Friday, November 22

Film shows Indian cinema beyond Bollywood


Screening of a movie from northeastern Assam presents a more marginalized culture and history

Even during the infancy of “Bollywood” in Mumbai, the center of India’s local film industry in the ’30s, many other sub-regions of India were producing their own feature films.

They did not have quite the high-production sheen of those films made in Mumbai, according to Aparna Sharma, a professor in the Department of World Arts and Cultures who has picked the 1935 non-Bollywood film “Joymoti” for screening on April 28.

“Bollywood films were produced on massive soundstages, not usually on location,” Sharma said.

With “Joymoti,” the first feature film to come from the northeastern state of Assam, Sharma hopes to shed light on the history of Indian cinema beyond Bollywood, along with the help of sponsors UCLA Center for India and South Asia and the Department of World Arts and Cultures.

The film, which is also set in Assam, tells the story of Princess Joymoti’s resistance against the torture by forces of Sulikphaa, the ruler of Assam at the time, during the 1670s and 1680s, a period of political upheaval in Assam.

By refusing to tell her torturers the whereabouts of her husband, Prince Gadapani, who has fled from the purges of Sulikphaa, Joymoti gives him time to organize a peasant uprising against Sulikphaa and eventually end the authoritarian rule.

“It is a story of a woman’s sacrifice both for her husband and her people. You do not see strong women in Bollywood films,” Sharma said.

Professor Vinay Lal, who teaches modern Indian cultural history at UCLA, said he agrees with the statement.

The film itself was made in an attempt to showcase Assamese culture and history using motion pictures, which were at the time a revolutionary new type of cultural product.

“Joymoti” director Jyoti Prasad Agarwala established a film institute that employed a distinctly Assamese production crew for the making of “Joymoti” and was meant to serve as a base for later on-location shoots in the state.

Yet when the film was released, it did not receive much fame outside of Assam.

“(Assam) is connected to the rest of India by the narrow Siliguri Corridor. Because of this, “˜Joymoti’ did not get a good chance to circulate throughout the rest of the country,” Sharma said.

While the World Arts and Cultures Department is a co-sponsor of the event, the department does not have a staff member dedicated to curating film titles, said Angelia Leung, chair of the department.

The idea of screening the restored version of “Joymoti” originated with Sharma.

Sharma said she hopes that after seeing the film, viewers will discover the diversity of languages and ethnic affinities represented in various regional cinemas throughout the subcontinent.

She asserts that with the many politics and cultures within its borders, India cannot be distilled ideologically into the institution of cultural production that is Bollywood.

The two professors emphasize different tendencies of Bollywood.

According to Sharma, the productions of Mumbai tend to represent the philosophical center of Indian society.

Lal said the productions of Mumbai are flexible in their outlook.

He added that this is especially true when one considers the political polarizations, based on the variety of ethnicities and religious beliefs encountered in the subcontinent, that affect Indian politics today.

“On the question of Hindu-Muslim relations, for instance, the general outlook of commercial Hindi film does not coincide with middle-class views on such matters,” Lal said.

Regardless, Sharma said she believes that even just the variety of languages used in the subcontinent mandate that one step outside the Hindi-language format of Bollywood in order to get a sense of film culture in such a large democracy.

“You do decidedly need to get out of Bollywood, and look at Assamese, Tamil and Punjab cinemas, for example. These cinemas represent languages spoken by a very large swath of the Indian population that do not live with the idiom used by Bollywood.”

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