AN AMERICAN IN MADRAS Dir. Karan Bali, 2013, India

American Madras

Karan Bali’s affectionate documentary An American in Madras, broadcast on Channel Four in October as part of a series of films about the Indian film industry, is an eye opener in many respects. It is a history that I had no knowledge of and makes one re-consider what we have been told and what has been historicised about Indian Cinema especially regional cinemas is tentative. This certainly ascertains the history of Indian cinema is still being written and that we need to contest historiographies, revising past historicising that relies on pedantic, monolithic, essentialist accounts. The story of American born Ellis R. Dungan who worked in the Tamil film industry for over fifteen years suggests South Indian Cinema was making substantial technical advances that ran parallel with and influenced the Bombay film industry.

Bali’s excavation and recognition of American director Ellis Dungan’s contribution to the technical, thematic and aesthetic development of Tamil Cinema is significant in three respects. Firstly, it points to a cultural exchange between Hollywood and the Indian film industry, a long lasting one, which creates a nonlinear disjuncture of cross pollination; a creative, cultural dialogue. Secondly, Bali rightly reclaims the work of Dungan, positioning him in the Tamil industry and emphasising his centrality in help promoting a new regional identity in the films he made while shaping the star image of popular singer/actress M. S. Subbulakshmi. Thirdly, Bali constructs a historical narrative based on past recollections, interviewing film historians, actors and friends who worked with Dungan, and contemporary Tamil film artists who also recognise Dungan’s considerable achievements.

Technical proficiency and professionalism are two themes that historians argue Dungan brought to the Tamil film industry at a time of growth. Bali’s approach narrates a tale about innovation, an increasingly popular way of looking at film histories. For instance, shooting on location and indoor tracking shots were stylistic innovations that Dungan helped to nurture in the several films he made. Perhaps most fascinating for me is Bali’s access to the Tamil films of the 1930s and 1940s, many of which appear to have been beautifully restored. If I am assuming many of these films have not officially been re-released to the film consumer on home media platforms then they should be as it is a rich cinematic past that should be accessible to all especially in an age of digital reincarnation and resurrection.

JANG AUR AMAN / WAR AND PEACE (Dir. Anand Patwardhan, 2002, India)

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In November I will deliver a paper at the University of Salford on the ostracism of Indian cinema in cinephilia. If Indian DVD labels have categorically failed to distribute films adequately to the consumer then filmmakers like Anand Patwardhan who has only the most tenuous of links with the Indian film industry has worked independently to make documentaries and distribute his work through his website. Patwardhan’s work has been available for a while in India and he has always been careful to whom he licenses his work. Patwardhan’s documentaries have been screened in the UK at film festivals and he most recently toured with Jai Bhim Comrade, participating in a masterclass at the Sheffield Doc Fest. Nonetheless, getting to see his work has been problematic in the past. Some of his early work including his shorter documentaries is on YouTube.

The UK release of War and Peace, Patwardhan’s critically acclaimed 2002 documentary on the nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan, made available for the first time on home video by Second Run, a specialist UK DVD label, has bravely released four major Indian films since they started ten years ago in 2005. This may seem slight compared to the many European films they have released on DVD but when you put a stellar label like Second Run up against Arrow Video, Masters of Cinema and many of the other major specialist labels then Second Run having introduced the films of Adoor Gopalakrishnan and now Anand Patwardhan to UK film audiences is a major achievement indeed. Second Run also released Celluloid Man, a tribute to Indian film archivist P. K. Nair, in 2014, directed by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, a leading figure in the contest for Indian film preservation. The DVD of War and Peace includes a newly recorded interview with Patwardhan, a debate that was aired on Pakistani TV after the documentary was broadcast and deleted scenes. Also included is a booklet of essays featuring an interview with Mark Cousins, a supporter of Patwardhan.

Since Patwardhan is a social activist who has campaigned against the many of the injustices he has documented his uncomplicated approach to filmmaking makes his work very accessible. Though War and Peace focuses on the nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan that reached its peak during the Kargil war, Patwardhan’s journey is a global one, which sees him go to both America and Japan, exploring the terrifying legacy of the Atomic age. Patwardhan made War and Peace over four years and it is an exhaustive work, touching on casteism, fundamentalism, propaganda, corruption and the toxic fustian jingoism of the BJP, a right wing political party sadly back in power in India under the dubious leadership of Modi, a man who stoked the fires of communalism in Gujarat. War and Peace belongs in the canon of great documentaries and so does Patwardhan who continues to be a defiantly radical figure in the world of documentary cinema, actively raising the ire of the global elite for his unquestionably resolute collectivist politics. It is Patwardhan’s interviews with the ordinary people of India and Pakistan that reveal an essential truth, pointing to an underlying class struggle glossed over by the machinations of mixing nationalism with religion. War and Peace shows hegemony at work, the enforcement of the status quo, and the conservation of a disquieting cross border social and political paralysis.

