Mulay at Hamphi ruins of 15th century palaces and temples, shooting documentary on Gangubai Hangal. Thedancer is Madhavi Mudgal, well known for her Orissi dancing.

Mulay interviewing Sita Hirebet, a disciple of the maestro Gangubai. Against all adversities, Gangubai learned classical music, a field closed to girls of good families, and won the highest awards in the music field in India.

Location still for Gangubai Hangal. The documentary was shown in different languages in all the cinemas in India.

Production still for Gangubai Hangal in a temple of Shiva. Gangubai had a hard time finding a teacher since she lived in a village and came from a so-called low caste.

Gangubai singing. She continues to give concerts into her nineties.

Madhavi at Hamphi ruins dancing to Gangubai’s music.


Gangubai and her disciple and daughter, Krishna Hangal, singing at a concert in Bombay.

Evolution of my study

I first thought of limiting my study to Indian films by Renoir, Rossellini and Malle. India Matribhumi (India Motherland) by Rossellini and Calcutta and L’Inde Fantome series by Malle are documentaries. Renoir’s film has a narrative but The River also documents his discovery of India, and the film’s documentary sections are far more interesting and stronger than the narrative ones. I extended my field further after mulling over some remarks of Jacque Derrida that appeared in an Indian newspaper article. There Derrida argues how fiction sometimes illuminates truth better than non-fiction because fiction can focus deliberately on only those things in the field of vision relevant to the point being made. Fiction can zoom in on a special object in the field under consideration and to selected objects relating to it rather than deal equally with the entire field. Finally, although I was averse to including exotic films, Tom Waugh at Montreal’s Concordia University persuaded me to include “exploitation” or “sensational” images in film since in his opinion these were often more revelatory about the East-West cross cultural contacts than the more “dignified imagery.”

The little Gangotri from where the river Ganges emerges is just a small rill. It becomes the majestic river Ganga as more rivers join it before it flows into the sea. My project has followed a similar path, growing bigger and bigger, though unlike the Ganges it is neither majestic nor holy. To do this project, I needed access to good libraries, film archives, and the Internet. Thanks to the McGill Centre for Research and Training on Women of the McGill University and a Ford Foundation Grant secured for me by the Magic Lantern Foundation of Delhi and sponsorship by the National Film Archive of India, I had some resources. While researching I also discovered that there are hardly any comprehensive studies about imaging of a country in films. The four that I came across covered only Hollywood films and some British films.[10] No European, Canadian, or Asian films were included. I located about 900 films made within the period of 1901 to 2000.[11] I thought that even a compilation of a data base of films, with as many details as possible might be of use to other researchers. Collecting information on films from as many countries as possible and researching in detail about films taken up for detailed analysis to place them in proper context has been a daunting task. When I met Edith Kramer, the director of the Pacific Film Archive at Berkeley, she asked me how many people were working in my team. When I told her it was a one-woman team, she laughed, “Talk about fools rushing in.” I promptly responded, “You’re so right, Dr. Kramer. One such fool is in front of you.”[12] But this exercise also brought some blessings in the form of new friends especially among archivists and librarians. They are often special people, happy to meet somebody who wants to look at their treasures. Or perhaps they feel compassion for an 81 year old researcher. It seems crazy to take on so much at my age. But contemporary cultural research in India, especially in film studies, gets very little money to support it,[13] and the facilities that a good university like McGill can offer are so hard to come by, that when they came my way I decided to take the plunge and dive deep. As the territory is vast, my work would be more like mapping out the area so that later, others can investigate in specific fields in detail and make corrections if necessary to what I am doing. This study is a personal journey of a film buff and a film maker of these hundred years of cinema on India. On this path, I have met a number of people who have travelled a part of the way. They helped in various ways in sharing their work and thoughts with me and giving me leads about where to search. Others helped in translations from Danish, French, Russian, German, Czech, Italian, Swedish, Japanese etc. and in finding videos and materials for me to peruse. They did it as a labour of love. But I know that still more work needs to be done even for mapping. For want of researchers in various languages and more finances, I have not been able to access films on India made in Central Asian Republics, South East Asia etc.[14] Maybe if I survive this project, I could try later or hope that others will.

