The Mediapolis Q&A: Priya Jaikumar on Where Histories Reside

Map from GBI’s Darjeeling (1937)

In this installment of our continuing series of of conversations with authors of new books on cities and urban culture, film scholar Sushmita Banerji interviews Priya Jaikumar on her most recent book Where Histories Reside: India as Filmed Space (Duke University Press, 2019). Dr. Jaikumar is a Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California and the author of Cinema at the End of Empire: A Politics of Transition in Britain and India (Duke University Press, 2006).

Sushmita Banerji: In undertaking a spatial film historiography, Where Histories Reside reveals how power relations and their reproduction are institutionalized through state practices, aesthetic lineages, and discursive regimes. You explore this intersection with material from the cinemas of India. Yet this intersection would be very productive for all manner of readings across various parts of the world. How did you come upon the idea for the book? What got you interested?

Priya Jaikumar: It was 2009 and I was being pulled in different directions. The US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan led to daily press coverage of bombed sites in the Middle East. Places with rich histories were becoming visually familiar to a global audience exclusively as targets of war or sites of insurgency. This made me turn to similar colonial precedents and seek modes of writing about photographed and filmed locations that disrupt reductive and objectifying frames. I was also reading Edward Soja’s work on the centrality of geography to social inequity. In addition to questions of spatial justice, I was interested in the relationship between social power and the production of knowledge. Whose information becomes empirical data and who gets to define evaluative paradigms? Separately, through teaching film and media theory, I found a lot of ink spilt on the ontological significance of time to visual technologies, and not much connecting the growing but disparate body of work on media and space. Scholarship on space in urban studies, architecture, political theory, classical and contemporary film theory, and digital media studies was not in conversation in the ways I felt it could be.

Title image from Gaumont-British Instructional’s (GBI) short on the Indian town of Darjeeling, 1937

These trajectories came together in a book that deals with British, Euro-American and Indian films shot on location in India. As will be quickly clear to any reader of my book, this history of location filming is also a pretext to explore the spatiality of film itself. My focus is on celluloid films, but whatever format interests you, film can be approached as a text, technology, site of labor, experience and infrastructure. Each of these has spatial registers whose social histories constitute the medium as a multifarious material, aesthetic and affective object. My aim was to follow the mutually entangled narratives of cinema’s sociospatiality, necessarily bringing together different approaches on film and space. At the same time, I was interested in the logics by which towns, architectures and bodies are visually organized on film.  For instance, in a section on “Disciplinary Space,” I write about British films from the 1930s that instruct English school children on Indian topography. To understand the short films visualizing Indian towns, I had to delve into British debates over appropriate visual material in teaching geography to an expanding electorate during the decline of empire. I look at the conjunction between a nation’s and a discipline’s spatial assumptions.

In the book, I lay out a theory of “spatial” film historiography while also illustrating such a historiography with five case studies, ranging from the 1930s to 2013, to show how India was constituted as a bounded visual, political and fiscal entity in film aesthetics, policies and production practices. To that end, I adopt a methodological heterodoxy to address film as an object that toggles between the aesthetic, social, material and affective spaces constituting our world, while also shifting somewhat restlessly between geographical vantage points to displace the exemplarity of any single place or race (normatively Euro-American white masculinity) to film theory. The challenge lay in writing a history alive to spatial politics across different rungs of interpretation. In addition to focusing on India, I wanted to provoke conversations about the geographical basis of our knowledge in film theory and film history. To talk about the spatial underpinnings of disciplinary knowledge.

Banerji: You arrive at Lefebvre – to value the processes by which objects, institutions, lives and realities take shape in space – via Tom Gunning. To look at the history of cinema is to look at its processes of emergence, to describe how it has come to be. But writing a history thus has to be difficult. Tell us about methodological wrinkles that needed ironing out.

