‘Ours’ & ‘Theirs’: Cinema & Minority Identities: Seeing from the Mainstream:
Cinema is perhaps the mainstream of all art forms, most popular and most accessible, especially in India, a country which produces most number of films in a year compared to any other country (barring Hollywood, perhaps), and a country where we have a large base of cinema-going public. Cinema, more than any other art, has the power to influence people. Therefore, it is very important to understand how the country, its people and its aspirations are represented in the cinema produced in the country.
Cinema as a medium of communication can be seen at different levels, serving different purposes. It can be an art form, an entertainment, a social document or a social critique. Cinema can be all of these and at the same time be a means to something else – a mirror unto our lives, showing us exactly how we function as society.
As a mainstream medium (cinema needs money to be produced. Therefore, it must appeal to the mainstream audience, who will pay at the box office), cinema must, first and foremost, appeal to the mainstream audience. The definition of mainstream varies from society to society, from culture to culture. Broadly, it means representing the prevalent attitudes, values, and practices of a society or group, for example, mainstream morality. A cultural construct, when applied to art, mainstream may mean something that is available to the general public, or something that has ties to corporate or commercial entities.
As structuralism teaches us, an idea or a movement cannot be understood fully without taking into account its binary opposites. Again, post-structuralism tells us that when we talk about structures and binaries, there are no fixed centres. The centres are varied and the binaries can be interchanged. In this context, to understand the mainstream cinema, we have to understand where and how it places the minority identities. The mainstream cannot exist without the minority, since it is the minority that accentuates the mainstream. In the context of identities, the mainstream cannot ignore the minority identities and at the same time, cannot highlight it as well. It is interesting to see how and where minorities are placed within the context of mainstream in the tug-of-war between 'ours and theirs' (the mainstream and the minority.)
A minority is a sociological group that does not constitute a politically dominant voting majority of the total population of a given society. A sociological minority is not necessarily a numerical minority — it may include any group that is subnormal with respect to a dominant group in terms of social status, education, employment, wealth and political power. Dominant minority groups may include the following:
Racial or ethnic minorities: Every large society contains ethnic minorities. They may be migrant, indigenous or landless nomadic communities. In some places, subordinate ethnic groups may constitute a numerical majority, such as blacks in South Africa under apartheid.
Gender and sexual minorities: An understanding of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as a minority group or groups has gained prominence in the Western world since the 19th century. The acronym LGBTQ is currently used to group these identities together. While in most societies, numbers of men and women are roughly equal, the status of women as a "subordinate" group has led some to equate them with minorities.
Religious minorities: Persons belonging to religious minorities have a faith which is different to that held by the majority. Most countries of the world have religious minorities.
Age minorities: The elderly, while traditionally influential or even (in a gerontocracy) dominant in the past, have in the modern age usually been reduced to the minority role of economically 'non-active' groups. Children can also be understood as a minority group in these terms, and the discrimination faced by the young is known as adultism.
Disabled minorities: The disability rights movement has contributed to an understanding of disabled people as a minority or a coalition of minorities who are disadvantaged by society, not just as people who are disadvantaged by their impairments.
The question of minority identity comes to the fore when a minority group comes together to demand its rights in civil society, the rights which the mainstream enjoys. Since minorities are defined as opposed to the mainstream, we cannot understand the minorities without understanding the mainstream. The dynamics between the two is that the mainstream will always dominate the minority, suppress the minority voice and at best try to reclaim the minority within the mainstream fold.
This course, 'Cinema and Minority Identity' proposes to discuss in detail how the minority identities are depicted in mainstream cinema, Bollywood: the Hindi film industry, Hollywood as well as select cinema from around the world. The course proposes to select films related to a particular minority identity and read/view it in the context of the identity politics. The course proposes to discuss films of three distinct flavours: 1) Films with a 'negative' portrayal of the minority identity b) films with a positive portrayal of the minority identity, yet seen from a mainstream point of view c) films from the margin, created by the minorities themselves.
While seeing the films as texts, the course would try to address the following issues:
1. Representation of minorities in a mainstream narrative and its need and purpose. Is it to accentuate the mainstream to represent the social reality or to highlight the issue at hand?
2. Seeing things from the inside and outside and what the gaze represents
3. Limitations and possibilities of representing a minority issue in mainstream narrative
4. Even in the post-post-modern world we live in, the meaning is still understood in terms of binaries. In a ‘formula’ Hindi film, the hero is pitted against the villain. The amount of evil the villain exudes highlights the goodness of the hero. The moral degradation of the vamp highlights the purity of the heroine
5. A minority identity is represented in a film to highlight the mainstream characters and issues. In this case, the minority character becomes a marker, and fails to exist in its own right.
6. Films as a popular medium propose to represent a homogeneous world, where the dominant taste is the mainstream. Yet, minority identities and minority characters exist in films, even in the sidelines. The question is what they do to the narrative in hand? How do they represent the reality outside the imagined world of the cinema? How does the mainstream appropriate these minority voices?
7. What happens when a minority identity decides to take the centre stage and decides to tell its own tale?
The Course Design:
There will be total 32 lectures covering categories such as racial or ethnic minorities, gender and sexual minorities, religious minorities: age minorities, and disabled minorities. The following is a tentative outline:
Module One: History of Cinema: Rise of Hollywood, Bollywood, blockbusters; cinematic genres — Action; Adult; Adventure; Animation; stop-motion; Biography; Children's; Comedy; Crime; Disaster; Documentary; Drama; Fantasy; Horror; Musical; Mystery; Romance; Sci-Fi; Short; Sport; Thriller; War; Western; Exploitation Films — Adult anime; Biker films; Blaxploitation; Cannibal films; Chambara films; Carsploitation; Eco-Terror films; Giallo films; Mondo films; Nazisploitation; Rape / Revenge films; Sexploitation; Shocksploitation; Slasher films; Spaghetti Westerns; Splatter films; Torture porn films; Women in prison films; Zombie films; Minor sub-genres — Britsploitation; Bruceploitation; Cat III; Eschploitation; Hixploitation; Mexploitation; Ninja; Nunsploitation; Ozploitation; Pinku eiga (pink films); Pornochanchada; Stoner; Teensploitation; Vigilante.
