gramophone music, both feature a bearded protector with a gun. These films had some of the most fascinating female characters in all of Hindi cinema; Begum Jaan isn’t even the best film about a strong, unapologetic woman released in the last few weeks. That would be Anaarkali of Aarah, a film that serves its defiance with a side of humour instead of beating viewers over the head with a history book.

This review appeared in Mint.

Hearing the fear

Their occasional merits (and enjoyable demerits) aside, the background score in a Ramsay brothers film was something to be endured or, at best, ignored. Yet, many of the films that inspired the brothers have wonderful music. There’s something about horror that frees up composers, allows them to experiment in a way that comedy or action might not allow. From genre-straddling geniuses like Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone to cult artists like Popol Vuh and Goblin, the history of horror film music is varied and surprisingly rich.

It began, as so many things in cinema did, with German silent film. Horror was a recognised genre by the 1910s, but a score written specifically for a film was still a novelty. One of the first horror films for which a score was commissioned was Robert Wiene’s seminal The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920). It was composed by the Italian Giuseppe Becce; sadly, the original was lost, though it was later “reconstructed”. Two years after Caligari, Hans Erdmann composed a famous score for the appropriately titled Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (the “gloomy melodics” of FW Murnau’s vampire film found approving mention in a review of the time). This too was lost, and recreated decades later.

Erdmann’s isn’t the only famous Nosferatu score. For his 1979 version, Nosferatu the Vampyre, with the vampiric Klaus Kinski in the lead, Werner Herzog reached out to the experimental band Popol Vuh. By then, horror film music had developed its own traditions and standardized sounds. Talkie horror scores began in Hollywood with composers like Max Steiner (King Kong, 1933) and Franz Waxman (Bride of Frankenstein, 1935). The tradition was continued across the Atlantic by James Bernard, who composed for Hammer films in Britain. Along with the gothic tones and sudden orchestral stings that came to define horror film music, electronic instruments (like the otherworldly theremin) started to be used in the 1950s. And in 1960, for the shower scene in Psycho, there was the one-note shriek of Bernard Herrmann’s violins, as definitive a moment in horror scoring as the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night is for pop music.

Horror film music started to really flower in the late 1960s and ‘70s. Across the world, old and young composers experimented with new sounds or found appropriate ancient ones. Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda used lullabies, demonic chants and plangent jazz for his Rosemary’s Baby score. In Japan, Hikaru Hayashi combined traditional Taiko drums and human cries in his harrowing scores for Kurneko and Onibaba. Popol Vuh’s Nosferatu soundtrack had sitar and tanpura along with folksy pickings that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Fairport Convention record. It’s possible that Herzog was inspired by the soundtrack to the British pagan horror film The Wicker Man, which had released a couple of years before, and used old-timey English music instead of a traditional orchestral score.

If some composers were paring their sound, others were ramping it up. The 1960s saw the birth of giallo – stunningly lurid Italian slasher films. Perhaps the most important giallo practitioner was Dario Argento, several of whose films were scored by Ennio Morricone, who’d already redefined the Western soundtrack with his work on the Sergio Leone films. Morricone created a sensual, slightly Euro-trashy sound for Argento and other horror movie directors. Argento also collaborated with prog group Goblin, whose dense, bass-heavy sound can be heard in cult classics like Suspiria and Profondo Rosso.

The most influential horror composer to emerge in the ‘70s, though, might have been John Carpenter, who scored nearly all his films himself. Carpenter’s soundtrack work is nearly as well-known as his films today – you can hear his distinctive throbbing bass and creeping synths in everything from the soundtracks to It Follows (Disasterpeace) and The Neon Demon (Cliff Martinez) to the theme music for TV shows like Stranger Things and Legion. (A different, and equally influential, approach to synth-based horror movie scoring can be heard on Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack for Katherine Bigelow’s vampire film, Near Dark).

