This is a book for scholars, cinephiles, Indophiles and travellers. Over 250 pages of annotated text—essays that belong to discerning film journals—are dressed with rare film stills, screen grabs and tear-sheet film posters.
In Outsider Films on India 1950-1990, a book that hovers precariously between a pocket art book and a coffee-table treatise, 11 essays discuss films ranging from Jean Renoir’s The River (1951) to Fritz Lang’s commercial opus, Journey to the Lost City (1959). The vision of global film-makers such as Louis Malle, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Marguerite Duras and Roberto Rossellini, who filmed in India in the mid-20th century, are carefully deconstructed.
The cover of the book has cut-outs—one of them frames Madhur Jaffrey’s kohl-rimmed eye. On turning a page, one discovers that it is a still from the Merchant and Ivory film, Shakespeare Wallah (1965). It evokes “the gaze”—a term with much currency in film semiotics. This design by French art director Loran Stosskopf is emblematic of better things to come in the pages inside.
Outsider Films on India (1950-1990): The Shoestring Publisher, 264 pages, Rs1,000.
The book’s contributors range from academics and programmers to critics and artists who discuss the recurring motifs that defined the Western gaze on India. They cut open Orientalist narratives woven with snake charmers, exotic dancers, maharajas and elephants.
In its concept and execution, the book is a unique effort by 24-year-old Shanay Jhaveri, who started work on it in the summer of 2007, right after he graduated from Brown University in the US. A student of art semiotics and history, he is currently a research fellow at the Royal College of Art in London.
Outsider Films leaves out predictable colonial and national themes: Richard Attenborough’s epic Gandhi, for instance, finds no place. Eschewing these was a conscious decision. As Jhaveri writes in his introductory essay “Wanting to be a Rememberer”, the essays are meant to be divergent and antithetical, not exhaustive. So several films you may never have heard of, such as Alain Corneau’s French film Nocturne Indien, are discussed.
It is not ironic that the compilation starts with Renoir’s The River—the film that enthused Satyajit Ray to start making movies when he met Renoir on his location-scouting trip to Bengal. Indeed, for Indian art house, everything started with The River.
As a first-time editor, Jhaveri has managed to get essays from stalwarts such as Jonathan Rosenbaum, who writes for Cahiers du Cinema and Film Quarterly, and Adrian Martin, who is the co-founder of the online film journal Rouge. According to Jhaveri, seeking contributions was a rather simple process. He blind-mailed short proposals to potential writers and then waited with fingers crossed. “I think it was the strength of the individual films and the various film-makers that seemed attractive. The book called and allowed for the opportunity to re-evaluate, and in certain cases champion forgotten films,” says Jhaveri.
Unique effort: The book’s tear-sheet postcards are meant to be used.
The more difficult part, apparently, was sourcing images. It involved contacting film archives, image banks from across the world and the foundations of individual directors. The laborious effort seems to have paid off. In the book, text and image come together in an innovative linkage system that requires the reader to engage with the book, cross-reference and tear off the film postcards that can be used.
The last essay in the book has decidedly nothing to do with India. “The extent of my ignorance so far” is written by Leslie Ann Thornton, a painter-turned-film-maker who teaches at Brown. According to Jhaveri, the essay’s inclusion is an indication of the book’s commitment to dissensus—the opposite of consensus, the inability of a group to reach unanimity. He felt it necessary to include a wholly subjective point of view, an artist’s response. “It is an attempt to introduce variation, promoting the notion of eclectic formats and discourse,” says Jhaveri, commenting on the essay but, in essence, summing up the entire book.