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Documentary Films in India

Documentary Films in
Critical Aesthetics at Work

Aparna Sharma
Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance,
University of California, Los Angeles, USA
© Aparna Sharma 2015
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dedicated to students, practitioners and
all who believe that the documentary impulse
exceeds the bounds of nations

List of Figures viii

Preface x
Acknowledgements xii

Introduction 1
Part I 27
1 Constructing the Self, Constructing Others: David
MacDougall’s Observational Films on Institutions
for Children in India 29
2 New Boys at the Doon School 56
3 Gandhi’s Children 78
Part II 105
4 An Arrested Eye: Trauma and Becoming in Desire
Machine Collective’s Documentary Installations 107
5 Passage 134
6 Residue 150
Part III 175
7 A Turn Towards the Classical: the Documentaries
of Kumar Shahani 177
8 The Bamboo Flute 212
Epilogue 237

Notes 243

Bibliography 256

Index 264

List of Figures

1.1 Morning Assembly at the Doon School 37

1.2 The physically dominated aesthetic of the Doon School 48
2.1 A class of new boys at the Doon School 58
2.2 Abhishek Shukla estimates what the camera is recording 67
2.3 Abhishek Shukla admitted at the school hospital 70
3.1 Young inmates share a bed and quilts at the Prayas
Children’s Home 82
3.2 Pappu, an inmate gazes silently into the distance 85
3.3 The Prayas Home’s courtyard where sounds from
the home echo 98
4.1 A bright, single point, white light confronts the viewer
in Daily Check-up’s opening shot 124
4.2 Performance images of young men being inspected,
juxtaposed with found news footage of counter-insurgency
operations 127
5.1 A column of golden light emerges from
the center of the frame 137
5.2 Overcoming the viewer-viewed dichotomy—An X-Ray
blue column of light expands outwards 143
6.1 Dust-laden and halted pressure meters mark the
stoppage of electricity production and work at
the abandoned power plant 156
6.2 An any-space-whatever, the camera navigates through
the interiors of the abandoned power plant 159
6.3 Wilderness buries a roofed conveyor belt at
the power plant 171
7.1 Odissi dancer, Sanjukta Panigrahi performs
Mangalacharana 189
7.2 Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra performs Odissi dance 195

List of Figures ix

7.3 Free Camera Choreography: The camera begins

to pan across, looking over the landscape in
Pashyati Dheeshi Dheeshi 203
8.1 A Rathwa tribal priest in trance 217
8.2 Alarmel Valli performs in the opening sequence
of The Bamboo Flute 225

In many ways, this book traces its origins to the 2003 Beyond the Theory
of Practice Conference convened by Dr Clive Myer in Cardiff, UK. The
conference title referenced Noel Burch’s seminal 1973 book Theory of
Film Practice and it was oriented towards questioning the history and
future of reflexive and critical film practice, asking how contemporary
film pedagogies prepare students of film to raise the complex relations
of theory and practice. This question assumes weight in quite a specific
way for the field of film education. Often, given the capital-intensive
nature of filmmaking, film education gets polarized into Film Studies as
the scholarly pursuit, and Film Production as the creative and technical
pursuit. These binaries are limiting. In contemporary times, film educa-
tion is in need of a dialogue between practices and theories spanning
Film and Critical Cultural Studies.
Film and Documentary Studies specifically need to assimilate inter-
disciplinary approaches that overcome a persisting cultural blindness in
these fields. However, this move towards interdisciplinarity ought not
to be reduced to an exercise in cultural inclusion or assertion. The impe-
tus of Critical Cultural Studies in documentary is to foster appreciation
for the ways by which makers negotiate complex realities and histories,
institutional mechanisms and their own voices as practitioners – ways
that may not necessarily be explicit or transparent to the untutored eye.
Many times the efficacy of documentaries and documentary discourses
from outside the European and North American contexts is confused
with issues of decipherability. Documentary-makers across the world
work in highly specific contexts. The roles they adopt and the postures
they devise through their works are tied to the broader cultural, histori-
cal, political and technological contingencies and pressures those con-
texts present. Without appreciating those contexts, we are in a position
of lack with respect to engaging with those documentary practices. To
then impose criteria of decipherability alone as the measure of efficacy
is to unknowingly dominate and dilute disparate documentary practices
and agendas.
This book takes up three non-canonical documentary-makers from
India and follows their oeuvres to plot the methodological, political,
aesthetic and philosophical underpinnings of their works. My empha-
sis in this text is on placing these works within the context of broader

Preface xi

representational discourses operating in India and to which these works

offer a counterpoint. This text is therefore an exercise in bringing docu-
mentary film analysis into conversation with cultural and political his-
tories of the contexts in which documentaries are made. This approach
seeks to deepen appreciation for the critical work documentary aesthetics
perform. The aesthetic strategies devised and practiced by the filmmak-
ers studied in this book constitute a theory of critical practice in which
the philosophical and political motivations for filmmaking are suffused
with questions of cinema’s specificity and film forms. Through this, these
documentary-makers offer interventions into thinking about the experi-
ences of India as a modern nation specifically, and the dynamics of her
numerous living cultures, more broadly.

Thanks are due first and foremost to my teacher and fellow filmmaker,
Dr Clive Myer, who encouraged in my thinking an appreciation for
critical cinema and who, by his own example, taught me that the
values with which we make and appreciate films are inseparable from
the values by which we live our lives. I thank Dr Teri Brewer and Prof.
Michael Punt for their unfailing support during my career as a student
and filmmaker. Thanks are extended to convenors and respondents
at the following conferences where key portions of this book were
presented as research-in-progress: Visual Cultures in Contemporary India
(Aarhus University, 2011), Poetics and Politics of Documentary Research
Symposium (Aalto University, 2013) and Film Philosophy (Amsterdam
School of Cultural Analysis and Eye Film Institute Netherlands, 2013).
I acknowledge the Hellman’s Fellows Fund and UCLA Council for
Research, whose grants supported research for this book.
I thank all my colleagues at UCLA who engaged with me in discus-
sions about this work. Anurima Banerji shared her deep and compelling
insights into the history of Odissi dance. If D.D. Kosambi suggested
that India’s history is at one’s doorstep, Anurima reversed that, bring-
ing her entire research on the history of Odissi dance to my doorstep
in Los Angeles. Thank you. I extend deep thanks to Peter Nabokov for
his persistent encouragement, interest and enthusiasm for this project;
and to Saloni Mathur for following and reading this work with a close
eye and for those regular breakfasts where we talked through ideas and
approaches that shaped this book.
Thank you in particular to the anonymous readers whose atten-
tion, feedback and suggestions inform this book, despite the seeming
‘idiosyncrasies’ of this project at its start. Thank you to Chris Penfold,
Felicity Plester, Christabel Scaife and all staff at Palgrave Macmillan who
assisted with this project, and special thanks to Nick Brock for his sug-
gestions and careful eye in copy-editing.
Valuable support for the writing process came from senior colleagues
and friends: Diane Negra, Lucy Bolton, Helen Rees, Lisa Lewis, Chrissie
Harrington, Andrew Petit, Inga, James, Amarjit, Rachel, Danielle, Ally,
Tajender, Mona, Jean and Juliet.
I thank my mother for her Presence in my life, and my father, in
whose breath I have heard that no matter the borders we are forced

Acknowledgements xiii

to cross, or those we are compelled to draw, human connections and

aesthetics transcend all barriers, speak across all dividing lines. This
thought is at the core of this work.
Lastly, I thank Kumar, David, Sonal and Mriganka for working with
me over the years as I composed this study. Your generosity in sharing
materials – photographs, interviews, project designs, notes, and unpub-
lished writings – deeply enriched my processes of learning and writing
about your films. Most of all, however, I thank you for your pure and
visionary documentary cinema.

Documentary films are made by being in the world. Documentary

materials – images and sounds – chronicle histories and how histories
are performed on the bodies, present or absent, of those who transact
their motions. Based on such an understanding, this book examines
how documentary films approach the nation. Nations, in modern
times, have become crucial frameworks through which identities,
histories and socio-cultural experiences are mediated. Yet, nations are
not innate, immutable or absolute entities. A nation is an ‘imagined
political community’, asserts Benedict Anderson (1994: 6). In the
words of Ernest Gellner, nations and states are a ‘contingency, and not
a universal necessity’ (Gellner 2008: 6).1 Similarly, nationality, Tom
Nairn suggests, lies not in the genes, ‘but it is in the structure of the
modern world’ (1997: 206). Nations are constructed categories and
documentary films, constructed works themselves, address them in
multiple ways. Propagandist documentaries are known to celebrate the
nation state and its efforts, say with regard to war or nation-building.
Documentaries of a more critical persuasion investigate the efficacies of
nations. They question national institutions and programmes; mobilize
the voices of those who national apparatuses and discourses overlook
or erase; and explore the nation as an idea based on specific ideologies,
epistemologies and cultural values.2
While documentary’s ties to the nation are both apparent and sensitive,
the documentary and nation relationship has been sparsely studied in an
organized way within the broader field of Documentary Studies. What
complicates this task is that documentary filmmakers often rely on state
funding and support. This poses an obvious challenge to understanding
documentary freedoms and how documentary-makers negotiate state-
based support. Further, documentaries do not always approach the nation
2 Documentary Films in India

in direct or even conscious ways. The affinities and divergences between

documentaries and nations are enacted through varied approaches, forms
and voices – some more explicit and obvious than others in their takes
towards the nation. To situate and historicize the interventions documen-
taries make in relation to the nation, it becomes necessary to examine the
documentary-making processes, forms and aesthetics that documentary
filmmakers use in different societies.
This book focuses on the documentary films of India. Documentary-
making in India can be traced to the very early days of cinema and since
then, documentary-makers have taken up multiple subjects through
disparate approaches to documentary-making. This is attributable to
multiple factors, including filmmakers’ ideological positions and aes-
thetic preferences, trends in funding, the available technologies and the
very tendencies of politics in India that, for the last hundred or so years,
coinciding with the birth of documentary, have been quite tectonic,
pressing upon the documentary field in very specific ways. Since the
early days of documentary, the question of the nation has had particular
valence for documentary-makers in India.
In raising documentary’s relations with the nation my intention is
not so much to assert Indian documentaries as constituting a distinct
mode of cultural production and praxis. My aim in this book, rather,
is to foster appreciation for the complex ways by which documentary-
makers approach the question of the nation, without resolving it in any
stable or decisive terms. I am specifically taking up how documentaries
engage the nation in terms of culture: the cultures that nations per-
petuate, imbibe, amalgamate, improvise, and even suppress or erase. My
study focuses on select works from the oeuvres of three documentary
practitioners working in India. These include ethnographic filmmaker
David MacDougall; northeast-India-based Desire Machine Collective
(hereafter DMC) – a group of moving image artists mobilising documen-
tary in the installation format; and India’s acclaimed avant-garde film-
maker and film philosopher, Kumar Shahani. In bringing together these
three practitioners I am galvanizing a field of documentary practice in
India that critiques the nation, its epistemologies, apparatuses and their
workings, and constructs competing cultural and political imaginaries.
Through this, viewers are exposed to India’s complex and intricately
textured social, political and cultural fabrics and how those have been
shaped by her historical experiences, particularly her encounters with
modernity. The key questions that inform my study are: What avenues
do the filmmaking methodologies of the documentary-makers under
consideration offer in understanding the nation? What knowledges and
Introduction 3

imaginaries do their film forms and aesthetics devise, and how do those
advance our understanding of the nation and its experiences? These
questions assume particular relevance in India whose trajectory as a
modern nation has been rather complex.

Documentary and the nation: towards a subjective practice

While India’s civilizations can be traced back thousands of years,

her tryst with modern nationhood is about seven decades old, dat-
ing from when India gained independence from British colonial rule.
India, in common with most postcolonial societies, was through the
colonial encounter exposed to European ideals and tenets of modern
nationhood. During colonial rule, nationalism as a will for cultural
and political self-assertion had assumed an anti-colonial charge. After
independence, the Indian state undertook a concerted project of nation-
building rooted in modernization, scientific advancement and industri-
alization. Enlightenment universalist values, with their faith in modern
science and rationalism, had formed the epistemic, cultural and politi-
cal bulwark on which colonization was perpetuated. These were then
mobilized in the nation-building project that included the production
of documentary films.
A dilemma that has far-reaching implications for the cultural life of
India can be discerned in her experience of modern nationhood. Even
though India contested colonial rule, in her nation-building process she
mobilized the very values that had been the basis of her subjugation.
Partha Chatterjee explains this, stating that while national liberation
and nation-building are marked by a legitimate will to break from the
alien, colonizing culture, yet that break cannot be predicated on tra-
ditional values that are often ‘inconsistent with the conditions of
historical progress’ (Chatterjee 1993b: 18). Traditional cultures, their
knowledge and meaning systems, their practices and overall values
do not integrate neatly with the mechanisms of modern nationhood,
which is based on the political-economies of modernity. Chatterjee
adds that the conditions of modernity make ‘cultural homogeneity’ a
requirement, ‘an essential concomitant’ of modern nationhood based
on industrial society (1993b: 5). The idea of a shared culture that is
deemed as forming the basis of the nation as a political unit and as a
community makes the processes by which nations and their cultural
narratives are constructed, highly selective. Following Homi Bhabha,
we know that narratives of the nation mobilize certain pedagogies,
symbols, narratives, meanings and rhetoric to the exclusion of others
4 Documentary Films in India

(1990). The emphasis on cultural homogeneity that first arose in India

as she embraced industrialism has only deepened in the post-industrial
context. Modern nationhood has been a deeply problematic experience
for India, a land of vast cultural diversity, and this lends to the question
of documentary’s approach to the nation a quite forceful charge. What
are the limits and scope of documentary in relation to the nation, a con-
struct based on values tied to modernity and colonialism that compro-
mise, if they do not fully erase, culture’s multiplicities and diversities?
The three practitioners in this book focus on varied themes, fol-
lowing bodies, subjects and cultures that are innocuous, marginal,
absent or spectacular in India’s national discourses and imaginations.
MacDougall’s documentaries study children’s experiences in institu-
tions of education and shelter; DMC’s documentary-installations
focus on the absented memories and traumas suffered by the peoples
of India’s northeast region; and Kumar Shahani turns to the field of
classical arts, creating poetic renditions of these forms that dwell on
how they have been contemplated within India’s multiple schools
of thought and expression. What unites these filmmakers is that
they approach documentary-making as an intersubjective and crea-
tive practice, through which subjectivities are evoked, explored and
These documentary-makers are committed to presenting the subjects
of their films as agents who embody knowledges, reasonings and experi-
ences that may be overlooked or suppressed in national imaginations,
but that are evoked, articulated and preserved through documentary.
These practitioners are particularly interested in how the subjectivities
of the participants in their films manifest, interact and evolve through
documentary-making processes. Their documentaries are, in this sense,
reflexive, for the camera is used as a tool for exploring subjectivities, reg-
istering subject-experiences and articulating the evolving, intersubjective
dynamics shared between all documentary actors, including filmmakers.
Here, the conception of the documentarist as the scrutinizer of truth,
exercising an authoritative and validating gaze is fully abandoned.
The documentaries studied here present subjects and subjectivities
as forming and unfolding through experiences of being-in-the-world.
These films follow memories, desires, traumas, hopes, aspirations, per-
sonal and intimate conversations, modes of self-comprehension and
expression, embodied knowledges and cultural epistemologies – giving
us a sense of how subjectivities are open-ended, in-process and negotiat-
ing the wider axes of socio-cultural and political histories. In following
subjectivities as forming and evolving, not fixed or foreclosed, these
Introduction 5

practitioners open up dimensions of experience and understanding

that exceed the terms by which nations and their institutions rational-
ize subject positions. A contrast surfaces between how the subjects we
encounter in these films are constructed in and by them, and how their
identities are streamlined and simplified by the institutions or appara-
tuses that contain and shape them. This contrast can be likened to Paul
Willemen’s eloquent distinction between subjectivity and identity:

Subjectivity always exceeds identity, since identity formation con-

sists of trying to pin ‘us’ to a specific, selected sub-set of the many
diverse clusters of discourses we traverse in our lifetimes, and that
stick to us to varying degrees. Subjectivity, then, relates to what we
may think and feel to be the case regarding ‘our’ sexuality, kinship
relations, our understanding of social-historical dynamics acquired
through (self) education, work experience and so on. Some aspects of
our subjectivity may be occupied or hijacked by the national identity
modes of address, but there always are dimensions within our sense
of ‘subjective individuality’ that escape and exceed any such identity
straitjacket. (Vitali & Willemen eds. 2006: 30–1)

Evoking subjectivities and following subjective experiences that escape

and/or exceed the national, the documentary-makers in this study exem-
plify a critical move beyond normative national discourses. The turn
towards the subjective has been understood as a recent development in
Indian documentaries. Sabeena Gadihoke contextualizes this in relation
to India’s economic liberalization and the rise of attendant identity poli-
tics that she attributes as having led documentary filmmakers to address
urban, middle-class subjectivities. Gadihoke links the subjective voice in
documentary to the personal, articulated through autobiographical, semi-
autobiographical or biographical approaches. She notes:

A variety of approaches mark the ways in which the self appears in the
Indian documentary today. These include the openly autobiographical
films, those that approach the autobiographical through biographies
of others and films that use autobiographical elements to interrogate
the nature of the filmic encounter. (Gadihoke 2012: 146–7)

While first-person, biographical or autobiographical films are explicitly

personal and subjective, the subjective documentary is a broader category
of practice. The three filmmakers in this book hold documentary-making
as a subjective process and from this position their approaches are not
6 Documentary Films in India

necessarily or explicitly biographical or autobiographical. They approach

subjectivity and subjective experiences as socio-historically and culturally
constructed. Through their films, they are interested to explore the social
and cultural dynamics that shape subjectivities. Sensorial renditions of
being in a particular place at a particular time make up the complex and
textured force-field that MacDougall, DMC and Shahani’s documenta-
ries dwell upon and contemplate. This is a phenomenological approach
wherein subjectivity is understood as co-extensive of environment and
place. Here place is conceived most broadly to include dwelling sites,
constructed communities, any-spaces-whatever, and India’s numerous,
little cultural landscapes. In this phenomenological schema the body is
an instrument of being-in-the-world: it navigates and interacts with place,
is impacted by it and responds to it. As Merleau-Ponty states:

The body is the vehicle of being in the world, and having a body is,
for a living creature, to be intervolved in a definite environment, to
identify oneself with certain projects and be continually committed
to them. (2006: 94)

The body actively makes meaning by being-in-the-world, co-creating

experience and subjectivity in it. Merleau-Ponty adds:

The body is our general medium for having a world. Sometimes it is

restricted to the actions necessary for the conservation of life, and
accordingly it posits around us a biological world; at other times,
elaborating upon these primary actions and moving from their
literal to a figurative meaning, it manifests through a core of new
significance: this is true of motor habits such as dancing. Sometimes,
finally the meaning aimed at cannot be achieved by the body’s natu-
ral means; it must then build itself an instrument, and it projects
thereby around itself a cultural world. (Merleau-Ponty 2006: 169)

While the documentary-makers studied in this book follow distinct

approaches to documentary-making, they each hold documentary form
and aesthetics as crucial in evoking and articulating the subjectivities
they follow, the critiques and distinct imaginaries their works propose.
This stems from a deep understanding that documentary films are
mediated texts, not simply passive, objective or total records of reality.
For them, documentary-making is an unstable and delicate process that
commands immeasurable possibilities of meanings and forms. They
hold that documentaries, the art of record,3 emerge from the plenitude
Introduction 7

and seeming chaos of the world and go on to explore and provoke

meanings, map impressions and associations, and stir ideas, often
unspoken and only implied. This approach to documentary-making
coincides with the more contemporary turns towards subjectivity and
intersubjectivity in the field of Documentary Studies.
The collapse of grand narratives and the growing appreciation for
subjectivities, subject-experiences and histories as multiple, fragmented
and indeterminate has unsettled the quest for total and stable truths
through documentary. Poststructuralist and postcolonial thought have
particularly contested the deposition on documentary of a scientific
prerogative to represent reality and/or truth, objectively. What has
come about in the documentary field is a growing move away from
understanding the documentary-maker as an authoritative interpreter,
capturing and communicating singular or determined meanings and
rationalizations of things. Bill Nichols has termed this recent turn in
documentary as constituting a shift of ‘epistemological proportions’, in
which documentary has turned to subjective experiences and embodied
knowledges through film forms that are increasingly characterized by
‘incompleteness and uncertainty, recollection and impression, images
of personal worlds and their subjective construction’ (Nichols 1994: 1).
The growing recognition of subjectivity in documentary bears particu-
lar value in the context of postcolonialism. Approaching documentary
as a subjective and incomplete practice problematizes the will to speak
totally or authoritatively about an other, and it ascribes validity to the
multiple perspectives from which others speak. A most significant figure
whose oeuvre has inaugurated this political and subtly poetic move
in documentary is Trinh T. Minh-ha. Through theoretically informed
films and writings that dialogue back and forth, Minh-ha has disputed
documentary’s very pursuit of truth as a hermetically sealed category.
Her critical stance is most clearly articulated through the reflexive words
with which her 1982 film in Senegal, Reassemblage opens:

Scarcely twenty years were enough to make two billion people define
themselves as underdeveloped.

I do not intend to speak about

Just speak near by
(Minh-ha 1992: 96)

In a double-edged move this position to ‘speak near by’ confronts colo-

nialism, whose ethnographic knowledges principally objectified and
8 Documentary Films in India

spoke about the other; and it disassembles documentary’s unreflexive

claims to objectivity, veracity and authority. Minh-ha’s move to ‘speak
near by’ implicitly acknowledges that documentary is positioned in the
world; it is not constructed from any omniscient, total and therefore
objective position. Documentary’s position in the world, as the opening
words of Reassemblage so finely suggest, is tied to the socio-cultural and
historical factors that inform a documentary-maker’s encounter with
the world they document. This, in turn, highlights the impossibility
of certain ventriloquist documentary agendas, to speak for or on behalf
of documentary subjects. In her writings Minh-ha goes on to call for
inscribing a disparity between truth and meaning in documentary. She
argues that:

There is no such thing as documentary – whether the term designates

a category of material, a genre, an approach, or a set of techniques.
This assertion – as old and as fundamental as the antagonism between
the names and reality – needs incessantly to be restated despite the
very visible existence of a documentary tradition… Truth and mean-
ings are likely to be equated with one another. Yet, what is put forth
as truth is often nothing more than a meaning. (Minh-ha cited in
Renov 1993: 90–2)

Interventions such as Minh-ha’s have shaped contemporary documen-

tary research and discourses advancing the emphasis on subjectivity
in documentary into the realms of intersubjectivity and dialogical
mediation. This growing recognition of subjectivity and intersubjecti-
vity in documentary should, however, not be confused with bias.4
Approaching documentary in these terms facilitates understanding that
documentaries are constructed representations of reality that embody
the ideological motivations, understandings and the wills of their makers
and subjects.
In this book I follow how the documentary aesthetics and forms of
the selected documentary-makers enact the motivations, subjectivities
and dialogues between makers and subjects. For this, I turn to the field
of documentary aesthetics that facilitates a deeper probe, beyond docu-
mentary contents, into the processes by which documentaries get made,
and the contracts documentary-makers devise between the ‘realities’ they
depict and the audiences they address. For a long time in the history of
documentary, questions of representation disregarded the role of aesthet-
ics. Contested and disputed, documentary’s processes of aestheticization
Introduction 9

were – and to some extent, continue to be – considered as contaminat-

ing the very core of the documentary impulse, its perceived ‘unmedi-
ated’ depiction of reality. There has persisted what Stella Bruzzi terms an
‘inverse relationship between style and authenticity’; wherein the more
rough-edged and unpolished a film, the greater its credibility (2006: 9).
With the turn towards the subjective and intersubjective, the terms
of debate in documentary are shifting and questions of aesthetics, say
stylization through choices of cinematography, narrative devices and
montage, are now more integrated into the discussion of the scope and
the very life of documentary films in the world.
I use aesthetics to mean the approaches to documentary practice,
say verité, observational or poetic, and the intricacies of film forms or
vocabularies through which documentary meanings and interventions
are constructed with a degree of coherence. It is in this field of aesthetics
that the work of ideologies, political postures, creative preferences, the
subjectivities of documentary actors and the dialogues and intersub-
jective transactions between them – all those subtleties that inform
and shape documentary’s negotiations between the ‘real’ and the con-
structed, the visible and the invisible or implied – takes place. By focus-
ing on documentary aesthetics in this way, the disparate methods and
forms by which documentary films negotiate reality and through that,
the question of the nation, are highlighted.
In order to better situate and appreciate the interventions of the docu-
mentary filmmakers studied in this book, I start with a brief overview
introducing how documentary as a practice has evolved in India. This
overview seeks to exposit how documentary film forms have shaped in
relation to: one, the changes in Indian society in general; and two, the
evolving understandings and discourses surrounding documentary prac-
tice in India. The history of documentary in India is closely entwined
with India’s construction as a modern nation and two broad tendencies
towards the nation can be discerned in Indian documentaries. There is,
on the one hand, the affirmative tendency of institutionalized docu-
mentary that is mobilized to enforce the Indian state’s ideologies and
cultural discourses. Then there is the oppositional tendency of what
art critic Geeta Kapur terms as the ‘new’ Indian documentary, based on
an activist agenda and constituting a dialectical critique of the nation
state (Kapur 2008: 50). Both these approaches, the institutionalized and
the oppositional, devise very specific forms of film that I will illustrate
are based on particular understandings of documentary materiality and
the benefits of a realist aesthetic.
10 Documentary Films in India

Documentary’s tendencies towards the nation:

the institutionalized documentary mode and
the oppositional documentary

Documentary in India stands in marked contrast to the commer-

cial, fiction film industry. Documentary films study the social and
historical worlds; they are geared to understanding the workings of
society, its histories, hierarchies and the advantages and disadvantages
those engender. Documentary films in India are funded by diverse
sources from within India and abroad (Rajagopal & Vohra 2012: 16).5
Documentary films are exhibited at select avenues such as film festi-
vals (domestic and international), television networks, film collectives
and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The documentary field
in India is characterized by a diversity of forms that have emerged
at different moments of documentary history.6 They range from
the activist and verité-influenced forms such as those of acclaimed
Indian documentarist Anand Patwardhan on to ethnographic7 and
experimental films. Given a large mass media industry, television
documentaries are widespread and these extend from a journalistic
approach that is event-centered and adopts an interpretive or inves-
tigative modality.
While there is widespread documentary production in India, India’s
documentary histories have not been documented in a serious way. As
Paromita Vohra observes: ‘Whether in film criticism, film schools or, to
a lesser degree, the film community’s contextualization of itself, there is
little sense of documentary history—almost a refusal to it’ (Rajagopal &
Vohra 2012: 16). Documentary films have also not been included in the
canon of Indian national cinema, which is understood as principally
composed of India’s parallel and mainstream commercial films.8
There has been active production of documentary in some form in
India since the very beginnings of cinema. Around the time of the first
Lumière Cinematographe Exhibition in Mumbai in July 1896, cine
enthusiasts in different parts of India were accessing and/or devising
apparatuses and making moving pictures. Harishchandra S. Bhatvadekar,
who had run a photographic studio in Bombay since 1880, is credited
as the first Indian filmmaker for his shooting of a short actuality, a
wrestling match staged in Mumbai’s Hanging Gardens in 1897.9 Short
actuality films or topicals, as this genre came to be called, flourished in
the first decades of the twentieth century.10 These were short films of
actual, real-life events and are considered to be the forerunners of the
documentary film in India.11 As India’s freedom movement intensified,
Introduction 11

topicals became more news-based, focusing on such events as the

Bengal Partition (1905), floods and famines across India, and events
associated with Mahatma Gandhi such as the Dandi March. In the 1930s
the production of topicals receded, leading to a differentiation between
newsreels and short documentaries that focused on specific subjects
like industry (textiles, sugar, iron and steel), travelogues and profiles of
institutions such as the Royal Indian Air Force and Navy.
As India’s freedom struggle entered its final stages with the launch
of the Quit Movement in 1942, and the threat of a Japanese attack in
South Asia during the Second World War became imminent, the British
colonial establishment undertook a concerted effort in war propaganda.
The Film Advisory Board (FAB) was formed in 1940, later replaced by
the Information Films of India (IFI). These bodies produced war films to
build confidence in British war efforts and to recruit Indian soldiers. IFI
also promoted instructional films chronicling India’s crafts and cultures
for Indian audiences.12 Both FAB and IFI recruited Indian documentary-
makers and film companies to produce documentaries.13 In 1946, a
year before India’s independence, IFI became inoperative. Together, IFI
and FAB produced close to 170 films. While IFI is widely criticized for
promoting war propaganda, some documentary commentators credit
the organization for bringing to India recognized British documenta-
rists who trained Indian filmmakers in the practices of professionalized
In December 1947, a few months after India’s independence, a new
organization modeled on IFI was formed to promote documentary film
production and distribution. First termed the Film Unit of the Ministry
of Information and Broadcasting, in 1948 it was renamed the Films
Division (FD). It recruited many officials who had previously worked
at IFI to undertake documentaries and newsreel production. Besides
production, the Films Division was charged with commissioning and
distributing finished films contracted from film production companies.
The 1950s and 1960s had been marked by a sense of euphoria and
optimism surrounding the nation-building project that had been inau-
gurated following India’s independence. During this time documentary
came to be valued for its instructional potential. A dominant sentiment
was that in a country with literacy levels as low as those in India, docu-
mentary would serve in educating and informing citizens, and building
a sense of community.15 India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru,
described documentary as a tool to ‘build the nation, build a sense of
citizenship and community’ (cited in Narwekar 1992: 42). The Films
Division undertook extensive production, around 200 documentaries
12 Documentary Films in India

and short films per year, making it one of the world’s largest documentary
producers at the time (Rajadhyaksha in Nowell-Smith ed. 1997: 683).
It focused largely on the production of instructional and educational
films that were rooted in IFI’s approach. In the late 1950s it also
started two new arms, the National Education and Information Films
Ltd and the Cartoon Film Unit. With its active production of films,
the Films Division devised an institutionalized form of documentary
I draw here on Noel Burch’s concept of the Institutional Mode of
Representation (IMR) that he uses to classify cinematic codes of main-
stream film.16 Burch’s discussion pertains to classical cinema that he
argues as interpellating the viewer as a ‘voyeur’, an incorporeal individ-
ual with no affective relation to what they see or hear (1990: 250). I find
Burch’s concept of the IMR applicable to the institutionalized documen-
tary form perpetuated by the Films Division. This institutionalized form
of documentary, which continues to some measure in the contemporary
moment, is principally instructional and expository in a very prosaic
way. Its formal elements include an informative and verbocentric narra-
tion based on the voice of an authoritative, often western-accented male
speaking over images that are purely understood as evidence, illustrative
of facts and information.
A clear persistence with the instructional approach of the FAB and IFI
documentaries from the war years is evident in the FD’s work. The FAB
and IFI films made extensive use of Indian music for background sound;
approached shots in the spirit of giving a flavour of things; and were pre-
dominantly verbocentric, narrated in the voice of an often essentialising,
white male figure. This voice structured documentary discourse in terms
of deciphering and interpreting India,17 which was portrayed as a foreign
land with very particular ways of living. The FD institutionalized this
style through which viewers, in a manner quite like the classical cinema
Burch critiques, became incorporeal entities who documentary informs
and educates in a quite unilinear and pedantic way. Commenting on
the bases of the FD’s institutionalized style, film historians Barnouw and
Krishnaswamy note that:

From the very beginnings of the system, the films were under the con-
trol of ministry [Information & Broadcasting] representatives with little
or no film background. Some were men of considerable education,
products of a highly verbalized culture. To them, it was quite naturally,
the words in the narration that counted. The pictures – subsidiary, in
their view – that would accompany those words could safely be left
Introduction 13

to others. The typical Films Division film has had constant narration,
crowded with information. (Barnouw and Krishnaswamy 1980: 201)

The Films Division promoted broadly two kinds of films, both at the
service of India’s nation-building agenda.18 The first kind emphasized
the benefits of modernized development. They focused on such themes
as industrialization, the building of dams, and the spread of hygiene
in villages – depicting a whole gamut of public programmes and pub-
lic sector utilities in affirmative terms and often deploying Nehruvian
iconography of industrialization. The second kind of films, follow from
IFI’s films on India’s crafts and cultures. They have been loosely termed
as ethnographic documentaries that take up subjects including folk arts,
crafts, India’s festivals and numerous communities. These ethnographic
films celebrate India’s cultural diversity, visualizing in celebratory terms
India’s national dictum of ‘unity in diversity.’ They are not grounded
in any serious visual ethnography research principles. Film historian
B.D. Garg has critiqued these, stating that:

A favourite subject of the Films Division has been the exploration of

peoples of various regions and linguistic areas, with the intention of
bringing about an emotional integration. But the temptation to do
so has been more often aesthetic than sociological. It is the colour-
fulness of the costumes, the pageantry of festivals and rituals rather
than the socio-economic, as well as the more fundamental problems
that have been touched upon. The result is a sort of Tourist office
pamphlet and not any serious, profound and realistic study of people
or situations. (cited in Narwekar 1992: 47)

In its early years the FD had supported important filmmakers who

experimented with documentary aesthetics, including P.V. Pathy, Mani
Kaul, Satyajit Ray, Sukhdev and the painter, M.F. Hussein. But as the
aesthetics of their films challenged the FD’s institutional documentary
form, experimentation was cast in a negative light as being excessive
and flippant, and it was steadily curbed. Commenting on the aesthetic
implications of FD’s institutionalized documentaries, the eminent
Indian film critic Amrit Gangar notes that:

The FD’s virtual stranglehold has another fall-out besides a definite

‘distaste’ for documentaries it has been successful in creating among
the minds of the people. The more serious fall-out is that the FD
has also eventually muffed up the voice of documentary—the voice
14 Documentary Films in India

largely in the sense of stylistic expression, its various possibilities and

alternatives. This government outfit makes its films largely by risking
aesthetic issues… (in Chanana eds. 1987: 36)

Most problematically, however, the institutionalized mode of the FD

documentaries reveals a very particular understanding of the masses,
both as subjects of the films and as audiences. The masses are depicted
in need of development that is projected as an ordering and disciplin-
ing mechanism. These films, quite like the colonial enterprise, project
state-led modernization and development as the means for transform-
ing largely illiterate peoples into fit citizens of a modern nation. A
hierarchy is instituted wherein the documentary-maker is the bearer
of information and discourse, enlightening the masses. Audiences are
reduced to passive recipients who through documentary are being, as it
were, doctored into modern citizenship.
From the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s documentary filmmak-
ers started to critique the Films Division style and distanced themselves
from the institution. Sanjit Narwekar notes that there was growing
appreciation among documentary filmmakers of how complex the
fabric of democracy in India was and they felt that documentary films
of the Films Division style could not grasp the intricacies and complica-
tions of Indian society (1992: 48). Though the Films Division continues
to operate, its significance has diminished and it is not the body associ-
ated with the active and radical field of Indian documentary.19
During the late 1960s and the 1970s documentary filmmakers began
to venture into independent filmmaking.20 The emergence of synchro-
nous sound recording and video provided further impetus to documen-
tary and a new generation, including filmmakers such as Sukhdev, S.N.S.
Sastry and Anand Patwardhan, emerged on the documentary scene.
The growth of Indian television from the 1970s onward encouraged
the paradigm of mass communication and documentary got attached
to this. It was increasingly understood as an extension of journalism
and prestigious educational programmes such as Jamia Milia Islamia
University’s AJK Mass Communication Research Center were formed
for documentary training. Understanding documentary as a mass com-
munication medium, independent documentary-makers increasingly
turned to political events and issues, both within India and globally,
while maintaining their distance from statist documentary outfits and
agendas. Though this move towards the political has styled documen-
tary as an oppositional practice, this oppositional documentary, like the
institutionalized documentary practices, has persisted with an emphasis
Introduction 15

on a certain form of realism, albeit enacted through disparate formal

approaches and techniques. The emphasis on realism in documentary
can be contextualized in relation to the appeal of realism in Indian
cinema more broadly, where it has been understood as the means for
facilitating a confrontation with ‘change’ that has been the hallmark of
India as a new nation.21
Documentary realism in India is specifically influenced by Griersonian
realism, first implanted through exposure to British documentary during
the Second World War. After independence, the Griersonian influence
persisted through figures such as James Beveridge, John Grierson’s associ-
ate from the National Film Board of Canada, who had worked at Burmah-
Shell’s documentary unit between 1954 and 1958 and who was associated
with the AJK Mass Communication Research Center during the 1980s.
Deriving from Grierson, documentary in India is understood as serving a
social purpose, as custodian of civil society and committed to social uplift-
ment. Paromita Vohra elaborates three ways by which the Griersonian
influence has informed Indian documentaries: one, Grierson’s perceived
displeasure with aesthetics has led to an emphasis on realism over creativity
and experimentation; two, the documentary filmmaker has been styled as a
‘messianic or evolutionary’ figure who authoritatively speaks about ‘reality’
and three, documentaries have been removed from the circuits of market
circulation (Rajagopal and Vohra 2012: 10).
We know from the history of documentary that Grierson’s take on
aesthetics has remained contested. The Griersonian tradition is rooted
broadly in realism, but it is not as averse to documentary aesthetics or
creative approaches to documentary as certain Griersonian followers in
India make it out to be. In Claiming the Real, Brian Winston points out
how the Griersonian tradition negotiates questions of aesthetics and
creativity, stating that:

Within the legitimation provided by the realist aesthetic, Grierson and

his followers can locate these arenas of creativity—cinematography
and editing (and later sound)—as the specific sites of both the
mechanical reproduction of what Grierson called ‘the living article’
and imaginative work… It [documentary] is a painterly tradition that
allows for ‘poetry’ rather than, say, ‘essay’ or ‘belles-lettres’, which
might at first seem more apposite alternatives to fiction in such an
analogy. (Winston 1995: 25)

Reading in Grierson’s emphasis on actuality a distaste for aesthetics,

institutional and oppositional forms of Indian documentary have filtered
16 Documentary Films in India

the Griersonian position in a limited way. The emphasis on realism at

the expense of questions of aesthetics has led to an understanding of
documentary as a principally expository and evidentiary practice mostly
steered by verbocentric discourse. This certainly serves political docu-
mentary of a certain ideological persuasion. However, the emphasis on
documentary as an evidentiary and expository practice, besides being
creatively limited, reveals an understanding of realism that is unreflexive
in that the mediation processes – socio-historical and technological that
shape documentary meanings remain unrecognised.
The oppositional or political documentary from India is perhaps
the most visible of documentary forms from India today, exhibited at
international film and art festivals. The unreflexiveness of this form is
thinly recognized in the limited scholarship on Indian documentaries,
even though such scholarship has attempted to situate a subjective
prerogative in contemporary Indian documentaries. I am thinking
here particularly of Geeta Kapur’s essays where the politically com-
mitted form is termed as the ‘new Indian documentary.’ In her 2005
essay ‘Tracking Images’ Kapur posits 2003–04 as the years when the
Indian documentary movement named itself. According to her, two
convergences shaped this moment. The urgent upsurge in documentary
production following the 2003 Gujarat riots, a right-wing government
supported pogrom targeting the Muslim community. The upsurge in
documentary production was upheld by the proliferation of digital
video across the subcontinent. The culminating moment was the birth
of the anti-censorship movement in 2004 – Vikalp: Films for Freedom. For
Kapur, this upswing in documentary production represented a dialecti-
cal move geared to register the reactionary ideology, fascistic brutality
and neoliberal economic agenda of the then right-wing government.
In her discussion Kapur noted a correspondence between video-based
documentary and an opposition to the nation state:

Is there an unstated correspondence between the ‘deconstructed’

technology of the video-medium and what is now perceived and
debated to be the already disassembled nation? It is the mood of the
moment to foreground these issues in disregard of/in opposition to
the mediating institution of the State. (Kapur 2005: 106)

In her following essay A Cultural Conjuncture in India: Art Into

Documentary (2008), Kapur expanded her propositions. She argued
that the critique against the nation state embodied by Vikalp:
Films For Freedom had been rooted in the politically interventionist
Introduction 17

documentary practice of earlier decades, specifically those decades

when the democratic ethos of the Indian nation state had been threat-
ened. The decades in question were: the 1970s, marked by the
Emergency between 1975 and 1977;22 and the 1990s, which saw the
political ascendance of the Hindu right in India.
Against this backdrop, an activist agenda was implanted into what
Kapur terms the ‘new Indian documentary’. This agenda, she notes, is in
line with a global upsurge in documentary films following the establish-
ment of a unipolar world after the collapse of the USSR in 1989 (Kapur
2008: 50). Kapur’s rationale runs thus:

While the documentarist cannot, perhaps, answer to the overtaken

ideal of a ‘people’s culture’ in the socialist sense of the word, it may
be possible to hypothesize, on the basis of a worldwide documentary
upsurge, a common culture of the ‘multitudes’ with a ‘be against’
slogan in the manifestos of hope that the new global empire sup-
posedly yields—in the form of a nemesis or, indeed, as a demonstra-
tion of a dialectic. This claim postulates that cultures of protest find
spontaneous communicability across and beyond communitarian
and national boundaries. (Kapur 2008: 51)

Kapur holds the new Indian documentary as a tool aligned with strug-
gles for social justice against global capital with which nation states
such as India are increasingly complicit. A key protagonist for Kapur in
this scenario has been Anand Patwardhan, whose documentaries have
confronted a whole range of issues, including the 1975 Emergency, the
slums of Mumbai, the people’s movement against the Narmada Dam
Project, India’s caste politics and the links between Hindutva fascistic
ideology and the crisis of Indian masculinity. Patwardhan’s essayistic-
investigative form has focused consistently on the intensifying cleav-
ages in Indian polity and society, those undercurrents that set ablaze
in the confrontations between citizens and state apparatuses. Kapur
goes on to note how the documentaries of the younger filmmaker,
Amar Kanwar on subjects such as ethnic and tribal minorities, envi-
ronmental degradation and the India–Pakistan partition constitute an
alternative, a generational advance over Patwardhan’s essayistic docu-
mentary form. The notable distinction between the approaches of the
two documentarists – the former historical and probing at the level
of discourse; the latter more subjective, open-ended and vulnerable –
according to Kapur, references a ‘generational change in the nature
and pursuit of politics itself’ (2008: 45).
18 Documentary Films in India

Geeta Kapur’s contextualization of contemporary Indian documentary

as constituting a dialectical move that questions and reflects the deeper
crises within the nation state is precise in linking India’s documentary
history with developments within the Indian state. This is in keeping
with understandings that categories such as national cinemas assume
purchase at and in relation to specific historical junctures.23 Further,
Kapur’s recognition of the generational disparities between Patwardhan
and Kanwar can be seen as constituting an effort to define new Indian
documentary on the basis of a certain intertextual coherence operative
at the level of discourse, and not so much in terms of a commonality of
themes, approaches and aesthetics. This clearly illustrates the argument
of Philip Rosen in his essay, History, Textuality, Nation: Kracauer, Burch and
Some Problems in the Study of National Cinemas:24 that ‘certain types of
intertextual coherence’ is found to be ‘forceful only during certain peri-
ods of film/national history’ (Rosen in Vitali and Willemen 2006: 26).
However, Kapur’s categorization of the activist documentary, which
directly confronts the nation state, as necessarily the political form of
documentary is limiting for it overlooks the disparities of forms and
aesthetics by which documentarists working in India have approached
and critiqued the nation, not just the nation state, both in the con-
temporary moment and historically. Kapur’s singular emphasis on an
activist agenda to register the crisis of the nation state homogenizes the
documentary impulse and reduces documentary to a monolithic prac-
tice. We run into exactly the conflict that Andrew Higson has pointed to
with relation to the category of national cinemas. Higson argues that
the process of identifying a body of works as a coherent category in
relation to the nation is an ‘invariably hegemonizing, mythologizing
process, involving both the production and assignation of a particular
set of meanings, and the attempt to contain, or prevent the prolifera-
tion of other meanings’ (2002: 54). In terms of aesthetics, Geeta Kapur’s
classification of new Indian documentary rests on the understanding
of the documentary image as serving an evidentiary or witness func-
tion. Here Kapur shares the broader understanding of documentary
materiality in Indian documentary discourses that assert documentary
as an evidentiary practice, one that offers a testament of reality. This
understanding of documentary as an evidentiary practice on account of
its ties to reality appears acceptable, but the documentary-reality tie is
more complex and merits further unpacking.
Documentaries do surround the ‘real’ and the ‘factual’, but con-
temporary documentary discourses have questioned the tie between
documentary and reality. They have asserted that reality is not a stable,
Introduction 19

fixed or hermetically sealed category that can be unproblematically

captured by the camera. Documentary film cameras intervene in the
world; their very presence at a scene marks their interference with it and
this stresses documentary’s relations with reality. Documentary’s ties to
reality have occupied debate in the field of documentary since the early
days of this practice and the contemporary turns towards subjectivity
and embodiment in the field have further renewed this question: How
can documentary’s ties with reality be reconciled with its inherent
partiality given that the camera offers only a standpoint, a selective
access to the world?
Numerous approaches have been put forward and contested in
documentary theory. Taking a historical view, Michael Renov asserts
that documentary promotes an ‘illusion of immediacy insofar as it
foreswears “realism” in favour of a direct, ontological claim to the
“real”’ (1986: 71–2).25 Away from documentary ontology and tied to
the impacts of technological and media developments are interventions
that characterize documentary’s ties to reality as unstable and shift-
ing. For instance, Maria Lind and Hito Steyerl view the contemporary
documentary moment as caught in a strong ‘double-bind’: ‘… on the
one hand documentary images are more powerful than ever. On the
other hand, we have less and less trust in documentary representations’
(Lind and Steyerl 2009: 1). A compelling intervention in thinking about
documentary and reality comes from Stella Bruzzi who argues for not
seeing these categories as contracted in a unilinear flow, that is, docu-
mentary efficaciously representing reality. Bruzzi calls for approaching
the documentary–reality tie as a process of mediation between both and
she terms their relationship as dialectical. She states:

Documentary is predicated upon a dialectical relationship between

aspiration and potential, that the text reveals the tensions between
the documentary pursuit of the most authentic mode of factual
representation and the impossibility with this aim. (Bruzzi 2006: 6–7)

Bruzzi’s proposition rests on the recognition that documentary specta-

tors understand documentary to be a negotiation between reality and
image, interpretation and bias. Her emphasis on the documentary–reality
tie as dialectical positions us to approach the documentary text, the
reality it represents and its spectators as engaged in a form of dialogue.
Bruzzi insists that ‘documentary will never be reality nor will it erase
or invalidate that reality by being representational’ (Bruzzi 2006: 6).
Approaching the documentary–reality connection as dialectical shifts
20 Documentary Films in India

our focus away from approving or dismissing documentary approaches

and styles in terms of their efficacy in relation to depicting the ‘real’,
towards considering the ways in which documentary-makers interact
with the world and the subjects they document, the consistencies of
their approaches and how documentary meanings get constructed.
Based on this understanding I now elaborate this book’s approach to
the documentary-makers it studies, whose documentaries are marked
by a commitment to reflexivity, emphasizing documentary’s construc-
tion of reality.

Critical aesthetics at work: reflexivity and

documentary intersubjectivity

David MacDougall, the Desire Machine Collective and Kumar Shahani

have developed sustained bodies of critical documentary practice, in
which their methods, forms and aesthetics can be seen evolving over
time. Their films embody a persistent questioning of the documentary
impulse, for these practitioners do not hold documentaries and the real-
ities they represent as finite categories. I was introduced to the works of
these practitioners over the last decade, as a student and documentary-
maker myself. Over the years, I have followed their careers and plotted
the subtle ways by which their works speak in relation to each other,
advance their methods and approaches, and articulate new questions
and understandings surrounding India’s experience as a nation. What
has stood out to me in the process of studying these films is that these
documentary-makers embody a constant questioning in relation to
the limits and scope of documentary as a cinematic medium and this
is distinct from documentary as a medium of mass communication.
Approaching documentary as a medium of cinema frees documentary
from the political-economies and aesthetics of mass communication, often
exemplified by televisual documentary that emphasizes the image as vis-
ible evidence and necessarily relies on verbal discourse to articulate mean-
ings. As a cinematic medium, documentary meanings can be mobilized
through a wider corpus of aesthetic strategies, including the repertoire of
embodied and non-verbal performance, alongside cinematic techniques
including mise-en-scène, duration and montage, among others.
Each documentary-maker has, through a highly self-conscious and
creative approach, offered viewers unique and singular insights and
epistemologies in relation to specific cultural communities and practices
of India. What I have taken away from studying these works is that the
documentary-making impulse takes many forms that can be creative and
Introduction 21

critical in different ways. While breaking from institutionalized modes of

representation, these practitioners’ works, do not do not constitute a singular
or prescriptive leftist documentary aesthetic. These three practitioners
represent three quite disparate and, on occasions, competing approaches
to documentary form and aesthetics. They have occupied different exhi-
bition contexts too: ethnographic film festivals and educational media
distribution in the case of MacDougall; the purposefully designed instal-
lations of DMC in art gallery and contemporary art museums; and avant-
garde film festivals circuits in relation to Kumar Shahani. These three
practitioners’ works constitute three vectors that each point in a different
direction by way of their subjects, formal concerns and aesthetics, but
they intersect in terms of their commitment to documentary form and
aesthetics as a way to critique the nation at institutional, cultural and
political levels. They embody a politics of form and this stands in distinc-
tion to a political documentary that is explicitly political on account of
its content and the concerns with which it aligns.
Studying how the forms and aesthetics of their films evolve over
time is not a move towards formalism, abstracted from content. This
study is geared to deepen an understanding of how documentary
forms and aesthetics are shaped as much by the ideological, political
and methodological persuasions of filmmakers as they are by the con-
tingencies and dynamics of interaction between documentary-makers
and the realities they document. Further, my turn in this book towards
documentary-making processes and aesthetics aims to illustrate how
these shape viewer understandings of documentary subjects and
intervene in the broader field of representational discourses. Each of
the practitioners in this book has distanced themselves from domi-
nant and popular documentary, particularly the news-based, exposé
and expository forms. They share alertness towards the histories of
representation and they are committed to deconstructing normative
discourses and imaginations that dominant media – conceived most
broadly to include the cinematic, anthropological, televisual and time-
based media, among others – uphold and perpetuate. They begin not
simply with faith in the recorded image, but often by reflecting upon
and critiquing the stereotypes, erasures, gaps and, in some instances,
even the traumas and violence mainstream media perpetuate in rela-
tion to the subjects and themes of their films. Thus, these practitioners
represent a field of critical aesthetics in documentary, one that is
highly conscious towards its own workings and questions the ideas,
understandings, epistemologies and imaginations that mediated rep-
resentations communicate and normativize.
22 Documentary Films in India

Coming to documentary from disparate disciplinary backgrounds, each

practitioner in this book is versed with varied theoretical and philosophi-
cal discourses that inform their approach to documentary-making. In a
way, then, their films constitute a theory of documentary practice and
they are thus placed in a long tradition of what film practitioner-theorist
Clive Myer has termed as critical cinema: cinema that embodies, implic-
itly or explicitly, a theoretical practice of the moving image (Myer (eds)
2011: 02). In the practice of critical cinema, practitioners overcome the
more market-oriented disparities and dichotomies between art and skill,
theory and practice. This then underscores the need to study practitioners’
oeuvres, with an eye for how their bodies of work embody conversations
between theories and practices, and how those evolve through time.
My method for study in this book is what Andrew Higson has termed
as ‘inward-looking’ – a process using close text analysis to appreciate
documentary-making processes as narratives of work in themselves and
how film aesthetics – choices pertaining to documentary techniques
such as cinematography, montage, sound design, colour, etc. – work.
(Higson 2002: 54). Following this work, the work of critical aesthet-
ics, I explore the interventions documentaries make in relation to the
broader field of representation and representational discourses.
The inward-looking process does not study films comparatively, plac-
ing disparate filmmakers and films alongside or against each other.
The inward-looking process involves, rather, the close study of texts to
answer such questions as: What knowledges and understandings do par-
ticular approaches to filmmaking and film form afford? How do specific
aesthetics position, challenge and enrich viewers’ perceptions of what
they see and hear? I would like to assert that in this book I bring my
own sensibilities as a documentary-maker who works in India, and as a
documentary pedagogue. From these positions my analysis of films is
less in terms of analyzing them as finished objects or artefacts, and more
in terms of following documentary-making as a process that intervenes
in the world, impacting documentary subjects, makers and viewers. The
close text analysis I offer in this book involves extensive description
of films; for besides highlighting the formal approaches in them, I am
aware that most works, for a host of reasons including limited distribu-
tion and exhibition, may not have been available to the reader.
My study does not encompass all works in a documentary-maker’s
oeuvre. I study select works that most fully exposit the key devel-
opments of method and discourse in each oeuvre. From a range of
between five and nine films from each practitioner, I have selected
between two and four for discussion to explore how visual and
Introduction 23

aural forms embody a documentary-maker’s evolving discourses and

understandings of the documentary form. This approach towards
documentary-makers’ oeuvres informs this book’s architecture. The
book is divided into three sections, each devoted to one documentary-
maker. Each section is further divided into chapters that take up one
film each. The opening chapters for each section contain a contextual
overview that introduces the documentary-maker’s methods, ideologi-
cal postures, contexts of work, concerns, questions and understandings
of documentary as a practice.
The first section of the book takes up David MacDougall’s docu-
mentaries on children’s institutions of India. My discussion juxtaposes
analyses of select films from his famed Doon School series with his
recent Gandhi’s Children, which focuses on the Prayas Children’s Home
for Boys in Delhi. MacDougall’s films are produced in an academic
context: the Center for Cross-Cultural Research, Australian National
University. They are research films that circulate through educational
film distribution and exhibition contexts such as ethnographic film
festivals. Though MacDougall brings the eye of an outsider, his is not
the viewpoint of a foreigner deciphering India. David MacDougall uses
the observational film method to reveal the workings and limitations
of nationalist discourse in shaping citizen-subjects. Spanning an elite
institution, the Doon School, on to a shelter for destitute children,
MacDougall’s films offer viewers a complex portrait of class dynamics in
Indian society. At the heart of MacDougall’s documentaries, I identify a
commitment to what he has himself termed ‘deep reflexivity’: revealing
the social processes through which documentary meanings are mediated
(MacDougall 1998). My study plots the enactment of deep reflexivity
in MacDougall’s films and posits that deep reflexivity offers his films’
subjects, here young children with possibilities to comply, contest or
exceed the terms by which the institutions to which they belong define
them, and rationalize their identities and experiences.
The next section of the book focuses on films by the Desire Machine
Collective (DMC). I examine three works to plot how DMC has con-
tested the visual codes and discourses by which northeast India’s
political landscape has been represented in mainstream Indian media.
Funded and supported by contemporary arts organizations, including
the Guggenheim Museum, NYC and artists residencies in India, DMC
has been making documentary-based installations that are exhibited in
contemporary art museums and gallery spaces. My discussion begins by
highlighting how the collective’s early works reveal the workings of a
counter-insurgent gaze in news media, thereby revealing a complicity
24 Documentary Films in India

between media and security forces involved in counter-insurgency

operations in northeast India, a region that has suffered acute mar-
ginalization from mainland India since colonial times. In doing this,
I argue, the collective posits mainstream media as part of what Giorgio
Agamben has termed a networked apparatus (2009). DMC’s early work
also inaugurates a new cinematic discourse that I hold evolves stead-
ily through the collective’s successive interventions. This cinematic
discourse rests on a new viewing position, one that privileges the
perceptual experiences tied to the politico-cultural marginalization of
northeast India and which is actualized through a haptic aural and
visual aesthetic. DMC’s new cinematic discourse is fully realized in the
collective’s recent work, Residue that is set in an any-space-whatever, an
abandoned power plant that DMC visualizes through the time-image,
as discussed by Gilles Deleuze (2001).
The book’s concluding section takes up Kumar Shahani’s documenta-
ries on India’s classical arts: Bhavantarana, which takes as its subject the
Odissi dance maestro, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra; and The Bamboo
Flute, which evokes the disparate ways in which the bamboo flute has
been contemplated and practiced across different cultural landscapes
and schools of music in India. Termed as a mode of ‘epic cinema’,
through these documentaries Shahani sculpts a history of classical
forms that references India’s centuries-old cultural heritages and their
articulations as practices in contemporary times (Jayamane 2006). In
doing this, Shahani constructs an experience of the classical and offers
an understanding of the classical forms that exceeds the terms by which
these have been mobilized in India’s national discourses surrounding
culture. Both films devise a highly measured and poetic documentary
form, one that privileges thought associations and a tactile aural-visual
rendition of the classical forms through cinema. My discussion com-
mences by tracing the influence of the dialectical method of the Marxist
Indian mathematician and historian, D.D. Kosambi on Shahani’s cinema
before moving on, through close textual analysis, to follow the evo-
lution of what I term free camera choreography in both films. This
free camera choreography I hold, enacts Shahani’s understandings of a
phenomenologically-grounded cosmomorphic approach to cinema, one
that contests cinema’s anthropocentrism; the emphasis on human subjects
as the sources and repositories of meaning. My analysis of Bhavantarana
and The Bamboo Flute draws extensively upon Kumar Shahani’s rare
and unpublished writings on cinema to which he kindly granted me
access a few years ago. His essays contemplating the scope of cinema26
Introduction 25

have deeply shaped my understandings of the philosophical ideas that

motivate Shahani’s documentary cinema.
The book concludes with an epilogue that ties together the interven-
tions made by the documentaries discussed in this book. The inter-
subjective approach of these documentaries contests institutionalized
modes of representation and critiques dominant discourses mobilized
in the construction of the nation as a stable and homogenous entity.
This intersubjective approach, I hold, is likely to flourish as digital
media proliferate and provoke intimate, more personal and impression-
istic documentary and non-fiction media usages. The documentaries
discussed in this book can thus be understood as pathways towards
richer, reflexive and intersubjective documentary forms that will facili-
tate a deeper engagement with issues of nationhood and being in con-
temporary times.
Part I
Constructing the Self, Constructing
Others: David MacDougall’s
Observational Films on Institutions
for Children in India

The subject is part of the filmmaker, the filmmaker part

of the subject.
– David MacDougall, 1998: 29.