Today, it’s become increasingly difficult to distinguish between horror soundtracks and regular ones. The mad screech of Scott Walker’s opening theme for The Childhood of a Leader suggests an Omen remake rather than an arty psychological drama. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ squalling score for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or Jóhann Jóhannsson’s for Sicario, are more ominous than most horror film soundtracks, while Mica Levi’s music for Under the Skin (which, all things considered, is a horror film) is more haunting than one might expect. It’s not like film-makers today have abandoned the old-fashioned orchestral shriek when the monster shows its face. Yet, many have realized that mixing a little beauty into the horror makes for a more unsettling and memorable experience.

This piece was part of a horror film cover package in Mint Lounge.

Mukti Bhawan: Review

Thithi and Mukti Bhawan would make an excellent double bill. Both are indie comedy-dramas – even if Thithi, in both style and process, is indie-er than Shubhashish Bhutiani’s debut feature (not to mention most other Indian films in recent memory). Both immerse themselves in the traditions and idiosyncracies of a local culture. Above all, both are films about death – Bhutiani’s about an impending demise, Ram Reddy’s about the aftermath of one – that find more gentle humour than morbidity in the subject.

In a scene that’s mildly reminiscent of Don Corleone’s death in the garden in The Godfather (I may be reading too much into things, but oranges seem to equal death in both films), Daya (Lalit Behl) dreams of chasing after his younger self as his mother’s voice calls out to him. Taking this as a sign, he informs his family – son Rajiv (Adil Hussain), daughter in law Lata (Geetanjali Kulkarni) and granddaughter Sunita (Palomi Ghosh) – that he believes his time on earth is up, and that he’d like to live out his last days in Varanasi. Accompanied by the very reluctant Rajiv, he checks into a bare-bones hotel called Mukti Bhawan – literally, “place of salvation”.

There is actually a Mukti Bhawan that exists in Varanasi, its guests all nearing the end of their lives. If you find the idea morbid (as I did going in) then you might be pleasantly surprised (as I was) by the film’s gently comic, highly empathetic attitude towards this strange, sad arrangement. Instead of looking depressed or terrified, the inhabitants of the hotel in the film have a lightness to them – it’s as though the tough part was deciding to come here, and now that they have, their minds are at ease. Even as Rajiv, an insurance salesman, frets and fusses, Daya joins the old-timers for convivial yoga sessions, newspaper readings and after-dinner TV-watching.

Mukti Bhawan is quieter than most films, indie or otherwise (Tajdar Junaid’s pleasant, if typically Hindie, score is used sparingly). Even with death approaching, life must go on, and Bhutiani seems fascinated by the sort of mundane, everyday stuff that directors usually skip. For what seems like a 30-minute stretch, all we’re doing is watching Daya and Rajiv bicker and negotiate daily tasks like cooking for themselves (throughout the film, food is used a bridge between characters). There are moments when I wished there was more to quicken the pulse, but the careful advancement of plot is made palatable by some wonderful character sketches, like the gruff hotel manager (Anil K. Rastogi, very droll) and the widow Vimla (Navnindra Behl), who’s been staying there for 18 years, and whom Daya strikes up a friendship with.

Bhutiani, who’s also written the screenplay (dialogue by Asad Hussain), has a knack for undercutting potentially heavy emotional moments. A parting is made farcical through the worship of a disinterested-looking calf, and a teary family fight is rendered hilarious by a faltering net connection. There’s also some very effective doubling: one son who calls his mother during mealtimes, another who can’t find time to talk with his father while they’re eating; two characters who, for different reasons, stopped writing poetry.

As opposed to the moments when the camera goes in search of some detail, I felt this film was at its best when it stayed stationary and allowed a scene to unfold. One such long take comes late in the film. When it begins, there are two sleeping dogs in the frame. One of them wakes up, scratches itself. A goat enters, exits, reappears a little later. None of this is in any way “important”. At the same time, I have no recollection of what was being discussed in this scene. But I remember the dogs and the goat, just as I remember other stray moments from the film: Lata searching for a subtle way of asking her husband whether his father’s premonitions of death come with a date attached, and the catch in Behl’s voice as Daya recalls his son’s masoom (innocent) poems.

This review appeared in Mint.

