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  • Teaching Indian Cinema
  • Chakravarty Sumita (bio)

I teach in a media studies program, have been involved in developing a major in "culture and media" at my university at the undergraduate level, and my doctoral degree is in communications. I mention these because, while my research and writing have been on Indian, primarily Hindi-language, cinema, opportunities to teach "Bollywood cinema" have been few and far between. This in itself would be unimportant to the readers of this essay, except that the vicissitudes of a perhaps familiar academic path in a communications-related field help to shed light on how an object of inquiry develops, what frameworks and methodologies it adopts, what constitutes its teaching practice, and who it seeks to educate or enlighten.

I begin, therefore, with a brief historical look at some of the contexts—theoretical, pedagogical, and practical—in which Indian film studies inserted itself, cleared a space, or was given a seat at the table. Since teaching does not take place in a vacuum, but is actively shaped by overlapping sets of determinations (the availability of critical works and films, student interest in the topic reflected in course enrollment, and the relationship of the course to the program as a whole, to name a few), a course on Indian cinema is always more and less than the name suggests, marked as much by absence as by presence. I may be wrong here, but my sense is that in most film or media studies programs, a course on Indian cinema (or Egyptian or Iranian) must bear the "burden" of being a course in social history, politics and economics, language and religion. As a stand-alone course on a culture, civilization, or film tradition, it cannot benefit from the "symphonic effect" that courses more central to the curriculum, such as ones on American or European cinemas, can generate. Students taking a course on French director Jean Renoir, say, are able to draw upon a film theory course that would include Andre [End Page 105] Bazin, Christian Metz, and Lacanian psychoanalysis, another on the French new wave, and yet another on French comedy or cinema colonial. While distinct, these courses could build towards a cumulative understanding of French cinema in a way that a lone course on Bollywood cinema cannot. The challenge of teaching a particular film from India, then, must be seen as symptomatic of the undertaking as a whole.

Let me briefly touch upon three stages or shifts in the paradigms governing the study and teaching of Indian cinema over the past two decades. The first stage, that of "third world" or "third cinema" characterized the 1980s; the second was the rubric of "national cinemas" that held sway during the 1990s; and the third stage, marking the current period from 2000 on, deals with Bollywood in the context of globalization. (I simplify, of course, and do not mean to suggest a strict chronology, since all three rubrics can coexist in the same course.) I will locate my experience of teaching Indian cinema in each of these moments, pointing to their pedagogical strengths and weaknesses.

The opportunity for teaching Indian cinema in the American academy first arose for me in the mid-1980s, at a summer institute on Third World Cinema organized by Robert Stam at New York University. Arising out of political debates around underdevelopment and the need to view cinema as a radical instrument of social change, the third cinema "movement" followed in the wake of leftist manifestos from Latin America, and sought to unite for analytical purposes the diverse styles of filmmaking from the formerly colonized countries of the world.1 The purview of the course included Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, vast geopolitical areas with different histories and traditions from which we sought to derive commonalities of aim and achievement. The course featured a series of guest speakers, each of whom spoke on a chosen region based on research interests. I "lectured" on India's art and alternative cinema, using Satyajit Ray's work for both thematic and practical reasons. His were virtually the only films available in the United States at the time, although I was able to get two recent...


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