ORIGINAL COPY (Dir. Georg Heinzen & Florian Heinzen-Ziob, 2015, Germany/India)

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The art of the film poster is something that has often been lamented about and it is quite true that traditional hand drawn film posters recognisable by a painter’s signature style has all but disappeared. Sheikh Rehman is a relic of a bygone age but what a wondrous vestige he is. Rehman lives in his own secret world, in a makeshift studio behind Alfred Talkies, a single cinema screen in old Mumbai. His life, following in the footsteps of his father who was also a film poster painter and artist, has been defined by the larger than life masala simulacra of Indian cinema. Rehman is not the star of this documentary; films, cinema and movies are. Alfred Talkies, a cinema that exists on good will, screening re-runs of B films is a dream palace populated by the tired, the hungry and the poor. In the cinema auditorium an usher who takes his job very seriously wanders the aisles, clearing the screen with his stick, ensuring a strange discipline is enforced so that the masses can perform the ritual of entering the kingdom of shadows with the minimal disruption. The manager of Alfred Talkies, a sentimentalist, confesses they rarely make a profit and that the cinema exists because of the social function it is providing; they have to do this even if it means making a loss.

By situating the observational gaze on the spectators in the cinema, recording their many different reactions, anthropological thoughts emerge that point to the violation of a sacred time and space beloved by many as completely their own. Rehman’s reflections on his artistic invisibility to his children is a moving one, riddled with nostalgia, bitterness and an unbridled exultation of cinema magnificently realised in his spectacular film paintings. Let’s not forget the supporting cast; the diligent projectionist, the argumentative Candy man, the emotive woman who owns Alfred Talkies, Rehman’s team of painters and his committed understudy. The frayed edges are what makes this world an endearing one, providing a vitality, a sort of lifeblood holding everything together in this timeless urban story of Mumbai and its people.

KYA HUA IS SHAHAR KO? / WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THIS CITY? (Dir. Deepa Dhanraj, 1986, India)

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In the accompanying notes found in the booklet to Arsenal’s (Institute for Film and Video Art) DVD release of Deepa Dhanraj’s 1986 Kya Hua Is Shahar Ko? it says that this work is more than just a documentary but

‘might very well be the only audio-visual record of communal violence and its political context in the mid 1980s’.

Not only does this underline the intervening activism of Hyderabad Ekta in trying to account for the surge of communal violence in the city of Hyderabad in the 1980s but it emphasised the lack of accountability for the crimes perpetrated by Muslim and Hindu religious and political parties in their contest for power. What makes this work altogether more unique is that it is perhaps

‘the only independent, non-state funded documentary film engaging with the specific events it follows and analyses’.

Although Deepa Dhanraj is credited as director, the film opens with Dhanraj sharing directorial credits with cinematographer Navroze Contractor and Keshav Rao Jadhav (script & commentary), reiterating the altruistic nature of the group and the risks that they took in order to catalogue as much of the riots and their aftermath. The extras which includes video interviews with the crew is tremendously important in helping to contextualise the work, offering a historical overview and presenting Dhanraj’s insightful critical reappraisal of the documentary, arguing her militant ending would be framed more progressively today. The legacy of this work is that it not only critiques the way religious demagoguery manipulates the sentiments of the working class in the old city of Hyderabad but perpetuates an imaginary division between Hindus and Muslims that has led to the dangerous consolidation of Hindutva as a political entity. Interviews with the victims of communal violence through an observational approach in fact exposes yet again the horrors of poverty affecting all people.

Filmmaker, feminist (she is certainly one of the few filmmakers to have given a voice to the working class women of India especially lower caste and peasant women who are rendered invisible by the media at large) and activist Deepa Dhanraj has made many documentaries over the years but this is the first work I have come across. She seems to have been blotted out of the discourse on Indian cinema. Unsurprisingly we have yet to have had a major study or academic publication on documentaries from Indian cinema especially the progressive activist work. I think much of Dhanraj’s work is not available on DVD but a search on the Internet threw up some interesting finds which I have listed below. Her IMDB page only lists three documentaries which is at odds with other articles written about her work. Either way, her work definitely needs to be made available more widely since like Anand Patwardhan counter hegemonic studies of communalism, demagoguery and the secret crimes committed by the Indian government against the marginalised are ever so relevant given Modi’s terrifyingly benign crypto-fascist ideologies. Thankfully, Kya Hua Is Shahar Ko? has been salvaged from the past and deserves its place amongst some of Indian cinema’s most urgent political works. The documentary was also screened at the Bradford International Film Festival in 2013 as part of their celebration of 100 years of Indian Cinema.


1. Something Like a War (1991) – focuses on the coerced sterilization of women in India


2. The Forgotten Generation (2013)

In The Forgotten Generation older people aged over 60 in urban Tamil Nadu, rural Rajasthan and tribal Maharashtra reveal the realities of their lives, relationships and work as well as their expectations of the future. We learn how they manoeuvre within tight constraints to create new social and economic opportunities for themselves, their families and friends and how targeted social pensions are producing Kafka-esque encounters with the State. (synopsis by penny Vera-Sanso)


3. The Advocate – based on the life of KG Kannabiran, India’s foremost champion of civil liberties and human rights


4. We’re Still Working (2014)

Unseating the assumption of old age dependency, We’re Still Working, reveals the extent to which families, communities and India itself rely on older people’s work. Shot in urban Tamil Nadu, rural Rajasthan and tribal Maharashtra the film makers argue that people aged over 60 are shouldering the burden of India’s economic development by providing low-cost labour that makes India competitive in the global market. Yet, older people’s work and their moral and legal rights as workers, citizens and people remain unacknowledged. (synopsis by penny Vera-Sanso)