Aruna Vasudev has a sobriquet-Mother of Asian cinema. She has made a footprint as an auteur, editor, jury member, writer, and artist. She recalls her yester years on a trip down memory lane.
Crossing the bounds of geography and language to declare freedom half a century back, Aruna Vasudev earned the title 'mother of Asian Cinema'. This rare genius who cannot be confined to any one avenue of cinema has turned 84. Even now, no cinema festivals go without her presence. The signature of her talent is visible in all phases of Indian cinema. Her debut to the cinema was as an editor during the vibrant French New Wave Movement in the 1960sandlatershe went on to pen the history of Indian cinema. Currently, her passion is for painting. Her life is a collage and panorama of impossibilities.
It was Aruna's books on cinema that were viewed as authentic and pioneering books on Indian cinema. She was on the jury of forty international film festivals including the famous Cannes and Locarno. Her active presence was seen in the film magazine 'cinemaya' which has the rare distinction of disseminating the pulse of Asian cinema. When the Asian film festival was held in New Delhi, she was one of the pillars of strength behind it. She was the founder of 'Netpak', a collective of Asian cinema professionals.The Tripoli film festival, Lebanon instituted the 'Aruna Vasudev Award' for the best creation of cinema as a tribute to her. She was awarded Star of Italian Solidarity by Italy, and Chevalier of Arts & Letters by France.
This widely respected figure was in Thrissur just before the lockdown, as a jury member for the Thrissur International film festival. The schedule of the film festival was cut short in the backdrop of the Corona pandemic.
In this chat with her in a hotel room,she walks down memory lane.
How did your journey to the cinema start?
Television was becoming popular when I was residing in New York with my fatherand when he was an officer at the United Nations. Earlier, when Iwasdoingmy BAEnglish honours, I had worked in a radio station as a presenter. It was a small job for many people in our group. It was around that time that I had a wish to study cinema. This was the beginning of the sixties. It was a time when the French New Wave cinema of Godard and Eric Rohmer was being widely discussed.
One day I told my Family, "I want to study in Paris film institute". I had a basic knowledge of the French language,and that gave me the confidence to put forward my wish.My parents did not say anything against this and gave their consent. Those days women had not started travelling yet.When I reached Paris,there weren't any Indian eateries as Indians had not started reaching there. The monthly cost of living there was a minimum of $150/-and I had to find time to earn the amount during my studies. I attended my class only occasionally.
My acquaintance with Mari Seaton, whowroteba lot about the Indian's Satyajit Rai, was a great asset. I got acquainted with the famous documentary director Chris Marker and became her apprentice. I later moved on to become an editor. These associations helped me have a good relationship with Alain Resnais and Claude Chabrol who were towering personalities of the French New Wave Cinema. Those were the days of working with legends in French cinema. It was an unforgettable training.
How did you return to India?
I got acquainted with Satyajit Rai through Marie Seton who had written books about him. My first meeting with him had a great impact on me. The only problem was that of language, I only knew English.I wanted work with him and when I returned to Delhi it was with this passion in my heart. By that time,my father too had come back to Delhi.
Did you meet Satyajit Rai again?
I had gone to Calcutta once to meet Rai Sab. He was in a meeting with some Englishmen at that time. It was a discussion of a film related to Twentieth Century Fox. He sent me back telling me to study Bengali and then come back to work in the film. The film that was discussed at that time was the world-famous film 'ET' by Steven Spielberg. Speilberg used the sketch and screenplay written for the movie 'Alien'. Rai wanted the shooting to be held in India but Spielberg was not willing to do so and they parted ways. The movie later became one that was widely discussed all over the world. It is said that Spielberg even came back to apologize to Rai. When I was writing the book New Indian Cinema,I sought his permission to write about the incident, but he denied it.
Did you go back to Rai after that?
No. All my plans changed. When I arrived back in Delhi, I started working on the film 'The Mugal' fort he Ministry of Tourism. I did some work for Film Division when I was residing in Bombay. It was around that time that German Television Studio was established in Delhi.They invited me to be a part of that. When I was working there I went to Thailand to doan introductory series on Asian Cinema.It was through my visuals that Asian cinema received worldwide visibility.That was a good experience. Then I went back to Paris. Int he meantime, I got married in 1968 to a Swedish person who, was working in a media establishment.
How was your married life?
We decided to stay in Paris. We reached Paris when the May 16th revolution started. It was a war-like situation and I kept moving around fearing the police. The friction continued for days to come.
Three weeks later I bore witness to the Communist Party apologizing to the students. Within a short time, I went back to London and started working fora Canadian company. Then I came back to India.
When did you switch over to writing for cinema?
I spent my days writing scripts, screenplays and making documentaries in Bombay. These days were made unforgettable by my friendship with the titans of Indian cinema Kumar Sahni and Mani Kaul who were in the Pune Film Institute at that time.In the mean time, I had started working fora PhD in film studies at the Institute for Advanced Film Studies in Paris. My topic was' liberty and license in Indian cinema'. I went on an all-India tour for this. It was during this time that I found my taste for writing. This thesis was later published as a book. Books on cinema life were rare at that time. This book earned praise and it came to be known as the first real book on Indian cinema'. Until then only three or four books were written on Indian cinema and most of them were not available.