Jaikumar: I don’t think there has been a sufficient reckoning with social theorist Henri Lefebvre in film and media studies beyond nominal quotes to his insight that social spaces are social products. Lefebvre asks us to not take institutions, objects and ideas at face value but reverse engineer them back to their productive processes, to see how they coalesce and take on a self-evident fixity. What if we adopt this as a habit of thought and method to examine how spaces are constituted across the realms of experience, form, production and infrastructure endemic to cinema? Phenomenological arguments made by Tom Gunning and proposals for media archaeology by scholars such as Huhtamo, Parikka and Peters have also pushed us to think of media as “our infrastructures of being, the habitats and materials through which we act and are.”1John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 15. These scholars do not reference Lefebvre. But there are affinities between them and the spatial theorist.

It’s true that opening history up to the density of multiple spatial contexts threatens to make historiography disorderly. Moreover, when you look at any technology from the vantage point of the global south, you see immediately that the politics and socialities surrounding infrastructural elements are an inextricable part of the technology’s sensual and material contexts of emergence. Let’s take the example of state-sponsored travelogues made by the Films Division (FD) of India in the 1960s and 70s, which I discuss in the book’s section on “Regulatory Space.” The aesthetics, framing and camera movements of FD films make sense in the context of government ideology and directorial choices, but also in the context of the messy materiality of stock shortages, state memos, and internal administrative quarrels. Various territorial, material and institutional factors shape the aesthetic histories of FD travelogues, including a proscription on borrowing visual technologies from the nation’s military, and sustained state violence against indigenous tribal populations. So the spatial hermeneutic of my narrative in this instance derives from my account of how all these organizations and personnel tested the boundaries of their remit, as they collectively shaped a set of films. In following stories of cinema’s formative institutional and aesthetic spaces down their many paths, I am not aiming for a Braudelian total history. I see myself writing a heterotopic historiography, which uses archives from different orders of knowledge about India’s regions to invalidate the prerogative of any one version to historical truth.

Screenshot from Films Division’s Indian Panorama/Bharat ki Jhaanki (Thapa, 1959).

This apparently anarchic proposal for film historiography is streamlined by the guiding questions. In the case of FD, I ask: During a period of high national regulation, what connects the spatiality of a series of films (as aesthetic artifacts and material objects) to the territory’s transformation into an imagined landscape and politico-economic unit? In my response, I don’t want to iron out the wrinkles so much as enter into their folds. I want to understand, in this instance, how cinema and the state shaped each other. How did the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting probe the limits of its administrative power in relation to an inhouse film institute? How did a film’s deployment of restricted stock demonstrate a state documentarian’s discomfort or adherence to bureaucratic restrictions? The ambition of telling an endless history is replaced by demonstrations of how institutions and images hardened in their interactions, to get a spatial fix. This productive process is history happening.

Banerji: Could you talk more about your experience with finding the FD shorts. A lot of those films are now rarely if ever screened. How and where did you access them? Where did you encounter Narayan Singh Thapa’s story? What are those notes from FR’s past saying today?

Jaikumar: FD was India’s state-funded film unit created in 1948, a year after the nation’s independence from the British. Its mandate was to produce instructional and documentary films that educated Indians on concepts of nationhood and citizenship. The institute represents the new state’s first systematic effort to cultivate a citizenry by training it in habits of perception. Until the 1990s, commercial theaters in India were mandated to play FD shorts before screening their feature films, and cover the FD rental fees. When I started my research in 2009, there was little published work on FD. Now, happily, there is expanding interest it.

In general, doing archival research in India means trying to access material by all means possible. I contacted fellow-scholars, family members in government service, and emailed the FD office in Mumbai. Some leads worked out, several didn’t. Incidentally, FD’s Mumbai office is on Dr. Gopalrao Deshmukh Marg, but is often referred to by its older, British-era name of Pedder Road. India’s urban streets are navigable by memories of the past that persist in nomenclature, if nothing else, limiting the viability of official addresses and GPS maps in finding locations. You have to seek out word of mouth knowledge and depend on people. This is a hurdle for historians seeking archives as much as it is for filmmakers scouting locations for films. In my book, the two pursuits become allegories for each other. They both illustrate gaps, errors, contingencies and connections that occur in writing about or visually representing a place.