Strategic location of the study
and attendant problems

Archimedes said, “Give me where to stand and I shall move the earth.” He thus describes how strategic location is important. Given a point outside the Earth to stand on and a lever with a long arm—perhaps with a length of several light years—and with the Earth attached to the lever’s small arm, it should theoretically be possible for a man to move the Earth. In research too the researcher needs to specify where one stands. Edward Said refers to the researcher/writer’s equipment, namely his /her knowledge and experience as strategic formation and refers to how s/he proposes to approach the topic and the area of study as strategic location[15]. I have already discussed my strategic formation: my experience/background and how I came to take up this project. Before I go on to explain my location with respect to this project, I would like to comment on the space between strategic formation and strategic location. For want of better words I describe it as the inadequacy of tools: language (both textual and visual) and difficulty in comprehension of reality in its totality, especially about India.

Language has been the major tool for communication and has been a major turning point in the history of human beings. It has made higher thinking possible; it has freed human beings from the shackles of the concrete and immediate to roam in the realms of the abstract and distant. Visual representations have given a more concrete form to what language communicates. But all these tools also have inherent faults that screw up communication and perceptions. We shape reality as seen by us with these tools, using them as best as we can. As Honi Fern Haber says, “There is no view from nowhere. We can never leave all our prejudices behind and operate from a wholly disinterested standpoint.”[16] Even with the best of intentions, the reality presented will always be specific and never be apprehended in its totality. That is something which one has to accept as inevitable. In addition there are hidden persuaders, manufacturers of consent, vested interests who deliberately manipulate and distort reality to suit their agendas. This is done by many devices, the chief of which is using coloured language.[17] In films it is done by many cinematic devices, such as camera angles, editing , characterization etc. Empire films like Clive of India (1935) are made, as Salman Rushdie aptly puts, with studios “being determined not to be confused by the facts.”[18] But even if such agenda are not there, something else that is inherent in these tools obstructs the communication path.

To understand these obstacles let us first look at language. It works fairly well when it is dealing with concrete and material things. It also works adequately enough when one uses words that are on low levels of abstraction such as colour that is the abstraction of a particular quality of an object. But an abstraction like the judiciary system of India in the year 2000 is built on many lower level abstractions. When a writer or speaker uses higher levels of abstraction, verbal communication can become a very clumsy instrument, much like clumsy forceps that crush the truth a little while grasping it; one has to be very careful to avoid such crushing. In his book The Tyranny of Words, Stuart Chase refers to an interesting exercise undertaken by Allen Upward. Upward wanted to find out what precisely was understood by the word “Idealism” as used in the Nobel Prize award – an award for “the most distinguished work of an idealist tendency.” He asked a number of his friends to interpret the term. He got following responses: fanatical, poetical, what cannot be proved, altruistic, intangible, the opposite of materialism, not practical, sentimental, exact, true, something to do with imaginary powers.[19] I have done similar exercises with my students with words like “democracy,” “communism,” etc. It has always been a salutary exercise for all concerned.

The very strength of language, namely using abstractions at higher and higher levels, has one in-built flaw. Unless one is constantly watching, the handle, the symbol, the word becomes the thing discussed. One tends to forget that these abstractions, whatever might be their levels, are handles for a real entity either in the physical world or world of ideas. Unless both the speaker and spoken agree on the referent that the abstraction represents to each of them, their discourse can only lead to bad communication and faulty perception. Statements such as, “Muslim fundamentalism is threatening the civilized world,” have no meaning and cannot be a basis for a meaningful dialogue unless those in dialogue agree to what they mean by “Muslim fundamentalism” or the “civilized world” or in exactly what way the “threat” exists. Without such an understanding, the sentence becomes a verbal monster that can trap the unwary. Yet one keeps on using abstractions in a similar manner all the time, sometimes as metaphors that look pretty and pithy. One even thinks that one has understood what is being said. But very often, the communication is only partial or not at all. If a speaker were to speak in a tongue that his listener did not know, both would probably shrug their shoulders to indicate that there has been no communication.[20] But when the noise is made by hearing words that are familiar, one does not always realize that there is only partial or no communication.

