JUMP CUT 45, Fall 2002
copyright 2002, Jump Cut:
A Review of Contemporary Media

Indian film pioneer Vijaya Mulay
looks back on her career:

Pather Panchali (the story of the road)

by Vijaya Mulay

Learning to love film

My love affair with film began 62 years ago in 1940, the year of my marriage. That was the year I went from Bombay to Patna, located in the province of Bihar where my husband was working. I had read about the variegated tapestry of cultures, religions, landscapes, languages, and people in India, but Bihar provided me with my first direct experience of this infinite diversity and plurality. I travelled now not only to a different universe but back in time. If Bombay was the most cosmopolitan and modern Indian city, Patna was its opposite. And, one of the ironies of history is that while in ancient times, Bombay was just a cluster of huts, a large part of India was ruled from Patna, the capital of the emperors Ashoka and Chandragupta.[1] In those days it was called Pataliputra but because of its importance, it was referred to as Pattan, which in Sanskrit means the capital. The Greek ambassador Megasthenes and early Chinese travellers have written glowing accounts of its beauty, wealth, wisdom, and arts. But when I reached it about 2300 years later, it had long since lost its prominence.

In Bombay I never covered my head with the end of my sari, I participated in sports and dramatics, and I loved to wander on my bicycle as and when I pleased. Girls still sat in the front rows in coeducational-school and college class rooms, but in Bombay if a girl came in late and sat at the back with the boys, nobody raised an eyebrow. In contrast, Patna in 1940 was hard on women. Mixed company was unthinkable. Except for the very poor, no woman walked down the streets. When women went out, they took “phaetons” and rickshaws. Young women had chaperons. Married women covered their heads and kept their eyes on the floor when talking to elders. I created a minor sensation a few days after my arrival when I took my husband’s bicycle and ventured out to see the city. Children ran after me, weaving in and out of my path, calling others to see this strange sight. That excursion got me into trouble. I learnt the hard way to curb my Bombay ways.

I hardly knew anybody from the local communities. I was adept in Marathi, my mother tongue; but my knowledge of Hindi and Bengali, languages needed to communicate in Bihar, was very poor; my English was good enough for reading but not for speaking. Moreover, to make friends people need some common ground of experience, work, and ideas, which only happened when I started going to college. My husband had had to abandon his university education because of financial constraints, but he was very keen that I should not suffer the same fate although he could not afford to send me to college since he earned only 120 rupees per month.[2] Patna University fortunately permitted women to study privately in order to sit for its examinations. So I studied at home for my bachelor’s degree, learnt Hindi and a little Bengali, and when our finances got better, I attended college on a regular basis to complete my master’s degree.

But until I went to college, improved my language abilities and made friends, I had little diversions except reading, studying and watching films. We both enjoyed the cinema and saw almost every film, especially the English ones shown at half price on Sunday mornings at the local theatres. Since neither of us had any religious bent, our friends joked about our regular “church” visits by which they meant our Sunday attendance at the Bioscopes, as the theatres were then called. We discussed the films between us and also with friends, and it was from these viewings and discussions that I acquired some understanding of the language and grammar of film.

In 1946 I won a state scholarship to study in Britain. Ironically by then I did not want to go as my second daughter was only nine months old. But my husband insisted, arguing that India would soon become independent and need educated women like me. His final argument was unbeatable. Fathers, he said, were also parents, and with a little help from family members like my younger sister, our two daughters would fare quite well. That’s how I went to the University of Leeds for my master’s degree in Education.

When I went abroad, I witnessed the sweeping changes that had taken place in post-war Britain. Many of my classmates and friends had fought and seen war’s horrible, ugly face. Old values were being re-examined and discarded or changed. Especially important for me, most young people no longer had faith in the White Man’s Burden or the Empire. I had gone to Britain feeling great distaste for the British; my sole purpose for visiting was higher education. I was on guard and ready to take offence at the slightest derogatory remark to me or to India, whether imagined or real. But I soon found out that ordinary English folks were hardly like the English “Burra Saabs” (Great Masters) one saw back home. True, some of the people I met had funny notions. The mother of a girl in a school where I taught as part of my study expressed surprise I had not met her brother who was serving in Burma. She had no idea that Burma was a different country or that, in any case, ordinary Indians and British people did not meet socially. I was happy to find that the university atmosphere was free and friendly. One ardent student supporter of the Conservative Party even wanted me to explain why I did not like British rule in India.