The fact that FD shorts are no longer theatrically screened makes little difference. While working on the book, I was able to purchase their DVDs. Now FD has a robust digital presence. They have an online portal and a documentary film screening club, the FDZone, which also has an active Facebook presence.

Thapa as cameraman in Films Division’s Bhutan: Coronation in the Himalayas (1953)

The specter of FD shorts and their vision of India persists, if only to be re-conscripted and reimagined. The shorts tell us about the mechanics and frequently haphazard applications of state power on visual media. They show us the continuities and differences between past and present state propaganda, now that the Modi administration is running structural interference to thwart any expression of dissent in India’s privatized media. In denouncing Nehruvian secularism and dismantling the Ambedkarite constitution, the Modi administration brings the past back to life as antagonist. That past is anything but dead.

At the same time, such sweeping statements about the state and media threaten to flatten state power into a theoretical abstraction rather than a lived, perceived and contested reality. N. S. Thapa, the FD documentarian and bureaucrat whose travelogues I write about, helped me to give flesh to the government’s use of political pressure. It personalized a system and a functionary’s place within the system. It took me a few years to track down Thapa’s memoir, The Boy from Lambatta, which was published by a small press in Nainital, India. I use it as a counterpoint to the official interviews, incomplete FD documents and surviving films that I sourced.

Banerji: The term “state space” as an iteration of the continuous fixing of a geographic territory to a discursive production of a nation is marvelous. Could you elaborate on the term and how it has been productive for you?

Jaikumar: My concept of state space owes a debt to the 2003 anthology State/Space2Neil Brenner, Bob Jessop, Martin Jones, and Gordon MacLeod, eds., State/Space: A Reader (New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003).and to the work of urban geographers and political theorists Neil Brenner and Stuart Elden. Thinking in terms of state space allows us to break away from the presumption that states are stable structures, entirely pre-existing the practices, policies, strategies and agents exercising power over a region in the name of a nation, political party or government. It allows us to combine the conceptual tools provided by Michel Foucault, who asks us to look at the permeation of power across multiple sites (that are discursive as well as architectural) with Lefebvre’s spatial analysis. Lefebvre encourages us to break down state institutions to their strategies for managing territory, capital and lives. The state is an abstraction reinforced by the repeated exercise of power and naturalized when its boundaries are assumed to be coextensive with those of a territory and a people. Our critical work lies in taking apart that normalization. In deterritorializing the state.

With the concept of state space, we can look into the ways that state power endures past individual governments and consolidates itself across a field of actions. For instance, states try to acquire a territorial and spatial fix through military and legal actions, by documenting and undocumenting people, by fetishizing and demonizing races, by ransoming the commons to corporate lobbyists and special interest groups, by direct propaganda and indirect surveillance. As a film and media theorist, I am trained to look at filmic and aesthetic spaces and see how they intersect with the territorialization of state power.

Consider, for instance, an image of MAGA-cap wearers at a pro-Trump rally. Consider also the various executive orders passed by the current President, attacking legal immigrants and asylum seekers. What connects and what distinguishes current practices from those enacted during Obama’s presidency? How are current images of white supremacist rallies connected to new architectures of oppression, and changing rules regarding travel and ID documents? These are all iterations of a state defining who belongs in the United States, which paperwork grants legitimacy, and who should be celebrated or incarcerated. Each has territorial implications. If we limit our notion of the state to particular governments and their institutions, it is harder to talk of the dispersed operation of state power over a long duration across multiple aspects of our lives, which are also sites where state power may be challenged. The concept of state space is capacious enough to cut across different terrains where power operates. It is also supple enough for the precision needed to analyze particular visual images, documents, policies, actions and products.

