Sunday, May 2, 2010

REVIEW: From Rajahs and Yogis to Gandhi & Beyond


From Rajahs And Yogis To Gandhi And Beyond: Images Of India In International Films Of The 20th Century
Vijaya Mulay
Seagull Books
Rs 695
Pp 350
ISBN: 1905422962

Brahmins named Iftikar, Buddhist rites in Hindu Shiva temples, Indian maidens dressed like Arabian harem girls--right from the birth of cinema, international movies have been wildly inventive in their fantastical imagining of India. In fact, images of India in these films have always said more about the filmmakers than they have about India. From the early 20th century, when India was imagined as the fabulous, exotic, oriental Other, site for all sorts of fantasies; to the imperial and colonial mindset of the middle decades of the 20th century; to postcolonial films and auteurs like Jean Renoir and Louis Malle who genuinely strove to understand a different culture and its values; to the globalized worldview with which the century ended--India as seen on the international screen has changed in intriguing ways, as this pioneering study describes and analyzes. Allowing us access to rare short films from the 1900s, British Durbar films, the precursors of the newsreel genre, and Empire adventure movies, this book also explores Melies, Lumiere, Louis Malle and Jean Renoir, moving on to the Raj films of the 1980s and international cinema of the late 20th century. In the process, a wide range of movies is examined and discussed, and a trajectory of changing images of India abroad is traced over the course of the last century.

Dear Cinema
The film society movement in India must get a huge proportion of the credit not only for having created the best filmmakers outside the mainstream – those like Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal but also for inspiring film critics, academics and film scholars, as it continues to do today. Vijaya Mulay, the author of the book under review is one of the pioneers of the movement, having been associated with ‘Indian film culture’ in its infancy and its formative years. Beginning her engagement with cinema more than 60 years ago, Vijaya Mulay (or ‘Akka’ to her friends) has seen Satyajit Ray at work and also come into close contact with international filmmakers like Louis Malle – when he was in India in the 1960s. Malle went on to make his celebrated series on India – later proscribed by Mrs Gandhi’s government for ‘showing India in bad light’.  Akka has an unmatched exposure to Indian and international cinema and this makes her the ideal person to document and trace the way in which India as a cultural space has been recorded and represented in international cinema from around the world. The book combines the diachronic or historical approach with the thematic one. It begins by dividing films according to eras rather than themes and this makes it extremely easy to follow but it also has separate sections for foreign filmmakers like Franz Osten, who worked in India in collaboration with Indians. After making ‘Orientalist’ films like Light of Asia (1925) and Shiraz (1928), Osten made Hindi classics like Achut Kanya (1936) Savitri (1937) and Kangan (1939).

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