The Second World War had just ended and brought a sea change in outlook—at least in the university environment. People expressed sympathy for the Indian cause and admired Nehru and Gandhi. But perhaps the greatest admiration was expressed for the Soviet Union’s fighting the heroic battle of Stalingrad, annihilating the powerful and better equipped German army. War-time slogans urging the Churchill Government to open a second front still remained plastered on university walls. Despite the beginning of the cold war and the Marshall plan in which the U.S. poured billions of dollars into Europe as a tool to fight Communism, Socialism was in the air and the Labour party was victorious in the elections. The workers’ Unity Theatre played to full houses. Films from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe ran often in theatres. In this charged and heady atmosphere, I saw film classics, experimental films, and Socialist cinema. I also gained a better perspective and understanding of the cinematic art by joining the university film society. Film viewing, once a casual pastime, became my serious passion.

On my return to Patna in 1949 I actively participated in the nascent film society movement of India. Since these film societies were the only institutions promoting a different kind of cinema, some of us decided to start the Patna Film Society. Later in 1954 I was appointed Education Officer in the Central Ministry of Education and moved to Delhi; there I found more people like myself and we started the Delhi Film Society. Later eight film societies came together to form the Federation of Film Societies of India in 1959. Satyajit Ray was the Federation’s founding president; Chidanand Dasgupta, a well-known film critic and a founder member of Calcutta Film Society, and I were elected its first joint secretaries.

Locating one’s self

Locating oneself as a preamble to study in any discursive field is now generally accepted as a useful practice which I am following by giving this personal account. As J.K. Fairbanks remarked whilst talking about historians, “Writers of history are not just observers. They are themselves part of the act and need to observe themselves in action.”[3] I think not only historians but also all those who assess works of others – be it in the fields of literature, films or art must also observe their own selves in action and provide some record of their background and how their work was developed. Such a record is salutary both for the writer and readers. Such information that tells the story of the road the person has travelled makes for better perception and communication.

As I read Fairbank’s ideas about history writing, I remembered how my anti-British attitude developed in my formative years. Since I was ten, the Indian National Freedom Movement had been part of my consciousness. “Swadeshi,” “satyagraha,” and “khadi”[4] were live concepts for my generation. Our elders encouraged us not only to read about our national thinkers and leaders but also about patriots from other countries who fought for their people. I read Marathi books on Garibaldi of Italy, Booker T. Washington of black America, and De Valera of Ireland. We spun cotton on our spindles,[5] participated in protests when Mahatma Gandhi was jailed; we went in processions with the tricolour flag, singing national songs[6] and shouting anti-British slogans. I had never seen an Englishman in Badlapur, my tiny village in the foothills of Maharashtra’s Western Ghats, but that was of no consequence. When I grew up I understood the objectives of the National Movement except I could not follow Mahatma Gandhi’s wisdom—“to hate the British rule but not the British people.” I was very anti-British when I left for England in 1946, and that attitude did not change until I lived in Britain and learnt better.

I also remember my work with the Film Censor Board of India. In 1962 my Ministry deputed me to Bombay to work at the Central Board of Film Censors, as the Board wanted somebody well informed about films. For five years I sat as the presiding officer with other four members from an approved panel that judged Indian and foreign films. It gave me an insight into the biases of panellists that coloured their judgement of a film’s suitability for public viewing. With few exceptions, most panellists were pensioners and well-to-do women, mostly housewives, who could afford to watch films in the morning or afternoon of a workday. I remember how strongly one of them objected to a film of a Russian ballet on the ground that the dancers’ tutus exhibited rather a lot of leg and shoulders. No reasoning of any kind would satisfy her. Finally after recording her minority opinion I passed the film without cuts for universal exhibition.

