Where Histories Reside: India as Filmed Space

Where Histories Reside: India as Filmed Space

by Priya Jaikumar

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In Where Histories Reside Priya Jaikumar examines eight decades of films shot on location in India to show how attending to filmed space reveals alternative timelines and histories of cinema. In this bold “spatial” film historiography, Jaikumar outlines factors that shape India's filmed space, from state bureaucracies and commercial infrastructures to aesthetic styles and neoliberal policies. Whether discussing how educational shorts from Britain and India transform natural landscapes into instructional lessons or how Jean Renoir’s The River (1951) presents a universal human condition through the particularities of place, Jaikumar demonstrates that the history of filming a location has always been a history of competing assumptions, experiences, practices, and representational regimes. In so doing, she reveals that addressing the persistent question of “what is cinema?” must account for an aesthetics and politics of space.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478005599
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 10/31/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 414
File size: 34 MB
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About the Author

Priya Jaikumar is Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California and author of Cinema at the End of Empire: A Politics of Transition in Britain and India, also published by Duke University Press.

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My first argument for a spatial film historiography is inspired by films whose historical exegesis involves breaking the old pact between territorial power and epistemic truth. Disciplinary assumptions that lie behind the categorization of places are exposed when we treat epistemic questions of category in pedagogical practices — in this instance, of geography and film studies — as fundamentally spatial. We begin to see how curricular and disciplinary practices create the borders and limits of knowledge to claim their status as institutional truth.

Abstract yourself from this book; realize where you are at present located, the point where you stand that is now the centre of all. Look up overhead, think of space stretching out, think of all the unnumbered orbs wheeling safely there. ... Spend some time faithfully in this exercise. Then again realize yourself upon this earth, at the particular point you now occupy. Which way stretches the north and what country, seas, etc.? Which way the south? What way east? Which way the west? Seize these firmly with your mind, pass freely over immense distances.


These films project the Empire, providing for the people of this country a means of surveying a domain too wide and strange to be described otherwise than by film.


In 1919, H. (Harry) Bruce Woolfe founded British Instructional Films (BIF), which came to be known for its educational, expedition, war, and science films. Soon reconstituted as British Independent with some of the same production team, and as Gaumont-British Instructional (GBI) by 1933, the company's short geographical films made for British schoolchildren from the ages of ten and above used a hybrid format of actuality and animation that is evident in the Indian Town Studies series. The series includes A Thar Desert Town: Bikaner (1937), A Central Indian Town: Udaipur (1937), A Foot-hill Town: Darjeeling (1937), and A Himalayan Town: Katmandu (1937), some of which are available for viewing online at the Colonial Film archive with a running time of approximately seven to ten minutes each. These shorts enjoyed limited Saturday morning educational screenings in 35 mm format at select Gaumont-British theaters across twelve cities in the United Kingdom, starting with Manchester, Bristol, Newcastle upon Tyne, and London. Their primary purpose, however, was to supplement the geography school curriculum as 16 mm films for substandard projectors in classrooms. Film historian Rachael Low notes that a market niche in science films, classroom films, and instructionals may have contributed to Bruce Woolfe's and British Instructional's survival during the difficult postwar years of British film production onward of the 1920s, making it "one of Britain's most innovative production companies" of the time. The company's catalogue of films for nontheatrical exhibition reveal that shorts that fall under the category of "Geography" dominated their film productions, alongside films on "Natural History."

Viewing the Indian Town Studies films some seven decades later at the British Film Institute (BFI) on Stephen Street in London in 2009, I experienced an uncanny sense of visual familiarity and intimacy with the people on screen. Transcending the film's leveling narration, details of Bikaner and Udaipur and close-ups of faces and gestures registered vividly when, with each replay, people moving in their environment took on an insistent reality distinct from the voice-over's ideological script. Retrospectively, however, these first impressions strike me as somewhat delusional. Whatever similarities a twenty-first-century film scholar may share in terms of features or skin color with the colonized subjects visually captured in such films, politico-historical distance and disciplinary training constitute differences. As noted by early theorists of cinema, film possesses the ability to lead viewers to unexpected "encounters with contingency, lack of control, and otherness" when a camera's involuntary susceptibility to its material surroundings disturb the discretionary forces of an image's placement, framing, editing, and narrative control. Contemporary viewers who oppose the politics of a film desire to seek contingencies and resistances within racist and colonial film texts in order to read against their grain. But such critical gestures have limited historiographic value beyond the immediate satisfaction of upending a racist text.

