Indian Arts on Film

2/11/2011, University of Westminster

What makes a successful documentary about art?  What specific issues arise when translating the visual arts onto film?  How far do different cultural contexts require different approaches? This seminar brings together documentary filmmakers and arts theorists from India and UK to explore these questions and discuss a range of approaches. Following this, two Indian arts documentaries by Arun Khopkar will be screened.

Documentary as witnessing the judiciary

3/11/2011, Goldsmiths, University of London

Filmmaker Deepa Dhanraj will discuss her current film project ‘Invoking Justice’ and share ‘work in progress’ material. Following her long-standing interest in ways of speaking and listening as well as local practices of the judiciary, Dhanraj has worked with a group of rural and small-town Muslim women in South India who set up their own Jamaat (community council) in 2003. As traditionally Jamaats can only be founded and run by men, this is an act of extraordinary challenge and courage. Dowry harassment, domestic violence, divorce, maintenance and property disputes shall no longer be judged by men. Deepa Dhanraj follows the Jamaat’s growth in strength and legitimacy through case studies and hereby takes part in processes of calling for and listening to witness accounts. Questions concerning justice, belief and the practices of customary law are put forward.

Deepa Dhanraj’s presentation will be followed by a conversation with the legal theorist Stewart Motha (Reader at the Kent Law School). Chaired by Nicole Wolf.

Movements of everyday political/aesthetic practice – emergencies, revolutions and the paradoxes of involvement

4/11/2011, Goldsmiths, University of London

What are the contours of political documentary filmmaking in India and how can we delineate their affiliations with related practices, discourses and languages elsewhere? How might an in-depth inquiry into the histories of emerging forms at moments of crises or alongside the growth of social and political movements forge relevant questions for our future and present involvements? And how, in turn, do the very micropolitical questions, dilemmas, motivations and decisions, taken by filmmakers, film subjects and audiences for aesthetic, ethical and political ends, stand in dialogue with and inform those larger questions?

This day’s events will introduce five filmmakers whose works probe the above questions in distinctly different ways. They have started their trajectories at different historical moments and from varied locations that respectively inform their distinctly singular political/aesthetic involvements.

Session A: Trajectories of participation: Deepa Dhanraj in conversation with Nicole Wolf

Deepa Dhanraj’s filmmaking career enfolds a period of tremendous transitions – from a post-Emergency energetic women’s movement to the rise of communal conflict and Hindu-nationalist majoritarianism and a neoliberal globalisation project impacting on urban and rural media/political conditions. Starting with Yugantar, one of the first state-independent film collectives in India, Deepa Dhanraj has since the early 1980s been committed to working at the interstice of non-fiction film and local women’s groups. Her collaborative film works engage equally with power and governance on structural levels as well as with singular and collective acts of dissent. What are the challenges and possibilities for committed filmmaking and the filmmaker’s political and aesthetic locations within these shifting political terrains? And, what are the questions posed towards and the answers desired from historical moments of political filmmaking – from the side of practice, theory, our contemporary political frustrations and ambitions? The starting point for these questions will be rarely seen excerpts from ‘Molkarin’ (Maid Servant, 1981), ‘Tambaku Chaakila Oob Ali’ (1982), ‘Sudesha’ (1983) and ‘Kya hua is shaher ko’ (What happened to this city, 1985), as 16mm film clips or recently restored digitised versions.

Session B: Dialogues in Movement, Poetry and Song

Can new movements, collective political acts, solidarities and ways of being in the world be forged through the concrete filmmaking experience? Filmmakers Saba Dewan and Rajula Shah will present examples of particular dialogues that have been crucial to the development of their respective aesthetic and political location. While Saba’s film work has been in close albeit changing relationship with feminist thought and practice and has developed from a long-standing engagement with the political and moral transcripts surrounding the figure of the courtesan, Rajula’s practice often evolves from being situated at ‘borders’ – may these be geographical, cultural, political, at the interstices of speech and silence, self and the world or moment and eternity. What are the film/politics that emerge when in active and reciprocal dialogue, questioning or only tangentially relating with the contours of movements? How does on the other hand a conversation with practices of belief, with forms of speech and with a song engender singular politics? How might these seemingly diverse involvements impact on each other? Excerpts from selected early and recent films by Saba Dewan and Rajula Shah will be followed by commentaries from Deepa Dhanraj and Rahul Roy. Chaired by Nicole Wolf.