My work with the Film Censor Board proved a mixed blessing. I had to see films that ordinarily I would have walked out of in sheer boredom. But in those five years I saw a huge number and variety of films (about 3,000 to 4,000 including shorts). Most were quite poor, in the sense that I would not have chosen them for a film society screening. But I did take heart when I realized that if I made a film, it could not be worse than many I certified. I knew then that I longed to try my hand at filmmaking. The other good outcome of this assignment was I received a transfer in 1966 to the Censor Board’s Calcutta office. There I had a light workload and more free time than in Bombay. In this way, I got to observe the way Satyajit Ray and other Bengali directors worked.

My first film

Both Ray and Louis Malle, whom I met in Calcutta, when he came there with a French film delegation in 1967, encouraged me to indulge my desire of making a film. I decided to take the plunge once I found a suitable subject. That happened soon enough. To get to my office I had to go along the Hooghly River where, on certain days, I would see the amazing Tidal Bore phenomenon, that is, the tide coming in from the Bay of Bengal like a wall of water, often 15 feet high. That aspect of nature intrigued me. Why did the tide come vertically on one side of the shore on some days but flow in normally on other days? My friends did not know so I approached the officers at the Port Trust of Calcutta who were delighted with my interest in the phenomenon. They drew charts and talked about celerity and surface tension of water that apparently changed with the amount of silt in the river basin.

I hardly understood any of it and it took me some time to learn how and why bores are caused. I thought of making a film on Tidal Bores that explained in simple language what it was all about and also communicated the thrill and the drama of what I had experienced. Regularly while watching films, whenever I saw technical excellence, I noted names of talented young technicians who were not then well known, and from them I assembled a production team. Ray agreed to speak the commentary. Malle sent me some negative film stock from Paris. My friends and daughters assisted me in my venture with money, as a loan if I could return it or a donation if I could not. I also borrowed some money on my insurance policy.

I then left the Censor Board, went back to my parent Ministry of Education and made my first documentary in 1967-68 on a shoestring budget. That project taught me a lot about filmmaking, and most important, it also taught me to be more humble and tolerant in criticizing the first efforts of others when I wrote about films. The Tidal Bore, my first film, had modest success in that the Indian Government sent it as its official entry to the Mannheim Film Festival. Later the Films Division bought the film for public circulation in theatres all over the country. That minor success enabled me to pay off my loans but best of all, it vetted my appetite to use media in a more meaningful manner in which the viewers especially children and teachers would be challenged to think and act. I wanted to explore the entire media and communication field.

Multi-media for development

The opportunity to do so came when India decided to embark on the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE). The goal of this program was to test the feasibility of communication satellites to reach “backward” areas and populations to activate them for bettering themselves. The U.S. had agreed to loan India their ATS6 communication satellite for one year; it had one video channel and two audio channels. UNICEF hired me for two months to make test modules aimed at children in the 6 to 9 age-group. I made two modules using different techniques and strategies that were field tested and proved to be both effective and popular. In 1975 I was asked to head the newly established Centre for Educational Technology (CET) to design appropriate education technologies. Our immediate task was to prepare educational films for broadcast via the American satellite to primary schools in 2400 villages in backward rural districts, in 6 states. It meant programming in four languages.

CET decided that our programming should be for teacher training in areas in which new educational programs like a new curricula in science teaching was initiated by the National Centre of Education Research and Training (NCERT). Its motto was “Science is doing.” It placed emphasis on students’ discovering the world around them through activities. Most teachers were used to traditional teaching modes that relied on memorizing and clueless about translating the motto into practice. Moreover, they hardly had any materials to conduct classroom activities, and their own knowledge in science, even for teaching it in the lower grades, was limited. My colleagues and I well understood that a 22 minute TV program could hardly have a lasting impact on teachers, especially in regards to changing their attitudes and teaching methods. We therefore devised a two-week multimedia program to be used in teacher training camps. The camps, with one high school teacher in charge (trained by CET to act as a guide and answer questions of teachers), were held in each of the 2400 villages; teachers from surrounding villages were invited to live in that “TV village” for the camp’s duration.

