Documenting the history of Asian cinema

Friday, December 10, 2010

NEW DELHI - The semantics of Asian cinema has got a new archive - a comprehensive anthology “Asian Film Journey: Selections From Cinemaya” that has compiled 93 best articles published in the capital’s erstwhile mouthpiece of serious cinema between 1998 and 2004.

“Cinemaya: The Asian Film Quarterly”, which was born in 1988 as a platform to voice the concerns and achievement of Asian cinema, closed down in 2004.

This was a few years after its founder Aruna Vasudev relinquished reins of the Cinemaya to the Mumbai-based arts promotion umbrella, OSIAN’s, along with her signature film festival - Cinefan.

However, the magazine gave to the country, NETPAC, the Asian cinema network that Vasudev has been managing for the last 20 years.

The anthology, published by Wisdom Tree and edited by Rashmi Doraiswamy and Latika Padgaonkar, was unveiled at the Delhi International Arts Festival in the capital Thursday.

The compendium pivots on the core issue of what exactly constitutes Asian Cinema - what sets it apart from the genres in other continents, its narrative and progression over the years to evolve a distinct voice that is essentially rooted in the land’s diverse culture, histories and indigeneity.

What is Asian cinema? According to co-editor of the anthology Latika Padgaonkar, “For the past 15 years, films from Asia have figured regularly on the awards list of international festivals. But awards only tell a part of the story.”

“Behind them lies a host of creative talent involved in shaping a nation’s sensibility, conveying an emotion or denoting a concern special to its culture and life.”

Padgaonkar told IANS that in Asia, authors who assert their own style and individuality “have had to contend with very real question of history, culture, aesthetics and questions thrown up by the struggle of the ancient civilisations as they come to terms with modernity”.

This is where Asian cinema offers its own world view in which the individual may not necessarily be the central figure, but rather a large part of the family, community or social fabric, she says.

The book presents a contrast of opinions about the Asian cinema as a genre.

“When you think of Asia you think of unexplored markets - you think of a region which has its share of the world’s turmoil - and then you think of its cinema which mirrors both these elements. In the last decade, Asian cinema has moved into Hollywood,” film writer Philip Cheah observes.

“Hollywood has also been quick to shift to Asia, largely through its multiplex operations. While most critics have hailed the new blending of art and entertainment, most notably in the glorious Indian megahits, it somehow still hides the fact that the real face of Asian cinema is tucked away in its margins,” he adds.

But film critic and writer Chris Berry differs.

“If the idea of Asia is a European invention, it follows that Asian cinema is an equally fictional device. There is no single Asian cinema or culture. We also need to be aware that using Asian cinema tag in the case of film festivals outside Asia itself runs the risk of ghettoisation,” he says.

But within Asia, if the tag Asian cinema helps build links among the otherwise different neighbouring countries and cultures, it may be important in terms of cinematic aesthetics, film industry cooperation and in forging larger cultural links, Perry says.

Writer Bernice Beynaud poses a query : Does the western gaze define what is Asian?

“When I was on the selection committee of the Asian CineVision Festival in New York, we debated whether Turkish or Egyptian films could be considered Asian because we liked them and wanted to show them?,” Beynaud recalls.

“Asianness” in cinema depends on conditions of distribution, exhibition, production, viewership and critical discourse in an international arena shaped by a “dialectical relationship of power, dominance and reciprocal interaction between the native and the western gaze, he says.

Rashmi Doraiswamy, who co-edited the book with Padgaonkar, says “cinema in the Asian countries developed in the way it told stories” and through popular performance cultures.

Cinemaya founder Aruna Vasudev no longer wants to look on the years. “I don’t want to revive it. The NETPAC has been growing, but we would like to do something on the Internet,” Vasudev says.

Publisher Shobit Arya of Wisdom Tree says “it was a significant documentation of Asian cinema’s history”.

“Not much has been written about Asian cinema. The concept of Asian cinema is complex and dynamic. How would one define Asian cinema,” Arya adds.

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