Black waters gushing out of sewage pipes into an open field. Lumps
of human faeces floating in choked lavatories. Children peering out
through the cracked glasses of rusted windows. These images recur in
Gandhi’s Children, ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall’s 2008
film about a shelter home and juvenile detention center for home-
less and orphaned children in New Delhi. We could dismiss these as
stereotypical images of poverty and destitution from the third world,
but in Gandhi’s Children, which documents everyday life at the shelter,
these recurrent images expose the viewer to the sensory extremities
the shelter’s inmates face on a daily basis. The inmates are destitute
children: lost, abandoned, runaway, ailing, criminal, violent – and
equally, if not more often, violated themselves. Gandhi’s Children fol-
lows these inmates’ life stories and their experiences at the shelter.
This is not done in a conventional voiceover-led, expository style of
documentary. The film is shot principally from within the shelter and,
using the principles of observational cinema, MacDougall follows the
everyday goings-on here.
The film is punctuated with images of the Delhi vista as seen from the
narrow windows of the shelter. The winter air is hazy; a ring of dense
smog encircles the city and the piercing cold, we see, bites both skin
and bone. Through the entwining of this grey and cold panorama with
the living conditions at the shelter, MacDougall subtly gestures to the
position of destitute children in Delhi – and, given this is happening in
India’s capital city, within Indian society more broadly. But MacDougall
30 Documentary Films in India

is deeply astute and Gandhi’s Children is not a sentimental exposé using

any crude victim discourse. Based on very patient camerawork, the film
offers a delicate narrative through which the shelter’s inmates appear
less the forgotten statistics of an increasingly ‘prosperous’ society, and
ever more humane. Filled as much with fears, loss, want and desires as
with humour, camaraderie, aspirations, intelligence, poise, self-respect
and, before MacDougall’s camera, even an enduring smile. This kind of a
thin narrative that simultaneously reveals the inmates’ vulnerabilities
and their resilience rests on MacDougall’s sensitivity towards the rela-
tions that he, the filmmaker, forms with his subjects. MacDougall has
persistently considered the filmmaker–subject relation in his films and
his following thought indicates his concerns:

In the eyes of my subjects, my film will not be judged by how it

makes the obvious points. They will set a much higher standard.
I must go beyond what is implicit between us. I shall not be able
to speak as the expert, nor shall I feel comfortable about belabor-
ing the elementary things we both already know. My work will be
judged by its good faith1 toward them and its understanding of their
perceptions of the world, without pretending to be their view of it.
(MacDougall 1998: 91)

The quiet and sustained approach that MacDougall adopts in Gandhi’s

Children allows him to introduce the viewer to the inmates’ wide-
ranging dispositions that range from unsettled and impatient volatility
to perceptive introspection. While MacDougall’s own personality and
experience cannot be separated from this, his considerate approach
towards his subjects can be contextualized in relation to the practice of
observational cinema.
Observational cinema is a form of ethnographic filmmaking that dis-
tinguishes itself from the wider corpus of documentary by emphasizing
seeing – the act of looking, as a mode of social inquiry. Colin Young, a
key figure who shaped the observational cinema movement encapsu-
lates the practice’s key sentiment thus: ‘The difference is between telling
a story and showing us something’ (Young 1995: 103). This emphasis
on looking reflects a commitment to exercising the specificity of the
cinematic medium that is not essentially verbocentric.2
Observational cinema is committed to the exploration of people’s
lives by focusing on the environments they inhabit. Through the
exploration of people’s embodied experiences, knowledges, systems of
Constructing the Self, Constructing Others 31

meanings, practices of work and forms of social and creative expression,

observational films seek to understand how people interact with their
lived environments. Observational films are characterized by an austere
aesthetic as this practice radically departs from mainstream forms of cin-
ema based on conflict-driven drama. Observational cinema is grounded in
the understanding that the everyday lives of people do not actually unfold
according to the structures and principles of mainstream dramatic film,
including forms of documentary and ethnographic film based on exposi-
tion, conflict or argument. In an early commentary on this practice, film
historian Eric Barnouw had noted that observational cinema grew with
the rise of new and light equipment that enabled filmmakers to undertake
the long-term study of previously unexplored spaces and phenomena. This
distinguished it, both aesthetically and discursively, from the wider rubric
of documentary cinema. He stated:

These film-makers were as intent on listening as on watching…

They often poked into places society was inclined to ignore or keep
hidden. Leaving conclusions to viewers, the films were ambiguous.
When they seemed iconoclastic, it was not because of superimposed
commentaries, but because there were new sights, sounds, and jux-
tapositions from which viewers – or at least some of them – drew
disturbing inferences. (Barnouw 1993: 231)

Observational films do not use conventional techniques such as

voiceover commentary, music or graphics to steer a film’s narra-
tive. They rely principally on techniques of cinematography, sound
and editing to construct and propose filmic meanings and ideas.
Further, unlike conventional ethnographic films, observational films
do not fragment filmed realities into parts that are reassembled in
post-production using criteria external to ethnographic fieldwork.
Observational filmmakers base a film’s narrative and structure on
the order of the proceedings documented by the camera. Techniques
including depth-of-field, long duration shots and minimal editing
that preserve the spatial and temporal continuities of what is observed
are recurrent features of observational films. The UCLA Ethnographic
Film Programme3 was a laboratory in which issues and techniques of
observational cinema were debated and developed. David MacDougall
received training at this programme and for over four decades he has
both derived from and contributed to developments in the field of
observational cinema.
32 Documentary Films in India

MacDougall’s ethnographic film project in India:

the turn to children’s institutions

MacDougall’s ethnographic film project in India began with the highly

acclaimed Photo Wallahs (1992). This was an essayistic film that exam-
ined photographic practices in the north Indian hill town, Mussoorie.
The film spanned varied social strata spanning the English-speaking
elites and former provincial royals on to the lower middle classes – all
viewed in a range of sites including photographic studios and shooting
locations, cemeteries, people’s homes and antique shops. The film wove
a rich tapestry of photographic aesthetics registering varied sentiments,
narratives and meanings that people deposit on the instance when a
camera clicks. It exposed how people from different social backgrounds
imagine and construct themselves through visual representations. As
the film explored the ties between photographic aesthetics and their
underlying political-economies, it demystified image-making.
Following Photo Wallahs, MacDougall turned his attention to chil-
dren’s institutions. He started with a quintet on the elite boys’ boarding
school, the Doon School in Dehradun, north India. This was followed
by three films on the Rishi Valley School in Andhra Pradesh, south
India, an institution founded and influenced by the teachings of the
twentieth-century philosopher, J. Krishnamurti. If Photo Wallahs inau-
gurated MacDougall’s interest into sociocultural and class differences,
the school films extended that interest, and together they can be under-
stood as close studies of class structures and the processes of social and
cultural stratification in Indian society.
Prior to working in India, David and Judith MacDougall made ethno-
graphic films in Uganda, Kenya, Sardinia (Italy) and indigenous Australia.
Working in societies that have contended with the influences and
ambivalences of colonialism, education has often been a central theme in
their work, forming a microcosmic framework through which to explore
wider questions of how individuals sit in relation to society. In view-
ing MacDougall’s school films, we can see that they consider a series of
interrelated questions. What becomes of individuals in a society where
colonial rule has supposedly ended? More specifically, the films ask: what
impulses, aspirations, and epistemologies are called upon in constructing
the citizenry of an independent nation? And: who accesses which ways of
being in society and on what terms? In this sense, the focus on children’s
institutions such as schools serves in interrogating how a society imagines
and constructs itself; how it conjures the past and envisions its future; and
what consensus defines how individuals perform as social agents.
Constructing the Self, Constructing Others 33

In the films about the Doon and Krishnamurti schools, MacDougall

maps the cultural discourses and imaginaries of these two renowned insti-
tutions and how those inform their approaches to epistemology, formal
pedagogies and the aesthetic principles by which they are constructed as
learning environments. Since both of the schools were founded in the
1930s, during India’s freedom movement, they have in their own ways
called up a discourse around the role and purpose of education for a
society undergoing profound historical change. The school films expose
us to the citizenship ideals and the conceptions of nationhood fostered
by these institutions. They adopt a very different approach from the film
Gandhi’s Children, which constitutes a diametrical move away from the
elite, middle- and upper-middle-class educational institutions to a very dif-
ferent setting for childhood: a destitute children’s home. This move from
one class context to another highlights many shifts in children’s ways
of being, their aspirations, language and the very contract in which they
as individuals perceive themselves positioned with relation to broader
society. The first two projects expose us to the ambitious shaping of
individuals to either lead the nation – as in the case of the Doon School –
or to self-observe as responsive beings in keeping with Krishnamurti’s
existential philosophy – as at Rishi Valley. By contrast, Gandhi’s Children
throws us blatantly into the raw, amidst a community of lonesome indi-
viduals for whom survival is itself an ambition and whose desire to live is
fraught with repeated interruptions. Through the production of this film
the MacDougall ethnographic film project acquires a holism, offering a
complex portrait of social and economic differences in Indian society.
In this and the following two chapters I study a selection of
MacDougall’s films on children’s institutions of India, focusing on two
interrelated areas. First, I explore how these films introduce us to ways
in which each institution offers a conception, either explicit or implied,
of the nation, particularly as a cultural construct. All the films focus
on specific institutions or individuals, but they do not present simple,
descriptive portraits. Rather, they document students’ embodied expe-
riences and evoke their lives in a finely textured way. They historicize
social, cultural and class dynamics; and, in so doing, I argue that the
films both suggest and explicate conceptions of the nation exemplified
by each institution.
Chapters 1 and 2 take up three films from the Doon school quin-
tet of five films. My discussion of these select films illustrates how
MacDougall’s observational approach reveals the ways by which con-
ceptions of the nation, both as an idea and as a project, extend from
a colonial discourse, towards which the Doon School sees itself in
34 Documentary Films in India

opposition. This chapter examines the first film in the quintet, Doon School
Chronicles, whose essayistic structure clearly suggests how colonial-
ism’s cultural and epistemic constructs permeate and shape the Doon
School’s imaginations of the nation, nation-building as a process of
modernization and, given that it is a boys’ boarding school, its concep-
tion of masculinity. This film also alerts us to the exclusionary dynamics
and the processes of othering rooted in the school’s cultural discourses.
These processes of othering are advanced by the fourth and fifth films
in the quintet, The New Boys and the The Age of Reason, which are stud-
ied in chapter 2. Chapter 3 focuses on Gandhi’s Children, examining the
home’s treatment of destitute children. The home in which this film is
set is run by an NGO with funding support from various state, national,
private and foreign sources and stands as a concrete statement of soci-
ety’s will to provide welfare. As the film reveals, however, this will is
interrupted and compromised through the home’s bureaucratized and
summarily dismissive approach towards its inmates.
A second area of my study considers how the selected films derive
from the broad tenets of observational cinema and extend its emphasis
on reflexivity in terms of the filmmaker–subject relationship. I specifi-
cally examine how a filmmaker’s relation with their subjects shapes film
narrative, constituting the basis for the insights and meanings offered
by the films. One defining feature of observational cinema is its empha-
sis on exposing the relation/s filmmakers develop with their subjects.
Observational filmmakers hold that the filmmaking process situates
filmmakers and subjects into a social contract or relationship. This rela-
tion is the basis for the knowledge, meanings and understandings that
a film offers. In contrast to popular documentary, observational cinema
holds that the filmmaker and the cinematic apparatus are not an objec-
tive or omniscient presence and that, therefore, it is necessary that the
filmmaker–subject relation/s be made transparent to the viewer. This is
to enable the viewer to appreciate the processes by which the knowl-
edges and understandings films offer, have been elicited. The centrality
of this concern in observational cinema is neatly summarized by Colin
Young’s comment on the filmmaker–subject relation:

A possible weakness in the observational approach is that in order

to work, it must be based on an intimate, sympathetic relationship
between the filmmaker and the subject – not the eye of the aloof,
detached observer but someone watching as much as possible from
the inside. (Young 1995: 76–7)
Constructing the Self, Constructing Others 35

This understanding of the filmmaker–subject relationship contrasts

with how reflexivity has been understood in avant-garde film and docu-
mentary. In contrast to avant-garde and political modernist cinema
wherein cinematic self-reflexivity implies revelation of the cinematic
apparatus and filmmaking processes, observational cinema empha-
sizes the social dimension of documentary making. Here, reflexivity
is geared towards revealing the social dynamics and power relations
between filmmakers and subjects that facilitate the viewer in appre-
ciating the finer nuances through which documentary meanings and
knowledges are mediated. Applying MacDougall’s own proposition of
‘deep reflexivity’ (1998) that holds the filmmaker–subject relation as
dynamic and changing, I argue that the evolving filmmaker–subject
relations that we see in the school films extend from an intersubjec-
tive camera practice and they offer platforms for students to express
themselves on terms that exceed those by which they are defined
within their educational institutions. This is a critical move because
through this the films expose us to multiple student experiences
and viewpoints that differ from and, on occasion, even question the
normative discourses on student identities, citizenry and nationhood
endorsed by their institutions. Gandhi’s Children explicates most fully
how MacDougal’s reflexive approach has evolved and forms the basis
of a dialogue for destitute children to express their discontent and critical
reasonings against normative understandings of their bodies within a
dominant cultural imaginary.
Before I discuss Doon School Chronicles, I will turn briefly to David
MacDougall’s broader concern for the representation of childhood
through cinema, a concern that is at the heart of his project in India.
In his essay Films of Childhood (2006), MacDougall expresses how rep-
resentations of childhood in cinema are often limiting because they
are constructed by adults and based on adult perceptions of childhood
experiences. From an adult perspective childhood is readily seen as the
‘other’ of adult life and so MacDougall notes that:

If representation is how art and science clarify human experience,

then the representation of childhood in films (not to say nothing of
photographs, paintings, novels, and psychoanalytic theory) would
seem to have contributed little but confusion. In the real world,
children are by turns kind, cruel, foolish, wise, attractive, unattrac-
tive, moral, amoral, innocent, and knowing – but films all too often
would have us believe in the essence of the child. (2006: 67)
36 Documentary Films in India

MacDougall holds that much fiction film, as well as visual anthropology,

have either sentimentalized or primitivized children. Children have
been depicted as lacking the facilities of self-expression, intelligence
or thought that can actually manifest in contingent and cogent ways
through the different stages of childhood. For MacDougall, studying
childhood by making films about children is about rediscovering chil-
dren’s complexity and recognizing them as whole persons, in them-
selves. He summarizes this motivation stating that:

A primary reason for studying childhood is to understand the poten-

tial of human society more fully, not because childhood is adult
society in miniature (it isn’t), but because children are often more
experimental than adults in drawing upon the choices open to them.
Although deeply conservative in some respects (in relation to their
peers), children can be adept at solving problems and resolving con-
flicts in ways that adults would immediately rule out for ideological
reasons. (MacDougall 2006: 70)

This concern towards studying and representing childhood runs as a

subtle thread throughout MacDougall’s films on children’s institutions
in India, and by studying his films we can discern his deep commitment
to constructing complex, culturally and politically sensitive images of

Doon School Chronicles (2000, 140 mins): a comprehensive

introduction to the Doon School

On the foothills of Mussoorie (the setting for MacDougall’s Photo

Wallahs) lies the valley town of Dehradun, which is renowned for
its prestigious educational institutions, including the Doon School.
The Doon School is famed as a leading boys’ boarding school that
counts amongst its alumnae prominent politicians, entrepreneurs,
administrators, litterateurs, journalists and educationalists. The anthro-
pologist Sanjay Srivastava, who published a study of the Doon School,
Constructing Post-Colonial India: National Character and the Doon School
(1998), had first suggested to MacDougall the idea of making a film
about this institution. Having been to boarding school himself,
MacDougall was drawn to this project.
As stated earlier, Doon School Chronicles is the first film of the Doon
School quintet. It presents a comprehensive overview of student life,
introducing the school’s foundational values and its various cultures.
Constructing the Self, Constructing Others 37

The scope of this film is vast and it considers a number of subjects: the
school’s formal and informal pedagogies; its numerous official and sub-
cultural rituals; issues of community building across the school’s diverse
student body; the school’s aesthetic, including students’ visual cultures;
hierarchies instituted and endorsed by the school’s dominant cultural
discourses and the numerous subcultural formations within the larger
school body. In this work, MacDougall engages with a cross-section of
students and school staff who share their views and perspectives on
the school’s ideals and practices, expressing how the school culture has
been shaped in contemporary times, when it commands an established
and unshakeable profile for producing luminaries across fields.
MacDougall approaches the Doon School as a constructed community
where individuals come to share in common experiences (MacDougall
2006: 96). This approach to the school as a constructed community
is tied to observational cinema’s central tenet that people’s subjectivi-
ties are co-extensive of the landscapes and environments they inhabit.
Accordingly, landscapes and environments are not abstract categories

Figure 1.1 Morning Assembly at the Doon School

Image courtesy, David MacDougall.
38 Documentary Films in India

that make up inert backdrops for cinematic action in observational

cinema. They are socially, historically and culturally constructed and
observational films explore how people interact with their environ-
ments and how those interactions give us insights into how people per-
ceive their place in the wider social world. Anna Grimshaw and Amanda
Ravetz attribute observational cinema’s interest in exploring peoples’
subjectivities in relation to their environments, to the influence of
Italian neorealism on this form. They hold that Italian neorealism
approached the social world as not just indicative of ‘geography, history
or society – but subjectivity too’ and this understanding has been key
to observational cinema (Grimshaw and Ravetz 2009: 14). In line with
this observation, David MacDougall has himself proposed the concept
of ‘social environment’ – a site that a group of people inhabits and with
which they interact. Social environments shape people and they are, in
turn, shaped by them. For MacDougall, social environments can be seen
as collectively authored and this collective authorship is experienced
through a whole array of sensory registers – visual, aural, olfactory and
tactile. He elaborates on this, stating that:

… their [social environments’] ‘authorship’ has been collective over

time, employing the full range of available media: stones and earth,
fibers and dyes, sounds, time and space, and the many expressive
possibilities of the human body. Even in its shifts and internal con-
tradictions, a community acquires a character that provides a distinc-
tive backdrop of everyday life. (MacDougall 2006: 95)

With this understanding, in Doon School Chronicles MacDougall docu-

ments the Doon School environment extensively. Through this process
he raises a key issue that occupies the school’s formal pedagogies and
cultural understandings: community formation within the school. This
issue runs throughout the Doon School quintet and on a few instances
it will be seen transposed onto the broader category of the nation. Doon
School Chronicles’ introductory sequence cuts straight to the core of
community-formation at the Doon School, forming as it were a kind of
preface to the entire Doon School project.
The film’s opening shots place the viewer inside the school campus
where student uniforms are seen drying on grass. Slowly, the school
staff are introduced in the film frame, and they move across it steadily,
collecting the dried uniforms. We then cut to the interior of a storage
room where the numbered uniforms are organized and stacked in des-
ignated piles such as nightwear and sportswear. Thus, even before we
Constructing the Self, Constructing Others 39

have seen any students – the subjects of the film – we are made aware
of them constituting numerical figures within the school’s bureaucratic
set-up. The uninhabited school uniforms announce the film’s thematic –
the relation between uniformity and individuality, between community
and the individual. To indicate that this theme is not an imposition
of the filmmaker but that it has historical currency and has occupied
debate within the school, at the end of this sequence MacDougall shares
a comment from the school’s first headmaster, A. E. Foot through an

A year ago the present members of the Doon School were an assort-
ment of two hundred boys from all over India. Now you can think
of yourselves as a pack of cards all with the same pattern of blue and
grey on your backs; on the other side is each boy’s special character. –
A. E. Foot, Headmaster, 1936.

Our first encounter with the students occurs when we see them
respond to a roll call. The camera faces them frontally. In a neat file,
students step forward, responding to their names being called out by
an authoritative figure, who is outside the film frame. The camera’s
angle is low and this viewing position emphasizes the students’ place
in a hierarchical set-up. They are filmed looking up to the figure of
authority who calls out their names, to whom they respond as ‘Sir.’ The
film’s title follows this sequence and the film then cuts into a scene
where schoolboys are seen being measured for height and weight. This
regimen features repeatedly through the film, highlighting the school’s
emphasis on physicality.
The next scene shows a group of boys in their dorm interacting with
MacDougall, who is teaching them how to use a camera. It is thus revealed
to us that this filmmaker does not approach his subjects purely as inform-
ants. He shares his apparatus with them, and trains them to use it. Theirs
is a cinematic contract and it is clearly dialogic, involving exchange
between subjects and the filmmaker. As one of the boys frames shots, the
others are seen making poses for him. The sequence then cuts to a series
of stills from the group. As images freeze on the screen, synchronous
sound continues and a temporal confusion occurs. We have seen similar
freeze frames earlier in the film, in its opening school uniforms sequence.
In these sequences, we sense time is flowing because the sounds of the
scene continue, but we are seeing still images in which time is frozen.
The stilling of images with sound flowing in the background cre-
ates a complex reflexive instance in this film – alerting us to, through
40 Documentary Films in India

interruption of visual flow, cinema’s fundamental principle – the rapid

succession of still frames that gives the impression of movement.
When seen in extension of Photo Wallahs where the filmmaker fol-
lowed the making of photographic images, this early sequence of Doon
School Chronicles alerts us to the specificity of the medium. Without
any declaration, visible or verbal, we are aware that we are in the realm
of the digital.
We have seen such moments before in cinema when the image was
made still and the sound continued to flow – as, for instance, the
sequence in which Dziga Vertov follows a bourgeois party travelling
in carriages from the railway station to a residence in Moscow, in The
Man with the Movie Camera (1929), which Laura Mulvey discusses in
Death 24X a Second (2009). However, the sequence of still images in Doon
School Chronicles is pointedly distinct for two reasons. First, the sound
that flows over the still images is of the scene itself, unlike say in The
Man with the Movie Camera, which is a silent film that was accompanied
by a symphonic score (either performed live or added to copies of the
film later). Second, the friendly, relaxed and naughty poses of the boys
in the stills take us into the realm of the boys’ visual cultures. We gather
that the stills we are seeing on screen are instants halted and stilled
from a wider flow of movements that the students perform to express
and assert their camaraderie. Seeing their ease before the camera we are
aware that this group of boys is used to being photographed and posing
in such ways for the camera. This reflexive instance is, therefore, more
complex than the filmmaker stilling the image to remind us that we are
watching a constructed artefact.
Laura Mulvey has argued that the possibilities of cinematic self-
reflexivity have advanced in the digital context that is characteristically
interactive. According to Mulvey, the viewer of the digital era can exer-
cise the decision to pause an image at will (say on a DVD player or a
laptop) and thus we may be reminded – through our action, rather than
that of a filmmaker – that the effect of cinema arises from a succession
of still images. She notes that where the stilled image was previously
the ‘creative preserve of the filmmaker, always accessible on the editing
table and always transferable into a freeze frame on the screen’, fol-
lowing video and now in the digital era the stilled image comes about
through what she terms ‘interactive spectatorship’ (Mulvey 2009: 22).
In the digital context viewers are accustomed to halting and inter-
rupting the flow of images and while this may not always be with the
deconstructive intents of say an avant-garde filmmaker, for Mulvey,
the spectatorial prerogative to halt the image opens the possibility for
Constructing the Self, Constructing Others 41

thinking and probing deeper into the experience of time. She elaborates
on this, stating that:

At a time when new technologies seem to hurry ideas and their rep-
resentations at full tilt towards the future, to stop and to reflect on
the cinema and its history also offers the opportunity to think about
how time might be understood within wider, contested, patterns of
history and mythology. Out of this pause, a delayed cinema gains a
political dimension, potentially able to challenge patterns of time
that are neatly ordered around the end of an era, its ‘before’ and its
‘after.’ (Mulvey 2009: 22–3)

Following from Mulvey, the stilled images sequence at the start of Doon
School Chronicles can be seen as confusing temporalities and this com-
pels us to ask what constitutes the present: that which we hear and is
flowing, or, that which we see and is frozen? The sequence only lasts
for a few moments and MacDougall cuts back to the scene in the dorm.
We see the same group of boys sharing biscuits among themselves and
offering some to MacDougall. After this, we see a first exterior shot of
the school’s main building, showing its colonial-style architecture. This
first resonance of a colonial imaginary is crucially timed and it builds
upon the sense of temporal confusion that has been provoked by the
sequence involving still images. In placing the still images sequence
before suggesting the colonial ties of the Doon School, MacDougall
has introduced a subtle theme that is explored in this film and also
all his other works based in India: how the country negotiates her
colonial past. Is the colonial past squarely in the realm of the past, or
are its remains somewhere hidden and suppressed, bursting forth on
particular instances in the present? The remainder of the Doon School
Chronicles will dwell on this as it will with some of the other themes
the film’s opening has raised, namely: the uniform/community vs
individual; the Doon School’s preoccupation with the male body in
physical terms; and reflexivity in terms of the social mediation between
filmmaker and subjects.

The Doon School as a social aesthetic field

Doon School Chronicles does not develop according to a linear narrative.

MacDougall applies the concept of ‘social aesthetics’ to study how the
school is organized along specific aesthetic lines that provide insight
into its epistemological and cultural discourses. In their work Anna
42 Documentary Films in India

Grimshaw and Amanda Ravetz have noted how the film’s opening sets
up MacDougall’s approach to the institution as an aesthetically con-
structed environment. They hold that approaching the school in this
way facilitates understanding how the educational experience it offers is
based on very select values that are embodied in the school’s aesthetic.
They state:

From the outset, MacDougall alerts us to a developed aesthetic at

work at the Doon School. It is material and concrete, impinging
directly on the bodies that move through its institutional spaces.
But it also transcends specific individuals. The images of shirts and
shorts evoke absence, hollow receptacles waiting to be animated by
the bodies and personalities of particular boys. (Grimshaw and Ravetz
2009: 88)

MacDougall’s concept of social aesthetics ties in with Sanjay Srivastava’s

concept of ‘social aestheticism’: the visible means through which the
Doon School as a community constructs and expresses itself. According
to Srivastava, the Doon school comprises a ‘visible community of man-
ners and an audible community of speech that constituted and recog-
nized itself through the etiquette of “civil” life’ (1998: 38).
The Doon School’s social aesthetics as documented by MacDougall
include the very body of the school, its structure and layout that have
been constructed in line with the school’s epistemologies and cultural
discourses. This constructed environment is then seen spilling onto
the students, shaping their bodily codes of conduct in it. These codes
are disbursed through formal pedagogy, the school’s numerous extra-
curricular activities and its overall culture. For MacDougall, social
aesthetics resonates with Pierre Bourdieu’s conception of habitus and
MacDougall asserts that social aesthetics impacts inhabitants of an
environment at a sensorial plane (Bourdieu 1990). He states:

‘Aesthetics’ in this context has little to do with notions of beauty or

art, but rather with a much wider range of culturally patterned sen-
sory experience. (It is closer to what the Greeks meant by aisthesis,
or ‘sense experience.’)… Doon School’s social aesthetic is made up of
many elements and consists not so much in a list of ingredients as
a complex, whose interrelations as a totality (as in gastronomy) are
as important as their individual effects. These elements include such
things as the design of buildings and grounds, the use of clothing
and colors, the rules of dormitory life, the organization of students’
Constructing the Self, Constructing Others 43

times, particular styles of speech and gesture, and the many rituals
of everyday life that accompany such activities as eating, school
gatherings, and sport (itself already a highly ritualised activity).
(MacDougall 2006: 98)

MacDougall extensively inventories the school environment with an eye

for suggesting how it is felt and experienced at a bodily, and a sensory
level. We observe the school’s architecture; the layout of buildings and
gardens; the organization of learning spaces such as music rooms and
computer laboratories; visual cultures of classrooms and dormitories;
sculptures dotting the school; its broader aural soundscape; and the
numerous, everyday rituals from the ringing of the school bell and
the offering of daily prayers onto the provision of food by the school
kitchen and its consumption in the school dining hall. The film fol-
lows students in their daily routines – from formal learning to occa-
sions for recreation. Peer dynamics and interactions between students,
the school staff and teachers are seen through detailed and sustained
shots that focus on the students’ verbal and bodily dispositions in these
interactions. While English is the formal language for instruction and
all school business, there is a school vernacular that we hear in infor-
mal contexts when students study, play games, crack jokes or tease one
another. MacDougall presents subtle juxtapositions that foreground the
disparity between how students conduct their bodies in structured con-
texts such as classrooms, sportsfields or laboratories and how they oper-
ate in informal contexts such as dormitories and recreational spaces.
On all occasions the camera frames students in a way that emphasizes
their location in the school environment. This is achieved through the
use of the wide-angle lens that keeps backgrounds in focus, allowing us
to appreciate how bodies sit in relation to space. The viewer observes
multiple layers of action and meaning – those in the foreground and
background, corners and centers – contained within the shots. This is in
keeping with MacDougall’s approach to filming social aesthetics that he
indicates can only be approached ‘obliquely’, as a suggestion. He states
that social aesthetics: ‘… as both the backdrop and product of everyday
life, could only be approached obliquely, through the events and mate-
rial objects in which it played a variety of roles’ (2006: 108).
Further, MacDougall places the camera near to or in the midst of stu-
dents, close to their bodies and at their heights, so that we can experi-
ence their environment from a position close to their perspectives. He
frames images and sounds in such a way that the tactile properties of
what we see and hear are foregrounded and we begin to get a sense of
44 Documentary Films in India

what it feels like to be in this school environment with its particular

aesthetics. Thus, MacDougall’s approach to cinematography involves a
very sophisticated use of camera magnification and angulations since
he combines wide-angle shots, which offer a contextual view of things,
with close-ups in a way that mobilizes the distinct informational and
affective properties of both.

The Doon School and India’s nation-building project

Focusing on the students’ activities and conduct within the school,

the Doon School Chronicles segues into how the school is entwined with
India’s post-independence, nation-building project and how students
get positioned to partake in it. The Doon School, founded in 1935,
was styled consciously along the lines of the English public school, the
motivation for which is suggested through a quotation from Sir Jagdish
Prasad, a member of the School’s Board of Governors in 1937, which
we see in an intertitle:

English Public Schools have often been criticized, but… these schools
do attempt to develop those qualities of responsibility, of self-reliance
and of discipline which are so essential for all public service. –
Sir Jagdish Prasad, School Board of Governors, 1937.

The school’s foundation during India’s freedom movement, has, in many

ways, informed its understanding of the nation as both a category and
as a project. This has in turn influenced its pedagogical mission that
is geared for shaping individuals as national citizens. The school was
envisioned to produce leaders and administrators who would shape and
govern India after independence. The school’s discourse on the nation
derives from 19th- and 20th-century Indian thought wherein nationalism
and nation-building were conceived in anti-colonial terms, as modes for
socio-economic sovereignty and self-assertion. Following India’s inde-
pendence, and particularly under Jawaharlal Nehru’s prime-ministership,
nation-building had become interchangeable with modernization.
Doon School Chronicles establishes that at the heart of the school’s epis-
temological and cultural discourses lies a desire for modernization that
is perceived as the route to fulfilling an independent nation’s aspira-
tions for national development, progress and internationalism. Srirupa
Roy has noted that modernization since the Nehru era was based on an
‘enthusiastic embrace of science’ (2007: 114). Roy elaborates that the
emphasis on science stemmed from independent India’s needs-based
Constructing the Self, Constructing Others 45

discourse4 – the idea that India, following colonial rule, was in a state
of ‘essential lack’ across many arenas (food, energy, defence, to name
a few). This was the basis of India’s development needs, which it was
understood could be fulfilled through applications of science. She states:

The identity of the new India was defined in terms of the privileged
place that it accorded to science and technology in all arenas of life.
For instance, techno-scientific artifacts such as dams, steel plants,
and atomic reactors were hailed as the icons of the new nation-state.
Policy debates on the many problems and needs that India faced in
economic, educational, social and cultural arenas emphasized their
solution through the application of the objective methodologies and
neutral rationalities of science. (Roy 2007: 114)

The move towards modernization, based on the pursuit of science and

rationalism, had historical precedent as India’s nationalists had seen this
as a counter-move against colonial discourse. In the anti-colonial, nation-
alist imagination the ability of a colonized people to modernize meant
they were competent for self-reliant governance and self-rule. This had
strengthened the claim for freedom from colonial rule. Partha Chatterjee
notes the contradiction at the very heart of this conception, stating that:

… nationalism sought to demonstrate the falsity of the colonial claim

that the backward peoples were culturally incapable of ruling them-
selves in the conditions of the modern world. Nationalism denied
the alleged inferiority of the colonized people; it also asserted that a
backward nation could ‘modernize’ itself while retaining its cultural
identity. It thus produced a discourse in which, even as it challenged
the colonial claim to political domination, it also accepted the very
intellectual premises of ‘modernity’ on which colonial domination
was based. (Chatterjee 1993b: 30)

Upon independence, the advantages of modernization were held as

vital for asserting India’s sovereignty in the international arena, which
at the time was polarized along Cold War lines. Doon School Chronicles
qualifies how the school’s concept of modernization is selectively inter-
changeable with late 19th-century discourses of scientific rationalism
tied to the tenets of Enlightenment reason.
From the very beginning of the film, we are exposed to the Doon
School’s pedagogies which emphasize scientific temperament and techno-
logical facility as aspirations for the students. Through these competent
46 Documentary Films in India

citizens at the service of the ‘community of man’ can be shaped. We view

a breadth of provisions for science education including various labora-
tories and a natural history museum that all suggest the Doon School’s
particular approach to the physical world as based on observation, frag-
mentation and categorization. The school’s pedagogy is grounded in
practical interfaces such as science experiments or field-visits to the Doon
valley – thereby training students to ‘study’ matter. An Enlightenment
humanist tendency emphasizing mastery of the human mind over
physical matter permeates thinking at the school. To establish how rooted
scientific rationalist thought has become within the school’s cultural dis-
course, MacDougall shares classroom scenarios as well as comments from
key figures who have addressed the school’s educational mission.

It is wrong to think that science teaches only science. Science brings

about a change in the whole attitude of boys. It brings about correct
judgement, alertness and obedience to laws. – H. E. the Governor
General Shri Rajagopalachari, Founder’s Day Speech, 1948.

The date of the above quotation, 1948, is particularly significant,

being one year after India’s independence. Its wording establishes the
necessity of a scientific temperament not only as a means to attain
economic or political progress, but also for constructing a citizenry
compliant with the laws of the nation. Through numerous sequences
Doon School Chronicles exposes us to just how deep-rooted is the aspi-
ration for the promotion of a scientific and rational temperament; it
can be seen permeating the students’ peer relations and the collective
processes of learning and interaction. We observe that group discus-
sions and one-to-one interactions are dominated by students who are
science- or math-oriented on the grounds that the insights of science
are indisputable and throughout the film the rationally oriented,
extroverted and articulate students appear more mobile within the
school environment.

A physically dominated aesthetic of masculinity

While the school’s pedagogical and cultural discourses emphasize the

facilities of science and reason with relation to the intellect, Doon School
Chronicles goes on to explore how the school also endorses a robust
masculinity as the complement to a rational mind. On the school’s
masculine ideal converge certain physical attributes that are perceived
as befitting the overall conception of a modern citizenry. Doon School
Constructing the Self, Constructing Others 47

Chronicles maps a physically dominated, and occasionally aggressive,

aesthetic geared to promote physical fitness and endurance among
the students. In an early interview in the film, the school headmaster
explains the emphasis on physicality, stating that this may be tied to:

…an early 20th century recipe for the ideal school boy… it may have
something to do with the imperial view of leadership and growth[,]
and the mould that a society that looked at militancy as a way of
expression expected its men to grow and behave.

The headmaster adds that as times have changed the need to believe
in these as ‘the only outlets for expression or the only ways by which
a person can become a man’ has successively diluted. But Doon School
Chronicles clearly contests this.
In this film, as in the entire Doon School Project, MacDougall con-
structs very detailed sequences around exercise, sports and sports com-
petitions, dwelling on physical skills and minutiae, training methods
and the students’ social and emotional dispositions in relation to sport.
We repeatedly see images of students rising and attending morning PT
(physical training) exercises. Contingents of schoolboys are seen per-
forming march-pasts at various school events. In their recreational hours
the Doon boys are seen undertaking games such as cricket, table tennis,
boxing or chess – their games always laden with subtle undertones of
interpersonal rivalry. At the Founder’s Day, when the alumnae visit the
school, we see them too engage in sports activities such as playing a
tug-of-war and the incumbent students performing a PT display using
torch-lights that heighten the militant undertones of physical exercise. In
With Morning Hearts (the second film of the quintet) and Karam in Jaipur
(the third film of the quintet), MacDougall follows individual students
through sports regimes: preliminary competitions for qualification to
participate in sports events, fitness regimes, preparations for and perfor-
mance in the finals, and how those students approach the outcomes –
success or failure. Further endorsement for the physical aesthetic at the
school comes through the motivational events that are organized when
famous national sports personalities visit the school and address the
students. In Doon School Chronicles we see a sequence in which Kapil
Dev, who had captained India to its first Cricket World Cup victory in
1983, visits the school. He interacts with the Doon boys, emphasizing
the importance of physical discipline in order to achieve international
acclaim in one’s chosen field. In these various contexts we are exposed to
students’ sentiments towards sport that to some degree evoke the ethos
48 Documentary Films in India

of Victorian team spirit. Students display the values of sportsmanship,

restraint and amateurism – the very values that Arjun Appadurai has
observed as characteristic of cricket, one of the most popular sports in
India (Appadurai 1996: 108).
Interweaving sequences that dwell extensively on physicality with
sequences that take up the school’s formal pedagogies, Doon School
Chronicles suggests that the masculine ideal endorsed by this institu-
tion rests on a Cartesian duality between body and mind. Scientific
and rational temperaments are the aspirations of the mind and a robust
physicality, the aspiration of the body. Together these constitute the
male ideal of the Doon School, an optimally and constructively func-
tioning masculine-citizen in the community; the community being
understood here as the school environment in an immediate sense, and
the nation, for which Doon School’s education is preparing students.
This stylization of the masculine-citizen rests clearly on certain political
values that can be contextualized using Michel Foucault’s proposition of

Figure 1.2 The physically dominated aesthetic of the Doon School

Image courtesy, David MacDougall.
Constructing the Self, Constructing Others 49

‘political anatomy’ – the control and stylization of the citizen body to

ensure it can be brought in line with the dominant political hegemony.
For Foucault, political anatomy originated in seventeenth-century
European societies following the upheavals of industrialization, epi-
demics and wars. According to him, these developments necessitated
discipline and coercions to control the body and ensure its optimal
functioning. He states:

... discipline produces subjected and practiced bodies, ‘docile’ bod-

ies. Discipline increases the forces of the body (in economic terms of
utility) and diminishes these same forces (in political terms of obedi-
ence). In short, it dissociates power from the body; on the one hand,
it turns it into an ‘aptitude’, a ‘capacity’, which it seeks to increase;
on the other hand, it reverses the course of the energy, the power that
might result from it, and turns it into a relation of strict subjection.
(Foucault 1995: 138)

While Doon School students are encouraged to embody the duality,

that is, excel in physical fitness and sports alongside developing a sci-
entifically inclined mind, MacDougall’s film project reveals that this
duality is seldom successfully combined in one figure: students excel
either in sports or in intellectual pursuits.

The will to order: influences of the IMA and

FRI on the Doon School

Two references in the visual composition of the Doon School Chronicles

provide insight into how the school’s masculine-ideal sits in relation to
the broader political project of shaping compliant national citizens. The
Doon School interacts with two prominent national institutions – the
Indian Military Academy (IMA) and the Forest Research Institute (FRI),
both of which are situated in Dehradun. The IMA and FRI were both
founded during the period of British colonial rule and they epitomize
quite particular understandings of the body’s position within the world.
A few short sequences in Doon School Chronicles consider the relation
between Doon School students and these institutions. While these
references may be slight, they contextualise the political values of the
school’s masculine-ideal, elucidating how this ideal sits within a broader
discourse that loosely cuts across national institutions.
Founded in 1932, the IMA was envisioned as an indigenous military
academy modeled on the British Royal Military Academy, geared to train
50 Documentary Films in India

‘gentleman cadets’ entering the armed forces. One of the most prestigious
military academies in the subcontinent, the IMA’s curriculum holds
physical fitness as essential to the skillful and accurate performance of
defence functions that bear directly upon national security and sove-
reignty. Physical fitness is conceived in tightly defined terms spanning
exercise, freedom from contagion and an overall practice of orderly
life. Exercise is a crucial disciplinary mechanism within this schema as
it enhances the performance of physically oriented military functions;
and facilitates the classification of body types, their functions and
graduated situation within the rank and file of the military. In this con-
ceptualization, the body is hollowed out of all cultural associations and
it is constructed as a carrier of national will for security and sovereignty.5
The Doon School liaises with the IMA, particularly for sports. Some of
the physical trainers at the school are retired military officers. In some
sequences we see a military band playing to performing students, for
instance, in a march-past or during a PT display. One sequence of exer-
cises and march-past concludes with a senior army officer commending
the boys on their performance. The viewer can discern correspondences
between the IMA’s discourse on physicality and the Doon School’s
physically dominated aesthetic. While the IMA does not directly influ-
ence the school, its physical discipline bears symbolic value for it.
If the Doon School’s association with the IMA spans the field of sports
and physical discipline, its liaison with the Forest Research Institute
(FRI) advances a pursuit for order by qualifying the body’s relation
to the physical world. The Doon School was founded on the former
grounds of the FRI and it continues to use some of its old buildings. The
FRI was set up in 1906 to undertake scientific observation and to classify
the plants and wilderness produce in the region. With this functional
remit, the FRI can be understood as epitomizing a colonial relation of
the Occident to the Orient – the former with the command of science
‘studying’, categorizing and thus bringing under classified order, in
quite clinical terms, the natural world of the latter. The aesthetic of
the Doon School campus is based on the principles by which British
administrators constructed the FRI campus. Open and natural spaces are
linked to buildings in a fashion through which nature appears to be on
constant and ornamental display. There is no unruly or disorderly wil-
derness; and the grounds and lawns are neatly designed and manicured.
School flora, including trees and plants, are labeled with their biological
names. Beyond the school’s flora, a natural history museum on campus
traces and classifies the animate world, with the human situated at the
helm of the evolutionary cycle.
Constructing the Self, Constructing Others 51

The school’s aesthetic is revealed as being marked by a will to order

and classification that is tied to Enlightenment discourse exercised
through Europe’s colonizing and civilizing missions. In this discourse,
all organic life ought to be classified and designated in such ways as
to facilitate order and the exercise of control so that maximum func-
tional benefits could be secured. This will to order and control, from
a Foucauldian perspective, is rooted in the need to transform peoples’
bodies; to convert the ‘confused, useless or dangerous multitudes’ into
an ordered multiplicity that serves to both characterize individuals as
individuals and utilize their bodies by ‘deriving [from them] as many
effects as possible’ (Foucault 1995: 149). Without the intervention of a
disciplinary and controlling schema the body represents disorder and
chaos. Timothy Mitchell elaborates on how the imposition of an orderly
aesthetic upon the ‘disorderly’ Orient, the colony, was a historically
double-purposed means serving the colonial project. One, in aesthetic
terms it served to make the orient decipherable to the colonizers. Two,
it facilitated a project of exclusion for whatever fell outside – or did not
subscribe to – the orderly aesthetic constituted the ‘other’, the miscre-
ant Oriental (Mitchell 1988: 33). The Doon School’s orderly aesthetic,
manifest both structurally and visually, make the institution and its
students distinctly identifiable. This forms the basis for an exclusion-
ary dynamic whereby anybody or any space that does not coincide
with the Doon School’s orderly aesthetic is deemed uncivil, chaotic or
devious, and this has political implications. Since the school upholds a
leadership mission in India, its aesthetic endorses a normative citizen-
ship ideal: uniformly masculine, modern, rational, physically robust
and orderly.

The dynamics of exclusion and otherness at work

In its closing segments, Doon School Chronicles maps the ways by which
an exclusionary dynamic operates at the Doon School. First, in conver-
sations with MacDougall, the students, both individually and in groups,
share their perceptions of the school environment. Many students indi-
cate that the school’s male ideal sits in stark contrast with the masses of
citizen subjects who are distanced from and located outside the school
environment. One student offers a succinct comment on this when
MacDougall asks if the school environment feels ‘real?’ The student
states that it is ‘not real at all. It’s pretty artificial.’ He lists the many
opportunities, the green fields, the tennis courts, and boys laughing
all around – attributes of a constructed school environment, what he
52 Documentary Films in India

terms as a ‘healthy atmosphere’. In the student’s understanding this is

a privileged environment whose contrasting Other are the ‘poor people
living in tents’ outside the school. Poverty, misery and ill-health are
the foundational terms that define the ‘other’, in the world beyond
the school. These conditions of the ‘other’ – who the student body
collectively understands as the subaltern – are tied to their states of
disorder, lack of bodily discipline, chaos and contagion. The ‘other’,
belonging to economically less privileged and socially less mobile
sections than those from which the students at the Doon School are
drawn, has not accessed modernization and is steeped in India’s older
orders of living. This conception of the ‘other’ forms the basis of the
school’s understanding of nation-building and also of the role of leader-
ship in it. The modern credentials that citizens educated at the Doon
School imbibe are necessary for leading the nation on the path of pro-
gress and modernization through which the conditions characterizing
the ‘other’ will be ameliorated.
Within the school’s epistemological economy, nation-building is a
process of transforming the disorderly masses by bringing them into the
fold of modernization. The modern – equated with scientific rationalism –
constitutes an emphatic move away from India’s pre-colonial and pre-
modern pasts that, by virtue of contrast to the modern, are deemed as
outmoded, ‘backward’ and standing in need of correction for the nation
to make ‘progress.’ Sanjay Srivastava elaborates on the fashioning of
modern citizenry at the Doon School, stating:

The Doon School has conducted its national identity and citizenship
dialogue through such a ‘science’ of personality which has emphasized
the need to develop the secular, rational, metropolitan citizen, and
the depredations of the opposite personality-type upon the health
of civil society. The conflict becomes one between the ‘modern’ type
of personality – the light of the nation state – and the ‘backward’
psyche, forever ready to undermine its integrity. (Srivastava 1998: 10)

The school’s understandings of modernization and nation-building

serve two purposes: first, they set the terms by which to define the
Other, and second, they endorse the school’s own disciplinary methods
as the means by which the ‘other’ can be brought into the fold of the
modernizing national project. The school environment is both a train-
ing ground and an aspirational space, the ideal of the nation-building
process. So while students regard the Doon School environment as being
‘artificial’ given its contrast with the world outside, they acknowledge
Constructing the Self, Constructing Others 53

that it has been deliberately constructed as an ideal environment:

students trained here will, as leaders of the nation, contribute to the
construction of a community patterned along the lines of the school.
While this approach to the ‘other’ lies at the heart of the Doon
School’s understanding of nation-building, its own community forma-
tion is fraught with exclusionary dynamics which Doon School Chronicles
suggests towards its end. In its concluding sections, the film consid-
ers senior–junior student relationships, enacted through the school’s
formal punishment and informal, bullying regimes. Senior students
as school prefects and group leaders are seen executing disciplinary
responsibilities. They disburse commands, lead physical training ses-
sions, and judge and punish the incompetent and disobedient students.
They stand in for the institution and exercise a disciplinary gaze that
informs processes of both reward and penalty.
Punishment regimes at the Doon School often involve rigorous
physical exercise, what one student equates as the Doon School’s ver-
sion of Auschwitz, calling it a form of ‘institutional authoritarianism.’
The film goes on to very subtly suggest a parallel cartography of the
school environment that is linked to punishment. Upon violation of
any school rules, prefects execute punishments whereby students are
required to perform a physical regime, usually running back and forth
across different grids of the campus. The grid a student gets assigned
is in relation to the severity of the punishment and it is based on the
distance between their dorm and the playing field where the prefect
executes the punishment. As we see students perform their punish-
ments, we are alerted to hierarchies within the student body and the
deposition of judgment prerogatives on senior students over juniors.
After following a series of punishment executions, MacDougall deli-
cately reveals how punishment spills into the realm of bullying, which
is a prominent concern within the Doon School community. Senior
students adopt a principally confrontational stance towards juniors and
the line between punishment and bullying often appears blurred. In
their attitudes towards the juniors, some seniors appear totalitarian and
silencing. They reinforce the juniors’ position in a hierarchical equa-
tion by demanding them to comply with the institutionalized order
of things. Some students voice their concern that such a hierarchical
atmosphere impedes their ability to question the school’s norms, com-
pelling them to conform to the status quo.
In one group discussion held in a dormitory, students from the mid-
dle school express that if they were not to conform to the school’s
existing culture, they would find themselves isolated from the broader
54 Documentary Films in India

community, and this would, in turn, deplete their self-confidence and

prospects of social mobility within the school. We now sense how a
culture of fear and exclusion is perpetuated at the school and how it lays
the ground for conformism. A most fitting concluding comment comes
from one senior student who links the issue of conformism to the
school’s masculine ideal. The film has followed this student through a
range of activities, including Hindi drama, prefect selection and a film-
making project. Recollecting his experiences through his years at the
school, he states that though he tried various sports such as tennis and
basketball he did not feel compelled to pursue them in any serious way.
He adds that though one may not be inclined towards sports and may
thus be labeled as a ‘sensitive’ type, one can still ‘survive’ in the school.
His comment allows us to understand how expressive practices such
as the arts, theatre and writing, to which this student feels inclined,
are equated with sensitivity that is a quality viewed as opposite to the
masculine ideal that the school endorses. With these comments the film
rounds up the discourse surrounding masculinity and modernization at
the Doon School – fully exposing the school’s ideals and how dynamics
of otherness are mobilized in opposition to it.

Colonial pasts, national presents: Doon School

Chronicles confuses temporalities

Doon School Chronicles ends on a quiet and somewhat somber note. Using
the observational method that suppresses explicit interpretation and
didactic conclusions in favour of a more subtle and derivative approach,
this film has introduced us to the Doon School community from multi-
ple perspectives. It has minutely followed the school as a unique cultural
and social environment; traced its history, which is entwined with India’s
nation-building project; exposed how that informs the school’s epistemo-
logical and cultural discourses; mapped the emphasis on scientific and
rational thought within the school community; and also shown how
those are complemented by the school’s physically dominated aesthetic.
The film has explored issues such as community formation and con-
formism within the school. In its concluding sections it has taken an
impassioned view of the institution, following regimes of punishment
and bullying that introduce viewers to the school’s exclusionary dynam-
ics and processes of ‘othering’ that the film indicates are not isolated
instances, but tied to the school’s broader discourse on masculinity.
The Doon School has a tightly defined idea of national progress and
the processes of nation-building. It sees its pedagogies and cultural
Constructing the Self, Constructing Others 55

discourses as shaping the citizens who will advance these processes.

Crucial in Doon School Chronicles is a suggestion of the school’s links
with the IMA and FRI – both of which embody colonial values. The
film explicates for the viewer how the idea of the nation at the Doon
School is shaped quite explicitly by India’s colonial past. We are posi-
tioned to appreciate the school’s emphasis on modernization and
nation-building as rooted in a colonial imaginary. The nation in need of
modern development for progress is quite like the colony that needed
to be civilized. This ties back to the reflexive instance, the sequence
of still images from the film’s opening sequence that provoked a sense of
temporal confusion for the viewer. Not only did that instance raise the
dialogic nature of MacDougall’s filmmaking method; it was also a kind
of forerunner for the film. For it announced that this film would expose
us to how conceptions of the past, present and future are complicated in
this institution. They do not flow in a neatly linear way. The idea of the
nation in the present rallies around nation-building as a process geared
for securing a progressive future. This is, as the film illustrates through
its numerous references to colonial influences, predicated on a colonial
discourse, which the school would like to believe is secured in the past.
MacDougall’s approach to the Doon School shifts dramatically in the
films that follow Doon School Chronicles. Instead of a comprehensive
overview of the institution, in his later work he immerses himself in
the experiences of smaller groups of students and individuals. In the
remaining four films, MacDougall’s focus is on new entrants to the
Doon School. Their processes of amalgamation, and their negotiation
of school life, its practices and discourses, reveal to us how children
perform under what are, for them, very new circumstances. By experi-
encing the school through the eyes of newcomers, the Doon School’s
discourse on community and exclusion is thrown into further relief.
The remaining four films of the quintet include two that focus on
successive cohorts of newcomers, and two that consider individual
students from those cohorts with whom MacDougall built a sustained
rapport. In these films MacDougall develops deeper connections with
some of the students with the result that their individual personali-
ties are more visible than, say, in Doon School Chronicles which, being
a broad-based film, is only able to give us a limited sense of individual
students’ personalities. The next chapter examines two of these films,
The New Boys and The Age of Reason. Since these films are more narrowly
focused than Doon School Chronicles, they are methodologically and
formally more innovative, and offer more textured views of the school
experience – and indeed of childhood, more broadly.
New Boys at the Doon School

The films The New Boys (2003) and The Age of Reason (2004) follow the
experiences of newcomers to the Doon School. The first film does this
through focusing on the experiences of a new class and the second
examines the experiences of a single student from that class, a Nepali
boy called Abhishek Shukla. The students featured in these films pro-
vide a unique perspective on the school – an outsider-becoming-insider
viewpoint. They are beginners who enter and explore the school;
accept, resist and adapt to it; and also question and transact its practices
and discourses. Through their eyes the school experience becomes more
immediate and textured than that to which we were exposed in Doon
School Chronicles. In the earlier film the school we encountered was an
institution constructed in tightly defined terms and one that followed
deeply entrenched practices of learning and living. The students who
we saw, mostly seniors, had been at the school for a number of years
and so they had devised their own methods for navigating through its
environment. Having found a place for themselves in the school, they
bore a more or less predetermined disposition in relation to it.
In The New Boys and The Age of Reason MacDougall introduces us to
a group of newcomers who are entering the school and who are yet
to form a relationship with it. As such, they represent any number
of possibilities and potentials for the relations with the school, as an
institution, and within it as, for example, between peers, colleagues,
and the school’s environment including its little, innocuous corners.
In these films we see newcomers encounter the school’s dominant and
numerous subcultures; the rhythms and ways of life at the school; its
sense of community, its hierarchies, and how authority is expressed and
enacted in its numerous contexts, both formally and informally. As the
group of newcomers begins to form their own sense of collectivity and
New Boys at the Doon School 57

cohesiveness, MacDougall very sensitively reveals how this experience

is, for many, their first, most pronounced encounter with peers who
come from different cultural backgrounds and have distinct personali-
ties. As we observe them through numerous activities, we are alerted to
how each student responds in their own way, bringing to each situation
which they encounter distinct intellectual, emotional and practical
capacities. MacDougall’s presence in these students’ early days at the
Doon School appears to extend seamlessly with their overall experience
of the new environment and they can be seen to engage with him quite
readily and easily, particularly because he is present with a camera –
a piece of technology that stirs their curiosities.
In fact, The Age of Reason evolves out of Abhishek’s keen interest
towards the camera which becomes the basis of a very interesting
friendship between him and MacDougall. The film chronicles the
unfolding of this friendship and it enables Abhishek to contend, in
his early days at the school, with his sense of foreignness, for he has
come to India from Nepal. As the film advances, Abhishek’s interest
in the camera takes a back seat and his friendship with MacDougall
becomes a way for him to express quite complex ideas and thoughts
that he has on a range of topics and issues that are not necessarily
addressed by institutionalized education. In both of the films we are
alert to how the mutual interest of the newcomers and the filmmaker
towards each other, becomes the force driving the filmmaking process,
shaping the films’ narratives and the meanings they offer. Both The
New Boys and The Age of Reason offer intimate portraits of the new-
comers’ lives at the school. Resting on the easy and sensitive rapports
that the newcomers form with MacDougall, both films introduce us to
how complex – on occasions difficult and restraining, on others playful
and imaginative – a young child’s relation to their learning environ-
ment can be.

The New Boys (2003, 100 mins)

The New Boys focuses on a group of entrants to the Foot House – one of
the two dorms that the school designates for newcomers. Functioning
as holding houses, these dorms help them to adapt gradually to the
school environment. Their aim is to foster a sense of community among
the newcomers and thus to soften the transition from home into this
boarding institution. The film spans the newcomers’ first term (four
months) at the school, and it begins by focusing on the processes of
their initiation into the school environment.
58 Documentary Films in India

The film opens with shots of Dehradun’s streets, referencing the world
beyond the school. We are thus positioned near the new boys for, like
them, we too will enter the school from outside. The next part of the
film takes us inside the Foot House where the school staff are seen pre-
paring the house to receive the newcomers. Beds are being made, win-
dows are cleaned, and boxes containing students’ belongings are moved
and placed next to beds assigned for each student. Mothers and boys
tally lists of personal belongings. Some parents converse, sharing why
they selected the Doon School. Some are Doon School alumnae them-
selves and they comment on how much the Foot House has changed
since their time. Some boys are introduced to their housemates while
others scan their new home with a gaze laden as much with inquisitive-
ness as it is with anxiety at the novelty of this whole encounter.
In the following sequence of the film, the school’s headmaster wel-
comes the new class at a reception held for both parents and students.
This meeting has an atmosphere of excitement and achievement
because the newcomers are understood as having been accepted at the
school following a rigorous process of selection. At night, after dinner,
the entire class of new boys is seen in their dorm’s study room, called

Figure 2.1 A class of new boys at the Doon School

Image courtesy, David MacDougall.
New Boys at the Doon School 59

the toye room, where each newcomer introduces himself with his
name and the region from where he is coming. The class is composed
of students from diverse backgrounds, including some from countries
neighbouring India. MacDougall moves through the toye room from
one newcomer to the next, framing each individually. Through this
visual introduction the film establishes its intention to follow the new-
comers as individuals, by exploring their unique personalities. This is
an important undertaking after Doon School Chronicles which had raised
issues of individuality, community formation and conformism within
the community of Doon School.

The footies’ visual cultures and narratives

The film follows the ‘footies’ (as the new boys at the Foot House are
called) through a range of activities in which they are seen settling into
their new environment. They attend new classes with a mixture of excite-
ment and anticipation. At the morning assembly they hear the school
prayer, the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s poem entitled Where
the mind is without fear, which ends with a call to service for the nation.
Senior students are shown commanding and correcting the newcomers
on their behaviours and conduct within the school premises. In keep-
ing with school practice, the new boys are measured and weighed and
their physical statistics recorded. They attend their first early morning
session of physical training, which they admit as having been ‘torturous’.
Their hair is cropped and they are seen acquiring the distinctive look of
the Doon schoolboy. Some write letters home while others spend time
staring at family photographs. Through these images we sense the emo-
tional gravity of the early days and the process of transition that is being
undertaken by these newcomers. For most newcomers, this is their first
separation from family and so their early days at the school feel both
isolating and alienating to a certain extent. Throughout all of their activi-
ties the new boys are assisted by the Foot House staff and senior students
who explain the school’s practices.
After this section exploring the footies’ first days at the school,
MacDougall begins to explore whether a specific Foot House culture is
forming among the group. For this, the film focuses on the footies’ com-
mon experiences, especially the camaraderie they are building among
themselves. New connections begin to be formed; some footies dis-
cover that they share common interests; some share their experiences
of getting accustomed to daily routines in this boarding environment,
and almost all are seen offering support to each other for life in a new
and shared space. As these scenes unfold, we observe how these new
60 Documentary Films in India

experiences have begun to influence the footies’ perception of their

identity, replacing terms such as ties to family or region with which
they had first introduced themselves at the start of the film.
One key concern in the Foot House during this time is homesickness
and in the first half of the film MacDougall follows in fine detail one
boy’s unsettling experiences of moving away from his family. We see
him breaking down at different moments, speaking with his parents on
the phone, sharing time with them during a family visit, and appearing
lonely and lost within the Foot House. This sequence is punctuated with
instances of consolation and support from his housemates. Delicately
intercut with this sequence are MacDougall’s references to the visual
culture of the Foot House. Often the footies’ drawings depict family
scenes and we see these through sustained close-ups that have little
background noise. In these moments of looking at the footies’ images of
home and family, we are sensitized to the memories and associations
conjured in the footies’ visual imaginations. Viewing these drawings
in such close-up that they fully occupy the visual frame means that
the film partakes quite literally in the footies’ visual perspectives. This
provokes a change in the viewer’s relationship to the footies. We stop
seeing them as solely subjects of the frame, and begin to share their
visual perceptions and perspectives through the film frame. The theme
of homesickness itself is repositioned less as a crisis that may be resolved
through verbal discourse, debate or contention and more as an ongoing
process that is a part of the overall experience of transitioning into a
boarding school environment.
In the following sequences, MacDougall follows how the footies
create narratives around events, experiences and memories from their
everyday lives. They share experiences – either their own or those of
their peers – such as, say, an illness, homesickness or a celebration like
a birthday. There is a performative dimension to these narratives, pro-
voked by the footies’ fascination with the camera. They eagerly report
the Foot House’s goings-on before MacDougall and these reportings
are peppered with ideas, interpretations, exaggerations, beliefs and
thoughts of interest to them. Often, groups of boys collect spontane-
ously around the camera as if drawn toward a magnet. The camera is
close to them, placed in their midst and at their height. This position-
ing of the camera results in a visual vocabulary that complements the
experience of being with children and reflects childhood as constituting
a distinct visual perspective. When the students speak they do not face
the lens as much as they address MacDougall, who is out of the frame.
Being taller, the footies’ gaze is directed upwards to a point beyond the
New Boys at the Doon School 61

upper edges of the film frame. Though visually we could argue that this
pointing of the subject’s gaze beyond the film frame is disorienting for
the viewer, in the context of the Foot House, it emphasizes the human
element in the footies’ performances before the camera.
A most comical instance occurs one evening when the boys share the
process of calling up a ghost. Late in the night, they are in their dorm,
dressed and preparing to go to bed. A group gathers around MacDougall
and two footies begin to describe how to conduct the process of calling
a ghost, its requirements and its outcomes. Others interrupt them with
questions and clarifications; and everyone appears enraptured by what
they are hearing. The two footies who describe the process appear very
conscious and dramatic before the camera, dramatizing in their descrip-
tions how the process of calling up a ghost can go wrong and what the
negative outcomes can be. It is evident in the footies’ exaggerated per-
formance that the filmmaker’s presence has provoked their expression
of interest in the other-worldly. Besides the entertainment value of this
sequence, where we see children at their performative best, within the
broader context of the Doon School project, this interaction serves to
shift and extend MacDougall’s focus away from the dominant cultural
discourse of the school. The footies’ faith in the occult stands in clear
opposition to the school’s emphasis on scientific thought and rationalism
and, therefore, it constitutes a competing and non-normative perspective
from within the school community.

Differences, transitions and liminality

As the film proceeds, MacDougall subjects the Foot House to deeper
scrutiny. He follows differences and conflicts among the footies, ques-
tioning whether the Foot House should really be perceived as a cohesive
community. The differences MacDougall plots are often along personal
lines. At numerous instances there is a breakdown in the Foot House;
say when personality types clash; or when some students provoke and
irritate others; or when the Foot House cannot come to a ready con-
sensus on a burning topic of discussion. In one sequence a group of
footies is seen in physical confrontation. They are then ushered into the
housemaster’s quarters, where the teacher attempts to correct them and
warns the house about its conduct. The differences persist, however. In
another sequence the element of confrontation pertains to a broader
social dimension. Students express their views about belonging to the
Doon School. In their heated discussion they raise the competitive
and confrontational nature of the school environment and how con-
flicts between the school’s different dorms and houses play out. Some
62 Documentary Films in India

students hold that the confrontations are at the level of the dorms and
houses only, all in a healthy spirit of competition. These confrontations
do not pertain to individuals. Others vehemently contest this and argue
that the confrontations can be more deep-seated and vicious, almost
like the India–Pakistan conflict. The students continue to argue and
MacDougall allows the camera to linger on this discussion. As viewers,
we are sensitized to the volatility in this exchange, the impossibility
of a resolution, and how promptly differences within the school com-
munity become transposed onto broader and imagined categories such
as the nation, its others, its strategic ‘enemies’. If differences surface
spontaneously, we see that equally spontaneously the footies resolve
their conflicts and develop friendly relations with their housemates.
They play games together and participate in collective projects such as
fruit picking and pickling, all of which foster a sense of camaraderie.
In the concluding sections of The New Boys the footies are seen prepar-
ing to leave for their holidays at the end of term. The film closes with
shots of bed linen being removed by house staff and we return to where
we started. The film ends by coming full circle as the newcomers’ first
term at the Doon School ends. As the footies are seen leaving we are
reminded of their earliest moments when they had first arrived at the
Doon School. There is now a visible contrast in their demeanours and
dispositions towards the school environment. There is a perceptible
sense of belonging to the school and a feeling of being at ease in it. The
footies know and relate with people across the campus, be they their
housemates, classmates, teachers or school staff. This is unlike their first
days here when most footies, no matter their personality, felt vulnerable
not knowing the environment or having any sense of connection with it.
The Foot House is a smaller environment within the larger school and
it can be understood as loosely liminal in that it is the space where new-
comers arrive and from where they make a transition into the school.
At the Foot House, the footies are, for the first time, by themselves and
their tenure here is a period as much of exploring their new environ-
ment as it is for understanding how they themselves function and
move through this new social space. The Foot House culture displays
attributes similar to those that Victor Turner defines in his discussion
of the liminal phase in his study, Liminality and Communitas (1969, eds.
2008).1 While the Foot House does not offer a transition in terms of a
rite of passage in a more formal or event-oriented sense, attributes such
as transition, the absence of status and rank, equality, and communitas –
we see these operating loosely in the environment of the Foot House. It
is a liminal site in which newcomers negotiate leaving home and adapt
New Boys at the Doon School 63

to their new environment. As a site of transition, at the Foot House the

footies are seen setting aside ‘stable’ identity markers of, say, religion,
culture or language that their domestic contexts emphasized in defining
them. They are getting accustomed to the Doon School and it is evident
that they have not fully assumed a distinct Doon School identity based
on its dominant cultural values. Nor have they determined their own
personal equations in relation to the school as have say senior students
of the school who we saw in Doon School Chronicles.
The Foot House’s culture is as unique as it is unstable for it is based
on the formative processes through which the footies live and relate
with one another. A process-based culture, it is constantly forming and
inventive. As The New Boys shows the footies contending with a range
of issues and processes of adaptation, we are left with the impression
that they are each disparate personalities and their differences persist
alongside their camaraderie. Even though they occupy a common
space and share in the Foot House’s loosely liminal cultural experience,
they do not constitute a cohesive group. Towards the end of the film,
a member of the house staff who has been closely working with the
Footies, remarks:

They are all individuals still. It is not a group as yet. But I think it’s
early maybe… Maybe after the holidays it’ll change. Because one
holiday, when they go back, they start missing their friends. This is
the first holiday they’ll go back. And usually when they come back,
they’re totally different from the first term. Some of them really want
to come back, that feeling they’ve never had before.

With Morning Hearts (2001), the second film in the Doon School project
also surrounded a new class at the Foot House and in comparing the
two films MacDougall himself notes how the footies in The New Boys
were particularly differentiated. He states:

In filming The New Boys I was surprised to find that the social dynam-
ics of the new group were quite different from those of the previous
group. The boys seemed more divided, argumentative, and class-
conscious. There was much less of the former group’s solidarity or
kindness toward one another. Certain boys were subject to teasing;
others remained isolated and quietly unhappy. My filming this time
focused more on themes of homesickness and conflict. And yet I felt
an affection for many of these boys, for they were as spirited and
inventive as the former group. It seemed as if they were more unsure
64 Documentary Films in India

of themselves and lacked the guidance of a few calm and fair-minded

leaders. However, an important difference was that I was seeing them
at an earlier stage in their school life, when they were first grappling
with the strangeness of their surroundings. (MacDougall 2006: 132)

The New Boys does not present the footies’ differences in a spirit of either
dismissing their behaviours and dispositions as infantile, or celebrat-
ing, in a patronizing way, the diversity of their personalities or cultural
backgrounds, a feeling one might have gathered at the start of the film
when the students introduced themselves. MacDougall’s take on the
experiences and disparities of this group of footies draws attention to
the volatile mechanisms and dynamics through which individuals in
the group are mobilized and partake in community-formation. Though
we have seen the footies devising camaraderie among themselves and
becoming accustomed to the ways of the school, as the film closes there is
a sense that there are differences between the footies and, more crucially,
the school offers limited tools to address those differences constructively.
Sitting within a broader portrait of the Doon School, The New Boys
raises how differences in ways of thinking, intelligence and culture get
overlooked and/or subsumed within the Doon School’s broader cultural
framework. The last film of the quintet, The Age of Reason, raises this more
deeply and it is the subject of the next part of this chapter.

The Age of Reason (2004, 87 mins)

The Age of Reason focuses on the experience of Abhishek Shukla, a new-

comer from the class that was first seen in The New Boys. Shukla comes
from Kathmandu, Nepal and through him the film offers a narrative
pertaining to the experiences of a foreigner who is in a subtle way
culturally different from the majority of students at the Doon School.
The film begins with Shukla’s arrival at the school, his early sense of
displacement and the processes by which he adapts to his new environ-
ment that for him, in contrast to most of his peers, is fully constitutive
of a foreign encounter. The Doon School quintet does include an earlier
film on a single student, Karam in Jaipur (2003), which follows Karam in
a new house at the school and culminates in his participation in a gym-
nastics competition. In The Age of Reason, however, MacDougall presents
a narrative through which Shukla’s cultural difference is highlighted
alongside his unique intellect and his facility at self-expression. This
film is structurally most distinct from all the other films of the quin-
tet, for it is anchored tightly around one character and uses his social
New Boys at the Doon School 65

encounters and experiences as the basis for the film. It is highly reflexive,
grounded in a trusting and creative friendship that Shukla develops
with MacDougall. This friendship allows the expression of the indi-
vidual personalities of both Abhishek and, to an extent, MacDougall,
providing the film with much of its contents. The film, I hold, can be
understood as a subtle montage that juxtaposes Shukla’s sense of dis-
placement in an institution, which offers limited means for attending
to cultural difference, with his relation to MacDougall that constitutes
a creative platform through which he explores and expresses himself in
remarkably intelligent and articulate terms. For the purposes of analysis,
the film can be divided into two parts: the first focuses on Shukla’s early
encounters at the Doon School that raise his cultural differences; the
second part of the film focuses more deeply on him as an individual,
exploring his unique personality. This occurs after Shukla feels a bit
settled in the school. The two parts focus on two competing ways of
understanding Shukla: the first based on the normative approach of
the school community towards Shukla as a foreigner; and the second,
contesting his foreignness as indecipherable in favour of an empathetic,
textured and rounded portrait of his personality.

Shukla befriends the camera

The film starts with an introduction by MacDougall in which he
explains how the film came about. On shots of new students arriving at
the school MacDougall says:

A new group of students is arriving and I plan to follow their lives

for a few months. But sometimes one film grows unexpectedly out
of another. And that’s what happened in this case.

Having given the viewer a cue to the film’s origins, MacDougall lays
the ground for Shukla’s entry. Some of the shots with which The New
Boys introduced newcomers arriving at the Foot House are repeated,
and viewing the two films together we can appreciate how the same
footage assumes disparate meanings when used and contextualized for
different purposes. As students are seen settling inside the Foot House,
MacDougall adds:

The Doon School boys come from a variety of backgrounds. Most

are from comfortable, upper middle class families. They come from
big cities and smaller towns… and even from some neighbouring
66 Documentary Films in India

As MacDougall references the social backgrounds of students we see the

new boys responding to a roll call. As he states that some students come
from neighbouring countries, we see Abhishek Shukla. He responds to
the call for his name. Subtly, from among the mass of newcomers, the
film has extracted its subject. Even though we saw him in earlier shots
of the film, it is at this moment that Shukla is established as the sub-
ject who will be followed in the rest of the film. This introduction also
serves in establishing the film’s focal theme – exploration of the experi-
ences of cultural difference at the Doon School that is largely populated
by well-to-do Indians.
After the roll call we are back in the Foot House where the new boys
are seen preparing for their classes. Abhishek Shukla repeatedly makes his
way towards the camera, inquisitively looking at it. MacDougall notes:

It’s the first day of classes and last year’s boys are helping the new
ones get ready. One of the new boys is Abhishek Shukla who seems
to be turning up wherever I am filming. He’s become a little like my
shadow. And he seems interested in the camera.

These words coincide with a shot of Shukla peering into the lens; his
face becoming enlarged in close-up as he leans towards the camera.
The effect of this sequence is heightened by the application of a slow-
motion effect that clearly positions Shukla as the film’s focus; his inter-
est in the camera being the starting premise for the film. A sequence of
shots follows in which Shukla is seen enthusiastically looking into the
camera lens, pointing at and estimating what MacDougall is recording.
The British documentary editor and critic Dai Vaughan has com-
mented that this opening sequence places the viewer into a distinct
order of discourse, one that takes MacDougall’s broader concern for rep-
resentation of childhood into a singularly individual realm. Vaughan

… as Abhishek leans tentatively in towards the lens, a second or

two of unexpected slow motion tell us we have entered a new world
of discourse. What launched itself as the most conventional of the
series stands revealed itself as the least so.
It is as if the theme of student access to filmic representation,
adumbrated late in Doon School Chronicles, had here budded and burst
into leaf. Abhishek does not actually take over the camera – though
towards the end he takes a still photo of MacDougall, which we don’t
see. But the several scenes where he leans into big close-ups and
New Boys at the Doon School 67

Figure 2.2 Abhishek Shukla estimates what the camera is recording

Image courtesy, David MacDougall.

points to objects in the background – “Do you see that noticeboard?