The multimedia components were television and radio broadcasts —“radio-vision” programs, specially prepared booklets for further reading, and manuals for instruction in several practical activities that a teacher could do with no cost or low cost materials, to be used under the guidance of a senior teacher in charge to iron out wrinkles. We also devised fail-safe alternatives for the video programs in case electricity failed at the time of broadcast. Our “TV Village” project was closely monitored and assessed by several national and international agencies including CET. In that one-year we ran the whole teacher training program twice, each time with about 24000 teachers. After the first trial we made some changes that our research team suggested. It was one of the most successful SITE programs, and in a year our outreach was 48000 teachers.

This project taught me several things. First, never trust the experts’ advice on teachers’ needs and skills, especially if coming from those who have never taught in a rural school. The teacher those experts visualize is a mythical figure. I asked the experts devising the new science curricula to give me a list of 15 topics they considered difficult for teachers to understand since I was to direct CET’s multimedia program, including television programs, around these topics. Thankfully CET decided to test their list in the field and found it wide off the mark. The second lesson the project taught me was never to overload the program with content, and third, I learned to keep the language as lucid as possible. After I saw how long a teacher in a poor area had to pour over communications received from above to make sense of them, I decided to phrase our communications in terms that were simple and lucid.

Research in film studies

In terms of my own academic work, most of my research work has been in the field of education and using media for development. I have made and written on films and have even taught a course on film appreciation at the Film and Television Institute of India. But barring researching for films I made, I have not undertaken any research work in film studies. At the ripe age of 78, one ordinarily does not embark on a major project of the kind that I have now undertaken. What propelled me was the death of a friend.

The notion of studying films on India made by non-Indians crossed my mind during the 1995 Festival of New Films and Videos in Montreal as I watched David Thompson’s film on Jean Renoir made by the BBC Omnibus series. In the section relating to Renoir’s film The River, based on a Rumer Godden novel, Adrienne Corri, who acted in The River, spoke eloquently about the French director. She said Renoir’s spirits revived in making a film in India. He was very unhappy with his Hollywood experience. I had also read about Rossellini’s Indian experience and his enthusiasm for India, so I thought it might be worthwhile for somebody (not me) to examine what India has given to such sensitive and creative filmmakers like Renoir and Rossellini.

Louis Malle’s death in November 1995 eventually moved me to pursue this new project. Malle first came to Calcutta in 1967 with a film delegation. Since I was the highest-ranking officer dealing with films in Calcutta, my bosses in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting asked me to arrange meetings with the delegation and program a festival of French films. The famous director and I set off on a wrong footing when Malle learnt that I was the Censor Officer. At the dinner in honour of the delegation he was sitting next to me and could not wait to express his disgust at my job. On the cover of the festival brochure he wrote down, “I hate all Censors,” and passed it to me. I was taken aback. But I had read about the troubles that he had with censorship in France and USA. I suppose I also vaguely remembered how once I myself had looked at all British people with a jaundiced eye. I somehow managed a smile but asked him how he expected me to take his remark. Should I consider it a poor joke and laugh it off or ignore it with a stiff upper lip? He was immediately contrite and apologized. I suppose he inquired about me later and learnt that I was a film buff and not bad as censor officers go.

Our acquaintance soon changed into a strong friendship that survived the barriers of distance for twenty-eight years. In the glittering cinema business, I have never met anybody who despite his talents was so modest. Malle was warm-hearted and had a childlike curiosity. He also had the capacity and desire to probe beyond the obvious. He hated the poverty and obvious misery he saw in Calcutta’s streets, but he was also aware of the strength that under girds Calcutta and its people. He visited Orissa where, sleeping under the stars and talking to fishermen, he saw a different world and a culture that charmed and soothed him. He had been under stress for some time; he was at odds with Gaullist France. So he decided to get to know India better in the only way he knew – filmmaking. In his first letter to me from Paris he wrote about his resolve to come back, expressing delight that the Julie Christie project he was committed to was postponed.[7]