So far as the films go, unless the filmmaker does his encoding of what s/he wants to say in tune with the decoding the audience would use, the message will be interpreted differently. Once I attended the screening of a film on mosquitoes that showed the havoc they could cause and why it was necessary to ensure that they did not breed. The filmmaker had taken a big close up of a mosquito to show what it does when it bites. The response of the villagers was opposite to the intended message. They said, “Oh your city mosquitoes are really big and harmful; ours are just tiny ones. They are quite harmless.”[21] The film mirror in which reality is reflected is fogged by these faults and as the Bible says, we see only “through the glass darkly.”

As a two dimensional creature cannot understand what things look like in three dimensions, we are not destined to see the complex Reality in its myriad forms and various dimensions. The parable of six blind men feeling an elephant and describing it is germane to how we perceive reality. Each blind man described the elephant differently depending on the elephant’s body part each touched (a rope if he felt the tail; a fan, if he felt its ear; a column if he touched the leg and so on). Each blind man’s description was true, but not the whole truth. Furthermore, our upbringing shapes us in specific ways to look at things. We even lose the talent we had as children to look at things in unconventional manner as children do all over the world.[22] Perhaps some special people like visionaries, seers, geniuses, artists, poets, thinkers, etc. do not lose such ability to perceive myriad connections between life’s different dimensions.[23]

If such be the case, why do I raise the issue in the terms of discourse at all? I have done so because in India heated debates ensued, theatres were attacked and sets were destroyed over whether a particular film portrayed “reality” in India.[24] Censors are limited to ordering cuts or at worst, banning films, but in the last two years of the twentieth century vigilante mobs with no constitutional authority have used violence usurping that authority to destroy films. It is difficult enough to assay the reality of any country or people in all their dimensions of time and space but it is far more difficult to do so in respect to India. Any truism about India can be immediately contradicted by another; as Rabindranath Tagore has said, “Everything is correct and so is its reverse.” Arthur Clarke says, “India is not a country, it is a universe.”[25]

Another writer, Octavio Paz, describes India as an “unusual museum.” India is an ethnographic and historical museum. But it is a living museum, one in which “modernity coexists with the archaic that has survived a millennia.”[26] In a country with an extraordinary mix of ethnic groups, a profusion of languages that are mutually incomprehensible (of which 16 are declared national languages by the Indian constitution), a highly varied topography and climate, diverse religious and cultural practices, a range of levels in economic development and as Shashi Tharur puts it,[27] 300 ways of cooking a potato, it is impossible to make a definitive statement about India that is universally applicable, except perhaps one: India is India because it gladly accommodates and assimilates diversity. Any attempt to bring uniformity of culture or religion is anti-Indian and anti-Hindu[28] in character and is bound to fail as it goes against the grain of India. I hope to support this fact with findings of my study.

In this project, I am not going to analyze how true a film may be to the reality of India (of course as I see it), except in case of films that have been made with a hidden agenda such as the genre of empire films. In respect of other genre of films, I restrict myself to the imaging of India as shown therein and relate it to the societal factors of the day and if the director is the auteur, then I explore his background to understand what urged him/her to undertake such a venture. I also explore whether contact with India had any long lasting effects on them. This study therefore takes into account the following things: What kind of India do these films portray? What discursive anchors moor these images? How do these perceptions relate to marginalised groups like women and Anglo Indians? Has the growing presence of writers and filmmakers of Indian origin made any difference to such imaging? As Kenneth Burke says, a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing, because focus on object ‘A’ neglects objects ‘B’. In contemporaneous discourses such selectivity provides the bedrock for artistic moorings. I am also interested in factors that make particular images of India popular at a particular time; thus I consider the social discourses of a moment that favour or reject those images. I wish I had better access to contemporary newspapers in the directors’ countries, but I compensate by comparing the treatment of the same story by different directors in different times to speculate on them.