A useful if somewhat schematic tripartite framework for a spatial analysis may follow David Harvey's distinctions between "absolute," "relative," and "relational" spaces. I could say, for instance, that in the summer of 2009 I sat in the absolute space of an archival consul at the BFI; I was relative to other consuls and viewers, just as the film was relative to other films made during and since the 1930s; and my encounter with the film was relational to an infinitely collapsing epistemic frame of references, ranging from the original intent of those geographical films, their institutional and industrial contexts, the processes through which they came to be archived, the questions that led me to them, the vocabularies through which I now seek to make them comprehensible, and so on. The British instructional shorts on India can be historicized in relation to each of these spatial levels. As I argue, in their specifics, the shorts display the uses of visual media in teaching Indian geography to British schoolchildren in the 1930s. As graphic evidence that helped stabilize a field of disciplinary knowledge, they reveal how the status of imperial geography was tested and formalized through visuals about colonies between the two world wars. As projections of colonial India deployed in educating British pupils addressed in the films as future citizens of a nation and empire, they highlight intersections between the visual practices of geopolitics and geography. In the longer perspective, their scrutiny necessitates a reflection on the modes of film historiography that frame contemporary acts of interpretive contextualism, as we respond to such archival films today.

A spatial film historiography calls for a history of these location shots in relation to each of these rungs of meaning: specifically, as assessed within their own conditions of production, and from the position of other times and spaces that possess the ability to "contest and invert" their politics and perspective. Paula Amad's deployment of the returned gaze of subjects of colonial documentaries to think about "a more deeply contextualized and less deterministic" trope of "visual reposte" calls for a similar historiographic turn. If images of the colonized subjects staring back at the camera in early colonial photographs, documentaries, and nonfiction films provide us with the thrill of potential disruptions within colonialism's visual regime, an interrogation of the politics of the camera's gaze and its enabling infrastructures demand rigorous historical inquiry into the contexts of production and the forces behind them. A critical dismantling of the politics of a colonial visual archive must therefore accompany its historical study.

Film historiography faces particular challenges in discussing and codifying the colonial visual archive, because a crisis of categorization was endemic to the colonial process, where the acquisition of sovereignty over bodies and resources across diverse political formations accompanied the constitution of Europe's liberal democracy. If unable to confront the legacies of Europe's contradictory political affiliations, discourses on colonial film risk being trapped in modes of description that merely reinforce the problematic place of colonialism in European liberalism. Questions about the conditions under which colonial territories became part of the imperial cartographic imagination remain at arm's length when the field of film studies neglects to examine the ways in which its own narratological and disciplinary practices graph the world in constructing cinema's historical trajectories. For any discipline to enlighten us on colonial cinema, it must comprehend and disrupt the logics of seeing, being, and thinking that made such films possible in their own time and assimilable within a longer history of cinema, politics, and industrial practice. A historiography that questions the truths of a colonial vision is as yet incomplete if it does not simultaneously assess its own conceptual spatialization.

Colonial films (actualities, newsreels, travelogues, or feature films) have been typically thought of as the range of films made in colonies or about colonies during a period of Euro-American and Asian territorial imperialism, which largely ended by the mid-twentieth century. Such a periodization nevertheless raises other questions. Should "colonial films" refer to films produced by imperial nations exclusively for exhibition in the colonies? Alternatively, should they refer to all films circulated within the imperium? Could they also refer to any film produced by a nation in possession of colonies? More narrowly, should they refer exclusively to films on the topic of colonies? If some of these definitions appear too broad or too narrow, setting viable limits exposes the assumptions that underlie any working definition of colonial cinema.

As Edward Said proposed in defining British literature in relation to British literature specifically about colonies and dominions, "We should try to discern ... the counterpoint between overt patterns in British writing about Britain and representations of the world beyond the British Isles. The inherent mode for this counterpoint is not temporal but spatial." In other words, new symmetries become evident when we place British literature about Britain adjacent to British literature about the rest of the world that was produced during the same period. Translating this emphasis on synchronic (rather than diachronic) modes of literary history to visual images, it becomes important to remember that films relevant to an imperial imagination partook of structures governing domestic visual representations as well as imperial ones. Structural affinities between media content that was directed inward to Britain's domestic population and outward to the imperium were based in the formation of a larger geopolitical optic shared by both kinds of texts, and reading for this optic reveals imperialism's centrality to the constitution of a modern British nation that was simultaneously liberal and imperial.

Geopolitics emerged as a crucial strategic concept in British political theory during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, founded on the "understanding of states as divided between land- and sea-powers, as engaged in territorial competition, and as becoming empires through war, trade, and protection." Films about territory and geography were materially relevant to the evolution of this new concept of geopolitics. The incorporation of films about colonial landscapes and built environments into geography classrooms, and the production of GBI's short films representing Indian towns in the late 1930s, occurred in the context of political developments pushing Britain to assert and reevaluate its strategic global position during the decline of formal colonialism. Opening with the specifics of the Indian Town Studies series, I consider them within the comparative frameworks of other shorts produced by Bruce Woolfe's film companies, including nature and insect films that are typically not gathered under the umbrella of colonial documentaries. My categorical reassembly highlights the role that seemingly minor instructional films played in larger geopolitical and disciplinary formations in Britain, exemplified by a range of topically unrelated films. Places in India were spatialized by these geopolitical and disciplinary regimes of comprehension when they were incorporated into geographical shorts.