That many Indians and the Indian Government condemned Malle’s India films without even seeing them distressed me. I had seen them and knew that no censor officer could invoke any censorship rule to ban them. I immediately wrote an article for the journal Filmfare. Years before, I had met Prime Minister Indira Gandhi several times when she was the vice-president of the Federation of the Film Societies of India and I, its secretary; and later again when I was a censor officer and she in charge of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. I knew how she had rescued S. Sukhdev, a very talented documentary filmmaker, when censors insisted on some cuts in his work.[8] I suggested Malle write to the Prime Minister and I personally carried his letter to Mrs. Gandhi in which he urged his films at least be viewed before being condemned. Three days later her social secretary called saying the anger was not directed at Malle but the BBC; Mrs. Gandhi would personally view the films and sort the matter out. But that never happened as India was soon plunged into a war against Pakistan over Bangladesh.[9]

I spoke to Malle on the phone a few days before his death. I made plans to visit him in Los Angeles. But that was not to happen. Later, after his death, when I was going over his letters, as a part of remembering him, I realized something that I had not grasped before: how India had changed Malle. I had not fully comprehended it because the information had come to me in bits and pieces. Here was a first-hand experience of how one non-Indian filmmaker, a very creative and sensitive one, perceived India—and why. I could not wait in the hopes that someone younger than myself would take up a study about how non-Indian filmmakers perceived India.

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 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.


[1] Emperor Ashoka (third century BC) must be the only king in the world to have suffered from a sense of remorse at the carnage he and his armies inflicted in gaining a victory in Orissa. He abandoned the path of violence and embraced Buddhism. His engraved edicts on granite columns found all over India bear testimony to his humanism. His Dharma Chakra, the wheel of Dharma, is the emblem on the Indian national flag. Historians call him Ashoka the Great. In his edicts, he refers to himself as Devanaam priya (he who is beloved of the gods) that is the Sanskrit euphemism for a fool. One wonders whether he assumed this title as a mark of repentance for his folly in going to war.

[2] Rs. 120 would have been about US $15 at the then rate of exchange. But living was cheap; we were able to hire a servant at the salary of four rupees per month. Milk was a rupee for 6 litres and the milkman brought his cow to residents and milked it in front of customers to demonstrate it was not diluted with water; 20 kilos of the best rice was available for seven rupees. We lived well enough and even sent some money home.

[3] John King Fairbanks, Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast (Stanford CA: StanfordUniversity Press, 1969).

[4] ‘Swadeshi’ means buying and using Indian goods; ‘satyagraha’ literally means insistence on truth but is translated in political language as civil disobedience; ‘khadi’ is cloth made from homespun yarn.

[5] My yarn was so bad that my mother made wicks from it for oil lamps used for ‘pooja’ (prayer service). She would not allow me to waste good cotton and decided any spinning in our house would be done by her.

[6] Part of the allure of a particular national song that was very popular with us was shouting taboo words like “bastard,” which would elicit strict censure if a child, especially a girl child uttered them. I remember lustily singing the line, “And throw the Bastard out.”

[7] From Louis Malle’s letter dated 3 December 1967; “Already you must be thinking: this Frenchman has faded away for good. We will never hear of him again. He was just a passing cloud. Well, since I came back to Paris, I’ve thought of only one thing: find a way to get back to India. My “Victory, Julie Christie” project has been postponed which delighted me, and I’m trying now to build up my other project of a subjective film about India, a voyage to the sources. It is difficult to concretize, the best way being to work it out as a commitment from the French television. Well don’t worry or rather worry. I’ll be back! And soon! When I know more about it, you’ll receive an official letter, full of questions and reclaims.”(Emphasis is Malle’s.)

[8] One cut was, “Delete the view of a dog peeing against a post in a street.” I do not know which censor guideline the shot violated.

[9] Philip French, Malle on Malle (London: Faber and Faber Publications, 1994), p.79.

[10] The four studies are: Pierre Berton’s Hollywood’s Canada (1907-1975 films); Dorothy Jones’ The Portrayal of India and China on American Screen (1896-1955 films); and Anand Mitra’s Through the Western Lens. All these deal and mainly with U.S. films; Prem Choudhry’s Colonial India and Making of Empire Cinema: Image, Ideology and Identity deals mainly with three empire films of the thirties and refers to some post-colonial films made both in USA and Britain.