India as an idea

India has meant many things to many people at different points of time. As I examine films made about India, I find in them, vestiges of many of these notions. Here are a few of them. To begin with, India was once “the Orient.” In the introduction to his book The Quest for India[29] Bjorn Landstrom states that in ancient and medieval times all exploratory routes by land and sea in the eastern direction were undertaken with one goal – to reach India. These voyages commence with one undertaking by Egyptians to the Land of Punt in 1493 BC (recorded in the relief at Deir el-Bahri on the orders of Queen Hatshepsut in words and pictures). They end with the Portuguese circumnavigating Africa in 1488 AD a thousand years later.

The India these navigators had in mind was different not only from the Indian nation state established in 1947 but also from the entire Indian subcontinent. It was what India meant to the ancient and medieval Europeans. Their concept included all of Asia east of the Euphrates River, the Arabian Peninsula, and all of East Africa. This equation of India with a very broad concept of the Orient is evident in films like Gods of Asia, where the Maharajah’s natives sometimes look like Zulus and at other times like Arabs. Another concept of India originated with Columbus who sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to get to India. When he landed on the shores of the North American continent in 1492 he was so convinced about reaching India, that he called the local inhabitants Indians. This misnomer has stuck permanently to all native tribes of the North and South Americas, even though they use their own names like Mohawk, Cheyenne, Hopi etc.[30]

In medieval Europe and in travellers’ accounts, folk tales, stories, and literature, India was portrayed as a land of fabulous wealth where magic and charms worked and wishes were fulfilled. It was represented as a paradise of sensual pleasures even as its mystics and philosophers were considered wise and spiritual. With the passage of centuries, though the gorgeous mental Technicolor of such exotic portrayals has faded, the vestiges of this golden myth have persisted. One sees them in films made as late as in the forties, fifties and even the nineties. In the French film Les Enfants du Paradis[31] by Marcel Carne (1945) and the Polish film The Night Train[32] by Jerzy Kawalerowich (1956), characters express either a longing to be in India or to convey India’s wisdom.

This wonderland notion also appears in films such as the Swedish Skepp till India Land (Ship to India) by Ingmar Bergman (1947) in which a former sea captain and now the master of a salvage vessel, Alexander Blom, dreams of faraway voyages but is constantly frustrated in his attempts to escape. He lives in a room in the city where he dreams of India. He knows he will soon turn blind, and his worn-out wife Alice hopes it will happen soon so he can become completely dependent on her. When an Indian film critic, Amita Malik, asked Bergman about this film he told her the film was not about India. Its title Ship to India refers to a familiar seventeenth century Swedish expression signifying a dream; a ship to India refers to something very far away where everything is wonderful and where anything can happen.[33]

In another film, a Latvian one, released in 1992, titled Biletas Iki Taj Mahal (Ticket to Taj Mahal) made by Aligmantas Puipa for Film Cooperative USSR, the same notions about India are even more clear. This film is set in the post War period in Latvia shortly after the Germans were evicted and the country was annexed to the Soviet Union. The villagers’ lives, including those of the hero Fabiyonas and his wife Valeria, are made miserable by the most recent invasion of their village house. People have no privacy. Military corruption and infighting have come to a head. Fabiyonas starts losing touch with reality and often escapes by dreaming of visiting the Taj Mahal in the red light of the setting sun; on a sudden impulse he gets on a train to India. Valeria is distraught to find him missing but she never gives up hope of finding him despite a long separation. She finally finds him in an asylum in Vilnius and their reunion ends on an ambiguous note. It is interesting that both Bergman’s Blom and Puipa’s Fabiyonas are dreamers and unhappy with their living environments. Blom commits suicide; Fabiyonas is declared insane and committed to an asylum by the powers that be.