Asghar Farhadi’s fractured cinema

Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman takes its title from Arthur Miller’s best-known play. Death Of A Salesman is performed by a Tehran troupe in the film, and the first few shots are of an empty theatre, with stagehands at work and the cast warming up off-screen. Then, suddenly, we’re jolted from a world being constructed to one coming apart. In a chaotic, unbroken two-minute sequence, we see a young married couple, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), fleeing their collapsing building as it groans and shakes and cracks form in the windows.

Rana and Emad’s world will soon fracture further, but before that, Farhadi sketches their life in a series of deft strokes. Both are stage actors (they play the central couple in the Miller play); Emad is also a schoolteacher, popular with his students. They seem fairly well off, artistically minded; they’re considering starting a family, and are on the lookout for a new flat. They’re pointed to one by a friend, and it’s only after they move in that they learn that the previous inhabitant was a prostitute.

One night when Emad is out, Rana is badly injured when a stranger enters their house and walks in on her in the bathroom (whether there was physical assault is left ambiguous). This shocking incident sets up the rest of the film, but a key scene some 20 minutes later has little to do with it. Emad, exhausted, puts on a film for his students and dozes off in the dark. As schoolchildren anywhere in the world might, they start fooling around, making a video of their teacher sleeping. Emad wakes and directs his frustration at a student with the phone. He threatens to involve his parents, only to be told by the others that the child’s father is dead.

The emotional seesawing of this scene is pure Farhadi. We start the scene feeling terrible about Rana, but the children are undeniably funny. We crack a smile at Emad sleeping, then feel bad for him, then worry that he’s being excessive. The same shifting of sympathies will happen under more challenging circumstances later in the film, as Emad becomes obsessed with finding the intruder. The unravelling of personalities pushed to extremes is a hallmark of this director’s work. You identify with a Farhadi character at your own risk; there’s always a moment of ugly, human failing waiting to happen.

This February, The Salesman won Farhadi his second foreign-language Oscar. He had earlier won the same award for A Separation, which put him on the global cinema map when it released in 2011. Viewers stunned by the film’s frenetic pace, intricate structure and psychological acuity dove into his back catalogue, discovering similarly accomplished works like Fireworks Wednesday and About Elly (which won Farhadi the Silver Bear for best director at the 2009 Berlinale). By the time The Past premiered at Cannes in 2013, the world had caught up with Farhadi.

Farhadi is from Iran, a nation that exploded on to the global cinema scene in the 1990s. The largely concurrent rise of Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Samira and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Majid Majidi signalled a new kind of cinematic language: intimate, rough-hewn, lyrical. It didn’t matter that Kiarostami and Majidi had markedly different approaches—they were all grouped together under the broad banner of “Iranian cinema”, which was soon to become cinephile spinach, something you were supposed to appreciate whether or not you liked it.

If Farhadi stands apart from this group, it’s not just because he came to prominence in the 2000s but because his features didn’t fit the popular perception of what Iranian films are like. Intricately plotted, masterfully edited, his films pushed the family drama into the realm of the psychological thriller. His narratives are often constructed around an incident—a disappearance in About Elly, an altercation in A Separation—whose implications then ripple outwards in surprising ways. As Ratik Asokan, writing for Guernica, put it: “While conventional thrillers arrow towards their climax, Farhadi’s plots are widening gyres: they grow out, and often away from, a climactic event that occurs rather early on.”

In 2012, Asghar Farhadi submitted his 10 choices for Sight & Sound's best films of all time poll. His list is eclectic—the selections range from Take The Money And Run to Tokyo Story—and while there might be a danger in reading too much into it, two entries strike me as significant. Nearly all of Farhadi’s films involve multiple, competing perspectives of a single event, and Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon—the first title on his list—is the urtext for this sort of stuff. There’s also Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours: Red, a somewhat surprising inclusion until you think about how closely Farhadi’s films, with their fraught energy and moral complexity, resemble early Kieślowski films like Blind Chance and A Short Film About Killing (it would be fascinating if the Iranian, like the Polish master, takes a mid-career turn towards overt visual stylization).