Do you see that switch? Do you see that rubbish bin?” – have the
incantatory power of someone calling these objects into being rather
than simply cataloguing them. In direct-to-camera conversations, he
manifests a highly individual intelligence. (Vaughan 2005: 463)

Besides registering Shukla’s curiosity, his exchanges with MacDougall

guessing what the camera is observing lay the ground for a friendship
between them and very early into the film we are positioned to appre-
ciate how central this relationship is to the making of the film, shap-
ing its narrative and meanings. The film commenced with the camera
immersed in a group of newcomers. In a most unexpected way one
figure from that group got drawn to it, and became the film’s central
subject. It is pertinent to remind ourselves here that the observational
film method, like other forms of poetic documentary, equips filmmakers
to pursue unexpected and non-scripted encounters. Observational film-
makers don’t go in with an idea, script or agenda for what they want to
capture using the camera. They enter an environment with a camera and
use it to explore and understand that environment, its rhythms, modes
68 Documentary Films in India

of expression and all the factors that give that environment its particular
character. It can then be said that in observational cinema, observation
is not passive or inert looking and documentation of a subject. It implies
following the observed with a sense of respect towards them that in turn
opens new lines for film narrative.
MacDougall did not dismiss or hold Abhishek Shukla’s attraction
towards the camera, his repeated peering into its lens, his overall
inquisitiveness surrounding the whole apparatus as interferences with
the filmmaking process. He followed them as unexpected encounters,
avenues through which to devise a possible relationship with a new
subject. Unlike earlier films from the quintet in which the filmmaker–
subject relations remained limited as the films were focused on collec-
tive bodies (with the exception of Karam in Jaipur); The Age of Reason
spans a narrative arc in which this relation traverses different points of
closeness and distance shaped through a medley of spontaneous inter-
actions, open-ended dialogues, creative thought, empathetic support
and playful engagements – all resting on the sheer interest of both
subjects towards each other.

Shukla and MacDougall’s friendship grows

In many of the film’s early sequences we see Shukla alone  and get-
ting on with his everyday activities at the school. We ascertain that
solitude does not unsettle Shukla. He is quiet and reflective by himself
and MacDougall points out in a voiceover that Shukla has previously
attended a boarding school in Nepal. The film then threads a number
of conversations where MacDougall’s questions and prompts provoke
Shukla into thoughtful reflection. The conversations span topics such
as the experience of learning, the value of institutions such as schools,
forms of human intelligence and the place of crime in society. These
conversations vary in form: sometimes Shukla speaks consciously and
articulately, as if in an in-depth and structured process of interaction
while, on other occasions, he is more relaxed and laid-back, sharing
spur-of-the-moment thoughts and free associations. The conversations
catapult Shukla’s engagement with the camera away from childish
wonder and fascination with technology towards a deeper and creative
dimension such that his participation in filmmaking appears as both
constitutive and revelatory of his personality.
Peppered among Shukla’s early conversations with MacDougall
are instances when he contends with his peers as they mock him on
account of his foreignness. On one occasion, while he is polishing his
shoes, a peer, out of frame, teases him about his background, speech
New Boys at the Doon School 69

and accent. Shukla counters him firmly. He does not stop polishing
his shoes and, without making eye contact with the mocking peer, he
questions – ‘so what’, if he is different? Shukla is determined not to
stand by passively and be exposed to ridicule. In addition to obvious
indicators such as accent, Shukla’s foreignness also surfaces because of
his unique perspectives on topics such as culture. In an interview, one
of the house staff raises this with MacDougall, stating that Shukla has
‘a lot to offer the school’ and she is concerned that his difference might
make him ‘clam up’. Shukla’s distinct cultural perspectives are evident
in one of his earliest conversations with MacDougall. Shukla makes one
particularly revealing comment:

One thing that we did not have to learn in Nepali history that we
have to learn in Indian history is this thing that India was invaded
by foreigners.

This clearly sets up the historical and political disparities that distin-
guish Shukla’s subjectivity from that of his Indian peers. He goes on
to skeptically add that the history of Nepal that he has read posits it
as ‘a beautiful country that never fell into the hands of foreign rulers’.
We sense that he finds this jingoistic. He concludes his discussion with
MacDougall by stating that in modern times ‘development’ has tended
to be concentrated in the western world, even though Asia has always
been more developed – a statement in support of which he cites the
technological advances of the Indus Valley civilization. Through these
observations on South Asian history we are exposed to Shukla’s criti-
cal faculties: his ability to equally question colonialism and jingoistic
nationalism alongside his critical take on the hierarchies between the
first and third worlds.
Shukla and MacDougall’s friendship continues to grow and they both
become increasingly relaxed and open in one another’s company. Any
hierarchies, of age or life experience for example, take a back seat and
we are introduced to dimensions of Shukla’s personality as a child that
can only be documented in-the-moment, when his awareness of the
camera is less as a piece of technology and more as a social apparatus,
interacting with which is constructive for him. Shukla shares and per-
forms before MacDougall playful and witty activities such as cracking
riddles or reading a touching diary account of his first fortnight at the
Doon School. MacDougall follows Shukla through a range of activities,
including some innocuous ones: playing games with his peers, oiling
his hair or reading at bedtime. Shukla also entrusts his assignments and
70 Documentary Films in India

teachers’ comments on them with MacDougall, discussing his interests

in different subjects. MacDougall continues to explore the visual cul-
tures surrounding Shukla. Posters in the dorm, flipbooks with which
students play, Shukla’s own drawings to explain his riddles – we see a
range of such media in tight close-ups through which we are ushered
into the visual imaginaries of Shukla’s world, and the dialogic imperative
between filmmaker and subjects permeates the film’s visual aesthetic.

Shukla’s illness and a shift in the filmmaker–subject rapport

MacDougall and Shukla’s friendship takes a decisive turn in the next
sequence when Shukla falls ill with a fever. This occurs around the mid-
dle of the film. MacDougall has been following Shukla from the start of
the day when he had looked unwell. Shukla visits the school bank to
withdraw money with which he buys some snacks from the school shop.
After eating these he has a high fever and then MacDougall accompanies
him to the school hospital. Shukla is admitted and MacDougall assists
him in settling into the hospital ward. Shukla asks MacDougall to inform
his housemaster about his illness and also to bring over some belongings
such as a book from the dorm. Over the course of the next two days

Figure 2.3 Abhishek Shukla admitted at the school hospital

Image courtesy, David MacDougall.
New Boys at the Doon School 71

MacDougall checks in on Shukla. On the third day Shukla is feeling better

and he starts to move about.
MacDougall follows him interacting with other student-patients in
the hospital. One interaction takes us back into the Doon School’s
dominant cultural imaginary. Shukla is seen talking to a senior student,
a sportsman we had encountered in the Doon School Chronicles. As they
are interacting, the senior and another student observe signs of needle-
pricks on Shukla’s arms. As they count the number of needle-pricks,
the senior – an aspiring boxer himself – laughs mockingly at Shukla,
calling him a ‘weakling’. From the quiet context of illness we are jolted
back into the school’s broader culture in which physical fitness is an
esteemed ideal. At this moment Shukla’s sense of otherness, which
has previously centered on the issue of his foreignness, spills over to
his physical disposition. In its tone, this exchange contrasts with the
dynamic of Shukla’s friendship with MacDougall. The film thus lays
bare for the viewer competing perceptions of Shukla’s subjectivity. On
the one hand are Shukla’s peers, who often dismiss him or mock him
on account of his foreignness. On the other hand is the filmmaker,
MacDougall, whose friendship, based on mutual interest, respect and
care, provides Shukla with a platform to express his open-minded
and reflective personality. These qualities of his personality find little
chance for expression in the broader school community where Shukla
is perceived along quite rigid and determined lines as a foreigner or as
physically frail – all in all, constituting an other.
Shukla is released from the hospital and he returns to the Foot House.
His housemates greet him there and over the course of the next few
shots we see him interacting with them more closely than he had done
before his illness. MacDougall observes a change in Shukla’s demean-
our. The camaraderie he shares with his housemates has been deepened
after his stay at the hospital. The result of this is that Shukla starts to
become distant from MacDougall. It is as if the illness constituted a rite
of passage after which Shukla can relate more promptly and easily with
his peers and his dependence on MacDougall for social support has
receded. MacDougall shares in his voiceover the opinion that:

I wonder, as I have before, about my own presence here. Is it making

things better or worse for Abhishek? It’s one question I really can’t
ask him.

For MacDougall the relationship between a filmmaker and a film’s

subject/s is not unidirectional, with the former eliciting information or
72 Documentary Films in India

opinions from the latter. This relationship is mutual and open-ended,

whereby each reaches out and responds to the other. In this process they
evoke, reveal and constitute dimensions of their personalities they may
not have expressed otherwise. From such an understanding of filmmaker–
subject relations, filming itself becomes a kind of shared space, organic and
alive; and the dynamics between filmmakers and subjects are not reduced
to or fixated upon any determined terms of engagement. MacDougall’s
following quotation encapsulates this sentiment:

We reach out to others with our senses as a sort of probe (in films
through the extension of the camera) and make sense of them through
what we contain in ourselves. Our knowledge is transposed, or displaced,
toward them, so that it appears to be of them. (MacDougall 1998: 29)

Filmmaker–subject/s relations evolve through time and as an observa-

tional filmmaker MacDougall is committed to reflecting this in the film.
As Shukla gets a little distant from MacDougall, he also becomes
more involved with his peers and the school environment more gener-
ally. There is now a shift in the narrative of The Age of Reason. Shukla
appears more acclimated to the school and MacDougall follows him
through a number of extra-curricular activities such as swimming,
crafts and games. In these activities Shukla appears inquisitive, inter-
active, keen to learn, make new friends and connections. He explores
and appreciates the school environment more actively. On the whole,
he appears more relaxed.
An impactful instance that registers Shukla’s altered disposition
occurs when he visits the school’s natural history museum where
he encounters animal specimens including a human foetus. He is
amazed by what he sees. A look of wondrous rapture characterizes
his expressions as he enthusiastically identifies each specimen before
MacDougall. Even though it can be argued that the natural history
museum is symptomatic of the colonial discourse that permeates the
Doon School’s epistemologies and cultural discourse, Shukla’s sense of
wonder in this space recontextualises the museum. We now experience
it from Shukla’s position, characterised by a child’s wonder.
Shukla’s increasing involvement in extra-curricular activities reflects
his growing confidence in the school environment and although his
dependence on MacDougall has declined, they still continue their
one-on-one conversations. In these, MacDougall probes Shukla on
different matters that reflect his understandings of society, education
New Boys at the Doon School 73

and community. Shukla thoughtfully expresses complex ideas and the

perspectives he offers are not in the nature of positivist assertions. On
one occasion he expresses how learning is only meaningful if it speaks
to experience. In a follow-up question, MacDougall asks him whether
he thinks ‘there are different types of intelligence; that people are intel-
ligent in different ways?’ To this Shukla responds affirmatively, stating
that people experience and express themselves in different ways such
that intelligence cannot be defined in any monolithic or stable terms.
In response to a further question he asserts that it takes all kinds of
persons to make a community and that ‘there is no one who is not
needed’ in society. His comment suggests an idea of society as necessar-
ily diverse. These responses give us further insight into Shukla’s mind:
he openly debates, explores and posits holistic thoughts on a range of,
often philosophical, topics and concerns. There is a very clear streak of
independence in his personality and in his way of being in the world.
The ideas he expresses are based on his experiences. He communicates
them without any doubts or uncertainties and he does not come across
as seeking validation for any of his thoughts.

Deep reflexivity: a ground for competing

approaches to childhood
Through the film a rounded portrait of Shukla’s personality emerges.
This portrait contains facets of Shukla’s personality that are only evoked
and expressed in the context of his encounters with MacDougall.
These facets, more crucially, contest the terms by which Shukla is per-
ceived within the school, at least during his early days. This can then
be understood as a move that advances the interventions made by
The New Boys. That film mapped a transitional culture at the Foot House
which offered a competing experience of the school – one in which the
student–school relationship was not tightly defined or structured. If
that film focused on the Foot House as a kind of subculture marked as
much by camaraderie as by internal differences, The Age of Reason uses a
single figure to point at the deeper cultural and intellectual disparities
among students at the Doon School. It further interrogates the school’s
ideas of community formation, highlighting how uniformity and con-
formity are the key bases on which the school attempts to construct a
homogenous community. This film, more than others in the quintet, also
throws into relief how the filmmaker’s agenda and method stand apart
from the school’s pedagogical discourses and practices. This can be bet-
ter understood using MacDougall’s concept of ‘deep reflexivity’ whereby
74 Documentary Films in India

the filmmaker–subject relation is understood as shifting, indeterminate

and unstable. MacDougall states that:

A concept of ‘deep’ reflexivity requires us to read the position of the

author in the very construction of the work, whatever the external
explanations maybe. One reason for this is that the author’s position
is neither uniform nor fixed, and expresses itself through a multi-
leveled and constantly evolving relation with the subject. The field-
worker often works in a way that is exploratory and intuitive. This is
a dynamic process affecting various aspects of the work unevenly…
The difference between observer and observed, self and other, is by
no means always clear, because each of us as a social actor shares in a
shifting sense of identity with others. (MacDougall 1998: 89)

MacDougall’s proposition of ‘deep reflexivity’ acknowledges the film-

maker as a social and performative actor. We can appreciate his friend-
ship with Shukla as an active relationship that provides Shukla with
opportunities to express himself on terms beyond those through which
his subjectivity is evoked within the school’s dominant cultural imagi-
nary. Coming at the end of the Doon School Project, through The Age
of Reason we can discern two disparate approaches of adults towards
children at the Doon School. The school staff’s official and bureaucratic
approach based on the understanding that the students have to be
shaped towards a certain ideal and practice of citizenship. In contrast
to this is MacDougall’s observational and reflexive approach which pur-
sues in childhood particular forms of intelligence and creativity, with
the film being a platform for expressing these.
Herein also lies a subtle disparity between MacDougall’s reflexive
approach and the cinéma vérité of Jean Rouch. Both MacDougall and
Rouch seek to muddy the disparities between the subject and object, self
and the world. The visual aesthetic of Rouch’s cinema, as seen in works
such as Le Maitres Fous (1955) and Moi Un Noire (1959), is clearly mobile,
embodied, improvised and spontaneous, seemingly more unsettled
and agitational than MacDougall’s persistent and patient observational
camera. Documenting practices such as African trance and possession,
Rouch was devising a form of cine-trance that was a modernist project
and clearly contested both established forms of cinema as also anthro-
pological discourse. Rouch’s cinema provoked, as Anna Grimshaw
points out, a ‘new, and expansive humanism’ (Grimshaw 2001: 91).
However, Rouch’s formal approach, despite its innovative nature, lacks
the social reflexivity that we see operating in MacDougall’s films. It
New Boys at the Doon School 75

is not that Rouch did not command a deep rapport with his subjects,
he clearly did and that is the basis of the cine-trance he devised. But the
histories that inform the subjectivities of filmmakers and subjects are
not as transparent in Rouch as they are in MacDougall. MacDougall’s
reflexive approach inaugurates lines of connection between subjects
and filmmakers by fully taking into account their histories and how
those impact their subjectivities, particularly in the context of filming.
The end of The Age of Reason is gestured at the moment when Shukla
clicks a picture of MacDougall. This instance registers the transforma-
tion that the film’s protagonist has undergone: a student who at the
start of the film was curious about a camera and that led him towards
the filmmaker is now seen composing his own photographic images of
the filmmaker. This transformation also marks his changed disposition
with relation to the school. When he had first been drawn towards
MacDougall’s camera he was a foreigner unconsciously seeking support
in a new environment. Though Shukla continues to be the subject of
MacDougall’s camera, his subjecting MacDougall to a photographic
gaze marks his full separation from the filmmaker. This separation coin-
cides with Shukla’s adaptation into the school environment, his find-
ing his own ways and rhythms, building community and confidently
conducting himself in it. He is now an adapted member of the school
The term results are announced and Shukla begins to prepare to leave
for the holidays. While packing his belongings he shares his academic
results with MacDougall and shortly thereafter shows him a broken
tooth. The term results mark his academic progress and also the comple-
tion of one term at the school. His broken tooth indexes his ongoing,
natural passage into adulthood. The Age of Reason concludes with a
‘Postscript’ when Shukla returns back from vacation. MacDougall shares:

When I next see Abhishek five months have passed. It’s the time of
Diwali: the festival of lights. He’s well into the second term at school.
These days he rarely speaks to me as he once did. He seems far away
now – at home among his friends. But that, after all, is what we
wished for him.

Three temporalities converge at the end of the film – a filmic temporal-

ity pertaining to the transformation in Shukla’s relation with the school
environment and MacDougall; an academic temporality in terms of the
completion of a full calendar term; and a natural temporality involv-
ing Shukla’s advancement towards adulthood. The Age of Reason, like
76 Documentary Films in India

The New Boys, thus registers a passage, a transformation, except that in

this film the easy and trusting rapport between the filmmaker and sub-
ject is most pronouncedly the basis for both registering and facilitating
that transformation.
Throughout the Doon School Project MacDougall’s approach has
been based on the practice of dialogic and intersubjective filmmaking.
In all of the other films this led to varied degrees of interaction and
rapport between the subjects and filmmaker. In Doon School Chronicles,
MacDougall’s interaction with students was more structured and con-
tained than in The New Boys where MacDougall was a part of the new
boys’ early experiences of the Doon School. In The Age of Reason the
dialogues and friendship between the filmmaker and subject became,
most explicitly, the basis of the film’s narrative. Through this, the film
humanized and advanced our understanding of both the cinematic
apparatus and its subject.
The Age of Reason positions documentary reflexivity in social terms,
emphasizing how documentary meanings are socially mediated, negoti-
ated between subjects and filmmakers as sociocultural actors. It questions
the limits and claims of documentary truth as based on evidence and it
facilitates the viewer in understanding that documentary meanings are
negotiated, open-ended; their limits are tied to the depth of the equa-
tions and spaces subjects share with filmmakers. Documentary meanings
are not given, to be objectively captured. The film also pushes docu-
mentary reflexivity beyond deconstructing the filmmaking process in
technical terms – say, through revelation of film gear such as the tripod
or boom pole, or the exaggerated moves of the handheld camera – all
of which serve to remind the viewer that what they are seeing is framed
and constructed. The Age of Reason rounds off the Doon School project,
emphasizing that documentary meanings arise through active media-
tions between filmmakers and subject/s.
After the Doon School quintet MacDougall documented the Rishi
Valley School, founded by the philosopher J Krishnamurti in south
India. Like the Doon School quintet, the three films at the Rishi Valley
School involved critical observation of the school’s pedagogies, episte-
mology and everyday culture. The films raised the institutionalization of
Krishnamurthi’s thought on the basis of which the school positions itself
as offering an unconventional form of learning.2 MacDougall’s films
point at the subtle disjuncture between the Krishnamurti school’s ideals
and its practices, the former grounded in Krishnamurti’s reified thought
and the latter, gestured through a consumerist culture, which has only
escalated after the liberalization of India’s economy in the 1990s.
New Boys at the Doon School 77

MacDougall’s films surrounding the Doon School and the Rishi Valley
School offer disparate imaginaries of middle- and upper-middle-class
India, their perceptions and constructions of the ideal community,
often the nation, and the values of normative nationalism endorsed by
these classes. His next project, in which he points the lens away from
these well-to-do institutions, throws the viewer into a raw environment,
whose economic, social and cultural contours are as harsh and fragile
as they are in stark contrast with the environments we have seen until
now. In this project, MacDougall is both limited and poised to advance
deep reflexivity as he immerses himself and plots very precarious and
unstable narratives at a shelter home for destitute children in India’s
capital, New Delhi. The next chapter discusses Gandhi’s Children.
Gandhi’s Children

Gandhi’s Children (2008, 185 mins) is set in the Prayas Children’s

Home for Boys in New Delhi. Here, acutely disempowered children are
brought by local authorities of the Delhi administration for shelter and
rehabilitation. Situated in northwest Delhi’s Jahangirpuri Colony,1 the
boarding home offers shelter, food, clothing, health care, education and
vocational training to its inmates. Some inmates come here voluntar-
ily; most are deposited either by the Delhi police or non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) that work with destitute children. Lasting an
epic three hours, Gandhi’s Children undertakes in-depth observation of
daily life in the Prayas Home: the provisions it offers, its organization,
the daily order of proceedings, the material conditions of living at the
home, the inmates’ interpersonal relations and their overall experiences
at this institution. In its wide-ranging scope, Gandhi’s Children resembles
Doon School Chronicles and, like that film, it offers a critical take on the
institution, revealing profound inadequacies – material and discursive –
that characterize the Prayas Home’s approach to rehabilitation.
The film opens with dense shots of the Delhi landscape as seen from
the precincts of the home on a chilly winter morning. City lights
and traffic fill the distant background while the open fields surrounding
the home are strewn with random heaps of garbage over which dark
birds hover. Through a slow-paced collage of images we are introduced
to the home’s exteriors. The Prayas Home building is a multistoreyed
complex built in Delhi’s public works style of architecture, which was
prominent in the 1970 and 1980s. In the home’s vicinity small children
are seen scavenging their way through overflowing garbage dumps, res-
cuing anything that may be of use. Small animals and carcasses float in
open drains outside the home and a crow is seen eating a dead rat on
the home’s playing field. Juxtaposed with these shots which introduce
Gandhi’s Children 79

the home’s exteriors are images of the home’s interiors. The interior
shots focus on the inmates, who are introduced to us as they awaken to a
new day. They rise slowly from beneath thick quilts and go on to relieve
and wash themselves. MacDougall takes us inside their lavatories. These
are choked and water is scarce. After washing, we see the inmates gazing
into the open fields and the city in the far horizon through many of
the home’s windows and balconies. The winter sun casts a warm golden
hue on the children’s skin and its rays glint in their eyes. The murmur
of traffic rumbling at a distance mixes with the children’s voices, which
echo in the home’s sparsely furnished insides to form a dull cacophony.
Through this opening MacDougall interweaves two of the film’s
main themes. First, from the start the camera is positioned with-in the
Children’s Home, even when it looks at the city beyond. This empha-
sises the filmmaker’s closeness, and how he places himself in proximity
to the film’s subjects as opposed to looking at them or approaching them
from a distance. Through this position of proximity, the viewer, from
the start of the film, is positioned near to the home’s inmates and this
is a very powerful move. The inmates come from very impoverished
backgrounds and they are rarely, if ever, represented in any media,
except perhaps on the most stereotypical terms as symbols of third
world poverty and destitution. Further, the very location of the home
at Jahangirpuri Colony – a low-income, resettlement colony – means
that the home we are seeing has been deliberately placed away from
the center of India’s capital city. The inmates, much like the broader
population of Jahangirpuri, are subjects who will not be readily encoun-
tered in Delhi. In cartographic terms, they are distanced from the city’s
center and confined to its periphery. MacDougall’s emplacement of the
camera in the midst of the home’s inmates overcomes the institutional-
ized distancing of the inmates from public view, be that through the
location of the home at the city’s periphery or by way of the absence
of such subjects in media and the public imaginations more broadly.
Positioning the camera inside the home from the start also announces
the film’s intentions. This film aims to devise and advance feelings of
proximity with the inmates, hearing their stories and appreciating their
conditions on terms that are of value to them rather than based on cri-
teria imposed from the outside or distant from their lived experiences.
More concretely, by opening the film at dawn MacDougall places
a poetic imperative in the film. In seeing the inmates wake up, wash
and prepare themselves for the day ahead, we observe their bodies
making a most intimate transition from one state of consciousness to
another; from sleep to wakefulness. It is as if by showing the inmates as
80 Documentary Films in India

they make this transition, the film presents its commitment to project
destitute children as commanding a prerogative of mobility. The chil-
dren we see may be destitute, but it intends to follow how they make
meaning of their existence and express themselves – all with a view to
opening up their image, and advancing and complicating the viewer’s
understandings of destitute children. This is in line with MacDougall’s
broader concerns to explore how children’s viewpoints and experiences
can be depicted through cinema, countering any rationalizations or
analysis by which adults may attempt to comprehend their experiences.

Mapping the rehabilitation home: provisions,

dynamics and the flow of everyday life

Gandhi’s Children is structured along a delicate narrative arch that divides

the film into two broad sections. In the first section the Prayas Home is
introduced and we follow inmates’ experiences of entering and adapt-
ing to the environment of the home. As such, this section is repeatedly
punctuated with moments of intense emotional volatility and pathos.
The second section is narrower in focus, structured principally around
thoughtful conversations that explore particular inmates’ experiences,
imaginations, and their perceptions of their lives in relation to and
beyond the home. This section places less of a focus on the Prayas Home
as an institution; the film at this point feels rather more like a collage of
individual portraits. MacDougall devises deep rapports with a selection
of inmates who then open up to him and articulate, perhaps for the first
time ever, their views about their ways of existence, their dreams and
aspirations, as well as the sense of brotherhood they feel towards fellow
The inmates who come to the Prayas Home are divided into two cat-
egories. The courtwalas have been sent on judicial court orders. These
are often very young children who are in jail on account of a crime they,
often unknowingly, have committed or because their mothers are serv-
ing a prison sentence. The legal system directs them to the Prayas Home
where they can access juvenile aid, education, community and security –
in other words, some level of stability in an environment that is free
from the social stigma attached to crime and imprisonment. The second
category of inmates in the home are termed homewalas. These are prin-
cipally children who have been deposited voluntarily by families, family
friends, neighbours, relatives, NGOs or police who have found these
children in vulnerable circumstances – orphaned, lost or abandoned,
with no sustainable social support network.
Gandhi’s Children 81

The children who enter the home as courtwalas are on a probationary

arrangement and they have to make regular attendances in courts where
their performance is evaluated to determine their length of stay, resi-
dence requirements and access to facilities such as education and
vocational training at the home. The homewalas, on the other hand,
can be reclaimed at any time by legally bonafide claimants upon veri-
fication of their credentials by the home’s staff and the police. Unlike
a conventional school, there are no designated periods for admissions
or the withdrawal of inmates at the Prayas Home. Inmates, particularly
homewalas, can leave upon the completion of the requirements due
for their release. There is a persistent traffic of newcomers and released
inmates at the home. These comings and goings occur randomly, such
that the body of inmates at the home is unable to form a sustained or
cohesive collective committed to residing at the home for a designated
amount of time. Only a small number of inmates last at the home for a
sustained period and these are those children who have nowhere to go.
Given the random inflows and outflows of inmates, an unsettling sense
of flux and tension permeates the home’s environment.
Following his approach to social aesthetics, MacDougall begins the
film by establishing the home’s set-up, organization and its day-to-day
functionings. We see the layout of dorms, classrooms and offices. Outside
the home is a playing field where prayers, physical exercises and games
are conducted. Taken as a whole, it is made clear that the home’s provi-
sions are minimal. All inmates wear a uniform but there is no strict code
of colours or emblem to lend them a common identity. The clothes
they are given at the home are often donations from charitable organi-
zations. A timetable delineates hours for various activities, including
eating, learning and play. The home’s classrooms are populated with
children of different age groups studying together. The education
offered here is informal with much emphasis on rote learning, enacted
under the penalizing supervision of apparently uninterested teachers.
Meals are served in a dining hall where children queue to be served
and squat while eating. The dorms are furnished with bunk beds and
small lockers. The younger inmates are viewed sharing beds and quilts.
The duties for cleaning dorms and lavatories are divided between all
of the inmates. Unlike the Doon or Rishi Valley schools, where there
were designated staff who served the students, at the Prayas Home
the daily upkeep of the home: cleaning, making beds, maintenance of
provisions – these are all conducted as shared duties by the inmates and
the home’s staff. Documenting the home’s set-up and the rhythms of
its everyday life, the film’s early sequences emphasise the social nature
82 Documentary Films in India

of the activities in the home. MacDougall focuses on the interrelations

between staff and inmates, how tasks are divided among inmates, and
how inmates use the collective space of the home and coexist in close
proximity with each other.
Sustained camerawork following the inmates through various activi-
ties gives us a suggestion of particular inmates’ physical and emotional
dispositions. It is evident that not all of the inmates are equally prepared
for life within the Home. Some of them are clearly violated, shocked,
unwell and malnourished. They are quiet, incoherent, weak and often
indisposed to conduct themselves independently. Some are solitary,
traumatized, reserved and fragile. They comply with the commands
they are given and become innocuous presences who are confined to
the fringes of the home. Then there are those who are very energetic,
playful, street-wise, temperamental, impatient and, occasionally, even
violent. They find it hard to sustain attention in any activity and they
often argue or fight with their peers.
The Home’s administrative offices are located on the ground floor
with dorms and classrooms distributed on the floors above. These are all
connected by a covered courtyard that lies at the center of the building.
This courtyard is key to defining the Prayas Home’s aural atmosphere.
Here, different sounds can be heard randomly rising and overlapping.
Conversations, instructions, crying, singing, teasing, idle humming,

Figure 3.1 Young inmates share a bed and quilts at the Prayas Children’s Home
Image courtesy, David MacDougall.
Gandhi’s Children 83

whistling, fighting, arguing, laughing – these rise, echo and amplify

through the wide courtyard, forming a dull background noise that runs
through the film. Without idealizing, isolating or privileging any one
sound or set of sounds over others, the film’s soundscape envelopes the
viewer and immerses them in the persistent noise at the home.
MacDougall’s camera rests upon inmates for long periods of time,
following them through the home and forming a kind of visual con-
templation upon them. The inmates, in turn, reference and acknowl-
edge the presence of the camera, sometimes enthusiastically trailing
alongside the filmmaker, but most often complying with his presence
by quietly carrying on with their activities. Unlike previous films, where
MacDougall’s presence promptly provoked a conversation or an exag-
gerated performance of some activity before the camera, in Gandhi’s
Children it takes longer for subjects to open up and interact with the
filmmaker. The inmates at the Prayas Home, especially the younger
ones, are certainly curious about the camera, but they don’t feel as
readily drawn to engaging with the filmmaker as, say, the students of
the Doon School. This is perhaps on account of a number of factors:
one, while some inmates probe what MacDougall is doing, many do
not fully comprehend it. Two, given the cultural difference, many per-
ceive MacDougall as a foreigner and feel distant from him in their early
encounters. Lastly, most of the inmates’s energies are more occupied
with their lives within the home, understanding its provisions and
practices that are not as clear as might be the case in a formal school.
The numerous references to the camera that inmates make in the early
parts of the film steadily lead to the formation of a quiet rapport with
the filmmaker, later in the film. Filming in Gandhi’s Children can thus
be understood as steadily opening a space of contact and compliance
between subjects and filmmaker, in terms of what Jonathan Crary, in
Techniques of the Observer, holds as the constitution of a ‘single field’
between the viewing body and its objects (Crary 1992: 73).

The Prayas Home’s missionary agenda

Activities at the Home are persistently interrupted with what appear as
spontaneous divergences – teasing, idling, drifting, wandering, fights,
play, arguments, intimidations – reflecting the overall absence of
coordination in the home’s activities. As the camera observes the envi-
ronment, it becomes evident that this absence of coordination is not
simply deviance or indiscipline. The home’s inmates and staff are drawn
from very different social, cultural and economic backgrounds. They
have not been subjected to any common processes of acculturation
84 Documentary Films in India

and as such their physical, cultural and emotional dispositions are each
quite distinct. They do not perform collective activities such as praying
or learning with a shared sense of purpose and vocabulary.
The first half of Gandhi’s Children dwells extensively on the processes
by which inmates are deposited at the home and how they adapt to
it. The camera closely follows the new inmates’ interactions with the
home’s staff. The staff receive the inmates, introduce them to the
home’s provisions and assist them by responding to their queries.
This task is delicate, its sensitivity heightened by the often-disturbed
emotional dispositions in which most newcomers arrive at the home.
MacDougall follows, in detail, the process of recording each new
inmate’s personal data when they arrive at the home. As we observe a
number of inmates recollecting the circumstances that brought them to
the home we are introduced to an entire under-economy that operates
on traffic in lost, abandoned and vulnerable children, situating them
in exploitative practices including child labour, crime and abuse. The
documentation of new inmates’ arrival and orientation processes at the
home, reveals that most have been previously arrested, some more than
once, during police raids at sites of illegal child labour such as railway
stations or factories.
Since the Doon School quintet we are aware of how the transition
into a boarding environment is a delicate and fragile process. But in
contrast to the feelings of homesickness and the seemingly more struc-
tured processes of adaptation that characterise this move in the Doon
School, in the context of the Prayas Home this experience is more tense,
emotionally volatile and often calls up a whole reorientation of the
inmates’ aspirations for their lives. Most newcomers state that they do
not want to be confined in a boarding environment. This environment
is constraining because they are not free to ‘roam the streets’ or earn
money. Some express the view that they do not want to be educated
since they feel that education will not provide them with the necessary
economic support and ‘freedom’ to which they are accustomed. A few
even indicate that the discipline the home will inculcate in them is at
odds with the lives they are used to living in the streets and that they
do not feel drawn towards – or even prepared to lead – a disciplined life.
As MacDougall sustains focus on the early interactions between
inmates and staff we are alerted to a bureaucratic mentality that charac-
terises the home’s approach to the inmates. At first the Home’s staff are
warm, cajoling and attempt to dispel any fears the newcomers express
towards the Home. But as most newcomers persist in their resistances
the staff lose patience. They retort back, isolate the inmates or silence
Gandhi’s Children 85

them, thereby limiting any possibility of dialogue with them. They

seem to have rather entrenched opinions on the inmates’ behaviours,
overlooking their concerns and individual needs. As a result we see
them repeatedly frustrating the inmates. For example, in one early
sequence a group of four young boys – Karan, Rakesh, John and Mike –
is deposited at the home after being recovered from an illegal child
labour network near the Delhi railway station. On our first encounter
the four newcomers appear in shock and they physically resist entering
the home. The Home’s staff greet them and, in a friendly way, probe their
backgrounds and explain how the Home will benefit their lives in the
long run. The newcomers respond by expressing that they feel cheated,
brought to the Home on false assurances that they would be returned
to their families in just a few hours. They are angry at the confiscation
of their belongings and they break down, feeling helpless and missing
their families. Some become agitated when they are denied substances
to which they have become addicted. As they continue to resist and
break down, the staff’s demeanour and language becomes increasingly
authoritative in nature. On occasions patronizing, and on others rigid,
the Home’s staff indicate that they fully grasp and know how to deal
with children of their ‘type.’ In return the newcomers’ feelings of vul-
nerability and voicelessness escalate.
MacDougall follows more newcomers and we see how they either
respond skeptically or not at all when the staff express how the Home’s

Figure 3.2 Pappu, an inmate gazes silently into the distance

Image courtesy, David MacDougall.
86 Documentary Films in India

provisions will improve their lives. The somewhat coercive undertones

in the staff’s expression cause most inmates to remain silent. In con-
versations with MacDougall, the inmates question the efficacy of
the Home’s provisions, particularly with regard to education. Most
acknowledge that education would certainly provide social mobility
and improve their lives; but often the urgency of earning a living is
so pressing that it is simply impossible to sustain long-term studies.
A number of boys reveal just how much they earn through child
labour.2 The long-gestation period of education conflicts with their
need for daily wages that feed them and members of their families
dependent on them. A few inmates add that having tasted a life with
some monetary facility, they feel unable to give that up because of the
sense of freedom it affords them.
In a later sequence, a group of 181 inmates is brought to the home
following a raid at a south Delhi factory where they had been ille-
gally employed. These boys are to be held for a short period and then
instructed to return to their homes and villages. This is simply because
the Prayas Home cannot house such a large body of inmates and neither
can any other similar institutions. With this group it becomes clear that
there are only limited provisions for long-term and sustained rehabilita-
tion. Directly questioning this, some boys from this group express that
while institutions such as the Prayas Home and the government seem to
make efforts for people of their background, these efforts are often arbi-
trary, and grounded in no real understanding of their living conditions.
They are ineffectual for they do not approach the concerned inmates’
circumstances in a holistic way. One boy comments:

Now they’re sending everybody home. But if there’s no food at

home, what can you do? If there’s no money at home, what can
anyone do? Die of hunger?
They’ll have to come back. So why does the government catch
us? If you don’t earn money, how can you eat? If people are rich
they can keep their boy at home. But if they’re poor, how can they
educate him?

Such questions reflect the inmates’ sociopolitical consciousness, and, by

including these, the film highlights the inadequacies and inefficacies of
the broader rehabilitation efforts and discourse for destitute and juvenile
children. Through an instance such as this body of 181 inmates, it is evi-
dent that the home’s overall approach towards children is fairly limited.
It does not take into account their social and economic backgrounds, and
Gandhi’s Children 87

there is clearly an absence of dialogue through which such understanding

could be devised. These children were arrested and brought to the Parayas
Home by the police and even though there are a number of institutions
involved in rescuing children from situations involving child labour,
through this sequence it becomes clear that they are only performing
parts of what ought to be a holistic and more encompassing plan for the
rehabilitation of vulnerable and at-risk children. Rescuing children from
factories and sending them back home with no other provisions that
would stop them from returning to child labour situations reveals that
such rescue and rehabilitation efforts are ineffectual. They do not inter-
vene in a meaningful way in the long term as the conditions that compel
children to undertake child labour remain unaddressed.
As the film advances, it establishes clearly how the home’s bureau-
cratic set-up adopts an authoritarian approach towards the inmates that
leads to their further alienation. There are subtle visual and aural cues
in the film that reflect how power and authority are exercised in the
Prayas Home. Segmentation of space within the Home places staff in
such a position that they can keep an eye on and persistently observe
inmates. The Home is secured through metal mesh doors and windows,
the doors are manned at all times by security guards. Extensive paper
documentation of inmate data is undertaken and we follow how this
documentation travels through a whole hierarchy of the Home’s offi-
cials. The inmates are repeatedly subjected to a penalizing gaze executed
by the staff, security personnel, teachers and senior peers in classrooms,
dorms and communal areas. All of these give us a sense of how the disci-
plinary and authoritative set-up of the Home is executed on a daily basis
and how it perpetuates a culture of fear among the inmates, particularly
the younger ones. How can we understand the exercise of authority and
the lack of holism in the Prayas Home’s approach?
The staff’s introduction to the Home’s provisions to newcomers is laden
with a missionary zeal; the home is presented as offering an alternative to
the harsh conditions from which most inmates have been rescued. All of
the amenities – food, clothing, shelter, education and community – are
presented as facets of a ‘civilized life’ to which the inmates are projected,
in the comments of the home’s staff, as having no access in their present
circumstances. While it is not the intent here to contest the efficacy of
these facilities, what merits closer analysis is the suggestion of destitute
existence as the binaristic opposite of ‘mainstream, civic life’, as indi-
cated by some staff.
The institutional discourse verbalized by the home’s staff projects
the lives that the inmates lead as uncivil and inferior to the social and
88 Documentary Films in India

moral standards of civic society. Repeatedly, the inmates’ backgrounds,

steeped in abuse, crime and labour, are designated as both erroneous
and illegitimate. The inmates are made out to be ‘uncivilized’ figures,
the opposite of civic existence. They are projected in abstract terms by
the home, viewed as miscreants who have to necessarily be removed
from the social and civic order. Their lives and personalities are in
urgent need of corrective, civilizing intervention that the home projects
itself as offering. In this way the home legitimizes its interventions
and operations. Though we appreciate the degree of disempowerment
the inmates experience and their needs for basic amenities, when the
home’s staff present its provisions in terms of ‘civilising’ the inmates
we are led to question the missionary posturing of the home as an
The Home’s efforts are clearly imbued with a missionary zeal and
this agenda rests on a hierarchy whereby access to mainstream society
and participation in it as a ‘civilized’ figure are emphasized as the goals
towards which inmates ought to aspire. This missionary agenda resonates
with a colonial imaginary in which civilizing interventions were held as
ameliorating the conditions of the ‘uncultured’ natives. These colonial
resonances can be understood, from a Foucauldian perspective, as reflec-
tive of a broader social anxiety towards the figure of the inmate who is
perceived as society’s other, the abnormal, disorderly and chaotic body
that ought to be either excluded or brought under civilizing and discipli-
nary control. Foucault’s elaboration is useful here:

Behind the disciplinary mechanisms can be read the haunting

memory of ‘contagions’, of the plague, of rebellions, crimes, vaga-
bondage, desertions, people who appear and disappear, live and die
in disorder… Generally speaking all the authorities exercising indi-
vidual control function according to a double mode; that of binary
divisions and branding (mad/sane; dangerous/harmless; normal/
abnormal); and that of coercive assignment, of differential distribu-
tion (who he is; where he must be; how he is to be characterized;
how he is to be recognized; how a constant surveillance is to be
exercised over him in an individual way, etc). (Foucault 1995: 198)

Of course, Foucault’s discussion pertains to the beginnings of disci-

plinary operations in nineteenth-century European institutions such
as psychiatry asylums, penitentiaries, reformatories, approved schools
and hospitals (Foucault 1995: 199). While the Prayas Home can be
positioned in line with these institutions by way of how its inmates
Gandhi’s Children 89

are understood as civil society’s others – those who need to be brought

under disciplinary control – Gandhi’s Children emphatically establishes
an overall lack of vision for working with destitute and juvenile children,
a vision that does not naturalise and essentialise the inmates as abnor-
mal and aberrant figures. By pointing at the weaknesses and inadequa-
cies of the home the film enters the realm of a critical discourse. It raises
and explains the home’s failings as rooted in the incompetence to see the
inmates’ conditions as socio-economically constructed. Foregrounding
the disconnect between the children’s needs and the home’s provisions,
and highlighting the bureaucratic and authoritative stance the home’s
staff adopt towards inmates, Gandhi’s Children establishes how the
home’s efforts are clearly limited, if not entirely ineffectual.

Personal narratives and connections with the filmmaker

As the first part of Gandhi’s Children dwells on the transition into the
home and the inmates’ interactions with its staff, it is marked by a sense
of vulnerability, helplessness and pathos. Around the middle, the film
subtly shifts its approach and MacDougall goes on to explore inmates’
personal narratives. The focus at this point is less on how the Prayas
Home operates as an institution, and more on the inmates’ life stories,
their experiences, hopes, desires and imaginations. Now the camera
is principally situated in the dorms and it dwells on how the inmates
live together and build, on their own initiative, a sense of community
among themselves. MacDougall focuses on a range of collective activi-
ties: the cleaning and maintenance of the dorms, eating, games and
recreational activities. These group activities are characterized by an
atmosphere of camaraderie and playfulness. For example, a hairdresser’s
visit to the home becomes an occasion for all of the inmates to gather
together, prod and tease each other on hairstyles. On another occasion,
when new clothes are distributed among the inmates there is an overall
sense of excitement in the air and each inmate is seen making efforts
with their appearance. In one prolonged and comical sequence we see
a young inmate, Abhay, being assisted by older inmates in overcoming
his fear of bathing.
Mostly casual, these instances in the film reflect the interpersonal
relations and sense of camaraderie among the inmates. The inmates
exercise values of brotherhood, sharing and support in order to over-
come the bureaucratic complacency and tactlessness with which they
have to contend at the Home. The inmates indicate that they have
brought these values from their streets and villages where they can help
to counter the harshness of their socio-economic circumstances. In an
90 Documentary Films in India

attempt to further intensify focus, MacDougall follows smaller groups

of friends in the home. These are mostly boys of the same age who play
together and support each other. In these smaller contexts, the levels
of friendship and brotherhood are deeper as the inmates share similar
dispositions and understand each other more closely and sensitively.
All of the inmates address each other as bhai (brother) or, on instances,
endearingly using swear words.
As well as evoking the inmates’ sense of community, the second
part of Gandhi’s Children follows personal experiences and narratives
that inmates steadily disclose before the camera. MacDougall deploys
a range of approaches in documenting these narratives. Some life
stories are expressed in direct, one-to-one conversations facing the
camera; others are group interactions where the filmmaker functions
as an observer. MacDougall does not address his subjects directly in
Hindi; he is assisted by a translator. At the start most of the inmates
are shy, inarticulate, incoherent and plainly intrigued as to why the
filmmaker is interested in them. MacDougall does not conceal any of
these stances. We observe the inmates’ quizzical and sometimes even
uninterested looks towards the camera. All conversations are edited in
a way that presents the inmates’ stories in a coherent manner. While
MacDougall cuts these conversations to condense them, he does not
edit out any pauses or silences that punctuate the testimonies that
are shared by the inmates. No instance when any inmate falters in
their speech, repeats a thought, breaks down over a difficult recol-
lection, or even loses attention and looks out of the frame, beyond
the camera, is censored from the viewer. Thus, the conversations not
only provide verbally articulated narratives, but also register how each
inmate performs in relation to their surrounding environments and
In his filmmaking practice MacDougall is committed to using inter-
views and conversations beyond a conventional sound-bite approach,
where interviews only provide spoken and stable information. For
MacDougall, conversations do not just communicate information, they
also register how environments influence what subjects share before the
camera. He notes:

Interviews in films not only convey spoken information but also

unspoken information about the contexts in which they occur. They
allow their speakers to describe their subjective experiences of past
events, while simultaneously we interpret the emotions and con-
straints of the moment. (in Devereaux and Hillman 1995: 245)
Gandhi’s Children 91

All conversations in Gandhi’s Children are open-ended and loosely

structured. Most begin by inquiring how an inmate first arrived at the
home. From the inmates’ responses MacDougall and the translator
follow leads to probe specific information pertaining to the inmates’
experiences. These conversations are often emotive: the inmates can be
seen constructing and articulating their thoughts in front of the camera.
Sustained camerawork reveals how for many inmates this is the first
opportunity to express their narratives as they understand them.
Some of the inmates have already shared data about their background
with the home’s staff when they first arrived and were registered at the
home. There is a difference in the inmates’ modes of narration before
the home’s staff and in their conversations with MacDougall and
the translator. The conversations with MacDougall and the translator are
not official recordings of information such as, for example, in response to
the Home’s set template of tightly structured questions, which are formal
in their mode of address and very low in terms of emotional quotient.
Conversations with MacDougall involve a direct and intimate address to
the camera.
We learn about the values the inmates uphold, through which they
comprehend and make meaning out of their lives. The inmates often
have a quite firm understanding of their social and economic back-
grounds. Their conversations with MacDougall go beyond these and
the inmates dwell on their aims for life, how they plan to negotiate
their economic circumstances, their dreams, aspirations, memories,
desires, hopes and associations. As MacDougall is clearly pursuing the
human element at this point, these conversations open new and inter-
esting facets of the inmates’ personalities. One of the most arresting
exchanges follows a medical check-up routine at the home where a Sikh
doctor is seen examining inmates and dispensing medicines. During
this sequence the young boy, Abhay, around six years old, is diagnosed
with scabies. The doctor offers him an antiseptic ointment and also asks
him how often he bathes. At this the boy remains silent. Other inmates
announce mockingly that he does not bathe at all at which point the
doctor probes whether anyone assists him. The inmates retort that
no one goes near him because of the fear of an infection. The doctor
emphatically dispels this fear and requests that the senior inmates assist
the young boy.
MacDougall cuts next to the home’s exterior where Abhay is seen remov-
ing his clothes to apply the ointment he has been given. Another older
boy, out of frame, directs him in a supportive manner. The camera shifts
briefly to another scene in which some children are seen playing cricket.
92 Documentary Films in India

It returns to Abhay, who is now sitting fully clothed, having applied the
ointment. Without a prompt, he breaks into the following dialogue:

I [Abhay] was looking for you [MacDougall] this morning. I wanted

you to write a letter for me. I was looking for you from the rooftop.
Ask him [the translator] if that’s not true.
Where does all this dirty water go?
In Damoh [Abhay’s village] there’s a mountain… In Damoh, that’s
where it’s going… Here [Delhi] the water is dirty, but in Damoh it’s
I was in Sagar, on my way to Damoh by train. I was sleeping on the
train. Then I got lost. And after that I couldn’t find a train back. Then
I came here to Delhi. The same day.
Translator: What were you doing on the train?
Translator: You were sweeping the train?
I want my father to see my face again. That’s all… send a letter to my
father. Then I can show you who my father is.

Abhay’s spontaneous dialogue indicates that he perceives both MacDougall

and the translator as supportive figures. In seeking MacDougall to help
him write a letter, he entrusts to MacDougall his deep desire for a reunion
with his father. His question about the dirty water from the sewage near
the home leads to a memory association with his village. Images of that
landscape – its mountains and clean water – contrast with the Delhi to
which he has been exposed. These recollections of his village, Damoh,
are perhaps real or imaginary. The memory associations on which they
are based are both poignant and poetic. Through these associative images
Abhay tells us where he comes from and where he feels rooted. They sup-
port his profound sense of longing to return to his home, to his village
and reunite with his father.
In the film, the above conversation and the images it conjures reflect
Abhay’s thoughtful temperament, one that had been opaque till now for
he was largely depicted in terms of his immediate experiences including
sickness, learning in classrooms and generally adapting to the home. The
relevance of such images, based on memories and imagination, is that
through them the film opens up the inmates on terms that are of value
Gandhi’s Children 93

to them. Abhay continues as a quiet and introverted presence through

the remainder of the film. He is seen as a largely solitary figure at the
home, and this is partly on account of his illness. But quite like Abhishek
Shukla from The Age of Reason, Abhay also finds through the filmmaker
an opportunity to express himself. This expression goes beyond the
restricted way in which he is perceived within the home, namely in
terms of his impoverished background and his abandoned state.
Gandhi’s Children is punctuated with numerous instances when other
boys, like Abhay, express a deep longing for their homes. Most are young,
pre-pubescent boys who have been suddenly – and often ruthlessly –
separated from family. The rehabilitation home has no means to fulfill
their need for a sense of security that home, and in particular parents,
offer children. Quite like Abhay, many other inmates go on to express
their longings for family and memories of home on camera.
A second revealing conversation in the film is held with an older,
adolescent boy, Sunder, who we follow as he makes a phone call using
a cheap mobile phone in his dorm. He leaves a message for a friend.
Following this conversation, he is drawn to the camera and slowly opens
up before MacDougall. Shyly, he shares the news that the friend he was
trying to reach is his girlfriend whom he had met some time before in
a different neighbourhood of Delhi. He promptly adds the religious dif-
ference between both, one is a Hindu and the other a Muslim. He notes
that while this difference is of no consequence to him personally, he is
unsure if his girlfriend’s family would allow her to be friends with him
for long. Sunder carries on, stating that he has had some strong friend-
ships in life, but he desires his girlfriend as a long-term companion. He
has lacked such a companionship ever since he left his village during
childhood and came to earn a living in Delhi.
He wants to continue living in the city and attend a regular school,
unlike the informal education system of the Prayas Home that he feels
will not provide him the necessary skills for work through which to build
a future life. MacDougall continues this conversation in a very measured
way, allowing long pauses and the space for Sunder to articulate his views
in full. Sunder appears keen to talk about his girlfriend, but this keenness
is not childish or immature in any way. He has a composed and sensitive
persona and his relationship with his girlfriend sits within his broader aspi-
ration for a respectable and self-reliant life. This conversation stresses our
understanding of adolescent romance as more than an infatuation or sim-
ply impulsive. It exposes the tender need for companionship at this age.
Among the other conversations that MacDougall documents are
group interactions in which inmates share their experiences among
94 Documentary Films in India

themselves. Some of these occur spontaneously – for instance after a

collective activity such as cleaning a dorm. Others are more structured,
like group meetings. In these conversations inmates often narrate their
life stories: where they come from; their family circumstances; how they
became separated from home and ushered into child labour or substance
abuse; their journeys to Delhi; and their encounters with racketeers,
police and, finally, the Prayas Home. The inmates’ modes of address
and conduct in these group conversations reveal their sensitivity and
sense of care towards one another. Through words or gestures such as
a soft touch on the hand or a supportive glance, the inmates express
their empathy and assurances for each other. Some inmates offer advice
to their friends on topics such as the value of education. Since inmates
speak supportively as peers, these group conversations are markedly
more cathartic and intimate. The inmates also reference the camera’s
presence through affirmative gestures such as an acknowledging look
or a smile.
As MacDougall focuses on specific inmates in the second half of the
film, we receive a more textured view of their lives at the Home. Some
display their prized personal belongings before the camera. They open
their lockers, pull out objects and explain the meanings those objects
hold for them. Others dance or sing to their favourite tunes before the
camera. Yet others share the tricks of their trades as, for example, when
a group of boys demonstrates how to pick pockets. The camera’s pres-
ence functions as a provocateur for the inmates not only to share their
spoken narratives, but also to conduct performances that deepen our
insight into their lives. This is upheld by the close and tactile perspective
on things that is offered by the camera.

Haptic visuality: vision, touch and the olfactory senses

From the start of Gandhi’s Children the camera has been placed within
the Prayas Home, in close proximity to the bodies of the home’s
inmates. This subtle aesthetic choice evolves as the film advances.
Throughout the film, the camera maintains its closeness to the inmates’
bodies and this is achieved not by using the zoom lens, but by physi-
cally placing the camera near to the inmates’ bodies and at their eye
level. MacDougall has approached all children in this way since the
Doon School project. By viewing the inmates and the Prayas Home
from this position, we have looked at their world from a position that
is near to them. This has delicately facilitated a sense of emotional
empathy with the inmates. We are positioned to appreciate their senses
of frustration, disempowerment and violation as seen in the first part of
Gandhi’s Children 95

the film as well as their senses of camaraderie, playfulness, composure

and thoughtfulness as shown, for example, in the second part of the
film. Throughout the film MacDougall tends to frame the inmates using
the wide-angle lens so that their bodies are not abstracted from their
environment. All of the inmates’ activities can be seen in the context of
the location in which they are performed and in this way we can dis-
cern how their environment, on occasions, impinges upon them and,
on others, supports them.
While MacDougall continues with observational cinema’s emphasis
on subjectivities as co-constituted by social environments, he advances
this into the realm of bodily experience. The camera evokes what the
environment of the rehabilitation home feels like at an embodied level.
The senses are key here – textures of surfaces such as walls, floors, beds,
fabrics, utensils, windows, railings; the home’s aural atmospherics, its
smells, temperatures, colours, bodily dispositions in individual and col-
lective contexts within the home – the film’s visual vocabulary exposes
us to these experiential dimensions of the Prayas Home. This aesthetic
approach, which foregrounds the sensory and embodied dimensions, is
achieved through devising haptic visuality – a form of visual construction
that pushes viewing beyond visual identification into the realm of touch,
texture and the tactile sense experience. Jacques Aumont defines haptic
visuality in terms of the ‘psychic distance’ between image and spectator,
and between the organization and perception of space.3 He traces an ante-
cedent for ‘psychic distance’ in German art historian and sculptor Adolf
Hildebrand’s 1893 theory differentiating between two forms of vision:

… the optical pole of distant vision, in which perspective plays an

important part and which corresponds to those arts that prioritise
appearance (Hellenistic art for eg.); and, at the other extreme, the
haptic (tactile) pole of close vision, in which the presence of objects
is more strongly emphasised, their surface qualities more in evi-
dence, and so on, in what becomes an increasingly stylized manner
(such as in Egyptian art)… (Aumont 1997: 77–8)

The discussion on haptics can be advanced using the definition of

haptic visuality advanced by the German art historian, Alois Riegl in
terms of the tactile qualities of things as ‘opposed to the optical (visible)
qualities, like color and light’ (Riegl 1988: 181). Riegl asserts the differ-
ence between haptic visuality and optical visuality: the former facili-
tates perception of those dimensions of material phenomena that can
only be experienced through touch like the depth and impenetrability
96 Documentary Films in India

of objects in sight. This contrasts with the latter, optical visuality that
exposes those dimensions of phenomena that can be seen and perceived
by the eye – namely, colour and light. He elaborates, stating:

The eye merely conveys colored appearances, which may well con-
form to the actual contours of the thing itself, but do not necessarily
do so. It is only finally the sense of touch that can inform us about
the relative impenetrability of things. And all our impressions of
solid things, which we have absorbed via the detour of our visual
faculty, will finally revert us back to the primitive experience of our
tactile faculty. (Riegl 1988: 181)

The film theorist Noel Burch was the first to use haptics in order to
qualify the distinct aesthetics of early film (Burch 1990).4 In recent
years haptics has gained particular currency in phenomenologically
oriented film scholarship. Laura Marks uses haptic visuality to develop
a ‘phenomenological understanding of embodied spectatorship.’ She
states that:

Haptic cinema appeals to a viewer who perceives with all the senses.
It involves thinking with your skin, or giving as much significance to
the physical presence of an other as to the mental operations of sym-
bolization. This is not a call to willful regression but to recognizing the
intelligence of the perceiving body. Haptic cinema, by appearing to us
as an object with which we interact rather than an illusion into which
we enter, calls on this sort of embodied intelligence. (Marks 2002: 18)

MacDougall’s turn towards a haptic aesthetic has steadily advanced

through his films in India and, in Gandhi’s Children, this visual regime
is put to its most complex use.
In earlier school films, haptic visuality was used to give a sense of the
texture of things and for this MacDougall very often used a close perspec-
tive on things: skin, daily objects of use, sounds of the environment, and
so on. In the second half of Gandhi’s Children, where MacDougall explores
the inmates’ personal narratives, he evokes the cold winter atmosphere
of Delhi which is not a tangible or concrete thing in itself but is never-
theless experienced through the sense of touch, against the skin. Where,
at the start of the film, the city in the background of the home was seen
through warm and glowing winter light, that city becomes increasingly
opaque with thick winter smog, as the film advances. The inmates are
seen being impacted by the cold. We see their dry, shivering bodies,
Gandhi’s Children 97

slowed in their everyday activities at the home. Their bare feet absorb
the cold of the earth, their teeth chatter and their skin shrivels with the
dipping temperatures. One of the most striking evocations of winter is in
a sequence in which we see breakfast being cooked in the kitchen. Here
smoke rises from the utensils and mixes with a narrow strip of sharp
morning sunshine casting a deep golden glow within the shots. Such a
sensorial rendition ties in with other images that consistently punctuate
the film and evoke its atmosphere – the sensorial experience of tangible
and intangible things: objects, clothes, skin, air, smells and temperatures.
Some instances in Gandhi’s Children work on both the tactile and
olfactory senses. There are repeated references to a sewage line with
black waters flowing into an open field that is adjacent to the home.
One image that recurs on selected moments in the film is of the home’s
choked lavatories. The observational stance, standing back and look-
ing at these creates sensorial impressions, hints at the smell and the
overall atmosphere in these spaces. In this way we experience what the
home feels like at the most elementary levels: touch and smell. Laura
Marks has argued that the sense of smell is the most mimetic of all
senses, ‘because it acts on our bodies before we are conscious of it’. She
holds that the sense of smell can be provoked through haptic images
that resist ‘the control of vision… encourage the “viewer” to get close
to the image and explore it through all of the senses, including touch,
smell and taste’ (Marks 2002: 118). In Gandhi’s Children haptic visuality
extends beyond the textures of tangible objects and surfaces that can be
physically touched, on to more ethereal substances such as the qualities
of the atmosphere.
The senses of touch and tactility often provoke a sense of pleasure in
the act of viewing, for they push viewing from looking into a form of
touching. Vision becomes an inroad through which touch is performed.
Through vision we, the viewers, reach out and touch the subjects and
environments in the image; and it is through vision itself, that is, the
image, that those subjects and environments with their varied textures
touch us back. MacDougall’s emphasis on touch and the olfactory expe-
rience in Gandhi’s Children is in the context of his exploration of the
textures of things at the home and through these he contains the pleas-
ure of touching through vision. Suggesting the atmosphere of a choked
lavatory, or experiencing cold temperatures through observing Delhi’s
winter smog – these all make Gandhi’s Children a difficult sensory and
viewing experience. This is a critical use of haptics. The efficacy of these
images is suggested in the audience reactions at a preview screening of
select clips from this film during the Beyond Text conference organized
98 Documentary Films in India

by the Royal Anthropological Institute and the Granada Centre and

held in Manchester, England in 2007, where the images of the home,
including its choked lavatories, provoked immediate, shocked sighs and
gasps from a principally white, western audience.
Complementing MacDougall’s haptic approach are the aural rendi-
tions in Gandhi’s Children. The Home’s interiors – its central courtyard
and empty corridors where the noises children make ranging from
playing to wailing – echo and magnify to evoke a sense of isolation
that characterizes the inmates’ experiences of this home and their lives,
more generally. A most compelling encounter occurs one night when a
small child stands by a staircase landing, overlooking the central court-
yard and crying for his mother. The Home is still and quiet, and all of
the other inmates are asleep. The cries of this small boy, an isolated fig-
ure seen silhouetted in the far distance, are chilling as they echo across
the whole courtyard and building. In our understanding of space within
this home, this courtyard has occupied a key place where we have seen
children playing and gathering for a host of collective activities. The
courtyard thus implies a highly social space. When the small boy’s cries
echo through this courtyard, its character alters from a communal space
and it acquires a surreal and haunting quality. It is as if the Home’s
underbelly had been exposed and is crying for care and security, those
sensations that are scarce in the cold and regimented environment of
the Prayas Home.

Figure 3.3 The Prayas Home’s courtyard where sounds from the home echo
Image courtesy, David MacDougall.
Gandhi’s Children 99

The film is also carefully punctuated with silences. These often arise
on cathartic instances, when inmates break down sharing their personal
stories and all inmates around them fall silent in solidarity, acknowledg-
ing and appreciating the intensity of one another’s experiences. This
sensitive use of sound that provokes the aural atmosphere of the Prayas
Home, encompassing its noises and silences, does not approach sound
as purely a carrier of information. This is an affective and tactile use
of sound that envelops the viewer with the aural sensations of place.
The affect is, as Elsaesser and Hagener note, enveloping the specta-
tor’s body with sound; offering them an experiential evocation of the
everyday aural atmosphere at the Prayas Home (Elsaesser and Hagener
2011: 137). This use of sound further pushes the sensory experience of
Gandhi’s Children away from pleasure. The affects the film provokes are
often disturbing and they approximate the sensory experiences of the
film’s subjects.

