A Quest for Cinema’s Soul

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Shaji N. Karun, Veteran cinematographer and director

Veteran cinematographer and director Shaji N. Karun feels that both cinema and the audience have changed significantly in a way that allows for the achievement of instant success.  His new film, Olu (She), a fantasy woven around a gang-rape survivor thrown into the backwaters of Kerala, has been selected as the opening film of the section.

By Saibal Chatterjee

Shaji N. Karun, who earned his spurs lensing the films of celebrated Malyali directors such as G. Aravindan, K.G. George, M.T. Vasudevan Nair and Padmarajan, branched out 30 years ago as an independent director. His first film, Piravi (1988), ranks among the most lauded debuts in the history of Indian cinema. It screened in the 1989 Cannes Film Festival’s Un certain regard section and was a joint winner of a Mention d’honneur – Camera d’Or.

The veteran cinematographer and director who has crafted only six more narrative features since then feels that both cinema and the audience have changed in a way that allows for the achievement of instant success. “Not just filmmakers but all artists of the past had to work over long periods to establish themselves. Today, people are catapulted into the limelight all too quickly and, therefore, the process of forgetting is also very quick,” he says.

Still From Olu (She)

Besides the all-conquering Piravi, two other Shaji films – Swaham (1994) and Vanaprastham (1999) – have been in the Cannes official programme. In fact, Swaham remains the last Indian film to play in the Cannes Competition.

With his first film in four years, Olu (She), Shaji is back in the Indian Panorama of the International Film Festival of India.The new film, a fantasy woven around a gang-rape survivor thrown into the backwaters of Kerala, has been selected as the opening film of the section.

Like all his other narrative features, Shaji’s last film Swapaanam (2014), which probed the relationship between a master drummer and a Mohiniyattam danseuse, made it to the Indian Panorama.

Still From Olu (She)

Shaji laments that festivals too are becoming “centres of business”. He says: “There was a time when festivals had a vision of the future and therefore selections reflected that farsightedness. Now films are selected for their instant appeal, for what they yield for the moment.”

“Cinema’s roots lie in the realms of fantasy,” he says, citing the 1902 George Melies film, A Trip to the Moon. “Cinema was born because it had the power to dazzle audiences with its scale and spectacle. With Olu, I have sought to return in a way to the origins of cinema.” In his new film, the violated young woman not only survives underwater, she also becomes a muse for an artist struggling for inspiration.

Why has he made only seven films in 30 years? “You must remember that I devote 50 per cent of my time outside my immediate professional work. I’ve am actively connected with running film development bodies, organizing film festivals and other such activities,” he replies.

Still From olu (She)

But Shaji believes that with the rapid technological advances that the world has seen in recent years, the very act of watching cinema has changed. “Technological tools now determine how a film is consumed. The umbilical cord between the filmmaker and the audience, which thrives in a darkened hall where a group watches a film together, has snapped,” he says. “It is now confined largely to personal enjoyment. It is no longer something meant for savouring in a shared space.”

“Today,” says Shaji, “everything in cinema is designed keeping the point of view of the consumer in mind. The primacy of the artist and the storyteller has been severely undermined.” So he believes that the time may have come for the operatic way of mounting films to be brought back not just to cinema but also to other art forms. But cinema, he asserts, must always retain its meditative, philosophical and spiritual qualities. “That is only way the medium can guard against losing its value as a medium of expression and a form of art,” he says.

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