Banerji: You chart a “cinematic sublime” from Jean Renoir’s India through Roberto Rossellini to Ritwik Ghatak’s perusal of the sublime in the “density of the real” (172) and from oriental sublime to cinema as a “psychic study” of history in Ghatak’s Titas Ekta Nodir Naam. Can you say more about the term?

Jaikumar: With a focus on films shot on location, I work through different dispensations or dispositifs that have organized India as a territory. British geographical films and FD films hew to a rationalist logic promoted by their institutions. Their spatial visualization of India follows quasi-scientific nominalism. In contrast, several commercial and art films portray India as a place that exceeds the rationalist or geographical imagination. I discuss this in the book’s section on “Affective Space.” The sublime makes its appearance there.

Publicity image from The River

Attempting a postage-stamp definition of the “sublime” in our conversation would be self-defeating, because it is supposed to name a sensation or experience that defies expression. Let me say that it was important for me to differentiate between the “oriental” and “cinematic” sublime in approaching Jean Renoir’s The River. Films that abstract the East into a site of mystery and self-revelation for European protagonists are rightly criticized for trafficking in an oriental sublime. In this vision, the orient is a space that defies all categories. Familiar from Edward Said’s analysis of orientalism, this is a vision of the East as an unknown, beguiling and horrifying Other. It has a resilient literary lineage and is familiar to us from Western classics such as Samuel Coleridge’s Kubla Khan and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Wes Anderson uses the trope ironically in Darjeeling Limited (2007).

The cinematic sublime, on the other hand, is my phrase for the faith posited in cinema as a medium by filmmakers such as Jean Renoir, Satyajit Ray, Roberto Rossellini, Ritwik Ghatak, and by film theorists such as André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer (and more recently Dudley Andrew). It characterizes filmmakers and theorists who believe in cinema’s ontological ability to stage unexpected and startling revelations in recording reality, despite their knowledge that films can manipulate and simulate reality. Let me take the example of Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges’s very short story, “On Exactitude in Science.” In it, a Cartography Guild’s map replicates reality so precisely that it becomes ontologically indistinguishable from it. For this reason, the map becomes uninteresting. It is forgotten. In a Bazinian sense, for some filmmakers and film theorists what is enthralling about cinema is its ontological capacity to record the real while simultaneously depending on a margin of difference that prevents it from being indistinguishable from the real. The medium exists at the razor’s edge of this possibility and impossibility. The phrase cinematic sublime describes the impulse of certain filmmakers and theorists to use or conceive of encounters between the camera and the world to measure the untamable and fundamentally inexpressible magnitude of reality, despite knowing that this is a doomed mission.

Mother Goddess incarnates in Ghatak’s Titas Ekti Nadir Naam (A River Called Titas, 1973)

I see the presence of the cinematic sublime in filmmakers who seek to interrogate the human, biological or geological condition with nothing more (or less) than the tools of filmmaking. I offer a comparative reading of Renoir, Rossellini and Ghatak’s films because they plumb the cinematic sublime in different ways, using India as their canvas.  They each seek to find cinema’s apposite goal in confronting unanswerable questions about the nature of love, grief, suffering, death and fragility, filming India to different ends in this quest. The oriental sublime is a deeply problematic cultural corollary of imperialism and racism. The search for cinema’s potential to face radical alterity is another pursuit, shared by creators of the global south and north.

Banerji: What traction does the term “cinematic sublime” give you in understanding the figuration of history and memory in cinema?

Jaikumar: Unlike Renoir’s Hoogly River, the River Titas in Ghatak’s film is always more than a symbol of life’s eternal rhythms. Titas appears as a mythic life-force sustaining villagers and their livelihoods, but it is also subject to unforgiving change. By the film’s end, Titas becomes an environmentally degraded and politically sabotaged resource, parceled out amid warring factions. Like Renoir, Ghatak abstracts a body of water. Unlike him, this does not come at the cost of abandoning particular territorial histories. Titas abstracts reality, but almost immediately recuperates a historical meaning that comments on and even enhances visual abstractions. By distinguishing between the “oriental” and “cinematic” sublime, I give myself a vocabulary to express such differences without diminishing the ambition of either filmmaker.