Deep reflexivity: mapping transactions between

institutions and individuals
The film’s closure is structured around the departure of inmates from
the home. The home follows set procedures to ensure that inmates are
handed on to genuine claimants, and as far as possible, that they will not
be meted out any treatment of the kind that had brought them to the home
in the first place. We start with a moving sequence that follows one boy,
Pramod, as he is reunited with his grandfather, who has travelled a long
way to claim him. Parallel to this is a sequence in which a bus full of court-
walas is seen heading to court where a decision will be taken about their
status and their possible future at the rehabilitation home. After the bus
exits the frame we cut to the close-up of one boy, Sunder, who has returned
back to the Home, playing with his peers. He steps up to the camera
and states that at the court his status had been changed from courtwala
to homewala. He is no longer in the Prayas Home on a probationary
basis, and his presence has now been designated as voluntary. This shift
in status marks his decriminalization and we can sense his joy at feeling
socially more accepted. He states that as this news was announced at the
court, his first thought was to share it with MacDougall. This moment
marks the film’s climax – one subject shares his most thrilling news
with the filmmaker, thereby gesturing the significance of their relation-
ship and the actualization of the film’s commitment to representing
the inmates in humane and affirmative terms. From the hazy and grey
images at the start of the film, when inmates were seen awakening at
dawn, we are now in the warm glow of dusk and the inmate before us
100 Documentary Films in India

is suffused with enthusiasm, optimism, joy and a smile. From asleep to

joyous wakefulness – this is the transformation that has been plotted by
the narrative of Gandhi’s Children. As this inmate gazes smilingly into
the camera we cut to another boy, Pappu, who is preparing to leave for
home after being claimed by a relative. Exterior shots of the Home follow
and the film closes with a slow-motion shot of small hands reaching out
through the rusted bars of a window. This action indicates the inmates’
desire for a life beyond the home.
With Gandhi’s Children, David MacDougall’s project surrounding chil-
dren’s institutions of India achieves a roundedness. Through these films
MacDougall has plotted the limits and contradictions of educational
and rehabilitation discourses at a number of institutions in India that
are each economically removed from the other. At the Doon School he
followed how dominant and normative nationalist ideology is mobilized
to shape the ideal, masculine citizen-subject. Through a comprehensive
observational focus on the institution, MacDougall exposed how the
Indian middle class and elite’s understandings of nation-building and
modernization rest on a colonial epistemological framework. Suggestions
of the Doon School’s links with the IMA and FRI were key in this and in
addition to uncovering how the Doon School partakes in the broader dis-
course of masculinity and nationhood, the film Doon School Chronicles is
perhaps the only critical cinematic representation that counters the way
in which the IMA has been constructed in Indian cinema. The physical
training and disciplinary regimes at the IMA and the armed forces have
often been reified through patriotic Hindi films whose representations
deposit on the defence serviceman’s body strong sentiments of national
duty and sacrifice, exceeding even individual allegiances of, say, family
or subcultural belonging. Imbuing the defence serviceman’s body with
attributes of physical strength, endurance, rigour and duty, all dedicated
to the service of the nation, Hindi cinema clearly overlooks and normal-
izes the colonial underpinnings of the IMA’s disciplinary regime.5
In Gandhi’s Children MacDougall immerses the camera into the Prayas
Home, following inmates’ experiences and perspectives without ever
perpetuating a binaristic or confrontational opposition between them
and the institution. The critique of the institution this film offers is
not in the form of an exposé throwing light on the operational failures
of the home. It is by observing the order of proceedings at the home,
tracing its institutional discourse and soliciting the inmates’ viewpoints
that Gandhi’s Children questions the home’s practices.
MacDougall carefully dissociates himself from the discourse of the
institutions he documents and he goes on to follow smaller groups and
Gandhi’s Children 101

individuals within these institutions. Whether a differentiated class

of newcomers getting acculturated to the Doon School, or a foreigner
within that class, or the quiet inmates of the Prayas Home, MacDougall
follows figures who do not fully imbibe the institutional discourse –
they question it and are in some ways other to their institutions and the
normative framework of national identity those institutions endorse.
In The Cinematic Imagination, Jyotika Virdi points out that nations are
grounded in homogeneity as they ‘consent to share a common identity
and accept the hegemony of the privileged class’ (Virdi 2007: 164). She
adds that national identity arises from a process of naturalisation of a
particular cultural position and the repression or erasure of differences.
While MacDougall exposits how the figures he follows are marginal-
ized or constitute as ‘other’ within their institutions, his filmmaking
follows them with a view to exploring their individual perspectives
and views. There is a creative imperative within MacDougall’s works
for exploring how subjects engage with their environments, how they
imbibe its influences, comply with and transact its norms – norms they
may not often be socially positioned to break with or unsettle, but
which they nevertheless question and critique. This creative imperative
coincides with a broader move towards subjectivity within the docu-
mentary field that has had particular implications for the function of
documentary subjects. There is a shift in their position – they are no
longer sources of evidence, exemplifying determined positions within
the social field. Approaching them through the contingent processes
of social life we may only access them partially, but there is an altered
agency here as we see them active, constituting and expressing their
subjectivities through transactions and negotiations within the broader
social world. On how the changing scope of documentary influences
the agency of its subjects, Nichols states:

Social actors no longer serve, here, as witnesses or experts, exam-

ples or illustrations, not even as voices of authenticating testimony
regarding lost or repressed histories. Pleas of charity and cries of
outrage recede; different voices, less exhortatory than personal, more
exploratory than conclusive, speak. (Nichols 1994: 2)

Nichols situates David MacDougall’s ethnographic films as representa-

tive of an ‘experiential and poetic’ form that replaces ‘subject-centered
and linear models’ of documentary filmmaking (Nichols 1994: 84).
MacDougall’s method of ‘deep reflexivity’ is key to this for it reveals
how subjects constitute themselves in and through representation.
102 Documentary Films in India

In the history of the cinematic medium, cinematic self-reflexivity

has been associated with revealing the apparatus and its workings
on screen. From a Marxist position, this revelation of the apparatus
‘at work’ is deemed as countering the seamless verisimilitude and
reality effect of mainstream narrative cinema that, underpinned by
bourgeois values, effaces its own means and mechanisms of produc-
tion. Following the Marxist and psychoanalytic turn in film theory
that arose in the wake of May 1968, cinematic self-reflexivity got
formulated into a prescriptive inventory of such techniques as the
hand-held camera, the boom mic within the film frame, the voice
of the interviewer or a frame within a frame – all of which were held
as reminding the viewer they were watching a constructed artefact.
While these techniques certainly deconstruct the filmmaking process,
the equation of reflexivity with a film’s technical processes only and
the collapsing of the reflexive move into finite techniques, which have
since been appropriated even in mainstream film and commercial tele-
vision, calls for refreshing the scope and methods of a reflexive prac-
tice. This involves expanding the terms by which to critique dominant
ideologies beyond the deconstruction of mainstream cinema codes
and conventions.
MacDougall’s deep reflexivity clearly pushes against the grain of
illusionism but, more crucially, it raises for the viewer the dynamics
through which documentary representation is constructed. Lucien
Taylor comments on MacDougall’s deep reflexivity, stating that:

MacDougall develops a more nuanced notion, in which reflexivity is

registered, whether intentionally or not, in the very style and struc-
ture of a film – not then, or not simply, in the returned look, the
microphone boom breaking the frame, the camera operator in the
mirror, and such like, but in intricacies of texture and subtleties of
gesture that appear willy-nilly throughout the body of a film. They
are integral to the film itself, and are inscribed in nuances of detail –
in what is in the frame one moment but not the next, in what is said
as well as what goes unsaid, in the movement or the stasis of the
frame, in the camera’s proximity or distance from a subject, in a pan
or a tilt. Reflexivity of this order is at once implicit in the film and
utterly intrinsic to it. (in MacDougall 1998: 18)

Deep reflexivity rests on observational cinema’s emphasis that film-

makers comply with and respect the world before the lens. No exter-
nal criteria – theoretical, rhetorical or didactic – are applied to the
Gandhi’s Children 103

film. MacDougall comments on observational cinema’s strength, stating

that it is:

… founded on the assumption that things happen in the world

which are worth watching, and that their own distinctive spatial
and temporal configurations are part of what is worth watching
about them. Observational films are frequently analytical, but they
also make a point of being open to categories of meaning that might
transcend the filmmaker’s analysis. This stance of humility before
the world can of course be self-deceiving and self-serving, but it also
implicitly acknowledges that the subject’s story is often more impor-
tant than the filmmaker’s. (MacDougall 1998: 156)

MacDougall’s films delicately raise, without resolving, the equations

between institutions and individuals. The subjects we see may be situ-
ated in institutions, but MacDougall’s films reveal that their processes of
transaction with the institutions are far from a unidirectional exercise,
with the subjects occupying a foreclosed and determined position in
relation to the institution. They may not exercise any radical agency
against the institutions, but the films have exposed viewers to their
narratives, emotions, reasonings and how they comprehend their
conditions. In India, such documentary practice opens a powerful way
through which seemingly ordinary and everyday life worlds of social
actors can be used to better understand the complex ways by which
individuals operate in relation to the broader categories of society and
Part II
An Arrested Eye: Trauma and
Becoming in Desire Machine
Collective’s Documentary

The noon-bell rings at the Episcopal Church on New York’s West 86th
Street. A truck beeps, backing up on West 85th Street. In between, the
entrance to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is livened by street
vendors calling out hot dogs, roasted nuts and New York souvenirs.
Visitors meet, greet and gradually quieten as they queue up to enter
the museum. Melding into this everyday soundscape of the Manhattan
landmark are the sounds of a distant rainforest. A sacred rainforest,
known as Mawphlang. The Mawphlang sacred forest belongs to the
Khasi peoples from India’s northeastern state of Meghalaya. On the day
I encountered Mawphlang’s forest sounds at the Guggenheim Museum,
a thick winter cloud had formed a kind of sound box enveloping
Manhattan, absorbing its street noises and amplifying Mawphlang’s
plentiful and overlapping sounds. Croaking insects, singing birds,
rustling leaves, frog calls, mild wind, dew drops, small water streams
and the pregnant silence of a dense, humid rainforest – these and
many other forest sounds flowed imperceptibly into the chilly atmos-
phere, mixing with the everyday sounds of Manhattan. These forest
sounds were from a sound installation entitled Trespassers will (not) be
Prosecuted,1 developed by northeast India-based moving-image artist
collective, Desire Machine Collective (henceforth DMC).2
The sound installation used a computerized sensor program that
responds to the footsteps of the visitors to the museum. The number and
speed of the steps provoke a random mix of pre-recorded sounds from
the forest, which are contained in a digital archive. A persistently form-
ing soundscape flows, unique because its mix of sounds is constituted
live in response to the movements of the museum visitors. Projected
from eight speakers installed along the Guggenheim outdoor ramp,
Trespassers… had no finite beginning or end. Infinitely constitutive in
108 Documentary Films in India

relation to visitors’ presence, Trespassers… aurally merged Mawphlang

sacred forest with Manhattan. Through this sound installation, seasoned
New Yorkers as well as tourists frequenting the Guggenheim virtually
traversed a Khasi sacred forest.
Such access is rare given the forest’s distant location in India’s north-
eastern region. In the indigenous belief system of the matriarchal Khasi
peoples, forests are sacred sites manifesting divine providence. Forest
resources cannot be taken without the permission of forest spirits, and
they cannot be used for commercial exchange. One Khasi member told
me that DMC had only been granted the permission to record and
take sounds from the Mawphlang sacred forest because the community
members appreciated Trespassers’ motivation to share the forest’s intan-
gible resources, here sounds, with a wider audience through art.3 Such
work, which benefits the community by popularizing its resources, is
not considered transgressive. The bracketed ‘not’ in the installation’s
title, Trespassers will (not) be prosecuted references this fact.
Manhattan was the 2012 destination of Trespassers... In 2011 the
sound installation was at the Deutsche Guggenheim Museum in Berlin,
and before that in 2009 it had been installed at galleries in New Delhi
and Guwahati, in the northeastern state of Assam. Trespassers’… mode
of affectively and perceptually impacting audiences through works that
have no decisive beginning or end is symptomatic of DMC’s wider body
of video, film and sound installations. This collective, formed in early
2000, comprises a group of young moving-image artists from India’s
northeastern region who are committed to exploring a politics of repre-
sentation in relation to this region. Since colonial times India’s northeast
region, composed of seven states, has borne a politically sensitive rela-
tionship with mainland India. A sense of remove and marginalization –
economic, sociocultural and psychological – characterizes the north-
east region’s relationship with India. DMC’s early projects questioned
and critiqued dominant Indian media representations of the northeast
region. More recently, DMC’s projects have evolved and the collective
now seeks to map absented memories, traumas and ghostly presences
that unsettle the linear flow of histories, and time more broadly, in
relation to northeast India. The collective’s works have been exhibited
at select forums around the world that address the suppressed histories,
traumas and pluralities characterizing contemporary globalisms. The
collective works from northeast India.
In this section of three chapters I examine three projects devised by
DMC between 2002 and 2012 to plot how a critical cinema discourse
has taken shape in DMC’s oeuvre. I propose that DMC’s cinema has
An Arrested Eye 109

evolved steadily from a position directly confronting and deconstructing

mainstream Indian media representations of the northeast region
towards a more critical direction in which the northeast’s troubled
political equations with mainland India are certainly key, but DMC’s
works exceed critiquing Indian nationalist discourses. This advance,
I posit as being symptomatic of a cinematic discourse that is in-process
and becoming, rather than concluded or resolved. This evolving cine-
matic discourse explores the scope and limits of cinema as a tool for
articulating peoples’ memories and traumas, those non-verbal and per-
ceptual dimensions of human experience that relate to social, cultural
and political struggles and that are suppressed in mainstream versions
of history, written or mediatized. History/ies become key protagonists in
this cinema project that is rooted in the northeast region but transcends
the limits of a narrowly conceptualized regionalism.
In order to contextualize DMC’s political stance in relation to cinema
in general and media representations of northeast India in particular,
I begin this chapter by offering an overview of this region spanning its
colonial past, subnationalist cultural politics and its mediascapes. This
overview plots the cultural and political discourses that have shaped
understandings of northeast India during colonial and postcolonial
times. In this I draw upon the work of the political scientist Sanjib
Baruah, whose concepts of ‘colonial political geography’, ‘nationalization
of space’ and the ‘counter-insurgent gaze’ make up key theoretical tools
with which to understand how mainstream Indian media representations
are influenced by Indian nationalist discourses and how they persistently
other the northeast as a region and as a community (2011, 2012). This
background, it is intended, will facilitate the reader in appreciating the
wider cultural and political contexts to which DMC’s works respond.
Following this introductory section, in this chapter I discuss DMC’s
early work, Daily Check-up, in which filmed performance is used to
disassemble the dominant trope of the counter-insurgent gaze through
which northeast youth are visualized by the media and policed by state
apparatuses in the region, labelling them as terror suspects. Chapter 5
discusses Passage (2006) – an abstract film dwelling on the northeast
region’s colonial history. This abstract film, I argue, constitutes a key
interstitial moment in DMC’s cinema project where the collective con-
fronts the northeast’s colonial past and how that permeates its present.
I hold that the collective’s turn to abstraction in this work enables them
to break from the cinematic codes and vocabularies for critiquing main-
stream media representations of the northeast as in their earlier work,
Daily Check-up. This allows for a new vocabulary to emerge that is used
110 Documentary Films in India

to perceptually evoke the traumatic experiences and absented memories

of a people who do not constitute the active subjects of mainstream
media or official histories in India.
Chapter 6 considers DMC’s most recent project, Residue, with a view
to highlighting the contours of DMC’s cinematic discourse in-becoming.
In this work, the collective re-enters the realm of the real and representa-
tion following abstraction in Passage. In my discussion of this work that
is set in an abandoned power plant, I deploy Gilles Deleuze’s concept
of the time-image to articulate the absences – that is, the memories
and peoples – that Residue evokes. I then draw a conceptual parallel
between DMC and Thai filmmaker, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose
films are set in northeast Thailand and plot the memories and experi-
ences of this region’s peoples in relation to their working class struggles.
Weerasethakul has inspired DMC’s practice and both have shared their
works-in-progress with each other to explore the political and perceptual
contours of their cinema practices. The chapter concludes by suggesting
how Residue constitutes a work of trauma cinema, a growing body of films
that contemplate traumatic experiences and memories such as those
of the Holocaust. Trauma cinema rests on cinema’s specific possibilities,
through which a realist representation of the world can be contested.
Formal experimentation is used to construct a cinematic rendition of
traumatic memories that are disjunctive in nature. Residue’s particular
approach to montage, specifically the tonal montage as described by
Eisenstein, combined with a disjunctive and tactile soundscape, I hold as
key in evoking the absented memories of trauma that are first suggested
in the film using the stranded gaze of the time-image. I have selected
these three works from DMC’s broader oeuvre, which includes complex
and innovative works that take up highly localized cultural experiences
and construct those through deeply sensorial cinematic forms.4 While
the collective’s entire body of work is interrelated, the three works I have
selected for discussion most explicitly reflect DMC’s broader political
agenda for cinematic experimentation. Each of these works clearly indi-
cates how the collective sees film form as a site of political contest and
by viewing these three works in succession we are able to appreciate the
evolving political motivations of DMC’s cinema practice.

Cultural contests: exercise of the colonial

political geography

Lying in the eastern extension of the Himalayan foothills, northeast

India is a region of rich social and cultural diversity.5 While numerous
An Arrested Eye 111

groups of indigenous peoples make up the region’s population, the

northeast is also home to communities of settlers from mainland India
and neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh.6 Countering a colonial
worldview, in which this region was largely dismissed as a loose con-
glomeration of varied ‘primitive’ tribal groups,7 contemporary thinkers,
artists and scholars in the northeast regard this region’s cultural fabric
as intricately textured and layered with influences derived broadly from
south Asia on the west and southeast Asia towards the east. Eminent
Assamese folklorist, Birendranath Datta comments on this region’s
sociocultural multiplicity as being indicative of a vibrant and dynamic
diversity that uniquely juxtaposes ‘primitive’ forms of living with mod-
ern ones. He states:

…this region presents a picture of the most bewildering cultural

variety and diversity… what is striking is that we have here the
tribal and the non-tribal, the acculturated and the assimilated,
the Sanskritized and the non-Sanskritized, the highly ‘refined’ and the
patently ‘primitive’, all coexisting in a remarkable state of juxtaposi-
tion. While such a position is perhaps true of some other parts of
India – although in a much lesser degree – what stands out in this
region is not only the predominance of the tribal elements in terms
of the number of such communities and their overall ratio in the
total indigenous population of the region, but also the dominant
presence of markedly tribal racial and cultural strands in the socio-
cultural fabrics of the ‘non-tribal’ societies. (Datta 2012: 22–3)8

The northeast’s cultures are characterized by a distinct cosmopolitan-

ism, manifest in the region’s everyday social and cultural life, including
visual, material, tangible and intangible forms.
It was during the time of British colonial rule that Assam9 was for the
first time incorporated into a pan-imperial, Indian formation. Since
the eighteenth century, the neighbouring Burmese empire had been
intervening in the region with expansionist intents. The 1826 Yandabo
Treaty, which brought an end to an Anglo-Burmese war, established
British control over Assam. Prior to the Burmese intervention, the
region had been composed of a number of both small and large
kingdoms. The largest and most prominent of these was the Ahom
kingdom that included the entire Brahmaputra river valley, bordering
Cooch-Behar on the west and Cachar in the south.10 Other, smaller
kingdoms such as Manipur and some hill kingdoms, had friendly
relations with the Ahoms. The Ahoms also known as the Tai-Ahoms
112 Documentary Films in India

are understood to have come to Assam from the Yunnan Province of

China.11 Until British rule, the Ahom kingdom ruled in the region for
six centuries and this longest-ruling kingdom deeply shaped Assam’s
culture, fostering a distinct sense of identity and peoplehood in the
region. It is understood that the name ‘Assam’ derives from the root
term ‘Ahom’ (Das 1999: 8).
The arrival of the British resulted in the imposition of what political sci-
entist Sanjib Baruah terms a ‘colonial political geography’ – an orientalist
project geared to exercise colonial domination over this region whose
abundant natural resources, including cash crops like tea, had made
it especially lucrative for the colonial enterprise. Baruah identifies two
policies of the colonial political geography that are necessary in under-
standing how the northeast region’s equations with mainland India have
shaped since colonial times. A first policy of the colonial administration
involved the segregation of the northeast’s hill regions and their popula-
tions from the plains. The colonial establishment designated the tribal
communities of the hills as patently ‘primitive’, their distinctiveness
making them socially incompatible with the rest of the region’s peoples.12
Following segregation, British commercial relations with the ‘primitive’
tribes of the hills were organized and access for ‘outsiders’, including
Indian nationalists, to this region was strongly regulated (Baruah 2011:
29).13 According to Baruah, this colonial segregation over decades inhib-
ited contact and relations between the tribes of the hills and the peoples
of the plains. It deeply divided the population of the northeast and
impeded a sense of even peoplehood and socio-cultural unity across the
region (Baruah 2011: 30).14
The second policy of colonial political geography pertains to the
colonial insistence on Assam being an extension, a land frontier of the
Bengal Province. This was the basis for including the Bengali-speaking
district of Sylhet into Assam and clubbing the entire Assam region into
the Bengal Province.15 Bengali was enforced as the official language
in Assam and resources for Assamese educational institutions were
curbed. Though the imposition of Bengali as the official language in
Assam was reversed in 1873 following a prolonged public outcry, the
aggressive pursuit of colonial economic gain in the region without any
returns, coupled with the colonial establishment’s blatant disregard for
the northeast’s cultural and historical distinctiveness provoked a deep
sense of resentment against the British establishment and implanted a
desire for asserting Assamese cultural self-autonomy among the region’s
An Arrested Eye 113

The northeast’s sense of remove from India, subnationalism

and the Assam Movement

The overall sense of social, cultural and psychological remove provoked

by the segregation of the colonial political geography has persisted
following India’s independence, making the northeast feel distanced
from mainland India. As in other colonies, the British, over time, also
cultivated a comprador class in Assam – the class of tea-planters. Their
economic mobility and privilege escalated to such an extent under and
after colonial rule that it spiraled what eminent Assamese intellectual
Hiren Gohain terms as an ‘enclave mentality’: a sense of exclusiveness
and remove from the mass population based on economic privilege
(Gohain 1985: 24). This mentality, according to Gohain, has been
notorious for impeding the region’s economic development in contem-
porary times and it has in turn stoked feelings of cultural and material
backwardness in comparison to mainland India.
At the time of India’s independence in 1947, a number of indig-
enous peoples’ movements resisting passage into either Indian or
Burmese hands started across the northeast region. The earliest of
these was the Naga peoples’ movement for independence which
gained considerable momentum in the 1950s. Around independence
there were still parts in the northeast that had been either unadminis-
tered or only lightly administered by the British, such as parts of the
states, Nagaland and Mizoram. As a result, the northeast region did
not organically align with the Indian union.
India’s defeat in the 1962 war with China provoked the Indian State’s
active interests in the northeast. The defeat had exposed the vulner-
abilities of India’s international boundaries, particularly with China.
Alongside a clear delineation of international borders in the region, the
Indian State initiated a concerted effort to politically and administra-
tively integrate the northeast into India. Between the 1950s–70s new
state boundaries were drawn across the northeast and the princely states
of Manipur and Tripura were included in the Indian union. Baruah
labels the Indian State’s active integration of the northeast as a project
of ‘nationalizing space’ whose motivations he elaborates, stating that:

Why has nationalizing space become such an imperative for the

Indian state? In uncontested national spaces, the routine practices
that reproduce the consent of the governed in a modern democracy –
for example, payment of taxes, voting, or provision of key services
114 Documentary Films in India

such as guaranteed public order by the state – are taken for granted.
Such routines were either absent or barely present in many parts of
Northeast India… The war with China and the pro-independence
rebellions [by indigenous peoples] emphasized the dangers of this
absence in the post-colonial era… The war of 1962 brought home to
Indian policy-makers the lesson that an infrastructure of state institu-
tions is necessary to reinforce among the people of the region the sense
that they are part of a pan-Indian national community. (2012: 39)

In the process of drawing international and state borders in the north-

east, peoples’ ethnic ties did not always coincide with the newly drawn
state boundaries and this exacerbated an already prevalent sense of cul-
tural alienation among the region’s peoples. The momentum for indige-
nous peoples’ movements began to escalate in the first decade after
India’s independence and some explicitly assumed violent and separatist
overtones. In the state of Assam,16 from where DMC operates, issues of
identity and language, economic development and immigration from
Bangladesh – issues first provoked by a colonial political geography – kept
intensifying after India’s independence and their impacts were exag-
gerated as the Indian State exercised centralized control over Assam’s
natural resources such as iron, oil and natural gas. In the 1960s these
issues had assumed such urgency that the Assam Movement was born.
The goals of cultural-political self-assertion lay at the heart of the Assam
movement. Two organizations played key roles in mobilizing the move-
ment’s agenda: the Assam Sahitya Sabha (Assam Literary Society) and the
All Assam Students Union (AASU). Together these organizations are com-
mitted to a political agenda to promote the cultural self-autonomy of the
Assamese peoples. The Assam Sahitya Sabha has worked for the promotion
of the Assamese language and the mobilization of Assam’s distinct literary
traditions. Language, for the Assam Sahitya Sabha is a key component
in the quest for cultural self-assertion and this can be situated as a reac-
tion against the summarily reductive, colonial view now shared by Indian
nationalists that Assamese, on account of its resemblance to Bengali, is no
different from it.
The All Assam Students Union, founded in 1967, is a federation of
Assamese language schools and colleges that has worked to secure social
and democratic justice through an activist politics for the Assamese
peoples. For Baruah, the joint impetus of the Assam Sahitya Sabha and
AASU styled the Assam movement into what he terms as a form of sub-
nationalist politics. This is an important theoretical designation of the
Assam movement and it counters Indian nationalist labellings of this
An Arrested Eye 115

movement as insurgent, terrorist or separatist, overlooking its historical

roots and absenting its broader cultural context.
Subnationalist politics is a form of political mobilization that persists
alongside and in competition to pan-nationalist affiliations. Baruah
explains that subnationalism is a historical project around the politics of
culture. Subnational narratives arise organically and even poetically, call-
ing up ties such as those of a shared homeland, language, origin, kinship
and cultural practices. Such ties, as evidenced in indigenous communities
across India, often predate and can therefore appear conflictual with the
imaginary ties that modern nationalism seeks to engender through the
projects of nation-building and community construction. Subnationalism,
in itself, does not challenge the nation as a category or nationalism as a
shared sense of community. The national project of India, particularly
its cultural discourse, has been shaped in quite a homogenizing way and
it is this that renders subnationalism as a contesting and oppositional
category that national apparatuses seek to contain, if not fully eliminate.
Baruah elaborates on the concept of subnationalism, stating that:

Like nationalisms, the cultural foundation of India’s regionally based

subnationalisms was the languages of the region – to be precise, the
languages that were emerging as, or were aspiring to become, regional
standards. In a certain totalistic way of imagining India, pan-Indian
narratives can seek a monopoly of the communitarian imagination
of all citizens living within India’s borders. The pan-Indian political
community, in this imagination becomes the sole repository of the
poetics of the homeland and of the collective memories and dreams
of a people – defined singularly. (Baruah 2011: 8)17

While as a subnationalist project the Assam movement has been com-

mitted to cultural self-assertion, the movement has increasingly come
to be perceived as being at odds with a nationalist sense of even peo-
plehood. The Assam movement peaked between 1979 and 1985, after
which it assumed visibly militant methods.18 This contributed to a
perception of Assam as a region steeped in insurgency, militancy, sepa-
ratism and thus constituting a discordant other, disturbing and unset-
tling the national fabric. Insurgency and violence were extracted as the
singular terms of reference in relation to this region and thus, quite like
during the colonial period, the cultural politics of the region received
sparse recognition, let alone any legitimacy. The sense of remove the
region feels in relation to mainland India has only intensified and this
is upheld by India’s mainstream media too.
116 Documentary Films in India

The northeast mediascape

The Indian media, spanning daily news (both print and television) on to
the mammoth Hindi film industry have contributed to intensifying the
northeast’s acute sense of cultural distance and otherness in relation to
mainland India. South Asian media critics have noted that the north-
east is represented in a largely limited and negative way by the Indian
media.19 Applying Gramscian analysis of hegemony, Prasun Sonwalkar
has argued that the Indian media’s approach towards the northeast is
hierarchical, exclusionary and largely event-centered. He elaborates
that an ‘us–them’ binary is a key discursive framework in Indian media
representations of the region. Specifically commenting on the English-
language press, he notes that there is an overall ignorance and lack of
understanding about the northeast’s cultures and this often becomes
the basis for presenting the region’s peoples through the most reductive
stereotypes such as ‘backward’, ‘violent’, ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘tribal’
in the worst sense (2004, 2005). For Sonwalkar, a discourse of power
underscores the ‘us-them’ binary with the nation constituting the ‘us’
and the northeast, being a cultural-minority constituting the ‘them’ in
this equation. He explains:

Below the normative discourses of democracy, multiculturalism and

nationalism lies a discursive web of relations reified in the binary
of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ It is based on material as well as psychological
factors. The binary can be a key tool to explore and identify group
perceptions and consciousness and, in turn, help unravel banal
journalism and explain the coverage and non-coverage of a society’s
‘other.’ Events and issues involving the minorities are likely to be
considered newsworthy only if they are seen by journalists as affect-
ing or being of interest to the ‘we’… Usually, the life situations of the
minorities may be reflected sporadically as event-centered reportage,
but without political, historical and cultural contexts. The binary
pervades inter-personal and professional discourse in news [-] rooms
where the affairs of the dominant sections are routinely privileged.
(Sonwalkar 2005: 271)

Besides news, popular media, and in particular mainstream Indian

cinema, constructs the northeast as an other. Hindi cinema has rarely
focused on the northeast in any serious or sustained way. On occasions,
it has used its striking natural landscapes to set visually spectacular
song sequences, on others, when it has set narratives in the region, like
An Arrested Eye 117

Indian news media, it has displayed very limited understanding of the

region, its cultural diversity and politics.
A turning point in the media history of the region was the release of
the 1998 blockbuster film, Dil Se, by the South Indian director, Mani
Ratnam. Fictively set in the northeast, Dil Se cursorily depicted an
insurgent movement in the region. The ‘us–them’ binary in this film
was located in its hero, Shahrukh Khan, who was depicted as a patri-
otic journalist, an army officer’s son, on assignment in the northeast
where he seeks, in a patronizingly pacifying gesture, to ascertain why
‘they’, the people of the northeast, are ‘angry’ with ‘us’, the people of
India. There were widespread reactions to this, ranging from routine
dismissals of the film as one among a series of misrepresentations of
the region, onto more inflamed responses against its representation of
the northeast as a politically disturbed region whose virginal rainforests
house insurgent training camps. Some citizen’s groups in the northeast
banned the film. Following Dil Se, there has been a steady decline in the
distribution of Bollywood films in the northeast of the country.
In terms of representational discourse, Dil Se actualized a visual regime
for viewing the northeast through a nationalist position. Sanjib Baruah
has termed the film’s visual regime as a kind of ‘counter-insurgent
gaze’ – the gaze of those fighting insurgents in the northeast, namely
India’s armed forces (Baruah 2005). Throughout the film we experience
the northeast through this gaze, from a position close to those fighting
to contain insurgency in the northeast including the journalist prob-
ing the angers of the region’s peoples. There is no counterpoint, no
returned gaze from the northeast upon those representing India. This
counter-insurgent gaze, according to Baruah is not limited to a film like
Dil Se. It is shared by mainstream media representations that singularly
focus on insurgency in the region. Baruah states:

Films like Dil Se and pictures in newspapers and magazines enable

people to put together a mental picture of the Northeast and its peo-
ple. The gaze of the Indian army patrol, reinforced by films like Dil
Se, gives meaning to what is fast becoming a racial divide. (Baruah
2005: 167)

At the time of its release in India, Dil Se was praised for giving visibil-
ity to the northeast. In the northeast and in critical media discourses
this ‘visibility’ has been problematized because the counter-insurgent
gaze underscores a kind of political and cultural divide between main-
land India and the northeast. This gaze abstracts insurgency from the
118 Documentary Films in India

wider historical and cultural discourses of the region and it offers no

possibility for northeast peoples to represent themselves, on terms
relevant to them or through the highly sophisticated visual aesthetics
related to their cultures.
Northeast India has a rich cinemascape where multiple cinematic
influences from across the world intersect, cross-fertilize and form into
unique and variegated forms of film. The region has a small-scale film
industry with limited resources, but since the early decades of cinema
here, northeast filmmakers have been committed to exploring film
forms through which to represent the region’s unique cultures, com-
ment on its social conditions and channelize the peoples’ political
sentiments. At the time when the studio system was being institutional-
ized in Bombay and Calcutta, filmmakers in the northeast were seeking
alternate models for film production, exhibition and distribution. Well
aware of the economic limitations of producing Assamese films, in his
writings the Assamese cinema pioneer and leading Gandhian freedom
fighter of the northeast, Jyotiprasad Aggarwala, had called for the for-
mation of an indigenous film culture in Assam. His sentiments with
regard to an Assamese cinema were informed by Gandhian politics and
he stated:

In India, Indian films must be made… otherwise it would be impos-

sible to put an end to the suction of money by foreign films…
The thought of the permanent establishment of the art cinema in
Assam makes one perplexed. The Assamese people cannot do with-
out it [,] nor are they sufficiently equipped with resources for the
set-up… For some time, the Assamese people, instead of comparing
an Assamese production with Bengali, Hindi or American films,
must take an Assamese film eagerly and endearingly as one belong-
ing to the first grade despite its lack of quality if there be any. (cited
in Mazid 2007: 37–8)

After training at Germany’s UFA Studios alongside the Indian cinema

pioneers, Himansu Rai and Devika Rani, Aggarwala had returned
to Assam and founded the Chitralekha Movietone Company at the
Bholaguri tea estate in a rural pocket of middle Assam. While loosely
modeled according to the organizational principles of the Prabhat
Studios and Bombay Talkies, Chitralekha Movietone was an indigenous
film experiment involving members from village communities who
were trained in all aspects of film production, including acting, music,
set design, cinematography and editing. From Aggarwala on to critically
An Arrested Eye 119

acclaimed figures such as Bhabhendranath Saikia and Jhanu Barua,

northeast filmmakers have appreciated cinema as an internationally
accessible language through which local narratives can be depicted.
Assam has been exposed to the great movements of world cinema in
an organized way. Organizations such as the Guwahati Cinema Club
and the Assam Cinearts Society brought films from all across the world
to foster a critical cinema culture in the region. Soviet montage cinema,
Italian neorealism, French nouvelle vague and India’s own parallel
cinema – these were all exhibited to wide audiences at urban cinema
halls and through temporary, makeshift facilities such as the traveling
bioscopes of early Indian cinema in the rural hinterlands. Being a cul-
tural corridor between south and southeast Asia, northeast India has
had wide exposure to films – popular and art house, from south-east
Asian countries including Thailand, Malaysia and Korea. Artists from
the Desire Machine Collective, therefore, grew up exposed to world cin-
ema movements through Assam’s local cinema societies. When DMC
began to make cinema in the northeast they inherited the question of
how the region’s cultural heritages and politics could be represented
through a cinematic language that is internationally accessible. For
DMC, this has meant a deeper project investigating cinema’s relations
to discourses of the Indian nation and its representational practices.
Daily Check-up is the collective’s early work that takes this up in a most
visible and confrontational way.

Daily Check-up (2005, 8 mins 15 seconds)

Daily Check-up is one of DMC’s earliest works and is key to defining

the collective’s political agenda for cinema. Developed at Delhi’s Khoj
International Artist’s Residency Programme in 2005, this film takes up
the militarization of northeast India that has been exercised for decades
to curb the Assam movement and the linked insurgent activities in the
region. Through this work DMC confronts the normative audio-visual
codes used to depict the political conflicts of northeast India in broad-
cast media, specifically television news.20 The film21 identifies and
deconstructs the visual and aural codes through which the ‘counter-
insurgent gaze’ – the dominant mode for visualizing the northeast – is
actualized. Sanjib Baruah first used this term, the ‘counter-insurgent
gaze’, to refer to the visual regimes by which popular media visualize
and represent the northeast. I want to elaborate on what Baruah pro-
posed by emphasizing that the counter-insurgent gaze, as Daily Check-up
reveals, is an institutionalized mode of envisioning the northeast in
120 Documentary Films in India

which the positions of media have been unreflexively suffused with the
positions of armed forces apparatuses operating to control insurgency
in the northeast. Daily Check-up illustrates how – at the level of form –
mainstream media have come to share in the counter-insurgent gaze
of the armed forces. This explains how mainstream media representa-
tions of the northeast depict it on the very terms by which armed forces
rationalize the northeast’s political conditions, that is, as a disturbed
territory where insurgency and terrorism dominate.

Project background: militarization of northeast India

It is appropriate to begin by contextualizing the militarization of India’s
northeast. In order to suppress and control numerous political and
insurgent movements in the region, since the 1960s the Indian State
has increasingly deployed armed forces in the northeast. A culture of
counter-insurgency has taken root through enforcement of controver-
sial acts such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA)22 of 1958.
This Act allows for the declaration of northeast territories as ‘disturbed’
and accords Indian armed forces ‘special powers’23 that are politically
and ethically contentious. Under this act Army officers have legal
immunity for their actions and, furthermore, the government’s judg-
ment with regard to an area being declared ‘disturbed’ is not subject
to any form of judicial review (Government of India Act 1972; Baruah
2012: 62). Together with other acts such as the Terrorist and Disruptive
Activities Act (TADA) and the National Security Act, AFSPA has con-
verted the northeast landscape into a heavily militarized zone, where
democratic rights and civil liberties stand precariously, if not fully sus-
pended. The coercion and fear perpetuated through this militarization
have been exacerbated through human rights violations committed by
armed forces personnel.
Militarization in general, and the AFSPA in particular, have drawn
widespread criticisms from within the northeast, within India more
broadly and even from the international community through such
organizations as the United Nations Human Rights Committee. One of
the most exemplary figures synonymous with protest against the AFSPA
is the Manipuri poetess and political activist Irom Chanu Sharmilla.
Sharmilla undertook a hunger-strike in November 2000, seeking the
repeal of the AFSPA and the withdrawal of armed forces from the north-
east. The hunger-strike continues to this day, making this the world’s
longest such act of political protest.
Since the 1990s DMC has been critically analyzing the terms by
which mainstream Indian media represented northeast insurgency,
An Arrested Eye 121

counter-insurgency operations and protests against the region’s

militarization. A key observation of the collective had been that
mainstream news media singularly focused on sensational incidents:
bomb blasts, kidnappings, extortion, bandhs (civic closures) and
counter-insurgency operations for the recovery of arms, the capture
of terror suspects and the seizures of suspected terrorist hideouts by
armed forces personnel. Very specific audio-visual vocabularies were
being exercised in such media coverage that, by and large, lacked any
sustained or in-depth investigation into the impacts of insurgency and
counter-insurgency on the peoples of the northeast. Given the overall
absence of any competing visual data or regimes, mainstream media
coverage of the northeast projected insurgency and counter-insurgency
on very limited terms.
The year 2004 was critical in the history of media coverage of counter-
insurgency in the northeast. A group of middle-aged Manipuri women
had demonstrated by stripping naked in front of an army barracks in
the Manipur state capital, Imphal. They unfurled a banner calling out:
‘Indian Army: Rape Us.’ This protest was prompted by the death of fel-
low activist Thangjam Manorama, who had been sexually assaulted and
killed under arrest by paramilitary forces. Footage of the ‘naked protest’,
as the Manipuri women’s protest came to be popularly called, spread
rapidly on the internet and since 2004 this iconic footage has been used
by journalists, documentarists and artists across the subcontinent. The
acclaimed Indian documentary filmmaker Amar Kanwar integrated this
footage in his 2008 multi-channel installation Lightning Testimonies
that was part of a traveling new media exhibition, Indian Highways at
London’s Serpentine Gallery, 2008–9.
Kanwar juxtaposed the naked protest footage with performance images,
evoking the Manipuri women’s angers and reactions against the military
establishment. In this work, footage of the naked protest was combined
with other images of violence and sexual assault from key moments in
modern South Asian history: the India–Pakistan partition (1947), the
Kashmir conflict (ongoing) and Bangladesh’s war of liberation (1971).
Running over eight channels, the work presented experiences of rape in
South Asia as symptomatic of a human civilizational crisis. Kanwar’s instal-
lation has received widespread acclaim for highlighting and linking sexual
crimes from distinct political eras and contexts of recent South Asian
history. Ananya Jahanara Kabir notes that Kanwar’s installation ‘circum-
vented narrative causality’ leading to what she terms as ‘the most ethical
form of representation’ of rape narratives (2010: 161). For Kabir, the instal-
lation’s immersive environment evocatively raised the subject of rape on
122 Documentary Films in India

experiential terms: ‘…it [Lightning Testimonies] embodies its [rape’s] lived

experience and the experience of survival in a manner that transcends the
communicability of words and narratives’ (Kabir 2010: 161).
In the northeast, however, this work like most media interventions
that used footage of the naked protest, drew criticisms. For many,
including DMC’s artists, the extraction of this instance as an example
of the sexual crimes rampantly committed by the armed forces in the
northeast was problematic. The singular focus on this footage, which
has assumed spectacular appeal,24 overrides and simplifies the decades-
long history of sexual crimes that sits in a broader context of sustained
armed forces violence and which is also tied to illicit sex trafficking in
the region. While it can be argued that widespread usage of the naked
protest footage constituted a kind of wake-up call in the media against
state-sanctioned violence in the northeast, the extraction of this foot-
age without any long-term or sustained engagement with the subject
of sexual crimes in the region reinforces mainland India’s overall lack
of interest and sensitivity towards the northeast. Kanwar’s installation
immerses the viewer in an environment of sensory excess with sparse
contextual information that would facilitate in appreciating the dispa-
rate political contexts the work references. Without necessary historical
and cultural specificity, Lightening Testimonies abstracts sexual violence,
turning it, in some respects, into a visual spectacle.
DMC’s artists hold that ‘eye-catching’ news instances such as the
naked protest often grab attention, circulating in the media for some
time before getting lost in the stream of news. DMC closely studied
the naked protest’s footage and its varied uses from news to new
media installations such as Kanwar’s. The collective decided to devise
a work that would highlight the militarization, persistence and repeti-
tive nature of counter-insurgency operations in the northeast. In an
emphatic move marked by restraint, the collective committed itself to
avoid focusing on any singular, spectacular instance of insurgency or
counter-insurgency in this work. It wanted to contest representations
of insurgency and counter-insurgency as isolated news events, and
instead, project these as what seems to have become a routine order of
the day across northeastern states.

Interrogating the counter-insurgent gaze: a video notebook

Daily Check-up focuses on armed forces search operations on suspected
terrorist hideouts, in particular the practice of nakabandi – a system of
street patrolling and surveillance using checkpoints and roadblocks,
which is widespread throughout northeast India. The work is structured
An Arrested Eye 123

as a video notebook: a form that uses video to document fleeting,

on occasions repetitive, impressions of innocuous encounters and/or
goings-on from everyday life. An intimate form, the video notebook
uses images and sounds for creating imaginative connections and
associations through which non-verbal ideas, arguments and lines of
thought can be suggested. The look, texture and tone of video note-
books are often disjunctive and incomplete, and because of this video
notebooks differ from mainstream media and news, which seek to offer
comprehensive and commanding views of things. This partial quality of
the video notebook rests on the full use of the video format’s particular
possibilities. Video’s ease of operability, its accessibility and low cost
facilitate sustained observations and the exploration of impressionis-
tic and affective dimensions of human experiences. Commenting on
video’s accessibility, Robert Payne notes that, because video permits an
‘intimacy of vision’ and a ‘directness of voice’, it suits the articulation
of perceptual experiences, impressions and memories (Payne 1997: 67).
Formally, video notebooks are not determined by any conventions or
structures of established moving-image media genres. Seemingly anec-
dotal, video notebooks often adopt fragmentary structures. Given their
innovative forms, video notebooks have tended to find visibility as
installations in art galleries and museums where they can be exhibited
without the constraints of institutionalized film durations.25
Daily Check-up documents visual and aural impressions of surveil-
lance practices from the perspectives of youth suspected as terrorists.
The use of video here is clearly oppositional. It is subjective, registering
a surveillance practice from the perspective of those who are its targets,
not its executioners. The oppositional quality of Daily Check-up is raised
right at the start of the work that makes a pronouncedly reflexive move.
In the opening shot of the film, a blazing, single-point, white light
stares out directly at the viewer. We are confronted with the funda-
mental ingredient of moving-image media – light, which is constitutive
of images in both digital and analog formats, albeit with disparities in
the chemical processes through which images are constituted in both. The
screen is split horizontally and two images run parallel, one above the
other. Together, they form a vertical column with black space on either
side. This creates a subtle resonance with a celluloid film-strip, advanc-
ing the work’s reflexivity. These reflexive moves set up Daily Check-up,
and DMC’s cinema project more broadly, as occupied with questions
of representation. DMC’s project is thus not operating as a positiv-
ist representation, throwing light upon and making visible unseen
dimensions of life in the northeast. This project is tied to questioning
124 Documentary Films in India

how representations come about and to do this, DMC deploys a visual

vocabulary that deconstructs the constitutive elements and processes –
those materials by which representations are constructed and which
mainstream media suppress, if they do not fully erase.
The bright, white light seen in both images of the split screen runs
to the sound of ticking, setting up a sense of danger and surveillance.
The film cuts to the next image in which two young men enter the
frame. Each occupies one image of the split screen. Both are in an
enclosed space. Their hands are raised above their heads in a gesture

Figure 4.1 A bright, single point, white light confronts the viewer in Daily
Check-up’s opening shot
Image courtesy, Desire Machine Collective.
An Arrested Eye 125

of surrender, and they rotate as if they are being inspected. It is clear

that these images are a performance-reconstruction enacting surrender.
A bright, white light from out of the frame flashes on them at an angle.
Given that this shot follows the opening shot of white light and there is
continuity in the sound of ticking over both, we as viewers deduce
that the light falling on the young men is the one with which we were
confronted in the film’s opening shot. As the young men continue to
rotate before this light, it is established that the light is a tool of inspec-
tion and, as such, it represents a surveillance apparatus. Daily Check-up
now complicates the light from the film’s opening. In terms of the film’s
theme it is a surveillance tool, representing the exercise of institutional
authority. In film reflexive terms, it is an ingredient constitutive of
the images we are seeing. The viewer is now alert to how an essential
ingredient for image-making may not necessarily be an objective entity.
Through this, the work suggests how representations are constructed
and get imbued with particular ideologies and values.
As the film’s scenes advance, the speed of the ticking sound escalates,
enhancing the work’s overall feeling of danger and surveillance. The
enclosed space to which the young men are confined appears dull and
constraining. The blazing surveillance light falls flat on its walls. There
is no depth in the field of vision and the relation between the men and
the light is rigid and constricting. This is a unidirectional relationship
in which the surveillance light is in the position of authority and com-
mand over the bodies of the young men.
The bodies of the young men are framed from a camera position
that is distinct from the position of the surveillance light. This is cru-
cial because according to the principles of cinematography, cameras
ought to be positioned in such a way that the camera’s line of viewing
is in the same direction as the line of light from the principal lighting
source. Hence, in conventional practice, cameras are so positioned as to
be complicit with the position of the principal lighting source. Neither
the camera nor the lighting source directly confronts or obstructs the
other and in this way unnecessary shadows and gradations of tone are
eliminated from the frame.26
In the specific context of news documentation in the northeast it
is crucial to understand that cameras are often positioned proximate
to the surveillance apparatus (often security personnel who may also
throw light during search operations to identify suspects), for security
personnel provide news establishments permissions and security cover
during the documentation of counter-insurgency operations. The posi-
tion of news cameras is often complicit with the position from which
126 Documentary Films in India

the surveillance apparatuses throw light upon and encounter terror

suspects in counter-insurgency operations. Thus a viewer’s encounter
with terror suspects in news is not necessarily from an objective posi-
tion. The viewer, through the camera, is positioned in proximity to
security personnel, such that they subtly encounter terror suspects
from the security personnel’s confrontational position. This is the basic
position from which the counter-insurgent gaze is often constructed.
By eliminating the blazing light from the frame and viewing the young
men from a camera position that is not proximate to the surveillance
light but to the bodies of the young men, Daily Check-up inaugurates
a new position of viewing that is disparate from the surveillance
apparatus. The deconstructive intents of the film as raised by its early
reflexive moves translate into a critical and competing visual regime.
This new visual regime arises from a position removed and separate
from mainstream media’s viewing positions and its functions differ
from surveillance and reportage. This new position does not enact a
counter-insurgent gaze.

Juxtaposing two modes for encountering ‘terror suspects’

The following segments of Daily Check-up advance the new position
through the technique of juxtaposition. Found news footage of armed
men conducting search operations on a suspected terrorist hide-out is
seen on both images of the split screen. Security personnel enter the com-
pound of a suspected hide-out and drag out some youth. Sporadic gunfire
and the noise of people shouting are heard. This footage is shaky, fuzzy
and randomly cut, conveying an overall sense of chaos, crisis and danger.
This news footage is then juxtaposed with the performance images of the
young men who continue the action of rotation under inspection. In
these performance images the camera is stationary and there is a sense of
ambiguity: we feel we are watching some suspects being inspected, but
we are not certain whether they are guilty or not. The film continues to
juxtapose news footage of other counter-insurgency operations and the
performance images of the rotating bodies. With every juxtaposition
of news and performance images, contrasts, particularly between their
formal vocabularies, become apparent.
A first contrast is of visual clarity. The performance images are of a
higher definition than the fuzzy, low-quality found news footage that
has lost generations of visual resolution through successive transfers
between media. Second, in the news footage the bodies of the young
terror suspects are mostly seen from a distance, in deep backgrounds,
often running away from security personnel into nearby wilderness.
An Arrested Eye 127

Figure 4.2 Performance images of young men being inspected, juxtaposed with
found news footage of counter-insurgency operations
Image courtesy, Desire Machine Collective.

The physical proximity of the camera to the security personnel heightens

our sense of distance from the terror suspects. The performance footage,
on the other hand, is marked by a sense of nearness to the bodies of
the young men as the camera is physically placed closer to them. Third,
unlike news footage, where the body of the terror suspect is often on the
edges of the frame, in the performance images that body is at the center
of the frame. Finally, the news cameras often perform shaky panning
and zooming in and out movements through which to search and spot
the suspects who, at the instance of filming, are often trying to escape
128 Documentary Films in India

security personnel (and thus the camera). The shakiness of the camera
and its tentativeness are emphasized by the use of the telephoto lens
for zooming in that suppresses depth of field and exaggerates even the
slightest camera movement. This heightens the overall sense of disrup-
tion, tension and urgency within the visual field. In contrast, the camera
for the performance images is stationary and uses a wider magnification
that contextualizes bodies spatially, viewing them more stably. These
formal contrasts point to the different modes through which both sets
of images have been constructed and this, in turn, alerts the viewer to
how the seeming verisimilitude of news footage is itself manufactured.
News footage is seldom composed from neutral ground between
security personnel and terror suspects. Though news images serve the
function of witness, they do not necessarily approach terror suspects in
a neutral or balanced way. News seldom identifies the terror suspects
in terms of any social background and it rarely shares any of their life
narratives. As such, news enforces the arms of the state, here security
personnel as bearers of the gaze, agents of scrutiny who, in turn, reduce
suspects to the objects of the gaze. News images of counter-insurgency
operations, violence and even protest underscore this binaristic equa-
tion through their very formal vocabulary. When to the formal features
of shaky hand-held camera, fuzzy image quality, erratic punctuation by
isolated shouts or gunfire are added the specific techniques of editing –
rapid and random cuts, very short shot durations (no more than a few
seconds) and an authoritative voiceover that decodes these images
‘objectively’ for the viewer – the ‘terror suspect’s’ body is obscured and
distanced from the viewer. It is disempowered by the bearers of the gaze:
the surveillance apparatus and the media who do not offer suspects any
possibility for voice. The positioning of the terror suspect’s body at the
edges of the news frame parallels the place of that body on the edges of
society where it is implicated in an overarching equation of dissonance
and disturbance. News media’s visual vocabulary thus encodes the terror
suspect’s body as faceless, marginal and without presence. The new view-
ing position of the performance images, by contrast, places the viewer
in direct proximity to the young men. From this position the body
of the terror suspect is neither obscured nor distanced from the viewer.
The viewer commands the possibility to engage with the young men on
terms that contest the codification of their bodies through news media
and other visual regimes deploying the counter-insurgent gaze.
Performance images of the young men under inspection continue to
be juxtaposed with news clips. We repeatedly see groups of suspected
youth dragged, arrested, beaten and punished. The news clips depicting
An Arrested Eye 129

these are judiciously used in Daily Check-up. Mostly such images are
selected that fleetingly bring the viewer face to face with the ‘suspected
youth’ – for example, a handheld shot in which the camera tracks along
a group of young boys who roll their bodies on a deserted road in an
act of punishment; or an image in which we first see a suspect running
into the forest, only to be halted by gunfire at which he surrenders and
walks towards the camera. In extracting those sparse instances that
bring suspects face to face with the viewers, Daily Check-up subtly recon-
textualizes news footage. When these selected images are seen outside
the flow of a news report and each suspect has a face – both literally
and metaphorically, we are alerted to how the assembly processes of
news editing suppress the possibility of viewers identifying suspects and
building empathy with them. It is through this suppression that news
shapes viewer perceptions, depositing on the youths’ bodies suspicions
of terror and danger.

Surveillance and media: a networked apparatus

As Daily Check-up advances, a new entity is steadily introduced in the
performance images. A pair of hands in military combat uniform, cov-
ered to the wrists, enters the frame and inspects the rotating young
men by padding different body parts from torso to feet. The camera
tilts up and down, following this pair of hands as they move along the
young men’s bodies. While the young men continue to rotate under
inspection, the military personnel inspect their bodies by touching
them persistently. Through such touching they exceed the socially
sanctioned norms of distance and intimacy. After a few seconds, this
image is brought under slow motion. The blazing light from the film’s
opening shot is superimposed on the slowed-down image. The light and
the armed forces personnel converge and the work now posits both acts
of body inspection – by shedding light and by touching – as coexten-
sive. The armed forces personnel and the light are both established as
the arms of the Indian State’s surveillance apparatus. The surveillance
apparatus operates through two senses: sight (through the scrutinizing
gaze) and touch (through body inspection by security personnel). It is
sensorial, with each apparatus aiming to penetrate, expose and reveal.
The images on the screen then freeze and an imprint of a Government
of India seal is superimposed on them. With this, the images now
assume the appearance of a mug shot marked by a finality – the per-
forming bodies have been confirmed and booked, they have made the
transition from suspect to confirmed terrorist. The film cuts back and
continues to juxtapose news footage of counter-insurgency operations
130 Documentary Films in India

with performance images of bodies under inspection. Daily Check-up

is therefore, cyclical. There is no linear narrative posing and resolving
an identifiable conflict or plot. It keeps repeating the routine by which
young men are first suspected, arrested, inspected and finally confirmed
as terrorists. In repeating this process, Daily Check-up establishes the
repetitive and routine nature of counter-insurgency operations that is
the basis of the film’s title.
The continued juxtaposition of performance images and news foot-
age further deconstructs how mainstream news media partakes in and
advances the viewpoints of the surveillance apparatus. The viewer
can appreciate how mainstream media are networked with the sur-
veillance apparatus. While the mainstream media does not directly
perform repressive acts as the armed forces, its visual regime shares
in the position from which the armed forces encounter youth and
confirm suspects as terrorists. Its own visual vocabulary codifies the
counter-insurgent gaze of the surveillance apparatuses. In the absence
of any competing viewpoint that would distance or contextualize, if
not fully contest the surveillance apparatus’ viewpoint, the media can
be understood as part of the surveillance apparatus, not independent
from it. This understanding of the surveillance apparatus and news
media as networked is critical and it coincides with Giorgio Agamben’s
definition of the ‘apparatus’ as:

… anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient,

determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behav-
iours, opinions, or discourses of living beings. Not only, therefore,
prisons, madhouses, the panopticon, schools, confession, factories,
disciplines, juridical measures, and so forth (whose connection with
power is in a certain sense evident), but also the pen, writing, lit-
erature, philosophy, agriculture, cigarettes, navigation, computers,
cellular telephones and – why not – language itself, which is perhaps
the most ancient of apparatuses… (Agamben 2009: 14)

Daily Check-up’s revelation of how light, security arms and media are
networked, each partaking in the viewing positions of surveillance,
offers a critical understanding of news media. This is not a critique
geared to pointing media errors, but it is a broader undertaking that
operates at the level of representational vocabularies and the discourses
they uphold.
While the camera constructs proximity with the bodies of suspected
youth through performance images and select news clips, the soundscape
An Arrested Eye 131

of Daily Check-up deepens this proximity. As the film advances, the sound
of ticking that had been heard initially merges with repetitive machinic
sounds. Sometimes the sound of ticking resonates with a clock indicating
the passage of time; sometimes it resonates with a time bomb indicating
a sense of impending danger. Occasionally, the work is punctuated with
sounds of machine gunfire. While we hear synchronous sounds in the
news images, often gunfire and shouting, the sound of the performance
images is predominantly acousmatic – that is, its sources are not visible in
the image. The film’s acousmatic soundtrack uses sounds linked to counter-
insurgency but that are not directly synchronous with what is seen in the
image. Sounds of ticking, gunfire, machinic ambience, different forms of
heavy breathing – these are all used extensively.
Acousmatic sounds are often held as disorienting, for the listener cannot
see the source of sound (Chion 1994: 32). In Daily Check-up, however,
the sounds are identifiable as they are all related to regimes of vio-
lence and counter-insurgency. Further, the particular mode of sound
design in the work suggests that what we are hearing is subjective
and interior. All sounds are maintained at a high pitch and they do
not fade in or out smoothly. The mix of sounds on the track does not
coincide with the visual cuts, so often sounds overlap over a series of
images. Sustained over long durations, the sounds provoke feelings
of urgency, tentativeness, prolonged uncertainty and a sense of being
silenced. When they run over performance images in which the camera
is close to the bodies of the suspects, the viewer derives a sense that the
soundtrack is evoking the inner emotional states of the young men.
What the viewer is hearing is from the perspective of the terror suspects.
The repetition of sounds on the soundtrack coincides with the film’s
posturing of counter-insurgency operations as routine activities whose
repetitiveness is, in turn, disturbing and unsettling for those who are
subjected to it. Their emotional states are characterized by distress and
the viewer’s recognition of this advances their sense of empathy with
the young men that is in keeping with the camera’s viewing position of
nearness towards terror suspects.

Film form as a site of political contest

When Daily Check-up was screened after completion at the residency in
Delhi, DMC emphatically resisted defining the scope of their project as
voicing the northeast in the manner of social or political activists. The
collective asserted that as artists they were not re-presenting in the sense
of informing, interpreting or instructing audiences about the north-
east region, and they were certainly not positing any solutions for the
132 Documentary Films in India

political conditions in the northeast. So is Daily Check-up’s reflection of

counter-insurgency operations as a daily routine a dystopic move that
re-presents and through that reinforces the binaries between the Indian
State and northeast India? Or, can we discern in the work’s resistance to
a resolved narrative – seen through two competing audio-visual regimes
(news footage and performance images), the beginnings of a cinema
project that formally and reflexively contests dominant constructions
and perceptions of the northeast?
Daily Check-up inaugurates a new camera position that is separate
from the blazing surveillance light (and apparatus) introduced in the
film’s opening. This new position is exercised in the film’s performance
images that offer a perspective distinct from the established order of
viewing terror suspects in the northeast. It can be argued that this new
position operates simply because it is exercised to document perfor-
mance that is distinct from being in real situations of counter-insurgency
operations. This is true and the intention here is not to undermine
news images but to point at the complicity, operating at aesthetic and
discursive levels, between news and surveillance apparatuses. The new
position that DMC inaugurates by separating the camera from the
position of the surveillance apparatus is advanced in the collective’s
following works, which do not focus on counter-insurgency opera-
tions. In those works, this new position serves as a basis for exploring
experiential and perceptual dimensions of being in northeast India. The
project assumes deeper contours and the new position from the perfor-
mance images of Daily Check-up has to be appreciated for inaugurating
new lines of investigation for the collective.
Daily Check-up goes on to critically juxtapose performance images with
news footage, the former reversing the codes of the latter. In cinema,
juxtaposition is linked to the practice of montage wherein two compet-
ing concepts or ideas are presented successively and their juxtaposition
offers the viewer meaning. Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet master who was
one of the early figures to practice and theorize montage through his
acclaimed films Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1928), likened
the technique of montage juxtaposition to the operation of a Marxist
dialectic: one shot stood for the thesis, the succeeding shot presented
an antithesis and the viewer was the site of synthesizing meaning
from the conflict of the two (Eisenstein 1957). More recently, deriving
from Eisenstein and anthropologist George Marcus, Hamid Naficy has
argued that critical juxtaposition serves to defamiliarize common-sense
perceptions and ‘problematizes the realist representation of the world’
(Naficy 2001: 28). Daily Check-up’s critical juxtaposition of news footage
An Arrested Eye 133

and performance images throws into light the disparity in the visual
codes of both and the understandings they so offer about northeast
youth. The formal contrast between both reveals how mainstream
news media constructs the figure of the ‘terror suspect’. In doing this,
it displays news media’s complicity and networked relation with the
surveillance apparatus. By offering a competing viewpoint in the per-
formance images Daily Check-up defamiliarizes the viewer to the codes
and terms by which popular media represents insurgency and counter-
insurgency. The two modes speak to each other in contrast and this
serves in highlighting the disparity between viewing terror suspects in a
dehumanized way as in news coverage and humanizing them through
DMC’s new viewing position in the performance images. The disparity
between both modes is almost like the partitioning of living beings
Agamben speaks of in relation to the apparatus: ‘… a general and mas-
sive partitioning of beings into two large groups or classes: on the one
hand, living beings (or substances), and on the other, apparatuses in
which living beings are incessantly captured’ (Agamben 2009: 13).
Through Daily Check-up DMC establishes how the collective’s practice
emanates from a position of interrogating the dominant terms by which
landscapes such as the northeast are imagined and constructed. This is
a project steeped in the politics of representation; that sees cinematic
language as a site of political contest and is geared to offering compet-
ing viewpoints, epistemologies and perceptual experiences through film
form. In this contest the function of representing the northeast has
evolved into the function of re-imagining it outside normative terms
as perpetuated through the discourses of networked apparatuses. The
work’s emphasis on the subjective dimensions of counter-insurgency
in terms of the distress experienced by northeast youth institutes what
will, through future works, become a central theme in DMC’s oeuvre –
the corporeal and perceptual experiences of living in the northeast and con-
tending with the traumas of its insurgent and counter-insurgent histories.
DMC holds cinema as a medium whose fundamental principles – the
framing of space and time – are key in writing an alternative history of
the northeast and through which non-normative perceptions of the region
can be catalysed. Their next work, Passage, advances Daily Check-up’s
interest in light. The work takes up light, cinema’s fundamental and
ethereal ingredient, and recontextualizes its usage by breaking away
from the colonial and missionary functions of shedding light on the
dark corners of the empire, here the northeast.


It is an ethereal substance and it is ontologically key to the making and

reception of cinema. Composing a shot involves casting light and focus-
ing upon the pro-filmic—that which the camera frames and records.
Likewise, watching a film entails the reception of light. We enter a
dark space where a beam of changing light patterns is projected on the
screen. This is the film we as viewers watch. The technical mechanisms
by which light shapes the image in analogue and digital formats may
differ, but light remains a key ingredient of the cinematic experience.
Desire Machine Collective’s (DMC) next film, Passage (2006, 7 mins
22 seconds) is a cinematic contemplation on light.
Passage is an abstract film. It is a lyrical stringing together of images,
each witnessing the changing qualities of sunlight: how its colour and
kinetic properties evolve through time, as it flows and is seen pass-
ing through transparent surfaces. Passage extends quite organically
from Daily Check-up. That film had deconstructed the use of light as a
surveillance tool, highlighting it as part of a network of surveillance
apparatuses. Besides deconstructing the complicity between mainstream
surveillance apparatuses and news media, Daily Check-up had inaugu-
rated a distinct position of viewing marked by a nearness of the camera
to the bodies of young men, held as terror suspects. Passage’s focus on
light can be understood as rooted in the move wherein DMC’s camera
separated itself from the surveillance apparatus, viewing terror suspects
from a position removed from the surveillance light. Passage consti-
tutes a turn to the processes of image-making, a step back to study, in
a deeper way, the ontology of the cinematic image. It contests the lim-
its of documentary form and practice for its constituting element, its

Passage 135

subject is an ethereal substance, light. The film documents the passage of

light through glass surfaces. But it does not adopt a scientistic approach
deciphering its materials. It uses the changing qualities and patterns
of light to create a kind of symphonic and affective rendition of light
through time.
Filmmakers across the world – be they fiction, documentary, experi-
mental or avant garde – have persistently experimented with the pos-
sibilities of light and darkness in the making of filmic meaning. Film
noir’s contrasting patterns of dark and shade suggesting the social
unconscious, on to the Danish Dogme 95 manifesto’s insistence on
using available light to advance the hyperreality and emotional affects
of a film, are but some examples of how closely light is entwined in the
shaping of filmic meaning, aesthetics and ideology. What are the spe-
cific ideological implications of DMC’s turn to light as the very subject
of the film, Passage? Is this a purely technical exercise to create arresting
visual effects? Or, is this experiment with the technique and aesthetics
of light in cinema embedded with discursive and ideological meanings,
meanings that advance DMC’s broader reflexive concerns in relation to
the representational discourses surrounding northeast India?

Film setting and form

A clue to Passage’s political motivations can be found through a very

slight but emphatic glimpse of the film’s setting. Passage was shot in
an old, colonial-style bungalow, on the outskirts of Calcutta in West
Bengal, India. This city had been the capital of British India until 1911
and it is home to substantial colonial, particularly Victorian architec-
ture. The bungalow in which Passage was shot is an iconic remain from
the days of the British Raj and the film’s setting in this bungalow can
be understood as constituting DMC’s direct confrontation with the
colonial history of the subcontinent. The colonial experience of north-
east India, as discussed in the previous chapter, has been distinct from
that of mainland India. Since India’s independence, one sentiment that
has assumed currency in the northeast is that the Indian State has per-
sisted with a colonial discourse and approach to the northeast region.1
Passage can thus be seen as a necessary work in DMC’s oeuvre and it
advances the cinematic discourse and position of nearness inaugurated
in Daily Check-up, by defining and grounding it in opposition to colo-
nial discourse that, in the case of northeast India, is not limited solely
to the British colonial encounter but extends into independent India’s
approach to the region.
136 Documentary Films in India

Passage is an abstract film as no tangible material is visualized in the

film or becomes its focus. The film is shot entirely from the inside of
the colonial bungalow looking outside; seeing light enter the house
through its old and soiled glass windows. These windows have been
sparingly framed and they do not appear as whole. Throughout the
film, the camera is placed in proximity to the glass surfaces of the
windows, highlighting how light passing through these worn out and
smudged windows acquires a diffused and blurred character. In an
immediate way this references the dilapidated nature of colonial struc-
tures, and introduces a pronounced sense of pathos in the film. The
film uses human and machinic sources for its soundtrack. Its sounds
have been composed from a perspective that, like the film’s images,
abstracts their sources, making them unidentifiable. In the absence
of any identification in relation to the film’s images or its sounds, the
affective properties of these elements are magnified and thus the film
principally impacts the viewer at a perceptual level. This film’s inten-
tions are purely embedded in the film’s aesthetic and this work offers no
other articulation of its motivating ideas or discourse.
Passage was shot on video using a prism-like optical instrument
attached to the front of the lens. This instrument was handmade by
members of the DMC. Filtering the light reflected from the glass win-
dow surfaces before it reaches the camera’s lens, this prism-like instru-
ment split the image vertically with the result that the camera recorded
a single image of light, doubled (split) in appearance. This splitting and
doubling of the image magnified and dramatized the changing quali-
ties of flowing light. The film lasts seven minutes and is composed of a
number of sequences, delineated in terms of the colour and movement
effects produced by light passing through the prism-like instrument.
Each of the sequences is filmed in a different rhythm. This is achieved
through the movement effects of the prism-like instrument and the
film’s editing.
Two visual effects are central to the composition of Passage. First,
there is the vertical splitting into two of the recorded image produced
by the prism-like instrument. This creates the impression of seeing two
mirror opposites that are joined at the center of the frame. Second, the
passing light is subjected to the zooming movements of the video cam-
era lens. All images in the film include the zooming-in or zooming-out
movements, performed with varied speeds and punctuated with pauses
of different durations. When applied to the vertically split image, these
movements evoke the visual impressions of convergence (on zooming
in) and divergence (on zooming out) between the two halves of the
Passage 137

Figure 5.1 A column of golden light emerges from the center of the frame
Image courtesy, Desire Machine Collective.

vertically split image. This is a very intricate and nuanced use of the
zoom movement, disparate from its conventional uses as popularized
by mainstream media.
Technically, movements of the zoom lens are not considered to be
camera movements. When first introduced, the zoom lens was devised
to offer video operators a range of focal lengths on one lens.2 Zooming
in and out offers a scan through the successive focal lengths available
on a video camera. Televisual uses in the 1970s–80s popularized the
zoom for its informational potential.3 In the processes of zooming in
and out as conventionalized by television, the agency of the camera
operator’s hand performing them was thoroughly erased. The smoother
the zooming movement, the more efficacious its information poten-
tial was considered to be. The aim was not to draw attention to the
zooming movement, but to maintain the viewer’s attention on con-
tent. In Passage, the zooming movements provide no content-related
information. They are not smooth or mechanical, but aesthetically
choreographed. They evoke a whole register of moods ranging from the
138 Documentary Films in India

tentative and fragile, to the more playful, pronounced and emphatic.

