Water in Indian Cinema
This season of award-winning classic and contemporary films explores rivers, lakes and oceans as sites of everyday life, work, romance, worship and death. Iconic locations – the Indian Ocean; Himalayan lakes; the mythic Ganges, Brahmaputra and Titas rivers – teem with activity, rich with human experience. Groups and individuals struggle for housing and labour rights, sexual freedom and self-realisation. The films blend fiction and documentary: Bollywood songs layer the video diaries of sailors working in the Gulf, while actuality footage is woven into the auteur films of Jean Renoir and Ritwik Ghatak. From masterpieces of world cinema to rarely-seen ethnographic, state-produced and activist documentaries, these films portray communities dwelling in symbiosis and in conflict with nature.
The series is curated by Tanya Singh.
All films are in English or have English subtitles.
Tuesday 17 January
Tuesday 31 January
Three short documentaries from the archives of the Films Division of India, followed by a recent FDI production from Manipur:
Benefits of Bhakra Nangal(1955, 11mins, English, dir. K. L. Khandpur, produced by Mohan Bhavnani)
A classic didactic film on the construction of the monumental Bhakra dam in Punjab, famously christened by Nehru as a ‘new temple of modern India’. As the PM speaks, his iconic message disperses: a man riding a camel listens to a portable radio, folk dancers sing paeans to progress.
Man in Search of Man
(1974, 20mins, English, dir. Prem Vaidya)
On an expedition to find the vanishing tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Gulf of Bengal, a metropolitan Indian film crew confronts its ‘primitive’ subjects.
A Man-Made River(1975, 10mins, English & Punjabi, dir. D. Gautaman)
Sikh engineers irrigate the deserts of Rajasthan, home of the mythic Saraswati river. Gautaman’s lush cinematic montage fuses tropes of indigeneity and futurity, in an expressive homage to technological transfer and the scientific gaze.
Phum Shang / Floating Life(2014, 52mins, Manipuri, dir. Haobam Paban Kumar)
Loktak, the largest freshwater lake in Northeast India, is characterized by its unique floating phumdi (biomass). Living in huts built on these phumdi, the local fishing community relies on the lake for its livelihood. Loktak also serves as a source for hydropower generation, irrigation and drinking water supply. In 2011, in a drive to clean the lake, the Manipur government burned down hundreds of huts. This award-winning documentary follows state agencies and local conservationists struggling to save a dying lake, as well as residents fighting against ‘The Machine’ – their name for the huge hydraulic excavator used by officials for eviction.
The films will be introduced by Peter Sutoris, currently a Gates Scholar at University of Cambridge and author of Visions of Development: Films Division of India and the Imagination of Progress, 1948-1975 – the first scholarly book on the history of Indian documentary. He will be joined after the screening by Debanjali Biswas (PhD researcher, King's) for a discussion and audience Q&A.
Tuesday 14 February
Two experimental ethnographies of labour and logistics:
The Last Rites(2008, 17mins, silent, dir. Yasmine Kabir)
A haunting wordless depiction of the ship-breaking yards of Chittagong, Bangladesh. “With her images, one feels the impossible weight of the ropes, as shoeless feet are submerged ankle deep in toxic petroleum; the palpable hunger driving bodies of skin and bone to repeat arduous physical feats that would make a strong man groan.” [Alisa Lebow]
From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf(2013, 83mins, multilingual, dir. Shaina Anand & Ashok Sukumaran)
A boat has many powers: to gather a society in its making, to distribute goods, to carry people and ideas across places that seem more different than ever before. This auto-ethnographic travelogue was produced through four years of dialogue, friendship and exchange between the Mumbai-based studio CAMP and sailors from Kutch, Sindh, Baluchistan and Southern Iran, working in the wharfs of Sharjah and Dubai. Captured with cell phone cameras and set to a soundtrack of Bollywood, Pakistani and religious songs chosen by the sailors, the film sails from Gujarat to the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Aden to the Somali coast and back again, alongside cargoes ranging from medical equipment to live goats.
The films will be introduced by Professor Edward Simpson (SOAS) who collaborated with CAMP on From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf. Author of The Political Biography of an Earthquake: Aftermath and Amnesia in Gujarat, India (2013, Hurst), Professor Simpson is currently leading the ERC-funded ‘Roads and the politics of thought’: a five year ethnographic research project looking at infrastructure and mobility in South Asia. He will be joined after the screening by Dr Barbara Knorpp (UCL) for a discussion and audience Q&A.