I am critical of The River’s blindness to Bengal’s post-Partition predicament, but I cannot blind myself to Renoir’s vulnerabilities as he traveled to a new land. As I saw from The River’s production files and Renoir’s letters, the French director’s journey to India transformed him just as it transformed his vision for the film. I wanted to write a history that left room for a filmmakers’ encounters with a land during film production, even as I wrote of the film’s variable registration and erasure of a nation’s history. Discussing the comparative sublimities of Renoir, Ray, Rossellini and Ghatak, and disarticulating the cinematic sublime from the oriental sublime, allowed me to voice these nuances in history’s and memory’s registration on film.

Banerji: Can you elaborate on how thinking about cinema as a production practice rather than as representation has been productive for you?

Jaikumar: I should clarify that I don’t drop the analysis of cinema as representation. We have to study film as part of an industry, a production practice, a tool in the hands of corporations and governments, but it is also a series of images, mostly framed, lit, edited and layered with audio-tracks. The problem is that formal analysis, which played an important role in institutionalizing film studies as a discipline, dominates film theory. This often becomes grounds for cinema’s dismissal by those not invested or interested in the medium and its form. When Lefebvre looks at film, all he sees are visual texts. He uses films to illustrate the sins of a society that takes seeing and sight for truth, neglecting the productive infrastructures of film and photography.

In the book, I am having a few different conversations. One of them is with Lefebvre, from the perspective of film studies. To his voice in my head, I am saying: look, here are the things a spatial history of cinema can do, which the medium enables rather than obstructs. Another conversation is with Screen theory of the 1970s and its influential notion of narrative and filmic space. Stephen Heath’s approach to narrative space, for instance, was valuable in deconstructing spectatorial identification and narrative meaning generated by a film’s edits and camera placements. But by treating European perspectival codes and Hollywood narratives as normative to cinema, Heath narrows his insights. Nick Browne’s careful analysis of Stagecoach does the same. It also doesn’t provide us with tools to think about Utah and Arizona, where the film was shot, or consider the Navajo Nation and Hopi Indians whose histories are edged out of the film’s abstracting frames. With our field’s acute eye for film and media analysis, can we not be narrators alive to all these stories and histories?

With my concept of “filmed” rather than “filmic” space, I hold on to close readings of a film’s structure, form and style while pursuing contexts that feed into and are erased from screen images.  In that sense, David Bordwell’s work on film style in relation to modes of production, John Caldwell’s analysis of production cultures, and Lee Grieveson’s history of media institutions within the machineries of liberalism and imperialism are influential, but I remain reluctant to treat films primarily as expressions of production contexts. I want to include the accidental, contingent and ephemeral events that occur on a location or set to make up transient histories of an instant, even if they don’t appear on screen or get inscribed in archives. For these I turn to interviews when possible and look for the gaps and elisions in records when not. As I say in the book, I work with “materialist tools and poststructuralist doubts” (308). I don’t think we have to give up the ambition to map grand politico-economic and cultural chronologies while attending to formal details on the one hand, and fleeting experiences on the other. We can write about the instrumentality of institutions and particularity of styles while observing the idiosyncrasies of embodiment. Walter Benjamin showed us that.

Banerji: You develop the idea that after 2002, “Bollywood is not working as an industry in isolation” in developing Brand India but is a media event (242). Can you expand?

Jaikumar: My analysis of Bollywood is a good example of how an expansive notion of filmed space can track, rather than jettison, the spatial imprint of institutions and expediencies on filmic space. As I discuss in the section on “Commodified Space,” after India’s economic deregulation and the film industry’s formalization, Bombay-based Hindi film productions began to attract financial investments from domestic and international corporations. Coinciding with the influx of digital technology, there were shifts in how the films were made and what they looked like. My question was: how best can I write a spatial history of this transitional period?