They make explicit that their performance is executed by the camerap-
erson’s hand, highlighting human presence in the making of the work.
The film’s first image emerges from the center of a black screen.
A very narrow and triangular column of golden-amber light arises from
the center and spreads outwards. This strip of light, through zooming
movements, converges and diverges from the center, giving an impression
of tentative expansion and contraction. It widens with every succes-
sive expansion but never touches the edges of the frame. Forty seconds
into the film the rhythm of movement – of contraction and expansion
(the zooming effect) – alters. The first image is held in pause for a few
seconds. A second image of a similar column of golden-amber light shot
from a wider angle magnification is superimposed upon the first through
a very slow dissolve. As the second image assumes full visibility, the col-
umn of light continues to expand. We begin to identify textures of the
glass surface through which light is passing. Scratches on its surface, an
accidental stroke of paint, and particles of dust collected after raindrops
have dried – each of these indicates that the glass surface is used and old.
These opening images of the film are accompanied by an acousmatic
sound from a machinic source that indicates some kind of simmering
and disturbed flow, perhaps electrical static. The mic’s position, very
close to the sound source, coupled with the slow fading in and out of
the sound, result in a long-drawn-out soundwave that pushes the film’s
abstraction beyond its visual realm and we begin to sense we are witness
to a process of emergence and becoming of some organic entity.
The film’s next segment is characterized by a steadily escalating
sense of agitation. Columns of light emerge, expand and contract with
increasing rapidity. The zoom movements are performed faster and suc-
cessive images emerge more quickly. They are interspersed with decisive
cuts to a black screen for a few frames each. More window surfaces are
now introduced. A streak of light emerges through a dull grey surface.
It expands outwards, touches the edges of the frame and continues to
expand until the screen becomes dark through a dissolve to the following
image where another streak of light is slowly beginning to emerge from
blackness. This streak frames the lower edges of an old window. The
hues of light in this and succeeding images are in the range of crimson.
After a sharp cut to black, columns of light in the range of grey, cobalt
blue and white emerge and rapidly expand outwards. A fresh acous-
matic sound, perhaps of a flowing liquid, accompanies these images.
Another sharp cut to black interrupts their flow and next, columns of
light in x-ray blue-green and pale yellow hues emerge. A distant sound,
Passage 139

something akin to a human wail, accompanies these images leading

into heavy and tense sounds from a metallic, machinic source. A rapidly
cut series of images in pure gold, X-ray green and blue colours follows
over the next few seconds. A sense of anxiety and disturbance heightens
in relation to the organic entity forming and becoming on the screen.
The film’s penultimate segment starts with an announcing sound
like that of a bell or a gong that is heard distorted in high pitch. A few
seconds later, the film’s visuals shift markedly. We no longer see light
passing through window surfaces. The camera pulls back and through a
double-framing device, like a peephole, we see whole windows framed
from a distance. These images are slightly blurred, having been shot
in bright, white light that burns the frame. The distance between the
camera and the windows gives the viewer a spatial context, and we
understand that the film has been shot in a colonial space. In its last seg-
ment, approximately two-and-a-half minutes, the film is slowest in pace
and, once again, light columns surface from the center of the frame. The
presence of the hand operating the camera is particularly pronounced.
Light columns emerge and expand outwards very slowly and tentatively.
The film concludes on a shot when the light column has fully expanded
outwards and the screen turns black. This closing sequence leaves the
viewer with a sense of emergence that is enforced by the closing shot in
which the column of light opens outwards fully before dissolving into
the black screen. The sense of expanse is reinforced by the sound of thun-
der and rainfall that we hear towards the end. As water drops are heard
falling forcefully on the earth, filling its innards, we also hear the sound
of drain-pipes through which rain water gushes down. These are the
only sounds in the film that have been recorded from a perspective that
facilitates their identification. Their clarity complements the sense of
emergence at the end of the film, lending to it a decisive sense of closure.

The kaleidoscopic effect in Passage, the limits

of abstraction

Passage works with the formal properties of image and sound: light,
optical effects and acousmatic sounds. As such, it is reflexive, fore-
grounding the processes of image-making and their construction into
a whole combining elements such as sound. As a piece of experimental
cinema it bears affinity with the structuralist-materialist cinema that
arose in Europe and North America following the events of May 1968.
Structuralist-materialist filmmakers, including figures such as Peter Gidal,
Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, Peter Kubelka, William Raban and
140 Documentary Films in India

Robert Beavers, among others, have worked – and continue to work – in

a dialectical relation, questioning the illusionism, verisimilitude and
mystification processes of realist cinema, particularly mainstream, narra-
tive film. The structuralist-materialist filmmakers have contested the use
of cinema to represent (realist) content. Instead, deriving from the his-
tory of Marxist and avant-garde cinema spanning masters such as Sergei
Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, they emphasise film form: making trans-
parent the materiality and operations of the film medium. Structuralist-
materialist cinema privileges the material properties of film, often
celluloid (its textures and the effects produced in developing processes)
and its processes of making (camera movement, in-camera effects, editing)
while rejecting (realist) content in favour of films that privilege the tactil-
ity of celluloid and the rhythmic potentials achieved through montage.
It is a purely reflexive cinema wherein reflexivity – the laying bare of
the cinematic processes – constitutes the critique, the deconstruction of
bourgeoisie, narrative film’s illusion of reality and its claims to cinema
as a vehicle of storytelling. Peter Gidal, in his essay, Theory and Definition
of Structuralist/Materialist Film, summarises structuralist-materialist film’s
move towards form, stating that:

The dialectic of the film is established in that space of tension between

materialist flatness, grain, light, movement, and the supposed reality
that is represented. Consequently a continual attempt to destroy the
illusion is necessary. In Structuralist/Materialist film, the in/film (not
in/frame) and film/viewer material relations, and the relations of the
film’s structure, are primary to any representational content… In fact,
the real content is the form, form becomes content. Form is meant as
formal content, not as composition. Also, form must be distinguished
from style… (Gidal 1975: 189)

Such a cinema, non-narrative and materialist, claims to activate the

viewer – s/he is not a passive recipient of stories and meanings. The con-
tract with the viewer is at the level of perception – how cinema affects
the viewer’s perception of space and time through images unfolding on
the screen.
Passage’s two visual effects – the vertically split image of light and
the zoom movements that lend to it impressions of expansion and
contraction – reflect the sensibility of a purist and materialist cinema.
This purist cinema, which privileges form over representational content,
resembles structuralist-materialist film, in which film form is content.
However, unlike structuralist-materialist cinema which, in a didactic
Passage 141

vein, claims to be anti-mainstream narrative, if not fully non-narrative,

Passage offers us a subtle narrative. This narrative is tied to the chang-
ing columns of light that – as the film advances – give the impression
of a kind of an organic entity, evolving and becoming. This organic
entity undergoes a narrative evolution. The narrative is neither linear
nor event-oriented. The narrative pertains to the multiple emotional
affects the viewer experiences in relation, perhaps in empathy with, this
organic entity that appears constantly in movement.
The organic entity lends an ecological dimension to the work. It
resembles a unicellular organism, splitting and forming. This process of
splitting and forming is repeated through the film’s sequences such that,
as the film advances, we sense that this organic whole’s formation is not at
a physical level, but is tied to the emotional tones and exigencies that the
film’s sounds suggest. In order to fully appreciate the narrative arc
through which this organic whole evolves, I first elaborate how viewing
the changing columns of light provokes a sense of witnessing an organic
whole. For this, the visual effects4 achieved through the prism-like
instrument used in Passage have to be historicised. The visual effects of
the prism-like instrument on the image are, in some senses, akin to the
visual effects of a kaleidoscope.
The kaleidoscope, patented by David Brewster in 1817, is a visual
device whose changing patterns of light create visual spectacles, making
this instrument synonymous with the urban spectacles of modernity.
The kaleidoscope is a tube containing coloured mirrors and paper,
whose reflections produce changing and highly symmetrical image pat-
terns when rotated manually. Seen through a circular eye-piece at the
end of the tube, the kaleidoscope offers multiple image patterns. The
visual effect of the prism-like optical device used in Passage is like that of
a kaleidoscope, except that, instead of multiple image patterns, the opti-
cal instrument used in Passage magnifies a single pattern – producing
one symmetrical, vertically split image of light that occupies the frame.
What are the implications of this selective use of the kaleidoscopic
effect? Given that the kaleidoscope is tied to modernity, can we under-
stand DMC’s use of the kaleidoscopic effect as reifying modernity, or is
the move towards a selective use of this effect subversive and embedded
with a critical take against modernity that, in the context of the Indian
subcontinent, is closely tied with the history of colonialism?
The kaleidoscope is understood as distinct from all other visual
devices that emerged during the nineteenth century, as it was the only
one to offer what Tom Gunning terms a ‘purely visual spectacle.’ It
did not create illusions of realistic movement or three-dimensionality,
142 Documentary Films in India

features that were to eventually converge around the visual devices

associated with early cinema. Gunning elaborates on the kaleidoscope’s
aesthetic stating that:

The kaleidoscope’s aesthetics were striking: it combined order and

transformation by creating an aleatory and unpredictable movement
with a highly structured visual composition and consistent frame.
Further… it employed the commercial aesthetic of late nineteenth
century, the mainstays of the shop window, ‘the visual materials of
desire – colour, glass and light.’ (Gunning 1997: 31)

The selective use of the kaleidoscopic effect in Passage results in a move

away from a visual spectacle of multiple image patterns towards the
evocation of a singular, moving whole – the vertically split image of
light that emerges from the center of the screen. In DMC’s earlier work,
Daily Check-up, the screen was split horizontally and composed of two
images, one above the other. The two screens, on instances played the
same image and on others, contrasting ones. Their doubling high-
lighted their similarities and contrasts. In Passage, however, we witness
a single entity that is linked at the center from where it splits and its
two parts either mutually converge and contract towards, or diverge
and expand away from, that center. This mutuality between the two
halves of the vertically split image gives an overall impression of the
entity, the column of light we see on screen as forming into a kind of
singular, membranous and living whole that is in the process of forming
and becoming.

The politics of haptic aesthetics

Splitting the image, converging and forming, diverging and breaking

apart, agitational and traumatic on instances, on others composed and
collected – we are witness to a kind of organic, primal narrative pertain-
ing to flux, movement and the coming into being of things. As Passage
advances, it assumes a more contemplative stance – as if an individu-
ated newness were forming on the screen. It is not that the light column
represents an organic whole external to cinema. Light is ontologically
linked to cinema and so it can be understood that the organic whole
forming and becoming in Passage, is DMC’s own cinematic project.
The formation of light patterns in this film stands in for and represents
DMC’s study of cinema’s key element. The dynamics of convergence
and divergence, expansion and contraction that we witness in the
Passage 143

organic whole, the column of light, are constitutive of DMC’s cinema

project as it becomes, and in this aspect the film’s approach to cine-
matography is key: in particular, the creation of a haptic visuality.
Haptic visuality emphasizes texture, suppressing a view of the pro-
filmic that facilitates identifying it, in favour of a view that emphasizes
the pro-filmic’s tactile properties. To achieve this, in Passage the camera
persistently frames the glass surfaces through which light is passing in
close-ups or tight close-ups. This position of closeness magnifies natural
light’s evolving qualities in terms of its colours, temperature and con-
centration. This is further developed by another technique: much of the
light that we see falls diagonally on the lens. As a result, it is spread out
across the frame and this furthers its definition in terms of colour and
texture. Lastly, Passage’s haptic quality also results from the particular
ways in which the zoom lens movements are performed. All zooming
movements are performed so as to emphasize the agency of the human
hand conducting them. There is no attempt to suppress this labour

Figure 5.2 Overcoming the viewer-viewed dichotomy—An X-Ray blue column

of light expands outwards
Image courtesy, Desire Machine Collective.
144 Documentary Films in India

and so the impressions of expansion and contraction, convergence and

divergence that we witness through zooming, appear organic and tactile.
The columns of light in Passage lack depth, giving the impression of
a fluid membrane in constant movement and flux. This lack of depth
resonates with the properties of haptic visuality elucidated by Noel
Burch in his discussion surrounding early cinema’s primitive mode of
representation (PMR, 1895–1905). Burch notes that early cinema’s PMR
was haptic because of its visual ‘flatness’. This, according to him, was
on account of the particular conditions of production of early films,
including such compositional techniques as vertical lighting that illu-
minates the whole visual field evenly; a stationary and frontal camera;
and the widespread use of painted backdrops, etc. (Burch 1990: 164)
These factors that created early cinema’s haptic aesthetic, Burch holds,
were lost when institutionalized narrative cinema – that is, Classical
Hollywood Cinema – came about in the 1920s and 1930s. Though the
specific techniques through which Passage constructs haptic visuality
differ from those of Burch’s PMR, an overall sense of flatness and imme-
diacy characterizes our encounter with the membranous columns of
light.5 Since light constantly flows and evolves, Passage’s haptic visual-
ity pushes our viewing away from looking at light as an object, towards
witnessing it as forming, sensorial and living.
This becoming and forming that the film presents are advanced through
the film’s acousmatic soundtrack. Except for the sounds of rainfall at the
film’s end, all of the sounds are recorded from a close perspective that
suppresses identification in favour of tactility, provoking a kind of haptic
aurality. This haptic aurality lends to the film a clearly subjective dimen-
sion, provoking in the viewer a sense of empathy in relation to the light
columns. All sounds follow a pronounced wave pattern: they are subtly
introduced on a low level, steadily develop to a high pitch crescendo, and
thereafter recede slowly. Sometimes one or more sound waves mix. On
other instances there is a gap between successive sound waves. Sounds
and images have not been edited in synchronicity. Sound waves overlap
separate images and even persist through moments of black when the
columns of light contract, leaving us in darkness. If the haptic visuals
make us feel we are witnessing the becoming of a membranous form;
the film’s acousmatic sounds give that experience a sense of fullness, of
immersion into what we see. They emplace and envelope the viewer and
facilitate experiencing sensations of tentativeness, anxiety, vulnerability,
restraint, the tearing apart or release, emergence and union in relation to
the film’s visuals. The film’s editing, which poetically and rhythmically
mixes sharp cuts to black, marking decisive ends to particular images
Passage 145

and slow dissolves involving the emergence of one column of light from
another heightens these emotional affects and the sensations we feel.
The haptic aesthetic is particularly relevant for visualizing a process of
formation and becoming. The feminist phenomenologist Luce Irigaray
holds that touch is a most primal sensation that we experience even
before birth. In her essay, The Fecundity of the Caress, she notes:

Before orality comes to be, touch is already in existence. No nourish-

ment can compensate for the grace or work of touching… To realize
a birth that is still in the future. Plunging me back into the mater-
nal womb and beyond that conception, awakening me to another
birth… a birth that has never taken place… (Irigaray 1993a: 187)

Elsewhere, she elaborates on touch as the sense through which we con-

stitute our relations with living spaces, the environments we inhabit:

If we look seriously at this composite and provisional incarnation of

man and woman we are brought back to the sense that underlies all
the other four senses, that exists or insists in them all, our first sense
and the one that constitutes all our living space, all our environ-
ment: the sense of touch… (Irigaray 1993b: 59)

If touch is primal, taking us back to the early sensations, those of

the maternal womb, then it is understandable that in Passage, which
advances DMC’s cinematic project by constituting a decisive break (not
only a deconstruction as in Daily Check-up) from the formal vocabular-
ies and conventions of mainstream media representations, the visual
and aural regimes emphasize touch, tactility and sensation. Why does
an aesthetic that emphasizes touch assume relevance for depicting a
process of formation and becoming?
For Luce Irigaray becoming is the goal of being, which is not merely
a prosaic succession of instants in existence. This is a dynamic process;
one without a concrete end.

The goal that is most valuable is to go on becoming, infinitely… To

become means fulfilling the wholeness that we are capable of being.
Obviously, the road never ends. Are we more perfect in the past? This
is not certain. (Irigaray 1993b: 61)

In her influential essay, Divine Women, she evokes the natural elements
as tied to our processes of becoming. If the waters of the womb mark
146 Documentary Films in India

the birth of form, then the passage to air through birth, is, for Irigaray,
a move towards a quintessential freedom. For this freedom we have
‘to construct a space for ourselves’; a space of ‘bodily autonomy, of
free breath, free speech and song, of performing on the stage of life’
(Irigaray 1993b: 66). Irigaray asserts our becoming as our flourishing
and growing in air, thriving in the light from the sky and being fed by
the waters of the earth and rain. Passage works with these elements –
light, rain, water – each shaping the narrative of cinematic becoming,
moving towards an individuated newness where cinema is driven by a
creative drive and not limited by narrow political agendas.
Passage’s subtle narrative of organic becoming leads to an immersive
viewing experience. While the film’s abstract and tactile imagery and
sounds emphasise the acts of looking, listening and synthesizing mean-
ing from them, this looking and listening is in contrast to witnessing a
visual spectacle such as, say, through a kaleidoscope that rests on the
disparity between the spectacle/the viewed and the viewer. Haptic visu-
ality and aurality situate the viewer and the film into an intersubjective
mode. In the intersubjective mode, looking is not limited to examining
and evaluating that which is on display. Looking and listening through
haptic visuality and aurality propel an overcoming of the separateness
between the viewer and the viewed – it is almost as if the viewer, through
sight and sound, touches the viewed, the film. They then interact with it
and, as Laura Marks specifies, overcome one’s sense of separateness from
the image (Marks 2000: 183). For Marks, haptic cinema is inherently
intersubjective because it involves a mutual exchange, a muddying of
the boundaries between viewer and viewed. She adds that haptic images
are grounded in an intersubjective eroticism:

Regardless of their content, haptic images are erotic in that they con-
struct an intersubjective relationship between beholder and image.
The viewer is called upon to fill in the gaps in the image, to engage
with the traces the image leaves. By interacting up close with an
image, close enough that figure and ground commingle, the viewer
relinquishes her own sense of separateness from the image – not to
know it, but to give herself up to her desire for it. (Marks 2000: 183)

Herein lies the political significance of haptic visuality and aurality,

for these are intersubjective modes of looking and listening and as
such they are distinct from the broader rubric of exhibition and dis-
play that characterise visual spectacles spanning the entire gamut of
nineteenth-century optical devices, spaces and events – cabinets of
Passage 147

curiosities, fairgrounds and world expositions in which curiosities from

the colonies such as human specimens were displayed – on to the illu-
sionist narrative cinema that feminist film scholarship through figures
such as Laura Mulvey (1975) has critiqued for constructing the female
as an ‘erotic spectacle’. The exhibitionist form of looking and display
reinforces the viewer and the viewed in separate positions, often politi-
cally unequal. Haptic aesthetics dissolve the viewer and the viewed,
eliminating power hierarchies and disparities between both. For DMC
Passage constitutes a politico-aesthetic move whose immersive viewing
experience halts the separation and, through that, the othering of colo-
nially marginalized peoples.
The haptic aesthetic in Passage immerses the viewer into a tactile
encounter with cinema’s fundamental element, light. But this is no
ordinary or neutral light. It is the light as seen and experienced in a
space tied with colonialism. The optical effects of the film disrupt the
flow of light as smooth and unidirectional in this space and make an
aesthetic newness out of this disruption. Combined with sounds that
evoke northeast Indian landscapes such as rain and machines, Passage’s
immersive viewing experience overcomes the subject–object dichot-
omy. This stops viewing the other – the object of the viewer’s gaze or
the object that is made visible through light – as purely on display and
exhibition. What does this mean for a cinematic discourse pertain-
ing to northeast India? In DMC’s cinema project, haptic visuality and
aurality articulate a will to interrupt viewing the region and its peoples
as other, first as the ‘tribal and backward’ curiosities of colonialism, and
later, as those who did not fully amalgamate into the postcolonial,
national fold.
Passage can be seen as synthesizing the two tendencies of avant–garde
film as identified by Peter Wollen in his seminal essay, The Two Avant
Gardes (1976). Theorizing the avant garde in the political modernist
context of the late 1960–70s, Wollen had proposed two tendencies – the
painterly and the literary – as characterizing the distinct approaches of
avant-garde film. In this categorization, painterly films, including those
of the structuralist/materialist persuasion, according to Wollen, tended
towards abstraction – ‘… pure light or colour; and non-figurative design –
or deformation of conventional photographic imagery, involving
prismatic fragmentation and splintering, the use of filters or stippled
glass, mirror-shots, extreme and microscopic close-ups, bizarre angles,
negative images, etc…’ (Wollen 1976: 80). In contrast to the painterly
tendency is the literary avant-garde film, which engages questions
of dramaturgy and narrative in keeping with modernist literature’s
148 Documentary Films in India

emphasis on new types of content, perspectives and formal strategies

for narrative construction. For Wollen, both the painterly and liter-
ary avant gardes derive from an earlier split in avant-garde film from
the 1920s.6 Passage’s haptic aesthetics are painterly and its narrative
progression references a literary approach in that the film marks the
emergence of a new whole, thus inaugurating a form of narrative that
is not content-driven or representational in terms of focusing on enti-
ties understood as separate and distinct from the cinematic apparatus.
The narrative, deeply affective and perceptual, foregrounds the cin-
ematic apparatus and project, as forming and evolving – not static or

Cinematic-becoming: from looking at the northeast,

towards immersive viewing

The visual regime of Passage advances from DMC’s earlier work, Daily
Check-up. In that piece DMC created a discursive break by separating the
position of their camera from the networked surveillance apparatus. Daily
Check-up, however, operated very much within the realm of representa-
tion where the camera was understood in positivist terms as an apparatus
representing the pro-filmic, that which is external to the camera. DMC’s
new camera position in that work inaugurated an altering perspective, one
of nearness to the pro-filmic – that is, the bodies of those marginalized
and violated by the networked apparatus. Passage advances this altering
perspective by problematizing representation itself, pushing the camera
into the realm of abstraction. Set in a site tied to colonialism, Passage’s
haptic aesthetic unsettles a unidirectional flow of light that stands in as
a move to break away from the colonial and now national imaginations,
which Passage, coming after Daily Check-up, asserts as complicit. This film
also frees DMC’s cinema project from the functions of interpretation,
spokesmanship, translation, and exposition – prerogatives that are com-
monly deposited on documentary practice in politically sensitive zones.
The cinematic project whose formation Passage exemplifies is
marked by a will to write beyond the terms set by colonialism and
nationalism. This is a dialectical move away from the dominant
representations pertaining to the northeast – dialectical in that this
constitutes a repudiation of the very terms on which the northeast is
visually imagined. But this is not a crude dialectic limited to a critique
or reversal of dominant representational media codes. This is more
complex and creative, inaugurating a position of composing cinema
from within the region, near to it, embodying its cultural histories,
Passage 149

memories and perceptions – a whole new discourse from a position of

tactile immersion into the region as opposed to looking at it from the
distant, often-discriminating perspective, of an outsider. The collec-
tive’s cinematic project now poised in an aesthetic of haptic nearness
is advanced in their next film, Residue, where the collective returns into
the realm of the real, the material – a state-run electric power plant in
Assam that was abruptly shut by the Indian government at the peak of
the Assam movement.

Residue (2012, 39 mins) is set in an abandoned thermal power plant

located in the small town of Chandrapur, on the outskirts of Guwahati,
one of the largest cities in the state of Assam. The power plant was a
public sector utility run by the Assam State Electricity Board. It was
abruptly shut following a hike in fuel prices nearly two decades ago.
Since that time the power plant site has lain abandoned and falling
into disrepair. Residue is a study of this site, and it adopts a slow and
contemplative approach. It depicts how the power plant’s units are
disintegrating and increasingly being reabsorbed by the indiscriminate
and vehement march of rainforest wilderness. Measured camera work
follows traces of absent human figures, the labourers whose labours had
once animated this site. Through this, the film projects the abandoned
power plant as embodying deep senses of loss and pathos.
Residue was completed in 2012, although an earlier version of this
film had been exhibited at the Deutsche Guggenheim Museum,
Berlin in 2010. The final film opened as a single-screen installation1 at
New York’s Solomon R Guggenheim Museum as a part of the ‘Being
Singular Plural’ exhibition of critical moving-image practice from India
in 2012. It advances the concerns that Desire Machine Collective (DMC)
has been working with through works such as Daily Check-up and
Passage. If the collective resists being the interlocutors for the northeast
region, deciphering and re-presenting it, and if the collective’s quest is
for a cinema that breaks away from the nationalist, which is in turn
informed by colonialist terms for approaching the region, then what
kinds of narrative and cinematic experiences is DMC poised to construct?
It is possible to detect a common thread running through Daily Check-up,
Passage and Residue. Since the making of Daily Check-up, DMC has avoided
focussing on singular and spectacular events in relation to northeast
Residue 151

India. Daily Check-up’s cyclical structure depicted counter-insurgency

operations as part of the everyday routine, a process being performed
constantly across the northeast region. Passage then carried forward the
emphasis on process. It observed a physical process – the passage of sun-
light – and it used this to unsettle the neat and unidirectional flow of
light into a space tied with colonialism. Residue emphatically advances
this move away from events towards processes. It marks DMC’s return
to the realm of the concrete material but, in contrast to Daily Check-up,
which principally reversed the dominant codes of representing the
northeast as a disturbed territory, this work follows – as a process – the
remains, the ruins, what has been left over through Assam’s continuing
political conflicts and uncertainties.
The film re-imagines what ruins and remains are, disassembling a
sense of these as useless and valueless categories. It projects ruins and
remains as living containers that accumulate the past  – that which is
seemingly lost, but which actually morphs and persists into the present.
Following Passage, Residue offers a perceptual and sensorially immersive
experience of the abandoned power plant, whose disintegrating and
now useless state appears less as a finite fact, and more as an organic
process linked to the memories, angers and traumas that have festered
through much of Assam’s modern history. With its emphasis on process
and organic liveness, Residue transcends the immediacies of its location,
and speaks to other sites embodying peoples’ traumatic memories.

Claiming an abandoned site: techniques of realism

and modernism combined

The film opens with a shot of decaying matter. Heaps of dust and moss
line a large object that lies obscured from our sight. A sharply focused
camera notes minuscule dust particles floating in seemingly damp
air. Apart from the movement of these dust particles there is no other
action in this shot. It is static and provides no establishing or contextual
information – such as, for example, the location, time or the very object
that lies decaying before us. Composed from a position close to the
ground, with a mid- to close-up magnification, this shot emphasizes the
material textures of dust and moss. A unity is imbued by colour – dusty,
earthy browns and greens convey an overall sense of melancholy in
relation to decaying matter. In spite of the relative absence of any action
in this shot, we register the pure passage of time – thereby conveying
the film’s intentions. The film will not feed the viewer with a linear
narrative that explains or rationalizes the causes for the decay before us.
152 Documentary Films in India

This opening shot thus positions the viewer as an observer to whom the
rest of the film, like this shot, will offer meaning through the suggestion
of ideas and emotional overtones that are constructed through image
and sound composition. The viewer ought necessarily to be an active
participant, deciphering the cinematic (not verbal or textual) cues and
meaning affects embedded in the film.
After a fade to black, the film opens to the first, wide views introduc-
ing the power plant. We see its exteriors through three tracking, long
shots that become successively longer in duration, with the final shot
running close to one minute and twenty seconds. The power plant
was made up of two units situated on the same campus – the first was
established in 1978 and the second in 1989. From the images it is quite
apparent that one unit appears older than the other. The tracking shots
are framed from the inside of one of the units, looking out onto the
exteriors of the second. From the very beginning of the film, therefore,
we are inside the power plant, and our vision is emplaced within its
campus. Thus even though we are viewing the exterior of its structure,
our viewpoint is constructed from inside the power plant campus. We
are not external, distant or disconnected observers and this brings a
sense of proximity and empathy to our encounter with the power plant.
The tracking shots have been composed from a high angle, the
camera placed on an elevation of two floors above the ground level of
the multistoreyed power plant. From this height, the camera’s address
towards the power plant is both direct and frontal. The camera is placed
low, near the floor with a slight angulation upwards, and it tracks space
along a straight horizontal line. The power plant unit whose exterior is
the subject of the image is seen at a distance, placed far into the depth
of field. It is flanked on either side by lush greenery under a flat, grey
sky pregnant with monsoon clouds. This situation of the film’s subject
within the depth of field and the camera’s frontal address towards it
help to evoke the gigantic proportions of the power plant and allow
the viewer to gauge the relevance of this site, and how it towered above
the broader landscape. This is distinct from the affect of a high or low
angle shot that would either look down upon, diminishing the subject
within the frame as in the former, or look up at, glorifying and empha-
sizing authority in what we see, through the latter.
Depth of field and the long duration of these tracking shots imbue
our viewing experience with a necessary ambiguity. This ambiguity,
the absence of any contextual or interpretive information, lends to our
encounter with the power plant a sense of immediacy, without any
mediation. The power plant has not been constructed and presented
Residue 153

to us in any kind of hermetically sealed way. This is in keeping with

the film’s opening shot which had established that the film will not
offer preconstituted meanings or arguments about this site. The film
operates at a more experiential level where image and sound are used
to evoke the sensory dimensions of being at this site. Through depth
of field the viewer’s eyes are poised to scan the image, to be touched by
its sensorial qualities. In cinema, depth of field has often been associ-
ated with a Bazinian aesthetic. For André Bazin, depth of field elicits an
‘active mental attitude on the part of the spectator’, who, he adds; ‘… is
called upon to exercise at least a minimum personal choice. It is from
his attention and his will that the meaning of the image in part derives’
(Bazin 2005: 35–6). In Residue’s opening shots, depth of field enables
the viewer to observe the power plant and this facilitates in building an
affective relation with what we see. The muted and earthy tones of these
shots persist with the sense of melancholy from the film’s opening shot
and this deepens our empathy towards this site.
The possibility of scanning of the image is advanced by the camera’s
tracking movements. As it pans horizontally, components of large
machines and installations at the power plant unit enter and exit the
frame, creating silhouetted, dramatic foregrounds. These dramatic fore-
grounds suggest the scale of the operations at this site and they also
heighten the viewers’ sense of emplacement in the power plant because
we are near and can almost touch, through vision, these machines.
Historically, the compositional device of dramatic foregrounding has
been associated with early twentieth-century constructivism-influenced
graphic arts and montage cinema. Matthew Teitlebaum observes that
dramatic foregrounding activates the visual field by creating new lines
of correspondence and alternative power dynamics between objects. He
states that dramatic foregrounding in montage cinema:

… provokes the viewer to re-think the relations between objects, to

re-establish a hierarchy of correspondences… it is about radical re-
alignments of power. In escaping the limits of the ‘straight’ photograph
by dramatically repositioning various figures and objects, montage sug-
gests new paradigms of authority and influence. (Teitlebaum 1992: 8)

Through dramatic foregrounding and the frontal mode of address

in these tracking shots, the image foreground and background are
brought into a relation of equivalence that, in turn, shapes the viewer’s
relation to the power plant site. Even as viewers gauge the vast scale of
operations at the power plant, they are not diminished by that scale.
154 Documentary Films in India

There is an equivalence between the viewer and the viewed. Our sense
of proximity to the power plant, our emplacement in it, does not yield
into any hierarchies.
The tracking shots thus very fruitfully combine the techniques of
what western film theory2 has projected as two seemingly opposed
approaches to the construction of filmic meaning: the realist (achieved
through depth of field) and the constructivist/montage (as through
dramatic foregrounds). Residue’s opening, tracking shots give us a very
nuanced and intricate view of things. The viewer is allowed to register,
to observe, and from the film’s very beginning their traversal of space is
imbued with a sense of nearness and mutuality in relation to what they
see. The overall sense of melancholy and empathy that has persisted
since the film’s opening shot dissipates any of our own preconceptions
about ruins or abandonment as inorganic waste. Seen in continuity
with DMC’s earlier works, which evoke dimensions of life in a landscape
littered with the dehumanizing effects of counter-insurgency and vio-
lence, these first images of the power plant incline us to ask a series of
questions: what is becoming of this site in its state of abandonment and
what does that becoming tell us about the overall landscape to which
this site serves as a window? Finally, how is the coming to a standstill
of this site perceived by the people who belong here and who used and
relied upon this source of energy?

Arrested and accumulating time – any-spaces-whatever

and the uses of the time-image
As Residue proceeds, the camera navigates its way through the power
plant, exploring its interiors and plotting its exteriors. Its posture remains
that of a restrained observer, witnessing the disintegrating condition
of the power plant. In one early sequence lasting eight minutes the camera
tracks through the power plant interiors, introducing us to the machines
and objects within its walls. Fine, textured close-ups provide us a sense
of the materiality of the objects in this space. For example, in one early
shot the camera traces the surface of a large, light green machine that we
never see in full. Its surface textures and shapes: circular, semi-circular and
rectangular, and its crevices – some lit, others dark – are seen from a very
close perspective. It is almost as if through this close perspective, we –
through our vision – have touched and felt this machine. Here Residue
deploys the haptic aesthetic that DMC has been devising since Passage.
The haptic view of things, which makes us feel we are touching what we
see through our eyes, collapses the boundaries between us, the viewers,
and the power plant, the viewed. This touching does not simply give us
Residue 155

a sense of the material textures of what we are seeing, it also gives us a

sense of the passage of time at this site. Rusting surfaces, laden with dust,
crumbling with moisture – we feel these textures and through these we dis-
cern that this site has lain abandoned for a while and that its disintegrating
state is a marker of just how much time has passed since it was shut.
As the camera continues tracing surfaces while moving through the
power plant’s interiors, our view of things is punctuated steadily by static
close-ups of dust-laden, halted pressure meters on a number of machines.
These are the first static shots we encounter inside the power plant; until
this point the camera has principally been tracking through this space.
In the film the halted pressure meters serve the same function as they do
with relation to the power plant. They mark the stoppage of movement,
the halting of a flow. With reference to the power plant, these halted
meters index the stoppage of work that produced electrical energy at this
site. In the case of the film, the static close-ups of the halted meters mark
the camera’s coming to a contemplative halt. We sense a pause, a stilling
of physical movement that has an arresting impact on our sense of time
and our perception of this site. As the camera stays on the halted pressure
meters, it evokes for us, through absence, the (former) presence of move-
ment symbolizing activity and the generation of energy here. We sense
how once this site was once animated with energy, to produce energy.
The halted pressure meters mark a stoppage in the flow of energy, in
terms of both the labour performed at this site and the electrical energy
produced here. After these static close-ups of halted pressure meters, the
camera becomes even slower and it is often stationary, observing differ-
ent parts of the power plant and its provisions. The camera principally
gazes at what lies before it and this sustained and unhurried gazing deep-
ens our experience of the flow of time at the power plant.
Residue now typifies a specific take on the documentary image in which
its meanings are not limited to visible evidence or information. Instead,
the image is used as a provocateur for temporally inflected associations
and memories: those dimensions of experience that are not concretely
present and that are only suggested through the performance of filmic
elements, here the camera’s intricate and contemplative gaze upon the
power plant. As we observe the dust-laden, halted pressure meters and
other provisions we sense that an achingly long time has passed since
operations ended at the power plant. It is as if passing time has been
accumulating in the material textures of the things we see. The deepen-
ing decay all across the site, the sheets of dust and rust on the power
plant machinery – these are the many layers of time that have been
silently building upon this site, its surfaces and its skin. Time is now not
156 Documentary Films in India

an objective flow of instants; rather we sense it as an arrested category,

passing and accumulating.
Though the experience of time that Residue evokes has been provoked
by the power plant’s closure, its specific qualities – of halting and arrest,
accumulation and passage – are not purely the outcome of this singular
event. These qualities are embodied by the site itself, the power plant as
a space and our experience of these qualities comes about by observing
and gazing at this site. Thus it is space, constructed by the camera’s gaze,
that gives us a sense of the particular qualities of time at this site. Our
experience of time is shaped by the image of space.
We are now squarely in the realm of what Gilles Deleuze terms time-
image cinema: the cinema in which the experience of time is direct,
‘a little time in the pure state’ (Deleuze 2001: xi). According to Deleuze, in
the time-image cinema, time ceases to be derived from the movements
related to the image. Say, for instance, narrative-based time or fast-
paced montage that gives the impression of a rapid flow of time. Even
though time-image cinema gives us a direct representation of time, time
is not depicted in objective terms. As Deleuze states, ‘time is out of joint’
and so time-image cinema explores time as more than merely a succes-
sion of instants or presents that are causally linked (Deleuze 2001: xi).

Figures 6.1 Dust-laden and halted pressure meters mark the stoppage of electricity
production and work at the abandoned power plant
Image courtesy, Desire Machine Collective.
Residue 157

The direct representation of time in time-image cinema pertains to the

affective qualities tied to the flow and experience of time. Deleuze’s
time-image cinema is related to his broader cinema philosophy in which
he proposes a distinction between movement-image cinema, wherein
successive shots follow causally in terms of the needs of the depicted
action or event (thereby representing time as a successive and causal
flow), and time-image cinema, which frees the representation of time
from causality.3
For Deleuze time-image cinema arose after the Second World War
through such political modernist directors as Antonioni, Rossellini,
Godard and Ozu. Their films were set in what he terms as the
‘any-spaces-whatever’ – in other words, spaces that are ‘deserted but
inhabited’, ruined and disconnected (Deleuze 2001: xi). The time-
image cinema arises from, and is intimately tied in with, a particular
kind of space, the any-spaces-whatever. Deleuze elaborates on the
any-spaces-whatever, stating:

The fact is that, in Europe, the post-war period has greatly increased
the situations which we no longer know how to react to, in
spaces which we no longer know how to describe. These were
‘any-spaces-whatever’, deserted but inhabited, disused warehouses,
waste ground, cities in the course of demolition or reconstruction.
And in these any-spaces-whatever a new race of characters was stir-
ring, kind of mutant: they saw rather than acted, they were seers.4
(Deleuze 2001: xi)

The new race of characters inhabiting the any-spaces-whatever are

principally ‘seers’, not actors, and the cinema of these characters is a
cinema that privileges looking over action. In the any-spaces-whatever
they attempt to comprehend and make sense of what they see, per-
forming a kind of a gaze that is lost in time, absorbing time and its pres-
sures. The time-image cinema offers connections and meanings from
the subjective perspective of this new race of characters or figures
who Deleuze qualifies as the ‘absent’ figures, those who disappeared,
‘not simply out of frame, but passed into the void’ (Deleuze 2001: 8).
Any-spaces-whatever can thus be understood as inhabited by figures
who are absent, physically and from the broader project of history.
Deleuze states:

What happened is that, from one result to the next, the characters
were objectively emptied: they are suffering less from the absence
158 Documentary Films in India

of another than from their absence from themselves (for example,

The Passenger) (Deleuze 2001: 9).5

The characters of time-image cinema do not experience time in causal

or necessarily sequential terms. Their experience of time is fractured
and discontinuous. This is why modernist cinema, time-image cinema
is not edited following the principles of continuity editing. All sorts of
strategies for montage that give us a direct experience of time from the
perspective of the subject (who is a seer) are galvanized in time-image
cinema. Time-image cinema is principally an optical cinema that,
through an absence of action, privileges the experience of time.
In her study of intercultural and diasporic cinemas, Laura Marks
extends the discussion of any-spaces-whatever proposed by Deleuze
to include zones arising from and symbolizing the collapse of colonial
powers. Spaces related to migration, diaspora and hybridity – these are
the any-spaces-whatever that have emerged from colonial encounters.
For Marks, in a postcolonial context, any-spaces-whatever are sites
where repressed and/or hybrid narratives, imaginations and memories
erupt and specifically destabilize the neat constructions of western
metropolises. She states:

The end of the modern period is characterized not only by industrial

ruins but also by the dismantling of colonial power, whose ruins are
perpetuated in the lives of the peoples it displaced. These people are
‘seers’ in the metropolitan West, aware of violent histories to which
its dominant population is blind. (Marks 2000: 27–8)

Following from Marks, it can be argued that in the independent nations

following the end of colonial rule, any-spaces-whatever emerged and
included sites tied to the ruination, displacement and dislodging caused
by colonial experiences as also those national experiences that were
informed by colonial thought and epistemologies. The abandoned
power plant of Residue is an any-space-whatever—an abandoned site
marked by the withdrawal of state support for energy production. Its
disintegration symbolizes the State’s neglect of the northeast region
and the displacement of such working peoples as those associated with
the power plant. No action can be performed in order to comprehend
or rationalize the abandoned state of this power plant. For this reason,
navigating through its disintegrating innards in the first part of Residue
we principally absorb the passage of time and how time is accumulating
across the power plant.
Residue 159

Figures 6.2 An any-space-whatever, the camera navigates through the interiors of

the abandoned power plant
Image courtesy, Desire Machine Collective.

As the film advances, the camera registers more signs of persistent

decay: more dusty and rusting surfaces, dead insects, silently growing
moss, the collapsing edifice of the power plant, its disused and crum-
bling offices and provisions, halted machinery and collected pools of
water. These further the themes of ruination and the accumulating
passage of time at the power plant. In a most striking exterior shot we
see a rusting, roofed conveyor belt becoming buried in rainforest wilder-
ness. This is a high angle shot and we see the trace of a rusted red line
melding with dense greenery that populates the frame. Distance – both
vertical and horizontal – from the conveyor belt emphasizes the steady
diminishment of the power plant’s numerous parts under wilderness.
The film goes on to collect a number of such shots that register the
burial of this site under steadily encroaching wilderness. Large, thick
metal pipes are seen standing hollow, empty, still and rusting. As the
camera tracks along their surfaces, wild grasses intermittently surface in
the foreground, interrupting our view of things. Throughout the film
green foliage surfaces unexpectedly, incessantly and lends disorder
where we sense, through their absence, that order, measure and routine
were once the norm. The slow pace of these images and the atmospheric
silence, pregnant with the sounds of insects, humid and high-pressure
160 Documentary Films in India

breeze, distant electrical noise and urbanity, add to the power plant’s
state of isolation, conjuring for us that this site’s process of decay and
disintegration is a continuing organic process.

Absent human figures: spectres of history

As the camera continues tracking through the isolated interiors, tra-

versing empty spaces and exploring innocuous corners, it encounters
ageing traces of human presence. This human presence is particular; it
is registered through traces, slight remains, layered and buried under
the decaying skins of the power plant and its many parts. These traces
and slight remains gesture toward the humans who once worked at
and animated this site. This is a human presence felt purely through
the absence of the human. The first image that raises this is of a
machine on whose rusting surface we follow a slogan, scratched in
Assamese script. The writing inscribes the human figure, now absent.
The camera follows more such traces of absent humans buried under
the degenerating insides of the power plant. In one corner are deposited
rows of statues of the Lord Vishwakarma – the Hindu God of crafts, who
endows human hands with the skills to perform labour. The heads on
these statues are severed and their colours fading. These statues have lost
their luster, and while they stand in postures bestowing blessings they
are themselves crumbling and falling apart in what has now become a
sanctum devoid of its devotees – that is, the power plant’s labourers.
In another shot we see, through close-up, a notice announcing work
instructions, pasted on a wall. Its edges are torn and wearing off with
the damp. There is no constructive energy of work here, only the energy
that steadily disassembles things, makes them dissipate. Yet another
image shows vermillion-smeared impressions of hands on the entrances
that frame the insides of the power plant. These are reminiscent of the
rituals that were once performed by workers here to invoke auspicious
beginnings and to ward off the evil eye from the source of their liveli-
hood, the power plant and its extensive machinery. As the power plant
lies crumbling before us, we discern how auspiciousness was replaced by
an ill-fated stoppage of work.
Through the traces of absent humans the power plant’s past becomes
steadily more present, surfacing from beneath the layers and layers of
accumulated rust, dust and thus time. These traces, we sense, are so
fragile, they will also disappear in the due course of things. Following
these fragile traces our encounter with the absent human figures at
the power plant is less in terms of any concrete object or presence,
Residue 161

and clearly in an intangible and amorphous realm as, say, memory,

specifically the ‘absent memory’ of sites and peoples who have been
forgotten or overlooked.
The film has not announced where it is set. It has not identified the
name of the power plant or given us any statistics pertaining to its
operations: how long it operated for; how many persons it employed;
how they were made redundant and displaced. No such information
is given to us. Yet we feel a very pronounced presence of the absent
human figures and because we have no tangible register for this pres-
ence, as viewers we are aware that this presence of absent humans is a
formal proposition of the film, a proposition that crystallizes through
viewer perception. Further, this presence is not simply a gesture record-
ing or sentimentally paying homage to the absent humans. As the film’s
time-images have been suggesting the accumulation of time here, this
presence is specifically extracting the memories of absent humans, their
absent memories. Those memories that were buried once the power
plant operations halted abruptly and have been accumulating, like
time, at this site.
‘Absent memory’ is a term coined by Ellen S. Fine in her analysis of
French literature surrounding the Holocaust. She proposed this term to
point out that a catastrophe such as the Holocaust had provoked a silence,
an absence ‘caused by the deprivation of memory, or by memory that
is concealed, refused, or forbidden…’ (Fine 1988: 44). The evocation
of absent humans and absent memories, slowly uncovering layers of
the past, overcomes the invisibility of what happened when the power
plant was closed so abruptly. A new dimension arises in relation to the
abandoned power plant and folds into its disintegration a necessary
human element. This is politically significant and it can be attributed
to the particular gaze of the time-image cinema. Deleuze elaborates
that time-image cinema reveals ‘a former present’, following ‘a deeper
memory’, that which is invisible and can only be suggested (Deleuze
2001: 39). He adds that certain post-war cinema invents a minor people,
a people ‘who do not yet exist, except in a state of becoming’ (Marks
2000: 96). This is the cinema in which the people are as yet miss-
ing and it stands in contrast to classical Hollywood or pre-war Soviet
cinema in which the people, the masses, were physically and visibly
present.6 The missing people in Deleuze’s terms are yet to come, and
the time-image cinema articulates their perspectives. The camera’s gaze
in Residue articulates a subjective perspective, a perspective aligned
with the figures who are absent and whose absent memories the film
is evoking. Such a humanizing project that articulates and invents the
162 Documentary Films in India

perspectives of absent figures, makes Residue, as much of time-image

cinema, a politically interventionist project. John Marks has called this
a cinema in which ‘something unbearable, intolerable’ can be grasped,
in which a new kind of character can emerge and alongwith the viewer,
they (the new characters) are visionaries because the time-image cinema
facilitates in ‘perceiving the people who are missing’ (Marks 2000: 98).
Residue’s evocation of absent humans at the level of absent memories
constitutes a creative articulation of marginalized peoples, forgotten and
unseen. This move writes against the absenting and erasure of a certain
dimension of history by tracing a perspective near to those who were
impacted – that is, absented by that history. Here DMC is not isolated.
This strategy resonates with Thai filmmaker, Apichatpong Weerasethakul,
whose films dwell extensively on marginal spaces as containers of
absent figures, ghosts and communal memories, those that get sup-
pressed in mainstream narratives of history. Weerasethakul’s key works,
including Tropical Maladies (2004), Uncle Boonmee who can Recall his Past
Lives (2011) and, most recently, the Primitive Project (2012), are all set in
and meditate upon the forests of northeast Thailand. Northeast India
and northeast Thailand share a similar political history in that both
landscapes have witnessed military interventions to suppress indig-
enous peoples’ movements. In northeast India this took shape through
the imposition of such acts as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and
northeast Thailand underwent military occupation between the 1960s
and 1980s to curb communism, which was popular among indigenous
peoples in rural hinterlands.
Space is a key performer in Weerasethakul’s cinema and it is not sim-
ply a physical category. Space contains and reflects peoples’ impressions
and projections, memories and aspirations. Through space, characters
partake in inherently unstable narratives – narratives that confuse past,
present and future. Weerasethakul’s films experiment with nonlinear
forms of storytelling in which memory repeatedly surfaces and shapes
characters’ senses of time and, through that, the viewer’s experience.
Weerasethakul has noted an ontological similarity between memory
and cinema, commenting that:

…memory may well be the only impulse! Everything is stored in our

memory, and it’s in the nature of film to preserve things… But I’ve
never set out to recreate my memories exactly. The mind doesn’t
work like a camera. The pleasure for me is not in remembering
exactly but in recapturing the feeling of the memory – and blending
that with the present. (cited in Galt and Schoonover 2010: 134)
Residue 163

In Weerasethakul’s films space indexes the passage of time and time

does not flow in a linear or causal way. It is by observing space that
we register how time flows. Kim Joon has characterized this as the
ability of Weerasethakul’s cinema to spatialize narrative temporality
alongside deepening durational space (in Galt and Schoonover 2010:
138). Commenting on the bifurcated narrative structures juxtaposing
disparate locations and periods of history in Weerasethakul’s Tropical
Maladies, Blissfully Yours and Syndromes and a Century, Joon notes the
role of space, stating that: ‘They [the films] are all the more spatial and
extradiegetic inasmuch as they do not endow the viewer with any cue
to channel her into a plausible reconstruction of storyline’ (in Galt
and Schoonover 2010: 133). With no linear or clear narrative tempora-
lity, space becomes the principal framework in Weerasethakul’s films
through which we can discern past, present and future, specifically how
memory and aspirations permeate the present.
Space in Residue, quite like in Weerasethakul’s films, is a container
of absent memories. But, in contrast to Weerasethakul, whose cinema
is anthropocentric in that it physically emplaces subjects and figures,
humans or ghosts within the filmed frame, Residue is characterized by
the sustained physical absence of any human figure within the frame.
This makes the intangible presence of humans even more pronounced.
Having spatialized our experience of time and referencing temporalities
that exceed the instance of filming, Residue further refines the intangi-
ble human presence and memories it has evoked so far in the film. The
traces of the absent human figures are steadily juxtaposed with other
traces of energy: a lone light bulb precariously hanging and somehow
live, insects buzzing and stirring in the damp dark air, water dripping
from a moss-lined wall –– these elements jolt us by their near mistaken
aliveness animating the dull, dark, and still insides of the power plant.
The film deepens the theme of ruin and abandonment, seamlessly cata-
pulting us into a ghostly realm where the power plant assumes both a
haunting and chimerical presence. Why does the film advance into a
ghostly realm and what sentiments characterize this realm?

Ghostly presences: questioning modernity’s universalisms

In its second half, Residue further sculpts and defines the absent humans
and memories it has made present. The absences we feel appear unset-
tled and laden with simmering sentiments that get qualified as the
film advances and in this two elements of the film are key: recurring
images with very fine, subtle movements and the film’s soundtrack.
164 Documentary Films in India

At a number of times, we see golden moths fluttering and buzzing

in complete darkness. Then we encounter a dead moth hanging pre-
cariously on a spider’s web, shot from such proximity that it is never
fully in focus and as it swings in the air, its minuscule movements are
magnified before our eyes. A third image is the reflection of electri-
cal wires in a pool of collected water. As blowing wind softly touches
the water’s surface the reflection itself reverberates. One of the most
arresting images of the film is of a still butterfly, wings spread apart
and resting on a translucent surface. This image emerges from that of a
dead moth, achieved cinematically through a long dissolve that spans
65 seconds.
Wind on a reflecting pool of water, fluttering moths or the long dis-
solve surrounding a butterfly – these seemingly innocuous movements
push the film semantically, provoking in it emotional tones tied to
the pathos and melancholy we have sensed since the start of the film.
Through these images that pathos is advanced, leading into deeper
senses of simmering agitation. For this, Residue’s editing that clearly
draws on the techniques of montage film, which we have already seen
influencing this work through its use of dramatic foregrounds, is key.
Residue specifically works with the possibilities of what Sergei Eisenstein
designated as tonal montage in his important essay, Methods of Montage
(Eisenstein 1957). While discussing the concept of movement in cinema,
Eisenstein had proposed the idea that movement in film provokes
emotional affects constituting what he termed as the ‘emotional sound’
or the emotional ‘dominant’ of the image. The dominant emotions or
sounds that movements provoke, Eisenstein termed as the ‘general tone’
of any shot and this includes such physical properties as the shrillness of
sound, the tones of lighting, and the rhythmic vibrations of objects
within the frame. He added that the barely perceptible and changing
movements in an image such as: ‘the agitation of water; the slight
rocking of anchored vessels and buoys; the slowly ascending vapor;
the sea-gulls settling gently onto the water’ are a ‘secondary dominant’
(Eisenstein 1957: 76). Together, the dominant or general tones of a shot
and the secondary dominants lend an overall emotional tone to the
piece, provoking emotional responses in the viewer. Movement within
the image (related to the pro-filmic) and between shots (montage) was
not an objective quality for Eisenstein.
Unlike montage cinema, Residue does not adopt a vocabulary based
on dialectical cutting and nor does the film use metric or rhythmic
patterns of cutting. The camera is very tightly choreographed and
this is geared to facilitating viewer contemplation upon the image.
Shot durations in Residue are unconventionally long, their lengthiness
Residue 165

heightened by a minimal sound design and the lack of pronounced

action within shots. Given these features of the film’s visual design, the
recurrent images containing fine movements are used to punctuate the
film at key instances, often at the conclusion of a sequence that has
proposed a new idea, such as the abandoned power plant as a haunted
and ghostly presence. This punctuation contains the emotional tones
arising from the subtle movements of these images from slipping into an
emphatic or crude didacticism. These recurrent images qualify and
advance the pathos within the film, enforcing emotional tones of sim-
mering angers, agitation, peoples’ senses of loss and trauma.
The film’s soundtrack further defines the senses of simmering angers
and agitation in the work, by mixing layers of synchronous and acous-
matic sounds. Synchronous sounds include atmospheric and diegetic
sounds such as those of wilderness – the insects, crickets, birds and wind
that now dominate the aural atmosphere of the power plant. These are
combined with acousmatic sounds that are principally from a machinic
source such as electrical or industrial sounds, and they complement the
overall mechanistic character of the power plant. Together they form
into a complex soundtrack that provokes a form of what Michel Chion
terms ‘reduced listening’. This is a mode of listening in which the viewer/
listener’s attention is drawn to the properties of the sound over its causes
or meanings – the timbre, pitch and texture of the sound assume prec-
edence (Chion 1994: 29–31). In reduced listening, as in the restrained and
contemplative visual form of the film, sound is not a container of infor-
mation as much as it is a mode geared to advancing emotional affects.
Residue’s soundtrack is edited on the principle of audiovisual coun-
terpoint, particularly between the acousmatic sounds and the images.
Sounds arise and dissipate following the prolonged wave principle that
DMC had used for sound design in Passage.7
Michel Chion elaborates that audio-visual counterpoint can be con-
structed in numerous ways with possibilities ranging from outright
negation of the image by the sound/s onto advancing the percep-
tion of the image to a further level. Chion states that: ‘Audio-visual


Image Track with synchronous sound.

166 Documentary Films in India

counterpoint will be noticed only if it sets up an opposition between

sound and image on a precise point of meaning’ (Chion 1994: 38).
The acousmatic sounds of Residue sit in counterpoint to the images,
but they do not negate the image. They are diegetically linked to
the power plant in that they are machinic sounds resonating with
the provisions we see lying unused. While the images of the film
emphasize gazing, looking and contemplating, the film’s acousmatic,
machinic sounds direct this looking. The acousmatic sounds have
been recorded by experimenting with mic distances and perspec-
tives. The sounds are often loud and recorded close to the source.
They sound distorted and evoke a sense of deep inner distress and
disturbance. When low pitched and sustained, they liken to the
sounds of an enveloping, amniotic sac. Combined with ambient
sounds of rainforest wilderness – hot, humid and still – where mois-
ture absorbs and dampens sound, Residue’s soundtrack deepens the
senses of trauma and distress in the film, directing its contemplative
visuals into the realm of very specific and defined emotional affects.
Together the film’s images and soundtrack advance the senses of sim-
mering agitation and trauma; and their persistence gives us an idea
of the disturbance and distress experienced by the absent figures of
the power plant.
With this, the film assumes a dynamic tone. In its early parts, a
contemplative and measured camera uncovered the passage of time
and evoked the presence of absent figures. Pathos and melancholy
persisted through much of this exposure. In its later segments the film
qualifies that pathos and melancholy, suggesting very specific emo-
tions: trauma, angers, agitation, distress and disturbance. With these
we do not only gather the loss and annihilation that the abandoned
power plant symbolizes, but we also sense a resurgence, a backlash
and provocation in relation to the absent figures the film has evoked
in such a finely textured way. It is these qualified emotions of dis-
tress, anger and trauma that catapult the absent figures and their
memories into a ghostly realm. Through these qualified emotions we
sense that the absent humans and their memories are living ghosts
haunting the power plant and as these come alive in the film, they
muddy our sense of the power plant’s state as purely abandoned and
In the history of cinema, the figure of the ghost has belonged to
specific genres such as horror and thriller films. The ghost has been
a figure, liminal at best, on who are deposited memories, desires and
attributes that sit at odds with qualities exemplified by mainstream
Residue 167

cinema’s anthropocentric subjects. The figure of the ghost unsettles

rational and linear understandings of space and time. Through pro-
cesses of haunting, ghosts call up very specific temporalities. Haunting
implies the return into the present of time gone past, but ghostly haunt-
ing is not simply an accidental or erroneous return of the past into the
present. It is the assertion and persistence of that which is perceived as
past. This persistence is motivated by the past; it is as if that which is in
the past refuses to remain there and bleeds into the present, muddying
the present’s understandings of the past, present and future. This is not
in an ahistorical or whimsical fashion.
The figure of the ghost has, in recent film scholarship, been used
in relation to the subjectivities of marginal and forgotten peoples,
particularly in postcolonial societies. For instance, in Ghostlife of Third
Cinema: Asian American Film and Video, Glen M. Mimura elaborates on
Asian American media arts, particularly works of feminist and queer
artists and activists, as forming a kind of ghostlife of third cinema.
While these works mark the symbolic racialization of Asian Americans,
they are indicative of subjectivities that do not persist in mainstream
cultural and political discourses (Mimura 2009). They can thus be
understood as a kind of spectre of the Asian American subject who
appears, disappears, and then reappears, ‘ghostlike’, intermittently in
history and memory. Mimura relates the rise of this ghostly presence
to the broader collapse of modernity’s grand-narrative and with it the
centered subject of Enlightenment, stating that:

In the wake of the ostensible death of the centered, Enlightenment,

master subject, Asian American assertions to political or cultural
subjecthood typically provoke disbelief, skepticism, disavowal –
provoke, in other words, the supposedly reasoned response of scien-
tific, rational, secular society to the presence of ghosts, and the fantastic
more generally. (Mimura 2009: 65)

Ghostly haunting involves the resurfacing of suppressed dimensions of

history that, in turn, trouble and unsettle the present. Advancing the
idea of the ghost, Bliss Lim uses Ernst Bloch’s concept of ‘nonsynchro-
nism’ to explain how postcolonial filmic representations problematize
the flow of time (Lim 2001). Lim holds that nonsynchronism in film is
a strategy to contest the universalism of the modern and postmodern,
secular conceptions of history. Filmic representations dwelling on expe-
riences of postcolonial societies challenge this universalism. The ghostly
figure is thus a nonsynchronic strategy of film that contests the neat
168 Documentary Films in India

conceptions of time upon which modernity and postmodernity are

premised. Lim elaborates, stating that:

Modern historical consciousness assumes that its own concept of

time – as ‘godless, continuous, empty and homogenous’ – is a natural
‘structure of generality.’ This explains why even the nonsecular and
the nonmodern can be relegated to a position in this history. Modern
time is thus projected in every direction to encompass even what
exists outside of and prior to its minting as a concept, posing as the
universal narrative to which all specific instances can be subsumed.’
(Lim 2001: 293)

The ghostly presence that Residue has constructed contests modernity’s

and postmodernity’s universalist and normative march of time. With
relation to northeast India, this implies a contestation of the linear path
that the colonial and later national systems have adopted to approach the
northeast. In the colonial and national conceptions, the northeast’s
tribal ways of living have been deemed as pre-modern and ‘backward’,
lacking the advantages of modernity. While both the colonial and
national establishments derived economic benefits by exploiting the
region’s resources, they neglected the region economically and socio-
culturally. The ghostly presence in Residue troubles the colonial and
national conceptions of time, particularly their emphasis on modernity
as a route to ameliorate the tribal conditions of northeast India. It calls
up those voices and bodies who were silenced and absented in both
establishments’ aggressive pursuit of economic benefits in the northeast
In the context of Indian cinema Residue’s focus on the abandoned
power plant, an any-space-whatever that is haunted by the absent peo-
ples and their traumatic memories, constitutes a very crucial moment
marking the collapse of modern nation-building that rested on the
mobilization of modernity’s vital energy and exemplar – electricity. If
the scene of the two children’s encounter with electricity and a train
in Satyajit Ray’s acclaimed Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road, 1955)
constituted the iconic birth of a new generation of modern India, then
Residue reverses and critiques the nation’s celebratory narrative around
nation-building in which electricity has been a key driving force. The
euphoria and celebratory claims around postcolonial nationhood are
decisively disassembled by Residue’s location at the thermal power
plant whose abandoned state constitutes a ghostly haunting against
national progress.
Residue 169

Wilderness as a container of trauma and discontent

Residue’s concluding segments dive deeper into how wilderness is

silently yet fervidly taking over the power plant. Through nooks and
cracks, along pathways and ruins, between machines, from roof as from
ground – we see signs of organic life invading the decaying remains of
the abandoned power plant. Its rusted surfaces, large pipes, old offices,
broken windows, doors left ajar, and those locked forever, abandoned
electrical gear and machines, more halted pressure meters – these are
all standing in seeming stillness, getting buried in greenery, being
overtaken by thick rainforest. Everywhere the camera points there is
some form of life: tender blades of light green grass, bushes sculpting
their way through crevices, mushrooms erupting from shaded groves
and pools of water rippled with infesting insects. This march of organic
matter seems indiscriminate and vehement. The camera’s contempla-
tive and restrained posture towards the power plant posits this sweep
by wilderness as an organic dimension of the power plant’s disintegra-
tion. How does this march of wilderness sit in relation to the ghostly
presence of the absent peoples the film has evoked? A cue comes, once
again, from the film’s soundtrack.
On one occasion, when we are tracking through the power plant
interiors, looking upwards at the roof, we encounter an old and unused
loudspeaker. As we approach this loudspeaker the atmospheric silence
in the film reminds us how this loudspeaker was once animated by
sound. The unused speaker gestures that this site, now lying abandoned
not only came to a halt but that halt, was silencing. As the shot of the
loudspeaker concludes, the sound cuts from atmospheric silence to
the sound of a Buddhist monk chanting. This is a critical instance in
the film. The Buddhist principles of causality and impermanence in all
material phenomena assert that nature silently and indiscriminately
perpetuates from seed to fruit on to seed, and the cycle keeps multiply-
ing. Residue has constructed the decay and disintegration of the power
plant to suggest the abandoned site as a ghostly presence imbued with
the traumatic memories and agitational sentiments of an absent people.
This ghostly presence haunts and its haunting constitutes an organic
backlash against acts such as the abrupt closure of the power plant.
Through this ghostly presence, the film proposes that trauma borne
collectively by a people provokes an unrestrained backlash – one that
may accrue silently, but that is as certain to arise as the wilderness we
see taking over and burying the power plant. The raging reclamation
of this site by wilderness can thus be understood as metonymically
170 Documentary Films in India

standing in for the peoples’ backlash based on the senses of loss and
trauma embodied by the power plant.
Further, in keeping with Buddhist thought, we now understand
silence as relative. It assumes its character in relation to sound and,
in fact, silence is not devoid of sound. Just in the way that the wilder-
ness we are witnessing visually characterizes the power plant’s state
of abandonment as a process of resurgence, life organically persisting
where activity has been deliberately stalled; the silence at this site is
not an absence of sound. The atmospheric silence that characterizes
this site is pregnant with sound, the intangible sounds of trauma and
DMC’s construction of wilderness involves a subtle recontextualiza-
tion of forest spaces that much mainstream media in India project as
the breeding ground for terrorists. Forests contain militant training
camps and establishments related to many dissident movements in
India, including those of the northeast. In a way Residue takes us back
to Daily Check-up where, in news footage, we had seen terror suspects
running towards and merging with wilderness. The visual conventions
of dominant media, as that work demonstrated, construct wilderness as
a site to which the body of the terror suspect, the transgressor or mis-
creant turns to escape the arms of the state. Forests and wilderness in
mainstream media discourse are dangerous sites, the very opposite of
civil society, for they contain the body that threatens the national fabric.
Residue reclaims wilderness and it can be seen as situating wilderness in
a dialectical relation to the network of state apparatuses that were high-
lighted in Daily Check-up. Wilderness and forests become containers of
festering discontent, they are grounds where suppressed memories and
emotions—those that are dismissed and forgotten – crystallize and form
into a backlash.
Residue can thus be classified as a ‘trauma’ film for it contextualizes,
excavates and works upon collective trauma. Trauma cinema is a term
coined by Janet Walker to designate films and videos that take up trau-
matic events: personal and/or political (Walker 2005). Trauma cinema
is geared to expressing distress, catastrophe, damage and shock and it
adopts a subjective approach in which data, information or statistics
are regarded as less significant than the unuttered and lived dimensions
of traumatic human experiences. Focusing on subjects such as incest
and the Holocaust, Walker cites the works of Rea Tajiri, Laura Bialis and
Lynn Hershman as examples of trauma cinema. Through their films,
these filmmakers confront the impacts of catastrophes and, in order to
Residue 171

Figure 6.3 Wilderness buries a roofed conveyor belt at the power plant
Image courtesy, Desire Machine Collective.

do this, they do not use the methods of expository and explanatory,

realist filmmaking. Defining trauma cinema Walker states:

Trauma films depart from ‘Hollywood classical realism,’ a highly

evolved editorial, compositional, and narratological illusionist system
(in spite of its name) that facilitates the identification of spectators
with characters and purports to show the world as it is. Trauma films,
in contradistinction to this classical regime, ‘dismember’ by drawing
on innovative strategies for representing reality obliquely, by look-
ing to mental processes for inspiration, and by incorporating self-
reflexive devices to call attention to the friability of the scaffolding
for audiovisual historiography. (Walker 2005: 19)

Trauma cinema rests on the understanding that traumatic experiences

do not lend themselves to the established conventions or structures
of mainstream realist films, fiction or documentary. In mainstream
films, catastrophes often constitute an overwhelming backdrop against
which subjects partake in narratives that lead to a resolved conclusion.
Mainstream films thus do not dwell on the ontological or experiential
dimensions of trauma. Ulrich Baer advances this understanding by arguing
172 Documentary Films in India

that mainstream films are based on the assumption that traumatic events
are unproblematically available to be remembered, represented and
communicated as coherent experiences (Baer 2002). This, according to
him, evades and oversimplifies the inherent impossibility and resistance
to representation that traumatic catastrophes such as say the Holocaust
involve (Baer 2002: 169–70). Experimentation with the formal pos-
sibilities of cinema and a commitment to revealing how cinema is a
constructed artefact, are key to trauma cinema. For both Walker and
Baer, avant-garde and experimental film, which reflect disjunctive, dis-
integrated and fragmentary narratives, are the vehicles for the cinematic
evocation of traumatic experiences and memories.
Residue raises a traumatic past of which the abandoned power plant
is both evidence and symbol. The film recognizes the incoherence of
traumatic memory. Deliberatively, the camera navigates through the
innards and skin of the abandoned power plant, enveloping the viewer
with visual impressions and tactile sensations, inventorying the innocu-
ous goings-on and organic decay at this abandoned site. The film’s dis-
junctive and poetic visual and aural associations articulate an absented
and alienated peoples’ steadily accumulating sentiments. In this, there
is a blurring of the boundaries between past and present. The anguish
and loss suffered through insurgent violence; the dehumanized subjec-
tion of people to armed forces’ surveillance and acts of state-sanctioned
crimes; all set against a backdrop of persistent neglect, reductive cultural
stereotyping and reinforcement as other—these are all constitutive of
the deep senses of remove, loss and trauma that mutate into a silence
and the traumatic memories of anger, dismay, violation and disillusion-
ment that pervade a site such as the abandoned power plant.
Residue closes on a shot of pure wilderness with a faint path leading
into the deep background. This is a futuristic image. Coming at the end
of the film this shot projects that the traumas, angers and agitations the
abandoned power plant embodies and which the film has galvanized,
necessarily have a future. We do not know what this future is, what
shape it will take, or what actions and reactions will manifest in it.
DMC will not give us concrete or tangible answers. The whole project of
the collective has been at the level of representational politics and it
has tended towards creating, for the viewer, a sensory and perceptual
experience, rooted in a site but not limited to it.
Residue is an exercise in historiography and documentary poetics
and through this work DMC’s oeuvre opens up a new and innovative
way for approaching corporeal experiences spanning flesh, memory
and emotion. This interest in the corporeal was evident in Daily
Residue 173

Check-up and it has persisted throughout Residue, where the collective

evokes a ghostly presence in the wake of absent figures and bodies.
DMC has not followed a determined line for representing the body and
the collective’s successive works have been characterized by a deepen-
ing exploration and contemplation around how politico-economic
and historical factors influence corporeal experiences tangibly as, say,
in Daily Check-up and intangibly as, say, in Residue. This approach
to corporeal experiences is significant in relation to northeast India
and in terms of how cinema approaches practices of work and labour
more globally. Residue has been enthusiastically received at select
forums, particularly in the global South, such as Between Utopia and
Dystopia, Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC), Mexico; Machines,
Oi Futuro media center, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil and Biennial of
Curitiba, Brazil – reflecting how this work aligns with working-class
experiences and marginalized communities, more globally.
Part III
A Turn Towards the Classical: the
Documentaries of Kumar Shahani

The most bewildering images are the most informative, the

most supportive of future development. They are bewilder-
ing precisely because they do not fit into any of our old pre-
conceptions. They move into areas of thought, feeling and
sensations hitherto untouched. It is from such experiences
that culture protects. Contrarily, it is into these experiences
that art (kala, kavya, sangeet)1 leads us, illuminating them
in such a way as to help us realize ourselves, to make real
our imagination.
– Shahani, ‘The Image in Time’, 1988

It is a fleeting hour at the end of the day, whose rapidly changing

light the naked eye only just registers. Godhuli, or dusk, is when the
crimson hues cast by a setting sun meet earth’s dust rising from the
hooves of cows returning after grazing. All on land are immersed in a
crimson-golden glow. It is in these crimson-golden moments of godhuli
that the opening shots of Kumar Shahani’s acclaimed Bhavantarana
(Immanence), 1991 – based on the life of the Odissi dance maestro,
Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, were composed. The film dwells on the
work of Guru Mohapatra as artist, teacher and life-long pursuant of
the Odissi dance form. In his life, the film identifies a persistent spirit
of learning and forming through dance. The film’s opening sequence,
bathed in crimson-golden light, is key to establishing this spirit.
The opening sequence is a thinly tied montage that invokes human
labour as a choreography of the human form. The montage starts with
two static shots, extreme tight close-ups of rock surfaces. The cam-
era’s close perspective magnifies the fine textures, lines and colours
of the grains that make up the rocks. In the background, we hear the
178 Documentary Films in India

sound of rock being dug and cut by human hands using metal tools.
These sounds are rhythmic, but not mechanical; it is clear that they
come from the labours of a human figure. The montage advances and
the camera intercuts close-up shots of rock surfaces with abstract views
of a human figure chiseling and carving them. We follow the contrac-
tions and expansions of muscles as the craftsman’s legs, shoulders, spine
and torso move back and forth rhythmically, working upon the rock.
Viewed from such a tight close-up position the labouring body and
the rock are infused with a primal eros, forming, as it were, into new
sculptural wholes within the filmed frame. Every shot in this sequence
is composed along a diagonal line of viewing achieved through the
camera’s position and the rapidly diminishing crimson-golden light at
dusk. The labouring body and the rocks are so placed that they make a
subtle diagonal line across the frame, and the crimson-golden light of
the setting sun too, falls on the subjects diagonally, often from the oppo-
site direction. This composition, based on diagonals, implies movement
and it infuses the mise-en-scène with a sense of dynamism, of a flow of
energy. Combined with chiaroscuros of moving shadows the mise-en-
scène is animated, lending to the scenario a sense of process, of things
coming into being. The human figure and the rock it carves appear in
a state of subtle pulsation and becoming. Through this very primal and
elemental take the film posits movement, the very material and labour
of dance as living and constitutive in relation to the world, rather than
fixed or abstracted from it. And so, Bhavantarana announces how it will
approach its subject: the life of Guru Mohapatra. It will not present
dance as an ornamental embellishment in the Guru’s life. Rather, it will
depict dance as intimately tied to his being in a particular landscape –
Odisha – at a particular time in history: the better part of the twentieth
century, punctuated with India’s independence, when Guru Mohapatra
carved out a place for Odissi dance.
Kumar Shahani’s oeuvre includes both fiction and documentary films.
While his fiction films, such as Maya Darpan (1972), Tarang (1984)
and Khayal Gatha (1989), have received considerable critical acclaim at
prominent film festivals both within and outside India, and also through
film scholarship, his documentary films have received only limited view-
ing and critical attention. Dismissed in part for their complex aesthetic
that resists meaning through explicit exposition, these documentaries
have been largely unavailable to audiences because the government
agencies that have financed them, in bureaucratic fashion, devote few
resources to their promotion and distribution. Shahani’s documentaries
are rarely seen; their exhibition has been limited to select forums.
A Turn Towards the Classical 179

Kumar Shahani is a thinker, a philosopher and his cinema is deeply

historical and contemplative. In his documentaries, his cinema philosophy
finds a most direct and forceful articulation. Through his filmmaking
career, which has lasted around five decades, Kumar Shahani has vehe-
mently opposed an objectivist understanding of the camera as a tool
that captures or records reality. For Shahani, all organic life, animated by
breath and sensation, pulsates in flux. All organic forms aspire towards a
primal union while they are impressed in separation. All creative labour,
Shahani asserts, embodies and seeks to reconcile this dichotomy. The
camera – a mechanical device activated by a human, an organic agent –
partakes in this creative labour.
This section of the book studies Shahani’s approach to documentary
aesthetics by discussing two of his key works: Bhavantarana in this chap-
ter, and The Bamboo Flute in the next. My discussion aims to introduce
the reader to Shahani’s broader cinema philosophy and to show how that
informs his particular approach to documentary-making. Both the films
I study deal with India’s classical artforms: Odissi dance in Bhavantarana
and Indian classical music in The Bamboo Flute. This turn to the classi-
cal I take to be politically sensitive, and my reading of both films will
demonstrate how Shahani’s approach to cinematography and montage
offers us a historical conception and understanding of India’s classi-
cal arts that exceeds and contests the narrow, often identitarian terms
by which these forms have been mobilized within the dominant cul-
tural discourses of India, particularly after independence. Geeta Kapur
observes that Shahani’s films about the classical arts offer ‘condensed
interpretations of traditions’ through a narrative space ‘where there is
a sublimation of material cultural history to the pure cinematic time
of now’ (Kapur 2000: 358). This cinematic turn to the classical, I hold,
is particular to Shahani for he belongs to the first generation of film-
makers trained in India after independence. As such, he is from the
generation that first confronted the task of imagining India’s cultural
pasts by contesting how they had been conceptualized and constructed
by colonial epistemologies, which have dominated understandings of
India’s classical arts for the last few centuries.
I begin this chapter by offering an overview of Kumar Shahani’s
philosophical approach to cinema. Besides introducing the reader to
Shahani’s thought, my aim is to raise the specific experiences and
understandings Shahani brought to cinema as a figure who belongs
to independent India’s first generation of artists. I then undertake a
close study of Bhavantarana with a view to discuss how this film offers
a phenomenological rendition of the Odissi dance form through a
180 Documentary Films in India

camera that is co-performing with and co-constituting its subject. After

introducing the vocabulary and meaning systems on which this clas-
sical dance form is based and how those shape the early sequences of
Bhavantarana, I offer an in-depth analysis of the film’s dance sequences.
This analysis focuses on Shahani’s distinctive approach to cinematogra-
phy that I term as free camera choreography for documenting movement.
My discussion plots how this free camera choreography is at the service
of invoking an invisible divinity that is at the heart of the Odissi dance
form. Invoking this invisible divinity constitutes the distinct interven-
tion of Bhavantarana both in the fields of dance film and documentary.

