Sunday, February 5, 2017

China girls and future nostalgists

In film lab parlance, a “China girl” was the image of a woman that appeared in the countdown leader of a reel. It was used by technicians to match skin tone and colour density. No one is sure how the term came about, but the most widely accepted origin theory is that, sometimes, instead of women, porcelain figures (hence “china”) were used as models.

In his documentary Electric Shadows: Journeys In Image-making, Avijit Mukul Kishore juxtaposes one China girl with another: Helen dancing to "Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu" in Shakti Samanta’s 1958 Hindi film Howrah Bridge. Clothed in a cheongsam, eyebrows arched, Helen is a delightful Orientalist cliché, no more Chinese than the women on the film leaders. It’s a potent comparison, one that uses film history and technique to point to the medium’s capacity for deception.

In 2011, a film festival called You Don’t Belong: Pasts and Futures of Indian Cinema was organized by West Heavens Project, a cultural exchange programme. Kishore, whose Snapshots From A Family Album was part of the line-up, travelled to Beijing and Shanghai. The plan was for him and the other film-makers from India to make a film on the festival. That film never materialized, but Kishore was sufficiently intrigued to return in December 2014 to shoot a documentary of his own. Along with architect Rohan Shivkumar, he travelled to Beijing, Shanghai and Kunming, interviewing a range of people, from film curators to Mao-era memorabilia shop owners. This became Electric Shadows, whose title is the literal English translation of the Chinese word for cinema—dianying.

Even with its slight running time of 40- odd minutes, the film manages to touch upon Bruce Lee, Mani Kaul, The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin, state censorship, 1920s Shanghai and Jawaharlal Nehru and still find time for a sequence in which Kishore flies over fields and cities dressed like a warrior out of a Zhang Yimou film. When I met him and Shivkumar, Kishore told me that he’d set out to explore how image-making and propaganda affects culture. The film also shows easily we can reduce a culture to its most popular export, like the scene in which Shivkumar gets requested for photographs by a series of young girls who either believe he’s Shah Rukh Khan or feel he looks close enough for it not to matter.

Electric Shadows suggests that the long-standing embargo on culture during the Party years left the Chinese people somewhat unmoored. Johnson Chang, director of the West Heavens Project, speaks of his frustration with what he sees as a loss of contact with Chinese history. “Because of that we get indigestion from what is coming in from the outside,” he says. “The way the Chinese consume images, it’s like the image has no history at all,” Shivkumar says. As a young man from Shanghai puts it: “It’s a nostalgia only for the present.”

This statement seems to be the jumping-off point for the other Kishore film screening this month. Nostalgia For The Future, co-directed with Shivkumar, is a meditation on home and belonging, architecture and the nation—themes Kishore has explored previously in documentaries like Vertical City and Snapshots From A Family Album. It explores various houses, from the Laxmi Vilas Palace in Vadodara to B.R. Ambedkar’s modest dwellings in Mumbai, and through these, various ideas of “home”: as raw communion with nature (Le Corbusier’s designs), as pure spirit (Gandhi), as engineering (government housing in Delhi).

As Kishore points out, the film has something else in common with his previous work: it’s exploration of film form. Kishore is a cinematographer; he majored in the discipline at the Film and Television Institute of India and has shot, apart from his own films, Ashim Ahluwalia’s John & Jane, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s The Immortals and several others. In Nostalgia For The Future, he mixes digital with 16mm footage and clips from Hindi films and old Films Division documentaries. The 16mm interludes, in black and white and colour, tie in with the title of the film: they’re present-day scenes, but the hazy images and the rounded corners of the screen impose a nostalgia of their own.

Nostalgia For The Future isn’t a difficult film, but it’s definitely a thoughtful one. Though he’s used a voiceover for the first time, Kishore refrains from imposing any definitive conclusions. You could get happily lost—as I did at times—in the beautifully precise images, or you can try and unpack the ideas about architecture, philosophy, nation-building, city planning, class and caste that keep coming at you. Sometimes, you may find the film triggering a personal response. As I heard Nehru defend the architecture of Chandigarh by saying that sometimes India needs to be hit on the head in order for it to think, it struck me that I’d heard similar sentiments voiced in the last few weeks by supporters of the demonetization drive.

If you live in Mumbai and are interested in documentary, chances are you’d have run into Kishore and Shivkumar. They frequently take on curatorial work: for the Movies at the Museum sessions at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad City Museum and, in the past, for the Mumbai Film Festival and Films Division’s happily revived weekly programme, FD Zone. I ask them whether they agree with something Chang says, that to be a film curator you have to be optimistic. “You have to be an optimist, period,” Shivkumar says, laughing. Kishore agrees, adding, “There are so many films that will never make it to the market. What is possible to do is more important than what you might not be able to.”

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

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