16 January 2007

Is the cinema more important than life?

“This question has tormented me for thirty years: is the cinema more important than life?”
– Francois Truffaut

Cinema plays an important part in the lives of Indians… at least, to those who can afford to see one. Going by some rough facts, globally, India is the largest market for films, which are produced in some 20-odd languages. It is the largest filmmaking nation in the world (close to 900 feature films are released in a year), with annual ticket sales notching up as much as US$2 billion (and expected to grow by 30% in the next 5 years).

To Indians, films are larger than life. The best ones encourage fantasy and escapism. In fact, there’s a premium placed on this, because of which both English (Hollywood) films and Indian art films depicting real life are ignored by the mainstream audience. Cinema is about images and Indian audiences don’t like to be presented images which surround their daily lives of pain and hardship. They like to be overwhelmed… by heroism and humour, music and melodrama, revenge and reunion, sensuality and female submissiveness. In short, Indians like to be presented a world which is unattainable in their real lives. For them, at least for the duration of the film, the film is more important than life.

However, it’s not just the Indian cinema-going audience which is overwhelmed by the cinema. Some, perhaps most, filmmakers are just as enraptured by it as the average Indian cinema-goer. To my mind, Francois Truffaut, French film critic and New Wave film director, is one such filmmaker who had been obsessed with the cinema from an early age. He was an avid film viewer and reviewed many films – sometimes, over-critically – before he began making his own films. His film world was also a world of fantasy and escapism. For, Truffaut, too, had wondered if the cinema was more important than life.

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