Kumar Shahani: a philosopher of cinema

The evasion of truth is inherent in an art which is practiced as mainly

representational in its aesthetic and which, on the other hand, by the
process of intense emotional identification guides you to a release, whether
seemingly fatalist or activist. Such a cinema does not allow you to think,
to know, to judge. In fact, it deprives you of the consciousness you possess
by offering a self-contained world to replace the world in which you have
to struggle.
– Shahani, ‘The Necessity of a Code’, 1975

Kumar Shahani was born in Larkana, Punjab, now in Pakistan. Following

the 1947 partition his family migrated to Bombay, India, where he grew
up. The historic formation of the two divided nations and the massive
border crossing that marked their inauguration has not diminished in
his memory. To this singular event, Shahani attributes the birth of a
reflexive intent in his thinking. The partition profoundly confronted
him, as it did communities across the subcontinent, with an identity
politics at the heart of which, Shahani remembers, was the crucial
question: ‘Who are you?’ Entirely dismissive of the narrow identitarian
drives informing this question, Shahani’s cinema has been committed
to the pursuit of competing cultural epistemologies. In Shahani, in
addition to the euphoria of a people freeing from colonial oppression,
we sense a parallel interrogation of the terms by which nationalist cul-
tural discourses have been constructed in the subcontinent. His cinema
has contested ideas of an essentialist, homogenous and unilinear sense
of India’s cultural heritage in favour of a more planetary conception in
which dialogues across civilizational paradigms are recognized. This is
not a liberal move, summarily celebrating the influence of multiple and
diverse cultures on the subcontinent. Shahani’s oeuvre builds on the
A Turn Towards the Classical 181

understanding that India’s cultural pasts and presents are porous. They
have and continue to receive, imbibe and create cultural epistemologies,
thought and practices from the numerous little cultures of the subcon-
tinent as also through wider migrations – say the silk route, or India’s
cotton trade with America, and the ever so invisible cultural permeations
between west, central and south Asia.
Shahani studied with parallel Indian cinema master Ritwik Ghatak –
an exilic figure whose cinema persistently questioned the reductive terms
by which India and Pakistan were partitioned.2 Ghatak’s cinema articu-
lated the traumas arising from the division of syncretic civilizations and
the displacements that this caused. Ghatak’s melodramatic, pathetic and
critical montage-based films sensitized Shahani to the question of how
cinema may address the Indian subcontinent’s vast and varied cultures,
and their evolution in relation to history’s multiple and competing moves.
A central question formulated in his work: How would a filmmaker-artist
use cinema to devise a sense of culture as a historical category shaping the
present? Following independence, a whole generation of cultural practi-
tioners, scholars and thinkers were drawn to rethinking India’s history
and reconstructing its narratives. The colonial establishment and Indian
nationalists had both devised epistemologies surrounding India’s pasts
shaped by their respective ideological postures.3 Independence infused
an energy and vigour into the thinking and writing of history, reassess-
ing the narratives, reasonings and methods that had been used and the
ends they had served. A key concern pertained to method and sources for
history, for in India written sources are not the sole and always reliable
records for assembling views of the past.
The Marxist mathematician and historian D.D. Kosambi had asserted
the need for field-based research in the construction of Indian history.
Kosambi worked extensively in the field of ancient Indian history. His
materialist approach was grounded in the recognition of India as a class
society, whose essential relations, he asserted, were not based on kin-
ship (Kosambi 1975: xii–xiii).4 Based on the Marxist political-economy
approach, Kosambi emphasized that the essential relations in a society
are developed through the production and exchange of commodities.5
To study a society based on this materialist schema, he emphasized
field-work, conducted ‘on foot’.

There is no substitute for work in the field for the restoration of pre-
literate history. This extends to all historical periods for any country
like India where written sources are so meagre and defective while
local variations are indescribably numerous. (Kosambi 1975: x)
182 Documentary Films in India

Kumar Shahani studied with Kosambi, whose methods he credits with

having shaped his approach to cinema in a critical way. Kosambi’s
emphasis on fieldwork had a particular resonance for Shahani. In his
own words: ‘it implanted the understanding that history was not stored
in archives alone, its multiple layers were, in a sense, at one’s door-
step’.6 Further, Kosambi’s cultural materialist approach was grounded
in interdisciplinarity, what he called a comparative method by which
a historian ought to be conversant with multiple disciplines to engage
varied sources, not purely textual ones. With this understanding,
Kosmabi asserted that art and culture were repositories of materials
through which a society’s underpinning relations of production could
be understood.

The subtle mystic philosophies, tortuous religions, ornate literature,

monuments teeming with intricate sculpture and delicate music of
India all derive from the same historical process that produced fam-
ished apathy of the villager, senseless opportunism and termite greed
of the ‘cultured’ strata, sullen uncoordinated discontent among the
workers, the general demoralization, misery, squalor, and degrading
superstition. The one is the result of the other, the one is the expres-
sion of the other. (Kosambi 1975: xi–xii)

Thus the whole gamut of material, visual and aural forms such as sculp-
ture, painting, musical traditions, the very lay of the land, its physi-
cal features, the persistence of the ancient and folk practices into the
present – Shahani came to see these all as sources through which to study
the past and how it commingles with and shapes the present. Fieldwork,
with its emphasis on being present to the multiple layers and traces of
pasts, implied a kind of embodied approach to studying and understand-
ing culture and history. It was as if experiencing a place or practice in
the present, based on a materialist understanding, allowed one to access
the ways by which these had been shaped through multiple pasts.
The Kosambian understanding of fieldwork sat seamlessly with the
practices of India’s parallel cinema to which Shahani was exposed
while studying with Ritwik Ghatak. India’s parallel cinema, through
Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, had devised an ideologically grounded
posture in favour of location filming. Through the Apu trilogy Ray had
implanted in India a seed of Italian neorealism, characterized by its dis-
tinctive features, including location shooting and the use of non-actors.
Ghatak’s clustered alleyways of urban Bengal were framed so as to recre-
ate the senses of dislocation and trauma of partition and they offered a
A Turn Towards the Classical 183

counterpoint to Ray’s romanticist take on landscape. Shahani remains an

admirer of these masters and, with a grounding in Kosambian thought,
Shahani’s cinema was poised to approach India’s vast and varied land-
scapes as living containers of culture and history. This understanding
provided Shahani with a framework through which the ahistorical
identitarian politics and the violent division of cultures that had ensued
from partition could be questioned and problematized. A subtle, more
encompassing project surrounding the cultural heritages of the Indian
subcontinent took shape in Shahani’s thought. His was not to be a pro-
ject directly constructing or representing history. His became a creative
project surrounding the multiple, indigenous and/or transacted cultural
epistemologies that have and continue to flourish in the subcontinent.
Shahani has persistently argued against conceptualizing societies and
cultures as constituted through singular terms of discourse or as neat,
homogenous and contained formations. This understanding informs
Shahani’s discourse on cinema and representation in a very specific way.
In his 1994 paper, ‘Modern India: Terms of Discourse’, Shahani argues
that the capitalist basis of modern nations poses a particular representa-
tional problem: one person or thing can stand in for an entire collective
or community. There is a will for absolutism in this, in that a singular
figure or thing symbolizes a collective, a whole and this compromises
multiplicity. This absolutism, Shahani holds, has led to modern nations
privileging fields such as defence over culture with the latter reduced to
a site of rhetoric for garnering peoples’ consent towards profit on the
one hand, and violence on the other. He states:

In fact, India adopted the dramatic posture of all nation-states – that

it could have faith in the acts of representation and create a world
out of them. The faith in representation is that one person or thing
can stand in for a collective – or a collection: a person may represent
a class, the whole nation, or even a principle, an idea… (Shahani,
‘Modern India: Terms of Discourse’, 1994)

This absolutist and singular form of representation confuses the thing

represented with the representation. Shahani notes that two limitations
arise from this. First, the plurality of cultures and ways of thinking suffers;
and this suffering may manifest as willful suppression or violent anni-
hilation of cultural differences. He states:

I believe that every society, every social system including the one
that had colonized or covets us, contained within itself several
184 Documentary Films in India

possible systems of cognition, of presentation, representation and

exchange, including subjectivities and systems of knowledge to col-
lide and collaborate. In the process, of the several possibilities, very
few were realised. The others were suppressed, sometimes to resur-
face as monstrous machines of destruction, sometimes as opening
the doors of perception to a greater fullness of freedom and joy, in
the mind as part of the senses, both passive and active. (Shahani, K.
‘Modern India: Terms of Discourse’, 1994)

The second limitation Shahani identifies relates to the field of repre-

sentation itself. When singularities of meaning are asserted, represen-
tation becomes a mode of enlisting consensus over those singularities.
Besides obliterating alternatives, such representation goes on to impede
capacities of perception and cognition. Representation is reduced to
communication in the narrowest sense – that is, the transference of
messages between makers and receivers who are unproblematically
perceived as stable. This has a direct bearing on questions surrounding
the scope of the cinematic medium.
For Shahani, cinema is ontologically equipped to create complex and
multilayered epistemologies and experiences. Indexically, it documents and
produces a record; a sensory encounter with what it records. This encounter
is marked by an immediacy, a firstness that hardly any other medium can
offer. More significantly, and here Shahani derives from Sergei Eisenstein,
cinema’s mechanisms of association and meaning-making, its structuring
devices including mise-en-scène and montage are unrestrained by any
literal or expository drive. The Marxist dialectic at the heart of Eisenstein’s
methods of montage, shaped distinctly in Shahani’s cinema. The dialectic
does not operate solely at a formal level and Shahani has argued that, for
him, montage was not a formal technique in opposition to more real-
ist strategies of cinema that celebrated mise-en-scène or depth-of-field
(Shahani 1986).7 Cinema’s basis in movement and montage, for Shahani,
provokes a sensate presence and multiple associations in relation to what
is seen and heard. On this basis, Shahani has contested the equation of
cinema as a medium of mass communication. Shahani argues that the
media that are termed mass communication media, are mass purely in
their capability of transmission. Communication involves a process of
codification and for Shahani, neither radio, nor television – two of the key
mass communication media – have established any independent codes.8
Cinema, unlike mass communication media, has an evolved language
based on the specificity of the medium. Its principal feature is that it can
record, observe and provoke a sensation of movement. Cinema, Shahani
A Turn Towards the Classical 185

observes, is the only art that can capture Nature in its flux. It can also
negate that flux by the movement of the subject (the camera or the
microphone). Echoing classical film theory’s debates around cinema’s
specificity, he cites an example of fluttering trees that, being framed by
the camera and without any other element like metaphorical structur-
ing or speech, become the object of contemplation for the viewer.
Shahani’s film practice has been devised through complex processes
wherein his aesthetics are radically removed from institutionalized
modes of representation, eventhough his films are supported by state
funding. Shahani insists on the availability of public support for the arts
and in the same vein asserts that a filmmaker-artist is not the bearer of
a predetermined agenda or objectified conclusions in relation to a film’s
subject matter.9 With regard to the making of documentary films, he
insists that documentation should not be approached as a prosaic pro-
cess of ‘capturing’ predetermined meanings or narratives.
Echoing an existentialist stance, Shahani’s writings on cinema express
a will to self-discovery and knowledge through cinema. He insists that
no system of knowledge or medium can offer total comprehension or
understanding of material phenomena and existence. Knowing the
limits of each holds the key to critically and creatively advancing it.
He elaborates how the quest for knowledge translates into the pursuit
of art thus:

The heraclitan paradox, after all, can only be overcome by an active

intervention in that world which we may know only as we ourselves
transform it by an infinite series of acts. Each of our individuated
beings is a creation of that very process of interaction. The world
shapes us as we change it… Is that perhaps the reason why we
respond with palpitating hearts when we look at the banal event of
a train chugging on to a platform, amongst the very first moving
pictures taken by the Lumiere Brothers?

Indeed, it is a necessary condition for every single work of art that
it proceed from an insight unknown to the artist himself: an insight
of which the artist has a suggestion of a feeling, unnamed and yet
unnameable, constantly present. The presence of a thought that he
cannot recognize. The gratuitousness of sensations that grow from
self-evolving forms. (Shahani, ‘Film as a Contemporary Art’, 1985)

For Shahani, being in the world is the source of experiencing and

becoming in it, with cultural epistemologies and systems of knowledge
186 Documentary Films in India

offering ways of making meaning in the world. While Shahani’s cinema

has claimed the wide and competing civilizational legacies shaping
contemporary Indian cultures, he asserts that cultures, like all material
phenomena, are in flux and constantly forming. For Shahani, being
precedes knowing and, more importantly, it precedes identity. His posi-
tion particularly resonates with Sartre, a philosopher Shahani admires
deeply. From an atheistic position Sartre asserts that essence does not
precede existence. For Sartre, man discovers himself through being in
the world and it is through this process that an essence, if any in man,
can be identified. No predetermined essence persists prior to existence:

Existentialism,… , maintains that in man – and in man alone – existence

precedes essence.
This simply means that man first is, and only subsequently is this
or that. In a word, man must create his own essence: it is in throw-
ing himself into the world, suffering there, struggling there, that he
gradually defines say what this man is before he dies, or what man-
kind is before it has disappeared. (Sartre 2013: 88)

Shahani echoes similar observations:

But the self is in the being, in which knowledge is submerged in

experience. (Shahani, ‘The Self as an Objective Entity’, 1987)

Understanding all existence as being in a state of flux and every being’s

relation to it as one that uniquely unfolds and manifests in their ways of
becoming, Shahani goes on to assert that cinema and fine art generally
offer interventions through which to make meaning of existence. It is from
this position that we can appreciate how Shahani has contested overtly
political forms of cinema. He insists that cinema cannot be brought to
the service of singularly perpetuating any ideology, dominant or critical.
This was indeed at the heart of his break from Jean-Luc Godard’s Dziga
Vertov Collective founded in the aftermath of the events of May 1968. At
the time Shahani was in France, working with French film director, Robert
Bresson. Godard had invited him to join the collective and participate in
what was to become one of European cinema’s key sites for questioning
institutionalized forms of filmmaking and how those perpetuate domi-
nant ideology. Shahani broke from Godard, asserting that while cinema
certainly ought not to be used for perpetuating dominant ideology, it
cannot also be reduced to only critiquing that ideology. In his view, if
the terms of a radical film praxis are determined in purely antithetical
A Turn Towards the Classical 187

equations to dominant ideologies, then the possibilities for using cinema

as a means for knowledge and exploration stand compromised.10 It is with
this understanding that Shahani’s cinema merits attention, especially his
documentaries that contest the form’s use for narrow political agendas.

Bhavantarana (Immanence, 1991, 63 mins)

Marking Odissi: a sculptural and devotional dance

It is through aspected, forever incomplete views and events—where every
thought, emotion and being is open to infinite elaboration—that we can
touch upon individuation and improvisation.
— Shahani, K. ‘Modern India: Terms of Discourse’, 1994

I am inclined to believe that all life seeks meaning, changes form, not
merely to survive but, in the very first place, to want to live, it must have
that impulse.
— Shahani, K. ‘The Image in Time’, 1988

Bhavantarana can be loosely described as a biopic focusing on the life

and art of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. Shahani recollects that a long
period had been spent, close to a decade, in researching Bhavantarana.
In this time it had become apparent to Shahani that the study of Odissi
through the figure of Guru Mohapatra called up multiple lines of narra-
tive, including Guru Mohapatra’s personal life marked by early struggles
against the social resistance to dance, his years as a teacher of this form
and his lifelong devotion to the principles of divinity on which Odissi is
based. The film is structured using four principal film elements. Dance
sequences key to Guru Mohapatra’s repertoire are performed by him
and some performers who trained with him. These are thinly intercut
with a second element, dramatic reconstructions of key episodes from
Guru Mohapatra’s life, performed by actors. Threading these are interti-
tles that provide contextual information pertaining to Guru Mohapatra,
the philosophical and dramatic principles of Odissi dance, and poetic
references that suggest the valence of Odissi in Guru Mohapatra’s life.
The intertitles are in multiple voices: some offer contextual information
on behalf of the filmmaker; others include references from Indological
texts such as mythic narratives and epic poetry that facilitate in under-
standing the Odissi dance vocabulary and appreciating its narratives.
A fourth component, used most sparsely, usually bracketing the film’s
dance sequences, consists of a series of sustained and contemplative
images in which the camera observes the Odishan landscape. There is
188 Documentary Films in India

no dramatic action in these images. They punctuate the film, lending a

sense of stillness and repose to a work that principally meditates upon
The film opens with a series of intertitles that introduce Guru
Mohapatra as a dynamic exponent who played a key role in ‘chiseling a
niche’ for the Odissi dance form. Odissi dance is today understood to be
a fusion of folk and tribal dance forms. The dance suffered some degen-
eration over the last 300 years, on account of disrepute and declining
patronage following political instability in Odisha (Patnaik 1971 and
Kothari 1990). Since India’s independence the Odissi dance form has
undergone a committed process of revival undertaken by such figures
as Guru Mohapatra.
Very crucially, Bhavantarana’s early intertitles suggest that Odissi
dance is a synergistic form deriving from the arts, including sculpture,
literature, miniature painting and folk dances including the cross-
dressing transgender performance of gotipua.11 Following this contextual
information, the film uses a first reference intertitle that inaugurates
the film visually. This is a quote from medieval Kannada poetess,

Breath for fragrance,

Who needs flowers

Following this ecstatic announcement, the film’s first visuals: the mon-
tage of a craftsman’s body sculpting rock, appear. At the conclusion of
this montage, the craftsman exits frame and the camera pans up, reveal-
ing a vast, pastoral landscape. We see silhouetted trees and hints of a
setting sun, all bathed in deep hues of crimson light. The camera pans
from right to left across this landscape. The film cuts to the next shot.
We are still in the pastoral landscape and the camera pulls out from a
close shot of a tree trunk to reveal a dance surface: a loosely marked
square of earth in the image middle ground. An Odissi dancer rises from
the square and performs Mangalacharana – an invocation to the Lord
Jagannath, seeking auspicious beginnings for the dance performance
and, being the film’s first dance sequence, the film too. The sequence is
set in the hour of dusk, godhuli, and as the dancer performs we see cows
returning after grazing in the background.
A typical structure of Mangalacharana includes bhumi-pranam, or rever-
ential touching of the earth punctuated with short nritta or pure dance
sequences that mark the physical movements and postures on which
the Odissi dance vocabulary is based.12 The entire Mangalacharana
A Turn Towards the Classical 189

Figure 7.1 Odissi dancer, Sanjukta Panigrahi performs Mangalacharana

Image courtesy, Roshan Shahani.

sequence in the film is composed of one shot. As the dancer invokes

Jagannath’s blessings, the camera gently pulls further away from the
dance surface, along a diagonal line. It does not follow the dancer
literally and at one instance the whole view is softly interrupted by
a tree that wipes the image foreground. The camera’s choreography
is free and its delicate movement appears responsive to the syncretic
presence of the dancer, the space, the light, music, movement and the
invisible divinity to whom the dance is offered. This free movement of
the camera builds from the film’s earlier, poetically composed shots.
190 Documentary Films in India

In particular, it extends from the panning shot, preceding this sequence

that introduced the pastoral landscape of Odisha. That shot constituted
a silent interlude between the opening montage and Mangalacharana.
It established the Odishan landscape and defined the film’s setting:
a pastoral space. At an immediate level, this is tied to Guru Mohapatra’s
life for he lived and practiced in the countryside. But there is a subtler
thematic in that landscape shot that pertains to an invisible presence
that the film will build as it proceeds.
Opening the film with Mangalacharana establishes the significance of
Lord Jagannath in the Odissi dance form. Prior to Mangalacharana, over the
panning shot across the landscape a brief voiceover introduces this Lord:

Bathed in Golden light,

upon the blue hill…
Jagannath, Lord of the World
May you enter my vision

Lord Jagannath is a principal deity seated at the ornate Jagannath Temple

in the quaint seaside town of Puri, Odisha in east India. The Jagannath
Temple is considered to be the body form of the Lord himself13 and here
He resides with His sister, Subhadra, and His older brother, Balaram. Lord
Jagannath is Himself understood as an amalgamation of numerous cult
figures. According to D.N. Patnaik, ‘Jagannath, the presiding deity of this
land typically symbolizes the fusion of more than twenty religions and
cultural trends’ (Patnaik 1971: 5). Patnaik adds that the Jagannath Temple
was built in 1112 AD but a prior shrine and cult of Jagannath already
existed in the region. In some literatures Lord Jagannath is a Savara God
(the Savaras being the earliest inhabitants of the Odisha region). Others
claim Him to be of Buddhist or Jain origin. Most popularly, however, He
is considered as an avatara (incarnation) of the Hindu Lord Vishnu, the
preserver from the holy trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
In Odisha, Vaishnavism, drawing on the teachings of the medieval
Indian saint, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486–1534), had a wide reach and
it influenced the social and cultural life of the region. Vaishnavism, or
the philosophy tied to Vishnu worship, venerates the practice of bhakti,
or loving devotion to the Divine. Lord Jagannath, an incarnation of
Vishnu, is considered a form of Lord Krishna. Sunil Kothari, in his study
of Odissi dance, retells a mythological tale, one among a series of others,
that establishes the link between Lord Jagannath and Lord Krishna:

It is interesting to note the different traditions relating to the origin

of Lord Jagannath. When Lord Krishna dies his earthly remains were
A Turn Towards the Classical 191

placed on the funeral pyre but his navel was not consumed by the
fire. So it was set afloat in the sea, and reached Nilachala where King
Indradyumna was performing tapasya (penance) to experience a
vision of Lord Vishnu. Lord Vihsnu appeared in a dream and ordered
him to put the navel in a wooden image and worship it as Vishnu.
(Kothari 1990: 4)

The Jagannath Temple houses a wooden deity of Jagannath that is

regionally considered a cognate of Krishna. Devotion towards Lord
Jagannath cuts across social divides, making him the quintessence of
life and culture in Odisha. The figure of Lord Jagannath is steeped in
legends and tales that make up a rich mythology depicted through the
scriptures, literatures, sculpture, music and dance tied to the Jagannath
Temple at Puri. It is from this seat of Jagannath that the cultural imagi-
nary of Odisha radiates outwards, and Lord Jagannath calls up a culture
of devotion in which the Puri temple, its festivals, rituals and associated
arts, including Odissi dance, are all held as forms of bhakti or reverence
for this master of the Universe. While the temple at Puri is considered
the seat of the Lord, His presence is reverentially understood as per-
meating all material phenomena including the creative energies that
inspire Odishan artists.
Using Managalacharana as the opening dance performance, Bhavan-
tarana also establishes that its own structure will follow that of Odissi
dance performance. We can thus appreciate that this film is a dialogic
representation of Odissi dance that entails conversation between the
dance form as exposited by Guru Mohapatra and its filmic rendition as
conceptualized by Shahani.14
At the end of the first dance sequence, Mangalacharana, a quotation
citing a sloka from the ancient Puranas, ushers us back to a labouring

O Goddess, consort of Vishnu,

you with oceans as your garments
and mountains as your breasts,
I bow to you.
Please pardon me for touching you with my toes.
Pauranic Sloka

We are in a craftsman’s workshop and through a crimson-hued light we

encounter him carving the eyes of a female figure on rock. Tight close-ups
of human hands and feet working upon stone are intercut with abstract
192 Documentary Films in India

close-ups of the craftsman’s bare body. To the synchronous sounds of

carving two acousmatic sounds are added that offer new layers of mean-
ing to the overall atmosphere. The first is the sound of a woman laugh-
ing flirtatiously and the second, a group of women ululating. Together,
these sounds and images advance the theme of auspiciousness set up
through the Mangalacharana sequence. Creativity – manifest in a craft
such as sculpting or pure movement – is elemental, erotic and sacred. The
suggestion of a flirtatious air has a particular place in this film for Odissi
dance abounds with tales and images of a young Krishna romancing with
his beloved Radha and the gopis (or village maidens). This sequence of
carving marked by a sense of auspiciousness leads into the next dance
sequence, Battu, which is performed by a young girl.
Shahani uses the structure of Odissi concert practices in which Battu
follows Mangalacharana. Battu like Mangalacharana is a nritta sequence
composed of pure dance movements. The Indian aesthetics commentator,
Kapila Vatsyayan, divides Indian classical dance movements into three
categories:15 Natya that corresponds with drama; nritya or the gesticulation
in relation to words and musical melody; and nritta or pure movement
that is devoid of any narrative drive. Nritta is a crucial element of dance
for it involves the marking of bodily poses and their projection in cycles
of rhythmic movements. This, Vatsyayan holds, is key to emphasizing
the sculpturesque quality of Indian dances (Vatsyayan 1974: 6).
Battu, the nritta sequence of Odissi, is specifically influenced
by the sculptures of Odishan temples, particularly in Konark and
Bhubhaneshwar. On the façades of these temples, intricate sculptures
depict nayikas (maidens) in numerous poses that have been used as the
basis of Odissi’s dance vocabulary. The nayikas are seen performing a
whole spectrum of actions and poses without any distinction between
the quotidian, such as household tasks, and the highly refined or culti-
vated, such as the playing of music or the performance of dance. Some
common themes of the temple sculptures include women playing musi-
cal instruments, being in nature and even being languid while idling
or resting. Battu is based on these. It is a visibly sculptural form that
emphasizes how movement derives from and culminates into sculptural
In a frame filled with lush greenery a young girl clad in a cotton sari
emerges in the foreground. This shot is soft in focus. She approaches her
reflection in a mirror that fills the frame and it appears she is approach-
ing the camera. She makes a gesture of admiring her face in the mirror
and shying away from it; then she exits the frame. The camera suffuses
two image surfaces in this shot: the camera’s lens through which the
A Turn Towards the Classical 193

image has been recorded and which the girl references as a mirror,
a prominent gesture within Odissi dance vocabulary. As the young
girl emerges from lush greenery towards the camera, this image takes
us back to the opening shot from Shahani’s teacher, Ritwik Ghatak’s
1960 classic Meghey Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star) where the film’s
female protagonist approaches the camera as if emerging from a large
tree seen in deep background (Sheridan 2004:113). This composition
of a female figure emerging from nature is significant as it references
the position of the female within the cultural imaginaries of east India.
The female as shakti is equated with nature. She is the daughter of
nature, she emerges from and then merges back into nature. Using
the same principle, Ghatak and Shahani offer two very contrasting
approaches to visualization and meaning. Where Ghatak’s composition
in Meghey Dhaka Tara emphasizes the female protagonist’s emergence
from nature as inaugurating a pathetic narrative that will disassemble
the cultural ideal of female/shakti as equated with nature, Bhavantarana
preserves this unity for the young girl who emerges from lush greenery,
exits the frame returning to and merging with nature. This is significant
for it asserts that she is united with nature. Both positions are politi-
cally significant for Ghatak’s approach serves to critique Bengali Hindu
society, while Shahani celebrates the meaning systems specific to the
cultural landscape where Bhavantarana is set.
In the next shot, the young girl enters the courtyard of an Odishan
home. She repeats the gesture of looking into the mirror. Like this occa-
sion, the film is punctuated with a number of moments when perform-
ers make gestures of, or actually look into mirrors. In the context of
classical dance this gesture of looking admiringly into the mirror sits
within a broader theme of shringara, or the beautification and adorn-
ment of the body. To beautify oneself is to mark and prepare oneself for
the other, be that an audience, the beloved or the divine. As such, this
action extends associations of auspiciousness. Following this gesture,
the Battu sequence of Bhavantarana unfolds and in it the young dancer
performs movements depicting Indian musical instruments such as the
veena (stringed instrument), drums, cymbals and the flute. Through
this the film introduces us to the key movements of Odissi dance. In
this sequence the film also introduces a new theme into its vocabulary.
At the start of this sequence, as the young girl enters the courtyard
she passes by the vacant seat of her Guru, who is represented by the
cymbals lying next to his sitting mat. In the middle of her dance, we
glimpse Guru Mohapatra, for the first time in the film, playing cymbals
enthusiastically to the rhythmic music that is building in tempo. As the
194 Documentary Films in India

sequence concludes, the dancer returns to the seat of her Guru and she
bows before it. The seat is now empty as at the start of this sequence.
The Guru’s body is invisible.

The Guru turns to dance

Bhavantarana advances interweaving episodic reconstructions of Guru
Mohapatra’s life with key dance sequences from the repertoire associ-
ated with him. The film is also punctuated with sequences dwelling on
folk forms such as folk paintings and enactments of folk tales that are
tied to the wider cultural imaginary surrounding Odissi dance. The ear-
liest reconstructions in the film pertain to Guru Mohapatra’s childhood
and how he came to dance. He had started as a gotipua performer and an
early reconstruction in the film shows a young boy exploring and danc-
ing as a gotipua. A little later, the film depicts the young Mohapatra’s
encounter with his teacher, Goswamiji, who encourages the young boy
to dance. Goswamiji is later shown instructing his pupils on the finer
nuances of dance movements. Guru Mohapatra’s father had initially
resisted his turn to dance and this is depicted in one domestic scene in
which his father and mother have an exchange over Guru Mohapatra’s
desire to dance. Here the effeminacy with which this dance is associated
is seen as the point of discord between Guru Mohapatra’s parents. The
social resistance Guru Mohapatra encountered and overcame to pursue
dance is contextualized in the film through inspirational quotations
such as the following from the epic Mahabharata:

One should give up one person

for the sake of the family,
for the sake of the gram (town or village)
one should give up the family,
for the sake of the cluster of towns
one should abandon the village or town,
for the sake of the Self
one should give up even this earth.
— Mahabharata 1, 107.33

Such quotations in the film lend a subjective dimension to Guru

Mohapatra’s life and serve in styling it on screen. It is evident these were
carefully selected through extensive research that involved creating
links between the story of Guru Mohapatra’s life, which he had shared
with Shahani during the research for this film, and the Guru’s rationali-
zations of his life events based on Vaishnava philosophy.
A Turn Towards the Classical 195

Figures 7.2 Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra performs Odissi dance

Image courtesy, Roshan Shahani.

Reconstructions of Guru Mohapatra’s childhood and youth in the

first part of the film sit complementarily with the film’s early dance
sequences introducing and defining the Odissi dance form. The link
between both is direct as both depict beginnings: the beginnings of the
dance form and Guru Mohapatra’s early life. As the film advances, we
see more of Guru Mohapatra’s acclaimed performances such as the abhi-
naya piece, Kuru Yadhunandana, which depicts an episode of love-play
between Lord Krishna and Radha, in which Guru Mohapatra enacts the
role of Radha. Next there is a piece called Dheere Sameera with Guru
Mohapatra once again seen performing as Radha as she waits longingly
for Krishna in the dark of night. All of the film’s dance sequences are
rhythmically integrated through quotations depicted in intertitles that
suggest meanings in relation to the dances, facilitating the viewer’s
understandings and appreciation for the dance. Some quotations draw
on literary sources that have directly influenced the Odissi dance form
such as Kuru Yadhunandana and Dheere Sameera – both of which can be
traced to Jayadeva’s Geeta Govinda. Other dance sequences are bracketed
with references from the broader canon of Indological texts, includ-
ing the Vedas, Puarnas and the epics whose connections to the dance
are indirect. These references suggest the themes, modes, moods and
196 Documentary Films in India

theories that inform the dance. For example, one sequence that thinly
ties a quotation to a dance sequence surrounds the enactment of a scene
from the Ramayana. This sequence opens with a sloka from the Rg Veda.
The sloka:

The log, uncrafted, floats on the water.

Hold it so that you may reach across.
Rg Veda X: 155.3

Following this, Guru Mohapatra performs a dance interpretation of a

scene in which a devotee of Lord Rama rows him across a river during
the latter’s exile from his kingdom of Ayodhya. The lyrics and the per-
formance of the boatman’s rowing are imbued with a sense of longing
for the divine and articulate his devotional perspective. He addresses
his beloved Lord Rama as the brace that will make him cross the river
of life and attain eternity. There is a subtle reversal of roles here: the
boatman who rows the Lord across a river in this, material world
sings, seeking the Lord to row him across the river of existence. This
reversal ties back to the Vedic sloka with which this sequence began.
So that even though the Rg Veda and the Ramayana are from different
historical periods, the film’s montage construction thematically links
the intertitle to the dance sequence. In a restrained and poetic way this
linking suggests the overall bhava (emotion) that drives the sequence.
Such poetic linkages between literary sources and dance sequences
advance the film beyond documentation as a record of dance perfor-
mance towards deeper layers where ideas, moods and tones tied to the
dance sequences are delicately suggested. The viewer is poised to now
appreciate the film’s dance sequences beyond purely the choreographic
finesse they depict so skillfully.
Among the numerous practitioners associated with reviving Odissi
dance in the twentieth century, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra is most
recognised as the figure who shaped a distinct style that has become the
dominant form of the dance today. While Guru Mohapatra played a sig-
nificant role in securing for Odissi the official status of a classical dance,
following India’s independence; Odissi dance scholar D.N. Patnaik
notes that the revival of this form ought to be attributed to multiple
figures, particularly the gotipua16 and mahari17 dancers whose continued
practice of this form has contributed to its preservation. He states:

Its [Odissi] revival began very late, only after the attainment of inde-
pendence. The Odissi dance, as it is seen today is the result of strenuous
efforts made by some young dancers and scholars of Orissa, who have
A Turn Towards the Classical 197

dedicated their lives to the cause. However, we have to be thankful to

the Maharis and Gotipuas who had kept alive the tradition of the dance
though in a degenerated form. (Patnaik 1971: 75)

To Guru Mohapatra are attributed the refinement of the dance’s

vocabulary through division of the body into upper and lower halves,
and an emphasis on abhinaya or expression of bhava or emotion. In
his childhood years Guru Mohapatra had been a jatra performer and
he had trained as an actor. In the style of Odissi dance that he popu-
larized, abhinaya was emphasized as a way to depict bhavas (emotions)
and sustain narrative arcs such as those derived from literary sources
(Banerji 2010: 389–90).
Richard Schechner defines abhinaya as the process of leading a perfor-
mance to its spectators. The practice of abhinaya in the Indian dramatic
traditions, with which classical dances are related, extends from the
broader theory and practice of rasa. Rasa, or nectar, is the essence or sub-
stance communicated through bhavas, or emotions, during performance.
In the classical dances, gestures and movements, impersonation, speaking
and singing – these are all used to evoke and perform rasa. According to
Schechner, rasa aesthetics are distinct from western approaches to theatre,
which tend to be eye-centered and competitive. He elaborates on the link
between rasa aesthetics and abhinaya stating that:

The sthayi bhavas are the “permanent” or “abiding” or indwelling

emotions that are accessed and evoked by good acting, called abhinaya.
Rasa is experiencing the sthayi bhavas. To put it another way, the
sweetness “in” a ripe plum is its sthayi bhava, the experience of “tast-
ing the sweet” is rasa. The means of getting the taste across – preparing
it, presenting it – is abhinaya. Every emotion is a sthayi bhava. Acting
is the art of presenting the sthayi bhavas so that both the performer and
the partaker can “taste” the emotion, the rasa. (Schechner 2005: 340)

While critical scholarship such as Schechner’s concept of rasaesthetics

attributes rasa to Bharatmuni’s seminal Natyashastra (Schechner 2005:
334), Bhavantarana contextualizes rasa by referencing multiple texts
including the Upanishads through which the film offers an understand-
ing of rasa beyond a dramatic or performative context. Among the
numerous references to rasa, this quotation is key in Bhavantarana:

In the beginning, this was as if non-existent.

Then was born what exists.
That itself made its self;
198 Documentary Films in India

therefore it is called the self-made.

This is called the splendid creation.
All creation is splendid. Rasa is indeed that.

The one who attains rasa is joyous

for, who would breathe if that delight
were not extended throughout space.
Rasa is all pervading joy—
in the image, in action, in expression
and in transitory emotion.
Condensed from the Upanishads.

Guru Mohapatra’s dance sequences in Bhavantarana clearly demonstrate

his skilful performance of abhinaya. But Bhavantarana’s cinemato-
graphic approach is not limited to emphasizing this feature of Guru
Mohapatra’s performances. In fact, while the film depicts narratives tied
to the dance sequences, its camera is choreographed in a way that its
mise-en-scène and movements are not limited to visualizing narrative
only. Two features of the film’s cinematography are key: its use of a long
shot to frame the dancers’ bodies and its free movements that I term as
free camera choreography. These are both discussed next.

Composing Odissi dance for the camera

In the dance sequences of Bhavantarana, the camera functions as both
an observer and as an agent of choreography. A dominant feature of the
film’s cinematography is that most dance sequences have been composed
through long shots wherein the camera maintains distance from the per-
former’s body so that we often see the body as a whole. The camera does
not fragment or emphasize any parts of the performer’s body through
such techniques as close-up shots. This is in sharp contrast to conven-
tions of framing bodies in cinema generally, where often close-ups that
fragment and magnify separate body parts such as the face, are used to
build empathy with subjects. Bhavantarana’s maintenance of the body as
a whole has to do with two principles on which the Odissi dance is based:
the sculptural and the kinetic.
With reference to the sculptural, it is pertinent to understand that
Odissi’s notational system rests on two key positions: the chowka and
tribhangi. Chowka literally means a square that denotes perfect balance,
and it is a basic geometrical motif for Odissi dance. The second, key posi-
tion of Odissi is tribhangi.18 Tribhangi is a signature Odissi posture that is
a stance composed of three bends: at knee, torso, and neck. Chowka is
A Turn Towards the Classical 199

achieved when four points of the body: the two arms turned outwards,
parallel to the earth and bent forwards at the elbows come into line with
the two knees bent, facing outwards.19 The imaginary line connecting
the elbows to the knees makes a square. Kapila Vatsyayan notes that in
chowka the weight of the body is equally divided and therefore this posi-
tion implies the perfection of balance (Vatsyayan 1974: 37). This attain-
ment of perfect balance is a basis of movement in many Indian dances.
Vatsyayan adds that the attainment of a perfect point or moment of
balance called sama along the body’s vertical median underpins Indian
dance and sculpture. In the latter it is termed samabhanga. Given this, the
dancer’s body is principally concerned with the human form’s relation
to gravity and so Indian dances are devoid of acrobatics, sudden leaps or
gliding movements in the air.20
Tribhangi, Odissi’s second notational position, is achieved through
the resting of one leg in front of the other, knees bent, with feet pivoted
in opposite directions to create a curvilinear stance. An imaginary line
runs diagonally across the body and links three points: the knees, torso
and neck. While the body in chowka is composed in linear form, in trib-
hangi it arcs. Vatsyayan elaborates: ‘In Orissi, the tribhanga is achieved
by the sharp deflection of the hip from the horizontal kati sutra
(horizontal plane), an opposite deflection of the torso, and the head
deflecting to the same side as the hip’ (Vatsyayan 1974: 36). Tribhangi
implies dynamism and the entire corpus of Odissi dance movements
relates these two notational positions and through this Odissi displays
its distinctly sculptural form.
Deriving from the sculptural are Odissi’s kinetic principles. In Odissi
dance, the dancer’s body is divided into two planes: the upper and
lower halves that are demarcated along the navel. The lower part of the
body performs sharply defined and angular movements of the feet that
coincide with the rhythmic beats of music or tala. These movements are
understood as performed in rhythmic time. The upper body or torso per-
forms movements based on the melody of the raga on which the dance
is based. The torso’s movements occur in what is termed as melodic time
and they reflect the constant energetic flow of the body as it depicts dif-
ferent rasas and bhavas. The torso’s movements tend to end at a slight
delay from the footwork such that there are no clearly demarcated move-
ment episodes within the dance. Anurima Banerji comments on the
delay between the upper and lower halves of the body stating that:

Odissi is characterized by an asymmetric temporality governing the

two divisions of the body, demarcated at the navel. That is, there is a
200 Documentary Films in India

deliberate lack of simultaneity between the movements of the upper

and lower halves of the body. The languid delay between the time
when the foot instigates a movement and rests on the ground, and
the upper body finishes its correlated phrase, enhances Odissi’s mel-
lifluous quality of movement. (Banerji 2010: 17)

The delay between the movements of the feet and the torso gives the
dancer’s body the impression of a rounded, curvaceous and delicate
whole in which the flow of energy across time and space is finely
evident. Bhavantarana’s persistent framing of the dancers’ bodies as a
whole through the long shot enables the observation of the imaginary
and delicate lines: the square and the diagonal that lead to the many
sculptural formations in Odissi dance. This facilitates appreciating the
dance’s full spectrum of movements in which the upper and lower body
are coextensive and related through a temporal delay. This emphasis
on reflecting the performing body as a whole ties in further with the
tradition of miniature paintings in Odisha where bodies are reflected as
whole, emplaced in landscape.
Further, all of the dance sequences have been composed using a
wide-angle magnification that provides a sense of the proxemics – that
is, spatial dynamics within the frame. All of Bhavantarana’s dance
sequences emplace the dancer’s body in the wider landscape, here rural
Odisha. Most of the film’s dance sequences have been composed in
lush green surroundings or on the sea coast. While this serves to situ-
ate Odissi dance in its specific landscape, there is a subtler principle of
scenography in operation here. Bhavanatarana, in a most radical depar-
ture from the conventions of concert dance and its depiction through
mass media such as Indian national television, situates most dance
sequences in outdoor locations.21 Concert dances are often performed
on stages and televisual representations of Odissi dance, as is the case
with most Indian classical dance and music, are recorded indoors in
television studios with bland backdrops, usually composed of a single-
tone, fully lit, neutral-coloured wall.22
Each of the outdoor locations in Bhavantarana has a thematic link
with the particular dance sequence for which it is used. For instance, all
sequences surrounding Krishna’s love-play with Radha and the gopis are
set in pastoral landscapes, near water ponds or large trees like the ban-
yan that frame the performer’s body and create a fine rendition of one of
the oldest avant-garde film techniques of a frame within a frame. Here
Shahani’s scenography extends the principles of folk visual arts, includ-
ing miniature painting that depict Krishna’s romances in pastoral idylls
A Turn Towards the Classical 201

where cows graze, soft breeze blows, maidens bathe and where Krishna
first teases the gopis and then goes on to intoxicate them through his
raas leela dances – where each gopi is paired with a Krishna, dancing in
a circular formation. Similarly, the film’s closing dance sequence, the
only piece pertaining to Lord Shiva, is set at night before an ancient
temple. Guru Mohapatra performs an episode in which Lord Shiva
retrieves the charred remains of his wife Sati, who immolated herself
on learning the false news of her husband’s death. Through sharply
angulated movements, we see him enraged and mourning the loss of
his beloved whose remains he carries back to heaven. Single-point light-
ing partially illuminates the rock surfaces of the temple that frame Guru
Mohapatra’s body23 and add to the sense of loss and grief embodied by
the performer.
Shahani’s emplacement of Odissi dance in exterior locations reminds us
of Maya Deren’s 1945 A Study in Choreography for the Camera. The open-
ing shots of this short film show the camera panning across a forested
landscape. Dancers are dispersed across this space, some performing in
the background, others placed dramatically in the foreground. The camera
does not linger on any dancer. The panning movement equalizes the danc-
ing bodies whilst emplacing them in space. The film’s visual construction
emphasizes how the dancer embodies a living relationship with space and
that movement in the body emanates in relation to space. Bhavantarana’s
mise-en-scène resonates with Maya Deren’s Choreography… in which the
camera emphasizes dance movement as co-extensive of space.
Maya Deren’s Choreography… uses another cinematic technique: a
dancer’s movement begins in one shot with a defined background in
the shot seen through a specific camera magnification. It continues and
is completed in a succeeding shot with a starkly varying background
and differing camera magnification. Usually there is a cut from a wide-
angle shot to a close-up. The sharp disparity in image background and
camera magnification emphasize the organic unity of dance move-
ments, though these techniques of framing and editing subtly alter the
viewer’s perceptual experience of the dance on screen. Shahani also
composes dance sequences with a few shots in which there is a dramatic
disparity in background space. However, unlike Deren, he does not
change the camera’s magnifications or markedly alter its distance from
the dancer’s body. Shahani’s camera is geared to preserving the body as
a whole within the frame and it seeks to persistently situate the body’s
movements as coextensive with landscape. The dramatic disparities
between the shots of Bhavantarana’s dance sequences occur through
changes in location and the movements of the camera.
202 Documentary Films in India

With respect to the first, that is, changes in location, a number of

dance sequences in Bhavantarana are edited, maintaining the continuity
of dance movement across disparate locations. For example, the film’s
second and third dance sequences – Battu and Kuru Yadhunandana – are
composed of two and three shots in as many locations, respectively.
Battu commences in the courtyard of an Odishan home where a young
girl is seen performing before her Guru. As the rhythm of music for
this piece escalates the sequence cuts from the courtyard to an exterior
shot where the young girl, now dressed in an entirely different cos-
tume, is seen completing the Battu sequence before a vast water pond
filled with lotuses in the middle ground, and large trees swaying to a
gentle breeze in the deep background. Likewise, Kuru Yadhunandana
commences under a tree, in the deep dark of the night. As the music
quickens in rhythm, the sequence cuts to an early morning shot with
Guru Mohapatra performing before tall grasses that are backlit by
an early morning sun that casts a soft golden glow to the scene. The
sequence concludes on a third shot in which Guru Mohapatra brings
the dance movements to a slow conclusion on the banks of a vast river.
The juxtaposition between these locations is enforced by the camera’s
maintained magnification. This, and the continuity of the dancer’s
movements across these locations, heighten the dramatic effects of
juxtaposition in the dance sequences. An arresting effect occurs that
points singularly to the specific possibilities of depicting dance through
the cinematic medium. It is as if Shahani is announcing that cinema can
simultaneously present things through verisimilitude (as, say, the continu-
ous dance) and through the disruption of vision (through the juxtaposi-
tion of locations). The disruption of vision is advanced by the camera’s
choreography, which is discussed next.

Bhavantarana’s free camera choreography

With respect to the camera’s movements in Bhavantarana, it is pertinent
to start by listing its defining features. Most dance sequences in the
film have been shot through a principally static camera. Movements of
the performers and elements such as breeze or flowing water are often
the only movements that animate the mise-en-scène in Bhavantarana.
However, on select instances in the dance sequences the camera, very
sparingly, performs deliberate and slow movements. These movements
– an occasional pan across or upward tilt – are not along straight lines.
Sometimes these are diagonal, but mostly they are free movements
along loosely curvaceous lines. These movements are not objectively
motivated in that they are not geared to maintain the dancer’s moving
A Turn Towards the Classical 203

body within the frame. In fact, they are the opposite, for the camera
often loses the dancer from the frame when it moves. It freely mean-
ders away, looking over the vast landscape, be it a pastoral expanse or
a quiet seashore. Then, either through a cut or a completed movement
arc, it catches up with and reintroduces the performer’s body, now in
an entirely different position or location than when we had last seen it.
These camera movements are not scripted, but spontaneous. Their pace
and direction alters quite tentatively within shots. On instances when

Figures 7.3 Free Camera Choreography: The camera begins to pan across, looking
over the landscape in Pashyati Dheeshi Dheeshi
Image courtesy, Roshan Shahani.
204 Documentary Films in India

the camera breaks into movement we can even sense, in the initial
moments, how the camera’s pace is being correlated to the overall mood
of the performance before it.
The first instance of the film when this free choreography occurs is
in the dance sequence entitled Pashyati Dheeshi Dheeshi, based on an
episode from the Geeta Govinda in which Radha welcomes her beloved
Krishna. Guru Mohapatra performs the sequence from Radha’s perspec-
tive, adoring her divine lover, Krishna. This performance is set against
a vast river and as the piece crescendos the camera tilts up, losing Guru
Mohapatra from the frame, and pans across to the right, mapping the
vast riverine vista. It does not return to the figure of Guru Mohapatra.
The dance sequence that most hypnotically advances this principle
of free camera choreography occurs later in the film and it is termed
Arabhi Pallavi, which is a pure dance piece with no narrative. This piece
is set against a seashore and the sequence opens with a centered shot
of ocean waves crashing in the image foreground. The camera tilts
down to reveal Guru Mohapatra in the center of the frame who, as he is
revealed, breaks into dance. This first shot pans across to the right, fol-
lowing him as he makes a diagonal move away from the water and exits
the frame on the right. The sequence then cuts, breaking the 180 degree
rule, and frames the same seashore from an opposite perspective. The
camera pans slightly to the left and catches up with Guru Mohapatra
as he re-enters the frame from the left-hand side. Thereafter the shot
remains static and the camera maintains this position, looking out to
the vast sea as Guru Mohaptra once more exits and re-enters the frame.
He continues to perform with waves crashing and receding at his feet,
causing a momentary disorientation in our perspective. He occupies the
center of the frame throughout this shot and the piece closes with him
turning his back to the camera, settling into the chowka position, and
facing the vast eternity of the sea beyond.
During the making of Bhavantarana Shahani had directed the film’s
cinematographer, Alok Upadhyaya, to move the camera in response to
what he (the cinematographer) felt in his body, not only what he saw in
terms of the movements in the dance sequences. Shahani had encour-
aged the camera to be moved as part of a bodily whole as though the
camera was co-extensive of the cinematographer’s body. The intent
here was to devise an embodied cinematographic practice based on the
interrelations between what lies before the lens and the cameraperson
operating it. Shahani recalls that during shooting Upadhyaya repeatedly
alternated the position of his eye behind the viewfinder – that is, between
the composed frame and a larger view of the scene by pulling back,
A Turn Towards the Classical 205

a few inches from the lens. This enabled Upadhyaya to maintain a sense
of the wider setting throughout the dance sequences, the elements in
it – waves, breeze and trees – and how the performer’s movements cre-
ated shifting relations and lines within space. Upadhyaya’s participation
through the camera was based on an embodied and sensory response
towards the moving body and how its relations to space were persistently
forming and changing. The moving camera followed the ephemeral lines
of exchange between the dancing body and its setting. This approach to
camera movement, I term as a form of free camera choreography.
In free camera choreography, the camera’s movements are provoked
by the fluid patterns and changing lines of flow between the danc-
ing body and the setting where it performs. The movement dynamics
that the camera is witnessing spill over and the camera builds on these
dynamics. In doing this, it may maintain the dancer’s body through
shifting positions within the frame, or, as in Bhavantarana, it may lose
the dancer’s body completely from the frame for a few moments. This
free camera choreography is an enactment of the cinematographer’s
bodily and sensory experience in relation to the dance/performance phe-
nomenon. In this, persistent accommodation of the primary elements
within the mise-en-scène loses significance and the visual field opens
up with the camera freely navigating through space. Mise-en-scène is no
longer a sealed totality, separate from and external to the camera.24 In
responding to the dance performance the camera’s navigations open up
the performance setting.
None of Upadhayaya’s camera movements for Bhavantarana were
rehearsed. This was as much because of Shahani’s insistence that the
cinematographer respond spontaneously to the dance performances, as
it was because Guru Mohapatra was improvising movements for every
dance sequence. Thus, camera movements were devised at the instance
of filming. Shahani and Upadhyaya had engaged in long and sustained
conversations about the scope of cinematography in this film. Shahani
had insisted that cinematography in documentary ought not to be
approached as a practice for capturing reality as if reality were separate
and external to the camera. Cinematography was to be approached as
bearing a creative relationship with the subject. A very specific director–
cinematographer relationship can be seen in operation here, one in which
the cinematographer is not simply a figure executing the director’s vision.
Through free camera choreography the cinematographer, Upadhyaya,
aligned with and advanced the vision of the director, Shahani. This par-
ticular kind of cinematographer–director collaboration can be termed
as an open-visionary collaboration using practitioner-scholar, Phillip
206 Documentary Films in India

Cowan’s discussion of director–cinematographer collaboration modes.

Cowan classifies the cinematographer–director relationship into two
categories: the fixed and the open collaboration. Fixed collaborations
are those in which the cinematographer executes the director’s inter-
pretation of the script or storyboard with either limited or no personal
input. By contrast, the open collaboration emphasizes dialogue between
the director and cinematographer. Both classifications are further sub-
divided into the blind and visionary categories based on the director’s
openness to the cinematographer’s inputs. The open-visionary collabo-
ration, according to Cowan, is the richest and most promising because
here the cinematographer becomes a co-creator with the director, and
together they construct the visual scope and design of the film. He
states that the open-visionary director:

… is willing to collaborate, discuss and develop ideas with the cin-

ematographer. Here too we can apply the two characteristic ideas
of the ‘visionary’ and ‘blind’ to the ‘open’ directors… The ‘open-
visionary’ director is probably the best combination of characteristics
for the cinematographer to work with, a director who not only has
effective and creative ideas for the visualization of a film, but is also
ready to collaborate and accept ideas and refinements from the cine-
matographer. (Cowan 2012: 78)

For Cowan, the open-visionary collaboration makes for a decisive

move against auteur theory’s singular emphasis on the director being
the sole creative author of a film. Shahani and Upadhyaya agreed
to performing camera movements in the middle of dance sequences
with the motivation for these movements being the embodied experi-
ence the cinematographer felt in relation to the dance performance as
a whole. The cinematographer responded to the dance scenario and
phenomenon not simply with his eyes, but his body as a whole. The
camera’s free choreography is, in this sense, reflexive; it emphasizes
the camera’s presence and how cinematography is constitutive and
becoming in relation to the dance phenomenon. In those moments,
it is as if we witness the unfolding of one form through experience
of an other.
Experiencing the dance phenomenon sensorially, through the body,
the cinematographer performs a phenomenologically grounded cine-
matography. Though the outcome of this is an image, a visual, but the
process of devising this image has not been anchored by the eye alone.
This is why the image so devised is not geared to maintaining principal
A Turn Towards the Classical 207

elements – that is, the dancer’s body within the image at all times. This
embodied approach is based on the intersensory relations between the
cinematographer and the dance phenomenon. These intersensory rela-
tions, which shape camera choreography, can be further understood
using Merleau-Ponty’s discussion from the Phenomenology of Perception
where he notes that the body’s experience of the world and things in it
is not in the order of encountering them as externally constituted or as
entities separate from the perceiving body. Whether through the sense
of sight or touch, the body experiences a thing and it is through that
experience, sensory and tactile, that its forms a perception of that thing.
Merleau-Ponty states:

The thing as presented to sight (the moon’s pale disc) or to touch

(my skull as I can feel it when I touch it), and which stays the same
for us through a series of experiences, is neither a quale genuinely
subsisting, nor the notion or consciousness of such an objective
property, but what is discovered or taken up by our gaze or our move-
ment, a question to which these things provide a fully appropriate
reply… (Merleau-Ponty 2006: 370)

Merleau-Ponty’s discussion is in the context of tactile perception that

involves opening to an other, as more than an objective ‘property.’ For
Merleau-Ponty, this opening to an other includes a bodily dimension
based on the confluence of vision and touch.25 Here vision and touch
are ways of knowing and movement is key in this process. For move-
ment allows the performance of a knowing touch, one that projects us
outside our body. He elaborates:

There are tactile phenomena, alleged tactile qualities, like rough-

ness and smoothness, which disappear completely if the exploratory
movement is eliminated. Movement and time are not only an objec-
tive condition of knowing touch, but a phenomenal component of
tactile data. They bring about the patterning of tactile phenomena…
(Merleau-Ponty 2006: 367)

A kind of filmic musculature can be sensed operating in Bhavantarana.

It is almost as if the movements of the camera flex the muscles of the
film body and, through that, we as viewers experience its movements.
Jennifer Barker elaborates on this, stating that a film’s musculature can
either envelope the viewer or estrange them through any number of
movement forms. The camera’s movements may be tentative or forced,
208 Documentary Films in India

in turn making us feel tentative and forced; they maybe playful or

erotic, making us feel those qualities (Barker 2009: 91).

We hitch ourselves to the film’s body because we can, because it

seems so easy, because the film’s body moves in ways similar to
ours. The empathy between the film’s and viewer’s body goes so
deeply that we can feel the film’s body, live vicariously through it,
and experience its movements to such an extent that we ourselves
become momentarily as graceful or powerful as the film’s body…
(Barker 2009: 83)

Bhavantarana’s free camera choreography is sensorially very soft and

graceful, and it sits seamlessly with the film’s poetic visuals. The
experience of viewing the film is softening and quietening, arising
from the sensory qualities of the free camera choreography. Further,
as Bhavantarana’s free camera traverses through space – a seashore, a
wide pastoral landscape, the many inverted roots of a banyan tree – it
is almost as if its movements imbue these with a quiet and command-
ing presence. These sites and spaces are not just incidental or accretive
elements of the mise-en-scène. Having momentarily lost the dancing
body from the frame, these landscape elements become the moving
camera’s subjects and the camera, through its free movements, touches
and explores these. The presence that the film evokes by following
these landscape elements, we sense, is not an objective quality of the
landscape. Invisible, pervasive and sensed, this presence is the mutual
touching of the subject and the camera through movement.

