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16 Frames
Literature

16 Frames-Memories of the Afterimage, A Book Review

Authored by one of the most sincere film scholars in India, 16 Frames has a frame rate that not only satisfies the literary buds of a cinema lover but also encourages a curious onlooker with its short yet crisp essays on Cinema.

“And so the book reads on, like a river, sometimes placid, sometimes turbulent, flowing through the reader’s mind, through the films one has certainly watched and films one has never seen and is never likely to see, through the vicarious but rich experience of reading about them in a different context. Did I say this is certainly not Amitava’s first book on Cinema? I can flesh out that by adding- this is certainly not his last…”

Dr. Shoma a. chatterji on 16 Frames

When I went through the foreword to the book which is written by the prominent film critic, Shoma A. Chatterji, I felt a bit uneasy. Though the foreword is as rich in its colours and texture as a Sanganeri-printed Sari, as a cinema enthusiast I just couldn’t accept that there can be a film that I’m ‘never likely to see.’ To put it clearly, the book opens up with a challenge, at least to a conscientious Cinema lover.

Amitava Nag is an exciting talent. I use the word ‘exciting’ deliberately here as somehow the word has got associated with a particular age group. I’m using this space to put my objection on the record. His previous forays into cinema writing as Satyajit Ray’s Heroes and Heroines, Beyond Apu – 20 Favourite Film Roles of Soumitra Chatterjee, Reading the Silhouette: Collection of writings on selected Indian Films provide us with newer eyes and purpose to have a relook at some of the classics of our time.

16 frames, the latest cinematic offering by Amitava Nag is the result of a journey spanning over many years and magazines. The book contains 16 critical essays on cinema that mark the growth of a writer. 16 frames is an exciting book in many ways. The writer opens up with the movies that have been close to his heart and mind at various points in his life.

16 Frames, A Labour of Love

They say that after Jesus Christ, Gandhi is someone who remains a person of interest no matter the place and time. Each year hundreds if not thousands of books and research papers come out on Gandhi and his name remains the mainstay for many debates and lectures around the world. Pardon me, if I look like veering off the topic at hand but I’m making a pretty simple analogy here:

What Gandhi is to the World, Bengali Cinema is to India.

Though 16 Frames talks about many things, from Shakespearean villains to aesthetics of cinema, it remains firmly rooted in Bengali Cinema and more importantly Bengali sensibilities that have come to define ‘serious’ Indian Cinema world over, largely thanks to Satyajit Ray.

‘Within the first 10 minutes of Satyajit Ray’s Nayak (1966), we find matinee idol Arindam making fun of a film producer who has come with a hope of signing a contract for his forthcoming film with the superstar. The producer sports an affected Bengali accent typical of the Marwari businessmen in Calcutta. Typecast as he is, the hero’s jibe at him, ‘I don’t think you read any newspaper apart from the share-market’ is gleefully accepted by the businessman.

This process of racial identity through comical representation not only signifies the Marwari businessman in question but the high-handed parochialism of the Bengali educated class…’

This passage from the essay titled as The Marwaris in Satyajit Ray’s Films: ‘Outsiders’ in Bengali Psyche presents a pretty unique insight. It defines and redefines the meaning of ‘Outsider’ at the same time. First, defining it clearly with examples of movies and then redefining the term with its overall analysis. I think casting people in particular roles is a way of adding them into the scheme of things which provides them inroads to become more and more acceptable. It’s more like making space for a rigid piece of a jigsaw puzzle that both fulfils the need at hand and gives a unique look to it. So by raising his questions regarding these rigid ideas about a particular community, the author seems to be challenging the structure of the entire society or at least the way it looks at people.

People Stick to Their Kind

The opening of the essay ‘Crossing Borders With Cinema’ brings out one of the most touching moments from the book.

‘It was deep at night when my cousin got a phone call in his apartment in Lansing, Michigan. It was December and an unusually cold night. In those prehistoric days of wired phones, he grew numb hearing the news–my uncle had passed away in their Kolkata home. Another instance was that of my friend’s father having had a heart attack and he had to rush back from Los Angeles, California. After the arduous 36-hour-long journey across more than half of the globe, my friend arrived too late. He did not get to see his father. These are two fleeting images which sweep my mind every time I see Mira Nair’s The Namesake…’

Last summer when I was flying back to Delhi after a pleasant trip in Ladakh, I found a sturdy Army Jawan sitting across the aisle. Seeing Army Jawans all over Ladakh one becomes rather used to their presence but something was peculiar about this guy. He was crying in short bursts. Now, I don’t need to tell you what must have happened. The opening passage from the essay makes it clear for you.

The essay speaks of the anchorless(ness) and the rootlessness of a migrant’s existence, how one copes with the question of identity and the feelings attached to one’s homeland. This essay stands out for me and leaves with me so many emotions and pains even if they are not mine.

Bhumika still troubles me!?

Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika draws the attention of the author in ways which makes it more troublesome for me. As an avid cinema lover, I just couldn’t get past my feelings about Bhumika.

In the essay Bistar Badal Jate Hain… Par Aadami Nahi Badalte: The ‘Heroine’ from Bhumika to Iti Mrinalini the author provides character studies of two characters that are separated by three decades. Both women face the turbulence of insecurities and the eternal question of finding their place in a men’s world.

Bhumika as a character has always troubled me. Her forays into relationships and her ultimate self-reliant conclusion just couldn’t sit well with me. I guess I found some part of me in men that were shown in the film. Here, I have to thank the author to make me see this and ultimately give me the courage to accept what the film stood for. A Big Thank You to Amitava!

50 Shades of Cigarette

If it gets to interpreting what a filmmaker had to say, film reviewers can go to ridiculous lengths and often shock the very filmmakers with their findings.

Initially in the essay, An Ode to the Cigarette in Indian Cinema I got a similar kind of feeling. But then the observations and the symbolic interpretations were so interesting that I gave up my rather cynical notion. It’s a wonderful read! Especially the role of a cigarette that progresses with the story. It’s a wonderful study of how not just characters but objects evolve with time in a story which just goes on to prove how even lifeless objects can be attributed a cinematic life or at least a symbol.

This part of the book is filled with wonderful movie references both Indian and foreign. And a comparative study like Cigarette Vs Pipe. The book should be picked up just for this essay, I must add.

Is There a Method to This Madness?

From ‘An Indian Film Theory?’ to ‘Colour of Aesthetics’ and many other essays, this book throws lights on some of the most interesting subjects that deal with themes that are original and make a strong case for the author’s distinct voice.

Do I recommend this book?

No! Not just this one. I recommend all the books written by Amitava Nag.

From his writing style to his distinct voice, I must say, he leaves as much blank space for the readers to fill in for themselves as he gives himself to use.

Apart from his books, Amitava’s writings can be found in the film magazine, Silhouette which he edits.

The book review ends here.

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