A Third Creature: Films by Ruchir Joshi
The September edition of the Mutual Films Session features three films by Indian filmmaker Ruchir Joshi that were released in the 1990s and will be presented in new, restored versions that premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2019. Joshi (who was born in Calcutta in 1960) is also a celebrated writer whose work - both in works of fiction such as his novel The Last Jet-Engine Laugh (2001) and in his non-fiction for publications such as the British magazine Granta and the Indian English-language newspaper The Telegraph - strives to deal with the complex dilemmas of India as a country that harbors diverse realities. On the occasion of the Brazilian screenings of his films, Joshi wrote the following introductory text, in which he elaborates his playful, political and self-reflexive vision of cinema as what he calls "a third creature".
- Aaron Cutler and Mariana Shellard (curators of the Mutual Films Session)
It's an honour for me that my films are being screened in Brazil for the first time. Despite India and Brazil having so much in common, each one is but a faint, broad idea in the minds of most Indians who think about Brazil and most Brazilians who think about India. It's almost as though we have two rows of dancers sashaying before each other, with one row comprised of the chief cliches and archetypes about Brazil and the other of the ones about India: on one side lies football, vast jungle, broad river, Carnival, Rio, Copacabana, the girl from Ipanema, massive slums, and on the other, temples, snake-charmers, exotic dancers, Gandhi, sitar music, Bollywood films, massive slums, starving farmers, the Himalayas, and so on.
Speaking just for myself, I'm a bit ashamed that I know so little about Brazilian cinema and literature. What I do know about the football or the favelas, or about the Amazon and its jungle or the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer, is mostly mediated through the 'north-by-northwest', as in the so-called 'First World'.
The story of why this is so is, of course, to be found in the continuing story of colonisation in this 'post-colonial' period. In India, our outward attention and imagination are tuned in two primary directions, first towards the countries and cultures in our immediate neighbourhood, and second towards the United States and Western Europe. I would guess that it is somewhat the same in Brazil. I hope that these screenings of my films that you are about to see will be one pulse in the electric current needed to break down the wall of Euro-American static that obfuscates our cultures from each other.
The three films that will screen at the Instituto Moreira Salles were made between the years of 1988 and 1993. Specifically, the feature-length Egaro Mile (Eleven Miles) was begun in February 1988 and completed in February 1991, the short Memories of Milk City was made quickly, during three months in mid-1991, and the 40-minute-long Tales from Planet Kolkata was made between December 1992 and March 1993, with the discussion of the script ideas having begun a few months earlier.
Egaro Mile moves between the genres of road movie, diary film, essay film and a kind of anti- or alternative ethnography film as it goes working with traditional Bengali folk musicians known as the Bauls. Of the three films, it is the one that goes into rural Bengal, into the hinterland of Calcutta, as well as into the big city itself. Memories... takes us to the other side of the country, to the city of Ahmedabad in western India; it is a short meditation on the then-ongoing tussle between the old city and the no-longer-new town that came up across the Sabarmati River, on the mutation of tradition and the spread of a certain Americanisation, on the push and pull between an older, gentler culture and the new consumerist impulses that were already feeding into rising religious-majoritarian violence. With Tales... we come back to Calcutta and to competing ideas of the city which for the West was the symbol of 'the worst urban disaster in the world' between the 60s and the early 90s, and which for us locals was the site of internal litost and gut-busting absurdities. People have perceived Tales as being Part Four to the three parts that comprise Egaro Mile, and in some senses it is, while also taking off in a new direction.
Looking back now, a few things come to mind about the period in which the films were made. Those five years marked a turbulent time in the world. Internationally, this was a time during which the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Empire extinguished itself (some would say put itself on pause before re-igniting in another form). In India, we were aware that Brazil and other South American countries were completing what was called 'a slow return to democracy' across the 1980s. In 1991, Apartheid ended in South Africa.
For India, those five years can now be seen as a hinge moment. Two critically important things happened during this period and my films reflect them, even if quite indirectly. In 1991 we had what is called 'Liberalisation', when the earlier model of a mixed economy with a heavy participation of the State was jettisoned and the country opened up to the international markets for the first time in the history of our 40-year old independence; perhaps not coincidentally, this was also the precise moment when the Hindu right-wing began a new push for power by using the excuse of 'restoring the birthplace' of Lord Ram (one of Hinduism's major deities) and insisting that this was at the exact location where a 16th-century mosque was standing. In 1992, the Hindu fascists finally managed to destroy the mosque, leading to massive upheaval and bloodshed across northern and western India, from which trigger point we have now arrived at the extremely dark period in which we are today.
In terms of art cinema, after the great flowering of new, non-commercial films from the 1950s to the 1970s, the 1980s proved to be largely a decade of stagnation as far as serious fiction films were concerned. On the other hand, this was the decade when independent documentary and non-fiction filmmaking came of age in the country. Earlier we had had some great innovative work done under the aegis of the Films Division, the government-run institution for documentary and educational films, but it was during the 1980s that a large number of independent films addressing political and social issues began to be made across India. A lot of this had to do with the increasing availability of 16mm equipment and post-production facilities and, for one important section of documentary makers, with the increased interest and funding from foreign (largely European) television channels.
I began assisting a rising Bombay-based auteur in the early '80s, with the ambition that I too would one day make fiction films that would be shown at festivals alongside those of my cineaste heroes (and heroines) of international cinema. In the meantime, I also saw several films in festivals and cine clubs that didn't easily fit into the either of the two main categories of fiction and documentary. At this time, I did not know the work of Chris Marker or Harun Farocki, but through the films of Jean-Luc Godard, as well as the writings of Milan Kundera and Eduardo Galeano, I was increasingly exposed to the idea that a piece of work could also be a third creature, which in my case meant melding together the forms of the essay and the diary with documentary and fiction filming.