Free camera choreography: evoking an invisible presence

Identity and opposition are two inevitable forms, one linked to the image,
the other to the idea which can throw us into disintegration and death or
to the affirmation of life in all its transience.
I am, you see, speaking of the cinematographe…

… It is therefore centrally necessary to remind oneself that both the making

and viewing of films are as much a culmination of a history of the reli-
gious, philosophic as material and artistic practice as they are the begin-
nings of an innovative participation in the universe.
– Shahani, ‘The Self as an Objective Entity’, 1987

In the second half of Bhavantarana, the dramatic reconstructions of Guru

Mohapatra’s life are reduced. Dance sequences are now intercut with two
A Turn Towards the Classical 209

types of images. One set of images show Guru Mohapatra performing

his daily duties as, say, a teacher – for example, in the sequence where
he is seen instructing Odissi’s acclaimed performer, Sanjukta Panigrahi.
Another set of images advances a cinematographic feature that has been
present in the film since its very first dance sequence: images observ-
ing the landscape, with no human presence in them. Bhavantarana
has persistently bracketed its dance sequences with shots of landscape.
Sometimes these are static shots, on other occasions, through free camera
choreography, the camera navigates the landscape. Towards the end of
the film, Shahani places some very evocative landscape shots that are
thinly tied to the moods and ideas the film’s dance sequences have built.
Two such images stand out: one is a shot of a small river-water island with
a lone tree seen from a distance at sunset; the second is a shot where the
camera is placed low, almost touching a river’s waters. From the bottom
right of the frame a log of wood extends into the shot’s medium ground.
As we hear waves crashing in a gentle rhythm, the log floats away with
the water, being carried into the shot’s deep background. These static
shots of landscape sit as a complement to the shots in which the camera
explores landscape through free camera choreography in the film’s dance
sequences. Together, all these explorations of landscape provoke a subtle
presence that assumes full weight towards the end of the film.
What is this presence? And, how does it come about in images of
landscapes, devoid of human subjects? This presence rests on the
camera’s gaze upon the landscapes it observes. Within the cultural
conceptions surrounding the Odissi dance form, landscape is often
revered as animated by the presence of the divine. An ancient tale
tells that the Odishan king Indradyumna had been advised by a brah-
min that Lord Vishnu had incarnated as Neelmadhava, a deity of the
Savara tribe, the indigenous peoples of Odisha. The king dispatched his
ministers and brahmins to search for this deity. One of his ministers
found Neelamdhava in an area inhabited by the Savaras. When King
Indradyumna visited this site, Neelmadhava had disappeared and a
voice from the sky informed the king that He would appear not as
Neelmadhava but as Lord Jagannath, in the form of a Daru-Brahmana:
truth manifest in a wooden form. Following this, King Indradyumna
was visited by Lord Jagannath in a dream in which He informed him
that He would come as a log of wood, floating in the ocean. This log of
wood would be the source of the deity to be installed at the temple in
Puri. This tale is dramatized in a later part of Bhavantarana and it offers
that vital link through which we appreciate both how Neelmadhava is
the tribal deity preceding Lord Jagannath and how this divine is revered
210 Documentary Films in India

as manifest in all material phenomena, specifically the wider Odishan

The subtle presence in the environment that Bhavantarana’s free
camera choreography and static landscape shots evokes is the invisible,
though manifest presence of the Lord Jagannath. Shahani subtly crafts
and constructs this presence through elements such as intertitles, iconic
references to Lord Jagannath and Krishna, the folk tale of Neelmadhava –
all of which have gently built for us a position from which to perceive
landscape as embodying the divine. This presence of the invisible can
be termed as an aniconic form of representing the divine that departs
from identifiable and iconic representations of Lord Jagannath. I bor-
row here from Alfred Gell’s discussion of idols and symbols (Gell 1998).
Gell designates two forms of representation: the iconic that indexes and
bears a physical resemblance to a prototype of a God, often an anthro-
pomorphic figure. Iconic idols, Gell holds, are mediated renditions and
their efficacy lies in their likeness to the prototype. Aniconic idols and
representations, on the other hand, do not resemble a familiar object,
say a human form. But they are realistic representations of the form
through which a God manifests. Gell states:

All idols, I think, are ‘iconic’ – including the so-called aniconic

ones – whether or not they look like some familiar object, such as a
human body. An aniconic idol is a ‘realistic’ representation of a god
who either has no form (anywhere) or has an ‘arbitrary’ form, in the
particular body he inhabits for the purposes of being worshipped by
his mortal devotees, here below. (Gell 1998: 98)

Gell’s discussion pertains to idols and forms through which gods are vis-
ualized and, as such, it can be applied to visual representations under-
stood most broadly. Bhavantarana takes up the presence of the divine
as permeating all material phenomena as its cue and, using free cam-
era choreography, the montage integrating dance, Guru Mohapatra’s
life narrative and images of the Odishan landscape, it evokes that
presence cinematically. This is a very crucial move in the representa-
tion of divinity in the context of Odissi dance. As indicated earlier,
Bhavantarana departs radically from the conventions of concert and
televisual representations of Odissi dance by filming dance sequences
in exterior landscapes. This contrast extends into how the film evokes
the presence of the Divine who, in concert and media performances,
is usually represented in the form of an idol of Lord Jagannath, quite
like how the Nataraja is part of the mise-en-scène of a Bharatanatayam
A Turn Towards the Classical 211

performance. Bhavantarana eliminates the idol that bears likeness to the

Lord Jagannath and using cinematic devices, specifically shot composi-
tions, evokes an aniconic representation of the Divine, its presence that
extends into and is felt in the Odishan landscapes.
Bhavantarana’s rendition of landscape as an aniconic representation
of the Divine derives from the cultural understandings of landscape in
Odisha. Its intervention rests in its evocation of the divine through a
non-anthropomorphic register. The invisible presence evoked by the
film builds as the film advances and it cannot be localised in any singu-
lar element of the film. This invisible presence is felt through the com-
ing together of multiple elements: the landscapes the camera observes,
their construction through mise-en-scène and the montage in the film.
Engaging these as a whole, the film facilitates the viewer to appreciate
this invisible presence. One of Kumar Shahani’s most vivid memories
from the making of Bhavantarana is Guru Mohapatra’s reaction to the
film. Shahani remembers that when Guru Mohapatra saw the film,
he remarked how the film had encapsulated the unsaid, that which
exceeds language and expression. Guru Mohapatra had expressed that
Bhavantarana was not a documentary about him, the dance or the land-
scape. It was a document of the presence that is manifest and invisible.
Bhavantarana is clearly poetic and reflexive. It exercises the viewer’s
capacity for plotting connections and associations. It is visually rich,
creating an erotic, sensorial and immersive viewing experience. And
yet Bhavantarana’s poetic form is not poetic in a romantic sense. The
poetics of this film are laden with political drive. The film departs radi-
cally from the conventions by which Odissi is performed in concert and
media contexts. It pushes the register of representing dance by emplac-
ing its practice and the viewer into the broader cultural landscape where
the dance is rooted. We are introduced to the wide array of literature
and art forms that have synergistically influenced Odissi. Most of all,
while anchored around Guru Mohapatra – who is indeed a canonical
figure of the Odissi form – the film creates an encounter with the invis-
ible presence, the divinity that is understood as permeating all material
phenomena. As an  aniconic representation the film secularises Odissi
dance and, more significantly, in cinema terms, it inaugurates a camera
praxis that while surrounding a human subject surpasses and exceeds
an anthropocentric representation. This move away from the anthro-
pocentric assumes a fuller exposition in Shahani’s next documentary,
The Bamboo Flute.
The Bamboo Flute

What compelled the word to originate?

Which beat of the hammer turned gold into a jewel?
What animated the hollow insides of a bamboo, so the
notes of music were born in a flute?

Sound is vibration. Sound is a flow. Sound is a phenomenon of waves

and so it implies movement and the passage of time. Sounds travel
through space and they are transformed by the elements and obstruc-
tions in their paths. Sounds reach our ears and then our nervous and
memory systems decode them, attach meanings to them and judge their
values. Sounds are tactile and haptic because sounds arise from touch.
To emit a sound some object, the source of sound, must be touched,
a vibration provoked. And sounds, in turn, make objects vibrate. It is
said that the sense of sound is one of the first senses we develop in our
mother’s womb.

We begin to hear before we are born, four-and-a-half months after

conception. From then on, we develop in a continuous and luxuri-
ous bath of sounds: the song of our mother’s voice, the swash of
her breathing, the trumpeting of her intestines, the timpani of her
heart. Throughout the second four-and-a-half months, Sound rules
as solitary Queen of our senses: the close and liquid world of uterine
darkness makes Sight and Smell impossible, Taste monochromatic,
and Touch a dim and generalized hint of what is to come. (Murch in
Chion 1994: vii)

While Walter Murch’s recognition of how the sense of touch develops

in the womb appears narrow, only a ‘hint’ of what is to come,1 his
The Bamboo Flute 213

description of our first sensory experience, the aural ‘bath of sounds’

to which we are exposed, poignantly tells of how sound is one of
our primary sense experiences as living beings. We are enveloped by
sound from a very early stage, prior to birth.2 In that sense, it can be
argued that we have sparsely ever encountered silence. Our being is
immersed in sounds.
After birth, our senses of both sound and sight become tools through
which we experience the world and determine our relations to things
in our environments. Vision, the sense of sight, works quite directly: it
enables us to identify and appreciate what we encounter before us, what
lies in the plane of vision facing us. The sense of sound, on the other
hand, is more dispersed. We can receive sounds from all directions and
without always visually identifying or ascertaining their sources. Our
two ears, on either side of the facial plane, provide us a field of listen-
ing that is spherical and enveloping. The ears are key in our ability to
discern the directions of sound and to maintain physical balance. The
sense of sound is thus more than a receptacle of aural stimuli; it physi-
cally orientates us in our environments, enables us to derive meaning
from it and orders our experiences in it.
Sound is a complementary element of cinema, and yet cinema is
more readily associated with vision than it is with listening. We go to
see the pictures; to watch the movies. We seldom go to hear them! We may
go to a movie eagerly anticipating its score, but we rarely engage a film
purely for its sound. As a medium, cinema calls up a very specific form
of listening. Cinema is not a purely aural medium as, say, the radio, and
sound in the cinema does not work as in television either, where it is
principally the carrier of verbally articulated discourse and information
related to the visuals. In cinema, the experience of sound is inseparable
from vision. Sound has been understood to give film a third dimen-
sion, a ‘body’, spatializing cinema that, without sound, is a flat image.
Technologies such as digital surround sound have only enhanced the
possibilities of spatializing the cinematic experience. Understanding
sound as a tactile phenomenon, Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener
assert that, ‘Sound covers and uncovers, touches and enfolds’ the
spectator’s body and, unlike the filmed image that can be stopped and
reproduced as a still, sound can only be reproduced in time and it can-
not be reduced to a single moment or instant. ‘Sound, therefore, also
reminds us of the irreversibility of time, it stands for loss and announces
death…’ (Elsaesser & Hagener 2010: 137).
Music, it is said, is the most evolved aesthetic practice related to the
sense of sound. An abstract form, music is based on our environments
214 Documentary Films in India

and our experiences in them.3 In his essay, Notes on an Aesthetic of

Cinema Sound, Kumar Shahani, a connoisseur of Indian music, pro-
poses that:

Music is perhaps the most highly developed sensate function of

human understanding. One can begin to speak of the aesthetics of
sound only in relation to music because it is this that provides the
most fundamental expression of the states of being and of acting in
a continuously impinging disorder. (Shahani 1986: 91–2)

Birah Bharyo Aangan Kone or, entitled in English, The Bamboo Flute, is
Kumar Shahani’s cinematic contemplation on the origins of sound.
The film focuses on a single instrument, steeped in myth and lore, cel-
ebrated in all of India’s numerous cultures – the bamboo flute. Krishna
is the patron of this instrument and so in India, the flute stands for the
mischief, charm, cunning and romance – all characteristics exempli-
fied by this deity through numerous episodes of his fantastical incar-
nation on earth. The Bamboo Flute uses this instrument as an anchor
through which to explore and philosophically contemplate the pro-
cesses and principles that govern creative expression through sounds,
specifically the sounds of music.
Divided in two parts, The Bamboo Flute ambitiously and impressively
takes us through many cultural landscapes of India, glimpsing numer-
ous forms of human industry and arts, evoking in each encounter how
sounds generally, and music specifically, emerges. What is the source
of sound? How do sounds come about and what are the ways in which
they flow? These questions delicately inform the episodes that make up
The Bamboo Flute. I specifically term The Bamboo Flute an episode film for
it threads together a series of episodes that each dwell on how sounds
come into being and flow.
Though music is a key theme running through the film, its episodes
are not tied to each other sequentially or in any other narrative terms.
Each episode takes up different sounds and dwells on how they come
into being, flow and dissipate. Very subtly, almost imperceptibly, the
film’s episodes propose a clear relation between sounds and the cultural
settings from which they emerge. In this, The Bamboo Flute illustrates
the features of what German film theorist Siegfried Kracauer defined
and designated as the episode film in his seminal 1960 text, Theory
of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. In his discussion, Kracauer
emphasized that episode films present stories that are intimately tied
to what he calls ‘the flow of life’ in the settings where they are set.
The Bamboo Flute 215

Kracauer’s emphasis on the ‘flow of life’ opens up the episode film as

more than a structural category – that is, a conglomeration of episodes.
In keeping with his realist film aesthetics, the form and content of epi-
sode films are intimately connected to the worlds in which they are set.
As an episode film, The Bamboo Flute does not offer an empirical study
of a musical instrument. The film’s episodes, in keeping with Kracauer’s
discussion, emphasize the flow of everyday life and cultural practices,
and how sound and music are interwoven with these. Human expres-
sion, be it through industry, craft or music, is presented as coextensive
of the cultural landscapes and a wider cosmology, of which the human
is a part, rather than the center. This chapter takes up the processes and
aesthetics at work in the film’s numerous episodes to elaborate upon
the wider propositions the film makes in relation to sound and music.
In this study of the The Bamboo Flute I bring Kracauer’s discussion of
the episode film into conversation with theories of Indian music to
exposit how the film’s episodic form builds on the episodic structure
inherent to Indian music. I conclude this discussion by positing that
The Bamboo Flute’s episode form derives from schools of Indian musical
thought and advances the free camera choreography we encountered in
Bhavantarana, taking that a step further where Shahani’s cinema breaks
from an anthropocentrism and articulates what he terms a ‘cosmomor-
phic’ approach to cinema. The Bamboo Flute is a critical text in Shahani’s
oeuvre for in this film he de-emphasizes the human as the principal
source and drive for filmic narrative.

The Bamboo Flute (2000, 80 mins) – film scope

and beginnings

In the making of The Bamboo Flute, Kumar Shahani mobilized the

philosophical principles by which the flute has been contemplated in
the musical traditions of India. While researching the instrument at the
start of this project, Shahani had approached India’s legendary flute
maestro, Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia. Pt. Chaurasia directed Shahani to
visit the craftsman who makes his flutes. In a tiny workshop located in
a packed Delhi neighbourhood, the craftsman ushered Shahani into a
small room containing an effigy of Lord Krishna. Krishna stood in his
characteristic pose, one foot resting across the other, holding a flute to
his lips. Shahani observed this effigy in bewilderment, and he remem-
bers that the room had fallen into a brief silence. After a short pause,
the craftsman remarked to Shahani that the key to understanding the
flute is to hear the flutist’s breath. When he carves a flute, he listens to
216 Documentary Films in India

the rhythms of the flutist’s breath. Every flutist, as every being, has a
characteristic breathing pattern that flows in particular rhythms that
are tied, in turn, to such factors as the flutist’s physical and emotional
dispositions. No two flutists, as no two beings, breathe alike. Listening
to the finer rhythms and nuances of a flutist’s breath, the craftsman
said, enabled him to determine the kind of bamboo, its width, the loca-
tion of finger holes on it – all of which are design elements to optimize
the flow and rhythm of a flutist’s breath and define the particular sound
of music that emanates from the flute.
Shahani returned from this workshop gripped by the thought of how
a flutist’s breath animates the hollow insides of a bamboo to produce
notes of music. Pt. Chaurasia extended this thought: just as breath
animates the hollow insides of a bamboo, breath animates the body,
another hollow vessel, with life. Breath is the substance of existence.
It is a marker of life. This understanding of breath as infusing life and
manifesting as sound through the flute stayed with Shahani through
the making of The Bamboo Flute. He did not want to visualize the flute
or the process by which sound and music are created using it. Shahani
regarded the flute as an instrument through which the raw and unme-
diated flow of breath is contained, defined and formed into the sound
of music. Further, the idea that breath, an invisible force, flows and
animates the flute to produce sound, was in a way transposed onto each
of the film’s episodes, where images and sounds are so constructed and
sustained that we are alerted to how the flow of visible and invisible
elements provokes and forms into music and sound.
While the bamboo flute is the principal instrument on which The
Bamboo Flute focuses, Shahani does not make it a singular or visible sub-
ject of description in the film. Each episode of The Bamboo Flute is set in
a defined cultural landscape and it takes up sounds and forms of music
particular to that landscape. Most episodes are based on a piece of music,
played on the flute, and each episode follows how the piece emerges
and flows. Persisting with a Kosambian approach to Indian aesthetics, in
The Bamboo Flute, Shahani weaves a rich, panoramic survey of cultural
landscapes that cuts across north and south India. Through the film’s
episodes we glimpse India’s numerous arts and crafts, including dance,
sculpture, architecture, sacred iconography, poetry, epic mythology,
painting, communal performances such as tribal dances and trance, on to
everyday practices of livelihood such as farming, fishing and metallurgy.
As the film documents these, it follows the rhythms and flow of sound
in each setting. Different episodes of the film also reference thinkers,
grammarians, historians and mythic figures from across historical eras,
The Bamboo Flute 217

introducing the viewer-listener to how sound, music and even grammar

have been reasoned and contemplated in India’s numerous schools of
thought and expressive traditions.
As Shahani’s camera traverses these numerous cultural landscapes,
it emphasizes the distinct geology, topography, atmospherics, cultural
history and modes of cultural expression in each of them. Rural land-
scapes, coastal seashores, mountains, riversides, dense forests, rocky
plateaus and sprawling cities – we see India’s vast and varied land-
scapes, and the little cultures within them. Our traversal across this rich

Figures 8.1 A Rathwa tribal priest in trance

Image courtesy, Roshan Shahani.
218 Documentary Films in India

and textured panorama is not structured in a linear way and the film’s
successive episodes juxtapose disparate and distant landscapes. Thus
one episode takes us into the midst of central India’s Rathwa tribal peo-
ples’ late night forest festivities. In another, we follow India’s acclaimed
flutist, Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia, as he contemplates the flute at his
home in Mumbai. A number of episodes in the film recreate iconic
scenes from the life of Lord Krishna – the child Krishna stealing butter
from the village; a young Krishna romancing gopis or maidens near a
pool of water; and an old Krishna dying in a forest after being hit in
his toe by a stray arrow. A range of episodes consider folk art and craft
practices: we see gold being beaten into ornaments in a south Indian
village; a performer in a trance dancing before an elaborate painting
detailing a scenario of tribal life; we observe rice farmers working in
water-filled fields. Some episodes purely meditate upon dramatic land-
scapes that are strewn with gigantic rocks or silently flowing rivers,
all so framed as to make new sculptural formations within the filmed
frame. Numerous episodes of the film bring us face to face with ancient
sculptures and medieval monuments, and the film closes, poignantly,
with Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra performing against a setting sun, by
a seashore.
While observing these cultural landscapes, the film’s episodes focus
on how everyday life unfolds in them. There is a persistent emphasis
on the emplacement of sounds so that we appreciate them as embody-
ing the material and tactile qualities of the environments from which
they emanate and in which they flow. Besides the flute’s music, the
film’s aural track contains a number of other, mostly ambient sounds.
These ambient sounds – the chirping of a bird, the soft waves of a flow-
ing river, a gentle breeze, thunder, raindrops, the silence of an ancient
monument, a distant locomotive like a train – these are often brief and
incidental sounds and they enrich our sense of the aural atmosphere of
the film’s settings. This emphasis on emplacing sound informs our per-
ception of sound in the film in a specific way, for not only do we hear
sounds, but we also link those sounds to the worlds in which they are
set, seen visually. Our experience of sound is thus audio-visual.
Further, as we look at landscapes and listen to the atmospheric sounds
in them, our experience of what we see is subtly integrated with what
we hear, visible or invisible. The landscapes we see assume a presence
that exceeds the visual register and sounds play a key role in this.
A very particular sensory experience is constructed, one that rests on the
specificity of cinematic perception. Cinema, it is understood, entails a
The Bamboo Flute 219

kind of sense perception in which neither vision nor sound are absolute
entities. Michel Chion discusses the work of sound in cinema, the way
that it adds value to the image and creates what he terms the audio-
visual contract for the viewer.

By added value I mean the expressive and informative value with

which a sound enriches a given image so as to create the definite
impression, in the immediate or remembered experience one has of
it, that this information or expression ‘naturally’ comes from what
is seen, and is already contained within the image itself.4 (Chion
1994: 5)

While the device of framing delineates the field of view in a shot; sound
is potentially boundless and a film’s sounds may or may not emanate
from within the shot itself. ‘Film sound is that which is contained or
not contained in an image; there is no place of the sounds, no auditory
scene already preexisting in the soundtrack – and therefore, properly
speaking, there is no soundtrack’ (Chion 1994: 68). The Bamboo Flute uti-
lizes this possibility most fully for much of the film’s sound is off-screen,
though clearly diegetic. It is related to the worlds, the landscapes we
see, though the film’s images do not always contain the sources of the
sounds we hear.
Unlike Bhavantarana, The Bamboo Flute does not use any interpretive
intertitles. There is no informative or interpretive voiceover either, and
verbal discourse in the film is used in a limited way. The film experi-
ments with modes of speech. A poem recited to a beloved, a verbal col-
lage debating the birth of grammar as understood in Indian philosophy,
episodes narrated from India’s epic mythology – these are the kinds of
literary discourses that are performed verbally in the film. The verbal
discourses are not visually sited in the film, that is, no figure speaks
before the camera. All speech is performed offscreen and has been
added to the episodes in postproduction. The performative mode of each
verbal utterance is emphasized so as to remind the viewer that what
they are hearing is a piece of verbal discourse mediated by the camera.
Further, unlike Bhavantarana, which builds a narrative as it proceeds,
The Bamboo Flute does not construct a singular narrative that advances
through the film’s successive episodes. Each episode can be understood
as a self-contained unit and when all episodes are strung together they
suggest to us the many and intricate ways by which sounds are sited
and come into being.
220 Documentary Films in India

Film structure and its basis in music

Most of The Bamboo Flute’s episodes are structured around classical

Indian ragas. A raga is a piece of music that is characterized by a distinct
melody. Selina Thielemann defines a raga, stating that:

In modern musical terminology, ‘raga’ refers to a particular order of

sound, to a melody type or mode. The word ‘raga’ is derived from the
Sanskrit verbal root ranj, ‘to colour’, ‘to redden’, hence ‘raga’ denotes
the act of colouring or reddening. The term can moreover mean ‘love’
or ‘affection’ as well as ‘joy’ and ‘delight.’ These connotations imply
the idea that ragas can deliver emotions or sentiments embodied in
specific tone combinations, a concept that was brought forward by
Indian music scholars since ancient times. (Thielemann 1999: 127)

Classical ragas are closely linked with the broader theories of rasaesthetics
in India. Specific melodic models are devised for the expressive delivery
of particular rasas or sentiments and bhavas or emotions (Theilemann
1999: 22). Richard Schechner notes that in raga performances the com-
munication of rasa can become so deep that in ‘moments of intense
expressivity’ meaningless vocables temporarily even replace words. ‘The
extension of sounds built on modulations of pitch, volume, and duration
characterizing the raga is a formal way of giving over to the phatic quality
of ‘pure music’ (Schechner 2005: 252).
In addition to classical ragas, The Bamboo Flute includes some folk
music too. The flute is the principal instrument in most of the film’s
episodes accompanied on occasions by other instruments such as the
mrindangam and tabla. Formally, the film’s episodes are closely tied to
the structuring principles of the music on which they are based. Most
of the film’s episodes are based on the alaap – that is, the introductory,
unmetred movement of a piece (Clayton 2000: 211). Being unmetred,
alaap serves in identifying and establishing the notes and contours
of a raga. Only a few episodes in the film use musical pieces beyond
the alaap, either as whole or running into the first stanzas of the raga.
The film’s emphasis on alaap is related to its broader theme regard-
ing the origins of sound. Using the alaap, the film directs the viewer’s
attention to how a sound emanates, what elements in the environment
converge upon and shape an emerging sound, how sounds evoke and
suggest moods and how those moods evolve as the sounds of music
flow. The tone or mood introduced by the first use of alaap in an
episode is developed through the film’s other elements, including its
The Bamboo Flute 221

visuals, embodied and verbal performances. Music is thus a provocateur

for the film’s episodes and it functions in dialogue with the film’s other
elements to shape the mood and ideas that lie behind each episode. In
order to further appreciate Shahani’s approach to sound and cinemato-
graphy in the film, it is pertinent to understand how music and sound
have been contemplated within Indian thought.
India commands a vast and diverse body of music encompassing tradi-
tional forms of the classical canon onto popular and folk forms, the latter
coming from the multiple little cultures of the subcontinent. Classical
Indian music is composed of two main systems: the North Indian (or
Hindustani) and the South Indian (or Carnatic). These in turn have dif-
ferent and highly evolved systems for classifying music, in particular the
forms of raga (Theilemann 1999). Numerous literatures on Indian music
claim that the classical traditions can be traced to the Vedic periods, and
some even make a claim to the Indus Valley civilization.5 The Bamboo
Flute combines ragas from both the north and south Indian repertoires.
In the classical canon, a musical performance is understood as a pro-
cess rather than as a fixed or sealed entity. In its structure and organiza-
tion, a raga performance embodies and reflects the dynamics of creation
and existence conceived in the widest cosmological terms. It is held that
the sound of music emerges from the flux of matter that is formless and
silent. It then develops assuming form, structure, rhythm and tempo;
and it eventually merges back into the silence and flux from which it
first emanated. Ragas are considered pre-existent: they may be com-
posed and performed by humans, but they embody wider cosmological
rhythms. Martin Clayton notes how a raga performance mirrors the
dynamics of existence stating that:

Raga performance – with its gradual exposition, development, accel-

eration and ultimate subsidence into the drone – has sometimes
been considered to represent the Indian metaphysical concept of
the creation and ultimate dissolution of matter in the universe.
(Clayton 2000: 13)

For this reason, ragas are not considered objective entities and the vir-
tuosity of a performance is not based on how closely it replicates any
original. Every raga performance is singular, for ragas are not based on
a fixed structure. Ragas exist in time and they have a very subtle rela-
tionship to time that provokes quite exact and unrepeatable affects (or
bhavas) in terms of the moods and emotions evoked for the listener
(Clayton 2000: 14).
222 Documentary Films in India

A raga performance commences with a gradual and sustained exposition

through the alaap that Lewis Rowell argues can be likened to the process
of matter undergoing differentiation and emerging as a structure (Rowell
1981: 207). It then develops acquiring definition and acceleration.
Time is a crucial category in Indian classical music and ragas are often
classified according to the times at which they are performed. There
are ragas for different times of the day, night and the twilight hours
of dawn and dusk, as well as ragas for different seasons. S. C. Banerji
notes that since Indian music’s inspirations are often drawn from nature
there are ‘special melodies suitable to particular periods of time like the
morning and evening and particular seasons like summer, spring…’
(Banerji 1976: 14). This relationship to time as a source of bhava (emo-
tion) and mood informs raga performances and ragas build on these to
shape the listener’s experience of time.
Indian music’s understanding of time rests on Indian cosmology’s under-
standing of time as cyclical. Days, months, years and seasons constitute
microcosmic cycles of time; and then there are macrocosmic cycles in
which time is experienced in terms of ages and aeons. In music, the produc-
tion of sound is considered as coeval with a measure of time. Within clas-
sical music theory, the tal or metric unit is a cyclically repeating temporal
structure. It is the basic unit that reflects a whole cycle and, in doing that,
it embodies a cosmological understanding of time as cyclical. Once the tal
for a raga has been established, it is performed through repetitive cycles
with distinctions characterizing each cycle.6 Scholars of Indian music assert
that no fragment of a musical performance ought to be understood as a
concrete entity within itself, even though for functional purposes frag-
ments or constituents may be defined and named as units. Every fragment
or unit is tied to that which precedes it and it contributes to the making
of that which will succeed it. Every fragment is building towards evoking,
sculpting and defining an idea, a thought, an association or a mood – all at
the level of embodied experience, rather than as concrete representation.

Within the context of the tal, an episode of rhythmic play (laykari) is

not only an artefact created and performed by the musician, but also
a solution to a problem of process – how to develop a rhythmic idea
and achieve a satisfactory cadence, coinciding with the start of the
new tal cycle – a solution which often itself evolves as the cadential
point comes ever closer. (Clayton 2000: 14)

Based on this cyclical understanding, raga performances are in them-

selves structurally episodic. Each episode is based on a tal and it builds
on one feature: a melody, rhythm or text. An idea is presented and it
The Bamboo Flute 223

is developed as far as possible within a single episode. An episode ends

through a cadential gesture and the next episode elaborates the struc-
ture and, through that, the idea or theme from the previous episode is
advanced. There is no hierarchy between successive episodes and each
episode offers a resolution within it, leading into the next episode.
Further, the episodic organization of the raga performance facilitates
the intermixing of improvisation with the raga’s predetermined com-
position. Clayton adds that often ‘…the fixed composition is used as a
refrain, between passages of improvised development’ (Clayton 2000:
108). A feature of raga performances is that they are characterized by a
tendency towards acceleration. This is often experienced in individual
episodes of a performance and it creates an overall sense of progression
within the music (Clayton 2000: 108).
Time in Indian music is not an absolute or fixed category. It is an inspi-
ration for utterance and for this, the qualitative experience of all elements
that register time – say air, light, ambient sounds such as birds – is present
to the consciousness of the musician and a virtuous performance will
evoke these elements as part of a broader scene in the listener’s imagina-
tion. The affective qualities of music coincide with the feel of the time
when it is performed or that it evokes, producing a very specific mood and
bhava or emotional affect for the listener. As music in India has absorbed
influences through history, both structurally and in terms of meanings,
we find that whole repertoires of mythological narratives or folk tales
have been absorbed in the musical traditions. Here again, it is not the rep-
resentation of any events or narratives that becomes the subject of music
and instead, it is the bhavas associated with particular episodes from these
sources that music devises. Richard Schechner states that in traditional
genres such as theatre and dance, ragas are analogous with rasa.

The partakers’ interest is not tied to the story, but to the enacting of
the story; the partakers do not want to “see what happens next” but
to “experience how the performer performs whatever is happening.”
There is no narrational imperative insisting on development, climax,
recognition, and resolution (Schechner 2005: 357).

The Bamboo Flute takes this up and uses the structural features of raga
performance – the delineation of ragas into episodes and the building
of a particular idea or mood within it through techniques such as repe-
tition or acceleration. Both of these structural features – the episode
and the devising of an idea or mood within it – form the basis of The
Bamboo Flute’s episodes. It is almost as if each episode takes up a tal and
persists with it till such time that it has made the propositions it aims
224 Documentary Films in India

to communicate to the viewer. It is for this reason that Shahani does

not use ragas in full – after an idea or thought has been suggested, the
film cuts to a next episode and proposes a whole new set of meanings.
Each episode of the film starts by establishing and observing a setting.
Through sustained observation we are alerted to the atmospheric and
ambient sounds and silences in the setting. As we observe the setting
and absorb its sounds, notes of music emerge almost undifferentiated
from – and coextensive with – the aural atmosphere of the setting. As
the episode advances, the sounds of music evolve, assuming definition
in terms of rhythms, melody and pitch. After the episode has suggested
the music’s rhythms and pace, defined its particular moods and ideas,
the piece steadily dissipates, the episode closes and the film moves on to
a next episode.
There is a subtle narrative arc for each episode in the film. The first
notes of a sound set the episode’s tone. From that tone particular moods
and ideas arise as the episode advances. These are not singularly concen-
trated within the music or any other element of the film. The viewer-
listener discerns these moods and ideas by following the interaction
between music and the film’s other elements including mise-en-scène,
ambient sounds and montage. Take for instance the film’s opening.
A man’s voice poetically announces:

Stung by the bee,

A bamboo begins to breathe:
The flute is born

A blue sky in which small clouds make tender impressions is seen from
a low angle and the camera tracks down, revealing an ancient temple in
the deep background, its reflection in a pond seen in the middle ground,
and, finally, a Bharatanatayam dancer, Alarmel Valli, emerges in the fore-
ground. She performs an invocation to the Lord Ganesha, the harbinger of
auspicious beginnings who forcefully and elegantly overcomes all obsta-
cles. This opening is based on the raga Hamsadhwani, which is mostly
associated with Carnatic music, though it is also heard in the north Indian
repertoire. The raga Hamsadhwani starts slowly and melodically, and then
rises up, using very defined notes and emphatic transitions.
This opening sequence consists of two shots. In both, the dancer is set
against a dramatic landscape. In the first she is framed to one side, in
the foreground of the temple and pond. The camera freely tracks up and
down in response to the scene before it; its movements building on the
rhythm of the raga. These movements of the camera are reminiscent of
The Bamboo Flute 225

Figure 8.2 Alarmel Valli performs in the opening sequence of The Bamboo Flute
Image courtesy, Roshan Shahani.

the free camera choreography from Bhavantarana. As the camera moves,

it diminishes and magnifies the dancer in the field of vision. Mid-way
into the raga we cut to the second shot of this episode. The dancer con-
tinues her movements in relation to the music, but she appears dwarfed
in the field of vision. This shot commences with a tight close-up of a large
rock, emphasizing its textures and the patterns on its surface. The cam-
era pulls out from the rock to reveal a large plateau and a miniaturized
dancer performing alongside the gigantic rock. Her movements stand
226 Documentary Films in India

in telling contrast to the rock that embodies a sense of stillness. Both

shots of this episode were composed in the middle of the day with
the sun overhead. Shadows are contained and the shots are high in
contrast. The dancer’s movements and the features of all objects in the
landscape appear imposing and defined; the viewer is struck by the
acute scale of things within the visual field.
The dramatic juxtapositions of camera angles and magnifications
build on the sharp and emphatic notes of the raga Hamsadhwani. The
impact of these elements is heightened as much by the dance perfor-
mance as by the pace of cutting that coincides with the sharp notes and
beats of music. The marked diminishment of the dancer’s body in rela-
tion to landscape, particularly in the second shot of the sequence against
a large rock, de-emphasizes the human figure as the sole repository of
meaning within this episode. Music and landscape are clearly the agents
leading this episode. All of the film elements – sound, mise-en-scène,
camera choreography and montage – complement the particular quali-
ties of the raga Hamsadhwani and together they evoke a particular mood
and tone. These spill onto the viewers and infuse them with a sense of
sharply defined energy that flows rapidly and dramatically.
Two principles are key to the sound design of The Bamboo Flute.
One, exercising economy, the film uses very select sounds. Only those
sounds that have a strong and emphatic connection to the meanings
and affects of an episode are used with the result that we do not always
hear the synchronous sounds of all images. Second, all sounds have
been recorded from a near and proximate perspective to their sources.
This close position codifies the nearness of the recording apparatus to
the source of sound and, in turn, shapes the viewer’s perception. A close
perspective emphasizes the textures of sound and this heightens the
listener’s sense of proximity and empathy in relation to what they see.
With these two principles, economy in the use of sounds and a close
recording perspective, The Bamboo Flute’s sound design directs the viewer’s
attention to the tactile qualities of sounds. The film’s episodes go on to
establish the link between the tactile qualities of sounds and the specific
bhavas and moods they evoke. For instance, in a scene depicting Krishna’s
childhood, we see iconic images of a pastoral landscape – cows grazing in
fields, maidens tending cattle and an unidentified figure churning butter
in an earthenware pot. All these images have been composed from a close
perspective and we are never given a wide view of things through which
we would fully identify the different elements of the mise-en-scène. We
see close-ups of feet, eyes, grassland, fabric, cattle and milk being churned.
These images are all fragments that emphasize the material textures of
The Bamboo Flute 227

things. Complementing these are iconic sounds such as those of cattle, an

occasional cow-bell and the churning of butter. These have been carefully,
almost choreographically, placed on the soundtrack.
In this episode we do not see the child Krishna and we cannot even
discern whether this scene is a dramatic reconstruction or an observa-
tion of everyday village life. Uniting these images are the provisional
notes of a flute and an eloquent recitation of a fragment of a Tamil
poem by a female performer:

Inconsistent, knowing no limits,

With brows arched like his own bow,
Did you see that mischievous Wretch?

None of the episode’s elements – the flute, images, diegetic sounds or

poetry – directly reference Krishna, but, taken together, these fragments
create an atmospheric rendition of a scene from Krishna’s childhood.
The tactility of the things we see and hear is so sustained that we view-
ers actively experience the scene as a whole in our imagination. The notes
of the flute do not form into a defined melody. They thread the frag-
ments of this episode whilst, simultaneously, upholding the episode’s
fragmentary, partial and tactile nature. A level of cultural knowledge
is certainly required to fully discern that this episode pertains to Krishna’s
childhood. However, the episode is experientially a whole in itself so that
even if a viewer were not conversant with legends surrounding Krishna,
their viewing experience would not be compromised, for they would get
a sense of the overall mood this episode devises.
The Bamboo Flute is punctuated with episodes that embody a sense
of pause and silence. A young woman leisurely and erotically touches
herself, while bathing in a country pond. As we observe her, we hear the
soft sounds of water and the quiet country atmosphere. Pt. Chaurasia
walks pensively in silence, contemplating his music. We hear a very soft
dawn chorus in these images. A vast landscape is seen still and animated
by soft breeze and steadily changing, afternoon light. The soft breeze
brings with it a sense of quiet and tranquility. Punctuated with these
short episodes of silence and pause, the film as a whole feels like a subtle
melodic composition in itself.

Episode film and a cosmomorphic approach to cinema

Human presence in the images of The Bamboo Flute is finely measured.

There are instances in the film where no human presence can be discerned
228 Documentary Films in India

in space at all, say in the numerous landscape shots, where we principally

observe physical features: rivers, hillocks, plateaus, rocks, fields and sea-
shores. Then there are scenes where the human presence is framed in a
way that emplaces and integrates the human with the landscape. Thus we
see a fisherman on the edge of the frame casting his net into a wide river
that dominates the frame. Or we see abstract close-ups of a female figure
as she leisurely bathes in a pond. Persisting with the free camera choreog-
raphy from Bhavantarana, numerous musical and dance performances in
The Bamboo Flute find the camera freely navigating across the performance
scene, on occasions following performers, on others losing them from the
frame. A number of dance sequences in The Bamboo Flute are set in histori-
cal monuments such as temples and forts. Here the camera moves freely
through space, emphasizing how these structures are coextensive of the
landscapes where they are built and how the performances we see enacted
in them are tied to the broader cultural heritages that these monumental
sites exemplify. Consistently, we find that camera framing de-emphasizes
the human figure as the center or singular point of focus for the scene.
A number of techniques are used for this: single-point lighting that par-
tially illuminates a figure, soft focus that blurs the figure, abstract close-ups
of different body parts suppressing conventional modes of bodily identi-
fication, and free camera choreography that often loses figures from the
frame. The camera’s approach is geared to integrate all elements of the
mise-en-scène: landscapes, physical features, rocks, monuments, animals,
birds, sculpture, and human figures. No one element is privileged over
another and this is a radical departure from conventions of cinema – fiction
and documentary – that identify and emphasize key subjects, often human
figures as the sources of filmic meaning and narrative drive.
For Kumar Shahani, the devices of framing and mise-en-scène in cin-
ema do not simply involve the delineation of space and the placement
of elements in the visual field for the purposes of advancing narrative.
Shahani has noted that framing and mise-en-scène are akin to ritual. For
rituals, since their early origins entail the delineation and organization
of space through which participants acquire embodied states that align
them with wider cosmological energies and rhythms. Ritual, in Shahani’s
understanding, de-emphasizes the human as the center of a scene and
brings the human into alignment with wider cosmological phenomena.
In his essay Figures of Film, Shahani elaborates on mise-en-scène as a form
of ritual:

The first origins of organizing inner and outer space lie in ritual.
Through a series of transformations, it has come to mean mise-en-scene
The Bamboo Flute 229

in our art. I am not referring here merely to the organization of space

or continuous movement within space, as mise-en-scene has often
been understood, or misunderstood in the rather protracted contro-
versy between editing methods (of linkage, and those that retain the
unities of plan-sequence). I am referring to it as the total transforma-
tion of an objective reality to make it compound to processes that our
imagination has synthesized from all experience, the conscious and the
unconscious, thus projecting the introjected, including the introjec-
tions that have acquired discontinuous meaning and are re-absorbed
into the continuum… But ritual and mise-en-scene is not content,
merely, to elaborate the terms of exchange between the spectator and
the world, but to make of him a concrete participant in the world, to
join him with other subjects and to let matter-history-creation reveal
itself. (Shahani, ‘Figures of Film’, 1988)

Ritual is not an ahistorical category and therefore for Shahani the prac-
tice of mise-en-scène is also a historical one. In his own films, Shahani
has used mise-en-scène as a mode for articulating a cosmomorphism
that de-emphasizes the human as the source and center of experience
and understanding. For Shahani, cinema is uniquely equipped to do this
because it can establish how subjectivities are contingent, shifting and
fluid (Shahani, ‘The Self as an Objective Entity’, 1987). In his writings
Shahani ties cosmomorphism to the rise of phenomenology and the
new novel of modern literature. He elaborates:

Almost all the excesses of cinematographic theory are traceable to the

fact that cinema arrived on the scene after the flowering of phenom-
enological thought, particularly in the Novel. So that the receptivity
to its ‘cosmomorphism’, evident even in Bazin and the early Metz,
seemed to deny it the possibility of generating civilized meaning. In
the theory of montage, they seemed to suggest that the meanings of
things-in-themselves were distorted through verbal, imagistic and
rhythmic construction. On the contrary, the basis of montage was
absolutely the same: any two unrelated, neutral events would yet
yield their immanent meaning when put together. (Shahani, ‘The
Self as an Objective Entity’, 1987)

In this critical comment, Shahani takes issue with the reduction of film
techniques such as montage to a prescriptive aesthetics. He calls for a
recognition of cinema’s twin capacities: one, to make viewers witness to
what is recorded, for the camera replaces the object of contemplation
230 Documentary Films in India

by its image; and two, the camera’s ability to decenter and relativise
meanings and affects. These twin capacities facilitate in reflecting
reality and experience as shifting and forming from no one privileged
perspective. This leads to his idea of cosmomorphism in cinema, for,
through its twin capacities, cinema, like the new novel, can overcome
anthropocentric representations.
Every episode of The Bamboo Flute commences with a suggestion of
site, where the camera has taken us. This is not necessarily through
an establishing shot, say a long shot that gives us a contextual view
of place. The camera’s approach privileges a sensory experience of
site, and how time and elements flow in it. We may be introduced
to a site with an emphasis on the changing light cast upon it at a
particular time of day, say in the episode with a majestic performance
by Guru Keluchrana Mohapatra when we see him increasingly silhou-
etted, performing against a darkening crimson-grey, evening sky. We
may encounter a site sensing the flow of elements like breeze, as in
the episode of Lord Krishna’s flirtatious love play with the gopis or
village maidens. We see a pastoral pond shaded by a tree on which
maidens’ saris sway to the breeze – suggesting they are bathing – and
the soft notes of the flute to the romantic, early evening raga Maru
Bihag, go on to gently prompt the stirrings of passion in this tran-
quil setting. Each episode takes us to a site and identifies sensory
qualities – sound, wind, light, among others – that we see flowing, in
movement and evolving. Site is persistently presented as living and
Further, seemingly inanimate elements of site, such as physical
features like rocks, water bodies, hillocks, statuary, or architecture are
animated by the camera that, through framing, imbues particular emo-
tional tones in them. For instance; when we are navigating the insides
of a medieval palace, we cannot but register its sense of lonesomeness.
Or, the destructive ferocity we sense as we observe large rocks and sculp-
tures while navigating a rock temple site in south India. The affective
qualities the camera ascribes to the film’s disparate sites coincide with
the moods that are evoked through the flow of sounds on the film’s
An episode that most clearly depicts the evolution of landscape and
sound occurs in the middle of the first part of the film. This episode is
based on the Hindustani raga, Puriya Dhanashri. Puriya Dhanashri is an
evening raga that suggests a pensive mood. The film’s episode strings
shots of an Indian landscape awaiting the monsoons. The episode starts
on the sound of thunder accompanying three shots of a parched and
The Bamboo Flute 231

dark landscape seen in sepia tones. A woman quotes, in French, the

concluding lines from Baudelaire’s Le Voyage:

If the sea and the sky are

Black as ink,
Our hearts, as you know, are
Radiant with rays of light.
Pour into us your poison,
So it may comfort us again.
We wish, so unbearably does the fire
Burn our brain,
To plunge into the bottom
of the abyss,
Heaven or Hell, who cares?
To touch the Unknown
To find anew!

Following these compelling lines, Puriya Dhanashri starts, mixed with

the sounds of thunder. Puriya Dhanashri is an extremely slow raga and
Shahani uses the alaap to set the rhythms of the piece. In this raga,
every beat is a few seconds apart, helping to create a very slow and sus-
tained mood that complements the pensive darkness characterizing the
hours before monsoon clouds burst. We are in the countryside and we
see fragments such as a hillock with a heap of rocks resting in a unique
vertical formation; foliage of trees and shrubs – their leaves and flow-
ers blowing in a very soft wind, with the odd raindrop dripping from
them; rain-filled clouds floating in free formations and casting dramatic
chiaroscuros of changing patterns. A sense of stillness, awaiting and
anticipation pervades the entire landscape. The air is heavy. As the
raga advances, we see water buffaloes enter and bathe in a small pond,
getting some relief from the burning sun. The sound of them moving
in the water is one of the two synchronous sounds in this episode, the
other being the sound of thunder. Puriya Dhanushri’s tone complements
the images of the landscape awaiting the rains and the entire sound
composition for this episode suggests the intensification of an aching
longing for the monsoons.
Another episode in the film takes a very different, more intervention-
ist approach to project how sounds evolve in relation to sites. With a
conch shell’s sound an episode opens in the film with the camera freely
tracking along a vast sculptural panel of a temple in South India. As the
camera continues to track along the curvaceous lines of this sculptural
232 Documentary Films in India

panel we hear a verbal collage composed of literary recitations of different

epic and mythic episodes: the descent of the Ganges to earth; praise of
Prince Arjuna’s mastery of archery; the origins of language as understood
by the ancient Indian grammarian, Mammata; and the suggestion that in
the flute every breath finds its voice. There is no music in this episode, but
we can perceive the enclosed silence of the temple flowing as a comple-
ment to the verbal collage. As we hear the verbal collage we sense how
the multiple folds of the sculptures we are seeing are layered with mean-
ings that have accrued over time. Site is depicted as a living container
of histories and meanings. While the episode references discrete mythic
events, it gives us a sense of how a constructed environment witnesses
the passage of time and through it accumulates a variety of meanings
and associations. The use of multiple voices, none of which are visually
sited in the verbal collage, creates an equivalence between the human/the
animate and the sculptural/the inanimate. This links back to Shahani’s
cosmomorphic approach to cinema which does not negate the human, but
instead contests cinema’s anthropocentrism and is geared to placing the
human as a part of a wider cosmology, rather than its privileged center.
Shahani’s cosmomorphic approach constructs landscapes and sites
as living and evolving through time and this subtly parallels the very
mode by which sound is produced in the bamboo flute. As we observe
successive episodes of the film, we note that the film’s visual and aural
elements provide the setting in which a particular raga or sound composi-
tion comes about. The film’s measured and sustained pace, its resistance
to visualizing the flute or indeed any musical instrument in its scenes
and its de-emphasizing of the human as the center of mise-en-scène fore-
ground the experience of sound as intangible, evolving and intimately
tied to space. Sound is sited by the film’s episodes and this siting does
not localize sound to some reified or singular source within the mise-en-
scène. Sound is stirred in the flow of atmospheric silence of a space; it
acquires definition in relation to the flow of other elements in that space.
The film builds the experience of sound, an intangible and invisible
category through a visual form that emphasizes the flow of time. Both
the aural and the visual elements of the film emphasize flow, the pas-
sage of time and how things – tangible (elements of landscape) or intan-
gible (sounds) – evolve through time. Shahani has commented that this
quality of flow and evolution of things through time is particular to
Indian classical music which, he asserts, temporalizes space:

Since Indian classical music embodies all relations, including those

of space, into time relations, it is of particular significance in the
The Bamboo Flute 233

cinema, an art which necessarily converts space into time. It seems

to me that Western music, on the other hand, converts time rela-
tions into space. Again, a necessity in the construction of sound
(time) in the cinema. Western music not only uses timbre, silence
and ‘vertical’ layers to a greater degree than we do, its basic metaphor
has always been that of architecture. In Indian music, the metaphor
is that of sculpting, more in its processes than the finished object,
with aspects of the finished object shown in time. (Shahani,‘Film as
a Contemporary Art’, 1985)

While The Bamboo Flute’s episodic form is instigated by and coincides

with classical Indian music’s episode structure, it is also evident that
the film’s episode form works beyond and at a deeper level than that
structure. The film’s episodes do not use music as a whole and therefore
they do not fully coincide with musical episodes. The Bamboo Flute’s
episode form reveals how sound compositions emerge from the flow
of time and life, conceived most widely, in the settings where those
sound compositions are sited. In order to understand these workings
of the episode form let us turn to Siegfried Kracauer’s discussion that
illuminates the episode film’s specific ties to the flow of life in the sites
where films are set.
In his 1960 seminal text, Theory of Film: the Redemption of Physical
Reality, Siegfried Kracauer takes up the different modes by which films
depict and negotiate reality. The episode film is one form that Kracauer
identifies as having a particular approach to the depiction of reality.
The episode film, as Kracauer discusses, includes a single or a series
of episodes that may be ‘relatively autonomous’ entities which when
strung together assume a degree of cohesion; or they may be ‘hardly dis-
tinguishable from each other’, interdependent, almost like the cells of
a living organism (Kracauer 1997: 253). For Kracauer the episode film’s
particular cinematic quality arises from this form’s ties to the reality
and life it depicts. Episode films depict stories that are tied to the flow of
life: they emerge from and merge back into the flow of life of the worlds
where the films are set. Kracauer states:

Accordingly, this term [episodic film] will be applied to stories whose

common property it is to emerge from, and again disappear in, the
flow of life, as suggested by the camera. (Kracauer 1997: 251)

The link to the world, what Kracauer specifically terms as the flow of life,
is the basis of his definition of the episode film. The episode film is thus
234 Documentary Films in India

unfit for expositing some ‘inner conflict or thought’, say a character’s

psychological motivations or inner dialogue, and this form is not used
for defining films that are driven by characters abstracted from the world,
even though such films may have an episodic structure.
Kracauer categorizes episode films into two broad types: those that
consist of a single episode, such as The Red Balloon (1956), and those
that are built from a series of episodic units, such as Paisan (1946) and
Pather Panchali (1955). While Kracauer emphasizes the flow of life as a
necessary quality of episode films, this emphasis is not in the order of
a didactic representation of reality. The term that is key to Kracauer’s
discussion of the flow of life in an episode film is ‘permeability’. For
Kracauer, the character and cinematic quality of an episode film varies
‘in direct ratio to the degree of its permeability’ – the permeability of
physical reality, the film’s environment, into the film. He adds that
‘permeability calls for a loose composition’ that allows a film’s key
story to unfold alongside the inflow of the environment and its move-
ments (Kracauer 1997: 254–5). Elaborating on the permeability of
physical reality and material phenomena in the episode film, Kracauer

The true film artist may be imagined as a man who sets out to tell
a story but, in shooting it, is so overwhelmed by his innate desire
to cover all of physical reality – and also by a feeling that he must
cover it in order to tell the story, any story, in cinematic terms – that
he ventures ever deeper into the jungle of material phenomena in
which he risks becoming irretrievably lost if he does not, by virtue
of great efforts, get back to the highways he has left… The episode
film, then, is full of gaps into which environmental life may stream.
(Kracauer 1997: 255–6)

The episode film both suggests and represents the flow of life and a
successful episode film is one that finds a balance between its principal
narrative or themes and the permeation into the film of the world in
which it is set. The Bamboo Flute achieves this fine balance. Each epi-
sode of the film starts by observing a setting, how elements flow in it.
Then sounds and actions get stirred in that setting. These sounds and
actions both extend from the setting and are influenced by it. Once the
sounds and actions have been performed, they steadily dissipate back
into the environment. Thus, while the film borrows from Indian music
the impulse for an episodic form, the audio-visual form of episodes the
film devises is tied more closely with Kracauer’s discussion of the flow of
The Bamboo Flute 235

life and the permeability of physical reality in the episode film than the
structural principles governing Indian classical music.

Closing notes

The Bamboo Flute mobilizes the principles of Indian musical thought

in which sound is related to time and environment. The film uses this
understanding to create the visual compositions of its episodes: sounds
are clearly emplaced in the landscapes from which they emerge and
where they flow. Shahani presents the environments related to the
film’s sounds as living and evolving. The film’s episodes emphasize
how the environments, the flow of life in them, becomes the basis
for the music, melodies, sounds and silences that emerge from those
environments. Sound is thus not an absolute or objective category. It is
organic, becoming, forming and dissolving. Kumar Shahani could have
approached the bamboo flute by focusing on its masters and connois-
seurs. But he took a more poetic and evocative approach, one that
does not describe the flute, but creates experiential encounters with
sound and space for the viewer. This is tied to Shahani’s cosmomorphic
approach to cinema that is geared to emphasizing how things evolve
and shape through time.
The seeds of Shahani’s cosmomorphic approach to cinema can be
traced to the free camera choreography he devised in Bhavantarana.
The free camera choreography facilitated the camera in freeing itself
from documenting performance as an externally constituted event, in
favour of an embodied approach through which the cinematographer
responds to the performance phenomenon. Bhavantarana, being a kind
of biopic surrounding Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, offered Shahani
only limited scope to advance his ideas of cosmomorphism in cinema.
In The Bamboo Flute the ideas of cosmomorphic cinema assume a full
and forceful exposition – both visually and aurally. This film makes for a
demanding form of viewing, for meaning is not objectified or presented
in any concrete terms to the viewer.
Bhavantarana and The Bamboo Flute constitute cornerstones in the
field of documentary. They stress and reverse the understanding of
documentary as a mode of visible evidence, information and educa-
tion conceived in a narrow, pedantic or prescriptive sense. Their bold
approach to cinematography and montage, one that becomes fully
cosmomorphic in The Bamboo Flute, requires us to approach documen-
tary as a sensory, pleasurable and powerful learning experience. Based
on a Marxist approach to history, Shahani offers us a take on India’s
236 Documentary Films in India

classical arts in which the will to historicity – through the visual and
the aesthetic – sits seamlessly with sensuous experience. As a historical
project, Shahani, through these two films resuscitates, celebrates and
contemporizes the numerous traditions of thought, contemplation and
epistemologies in India surrounding her classical arts and cultural herit-
ages. Laleen Jayamane has termed Shahani’s cinema as epic for it ‘entails
a reformulation of the ancient tradition of epic narration to address the
contemporary’ (Jayamanne 2006: 2). Thus, through cinema, Shahani
brings into the contemporary flow of life – after a colonial interruption –
India’s knowledge systems and schools of thought.

The words fill up the sounds; the images, the words. The body, the images.
Invocations of breath in the body, of life which returns it to life, music,
– Shahani, ‘Narrativity’, 1995

The oeuvres of David MacDougall, Desire Machine Collective (DMC)

and Kumar Shahani establish that the impulse for documentary is not
singular and the methods for documentary-making are heterogeneous.
They also reflect that documentaries are not passive re-presentations of
preconstituted meanings, rationalizations and knowledges. Following
their works, we are exposed to how documentary-making provokes
affective, perceptual and experiential modes of knowing that deepen
our encounter with and understanding of the worlds to which we are
exposed. Documentary films can thus be understood as epistemological
interventions that create ways of knowing that exceed any disciplinary,
political or institutional frameworks and systems of meanings. The
documentaries studied in this book are stand-alone interventions in
that they are not accompaniments that serve broader political agendas
such as awareness creation, as much activist documentary tends to be.
Working with the contingencies and contours of the documentary-
making processes, the oeuvres of MacDougall, DMC and Shahani reflect
that documentary methods are constituted in the processes of encoun-
tering and making meaning in specific environments and cultural
settings. This is the enactment of a phenomenological understanding
of documentary-making. Each of these practitioners approaches docu-
mentary film form as a creative and political mode. In their works, film
forms are mobilized to construct meanings, provoke understandings
and affects, particularly those that are non-verbal and, on occasion,
even not visible as, say, the haunting loneliness of destitute children
in Gandhi’s Children, the traumatic memories evoked in Residue, or the
invisible, manifest divinity we encounter in Bhavantarana. In their pur-
suit of film form, these practitioners are committed to the specificity of
the cinematic medium – how cinema’s particular devices, techniques
238 Documentary Films in India

and processes (for instance framing, montage, duration, light, sound,

reflexivity) can be used to provoke understandings and experiences
that are implied, suggested and felt. Their use of documentary media
builds aural and visual aesthetics that differ from institutionalized
and formulaic modes of documentary. Through their aesthetics, these
practitioners offer creative and complex epistemologies that, in turn,
critique dominant, national discourses around the themes and subjects
of their films.
Their oeuvres enable us to appreciate how the documentary impulse
and aesthetics evolve over time and through successive works such that
a dialogical dynamic can be discerned in each practitioner’s oeuvre.
This dialogical dynamic refers to the relations of successive films
between themselves and to how the social lives of documentary films
inform documentary practice. In studying their oeuvres we learn how
documentary-making opens lines and avenues for creative and critical
investigations. The Age of Reason, MacDougall tells us, grew unexpect-
edly out of another film, The New Boys. The break from the institutional
apparatus, including surveillance light, in Daily Check-up led to a deeper
probing into light, its links with colonialism and its ontological basis for
cinema in Passage. The free camera choreography that arises in response
to the performance phenomenon in Bhavanatarana becomes the basis
of a cosmomorphic approach to cinematography and montage in the
episode form of The Bamboo Flute. These connections between works,
the advances in the aesthetics and discourses from one work to the
next, rest on a reflexive understanding and approach to documentary.
As reflexive practitioners, MacDougall, DMC and Shahani are highly
committed to revealing both the subjective dimensions of documentary
processes and how those shape documentary aesthetics and meanings.
In their works, reflexivity can be understood as operating at two, inter-
related levels: first, the intersubjective, pertaining to the transactions
between subjects that shape documentary epistemologies and second,
the formal, tied to how documentary-makers follow creative and formal
avenues that arise in the processes of making and how those respond
to the broader representational discourses surrounding the subjects of
their works. In this, a documentary-maker’s own political and ideologi-
cal influences are stated less through articulated verbal discourse; rather,
they are traceable more through documentaries’ evolving and unfold-
ing aesthetic strategies.
At the first level, the intersubjective, reflexive or reflexively-informed
documentary approaches make transparent the subjectivities of
documentary-participants, including makers. This augments a viewer’s
Epilogue 239

experience by revealing how the transactions between subjects and

makers, the negotiations of meaning and affect, come about and consti-
tute documentary epistemologies. This reflexive approach, in turn, rests
on the understanding that subjectivities of documentary actors are not
fixed or hermetically sealed. Reflexive documentary-making approaches
subjectivities as open-ended, forming, shaping and unfolding in time.
Instead of using documentary to map subjectivities as preconstituted,
reflexive filmmakers approach documentary-making as an intersubjec-
tive process wherein making becomes a shared field through which the
subjectivities of participants are mobilized, articulated and/or expressed.
At the second level of reflexivity, film form surfaces as a site of politi-
cal contest, based on questioning the scope of documentary and the
limitations of mainstream and normative representational discourses.
MacDougall, DMC and Shahani are committed not only to representing
what they encounter, but also to contesting how their subjects have been
represented and constructed by dominant media and mainstream repre-
sentational discourses. This kind of formal reflexivity is an advance over
the more conventional forms of cinematic self-reflexivity that are geared
towards deconstructing the processes, often at a technical level, through
which films are constructed. In a broader context of documentary prac-
tice, such formal reflexivity is crucial for it embodies a critique of the
positivist, unreflexive and uninterrogated approach to the documentary
image as being a pure and unmediated record of reality and it facilitates
the development of critical and competing documentary aesthetics.
The possibilities for critical and competing documentary aesthetics as
seen in the oeuvres of the documentary-makers studied in this book, are
of political urgency for it is through such aesthetics that the hegemony
of dominant and institutionalized representational methods and prac-
tices, discourses and epistemologies can be challenged. Mainstream and
institutionalized forms of documentary media fix and ossify approaches
to documentary subjects. When documentary methods and codes are
fixed or reified, the semantic and aesthetic possibilities that may arise
from a documentary-maker’s encounters with the worlds they docu-
ment are foreclosed. With this, possibilities of narratives, meanings,
affects and epistemologies that may arise from disparate approaches to
documentary-making are compromised. To follow the distinctiveness
of every documentary-making encounter; to allow documentary to be
a provocateur and co-performer alongside its subjects; and to facilitate
subjectivities to unfold rather than be expressed along tightly and nar-
rowly conceived categories of class, gender, ethnicity, race, and so on –
constitutes a break from institutionalized documentary practice based
240 Documentary Films in India

on defined forms, methods and techniques. The difference is between

using documentary to uphold a constituted discourse for which docu-
mentary becomes a vehicle, and using documentary creatively as a
mode for exploration and contemplation. Creative documentary of the
latter persuasion is gaining relevance in contemporary times that are
characterized by the proliferation of digital media technologies.
The growth of digital media has encouraged the production of non-
fiction forms, ranging from photographs and videos to diaristic and
impressionistic documentation of historical events such as protests,
rallies, catastrophes, reunions, debates, explorations and celebrations,
often from a first-person perspective. Cameras increasingly permeate
our environments and making moving-image media records of our
daily lives and experiences is becoming more of a reflex than a privilege
associated with specialized and limited technology. Such media may
not immediately be considered documentary, but they are documentary
materials that fuse questions of meaning, affect, subjectivity, reflexi-
vity and aesthetics. Ready accessibility to and the ease of operability of
digital media have fostered immediate, untidy and often incomplete
forms of documentation allowing for new documentary forms, nar-
ratives and aesthetics. The pervasive video and digital technologies in
our environments can be understood, therefore, as containing within
them the possibilities for non-institutionalized modes of documentary
or non-fiction media-making. Differing from the economic dynamics of
mainstream documentary production, digital media can provoke a shift
in documentary from event-centered narratives towards depicting long-
drawn, sustained and incomplete or inconclusive narratives, meanings
and experiences. The traces of such possibilities have, to some extent,
been explored by the documentary-makers discussed in this book. It was
by using video as an impressionistic note-taking device that provoked
DMC’s project Daily Check-up. Likewise, the emplacement and sharing
of the camera with children mobilized their interests and quite particu-
lar uses of video as glimpsed in MacDougall’s films.
In relation to this, the growing availability of media technologies
makes it necessary for documentary pedagogy to integrate questions of
aesthetics to better, more holistically examine, situate and understand
the specific epistemologies and interventions made by documentary
and non-fiction media. What is needed now is a shift towards appre-
ciation of different forms of documentary and non-fiction media.
Documentary theory has historically classified varied kinds of docu-
mentaries. However, these approaches to categorizing documentary
films into types based on their genre or methods now appears limiting,
Epilogue 241

given the growing uses of non-fiction media. As documentary materials

assume innovative forms, including hybrid media, and permeate exhibi-
tion contexts ranging from museums and art galleries to public spaces,
documentary practices are poised to interface with audiences in innova-
tive and engaging ways whereby the functions traditionally associated
with documentary – information, instruction and even education – are
likely to be suppressed or fused with more affective, experiential and
sensory purposes. We are in some senses prepared for this because as
audiences we are conversant with – and can discern – disparate modes
of image-making, the motivations that underpin them and the con-
tracts they devise in relation to those whom they represent and those
whom they address.
Documentary pedagogy is poised to shift away from imparting train-
ing in the purely technical and/or formulaic practices of documentary-
making, towards emphasizing the multiplicity and intersubjectivity
that are inherent to documentary-making. In this, the tentativeness,
uncertainty and open-endedness of documentary-making processes
ought not to be smoothed out, and should, instead, be used to engage
viewers into the deeper, more textured layers of documentary interven-
tions. This is a dimension of a reflexive documentary practice towards
which both documentary-makers and viewers are today increasingly
alert and perceptive. In her discussion of documentary phenomenology,
Vivian Sobchack (1999) has already, eloquently, raised the particular
sensibilities with which viewers engage with documentary films. She
terms documentary a ‘subjective relationship’ between a cinematic
object and its viewer. In this relationship, the viewer, Sobchack asserts,
brings increased attention because documentary materials are often the
sole repositories of meaning and understanding:

Documentary is not a thing, a concrete entity as much as it is a

subjective relationship to a cinematic object and it is the viewer’s
consciousness that finally determines what kind of cinematic object
it is. Documentary images have an intensity and autonomy all their
own because the viewer has to bring increased attention to viewing a
documentary wherein the image is the repository of information and
the sole material from which both specificity can be comprehended
and generality accumulated. (1999: 251)

Following from Sobchack, we know that documentary viewers bring a

distinct awareness to viewing documentary films: a consciousness that is
positioned to learn from documentary. This capacity to give over to the
242 Documentary Films in India

documentary as a repository of meaning and affect, in my experience

as a documentary-maker and pedagogue, runs rather deep and viewers
often engage with documentary on terms that exceed even the intents
of the makers.
The rapid flow of non-fiction media in our lived environments, while
conflating the reality-mediation binary, is also heightening viewers’ alert-
ness to the work of documentary aesthetics. Documentary viewers are
positioned to more critically engage non-fiction media and documentary
pedagogy is beginning to integrate discussions around how meanings are
constructed through documentary aesthetics, which are not stable cate-
gories in themselves. Documentary aesthetics arise in specific contexts of
making. They are prone to shift, disassemble, form and reform. Viewers
and makers are equally sensitive and equipped to follow and understand
this and it is through such engagement with documentary media – in the
plural, as non-formulaic and aesthetically evolving interventions – that
the possibilities for a politically rigorous documentary culture, unre-
stricted by the limitations and agendas of institutional and national
practices and discourses, lie.