Screen grab from the Bollywood film Ra.One (2011)

If you look at a standard Bollywood blockbuster, the leads are often surrounded by an international crew of background dancers to signal cosmopolitanism. I interviewed below-the-line workers such as production managers, junior artists (extras) and dance coordinators to understand what was happening on locations when films demanded backdrops populated by urban Indian and Western youths, forcing out union labor. This still didn’t get to the larger spatial commodification resulting from India’s privatization, which included the deregulation of movie theaters, gentrification of neighborhoods, and luxury marketing of land as tourism. The industry we refer to as “Bollywood” is enmeshed in changes across these spaces. Professionals working in television also work in advertising and film. In a cyclical way, a precarious but expanding urban labor force is drawn into a privatizing media industry and becoming part of a consumer class sold on lifestyles promoted by the media. I try to capture these intersections with my account of “Brand India.”

In 2002, the Indian government commissioned a public-private collaboration led by the Indian Ministry of Tourism to package and sell India to “high net-worth” customers. The task to brand the nation succinctly conveys the management and marketization of all things as privatization infiltrates society. Today Prime Minister Modi’s image is managed through a social and traditional media machinery with a deftness that distracts the populace from the government’s disastrous and brutal policies. And yet, the Modi brand is not seamless. On-the-ground interviews on film sets conveyed a similar huckstering in the production of Bollywood’s image. Negotiations between extras, coordinators and producers result in the sheen of Bollywood’s cosmopolitanism. My point is not that we should abandon formal analysis to focus exclusively on production studies. My point is that we can take neither the apparent coherence of an image nor the seeming immutability of productive infrastructures at face value.

Banerji: Space and its relationships to state, power, culture and history are changing as we speak. A proliferation of recordings of this volatile disruption mark our moment in history both in the US and in India. What does this process of emergence of spatial politics say to film scholars? How do we grasp this moment and make it productive?

Jaikumar: My book was published close a year ago now. It has been a very long year. A global pandemic and international protests against George Floyd’s brutal killing by the police propel us into what Michel Foucault would call the “discontinuous.” It feels like there is finally a wide scale reckoning with the systemic racisms faced by Black people the world over. Media has been central to it all. The fact that Floyd’s murder was recorded and circulated online made the difference between yet another Black death, and a death haunting a collective conscience. With lockdowns, we are all virtual beings confronting unequal access to essential resources, to justice, to digital technologies. In the midst of this, surely many of us are thinking about what we can do and should do?

Scholarship cannot have the attention span of newspapers. That would impoverish and instrumentalize thinking. But we have a rare opportunity to address persistent racial and social injustice. We can all participate in this struggle by bringing to it our particular insights and work. My book offers tools to understand the politics of filmed space, which is the captured encounter between a camera and the location or event it confronts. Spatial analysis requires an awareness of the principles underlying any organization of space, and a sensitivity to the systems and people perpetuating or breaking down those organizational systems. A critical spatial analysis is essential to writing the multiple histories embedded in filmed images, whether those be images of police brutality, public protests, or migrant workers making arduous and fatal journeys home during this pandemic. If a critical spatial lens is relevant to dismantling social hierarchies, it is also crucial to de-centering Eurocentric canons. With a book on filmed locations, I want my readers to think about positionality. Which films, filmmakers and contexts form the basis of axiomatic assumptions in film and media studies? In reflecting on the ontological aspects of visual technologies, what examples do we extrapolate and universalize from, and what insights seem to apply only to particular regions, races, classes, genders or sexualities? I want to mess with categorical assumptions by theorizing history, space and film with South Asian case studies.

Notes   [ + ]

1. John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 15.
2. Neil Brenner, Bob Jessop, Martin Jones, and Gordon MacLeod, eds., State/Space: A Reader (New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.