[11] One finds references to films made from 1896 but nothing more than titles are available.

[12] I am glad that I have been able to return the favors to some extent. The Danish Film Archive for example has only a jumbled copy of the remake of Robert Dinesen’s 1917 film Maharajah’s Favourite Wife directed by August Blom in 1918 as the first film broke all box office records. I found a good copy of it in the Prague film archive and informed them about it.

[13] The sums allocated by Government controlled institutions are ludicrous. I have no desire to embarrass anybody by mentioning how much money, with the best of its efforts the NFAI was able to provide. Suffice it to say that the money that it provided was barely sufficient for buying 20 good books. I mention this fact here only in the hope that the NFAI would be able to convince the Government to revise its norms for funding.

[14] A director from Uzbekistan told me about such films made in his country and offered to help if I was to go there. Within the resources available, it was not possible.

[15]Edward W. Säid, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Publications, 1979), p.79

[16] Fern Haber Honi, Beyond Postmodern Politics (New York: Routledge, 1998), Introduction, p.1.

[17] Use of colored language is quite common in such manipulations. When Vladimir Putin became the President of Russia, headlines in many American newspapers screamed, “Master spy becomes Russia’s President.” No such headlines appeared when the senior George Bush, formerly head of the CIA, became President. (My use of the word screamed is also use of a coloured word used for emphasis).

[18] Salman Rushdie, “Outside the Whale,” in Imaginary Homelands (New York: Granta Books/Penguin, 1991), pp. 87-101

[19]Stuart Chase, Tyranny of Words (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1959), p.1.
[20] In the heady days of 1947, just when India had achieved Independence, I went from England, to participate in the World Youth Festival in Prague. A Czech student who was then an ardent communist wanted to convince me why Communism would be good for India. The trouble was that we had no common language. I had started learning Czech and in three weeks had made fair progress as Czech is very close to Sanskrit. But my mastery of Czech though adequate for mundane things, did not allow any sophisticated political argument in that language. The young man was learning English and both of us had a smattering of German. It was my enthusiasm for a free Nehruvian India and his for the communist cause that sustained such dialogues, carried on with help of dictionaries and involved language contortions in Czech, German and English. He was actually quite sweet and had composed a very useful English sentence with somebody’s help that he used to trot out at the end of a lengthy argument. It was quite a classical remark. He would say, “I think I understand what you mean but I am not sure whether what I understand is what you mean”. Had we both been fluent either in English or Czech, perhaps we might have thought that we had understood each other without actually understanding anything much. Who knows!

[21] The British film The Drum (Drums in USA) meant one thing to the British and another to Indian audiences. The agitation against this film in Bombay in 193, was unprecedented as it involved about 40,000 people from all strata of society, and the film was finally banned.

[22] Those who have observed children playing and talking would have no difficulty in realizing how innovative children are in perceiving patterns and making connections. I would like to quote just one instance. In 1952, we got our first telephone in Patna. My second daughter Bharati was delighted when she looked at the telephone number that the telephone technician had fixed on the dial. “Oh, our number is on the wall calendar too,” she observed. “Not at all,” I said. “Our number is 2 5 9 1” I enunciated each number carefully. “But that is what the calendar says. See 2591,” insisted my 6-year-old daughter. It was I who could not see beyond the conventional mode of reading from left to right; my daughter had no difficulty in reading both ways.

[23] How training in a particular discipline shapes perception, makes interesting reading. I quote an example from the book The Man Who Knew Infinity, a biography of the mathematical genius Ramanujam, written by Robert Kanigel. A great mathematician, Professor Hardy of Cambridge University, had helped bring Ramanujam to the attention of the academic world. Ramanujam was ill and Hardy had taken a cab to see him. Hardy noticed the number of the cab 1729. He must have thought about it a little because as he entered the room where Ramanujam was lying, with scarcely a hello, Hardy blurted his disappointment over the number. It was, he declared, “rather a dull number.”