I parted ways with my first husband and got married again. After the birth of my first child, I could focus more on writing during the period.I started writing on cinema in magazines and newspapers. I authored many books; many interviews were conducted in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. I feel it was through my articles that Asian cinema and South Indian cinema got recognition in the media as well as in the film world. My perspective on what Indian cinema is and the strength of regional films inspired my writing. It was during those days that a close friendship with Malayalam directors like Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Aravindan developed.I penned the first published non-Malayalam article on Adoor Gopalakrishnan, which I believe was published in Youth Times. Malayalam films did not get much attention during those days.
You wrote and edited many books. What is your most memorable writing experience?
I wrote books like Frames of Mind: Reflections of Indian Cinema, the New Indian Cinema, Being and Becoming:The Cinemas of Asia, and Indian Cinema Super Bazaar. I conducted a long interview with Nargis, which was not published.Though I contacted her husband after her death for permission to published it, he avoided me. I think it might be because he was afraid that her relationship with Raj Kapoor would be published if he gave permission.
How did you come into contact with the Indian International Film Festival?
It was when I was actively engaged in writing that the discussion on conducting Indian International Film Festival became very alive. That was a very busy and decisive period in my life. I was working on preparing thirteen short films with Chitaranjan for Doordarshan.Publishing a film magazine was also a part of my plan.Taking into consideration my relationship with world cinema, I was put in charge of Asian cinema package. I travelled to Hong Kong, Philippines, China and Japan to arrange films for the festival. I was able to create close contact with them. The Film Festival became a huge success. For the European film world, Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa were the only Asian film makers. They remarked that the festival was unforgettable as it was able to showcase the diversity of Asian cinema.
Was it difficult to get good Asian cinemas even during those days?
Though there were writings on Asian cinema, they did not reach many people. I continued conducting interviews and writing articles on cinema. It was then that I was invited to speak on Indian Cinema at the Hawaii International Film Festival by the Festival director Jean nette. The beauty of Asian cinema was very visible there. Kurosawa was the only known Asian filmmaker until then. I was spellbound watching the greatness and diversity of Asian cinema.
I met a young Japanese director there. My return journey was with him via Hong Kong. During the flight journey, he asked me, "Why don't you attend the Hong Kong film festival''?In the trance of that question, I landed there and met with the Film Festival coordinator. "We cannot meet your travel expenses,but can arrange accommodation facilities"was his promise.It was during those days that the idea of starting an authentic magazine on Asian, African and Latin American cinema began to take shape in my mind.
"Cinemaya" was a new chapter in the history of Indian cinema. How was its beginning?
"A film magazine which will encourage the worldwide reach of Asian cinema". It was with the famous director Chidanand Das Gupta that I shared this vision first in 1968. But it did not happen then.After watching Asian cinemas at the Hawaii Film Festival, I was determined to some how show the world the greatness of Asian cinema. I decided to start the magazine anyway. My first concern was generating money and that there needs to be a dedicated team. The designer who had designed the cover of my book agreed to design covers of the magazine.
I was a frequent visitor to Intac during the period.I shared the idea of the magazine with my friend Latha Padgonkar who was on part-time duty in UNESCO and a resident of Defense Colony. She was thrilled with this idea.We planned to meet at2.30PM every day and find ways for fundraising. Rashmi Durai Samy, an MA student and expert in the Russian language, joined our group. In the beginning, we worked on this idea during our off time and free hours. When we started having financial troubles we started looking for advertisements.
We submitted a request to the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) for financial assistance. We also approached the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and presented our idea for the magazine in detail.The minster was favourable and he asked NFDC to release the money. An amount of Rs. One lakh was granted. It is worth one crore today. Our happiness knew no bounds. We got back that entire amount from the first issue of the magazine itself.
"Cinemaya" was a passion of the cinema professionals. It even received worldwide acceptance. Why?
Right from the beginning the content and texture were not gossips. It hada very serious approach. Cinemaya was rich with many critical articles on Indian cinema.Youngsters were especially passionate about 'Cinemaya'. Many new entrants, who became very famous later, to the cinema contributed to the magazine. Many ofthem recall that they grewupreading that magazine.
Cinemaya was a passion for all three of us.It attracted worldwide subscription.Cinema is the highest form of art. Most of the articles focussed on the visual, auditory and musical aspects of films.The articles were windows to new horizons of art. Readers liked and supported the magazine. It was an Indian cinema magazine with a serious approach. We were proud that some famous persons came to know about Asian cinema through Cinemaya.
Please explain the circumstances leading to the formation of NETPAC, the collective of Asian cinema activists.