These films’ characters parallel the lives of some of the 1960’s flower children who relocated in Third World countries, especially India and Nepal. An excellent documentary titled Freak Street to Goa: Immigrants of the Rajpath[34](John Caldwell and J.L.Pudaite, 1988) explores why four survivors from the 1960s subculture continue to live in the Indian subcontinent. We see Dick, once a Harvard student and commercial artist who now produces macrobiotic food; Eddy, an underground writer from the 1950s who now paints; Jim, formerly a radical activist in the US army who now writes epic poems and novels; and finally Woody from Germany, an ex-artist, who now runs several bakeries in Kathmandu and Goa.[35] They all find fulfilment and do not regret their decision to live in Nepal and India, spending their summers in Nepal and winters in Goa.

By the eighteenth century, with improved communication and contact with India, the geographic dimensions of the Indian sub-continent became better known. Nevertheless, western scholars, especially Germans did not define India by its geographic dimension. They have used the name and concept of India in terms of its cultural context. Winternitz and others for example, have used India as the reference point to talk of other countries of the Orient. Thus certain countries in West Asia were referred to as Vorderindien (near or fore India). Ostindien (East India) meant India proper but at times it also included both the Indian subcontinent and Burma. Hinterindien (Hinter India) referred to Burma now Myanmar. Niederlaendisch Indien (Dutch India) referred to Indonesia. Thailand, Borneo, Malayasia, Laos, Kampuchea, Viet Nam etc. were referred to as “the Farther India.” Such nomenclature did not take into account just the Indian continent but also those countries where Indian culture and its civilization spread. The Indian influence on buildings, language, folktales, myths, literature, arts, names of people, etc. is evident in many of these countries.[36] Thus the German scholars understood that the bedrock that serves as the basis for stories and therefore films is culture.

With the advent of Enlightenment and its emphasis on reason and individualism rather than tradition and community, a change in the imag(e)ing of India began. Many scholars have commented on this changed perception with respect not only to India but the entire Orient. In his book ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age, Andre Gunder Frank[37] observes,

Until about 1800, the predominant Western perception of the East was favourable. Europeans were attracted to and sought to learn from many parts of the Orient that were viewed as civilizationally, culturally, politically, socially, economically and technologically more advanced than any or all of Europe. Indeed ‘Orient’ as still recorded in the concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, whose first edition in 1911 registers the following: ‘Orient: The East; lustrous, sparkling, precious; radiant, rising, nascent; place or exactly determine position; settle or find bearings; bring into clearly understood relations; direct towards; determine how one stands in relation to one’s surroundings. Turn eastward.’

What has happened to make all those nice meanings disappear and have the American Oxford Dictionary (1980) now say instead, “Orient: The East, Countries East of the Mediterranean, especially East Asia.”[38] Frank goes on to show why instead of a global vision a myopic Euro-centric vision became the hallmark of historiography from the nineteenth century on.

Defining India as a nation state
or a cultural entity?

In defining the scope of the research field, at the outset, I had to resolve what India I would refer to in selecting films. Was it to be the nation state as it emerged in August 1947 or something larger than it? The euro-centric vision mentioned by Frank dominates in many films. But in terms of film history, visions of India have undergone many changes: from a mystic and exotic land, to imperial imaging, a land of contradictions, a spiritual land, an imaginary home land of non-Indians of Indian origin, and also as a part of a global humanity. After careful consideration I dispensed with the idea of India as a nation state. Nation state is a comparatively recent construct. The boundaries of nation states keep changing the world over, depending on who holds the political whip and what people accept. What seems more enduring is the cultural context established by communities and nationalities. That changes far more slowly than the political boundaries of a nation state.

Thus films like My Son the Fanatic or East Is East or My Beautiful Launderette find a place in this study even though they are about Pakistani families in England. There is far more similarity in language, food, music, literature and other cultural mores between Pakistan and North Indian states (the most populous ones) than between the latter and other regions in India. (Incidentally Indians have more Muslims than Pakistan). On the other hand, I exclude films that deal with the geography of regions now located in Pakistan or Bangladesh or with specific institutions that emerged in these countries since partition. I discuss all these different visions in my work on India’s representation in film, and since I have not come across a film made with the specific concept referring to the nation state established in 1947, I use a notion of India in its wide cultural sense.

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