“No, Hardy,” Ramanujam said. “It is a very interesting number. It is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.” Kanigel adds, “Finding numbers that were the sum of one pair of cubes was easy. But two pairs never till you reached the number 1729”. The two pairs of cubes are 12 raised to power of 3 plus 1 raised to the power of 3 gives the sum of 1729. The other pair is 10 raised to the power of 3 plus 9 raised to the power of 3 also adds to 1729. (p. 312 of the above book)

[24] The recent examples are Fire and Water by Deepa Mehta, a Canadian filmmaker of Indian origin. Theatres were attacked in some places when Fire was being shown. Shooting for Water was stopped even before it began. The action was taken by vigilante groups with no constitutional authority, whose leaders were motivated by a very different agenda. But the fact is that they were able to rouse the passion of mobs on the issue of portrayal of reality—as shown or as proposed to be shown. The Indian Censor Board had cleared both films for screening (Fire) and for shooting (Water).

[25] Introduction by Arthur C. Clarke in the book, A Frog in My Soup, by Miller Harry (Delhi: Penguin Original, 1997).

[26]Octavio Paz, In Light of India(London and New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997), p. 75.

[27] Shashi Tharur, India—From Midnight to the Millennium (New York: Harper, 1998), p.8

[28] Here I use the word Hindu as it was understood for several centuries. Judaism and Hinduism are perhaps the only religions that have been named after a place and not by the name of its creators. India’s ancient texts do not mention Hinduism; they mention the religion as ‘Sanatan Dharma’ (The ancient way of life). The word ‘Hindu’ appears in Persian writing dating from the fifth century and refers to people in the land of the river Indus (Sindhu in Sanskrit) and meant all Indians. Even as late as the 1930s, Indians no matter what their religion might be were known as Hindus. The records of the Gadhar party, started in North America for India’s struggle for freedom. mentions Maulavi Barakt-ullah as a Hindu. Salman Rushdie in his book, Jaguar’s Smile, refers to his visit to Nicaragua. There he was described as a Hindu writer. Hinduism, Brahmanism are terms coined by others than Indians.

[29] Bjorn Landstrom, The Quest for India (New York: Doubleday, 1964), p.1.

[30] Incidentally this mistake by Columbus cost me more time and effort in gathering films on India and Indians. When I searched archival holdings, keywords “India and Indians” pulled up titles like A Camino das India (On Way to India) or India A Filha do Sol (India, Daughter of the Sun). However many of these films (nearly 20%) were about Indian tribes in North and South America. Almost a fifth of my efforts proved ‘Love’s Labour Lost.’

[31] In Carne’s film, the heroine, played by Arletty, drapes a stole over her shoulder like a sari and tells her beau, played by Jean Baptiste, that they should pretend that they were in India.

[32] In the Polish film, the hero who is travelling in a coupe of two berths that he had reserved for himself has to surrender one berth to accommodate a woman passenger, as the train was crowded. She is ill at ease with him. So he tells her the story of the wise Brahmin who travelled with a crab as a companion.

[33] Amita Malik, No Holds Barred (New York: Harper Collins, 1999), p. 248.

[34] Rajpath, formerly known as King’s Way under the British Rule in Delhi, is an important road in Delhi. It connects the official residence of the President of India to the India Gate. All processions such as Republic Day parades, etc. are held on this road.

[35] A friend from Nepal had brought me a delicious loaf of Woody’s bread baked in a wooden oven.

[36] The Shri Shaila and Shri Vijay dynasties of Indian origin disappeared from Indonesia and South East Asia in the fifteeenth century. But a king of the Chakri dynasty that claims its descent from the Sun dynasty (Bhaskar Wong sha in Thailand or Bhaskar Wamsha – Surya Wamsha of Lord Rama) still occupies the throne of Thailand. The title of Thai kings is Rama.

[37] Dr. Frank is Professor Emeritus of Amsterdam University and is currently a visiting Professor at the Miami and Florida International Universities.

[38] Andre Gunder Frank, “The Wertheim Lecture: Asian Age” in ReOrient – Historiography and Social Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

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