Lowave presents this important collection of seven experimental film and video works from India, including many accomplished artists that viewers from the USA and Europe may not be familiar with. Helpfully, the DVD includes a detailed biography for each artist, as well as a short film or essay which places their work in its artistic context. The well-produced disc is playable on either PAL or NTSC system players.
The highlight of the collection, for me, is Debkamal Ganguly’s “Space Bar,” which is billed as a “work in progress” study for a longer and more ambitious work, but which strikes me as already more accomplished and finished than many of the other films. A voice-over prose poem, beautifully written, muses on the different ways of experiencing space and travel, as refracted through the experiences of Bengali writer Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s 1932 voyage to archeological sites. Ganguly is fascinated by the difference between a digital and tactile way of experiencing space. The images juxtapose virtual and real experience, as when the “hand” computer cursor icon is projected onto a real hand, or when sculptures of deer sit on top of a laptop. Google Maps is explored as a mode of orienting oneself. The sight of a tiny insect, crawling on a picture of a galaxy in a book, elicits a meditation on the scale of the universe. The relationship between the images and text in this film is consistently stimulating: instead of literally illustrating the text, the images engage in a creative dialogue with the words. Ganguly has a fine artistic eye for creating expressive compositions. There are enough rich ideas packed into this 20 minute essay to keep one occupied for a very long time.
In “Straight 8,” Ayisha Abraham documents the early amateur films of Bangalore filmmaker Tom D’Alguiar. It is part of a larger effort by Abraham to explore the (largely unknown) world of amateur films in India. Voice-over interviews accompany D’Alguiar’s footage. (Abraham is unfortunately addicted to some of the same mannerisms of altering home movies by painting on the filmstrip which she observed in experimental films while living in New York.) The films excerpted here include a spoof of a spy movie, very well done in the style of early silents, and also D’Alguiar’s documents of visiting artists, such as master Bharata Natyam dancer Ram Gopal. D’Alguiar enhances our understanding of the dance by illustrating the meanings of the symbolic gesture language of the mudras in his film, juxtaposing the gesture which means “lotus” with a shot of a lotus.
In “Endnote,” Ashish Avikunthak blends scenes for three women from Beckett’s play “Come and Go” with scenes of a religious ceremony, market scenes, and shots of the women playing like children or practicing music. In Avikunthak’s included artist statement on the film, he says that the film has a deeply personal meaning for him, which is why he cast his wife, his sister, and his sister-in-law as the three women. Unfortunately, this illustrates one of the limits of taking an entirely personal approach to filmmaking: these three women, with no training or experience as actors, give an embarrassingly amateurish and wooden reading to the play, and Avikunthak also seems to have no gift for coaxing performances from untrained performers. The result is that, while the film may create an intensely meaningful experience for Avikunthak when he screens it for himself, for the rest of us, the silly readings of the text prevent us from making an emotional connection to the film, and completely exclude the sense of “melancholic trauma” which he claims was his goal.
“Bengali Tourist” is a very quick and amusing mini-essay on the folly of travel by Sarnath Banerjee. Banerjee mixes fetching black and white line drawings with color still photographs, but his use of camera pans and illustrative sound effects did not succeed in convincing me that there is a reason why this work is a film rather than a graphic novel. Indeed, the DVD includes one of his enjoyable graphic novel episodes as a bonus.
In “Rashtriy Kheer & Desiy Salad,” Pushpamala N uses a recipe book as a jumping off point to create a series of vignettes which explore the stereotypically patriotic attitudes of Indian families in the period just after Independence. These attitudes are creatively explored through acts of writing and drawing by a father, a mother, and a young boy.
“Ceasural,” by the group Raqs Media Collective, is a (largely ineffective) study of industrial development in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the USA. It serves as a reminder, for anyone laboring under the delusion that Indian artists must focus on Indian subject matter, that artists from India have the same interest in exotic, foreign subjects that all other artists have.
Tejal Shah’s “I Love My India” is the most explicitly political film in the collection. She engages passersby by having them, as a game, shoot popguns at balloons which spell out the popular “I Love My India” logo, and then asks them about the extreme sectarian violence directed at Muslims which had erupted in Gujarat less than a year previously. Most of those interviewed have a clear sense that something is amiss in Indian democracy, but they are so apolitical that these recent and overwhelming events have left no mark on them, despite the fact that some of the politicians who were directly implicated in the violence have now been elected to high positions. The film very effectively illustrates the apathy towards violence in contemporary India, although it doesn’t explore how the media may be sustaining and cultivating this apathy, as it does in the USA.
“Re: Frame” is an important opportunity to see the work of Debkamal Ganguly, and to become familiar with other contemporary experimental film artists from India.