One of my aims in curating the Hibbleton Film Series is not only to bring underappreciated films from around the world to Fullerton, but to examine how cinema is used as a mirror in various cultures to cultivate a sense of national identity. What does it mean to be American? What does it mean to be Slovakian, or Iranian? Over 100 years of global experiments in cinema have shown precisely how complex this is. Especially in India. How does a nation with over 1600 languages, and tens of thousands of religions, see itself through the lens of cinema? How does it utilize its tremendous machinery to freeze-frame a sense of self and community that can arguably be called “we.”
In his book "Mourning The Nation: Indian Cinema In The Wake Of Partition," Bhaskar Sarkar puts it this way: "Scholars have sought to wean us off the mythopoesis of the nation as primordial, essential, natural. As a result, we now know that the nation is a cultural artifact: an 'imagined community' that rests on the myth of “horizontal comradeship” among its members; an 'ideological form' that presupposes the continuity of a national subject across centuries; one of many 'invented traditions' that political elites have deployed to legitimize their power in the face of revolutionary and democratic challenges. Nationhood leads to the inevitable erasure of difference.”
Finding common ground through cinema was compounded by the fact that Hindus and Muslims have a very different relationship to viewing images. Hindu cinema, largely defined by visualizing the stories of its gods, becomes a sacred space for those watching it because of the Hindu notion of “darshan”: that seeing a depiction of a deity is virtually the same as making actual contact with that deity. India is perhaps the only place in the world where religious ceremonies are performed around cinema screens and television sets as if the deities themselves are present on screen. Major movie stars to have temples built for them, where they are worshipped as though they were the gods they played in a film.
For Muslims, on the other hand, there are absolute prohibitions on the depiction of God and his Prophets, which led to a completely new genre of “Islamicate” films seeking to depict the presence of the divine through and social and cultural life, as in the work of the great Muslim director Mehboob Khan (1906 - 64). Here cinema becomes sacred for an opposing reason, along the lines of Jean-Luc Godard’s observation that cinema is the miracle that enables us to “watch what one can’t see.” Interestingly, both Hindu and Muslim cinema developed through the Zoroastrians in India. Parsi theater had long developed special effects that was augmented by trick photography to evoke the presence of the divine in the cinema of both faiths.
India’s film industry is the largest in the world, yet aside from the work of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, even its most commercial films are virtually unknown in the Americas. Even less is known here about the world’s second largest film industry, which is not Hollywood as many believe, but “Nollywood,” the cinema of Nigeria. When asked to curate two months of Indian cinema for Hibbleton Gallery in the fall of 2015, I decided to program a month of films about India by foreigners, followed by a month of non-Bollywood cinema from India. My hope was that this would provide a multi-layered perspective from the outside looking in and the inside looking out.
We began with "Phantom India" (1969), an epic 6-hour masterpiece by Louis Malle, whose work was one of the major inspirations for the French New Wave. Malle wrestles with the major difficulties of understanding India through Western logic or languages. “Only 2% of Indians speak English, the official language after colonization,” Malle says at the opening of the film. “This 2% talks a lot, in the name of all the rest…In learning English, they also learned to think as our civilization does. Their words about their country were ordered by Western symbols and logic. I’d heard them all before. I recognized them as my own. Tattered ideas, worn-out phrases, like Nietzsche’s birds, so exhausted from flying that one can catch them in one’s hand.” Attempting to explore India's complex social fabric without preconceived ideas or conscious efforts to organize reality, Malle uncovers India as a place that has completely reimagined what it means to be human, who we are, what we once were, and the expanded possibilities of what we could be in the future. "Words are useless between us. The image is our only connection," Malle continues. "We may not understand these people, but we’re instinctively connected to them, sharing their link with nature. Letting ourselves go in their presence, we feel as if we’ve rediscovered something we’d lost.”
For example, Malle tracks down the closest living examples of ancient humanity left on the planet (including the Bondo tribe of Orissa and the Toda in the mountains of Tamil Nadu) whose languages have nothing to do with other Indian languages, who have never waged war or made laws, living instead in an egalitarian society without leaders, that is vegetarian despite never taking up agriculture. Malle also examines why Christianity never made much progress in India, despite the fact the Church dates its history in India back to the visit of the apostle Thomas in 52 AD, and why India is the only country in the world that has never persecuted its Jewish population. In my mind, "Phantom India" is not only one of the greatest films ever made on the subject of culture, but also a profound philosophical investigation into the nature of perception, the cinema, and the most accurate portrayal I've seen of what India is actually like.
Thanks to a friend at the National Film Board of Canada, I was able to show the documentary "SHIPBREAKERS" (2004, never before available in the US), about Alang, India, where most of the world's largest ships are run into the shore and torn apart by human ant colonies of 35,000 men with little more than their bare hands. At least one worker dies a day (sometimes hundreds at a time) from explosions, falling steel, asbestos, malaria, or plummeting into the ocean. The Red Cross (which set up a clinic here) cannot find doctors or nurses willing to go. This is where most of the US Navy's ships are sent to die, to deliberately avoid the laws of the Environmental Protection Agency at home which "provides an opportunity for the Department of Defense to maximize the return to the U.S. Treasury" (according to a written statement by the Navy).
Another night was devoted to the documentary "Born Into Brothels," in which Zana Briski, a New York City photographer, moves into the red light district of Calcutta to document the lives of the women there. She decides to put cameras in the hands of the children who are born and raised in the brothels and give them photography workshops, not only to see that world through their eyes, but to give them the chance to find beauty in their own perceptions. When she discovers how powerfully it transforms their view of themselves and the world around them, Briski goes on to develop photography workshops in marginalized communities around the world, working with Israeli and Palestinian children to better understand each other's lives in Jerusalem's Old City, Haitian child domestic servants, and children living in garbage-collecting communities in Cairo.
We closed the first month with "Gandhi" (1982), Richard Attenborough's dramatization of the life of Mohandas Gandhi (played by Ben Kingsley), who overthrew the world's largest empire through radical commitment to non-violence. The film provided context for the following week's presentation of films from the silent and early "sound" eras of Indian cinema, many of which were engaged in an ambitious project: the possibility of locating national identity in establishing peace between India's proliferation of religious groups, especially Hindus and Muslims. The enormity of this task (which was taken quite seriously), was described well by poet Octavio Paz, who became Mexico’s ambassador to India in 1962: "The presence of the strictest and most extreme form of monotheism alongside the richest and most varied polytheism is, more than a historical paradox, a deep wound. Between Islam and Hinduism there is not only an opposition, but an incompatibility... Music was one of the things that united the two communities. Exactly the opposite occurred with architecture and painting. Compare Ellora with the Taj Mahal, or the frescoes of Ajanta with Mughal miniatures. These are not distinct artistic styles, but rather two different visions of the world.”