1. Gellner differentiates nations from states and holds that both can emerge
independent of each other. See Gellner, E. 2008. Nations and Nationalism.
New York: Cornell University Press.
2. During the inter-war period and war years documentary was used for propa-
gandist purposes to shape favourable public opinion towards the war. Leni
Riefenstahl’s spectacular representations of Germany around the time of the
Nazi ascendance to power, and Britain’s charged propaganda documentaries
during the war both come to mind here. Propagandist documentary has
also been mobilized to celebrate national development and planning pro-
grammes, for example, Dziga Vertov’s dynamic representations of the Soviet
Union’s five-year plans through his kino-pravda series and other full-length
documentaries. The vast body of investigative, activist and exposé documen-
taries has questioned nations, their institutions and ideological discourses.
3. Corner, J. 1996. The Art of Record: A Critical Introduction to Documentary.
New York: Manchester University Press.
4. I take my cue here from Noel Carroll who, while discussing objectivity in relation
to the non-fiction film, argues that documentary debate has been marred by con-
fusions in the use of language that conflate objectivity with truth (Carroll 1983:
14). While I agree with Carroll that lack of objectivity does not necessarily mean
bias, as a practitioner I am inclined to hold documentary making and reception
as subjective experiences exercising subjects’, makers’ and the audiences’ ideo-
logical stances, knowledge systems and even aesthetic preferences.
5. Governmental and semi-governmental funding bodies such as Prasar Bharati
(Broadcasting Corporation of India), Public Service Broadcasting Trust and
the Indian Foundation for the Arts offer financial support for documentary
makers and Indian filmmakers have also secured funding from international
agencies such as the European Union’s cultural funds.
6. Paromita Vohra elaborates on this stating that ‘It may be an overstatement, but
there are periods when imaginative, idiomatic forms flower and periods when
more reality-based or classical forms again become prominent. It is not that
one is supplanted by the other, but rather that these two formal approaches
coexist with different intensity and visibility. In addition, it seems, each domi-
nates the other in alternation. For instance, you see the 1960s as a time when
formal approaches multiply in Films Division under Bhownagary. These then
lose traction and are replaced by vérité and agit-prop forms, searching for a
cinema that will be ‘a voice for the people’. With the coming of video, and then
digital formats, you see again a proliferation of forms using fictional elements,
which then give way to an emphasis, currently fuelled by European broadcaster
funding, on character-driven, observational documentaries which will have the
seamlessness of pure fiction while being made up of purely documentary mate-
rial’ (Rajagopal and Vohra 2012: 17).

244 Notes

7. For example, Rahul Roy, Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayashankar.

8. Based on marketing strategies and audiences, Ashish Rajadhyaksha asserts
that it is the parallel cinema and the popular Hindi movie that make up the
‘megalith’, Indian cinema. He states:

… the Indian cinema megalith since 1960 has been effectively catego-
rized in popular discourse as two things: the ‘Hindi movie’ and ‘Satyajit
Ray’: the former being the song-dance-action stereotype made in over
twelve languages and representing the most enviable of all national
possessions, a cultural mainstream, and the latter a highly generalized
category involving a variety of different directors generically celebrated
as being culturally rooted in their context. Both categories have been
sustained as much by marketing strategies as by a committed and articu-
late brand of cinephilia accompanying each of them. (Rajadhyakasha
1997: 678)

9. Dada Save, as he was called, went on to shoot many short actuality films,
including documentation of such newsworthy events as the 1901 return
of an Indian student from Cambridge who had earned a distinction in
Mathematics, R. P. Paranjpaye, and the 1903 Delhi Durbar celebrating the
coronation of Edward VII (Barnouw and Krishnaswamy 1980: 6).
10. Some of the names associated with the topicals include: Hiralal Sen,
F.B. Thanawala, Jyotish Sarkar, Bulchand Karamchand, Dwarkadas Sampat,
and J.F. Madan.
11. Short films became the staple for travelling cinema or bioscope shows.
12. To secure audiences, legislations such as the Defence of India Act 1943
made it mandatory for exhibitors to screen government-approved films, up
to twenty minutes in length in each film programme. In 1943, the British
government also launched the Indian News Parade (INP), whose screenings
were compulsory in cinema halls.
13. IFI elicited productions from Indian film companies such as the Prabhat
Film Company and Wadia Movietone. Musical Instruments of India, In Rural
Maharashtra and Tree of Wealth are among the films produced during this
time that document the cultural heritage and crafts of India.
14. Sanjit Narwekar elaborates:

The one positive effect of the War was that the documentary and its
techniques filtered into the country, gaining considerable impetus due to
the presence of such stalwarts as Jack and Winifred Holmes, Tom Stobart,
Alexander Shaw and later Sinclair Road. A number of filmmakers like Paul
Zils, Dr. P. V. Pathy, A Bhaskar Rao and Krishna Gopal were discovered
and many others like V. M. Vijaykar, Clement Baptista, Homi Sethna were
trained. (Narwekar 1992: 22)

15. The documentary fraternity echoed this understanding as this comment by

one documentary commentator, Madhusudan indicates:

The function of a documentary in a largely illiterate society like ours

imparting information through visuals is of prime importance. This is
Notes 245

even more so in a formally democratic country again like ours, where each
regardless of his mental equipment has a vote with the awesome power to
influence your destiny. The potential of documentary in building public
opinion is immense and also one which has remained largely untapped.
(Chanana eds. 1987: 39)

16. In Life to those Shadows (1990), Burch extensively discusses the socio-
economic and socio-ideological determinations of the IMR within the context
of the French, British and American cinemas.
17. Some of these films can be accessed online at The Colonial Film Project
films-of-india. The colonial film project is a combined project of universi-
ties (Birkbeck and University College  London) and archives (British Film
Institute, Imperial War Museum and the British Empire and Commonwealth
18. A number of short documentaries produced by the Films Division between
1950 and 1965 can be accessed at the Library of Congress’s Indian Film
Collection, Washington, DC.
19. For more details on the bureaucratic operations of the Films Division see
Barnouw and Krishnaswamy, 1980.
20. They secured funding from private and semi-private sponsors such as
Burmah-Shell, Technical Co-operation Mission (a wing of the International
Co-operation Mission of the USA), Art Films of Asia and National Education
and Information Films of India. A Short Film Guild was also formed compris-
ing such figures as D.B.D. Wadia, Harnam Motwane and Paul Zils, who had
played a key role in the initial years of the documentary movement under
the Films Division. Zils was crucial in the founding of the journal entitled,
Indian Documentary.
21. Sumita Chakravarty eloquently elaborates on the value of realism in Indian
cinema stating that:

… in postindependence India a major source of tension affecting the social

and national consciousness was (and continues to be) the problem of
holding onto established norms and value systems while the nation made
the challenging and vaunted transition from feudalism to industrialism,
from colonialism to democracy, from economic backwardness to mate-
rial advancement… Since the Indian sensibility tends to view complex
issues as manifestations of moral choices, popular culture represented the
felt experience of social change in terms of individual morality, of right
and wrong, and ‘resolved’ them in various ways. Realist cinema could
then explore the mixture of technological optimism (faith in the camera
to reflect reality) and cultural pessimism, the idealization of village and
community life in the face of mounting migrations to the city, material
deprivation and the promise of easy wealth, widening class, regional and
communal divisions eclipsing the vision of an unfractured national iden-
tity. (Chakravarty 1993: 99)

In relation to the institutionalized documentary form of the Films Division,

Ashish Rajadhyaksha notes that it was influenced by the realism of the epic
246 Notes

melodrama of Hindi cinema from the 1950–60s. According to Rajadhyaksha,

the realism of epic melodrama offered a cultural product that made compre-
hensible the profound changes in Indian society following independence:
mass migrations of partition and urban expansionism (Nowell-Smith eds.
1997: 681).
22. Indira Gandhi’s government had imposed military rule to combat what was
projected as nation-wide anarchy.
23. While the framework of national cinemas facilitates claiming cultural
authenticity and rootedness, film scholars assert that the category has to
be opened up to resist perpetuating a sense of cultural and/or textual essen-
tialism through film, and foregrounding the pragmatic forces that shape
national cinemas such as national and international market dynamics, audi-
ences and policies.
24. In this essay Rosen examines two canonical Film Studies texts: Sigfried
Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of German Film
(1947) and Noel Burch’s To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the
Japanese Cinema (1990).
25. Michael Renov elaborates how documentary got tied to objectivity and the
‘question of science’. He traces this to the early cinematic and protocin-
ematic experiments such as Eadweard Muybridge’s locomotion studies that
offered ways of observing and studying humans and socio-historical phe-
nomena as observable and objective facts. ‘As an instrument of “reproduc-
tive technology,” the cinema was endowed with the power to preserve and
represent the world in real time’ (Renov 2004: 172). With this, documentary
was purposed as a practice for representing facts objectively, a role that was
to be furthered through documentary’s linkages with journalism and its
overarching disparity from fiction film.
26. I have referenced individual essays with dates and the forums for which they
were composed in the chapters on Shahani’s cinema.

1 Constructing the Self, Constructing Others: David

MacDougall’s Observational films on Institutions for
Children in India
1. Emphasis mine. As a film practitioner and theorist, I find MacDougall’s use of
‘good faith’ to describe the filmmaker’s approach to the subject critical, for it
positions the filmmaker-subject relationship as principally human.
2. This emphasis on seeing ought not to be confused with a sense of occular-
centrism, which has been critiqued in art history and visual culture stud-
ies. See for instance, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth
Century French Thought (Jay 1993). Observational cinema’s emphasis on
seeing was a move to break from conventional documentary forms that are
conflict-driven and in which the image serves a function of illustrating
what the voices (voiceover commentary or interviews) tell. Observational
cinema challenges documentary viewers by requiring them to derive mean-
ing from what they see and hear, not just what they are informed through
verbal discourse.
3. The UCLA Ethnographic Film Programme ran from 1966 to the early 1970s.
Notes 247

4. The needs-based discourse itself had colonial origins. Deriving from Dipesh
Chakrabarty, David Ludden, and Partha Chatterjee who have illustrated that
postcolonial India’s development discourse drew upon colonial dichotomies
of civilization and backwardness, Roy elaborates:

Through the operations of the ‘rule of colonial difference,’ and its elaboration
of a hierarchical distance between civilized colonial self and the primitive,
to-be-civilized colonial other, colonial historicist reasoning had, from the
nineteenth century onwards (and possibly earlier as well), placed India
and Indians in a ‘waiting room’ outside the progressive march of history.
(2007: 108)

5. This is indicated most clearly in the IMA’s oath when cadets get recruited as
army officers.

‘I will remain as duty-bound, honestly and faithfully serve in the regular army
of the Union of India and go wherever ordered by land, sea or air and that
I will observe and obey all commands of the President of the Union of India
and the commands of any officer, over me, even to the peril of my life…’

2 New Boys at the Doon School

1. Turner proposed the structural framework of liminality and communitas to
define rites of passage in the context of highly structured rites such as the
Ndembu Kanongesha ceremony in the Congo that was the basis for his own
discussion in the first part of his essay. In the second part of the essay, Turner
applied the concepts of liminality and communitas to more modern contexts
and in these the attributes of liminal entities as described in relation to rites
of passage were more relaxed.
2. For detailed discussion of MacDougall’s SchoolScapes, one of the three films on
the Krishnamurthi schools see, Sharma, A. ‘The Theory–Practice Interface in
Film Education: Observational Films in India’; in, Myer, C. (ed.) 2011. Critical
Practice: Beyond the Theory of Film Practice. USA: Columbia University Press.

3 Gandhi’s Children
1. The Jahangirpuri Colony in northwest Delhi is a large slum resettlement
colony set up by the Delhi municipal authorities for resettlement of slum
dwellers who are low-scale casual labourers, scavengers and rag pickers. The
colony is divided into 12 blocks and its total population is a little over 5 lakhs.
The colony is dominated by migrants from Bihar, Bengal and Bangladesh.
About 30 per cent of the population is Hindu, the rest are Muslims. Children
and adults living in the colony engage with some form of labour.
2. Most state they earn anywhere between Rs. 50–200 ($1–4) per day.
3. Jacques Aumont notes that ‘psychic distance cannot be quantified’ (Aumont
1997: 77). He states that; ‘… a given representation in an image is more
accurately described, in psychological terms, as the organization of “existen-
tial relations experienced with their instinctual force, with a predominantly
248 Notes

affective sensorial register (tactile or visual) and a defensive intellectual

organization.” He adds that this ‘existential’ relation between the spectator
and the image has a; ‘spatiality that is linked to spatial structures in general’
and also a temporality ‘linked to the events represented and the temporal
structure flows from these.’ These qualify the concept of ‘psychic distance.’
Aumont also cites Pierre Francastel’s (1983) definition of psychic distance.’
‘The typical imaginary distance that regulates the relation between, on the
one hand, objects of representation and, on the other, the relation between
the object of representation and the spectator’ (Aumont 1997: 77).
4. Burch identifies hapticity in early cinema of the pre-code era to describe the
visual flatness of the interior tableaux in these films.
5. See, for example, blockbuster Bollywood films such as Border (1997), which
recreates the final war between India and Pakistan in 1971 and Lakshya
(2004), which focuses on the 1999 Kargil war between India and Pakistan.

4 An Arrested Eye: Trauma and Becoming in Desire

Machine Collective’s Documentary Installations

1. This installation was part of the ‘Being Singular Plural’ exhibition at the
Guggenheim Museum that ran from March–June 2012. Curated by Sandhini
Poddar, this exhibition included select works by contemporary Indian moving
image artists.
2. Desire Machine Collective, as the name suggests, draws on the ideas of
Deleuze and Guattari, particularly their concept of desiring machines that
they define in relation to the operations of capitalism. Deleuze and Guattari
emphasise that there is no such thing as desire, only desiring machines that
are principally binary machines, with one machine always coupled with
another. ‘The productive synthesis, the production of production, is inher-
ently connective in nature’ with flows that create a linear series (Deleuze and
Guattari 1977: 5). DMC is interested in confronting how capitalism perpetu-
ates many forms of fascism and violence and though their work is situated
in northeast India, they are committed to a cinema practice that speaks to
the links of capitalism and violence globally.
3. Interview conducted with Tambor Lyngdoh, member of the Khasi commu-
nity in the Mawphlang Sacred Forest, 19 June 2012.
4. For example, 25/75 is a surreal exploration of the links between dreaming and
the game ‘teer’ or arrow betting popular in the Khasi hills of Meghalaya. 30/12
juxtaposes an audio announcement of Saddam Hussein’s execution with a
market scene in Shillong, Meghalaya. A+Type dwells on traditional Assamese
home architectures to invite viewers into a sensory spatial imaginary.
5. Northeast India is bordered by China in the north, Burma in the east,
Bhutan and Bangladesh to the west. A narrow corridor of land to the north
of West Bengal, popularly called the Chicken’s Neck, links the northeast to
mainland India. Seven states, collectively known as the seven sisters consti-
tute the northeast region. These are: Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya,
Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Manipur. Topographically the northeast is
composed of low-lying soft hills, river basins and plains. The plains flank
either side of the wide and ferocious river Brahmaputra that originates in the
Notes 249

high plateaus of Tibet and cuts through Arunachal Pradesh and Assam before
entering Bangladesh where it merges into the Gangetic Delta. The northeast
region houses dense rainforests with rich deposits of natural resources such
as coal, rubber, petroleum and minerals. The region is best known for its
world famous, Assam tea.
6. Hinduism, brought by settlers of India, and Christianity, spread through
missionary contact during colonial times, have been differentially assimi-
lated by the region’s indigenous peoples.
7. Sir James Bampfylde Fuller, the first British Governor of the provinces of East
Bengal and Assam, famously termed the region as a ‘museum of nationali-
ties’, referencing the region’s cultural diversity (cited in Playfair 1909: xii).
8. Datta classifies the region’s population into three broad groups: tribal com-
munities occupying the hills; tribal communities occupying hills and plains;
and the non-tribals. While this classification draws from the policies of seg-
regation enforced in colonial times, it is reflective of the complex cultural
architecture of contemporary northeast India. In Datta’s schema, a first
group of communities is composed of those tribals who occupy distant hills
and are rather ‘isolated and free’ of organized Hindu or Christian contexts.
The second category is composed of communities whose tribal identity per-
sists alongside their acculturation with non-tribal cultures. These communi-
ties can be found in both the hills and plains. Besides Hinduism, a number
of such communities (the Khasis from Trespassers… for instance) practice
Buddhism or Christianity alongside tribal belief systems. The third category
is the non-tribal population who are mostly within the fold of the Hindu,
Sanskritized social and cultural structures (Datta 2012: 9–11).
9. During British colonial rule, all the states that today make up the northeast
constituted a single administrative unit that was called Assam. Today Assam
is one of seven states in northeast India.
10. Today Cooch-Behar is a district in West Bengal, while Cachar is included in
11. The Tai-Ahoms are linked to the Tai peoples whose presence spans across
southeast Asia where they are known by different names for eg. Shan in Burma,
Thai in Thailand or Tay-Thai in Vietnam (Baruah 2011: 217 and Das 1999: 8).
12. Throughout British colonial rule, a range of policies were exercised to main-
tain the segregation of the hill regions. The Government of India Act 1919
pronounced the hill regions as ‘backward’ and later, the Simon Commission
of 1930 termed the hill regions as ‘excluded’, implying that the hill regions
were in such a state that they fell outside the social and cultural mainstream
of British India.
13. At the time of India’s independence the British administration even made
a proposition for the segregated hill regions to form into a separate ‘Crown
Colony’ of the British Empire on the grounds that these areas were so ‘backward’,
they were not ready for independence or assimilation into independent India.
14. Under colonial rule, Christian missionaries were encouraged and gained wide-
spread following across the hill regions with the result that today hill states
such as Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland are predominantly Christian.
15. The addition of Assam to the Bengal Province was to facilitate the trade of tea
and other cash crops through the nearest port of Calcutta. This also became
the basis for mass migration of landless peasants displaced from the eastern
250 Notes

districts of Bengal, now Bangladesh. These migrations have continued in

contemporary times.
16. By ‘Assam’, I am now referring to the state of Assam in India. It is one of the
seven states that make up northeast India.
17. This coincides with Partha Chatterjee’s discussion that industrial modernisa-
tion necessitates cultural homogeneity (Chatterjee 1993b: 5–6).
18. Following the dissatisfactions from the 1985 Assam Accord the movement
assumed militant and separatist overtones, asserting Assamese nationalism.
19. Print news media analysis in a study conducted by this author reveals how
mainstream Indian newspapers reductively represent the northeast, often
deeming the discord and insurgency in the region as the only relevant
news from the region. These are presented without any historical or cultural
context. For more details, see Sharma, A. 1999. Assam: What is the Story?
Dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for BA
(Hons.) Journalism, University of Delhi.
20. The work’s emphasis on news is because news programming is the domi-
nant visual regime through which northeast India gets depicted in Indian
media. Besides daily news, the topic of insurgency has been represented in
news-based programming. Newstrack, produced by investigative journalist
Madhu Trehan and Independent Media Private Limited’s, Balanced View are
some examples of news-based programming that have taken up northeast
21. Daily Check-up has been screened as an installation where it runs on a loop;
and it can be viewed as a short film too.
22. Enacted in 1958 when the Naga peoples’ movement was gaining momen-
tum, the AFSPA constitutes a ‘legal framework’ for conducting counter-
insurgency operations against armed rebellions in the northeast. Since the
late 1950s, most territories of northeast India have been steadily brought
under the purview of the AFSPA.
23. The Act empowers armed forces personnel to:

1. Fire upon or use other kinds of force even if it causes death;

2. Arrest without warrant and with the use of ‘necessary’ force anyone who
has committed certain offences or is suspected of having done so;
3. Enter and search any such premise in order to make such arrests (Baruah
2012: 62).

24. This footage circulated widely through the internet.

25. See, for example, Mona Hatoum’s Measures of Distance, 1988; Fiona Tan’s
Saint Sebastian, 2001; and Eija Liisa Ahtila’s The Hour of Prayer, 2006.
26. In experimental, documentary and avant-garde films as also genres such as film
noir this principle of lighting has been problematized and alternative lighting
designs devised that complement the overall film aesthetic and ideologies.

5 Passage
1. The United Liberation Front of Assam, one of the key separatist outfits of
Assam, has categorically termed as ‘colonial’ the relationship between Assam
Notes 251

and New Delhi on account of the exploitation of the state’s resources by

mainland India and the inequitable distribution of economic benefits for the
state. (Baruah 2011: 150).
2. In a film (celluloid) camera, for each focal length there is a separate lens.
3. Used principally in news, travel or automotive programmes, the zooming
movements have become an established visual idiom for providing informa-
tion: the zoom-in often directs the viewer’s attention to a detail from a wider,
panoramic view; while conversely, a zoom-out spatially contextualizes minu-
tiae in relation to a wider whole.
4. I am using ‘effect’ to refer to the formal and visual effects of the prism-like
instrument as seen in the image. This is different from ‘affect’ which is the
sensory and emotive response the visual effects provoke in the viewer.
5. While for Burch the PMR does not bear a modernist investment, Tom
Gunning has noted that avant-garde cinema, particularly in America bears
points of comparison with early cinema and its PMR. According to him,
while both early and avant garde cinema are distinct from commercial,
institutional film in specific ways, their codes and regimes are comparable
especially because filmmakers such as Ernie Gehr, Hollis Frampton and Ken
Jacobs directly borrowed techniques from early cinema (Testa 1992: 18). Baart
Testa further argues that it is ‘inevitable’ for avant garde filmmakers including
the struturalist-materialists, to turn to early cinema’s visual regimes as a move
to ‘recover the origins of their art’ (Testa 1992: 08–09). DMC’s Passage can be
understood as imbued with this will to recover the origins of cinema.
6. The painterly tendency was exemplified through the works of such artists
as Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray and Hans Richter (mostly cubists) and the liter-
ary tendency was best exemplified through the cinema of the Soviet School
including Eisenstein, Vertov and Dovzhenko (Wollen 1976: 78).

6 Residue
1. The film has been presented as a single screen installation. It is 39 minutes
long and it contains end credits. After these have rolled, the installation loops
back to the start. Viewers can enter and leave the screening at any time.
2. See disparity between realism and montage in Hill, J. & Gibson, P. C. (2000,
2nd edn.) Film Studies: Critical Approaches. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
3. According to Deleuze, the ‘movement image’ is related to cinemas such as
classical Hollywood in which the image involves causal action. Then there
is the ‘time image’ that depicts time in non-causal terms. Deleuze relates the
rise of the ‘time image’ after the Second World War because the link between
the sensory-motor schema, at the heart of the action and movement images
was broken-up. He states that after the war there has been a ‘rise of situations
to which one can no longer react, of environments with which there are now
only chance relations, of empty or disconnected any-space-whatevers replac-
ing qualified extended space’ (2001: 272).
4. Emphasis mine.
5. Deleuze identified the any-spaces-whatever in Italian neorealist films. These
often focused on sites devastated by the Second World War. Here characters
were pushed away from being active protagonists to seers and observers,
252 Notes

feeling the limitations of rationalizing what they were witnessing. The young
child in Rosellini’s Germany Year Zero, the old man in De Sica’s Umberto D –
these are all the characters who witness, who see and cannot perform any
action in the empty, deserted spaces where they are emplaced. They are the
‘new race of mutants’ who do not act but see (Deleuze 2001: xi).
6. The masses in Eisenstein’s masterpieces, Battleship Potemkin and October come
to mind here. They were visible subjects of history.
7. Acousmatic sounds in the film follow the wave principle. They arise and per-
sist over a series of images. A sound will be steadily introduced on low level
and it will slowly gain in pitch and level. After peaking and being held at that
level for a while, where on most occasions it is all we hear, it will slowly wear
off through a long drawn fade-out.

7 A Turn Towards the Classical: the Documentaries

of Kumar Shahani
1. Kala: art, kavya: poetry, sangeet: music.
2. Ritwik Ghatak migrated from East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, to India.
Throughout his career he questioned the partition.
3. For example, Romila Thapar elaborates on the role of ideology in the inter-
pretation of early Indian history. In her discussion she raises how a post-
Renaissance worldview inflected the studies of nineteenth-century Orientalists,
Indologists and administrator-scholars of the East India Company. This histori-
cal tradition reflected the political and ideological interests of Europe and was
geared to uphold those interests (Thapar 2000: 3). Sumit Sarkar notes that in
the 1950s the project of history writing assumed a ‘new look’, ‘due in part to
the much greater use of archival material, private papers, as well as of local
sources unearthed through field studies’ (Sarkar 1983: 6).
4. In Kosambi’s understandings, dynastic changes and religious upheavals
were in themselves indicative of ‘powerful changes in the productive basis’
and hence ought to be studied in this wider, class-related context and not in
isolation (Kosambi 1975: 13). Critiquing charges of economic-determinism
in this approach, Kosambi insisted that the dialectical materialist method
did not posit causes, but worked by recognizing conditions in society
(Kosambi 1975: 10).
5. Kosambi’s emphasis on the materialist approach arose from an understanding
of the difference of Indian history from the established canons of European
histories. India, unlike Europe, did not have a history based on dynastic epi-
sodes. Arguing that India was a unique country of long survivals, he asserted
that multiple historical periods could be seen operating simultaneously in
India (Kosambi 1975: 8).
6. Kumar Shahani, in an interview with author, 2006. Full interview transcript
available in Sharma, A. Montage and Ethnicity: Experimental Film Practice
and Editing in the Documenattion of the Gujarati, Indian Community in South Wales.
PhD thesis, 2007.
7. Shahani has side-stepped the binarisms that western film theory was to
enforce between realism and modernism, first in the classical period of film
theory and later, the political modernist. See, Dossier – Kumar Shahani, 1986.
8. For a detailed discussion see, Shahani, K. ‘Reflections’.
Notes 253

9. This has provoked very complex equations with funding bodies that have
supported Shahani and found that his films do not contain the ideologies
they would like to advance. It is for this reason that Shahani’s documenta-
ries, Bhavantarana and The Bamboo Flute, both made by support from public
sources, have received sparse distribution.
10. For further discussion of Shahani’s break with Godard see, Sharma, A. ‘The
Theory-Practice Interface in Film Education’; in, Myer, C. (2011 ed.) Critical
Cinema: Beyond the Theory of Practice. USA: Columbia University Press.
11. All classical dances of India draw upon the other arts, synthesizing influences
from literature, sculpture and music. The themes of the dances span the epic
and mythic narratives of Hindu Gods, asuras (demons), kings and humans.
Kapila Vatsyayan notes that Indian dances cannot be separated from the
broader canon of drama. Drawing upon the seminal text, Bharata’s Natyashastra
Vatsyayan states that ‘… at a very early stage of development, both these arts
[dance and drama] fused themselves into one and, by the time Bharata wrote
his treatise, dance was very much a part of drama, they had many points of
contact and both were consciously perceived as one’ (Vatsyayan 1974: 6).
12. The dancer is in a traditional Odishi costume that serves in locating this
dance for it has ikkat patterns particular to Odisha. The distinctly identifiable
waist belt and other ornaments such as those for the hair have designs in
silver filigree that is typical to Odisha.
13. See, Banerji, Anurima. 2012 ‘Dance and the Distributed Body: Odissi, Ritual
Practice, and Mahari Performance’, About Performance. No. 11. Centre for
Performance Studies.
14. Within dance documentation discussions, often the function of the camera is
reduced to recording – standing back and documenting movement. The aim
of such documentation is to preserve the performance in its entirety. While
this approach has methodological relevance in that performers and dancers
can use such footage to study their own work; both performers and filmmak-
ers find this role of the camera passive and limiting. Some scholarship in
the field of dance and camera has argued for a more dialogical relationship
between both. See Rosenberg, D. 2000. Screen Dance. available @ http://www. and, Harrington & Sharma 2013. ‘Practices
of Undisciplining: Notes on the Interface of Dance and Moving Image
Performance’; in, Journal of Choreographic Practices, 4.2, 151–71.
15. Vatsyayan bases this classification on classical texts, including Bharata’s
Natyashastra, the Abhinaya Darpana, and the Sangitaratnakara alongside numer-
ous medieval texts.
16. Gotipuas are cross-dressed transgender performers who perform a less refined
form of dance in public spaces.
17. Maharis were female ritual dancers who performed exclusively in the temple.
This practice has now completely diminished.
18. Tribhangi is also known as tribhanga. The two terms refer to the same posture.
Tribhangi is used more commonly in Odissi parlance.
19. This position entails a dipping of the spine towards the earth.
20. Comparing Indian dance with western forms such as ballet Vatsyayan states:

In the latter, a moment in space where the human form is free from gravity
is emphasized. Western ballet strives thus to eliminate space by covering as
much space as possible, whether floor-space or air-space. It cuts space into
254 Notes

chunks of movement, leaps and floor choreography. These are woven into
the most intricate patterns. The Western dancer is reaching out into space
vertically and horizontally in order to arrest a moment of perfect dynamic
movement. Whatever perfection the Western dancer achieves, he does by
making geometrical patterns in space, where movement is conceived as
an attempt to be free from gravity. The Indian dancer, on the other hand,
attempts quite the opposite; consequently the two differ completely in
their approach to movement. The Indian dancer’s preoccupation is not so
much with space as with time, with the dancer constantly trying to achieve
the perfect pose to convey a sense of timelessness. The human form here
achieves geometrical shapes in time rather than in space, for the intricacy of
the nritta technique depends on the very fine and deliberate manipulation
of rhythm (tala) to achieve a series of poses. The perfect pose is a moment of
arrested time – in limited space. (Vatsyayan 1974: 09)
21. Indian parallel cinema depictions of Odishan performance practices such
as the gotipua dance have also been set in outdoor locations for example,
Amol Palekar’s 1996 film, Daayra. For discussion see, Sharma, A. ‘The Square
Circle: Probelmatising the National Masculine Body in Indian Cinema’; in
Fouz-Hernandez, S. 2009 (ed.) Mysterious Skin: Male Bodies in Contemporary
Cinema. London: I. B. Tauris.
22. Two popular exceptions include Michael Jackson’s music video Black or
White, in which an Odissi dancer is seen on the curb of a busy freeway and
the opening montage of Zee TV’s travelogue Namaste India in whose closing
shot we see an Odissi dancer performing against a temple entrance.
23. Similarly, dance sequences pertaining to episodes from the Mahabharata are
composed in locations that uphold the complex dynamics of the political
moves from the epic poem. The game of dice where Yudishthira pawns all
his possessions including his brothers and wife is composed against a pitch
black background against which Guru Mohaptara performs in a striking red
silken outfit – the limited and strong colours of this sequence enhancing the
overall tension in this piece.
24. Camera movements are at the most basic level geared to accommodating all
elements necessary within the mise-en-scene and reflecting their interrela-
tions within the visual field, here the frame. Even when the camera moves
in a more subjective way, say when emulating a character’s shifting points
of view as s/he moves navigating space, camera movement remains geared
towards accommodating those aspects of the visual field that are pertinent to
the mise-en-scene, here in relation to the subjective stance of the character.
Camera movements are thus planned and/or rehearsed with the entire
team of camera operators including focus pullers so that any magnification
changes that may take place during movement can be supported with neces-
sary focal length changes.
25. Merleau-Ponty elaborates on vision and touch stating that while at an
immediate level, these are distinct senses, tactile perception draws on them
together. He states:

… the tactile localization of an object, for example, assigns to it its place in

relation to the cardinal points of the body image. This property which, at
Notes 255

first sight, draws an absolute distinction between touch and vision, infact
makes it possible to draw them together. It is true that the visible object is
in front of us and not on our eye, but we have seen that in the last resort
the visible position, size or shape are determined by the direction, scope and
hold which our gaze has upon them. (Merleau-Ponty 2006: 367)

8 The Bamboo Flute

1. Feminist phenomenologists such as Luce Irigaray have elaborated on how
the sense of touch develops before and through birth. See, Irigaray, L. 1993b.
(2nd edn. Translated by Gillian C. Gill) ‘Divine Women’ in, Sexes and
Genealogies. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 55–72.
2. The hearing impaired are not necessarily devoid of the experience of sound.
Their listening apparatus does not recognize the vibrations that constitute the
normative levels of sound.
3. On music and abstraction, see Kendall L. Walton. ‘What is Abstract about the
Art of Music?’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Crtiticism, 46.3, 351–64.
4. Michel Chion notes that cinema is principally verbocentric – the assembly
and reading of images is often, across genres, driven by verbal discourse
that anchors and shapes our understanding of the image. He elaborates how
sound impacts the perception of movement, speed and even time in the
image. Chion holds that sound perception is of a different nature, slightly
faster in pace than visual perception (Chion 1994: 9–11).
5. See Banerji, S.C. 1976. Fundamentals of Ancient Indian Music and Dance. India:
L.D. Institute of Indology & Bose, H. 1988. Philosophy in Indian Music. India:
Rupa and Co.
6. Indian music’s emphasis on cyclicality should not be understood with a view
to perpetuate an east-west binary with western music understood as linear
and therefore operating on principles opposite to those of Indian music.
According to Martin Clayton the emphasis on cyclicality in Indian music has
developed over time and it can be historicised. Over time, features that indi-
cated cyclicality were enhanced and those that compromised it were ignored
or suppressed (Clayton 2000: 22).

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Note: Page numbers in bold type refer to Figures; numbers in bold italic indicate
related text on that page.
AASU (All Assam Students alaap 220–1, 222
Union) 114 Anderson, Benedict 1
abhinaya (dance/drama Andhra Pradesh see Rishi Valley
concept) 195, 197–8 School
absent memory 161, 181 aniconic idols 210
actuality films 10, 15 Antonioni, Michelangelo 157
see also topicals any-space-whatever 6, 24, 157, 158,
aesthetics 3, 14, 16, 18, 33, 37, 95, 159
132, 135–7, 213, 236, 240 Appadurai, Arjun 48
aural 24 Arabhi Pallavi (dance sequence) 204
austere 31 Asian-American media arts 167
Bazinian 153 Assam 113–15, 118, 149, 151, 160
commercial 142 British control established 111–12
complex 178 see also Delhi; Guwahati
critical 20–5, 239 Assam Cinearts Society 119
Grierson’s perceived displeasure Assam Sahitya Sabha 114
with 15 Assam State Electricity Board 150
haptic 24, 96, 142–8, 149, 154 Assamese language 112, 160
Kosambian approach to 216 promotion of 114
orderly 51 Aumont, Jacques 95
photographic 32 aurality see hapticity
physically dominated 46–9, 50, 54 Australia 32
prescriptive 229 Australian National University Center
rasa 197, 220 for Cross-Cultural Research 23
realist 9, 15, 215 authenticity 19, 101
social 41–4, 81 style and 9
subtle 94 avant-garde film 2, 21, 35, 40, 140,
visual 24, 70, 74, 118, 238 147–8, 200
see also documentary aesthetics
AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers background sound 39, 60, 83, 177–8
Act, 1958) 120, 162 extensive use of Indian music
Agamben, Giorgio 24, 130, 133 for 12
Age of Reason, The (MacDougall Baer, Ulrich 171–2
2004) 34, 55, 238 Bamboo Flute, The (Shahani
Abhishek Shukla in 56, 57, 64–5, 2000) 24, 179, 211, 214–36, 238
66, 67, 68, 70, 71–4, 75–6, 93 see also Valli
Aggarwala, Jyotiprasad 118 Banerji, Anurima 197, 199–200
Ahom kingdom 111–12 Banerji, S. C. 222
AJK Mass Communication Research Bangladesh 111, 114
Center 14, 15 war of liberation (1971) 121

Index 265

Barker, Jennifer 207–8 Chatterjee, Partha 3, 45

Barnouw, Eric 12–13, 31 Chaurasia, Pandit Hariprasad 215–16,
Barua, Jhanu 119 218, 227
Baruah, Sanjib 109, 112, 113–14, child labour 86, 87, 94
115, 117, 119, 120 illegal 84, 85
Battu (dance sequence) 192–3, 202 children’s institutions see Doon School
Baudelaire, C. P. 231 Chronicles; Gandhi’s Children
Bazin, André 153, 229 China 113, 114
Beavers, Robert 140 Yunnan Province 112
Bengal 112, 182, 193 Chion, Michel 131, 165–6, 212, 219
see also West Bengal Chitralekha Movietone
Bengal Partition (1905) 11 Company 118
Bengali language 112, 114, 118 choreography 137, 164, 177, 189,
Beveridge, James 15 196, 226, 227
Bhabha, Homi 3–4 see also free camera choreography
Bhatvadekar, Harishchandra S. 10 cine-trance 74, 75
Bhavantarana (Shahani 1991) 24, cinema 21, 25, 39–40, 76, 116, 168,
177–80, 187–211, 215, 219, 225, 173, 241
228, 235, 237, 238 anthropocentric 163, 167, 215,
Bholaguri tea estate 118 232
Bhubhaneshwar 192 art 118
Bialis, Laura 170–1 avant-garde 35, 140
biopics 187, 235 camera magnification 201
Bloch, Ernst 167 classical 12
Bombay 118, 180 cosmomorphic approach to 24,
see also Mumbai 215, 227–35
Bombay Talkies 118 critical 22, 100, 108, 119
Bourdieu, Pierre 42 deeply historical and
Brahma 190 meditative 179
Brahmaputra river valley 111 delayed 41
brahmins 209 depicting dance through 201, 202,
Brazil 173 204–7, 209–11
Bresson, Robert 186 depth of field 153
Brewster, David 141 devices and techniques 237–8;
British colonial rule 49, 111–12 see also close-ups; depth of field;
independence from 3, 11, 32, 45, framing; light; mise-en-scène;
113, 135 montage; sound
Bruzzi, Stella 9, 19 early 2, 142, 144
Buddhism 169, 170, 190 epic 24, 236
Burch, Noel 12, 96, 144 experimental 139
Burmah-Shell 15 haptic 96, 144, 146, 149
Burmese empire 111 intercultural and diasporic 158
modernist 35, 74, 158
Cachar 111 movement-image 157
Calcutta 118, 135 movement in 164
Carnatic music 221, 224 national 10, 18
Cartoon Film Unit 12 ontological similarity between
Chanana, O. 13–14 memory and 162
Chandrapur 150 optical 158
266 Index

cinema – continued community formation 38, 53, 54,

philosophical approach to 179, 59, 64, 73
180–7 concert dance 200
political 35, 186 Cooch-Behar 111
purist 140 cosmomorphism 24, 215, 227–35
realist 15, 140, 184 counter-insurgent gaze 23–4, 117,
representation of childhood 122–6, 128
through 35, 66, 80 disassembling the dominant trope
Shahani’s writings on 185 of 109
spatializing 213 interrogating 119–20
structuralist-materialist 139–41 courtwalas 80, 81, 99
third 167 Cowan, Phillip 205–6
time-image 156–8, 161–2 Crary, Jonathan 83
trauma 109, 110, 170–2 creative imperative 101
world 119 creativity 4, 9, 20, 31, 40, 65, 68,
see also narration; narratives; 146, 148, 162, 179, 183, 185,
observational cinema 191–2, 205–6, 214, 237–8, 240
cinéma vérité 74 childhood 74
cinematic-becoming 146, 148–9 Griersonian tradition negotiates
cinematic self-reflexivity 35, 102, questions of 15
140 limited 16
advance over more conventional cricket 47, 91
forms of 239 values observed as characteristic
cinematography 15, 22, 31, 118, of 48
125, 143, 198, 204–7, 209, 229 cultural discourses 9, 33, 42, 44, 54,
MacDougall’s approach 44 115, 118
Shahani’s approach 179, 180, 221, colonial discourse that
235, 238 permeates 72
stylization through choices of 9 dominant 37, 61, 179
Clayton, Martin 220, 221, 222, 223 insight into 41
close-ups 44, 151, 160, 198, 201, 226 nationalist 180
abstract 191–2, 228 processes of othering rooted in 34
big 66 scientific rationalist thought
extreme 147, 177 within 46
fine, textured 154 cultural diversity 117
microscopic 147 ethnographic films celebrate 13
static 155 rich 110
sustained 60 vast 4
tight 70, 143, 178, 191, 225 cultural homogeneity 3, 4
colonialism 4, 7–8, 32, 141, 150, 238
ability to question 69 Daily Check-up (DMC 2005) 109,
cultural and epistemic 119–33, 134, 135, 142, 145, 148,
constructs 34 150–1, 170, 172–3, 238, 240
space/site tied with 147, 148, 151 Damoh 92
see also British colonial rule; dance see choreography; Odissi dance
postcolonialism Dandi March 11
columns of light 141, 142–3, 144–5 Danish Dogme 95 manifesto 135
X-Ray 138, 139, 143 Das, J. 112
communism 162 Datta, Birendranath 111
Index 267

deep reflexivity 23, 35 processes by which they get

ground for competing approaches made 8
to childhood 73–7 propagandist 1
mapping transactions range of issues confronted by 17
between institutions and reflexive 4, 20, 23, 239, 241
individuals 99–103 short 11
Dehradun 32, 36, 58 subjective voice linked to
Deleuze, Gilles 24, 110, 156–8, 161 personal 5
Delhi 108, 131, 215 television 10
Jahangirpuri Colony 78, 79 tie between reality and 18–20,
Khoj International Artists’ 21
Residency Programme 119 documentary aesthetics 2, 6, 8, 9,
see also Prayas Children’s Home 13, 15, 238, 239
depth of field 31, 128, 152, 153, 154 leftist 21
Deren, Maya 201 meanings constructed
Dev, Kapil 47–8 through 242
Dheere Sameera (Odissi dance Shahani’s approach 179, 180, 185,
piece) 195 192, 214
Dil Se (Ratnam 1998) 117 Documentary Studies 1, 7
distance 53, 79, 85, 98, 102, 126, Doon School Chronicles (MacDougall
128, 129, 130, 139, 152, 209 2000) 33–45, 51–6, 63, 66, 71,
camera maintains 198, 201 76, 78, 100
closeness and 68, 166 morning assembly 37, 59
cultural 116 physically dominated
heightened sense of 127 aesthetic 46–7, 48, 49, 54
mic 166
psychic 95 education 11, 32, 72, 241
vertical and horizontal 159 informal 81
see also close-ups institutionalized 57
DMC (Desire Machine Collective) 2, media distribution 21
4, 6, 20, 21, 23–4, 107–33, 238, narrow, pedantic or
239 prescriptive 235
see also Daily Check-up; Passage; prestigious programmes 14
Residue science 46
documentaries self 5
critical 1, 20 see also Gandhi’s Children
emergence of 6–7 educational films 12, 23
ethnographic 13 educational institutions 35, 112
Griersonian influence on 15 children’s experiences in 4
institutionalized 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, prestigious 36
15–16, 239–40 see also Doon School Chronicles
instructional 12 Eisenstein, Sergei 140, 164, 184
interventions made by 2, 22, 25 Battleship Potemkin (1925) 132
limited scholarship on 16 October (1928) 132
oppositional 9, 10, 14–15, 15–16, Elsaesser, Thomas 99, 213
123 Emergency period (India 1975–7) 17
poetic 7, 24 English Public Schools 44
political 16–17, 21 episodic film 194, 214–15, 233, 234,
positioned in the world 8 235
268 Index

epistemologies 1, 2, 7, 20, 21, 32, Gadihoke, Sabeena 5

52, 236, 237, 239, 240 Galt, R. 162, 163
colonial 100, 158, 179 Gandhi, Mahatma (M. K.) 11, 118
competing 133, 180 Gandhi’s Children (MacDougall
complex 184, 238 2008) 23, 29–30, 33, 34, 35,
constructions in line with 42 77–103, 237
creative 238 see also Prayas Children’s Home
critical observation of 76 Ganesha 224
cultural 4, 180, 181, 183, 185; see Gangar, Amrit 13–14
also cultural discourses Ganges 232
multilayered 184 Garg, B. D. 13
essayistic film 17, 32, 34 Gell, Alfred 210
ethnographic films 2, 7–8, 10, 29, Gellner, Ernest 1
30, 32–6, 101 Germany 118
documentaries 13 see also Guggenheim Museum
film festivals 21, 23 (Berlin)
see also UCLA Ghatak, Ritwik 181, 182
experimental film 10, 96, 172 Meghey Dhaka Tara (1960) 193
Gidal, Peter 139, 140
FAB (Film Advisory Board) 11, 12 Godard, Jean-Luc 157, 186
FD (Films Division) 11–14 Gohain, Hiren 113
feminists 145, 147, 167 Gotipuas 197
fiction film 10, 135, 171, 178 Government of India Act (1972) 120
depiction of children 36 Gramscian analysis 116
film festivals 10, 178 Granada Centre 98
avant-garde 21 Grierson, John 15–16
ethnographic 21, 23 Grimshaw, Anna 38, 41–2, 74
Fine, Ellen S. 161 Guggenheim Museum
folk music 220 Berlin 108, 150
Foot, A. E. 39 New York 23, 107–8, 150
Foot House (Doon School) 57, 58, Gujarat riots (2003) 16
65, 66, 71 Gunning, Tom 141–2
new boys (footies) 59–64 Guwahati 108, 150
foreignness 57, 65, 68–9, 71 Guwahati Cinema Club 119
Foucault, Michel 48–9, 51, 88
framing 59, 133, 201, 204, 219, 230, habitus 42
238 Hagener, Malte 99, 213
double 139 Hamsadhwani (raga) 224, 226
persistent 200 hapticity
ritual and 228 aesthetics 24, 96, 142–8, 149, 154
Frampton, Hollis 139 aurality 24, 144, 146, 147, 212
free camera choreography 24, 180, visuality 24, 94–9, 143, 144, 146,
198 147
Bhavantarana 202, 203, 204–11, Hershman, Lynn 170–1
215, 225, 228, 235, 238 Higson, Andrew 18, 22
French nouvelle vague 119 Hildebrand, Adolf 95
FRI (Forest Research Institute) 49–50, Himalayan foothills 110
55, 100 Hindi films 54, 90, 116–17, 118
funding 1, 2, 10, 34, 185 patriotic 100
Index 269

Hindus 160 independence 15, 44, 46, 114, 158,

Hindutva fascistic ideology 17 178, 179, 188, 196
Hindustani music 221, 230 energy and vigour infused by 181
Hockings, P. 31 see also British colonial rule
Hollywood 144, 161, 171 India-Pakistan Partition (1947) 17,
Holocaust 110, 172 121, 180, 181, 182–3
French literature surrounding 161 Indian Highways (new media
homesickness 60, 63, 84 exhibition) 121
homewalas 80, 81, 99 Indradyumna (Odishan king) 209
Hussein, M. F. 13 industrialization/industrialism 3, 4,
hyperreality 135 13, 49
institutional authoritarianism 53
iconic idols 210 instructional films 11, 12
identity 1, 35, 114, 208 intersubjectivity 7, 37, 241
being precedes 186 growing recognition of 8
common 81, 101 reflexivity and 20–5
cultural 45 inward-looking process 22
national 5, 52, 101 Irigaray, Luce 145–6
perception of 60 Italian neorealism 38, 119
rationalized 23 Italy 32
sense of 74, 112
stable markers of 63 Jagannath 188, 190–1, 209–10
streamlined and simplified 5 Jain religion 190
identity formation 5 Jamia Milia Islamia University
identity politics 5, 180, 183 see AJK
ideological postures 23, 181, 182 Jayadeva (Sanskrit poet) 195
ideologies 1, 2, 8, 21, 36, 125, Jayamanne, Laleen 24, 236
dominant 100, 102, 186, 187 Kabir, Ananya Jahanara 121–2
fascistic 17 kaleidoscope 139–42, 146
normative nationalist 100 Kanwar, Amar 17, 18, 121, 122
reactionary 16 Kapur, Geeta 9, 16–18, 179
shaping of 135 Karam in Jaipur (MacDougall
state 9 2003) 47, 64, 68
IFI (Information Films of India) 11, Kashmir conflict 121
12, 13 Kathmandu 64
IMA (Indian Military Kaul, Mani 13
Academy) 49–50, 55, 100 Kenya 32
images and sounds 1, 139, 146, 152, Khasi peoples 107, 108
153, 192, 216 Khayal Gatha (Shahani 1989) 178
sense of environment 43–4 Konark 192
still 39–40 Korea 119
video notebook uses 123 Kosambi, D. D. 24, 181–3, 216
Imphal 121 Kothari, Sunil 188, 190–1
IMR (institutional[ized] modes of Kracauer, Siegfried 214–15, 233–5
representation) 12, 25 Krishna 190–1, 192, 195, 200–1,
breaking from 21 204, 210, 214, 215, 218, 226–7
Shahani’s aesthetics radically Krishnamurti, J. 32, 33, 76
removed from 185 Krishnaswamy, S. 12–13
270 Index

Kubelka, Peter 139 masculinity 17, 34, 54, 100

Kuru Yadhunandana (Odissi dance physically dominated aesthetic
piece) 195, 202 of 46–9
mass communication 20, 184
Larkana 180 see also AJK
Lebow, A. 5 Mawphlang sacred forest 107–8
light 95, 96, 133, 135, 136, 146, 189, Maya Darpan (Shahani 1972) 178
223, 227, 228 Mazid 2007 118
blazing 123, 125, 126, 129, 132 Meghalaya 107
crimson 138, 177, 178, 188, 191, 230 Merleau-Ponty, M. 6, 207
golden 137, 138, 177, 178 Mexico 173
pure 147 Mimura, Glen M. 167
single-point 201 Minh-ha, Trinh T. 7–8
split image of 140, 141, 142 Ministry of Information and
surveillance 125, 126, 129, 132, Broadcasting Film Unit see FD
134, 238 mise-en-scène 20, 178, 191, 201,
unidirectional flow of 151 202, 210–11, 224, 226, 232
white 123, 124, 125, 139 elements within/of 205, 208, 228
see also columns of light unrestrained 184
Lim, Bliss 167–8 used as mode for articulating
liminality 61–3, 166 cosmomorphism 229
Lind, Maria 19 Mitchell, Timothy 51
London (Serpentine Gallery) 121 Mizoram 112
Lumière Brothers 10, 185 modernism 74
political 35, 147, 157
MacDougall, David 2, 4, 6, 20, 21, realism and 151–60
23, 29–77, 239, 240 modernity 2, 3
see also Age of Reason; Doon School critical take against 141
Chronicles; Gandhi’s Children; intellectual premises of 45
Karam in Jaipur; New Boys; Photo questioning the universalisms
Wallahs; With Morning Hearts of 163–8
MacDougall, Judith 32 values tied to 4
Mahadeviyakka (medieval Kannada modernization 13, 45, 52, 54
poetess) 188 Doon School’s emphasis on 55
Mahaprabhu, Chaitanya 190 nation-building and 3, 34, 44, 100
Maharis 197 state-led 14
Malaysia 119 Mohapatra, Guru Kelucharan 24,
Mammata Bhatta 232 177, 178, 187, 188, 191, 194,
Manchester 98 195, 196–8, 201, 202, 204, 205,
Mangalacharana 188, 189, 190, 191, 209–11, 218, 230, 235
192 montage 9, 20, 22, 153, 154, 158,
Manhattan 107–8 179, 181, 188, 190, 196, 210, 211,
Manipur 111, 113, 120, 121 226, 229
Manorama, Thangjam 121 bold approach to 235
Marcus, George 132 cosmomorphic approach to 238
Marks, John 162 fast-paced 156
Marks, Laura 96, 97, 146, 158, 161 rhythmic potentials achieved
Maru Bihag (raga) 230 through 140
Marxist thought 24, 102, 140, 181 Soviet 119, 132, 140, 164, 184
Index 271

subtle 65 event-centered 240

thinly-tied 177–8 grand 7, 167
tonal 110, 164 human de-emphasized as principal
unrestrained 184 source and drive for 215
Mulvey, Laura 40–1, 147 illusionist 147
Mumbai 17, 218 inherently unstable 162
Hanging Gardens 10 institutionalized 144
Lumière Cinématographe life 128, 210
Exhibition (1896) 10 linear 41, 151
Murch, Walter 212–13 local 119
music 12, 31, 43, 118, 182, 189, 191, long-drawn, sustained and
212 incomplete or inconclusive 240
aesthetic practice of 213–14 mythic/mythological 187, 223
classical 179, 200, 220, 221, 222, pan-Indian 115
232–3, 235 pathetic 193
rhythmic 193, 199, 202, 224 personal 89–94, 96
schools of 24, 215 possibilities of 239
sound and 213–21, 224, 233 predetermined 185
musical instruments 215, 232 primal 142
dance movements depicting 193–4 principal 234
temple sculptures of women rape 121
playing 192 reassessing 181
see also Bamboo Flute reconstructing 181
Muslims 16, 93 repressed and/or hybrid 158
Mussoorie 32, 36 resolved 132
Myer, Clive 22 shaping 34, 57, 67, 146
shift in 72
Naficy, Hamid 132 subjects partake in 171
Nagaland 112 subnational 115
Nairn, Tom 1 subtle 141, 146, 224
nakabandi 122 universal 168
Narmada Dam Project 17 visualizing 198
narration 91, 223 Narwekar, Sanjit 11, 13, 14
epic 236 nation-building 13, 45–6, 54, 55, 115
informative 12, 13 collapse of 168
verbocentric 12 modernization and 3, 34, 44, 100
voiceover 12 propagandist documentaries and 1
narratives 31, 32, 59–61, 64, 68, 76, understanding of 52, 53, 100
100, 102, 103, 116–17, 140, 146, National Education and Information
150, 179, 197, 214, 219 Films Ltd 12
advancing 228 National Film Board of Canada 15
anti-mainstream 141 National Security Act (1980) 120
bifurcated structures 163 nationalism 23, 44, 45, 112, 114,
celebratory 168 115, 117, 148, 150, 180
cultural 3 anti-colonial charge 3
deeply affective and perceptual 148 dominant 100
delicate 30, 80 jingoistic 69
disjunctive, disintegrated and normative 77, 100, 116
fragmentary 172 see also subnationalism
272 Index

nationhood 25, 33, 35, 100 phenomenology 6, 24, 96, 179–80,

modern 3, 4 206, 241
postcolonial 168 feminist 145
nayikas 192 Shahani ties cosmomorphism to the
Neelmadhava 209, 210 rise of 229
Nehru, Jawaharlal 11, 13, 44 Photo Wallahs (MacDougall
Nepal 56, 57, 64, 68, 69 1992) 32, 36, 40
New Boys, The (MacDougall 2003) 34, PMR (primitive mode of
55, 56, 57, 58, 59–65, 73, 76, 238 representation) 144
newsreels 11 postcolonialism 7, 109, 147, 158,
NGOs (non-governmental 168
organizations) 10, 34, 78, 80 filmic representations 167
Nichols, Bill 7, 101 power plant operations 9, 24, 149–
nonsynchronism 167–8 55, 156, 158, 159, 160–1, 163,
Nowell-Smith, G. 12 165–70, 171, 172
Nritta (dance element) 192 Prabhat Studios 118
Prasad, Sir Jagdish 44
observational films/cinema 23, 29, Prayas Children’s Home for Boys 23,
30–55, 67–8, 72, 103 98, 101
central tenet of 37 approach to rehabilitation 78
emphases of 95, 102–3 aural atmosphere 99
Odissi dance 24, 177–80, 187–8, authoritarian approach 87
189, 190–4, 195, 196–211 inmates’ experiences 80–1, 82,
see also Kothari; Mohapatra; Panigrahi; 83–4, 85, 86–9, 91, 93–4, 100
Patnaik missionary agenda 83–9
optical visuality 95, 96 psychoanalytic theory 35, 102
Orissa 196–7 Puarnas 195
otherness 51–4, 71, 116 punishment 128
see also foreignness bullying and 53, 54
Ozu, Yasujirō 157 Punjab 180
Puri temple 191, 209
Pakistan see India-Pakistan Partition Puriya Dhanashri (raga) 230–1
Panigrahi, Sanjukta 189, 209
Paromita Vohra 10, 15 queer artists 167
partition see Bengal Partition; India- Quit Movement 11
Pakistan Partition
Pashyati Dheeshi Dheeshi (dance Raban, William 139
sequence) 203, 204 ragas 199, 220, 221–6, 230–2
Passage (DMC 2006) 109, 110, 133–49, Rai, Himansu 118
150, 151, 154, 165, 238 Rajadhyaksha, Ashish 12
Pathy, P. V. 13 Rajagopal, A. 10, 15
Patnaik, D. N. 188, 190, 196–7 Rajagopalachari, Shri 46
patriotic films 100 Ramayana (Sanskrit epic poem) 196
Patwardhan, Anand 10, 14, 17, 18 Rani, Devika 118
Payne, Robert 123 rape 121–2
performance images 128, 129, 130 rasas 196–7, 198, 220, 223
juxtaposed with news footage 121, Rathwa tribal peoples 218
126, 127, 132–3 priest in trance 217
sound of 131 Ratnam, Mani 117
Index 273

Ravetz, Amanda 38, 42 politics of 108, 133, 172

Ray, Satyajit 13, 182 postcolonial filmic 167
Pather Panchali (1955) 168, 234 primitive mode of 144
realism 110, 132, 184, 210, 215 problematizing 148, 167, 183
emphasis on 15 realist 110, 132, 210
modernism and 151–60 reduced to communication 184
understanding of 16 visual 32, 210
see also Italian neorealism see also IMR
reality 6, 15, 31, 102, 179, 230 Residue (DMC 2012) 24, 110, 149,
cinematography as practice for 150–73, 237
capturing 205 rhythm
construction of 8, 20 dance, music and 178, 192, 193,
didactic representation of 234 195, 199, 202, 209, 216, 221–4,
episode film’s ties to 233 228, 229, 231
innovative strategies for filmed sequences 136, 138, 140,
representing 171 144, 164, 209
Kracauer on 234 Riegl, Alois 95–6
narrative film’s illusion of 140 Rishi Valley School 32, 33, 76
pure and unmediated record of 239 rituals 13, 37, 160, 191, 228–9
scientific prerogative to everyday 43
represent 7 Rosen, Philip 18
testament of 18 Rossellini, Roberto 157
tie between documentary Paisan (1946) 234
and 18–20, 21 Rouch, Jean 74–5
unmediated depiction of 9 Rowell, Lewis 222
see also hyperreality Roy, Srirupa 44–5
Reassemblage (Minh-ha 1982) 7–8 Royal Anthropological Institute 98
Red Balloon, The (Lamorisse
1956) 234 Saikia, Bhabhendranath 119
reflexivity 34, 40, 41 sama (Odissi dance position) 199
intersubjectivity and 20–5 Sanskrit 111, 220
see also cinematic self-reflexivity; Sardinia 32
deep reflexivity Sartre, Jean-Paul 186
rehabilitation 78, 80–103 Sastry, S. N. S. 14
Renov, Michael 8, 19 Savara tribe 190, 209
representation 7, 101, 102, 119, Schechner, Richard 197, 220, 223
122–5, 140, 171, 180, 223, 238 Schoonover, K. 162, 163
absolutist and singular 183 Second World War 11
aniconic 210, 211 Senegal 7
anthropocentric 211, 230 sensory experience 29, 38, 95,
childhood 35, 66, 80 97, 172, 184, 205, 207, 230,
critical cinematic 100 235, 241
dialogic, of dance 191 affects approximating 99
didactic 234 culturally patterned 42–3
direct 156–7 first 213
faith in 183 image and sound used to
iconic 210 evoke 153
media 108, 109, 117, 120, 145, very particular 218
148, 239 sexual crimes 121–2
274 Index

Shahani, Kumar 2, 4, 6, 20, 21, 25, soundscapes 83, 130–1

177–236, 237, 239 broader aural 43
see also Bamboo Flute; Bhavantarana; disjunctive and tactile 110
Khayal Gatha; Maya Darpan; everyday 107
Tarang persistently forming 107
Sharmilla, Irom Chanu 120 soundtracks 163, 166, 169, 219, 227,
Sheridan, A. 193 230
Shiva 190, 201 acousmatic 131, 144
shringara 193 complex 165
Shukla, Abhishek see Age of Reason images and 166
sloka 191, 196 machinic 136
Snow, Michael 139 Soviet montage cinema 119, 132, 164
Sobchack, Vivian 241 space 51, 83, 93, 146, 152, 154–60,
Sonwalkar, Prasun 116 168, 170, 189, 198
sound 15, 31, 38, 96, 98, 141, 147, aspirational 52
159, 234, 236, 238 background 201
acousmatic 131, 138, 139, 144, black 123
165, 166, 192 camera moves freely through 208,
aesthetics of 214 228
affective use of 99 collective 82
ambient 166, 218, 223, 224 colonial 139, 147, 151
atmospheric 165, 218, 224 common 63
diegetic 165, 227 communal 98
digital surround 213 continuous movement within 229
emotional 164 dance movement as co-extensive
emplacing 218, 235 of 201
iconic 227 dark 134
intangible 170, 232 delineation of 228–9
machinic 131, 136, 139, 166 enclosed 124, 125
music and 213–21, 224, 233 inner and outer 228–9
overlapping 82, 107, 131 institutional 42
production of 222, 232 learning 43
randomly rising 82 living 145
recorded 107, 144, 226 marginal 162
repetitive 131 narrative 179
rhythmic 178 nationalization of 109, 113
sensitive use of 99 organization of 95, 228–9
synchronous 14, 39, 131, 165, overall atmosphere in 97
192, 226, 231 pastoral 190
tactile 99, 146, 212, 213, 226 perception of 95
ticking 124, 125, 131 previously unexplored 31
see also background sound; images public 241
and sounds; also under following recreational 43
entries prefixed ‘sound’ role of 163
sound composition 152, 231, 232, segmentation of 87
233 shared 59, 63, 72, 76
sound design 131, 226 shifting relations and lines
minimal 165 within 205
sound installation 107–8 social 62, 98
Index 275

sounds in 212, 232, 235 national 200

temporalized 232 sound in 213
understanding of 98 zoom popularized and
see also any-space-whatever; time conventionalized by 137
and space terrorists 115, 121, 122, 170
spectatorship confirmed 129, 130
embodied 96 suspected 123, 126, 127, 128, 129,
interactive 40 130
Srivastava, Sanjay 36, 42, 52 see also National Security Act; TADA
Steyerl, Hito 19 Thailand 110, 119, 162
still images 39–40, 41, 55 Thielemann, Selina 220
structuralist-materialists 139–41 things-in-themselves 229
subjectivity 9, 19, 69, 71, 75, 167, time and space 38, 156, 163, 232–3
184, 229, 238, 240 flow of energy across 200
broader move towards 101 framing of 133
emphasis on 8, 95 rational and linear understandings
evoked 4, 5, 74 of 167
explored 4, 38 viewer’s perception of 140
expressed 4, 101, 239 time-image concept 110, 156–8,
growing appreciation for/ 161–2
recognition of 7, 8 topicals 10–11
identity and 5 trauma films 109, 110, 170–2
social and cultural dynamics that tribhangi (Odissi dance position) 199
shape 6 Tripura 113
urban, middle-class 5 Turner, Victor 62
see also intersubjectivity
subnationalism 109, 113–19 UCLA (University of California Los
Sukhdev, S. 13, 14 Angeles) Ethnographic Film
surveillance 122, 124, 172, 238 Programme 31
constant 88 UFA Studios 118
visual and aural impressions of 123 Uganda 32
surveillance apparatus 128, 129, 148 United Nations Human Rights
complicity between news Committee 120
and 125–6, 132, 133, 134 Upadhyaya, Alok 204–5, 206
understanding of 130 Upanishads 197–8

TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Valli, Alarmel 225

Activities Act, 1987) 120 values 4, 42, 77, 89, 91, 125,
Tagore, Rabindranath 59 212
Tai-Ahoms 111–12 bourgeois 102
Tajiri, Rea 170–1 colonial 55
Tamil poetry 227 cultural 1, 63
Tarang (Shahani 1984) 178 foundational 36
Taylor, Lucien 102 political 48–9
Teitlebaum, Matthew 153 universalist 3
telephoto lens 128 Vatsyayan, Kapila 192, 199
television 10, 20, 21, 116, 119, 184, 210 Vaughan, Dai 66–7
commercial 102 Vedas 195, 196
growth of 14 verbocentric discourse 12, 16, 30
276 Index

verisimilitude 102, 128, 140, 202 Walker, Janet 170–1, 172

Vertov, Dziga 140, 186 Weerasethakul, Apichatpong 110
The Man with the Movie Camera Blissfully Yours (2002) 163
(1929) 40 Primitive Project (2012) 162
video 14, 40, 108, 122–6, 170, Syndromes and a Century
240 (2006) 163
digital 16 Tropical Maladies (2004) 162, 163
zooming in 136, 137 Uncle Boonmee... (2011) 162
Vikalp: Films for Freedom 16–17 West Bengal see Calcutta
Virdi, Jyotika 101 Western music 233
Vishnu 190, 191 Willemen, Paul 5, 18
Vishwakarma 160 Winston, Brian 15
visuality see hapticity With Morning Hearts (MacDougall
Vitali, V. 5, 18 2001) 47, 63
voiceovers 12, 29, 31, 68, 71 Wollen, Peter 147–8
authoritative 128
brief 190 Yandabo Treaty (1826) 111
informative/interpretive 219 Young, Colin 30, 34