The GBI shorts about the Indian towns of Bikaner, Udaipur, and Darjeeling share several formal similarities. They all start with identical maps of India identifying the physical markers of the Plain of the Indus (west), Plain of the Ganges (east), Himalaya Mountains (northeast), and Deccan (south), and the political markers of Delhi, Bombay, and Calcutta. These maps are animated by arrows, letters, moving dots, and lines that show, in the case of Bikaner, gates and wells in the walled city and, in the case of Darjeeling, the route from Siliguri and the path of a two-foot gauge railway. All the films use voice-overs that are as laser pointers to an image and engage in "visual pointing," to use Joshua Malitsky's phrase. "Take a good look at this map of India. The arrow points to the Deccan." "Take another look at Bikaner on the map." "If you look at the people in the market, you will see all kinds of North Indians." "Notice ... the different kinds of faces." Creating a similar visual trajectory for the lands, a frictionless path of arrows and dots takes the viewer on an ever-narrowing journey, from the map of India to a township. Our sequential introduction to modes of transportation and the marketplace, with its vocationally or ethnically varied consumers, leads to key built environments such as temples at the spiritual end, and observatories and irrigation systems at the technological end. The tour culminates with architectures of governance, ranging from the Maharaja's Palace in Bikaner to the Government House in Darjeeling, which was residence to the governor of Bengal in the summer months. In this pattern, the films are similar to an earlier silent BIF geographical film about Afghanistan, The North West Frontier (1928), which ends with a humble mud fort that is noted by an ironic voice-over as "the last outpost of Britain on the central Asian Road."

Four places in India with distinct roles in imperial administration — Afghanistan, a frontier of nomadic tribes and invasions; Darjeeling, which served as a British summer resort and tea plantation; and Bikaner and Udaipur, Rajputana Princely States under the sovereignty of the British monarch — are leveled by visual tropes. Repeatedly, viewers encounter vocational or ethnic types of inhabitants (a cobbler, a metalworker, a potter, a pan-wallah, and "a cartridge maker" in Afghanistan; North Indians, Tibetans, Nepalese, and Europeans in Darjeeling), using an incongruous range of transportation (camels, motor cars, bicycles, and horse carts in Bikaner; trains, oxcarts, and coolies in Darjeeling) and quaint modes of entertainment (dancing dolls in Darjeeling; the royal procession in Bikaner), portraying the place's awkward relationship to modernity and temporal progression.

The visual building blocks of these geographicals are location shots and ethnographic images edited together with maps and diagrams. Semiotically speaking, the cinematic image and the diagrammatic map are at odds with each other. Maps are symbolic designations of a place drawn from a cartographic system rather than from the lexicon of technologically reproduced reality. They are part of an iconography of enumeration, whereas actuality footage of locations and crowds can register photographic detail in excess of framing discourses. But maps and photographs overlapped as orders of representing reality within the imperial context, when British schools encouraged mapwork based on photographs that represented an experientially tested realm of the familiar. The British Handbook for Geography Teachers (1955) recommends that photographs of one's neighborhood or holiday visits serve as the basis for map drawings in order to establish maps as "representations of reality." Abstractions were discouraged, as was the tendency to tell "picturesque but inauthentic stories ... under the heading of Geography" in dealing with "Life on Other Lands." Consequently, of greater interest than a geographical film's use of maps as text or image is the idiom of scientific nominalism that these films share with the mapmaking process.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  xi
Introduction: Filmed Space  1
Part I. Rationalized Spaces
1. Disciplinary: Indian Towns in British Geography Classrooms  35
2. Regulatory: The State in Films Division's Himalayan Documentaries  75
Part II. Affective Spaces
3. Sublime: Immanence and Transcendence in Jean Renoir's India  125
4. Residual: Lucknow and the Haveli as Cinematic Topoi  181
Part III. Commodified Spaces
5. Global: From Bollywood Locations to Film Stock Rations  233
Conclusion: Cinema and Historiographies of Space  287
Appendix  311
Notes  313
Bibliography  355
Index  389

What People are Saying About This

Tom Conley

“With grace and flair Priya Jaikumar shows how the preproduction practices and industry cultures of cinema—from expedition and nature films to commercial Bollywood cinema—produced and reinforced the spatial notions of territory and empire that dominated geopolitical histories. She looks forward to contemporary Indian geopolitics, as the privatization of economic resources increasingly harms vulnerable populations—even while location-based films exploit these populations and iconic precolonial architecture, now often in ruins, for a cinematic backdrop or ambience. Here is a magnificent study.”

Ranjani Mazumdar

Where Histories Reside is a superbly written book in which Priya Jaikumar uses the optics of space to recast the discourse of Indian cinema and its pasts. Landscape, territory, and architecture are brought into conversation with geography, cultural theory, cinema studies, and politics. The result is a magnificent and methodologically daring approach that displaces the desire for causality with the spatialization of historical inquiry.”

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