Of the Indian filmmakers who were working at the time in non-fiction, I found Mani Kaul (1944-2011) to be the most interesting and challenging. I'd admired the formal achievements of his earlier celebrated fiction work, but his documentary on his native Rajasthan, A Desert of a Thousand Lines (1986), really opened my eyes to the possibilities of what you could do with filmed reality. After this I saw two other documentary films by him, Arrival (1980) and Dhrupad (1983), in which his poetic engagement dealt respectively with his beloved Bombay and with the form of Indian classical music about which he was passionate, and again I found his use of the camera to be elating and liberating. Mani also made his wonderful film Siddheshwari, around the figure of the great thumri singer and her city of Benaras (Varanasi), in 1989, but I did not see it until a few years afterwards.
Arrival (which will screen with my films at IMS) was especially important for me. The first film I directed, called Bargain (1985), was about the New Market, a massive Victorian-era building in Calcutta. In Arrival, Kaul films around Crawford Market, the Bombay counterpart to the New Market, and I saw his film only after I had completed my own first, student-ish effort. While I still liked many of the things in my film, I could also see how Kaul masterfully, playfully distilled the cinematic and social observation and comment. One shot in Arrival, in which he moves away from the activities on the street to follow a sheet of Telex paper floating down from a high apartment window accompanied by a passage of Dhrupad music, opened my eyes to what a filmmaker could do if they allowed themselves the freedom to use the camera as personally as you would a pen or paintbrush. While I never subscribed to Mani's adage that each shot in a film should be self-contained (I liked my choppy montage and suddenly interrupted shots), this was one crucial lesson that I hung on to with great gratitude.
My three 16mm films were all supported in some way or the other by Channel 4, UK. For Egaro Mile we got completion funds from Alan Fountain, Channel 4's Commissioning Editor for independent and experimental films; the other two films were made as part of a series that Fountain launched called South (South 1 & 2, in 1991 and 1993) where filmmakers from the Global South put forward proposals from which the initiative chose films that would be funded and telecast on the Channel.
Looking back, I can see that the work I did then was at the cusp of several transformations. The films were made almost at the end of the independent 16mm movement that began in India sometime in the late '70s and that peaked between 1988 and 1995. Right around this time, broadcast quality DV cameras entered the market, as did desktop computers on which you could edit the video-shot films. This revolutionised the making of non-fiction in every area, from the funds which were required to how the work could eventually be shown in different contexts. In the UK, Channel 4, which has been set up as a channel for minority and marginal voices, had its character changed by market considerations, with people like Alan Fountain being made to leave; no longer would one be able to pitch our kind of liminal films to mainstream television in Europe. India, as I've already mentioned, entered the first days of its tango with the global market, which meant the abrupt shutting down of any space there might have been on Indian television channels for a different kind of cinema.
After directing a couple of mainstream documentaries for British television, I moved into writing and journalism, and I have made only two essayistic video films since then. Over the next twenty-five years, Egaro Mile and Tales... both managed to have lives of their own, being programmed from time to time in festivals in India and in Europe and occasionally in North America, while Memories... was not so fortunate, there being no good subtitled version of it on DVD or Betacam. In 2013-14, in partnership with the Arsenal - Institute for Film and Video Art in Berlin, I began a project of digitisation of all three films. This work was finally completed in late 2018 and the restored films began to be re-introduced into filmic conversations from 2019 onwards, with the Covid years intervening across 2020-22.
In a sense these films are now doubly third creatures; They were the films they were when they were first shown, in their first avatar, so to speak; then they were shown erratically in mediums different from 16mm, such as VHS, U-Matic and Beta tapes and then as DVDs, so there is the memory of how they looked and alchemised with audiences across the years; and now here they are, thrice-born, not new but new, ready to interact with fresh audiences.
Thanks to the restorations by Arsenal and the efforts of Mutual Films, they now make their way to Brazil for the first time. I look forward to the response.
Ruchir Joshi, Berlin, July 2023
I would like to dedicate the screenings to the memory of three people: Deepak Majumdar (1934-1993), Vivan Sundaram (1944-2023) and Navroze Contractor (1944-2023).
Deepak was a poet, writer, cultural thinker, provocateur and teacher who moved between rural East Bengal, Calcutta, America, Greece, France and Poland, but finally living mostly in Calcutta. For those of us lucky enough to have been taught by him and befriended by him, he was a huge exasperating, enervating, exhilarating and inspiring presence in our lives.
Vivan was one of India's (and I daresay the world's) most important artists of contemporary times. From his student days in Baroda and then London around 1968, he produced a variety of startling work, from drawings and narrative paintings to installations, performances and videos. Always allied to progressive causes and progressive forms, Vivan inspired and energetically supported the generations younger than his. His loss earlier this year feels terribly premature, despite the bad health he suffered towards the end of his life.
Navroze was one of the greatest cinematographers of Indian cinema. He began work with Mani Kaul, shooting the lusciously filmed Duvidha (1973) on a small 16mm camera with the slowest of Kodak stocks. And, in addition to shooting several feature films, he was one of the top documentary cameramen anywhere. His work with his wife Deepa Dhanraj is but one important part of his vast varied oeuvre. His death in a tragic motorcycle accident this past June came as a shocking blow to all of us who knew him - even at 78, Navroze was one of the youngest-spirited cinema-warriors around.
 I've always been a Brazil supporter in a football-mad city like Calcutta, which at every World Cup is fiercely divided, with each neighbourhood supporting a major power like Brazil, Argentina, France, or Germany. Our own football is light years away from the top rank - I don't think India will play in the World Cup in my lifetime.
 The term Milan Kundera talks about that defines a certain kind of exile - nostalgia for a lost home.