Farhadi is shooting his next film with Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz in Spain; this will be his second feature outside Iran after The Past, which was made in France. Shooting in another country holds the attraction of a brief holiday from the Iranian censors, whom Farhadi once compared to the unpredictable British weather in an interview. Though his anti-Trump statements in the wake of the travel ban might have secured him the temporary goodwill of the authorities, Farhadi will be aware how quickly this attitude can change. In 2010, during the making of A Separation, he spoke in favour of Panahi (then, as now, banned from directing) and Mohsen Makhmalbaf (who left the country to escape official restrictions). The government immediately placed a ban on the film’s production, lifting it only once Farhadi apologized.

Farhadi has said he will not make political or “message” films. Whether or not this is a bit of misdirection aimed at the authorities, his films are, if not straightforwardly political, certainly immersed deeply in, and often critical of, Iranian society, particularly the position of women and the egos of men. We see this in The Salesman, where even a decent, broad-minded person like Emad can’t help making his wife’s assault about himself. Yet—and this is where the Kieślowski comparison comes in again—even as his films reflect and confront society, they have no moral absolutes; no relationship is simple, and no one, whatever their actions, is shown as undeserving of sympathy. It’s for this reason that Farhadi’s films are most deserving of the tag that’s applied carte blanche to all of Iranian cinema: humanist.

This was the first piece in a world cinema-focused series in Mint Lounge. 

Through a more equal lens

When she was starting out as a cinematographer in the early 1960s, Brianne Murphy, the first female director of photography (DoP) to work on a major American studio picture, found that the mispronunciation of her name had its advantages. “Producers would call up and ask to speak to ‘Brian’ Murphy,” she said years later in a speech. “I would lower my voice on the phone and get the job. When I showed up on the set, it was too late to fire me.” In 1973, she was admitted into the International Cinematographers Guild. In an interview to People magazine, she recalled how a guild member had told her: “You’ll get in over my dead body.” “Well,” she said, “he died.”

The same sexist attitudes exist in the Hindi film industry—and the same determination as well. There are only a handful of prominent women cinematographers working in mainstream cinema today: Priya Seth (Airlift); Neha Parti Matiyani (Waiting, Badrinath Ki Dulhania); Savita Singh (Hawaizaada); Keiko Nakahara (Mary Kom, Noor). But there are also more female DoPs out there than you think—a fact which the newly formed Indian Women Cinematographers’ Collective (IWCC) is trying to highlight.

The collective has its roots in a Facebook group started by cinematographer Fowzia Fathima. Fathima, whose credits include Revathy’s Mitr: My Friend, started the group in 2015 as a way for its members to share experiences and network with each other. She initially invited eight women DoPs to join; over time, as the members reached out to other professionals in the field, its membership went past 40, then 60. Earlier this year, Fathima read an article about a group of female cinematographers in the UK who had formed a collective called illuminatrix. “I posted it on the group and said, let’s escalate this,” she says over the phone. The IWCC came into being this month, on 8 March—International Women’s Day.

In the two-and-a-half weeks since its formation, the IWCC has amassed more than 70 members. Apart from maintaining a database of members and their work, the collective aims to act as a support group for those who are entering the field and are on the lookout for mentors or advice. One presumes that some of this advice will be geared towards responding to prejudice. “There is a perception that camerawork is a technical business and therefore not for women,” Deepti Gupta (Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd, Family Album), a member of both the initial Facebook group and the IWCC, says over the phone. “This is as ridiculous a perception as saying women can’t drive.”

As widespread as camerawork being too technical is the industry perception that movie cameras are too heavy for women. Fathima, Gupta and just about every female cameraperson has at some point or the other been urged to consider a field without such bulky equipment. It’s a measure of how deeply rooted this prejudice is that Gupta was asked the question in her entrance interview for the Film and Television Institute of India (she got in, as did Fathima the following year).

Female DoPs also have to contend with vague ideas about women-appropriate subjects. After she shot the music video for the 2004 Rabbi hit Bulla Ki Jaana, Gupta had ad film-makers come up, compliment her work and tell her they were waiting to work with her on the right project (“I would think, they’re making commercials, what’s right for a woman to shoot?”). This is why Priya Seth shooting Airlift with Akshay Kumar was a significant step forward; not only was it a project with a huge star (Gupta says top actors can just as easily veto a cinematographer as a director or producer can), but it also rubbished the widely held belief that women can’t shoot action.

