Fully booked: Forgotten foreign films on India

Fully booked: Forgotten foreign films on India

In the book "Outsider Films on India 1950-1990" editor Shanay Jhaveri studies Indian modernism as an aesthetic movement in cinema, developed through a series of collisions with the West

Radha's dance sequence, a scene from Jean Renoir's "The River" (1951), Oriental International Films.

The first thing that struck me when I picked up the black paperback book titled "Outsider Films on India 1950-1990", was its compact size and the monochrome, graphic cover with cut-out pictures. For a book on cinema, this stark minimal use of color and high brow writing style stood out.

The 264-page multi-author book, edited by Shanay Jhaveri and published by The Shoestring Publisher, examines cinema and films -- fiction and non-fiction -- from an unexpected viewpoint. That of "foreignness, memory and the individual experience" -- that of the 'outsider' looking upon India, essentially Western filmmakers rooted in India. The chosen films, such as Jean Renoir's "The River", Pier Paolo Pasolini’s "Notes for a Film on India" and Merchant-Ivory’s "Shakespeare Wallah", are used to juxtapose and study an India then, post-independence, and a globalizing contemporary India today.

Outsider Films on IndiaWhile the essays are studied, the range of writers is wide -- from artists and curators to critics and academics and also includes a rich collection of screen grabs of the films and film poster art as chapter separators.


Born and raised in Mumbai, a graduate of Brown University in the United States and currently enrolled at the Royal College of Art in London pursuing a Research Degree in Curatorial and Critical Studies (stop for breath) Shanay Jhaveri is the accomplished editor of "Outsider Films on India 1950-1990". 

Jhaveri, who has previously written for Wallpaper* magazine, ArtAsia Pacific, 032c, Art India and Vogue India and guest edited an issue for Marg Magazine on Indian Cinema ("Being Here Now: Some Insights into Indian Cinema") is now working on "Outsider Films on America" (due August 2011). "The time frame will be from when JFK gets assassinated to when Obama gets elected," he says.

"Outsider Films is a rather personal project," admits Jhaveri. "I started work on the book in the summer of 2007, after graduating from Brown University. India was -- and still is -- undergoing a set of transformations. I felt estranged from these changes, unable to negotiate with some of the newer socio-political realities that seemed to have emerged. I began to question my own status as an 'insider'. I need to mine through India's relationship with the West, but at a more sustained historical level that extended back to a moment before economic liberalization. The Nehru years lead to a great degree of cross-cultural exchange, and it became a way to in tandem explore and understand how Indian Modernism as an aesthetic movement in itself developed through a series of these collisions with the West. It has been an exercise in remembering, being allowed access to a country I never knew." 

Outsider Films on IndiaEditor Shanay Jhaveri launching the book at January's Jaipur Literature Festival in Rajasthan. This is not an anthology

The book is defined by the fact that it does not purport to be an anthology. "It was a very conscious decision on my part as an editor to leave out titles and films which had received much deliberation, and circulated widely. In a sense, it is trying to re-introduce forgotten films made by significant filmmakers, in which major aesthetic moves are made. Certain common themes and concerns do emerge amongst the films, such as the melding of documentary and fiction, the destabilizing of voiceover and its link to the image track and how the West has used India as a place to provoke existential angst. The question of Orientalism is also tackled. I wanted to produce an alternate discourse, or narrative."

Meera Ahuja at The Shoestring Publisher says, "Shanay's exploration of the foreign gaze as revealed through the medium of cinema is not only a fascinating mediation on foreignness, but also an intriguing re-assessment of the cultural history of a society."

Of course the book will be of interest to Indophiles and cinephiles, but by also paying attention to the design and presentation of the book Jhaveri hopes that it will appeal to readers who might not conventionally opt for a film related title. "It was always my intention for the book to be considered an art object in itself. This decision was a response to the current climate we find ourselves in where the publishing world is gong through a revolution. 'Outsider Films' is hopefully one possible approach as to how to revitalize and transact with the seismic change that is around."

The age of slick publishing

"I believe that the design should be integral and a necessary element of the book," says Jhaveri. "You are correct in pointing out that there are a number of glossy large format books, scant on content, which are over designed and rely on visual tricks to shift copies. With 'Outsider Films on India', the design is meant to enhance other aspects associated with these films. It further articulates the thematics that run through the book, from the cut-out cover design to the separation of text and image. For instance, poster art as a kind of visual form of expression and communication saw a series of transformations over the 40 years the book looks at, and I felt it was necessary to include this in the book but in a coded fashion."

Jhaveri is programming the films written about in his book at the Tate Modern in London, June 26 to 28. Five sets of screenings pair films from the book with "newer and unexpected companion pieces", says Jhaveri. "For example, Rossellini's 'Matri Bhumi' is paired with the Otolith Groups experimental piece 'Otolith III' or the Lang epics can be seen with Jack Smith’s seminal underground work 'Flaming Creatures'. Also, we have devoted an entire section to the work of Mark Lapore which I am particularly excited about."

Along with the film screenings, they are in the process of putting together a symposia to further discuss concerns developed in the book.

I want to watch the films, where do I begin?

"From the films included in the book, I personally tend to the Marguerite Duras 'India Song' -- her production of a kind of atmosphere is astonishing. But a good starting point for a novice is Jean Renoir's 'The River'. As a film it really initiated a lot internally within Indian filmmaking itself, but also heralded a new creative phase in Renoir's career. Needless to say, it is a gorgeous film, with exceptional use of color."

The first in a series, "Outsider Films on India" is available at bookstores at Strand and Bungalow 8 in Mumbai at Rs 1,000 per copy.

Udita is an entertainment and lifestyle writer and author based in Mumbai.

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