Session C: Inside/Outside: Margaret Dickinson in conversation with Ros Gray

Margaret Dickinson, who has worked as an independent filmmaker and teacher in Britain, Mozambique and India since the 1960s, discusses what it means to work as an insider and as an outsider in relation to commercial filmmaking, a national culture, and the State. Dickinson has consistently worked against the grain of the mainstream cinema industry in Britain. In 1971 she made Behind the Lines, about FRELIMO’s armed struggle against Portuguese colonialism in Mozambique. After independence in 1975, she was involved in training the first generation of Mozambican filmmakers within the framework of a socialist government in a process of decolonisation. More recently she has used pedagogy to make an intervention against the class hegemony of India’s media elite with the Images in Social Change Network. Spanning diverse cultures and historical moments, how can these filmmaking and teaching practices be understood politically? What are the implications of working against or for the ruling power? Spanning the emergence and global consolidation of the neoliberal project, can these practices be understood as part of the same ongoing struggle?

Session D: Involved Subjectivities and Precarious Evidence – A preliminary concluding panel

How do we locate ourselves in scenarios with mutated democracies, increasing neoliberal stronghold on our lives, evidences of injustice having no political effect, accelerations of crises and impulses through collective acts of dissent and desires for different kinds of interventions? What are the subjectively felt challenges for political filmmaking within the contemporary scenario, in diverse and interrelated localities? How do we think and work with these outer realities without submerging subjective involvements and personal drives for creative responses?

Rahul Roy will open this final session by way of sketching his current working context, moving between newly felt questions demanded through political terrains and his own personal aesthetics encompassing situational likings, discomforts, cultural influences, relationships, conflicts, film as a moment in your life – that may together form a documentary practice and forge an artistic form.

Followed by commentaries from Margaret Dickinson and Rajula Shah and a wider discussion with all participants and the audience.

Global Migrations, Labour and Activism

5/11/2011, London School of Economics

Globalisation has become a received idea, even a cliché, that is frequently symbolised in the media by the economic growth of South Asia. But what actually is the lived experience of contemporary migration, labour and urban life? How can film represent and act upon this experience? This panel moves beyond the image of an inevitable global economic juggernaut that causes boom and bust to explore these questions. It will focus on how film can follow the uncertain, individual paths of people, objects and work-practices across the world. Central to the conversation will be an examination of migration and labour as potentially radical acts. Migration (or movements out of place) and labour (as a creative generation of new objects) might offer more than a subject matter for activist film. They may be a model for activist film practice.

Session A: Global Migration and the Labour of Film

Screening of ‘My Migrant Soul’ by Yasmine Kabir, followed by discussion and Q&A with filmmaker.

Session B: Migration, Translation and Activism

Mao Mollona will show segments of ‘Steel Lives’ and recent collaborative work in Brazil with steel workers, a visual artist Daria Martin and a choreographer from the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ based in Rio de Janeiro to generate fictional narratives.

Session C: Circulation and the Labour of Construction and Destruction

Screening of ‘The Burning of the Stomach’ by Laura Bear and ‘The Last Rites’ by Yasmine Kabir; followed by discussion and Q&A.

The Underbelly of the Indian Boom: a spectrum of media representations

5/11/2011, London School of Economics

India is allegedly shining. The economy is booming. The forces of globalisation exploding, the middle classes supposedly swelling, international trade burgeoning and state controlled industries and sectors privatising. But is this at the expense of the poorest, who are being pushed off their land to make way for industrial development? This panel explores who is benefiting from, and who is resisting the fruits of economic growth, and how the Indian state is responding to their plight.

The media representations in this panel particularly speak to the issues of mining and development; poverty and resistance; and human rights activism. How and why are different genres of films on the impact of mining in India being promoted by different interest groups – mining companies, activists, independent film-makers? What are the consequences? How do we compare the possibilities of radio and film in exploring the everyday struggles of India’s poor in the midst of radical political movements?

Session A: Mining and Development

Simon Chambers will be in conversation with Alpa Shah about different representations of adivasis, mining and development in India. The conversation will be followed by screening of ‘India Poised’ by Times of India; a promotional film by the Tata group on a steel plant in Kalinga Nagar; ‘Before Dark’ by Ajay T. G. and ‘Cowboys in India’ by Simon Chambers.

Session B: Human Rights Activism and Radical Politics

Deepa Dhanraj will be in conversation with Radha D’Souza about the making of her film, ‘The Advocate’ using clips from the film, Chaired by Rahul Roy.