Fathima hopes that, apart from being an “enormous networking opportunity”, the IWCC will provide new entrants to the field with persons to emulate: B.R. Vijayalakshmi, part of the collective and Asia’s first female cinematographer, would seem an ideal candidate. Photojournalists in India have had the long-standing example of Homai Vyarawalla to spur them on. If the IWCC can shine a similar light on women in cinematography, it would be a great start.

This piece appeared in Mint.

Phillauri: Review

Anshai Lal’s Phillauri is a lesson in committing wholeheartedly to your material. With a premise this farcical, the only way to succeed is if everyone from the director on down is convinced about what they’re doing and, at the same time, willing to look stupid. Then, if you’re lucky, somewhere along the line, because of this conviction, the viewer will suspend judgment and surrender, and the story will acquire a bit of resonance.

The dream sequence that kicks off Phillauri is almost Om-Dar-B-Dar-like in its accumulating strangeness. Kanan (Suraj Sharma) has visions of marrying a snake, finding himself in front of a wedding party without his clothes, seeing his fiancee trapped in a box and then drowning in it. Though the film settles down after this and operates in a broader, more commercially viable comic vein, the sequence shows that Lal, directing his first feature, doesn’t mind prodding audience expectations every once in a while.

Kanan, who’s flown in from Canada for his wedding, turns out to be manglik; he must therefore marry a tree before he can wed Anu (Mehreen Pirzada). He reluctantly agrees; the ceremony is conducted, after which the tree is chopped down. This frees a spirit that was trapped inside it, a development which might strike some as weird, but to me seems quite appropriate. In a world where it’s normal to marry a tree, who could possibly complain about the implausibility of a ghost?

After some inspired mugging from Sharma when his tree-wife floats into his life, another story begins to unfold. We learn that the spirit, Shashi (Anushka Sharma), was alive in pre-Independence India in Phillaur, Punjab (the same place where the tree stood), that she wrote and published poetry, and that she fell in love with a singer, Roop Lal “Phillauri” (Diljit Dosanjh). The narrative jumps back and forth in time – the transitions are jarring – as it contrasts the growing attachment of Shashi and Roop with Kanan’s doubts over his feelings towards Anu, whom he’s been dating since 10th grade, and who’s hopelessly head-over-heels for him.

While the visual effects look dated, the spirit Shashi is strikingly imagined – a shimmering vision that seems to be dissolving into gold dust at the edges. The character is beautifully realised too: Sharma’s performance is snappy, sardonic (but not cruel), dignified even in death. She looks like she’s lit from within (she’s lit beautifully from the outside by cinematographer Vishal Sinha). She finds an excellent foil in Suraj Sharma, who proves a deft physical comedian; someone ought to make a “Kanan panics” supercut. The supporting players are excellent as well: Dosanjh, with his low-key sex appeal; the wonderful Manav Vij as Shashi’s brother; the squeaky and touching Pirzada.

The film takes its chances with in its climactic scene: the metaphor will likely strike some as laboured, while others will find it apt and moving (I certainly did). Instead of discussing this, let me end with a mention of a short scene that occurs during one of the flashbacks. Shashi’s brother has just beaten her for daring to follow her heart – a scenario instantly familiar to any viewer of Hindi cinema. The scene that follows, though, isn’t one you get to see often. Shashi’s brother comforts her, brings her haldi doodh, talks with some vulnerability about raising her in the absence of their parents. He could have been a stock villain but instead, the film suggests that every relationship contains multitudes and everybody has their reasons. That a broad, mainstream comedy would take the effort to point this out is both unexpected and heartening.

This review appeared in Mint.

