Monday, May 12, 2014

Academia at 42 degrees

I have often asked myself this uneasy question: how do I like to invigilate in an afternoon examination at 42 degrees? Most people will probably think that I am a decadent masochist if I say I relish doing it or if I were to turn quixotically philosophical and say temperature is an attitude of the mind. But if I were to be honest, I would look at it from the perspective of examinees that have to study, memorise, assimilate, prepare and beat the anxieties of writing a test in a room that is faintly reminiscent of the barbarous Holocaust. To sit on those bum-hard benches with egotistical authorities assuming criminal intent and issuing diktats that combine moral clichés with legal threats is an assault on common human dignity. But as the axiom goes: what can’t be cured must be endured. That is where an invigilator is advantaged. An invigilator is privy to a show that can be amusing enough to distract the mind from the forty two degrees through the drudgery of three elastic hours. An examination hall is a wonderful place to observe differences and similarities, performance and pretentions, dignity and subservience, community fellow-feeling and individual excellence, empathy for the ignorant  and subterfuges for self-preservation.
The chap in the third row, first bench has an obvious disadvantage as opposed to the person in the sixth row at back of the room. He wears a cream shirt with buttoned down flap pockets over which is embroidered in green and pink thread ‘SELF CONTROL’ He practices it with the perseverance of an ascetic until the last ten minutes of the test when material advantage overwhelms the conscience. Two rows behind, a girl with a yellow kurta and pink dupatta with temple appliqué at the borders, stares at the ceiling waiting for divinity to intervene while chewing the cap of her ball-point pen. Providence usually takes its time and in the next fifteen minutes the top end of the pen looks like the bone given to an energetic puppy. The guy with frazzled hair reminiscent of a two-minute-ago electrocution looks left, then right, sticks his tongue out, scratches his temples, the back of his head and settles down to challenge the question paper. The girl in a pair of Levis indigo jeans bought last night with a loose crepe orange cotton top in the second last row has got into the business of assaulting the paper in real earnest, drawing lines as margins, writing six lines and underlining three, erasing a pencil-drawing, scratching her nose and then continuing to write in a kind of aesthetically pleasing hand that catches my envy through the corner of my eye. Another in a black kurta who remembers very little of physics from school wrestles with her writing equipment, grimacing, snorting and smiling with each moment of disaster or triumph.
Tea comes in a plastic cup that could not have been smaller. Within seconds a serrated layer of cream forms at the top of the earth-brown liquid that bears the authoritative stamp of institutional hospitality. A sample of the river water collected next to the cremation bank may have tasted better. That sounds just a little bit morbid. Shall I erase it? Tea drained in spite of its violence on the taste-buds, its time to focus on the job of a conscientious invigilator.
May I borrow an eraser from her please? - asks a petite wheat-complexioned boy with a chiseled face. I am surprised at the good manners of this young man. This culture-plus moment almost demands the generosity of gratification with something like- Borrow two if you please. I hated to see this young lad sitting in the forty two degrees on that austere seat proving to the world that he had the wherewithal to get a masters degree and embark on a lonely road to success defined by society.
Time for examinees is a haiku, for invigilators an epic. And the hands on my wristwatch continue its painful circumambulation as the incinerating heat eases to a bearable close. Five to five, five minutes to go. That announced, hope renews. A sudden flurry of community consultations begins. Words, digital signals, snarls, whispers, winks, turns, twists are cautioned. It stops briefly, starts again. Resilience in an uneven world is an instrument of survival. End of time, we file out celebrating our freedoms in our own different ways. We are after all children of different gods.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Understanding the Art of Cinema

Understanding the Art of Cinema: a Guide for Beginners by R.N. Dash provides an encyclopedic understanding of films written in a language that is comprehensible and intelligible both for the uninitiated and proficient scholars of this discipline. To be able to inform, enlighten and encourage critical thinking and scholarship in such a vast subject is a significant achievement. What has been most baffling is that Mr. Dash with an immaculate record as a civil servant, an avid reader, a reference index in cultural relations has been a reluctant, self-questioning author and despite being a walking-talking encyclopedia on films his quintessential humility required a great deal of persuasion from his friends, admirers and students before he wrote and published the book in the autumn of 2013. Films constitute a major cultural practice of our times. People see films for various reasons: entertainment, representation of unusual themes, as a narrative and cultural signifier that enables viewers to experience a world different from their own, to experience the practice of the art by the many directors all over the globe and possibly for intellectual and sensory pleasure. Whether one reads a book, watches a theatre performance or views a film, the pleasure is enriched through critical interrogation. It may stem from asking a simple question: why did I like this film? This unobtrusive question has produced a discipline that is commonly known as Film Studies and Understanding the Art of Cinema sets out to explore, inform and analyse the elements that constitute such a scholarship. It begins with the etymology of the word cinema, understanding the constituents of a film, the ambiguity the term ‘movies’ and explains the technology of the cinema in various stages of its development. R.N. Dash’s book conducts the readers through an exploratory journey in cinema covering areas such as growth of world cinema from the silent era to contemporary practice in various countries, development of Indian cinema and the structure and constituents of this art form. Questions of classifications are enumerated in detail drawing succinct distinctions among long and short films, factual films, advertisement films, promotional films, feature films, ducu-feature and docu-drama. It answers some of the fundamental classificatory queries that often trouble those interested in film studies. With candid humour, he speaks of the category of Art films as a paradox since it implies that other categories are not works of art. The author distinguishes Mainstream, Parallel and Art movies while indicating that nomenclatures may have a certain fluidity of definition. The structural components of the cinema including the normative function of producer, director, executive producer, screenplay and dialogue writers, production designer, cinematographer, actors, composers, choreographer, editor and technicians are delineated in authentic detail with illustrations in various sections. The subject is indeed vast but Mr. Dash has been able to provide a comprehensive and detailed insight into a discipline that requires serious scholarship. While I expect that Understanding the Art of Cinema will become a signpost in film studies, I wish to see an early reprint adorning shelves in bookstores and libraries. In it I wish to suggest the inclusion of a glossary for quick reference to film terminology as well as an index. Each scholastic discipline constitutes its own special language which can often be unsettling for the uninitiated. This book is different. It uses words in common use and explains discipline- specific terms simply and with clarity. The invitation to read the book could not be more explicit.