A year after the publication of Cinemaya, UNESCO invited me to coordinate a big cinema conference. Representatives from 18 countries participated in the conference held in Delhi. In the meantime, I received an invitation from the Busan festival and Documentary Film Festival of Japan. Subsequently, discussions were held in Japan to forma Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC). It was formed in1990 with Singapore as its headquarters. Representatives from many countries took part in its formation.
The cine fan film festival was the next milestone. Right?
A five day Asian and Indian Cinema festival was held at Habitat Centre in Delhi as part of the 10-year celebration of the publication of Cinemaya. It was historic in that it was the first film festival in the history of Asian films.This is how Cine fan aka Cinemaya Film Festival for Asian films was started. Later it was renamed as Osian's Cine fan Festival.
Habitat Center cooperated very well. They agreed to extend itforanother5days. Japan Foundation, through the Japanese Embassy, alsocooperatedwell. The festival ranbeautifullyfortwo years. During the third year, there was an award declaration and jury.
How long did the Cine fan Festival run for? How did you find the money for conducting it?
We conducted the Festival continuously for five years.The Delhi government sanctioned Rs 10lakhs every year but the cost of conducting it was almost 90 lakhs. Though visitors came in great number, financing the Festival was a bottleneck compelling us to borrow money. Finally, we decided to bring it to an end. Cinemaya also started facing financial crisis to the extent that even paying salaries to the employees became impossible. It was during this period Osian's Art House was established.After requests anddiscussions, they agreed to take over Cinemaya. I continued in the leadership role for two more years as per their request. Cinemaya was published for two more years.
What did you engage in after this?
I started working in collaboration with the Indian Film Festival. I worked on producing some series for Doordarshan. Later I became a jury member of Carlow, Cannes, Locarno, Las Palmas, Busan and other International Film Festivals. I played an active role in conducting the Imaging India Conference where representatives of several countries participated. I also became a part of the Collective for Promoting Asian films.In the midst of all this, I also wrote many books.
You are famous for conducting the first Buddhist Film Festival with Buddhism as a theme?
Buddhist film festivals were conducted in Mexico, London, Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong. But such shows were not conducted in the home of Buddhism i.e., India.That was how 'Inner Path' was screened in 2012. Three documentaries of John Bush from New York were included in that festival. The Festival included an art show and a photography show. It evoked motivating responses from the audiences. The festival attracted many Buddhist sanyasis from Buddhist religious establishments.
Can you tell us about your famous sister?
My sister Uma is a writer and a journalist. She was the first editor of India Today. She authored two biographies of Indira Gandhi. She chose a different road, I chose cinema.
You started as a student in France in the sixties,lived in places where girls could not think of venturing out during those days,and yet you have made a decisive stamp on history.Do you have any bad experience?
No. My parents nurtured me in a very liberal atmosphere.The only problems that I faced was that of living alone in a strange country. I don't remember having any bad experience or negligence based on my gender.
You were a member of many juries.What is your opinion about the current Asian cinema?
Look at the achievement of the Oscar-winning film 'Parasite'. Asian films are on a par with European films. We have good directors and filmmakers here. But above that , the look and feel of Asian cinema are different. Asian cinema has an independent approach. It opens both the mind and the heart. There is life in it. Life circumstances and narrations are very important. It opens our vision, only Asian cinema can do that.
Many more people are attracted to festivals. Does it not offer more hope?
Change is visible in all the festivals. Many Indians have started to attend festivals abroad. Cinema is love, anxiety and emotion for the spectator. You understand the world through cinema. You see East Europe, Czechoslovakia and Vietnam. Those are all different worlds.The new generation is very close to technology. They are curious about the world.It is very good that new films are eye-openers to them.
What changes do you propose to Film Festivals?
Interaction should be arranged with the audience after every cinema. Only then can their opinions be gathered. I believe that every year cinemas that centre around different countries should be bought forward.
Of all the Film Festivals you visited,which one inspired you most?
It is the Hainan festival in China. One year I was on the jury. It is a beautiful island. It is a new festival but important figures in world cinema reach there.
Which films do you favour the most?
I like European movies, French films to be more specific. Asian movies after that.
What is your opinion about the future of films?
Techniques of film making have changed a lot. It is very different from the cinemas of the sixties when I entered the film world. It is not predictable how the cinema of tomorrow will be. Cinemas should be made in such away that it attracts worldwide viewership.Different channels including as online platforms can be utilized for this. Cinema has changed and will continue to change.
We hear that you are busy with art.Is that true?
I used to draw even during my childhood.I retired from my busy life a couple of years back and have now started indulging in drawing. I do conduct exhibitions of my artwork. But even now I do visit film festivals.
Can you tell us about your visits to Kerala?
I visited Kerala to interview Director Aravindan with whom I had a good friendship.Likewise, I had come to Kerala to interviewe Adoor Gopalakrishnan also. Many of the friends I had in Kerala are no more. A few years back I had been to the Thiruvananthapuram International Film Festival to commemorate Aravindan. I also attended the first Thrissur Film Festival.
(This interview was first published on 2020 August 3rd Issue of Madhyamam Weekly in Malayalam. This was translated by Sibahathulla Sakib)