Session C: Poverty and Resistance

Chaired by Margaret Dickinson, this session will screen ‘Why I am not BPL’ by Ajay T. G. and ‘BBC Radio 4 From Our Own Correspondent Broadcast On ‘India’s Red Belt’ by Alpa Shah. This will be followed by an open discussion chaired by Simon Chambers.

Urban Dreams: Public Cultures, Sexuality and Pleasure

6/11/2011, London School of Economics

India’s cities are frequently represented as sites of exploitation and poverty. While accepting the reality of structural inequalities of class and gender, this panel explores the complex pleasures and ambivalent freedoms of urban public cultures. It examines how these emerge within the constraints of the pressures of making a living, yet imaginatively exceed these limits in dreams of freedom and pleasure. It will also reflect on how the film image, both documentary and popular mass cinema, circulates in urban spaces. How does documentary make the city a new place and how does this differ from the effect of popular commercial films on the experience of the urban?

Session A: Freedoms of the City: The Public Cultures of Masculinity

Screening of ‘Majma’ by Rahul Roy, followed by an interactive discussion with Rahul Roy.

Session B: Dreams of the City: the public cultures of popular film

Lotte Hoek will show segments of Bangladeshi action films and the films she made of filmmakers to reflect on the circulation of images, sensory pleasure and cityscapes.

Session C: Freedoms of the City: the public cultures of female performance

A screening of ‘Delhi-Mumbai-Delhi’ by Saba Dewan will be followed by an interactive discussion with the filmmaker. The session will conclude with Ziba Mir Hosseini conversing with Saba Dewan and Rahul Roy.

Contesting divides: folk music and performance cultures in contemporary documentary film

7/11/2011, SOAS, University of London

Rajula Shah’s film, ‘Sabad Nirantar’ (Word Within the Word) demonstrates the connection felt by villagers of West-central India (Malwa) with Kabir’s poetry (recited in song) that has become integrated into their everyday language and social gatherings. Saba Dewan’s film, ‘The Other Song’ traces the threads of thumri as passed through families in Varanasi, Lucknow and Bihar in this cross-cultural music heritage. The Warkari (pilgrims) belong to a Maharashtrian devotional movement that shares the sung poetry of its’ saints and many popular dances conducted during the pilgrimage season. The pilgrimage is the focus of Lucia King’s video installation work ‘The Warkari Cycle’.

This day’s sessions will investigate the choices that filmmakers are faced with when intersecting such cultural traditions in India on camera. In counterpoint with urban theatrical ‘performance’, these musical transmission systems arise through devotional cultures and connections at the micro-level of kinship and community. Questioning assumptions of what is usually relegated as ‘marginal’ in music/dance cultures, the filmmakers reveal what lines they have needed to cross in doing so, and how this translates into film forms.

Session A: Within and without: Camera as compass

After the screening of ‘Sabad Nirantar’ (Word Within the Word) by Rajula Shah, filmmakers Rajula Shah and Lucia King explore the link between poetics, the relationships established ‘on set’ with their filmed subjects and the compositional choices in their productions. They ask how the visual and poetic structure of their films also exposes the way in which they enter the worlds and concerns of their filmed subjects. In King’s case, she considers the geopolitical implications of reproducing an Indian tradition on film as a cultural outsider and in Shah’s case, from the threshold of belonging and not belonging to her filmed subjects’ ways of transmitting and experiencing Kabir’s musical poetry. The filmmakers will also discuss how they enter these relationships as artists. How does this affect their exploration and inhabitation of the social spaces concerned, informing filmmaking method? Is it possible to talk about the ‘responsibility’ of the artist-filmmaker in the context of the discourse around the ‘documentary’? The conversation is with reference to Shah’s ‘Sabad Nirantar’ and King’s ‘The Warkari Cycle’, the latter based on pilgrims who are part of a Maharashtrian bhakti movement.

‘The Warkari Cycle’ by Lucia King runs on a continuous loop all day in Room 116 on 7/11/2011 and 8/11/2011.

Session B: Situating Marginalised Performance Practice through Documentary Practice

The filmmaker, Saba Dewan, will be questioned about her understanding of the thumri (musical form) that she has documented, and the various vocalists she encountered in making ‘The Other Song’ (2009). She will speak about the significance of the physical sites chosen as film locations in relation to the protagonists, and the way her film narrative situates the thumri tradition for audiences. The protagonists are women who have sustained a legacy of songs by the legendary RasoolanBai, a renowned courtesan singer of Benares.  Dewan will also discuss (showing clips) the relationship of this film with two remaining films of this trilogy: ‘Naach’ (2008) and ‘Delhi-Mumbai Delhi’ (2006). All three films focus on women who belong to vocal and dance traditions associated with courtesans and popular bar dancing (in travelling night clubs). Dewan also explores how her films question the tension between the women’s deprecated social image and their private experience of themselves and their art form. What film tactics here re-aligns how thumri is valued? The format is an ‘in conversation’ with Lucia King.