Tuesday 28 February
(1951, 99mins, English & Hindi, dir. Jean Renoir)
Renoir’s first colour feature, a languid romance shot around the Ganges in Bengal. Set during the last days of the Raj and based on Rumer Godden’s semi-autobiographical novel, the film recounts episodes in the lives of a colonial English family and their Anglo-Indian neighbour Melanie (Radha Burnier). Criticized for purported Orientalism, the film’s construction of a pan-Indian cultural composite can lend itself to alternative readings. The implied romance between mixed-race Melanie and a white American visitor, Captain John, challenged prevailing racial taboos, while Burnier’s remarkable Bharatanatyam dance, choreographed by KN Dhandayudhapani Pillai, is electrifying and vital in the context of the colonial ban on temple dancing. The film is notable also for its extraordinary actuality footage of fishermen at work, with extended sequences of labouring bodies that are blended but not subsumed into the fictional narrative. Sustaining a tension between myth and documentary, action and contemplation, the film significantly impacted the development of neorealism in Indian cinema – most notably for Satyajit Ray, Renoir’s uncredited assistant.
The film will be introduced by Prof Ginette Vincendeau.
Titash Ekti Nadir Naam / A River Called Titas(1973, 156mins, Bengali, dir. Ritwik Ghatak)
Tuesday 14 March
An exceptionally beautiful and unfairly neglected masterpiece, recently restored in association with Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. Filmed in newly independent Bangladesh, this multi-stranded adaptation of Advaita Malla Barman’s novel tells the story of a fishing community living on the banks of the river Titas in pre-partition East Bengal. Ghatak, a Marxist at the avant-garde of Bengali art cinema, a ‘poet of rupture’, fuses modernist and melodramatic modes to weave a tapestry of fates. Catastrophe, political conflict and ruthless modernization befall a series of interlinked characters. The river itself starts “behaving strangely” as this elegiac, sibylline epic tracks the slow disintegration of a place and a way of life.
The film will be introduced by Dr Manishita Dass (Royal Holloway, University of London) who will also lead a post-screening audience discussion.
Tuesday 28 March
Filmed in the neighbouring states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in Northeast India, these two independent documentaries explore ecology and community, resilience and resistance.
In the Forest Hangs a Bridge(1999, 39mins, English & Hindi, dir. Sanjay Kak)
Every year, for one week, the people of Damro village in the hills of Arunachal Pradesh gather to build a 1000-foot suspension bridge from cane and bamboo. Every year, six months of monsoon rain will rot and wash the bridge away. Through a meditative evocation of a particular tribal community, this classic of 1990s independent documentary reflects on the strength and fragility of the idea of community.
Waiting for a Storm(2014, 46mins, Assamese & Bengali, dir. Prachi Mokashi)
Inhabited predominantly by Bangladeshi immigrants, the chars of the Brahmaputra river are small, temporary land masses that appear and disappear seasonally due to erosion. This subtle debut documentary explores the ephemeral relationship between the river and its residents through the prism of two different subjects - Amjad Ali, a farmer who lives on a char, and Sahjahan Hussain, a young activist from the mainland who is working to secure land rights for the char-dwellers.
The screening will be followed by a discussion and audience Q&A with filmmaker Prachi Mokashi and Dr Nicole Wolf (Goldsmiths).
Masaan / Crematorium(2015, 109mins, Hindi, dir. Neeraj Ghayvan)
Winner of the Prix de l'avenir and a FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes in 2015, this nuanced debut feature (from Anurag Kashyap’s former assistant) narrates the parallel rebellions of three young residents of Varanasi. Their intertwined 21st century lives are also inextricably linked to the ghats of the Ganges – riverfront steps serving as Hindu cremation grounds. A ‘sex scandal’ brings shame on Devi, the daughter of a priest. Meanwhile, upper-caste Shaalu falls for engineering student Deepak, who comes from a family of corpse burners. An astute and richly-layered evocation of contemporary small town India.
The film will be introduced by Dr Ashvin Devasundaram (Queen Mary, University of London) who will also lead a post-screening audience discussion. Dr Devasundaram is Programming Adviser to the London Asian Film Festival, Creative Director of the Edinburgh Asian Film Festival, and author of India’s New Independent Cinema: Rise of the Hybrid – the first scholarly book on new Indian indie cinema.