World cinema’s high priest

In 2012, Richard Peña stepped down as head of the New York Film Festival (NYFF). He had been the chairman of its selection committee for almost 25 years, taking over from Richard Roud in 1988, and championed key works by directors like Jia Zhangke and Olivier Assayas. Equally important was his long stint as programme director of New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center. By organizing retrospectives and becoming an early promoter of directors largely unknown to US audiences—including heavyweights such as Abbas Kiarostami, Pedro Almodóvar and Hou Hsiao-hsien—Peña helped shape the critical discourse around cinema in the US and around the world.

Peña, who’s of Spanish and Puerto Rican descent, was in Mumbai last week for “A Panorama of Latin American Cinema”, a lecture series organized by the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum and Columbia Global Center. The talks he gave before each screening offered a glimpse of his formidable knowledge of, and palpable enthusiasm for, cinema. His evocation of Latin American culture, history and politics made for an uncommonly rich viewing experience; for instance, his clarification that the word “entranced” in Glauber Rocha’s Entranced Earth indicates violent convulsion, not a dream-like state, completely altered one’s understanding of the film.

We caught up with Peña between screenings and asked him about his curatorial career and the state of cinephilia.

You discussed how the idea of Third Cinema—a developing world cinema proposed as an alternative to the dominant US-Euro-centric cinema—gained traction in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. Do you think this is valid any more?
The whole idea of film industries has come under such a challenge because, with digital production, there are so many mini-cinemas out there. I think the idea in Latin America at the time, certainly in Brazil, was to create this very strident national cinema that would turn its back on Hollywood. No one actually believes that can happen, or that it’s even necessary nowadays, because now you can make your films without that.

I don’t think that Third Cinema ever really happened, nor will it happen. There was a moment when there was going to be this alternative cinema—the 1960s were a very heady time—but it didn’t pan out.

Of the many directors and national cinemas you promoted, were there any you were particularly proud to bring to wider notice?
I was very proud of my association with Abbas Kiarostami. When we took a chance on him, he was really unknown. Jia Zhangke, the great Chinese director, was another person we really brought along. Then there were the non-Asian directors—Olivier Assayas, Arnaud Desplechin, Catherine Breillat. I sometimes say it’s like playing the stock market: You buy stock, and you see if it grows.

Any stock that grew more than you’d have expected?
I was amazed how high and fast Iranian cinema grew. In 1991-92, when we began to show it, it was really unknown—no one had any idea Iran made movies, let alone that they were very good. And then, by 1997, there were five Iranian films that were released commercially in New York City. That year at NYFF, we sold out the Iranian screenings very quickly. Seeing that happen was very gratifying.

Has the nature of cinephilia changed in the last few years, from being something you share with other people to something you acquire on your own?
I think it has. Jonathan Rosenbaum and others have written about this. Earlier, people came together to see films because they wanted to see what the films were about. Now, there’s a certain kind of cinephilia that’s more like collecting—people don’t have a real commitment to what they’re seeing. “I’ve seen 88 of the 115 Jess Franco movies”—so, who cares? But some people care a lot.

Bhau Daji Lad Museum is one of the few places in Mumbai that hosts discussion-led screenings. There’s no dedicated repertory house in the city. Do many of these still exist in the US?
Not any more. Most of the action has been taken over by non-profits like the Lincoln Center, Brooklyn Academy of Music and Film Forum, and by home video. There used to be dozens of houses in New York. Boston, where I lived, had a great repertory scene; now there’s only one—The Brattle Theatre.

As you alluded, I think we’re going through a transition from collective viewing to individual viewing. I don’t think that’s a good development. There was something in the nature of cinema that created a collectivity, and I think that was a really interesting and important part of the cinematic experience.

Are there any new national cinemas you’re watching keenly?
There hasn’t been a national cinema that’s really risen for me in the last few years. I guess I was lucky to have seen the Iranians, the new Argentine cinema, South Korea. Israel has some wonderful film-makers, so does Palestine. But I don’t think there has been another meteor.

Latin America continues to be good. After about 1975-76, it became less interesting for me. Then, around 2000, a wave of films started coming from Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Chile. Curiously, Brazil hasn’t been part of this wave, maybe because television is so strong there.

This interview appeared in Mint Lounge.