Session C: The cultural narrative and the respons(e)ability of the filmmaker

Panellists: Saba Dewan, Rajula Shah, Lucia King joined by Mairead MacClean. This session will raise questions that the audience is invited to re-think with the panellists about documentary practice. In relation to the films that have been screened during today’s sessions, but including others (in an international independent filmmakers’ context) points of inquiry will include:

How do we negotiate the critical lines between the people that we film, our audiences and our distribution contexts as filmmakers?

Are our films ‘corrective’ of mainstream representations of the people we evoke? Are we bending the boundaries of assumed cultural difference between our filmed subjects/ourselves?

What is poetry in a film? What is the relationship of artist-filmmakers vis- à-vis their subject/s’ cultural reference points? What is the negotiation of Self/World? When do boundaries begin to collapse? What nurtures the practice, and how does it affect us in turn? Do fixed notions exist regarding the ‘practice’ that we stand by?

How do we see ourselves when entering domains of ‘traditional (music) cultures’ (like thumri)? What questions are asked before seeking entry into areas outside our ‘known’ ambit; what is at stake in the dialogue?

Audiences and Documentary – Focus south India

8/11/2011, SOAS, University of London

This session explores the relationship between documentary film and its audiences in India. It investigates the role of audiences in filmmaking in general, and in documentary film practices in India specifically. In particular, the session focuses on the historical circumstances in which documentary films took shape and acquired popularity in India. The session will draw attention to documentary audiences in South India and take examples from: – the historical function of the Odessa Movie in Kerala, – the contemporary role of documentary festivals such as Vibgyor or Madurai Film Festival amongst others – and the social and political importance of media activist groups, such as Pedestrian Pictures, in Bangalore. This session will work as a conversation between academics who researched film audiences and Deepa Dhanraj. The academics in this session include Stephen Hughes, Ravi Vasudevan and Giulia Battaglia.

Ethnographic film and documentary filmmaking in India

8/11/2011, SOAS, University of London

The categorisation of a documentary film as being ‘ethnographic’ has been a dubious distinction amongst Indian documentary filmmakers. It is common for the term to be used negatively to criticise a filmmaking style that seeks to objectify and exoticise marginal peoples using racist and paternalistic forms of representation that are remnants of colonial rule and were continued by the state sponsored Films Division of India. Given this attributed legacy, it is not surprising that some Indian documentary filmmakers have sought to distance themselves from any association with the ethnographic.

In contrast, Rahul Roy is one of the very few contemporary Indian documentary filmmakers who have productively engaged with ethnographic film. Making films from the late 1980s onwards, both individually and in collaboration with filmmaker Saba Dewan, Roy has increasingly cultivated an on-going dialogue with the international circuit of ethnographic filmmakers, films and festivals. Roy has also been instrumental in organising the first ethnographic film festival in India- the Delhi International Ethnographic Film Festival during 2008.

This session takes up the issue of ethnographic film with Rahul Roy. Why does ethnographic film matter for documentary filmmakers in India? What is the relationship between ethnographic and documentary filmmaking? Is there a specific historical legacy of ethnographic film in India that would distinguish it from elsewhere? The session will screen Rahul Roy’s ‘The City Beautiful’.

Unequal relations: filmmaker/film subject/spectator

8/11/2011, SOAS, University of London

It is all too easy for a documentary film festival organized around the presence of filmmakers to privilege the extraordinary creative, intellectual, technical and laborious efforts involved in filmmaking. Yet, to do so runs the risk of neglecting the representational politics inherent in the three way relationship between documentary filmmakers, film subjects and film viewers. To be fair, filmmakers are perhaps more keenly aware than others of the need to assess this complex tangle of unequal power relations. Can documentary filmmaking avoid exploiting its films subjects? Is it possible for documentary films to avoid unwittingly promoting stereotypes about already marginalised subjects amongst widely dispersed audiences?

Chaired by Alisa Lebow, this will be a concluding panel with Deepa Dhanraj, Saba Dewan, Yasmine Kabir, Rajula Shah and Rahul Roy, who will consider their performative and on-going relations with both film subjects and audiences.

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