Module Two: Mainstream Bollywood films: The Masala formula: The parallel cinema movement: The regional cinema: Alternative cinema: Independent films: LGBT films: short films: films and the internet.
Module Three: Racial and ethnic minorities: Caste/ Race/ Nationality/
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974, Germany, Dir: R W Fassbinder; An old German cleaning woman falls in love and marries a young Arab immigrant despite opposition from all quarters): Sin Nombre (2009, US/Mexico, Dir Cary Fukunaga; A girl from Honduras travels on a freight train for the promised land on American shores): Dances with Wolves (1990, US, Dir Kevin Costner; A soldier tries to find life among the wondering American Indians days before the reservation): The Mission (1986, UK, Dir Roland Joffe; A group of Jesuit priests opens a mission in the remote Amazon forests, and lay their lives fighting against slave traders): Aranyer Din Ratri (1970, India, Dir Satyajit Ray; A group of Kolkata intellectuals travels to the forest among the Adivasis for a picnic): Schindler’s List (1993, US, Dir Steven Spielberg; A German national does all he can to save the Jews who work for him during the Holocaust): Do the Right Thing (1989, US, Spike Lee; A day in an American suburb and the clash between the black and the white): To Kill a Mockingbird (US, Idealist Atticus Finch fights a case on behalf of a black man in racist Alabama): Yahaan (Dir Pradeep Sarkar; A soldier falls in love with a local girl in strife-torn Kashmir): Zorba the Greek (An Englishman visits the Greek island of Crete to observe humanity at its brink): Dr Babsaheb Ambedkar (2000, India, Dir Jabbar Patel; The bio-pic of the champion of the Dalits): Nowhere in Africa (1989, Germany, Dir Caroline Link; A German-Jewish family travels to Kenya to survive Holocaust): The Edge of Heaven (Germany, Dir Fatih Akin; an girl from Turkey goes to find her mother in Germany and comes back with her German lover to land in prison): Trikal (1976, India, Dir Shyam Bengal; The fortunes of a Portuguese family at the time of Goa’s independence): Medea (Italy, Dir Pier Paolo Passolini; the Greek tragedy of Jason and Medea gets a ethnographic, feminist makeover): Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssssss Song (US, Dir Melvin Van Peebles; a black drifter kills a white man and goes on the run):
Module Four: Gender and sexual minority: Gender/ Sexuality/ LGBTQ films
Volver (2006, Spain, Dir Pedro Almodovar; A woman buries her husband and confronts her past): Bent (1997, UK, Dir Sean Mathias; A young man in concentration camp learns the importance of identity politics): Law of Desire (1987, Spain, Dir Pedro Almodovar; A film director gets embroils in a possessive relationship, as he tries to deal with his transsexual brother/sister): Umbartha (1982, India, Dir Jabbar Patel; A woman from a middle class household decides to go working at the risk of losing her marriage): The Crying Game (1992, UK/Ireland, Dir Neil Jordan; An IRA foot soldier becomes obsessed with the girlfriend of one of his victims to discover that she’s not a girl): Maati Mai (2005, India, Dir Chitra Palekar; Story of a woman grave digger in rural Maharashtra): Sita Sings the Blues (2008, US, Dir Nina Paley; The Ramayana from the point of view of Sita, and of a western woman, told with the help of Jazz): Heaven on Earth (2009, India/Canada, Dir Deepa Mehta; Girish Karnad’s play Nagamandala gets a modern makeover in Canada): Tamanna (India, Dir Mahesh Bhat; An eunuch adopts a girl child):
Module Five: Religious minority:
Jait Re Jait (1977, India, Dir Jabbar Patel; The ethnographic tale of the Thakur tribe of Maharashtra): Of Men and God (2010, France, Dir Xavier Beauvois; A group of Christian priests tries to survive in Islamic Morocco in the time of revolution): Diksha (1991, India, Dir Arun Kaul; A Brahmin boy and an untouchable forms an unlikely friendship) The Valley of the Bees (1968, Czech Republic, Dir Frantisek Vlácil: The dark sides of religious fanaticism in an isolated monastery):
Module Six: Age Minorities
Umberto D. (1952, Italy, Dir Vittorio De Sica; A retired old man journeys to find the meaning of life): Chop Shop (2007, US, Dir Ramin Bahrani; An orphan who lives in a junkyard dream of owning an ice-cream parlour): Grand Torino (2008, US, Dir Clint Eastwood; A veteran and an Asian boy forms an unlikely friendship in an American suburb): Mysterious Skin (2004, US, Dir Gregg Araki; Two victims of child abuse take two very different ways to channelise their traumas); Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Spain, Dir Guillermo Del Toro; The line between fact and fiction blurs for a young girl in the last days of Franco’s Spain) Spirit of the Beehives (1973, Spain, Dir Víctor Erice; A young girl is haunted by the Frankenstein’s monster):
Module Seven: Disable minority
My Left Foot (1989, UK, Dir Jim Sheridan; A man suffering from cerebral palsy learns to paint): Iqbal (2005, India, Dir Nagesh Kukunoor; A mute, Muslim boy fulfills his dream): The Man without a Past (2002, Finland, Dir Aki Kaurismäki; A man is beaten up and cannot remember who he was):
Module Eight: Economic minority
The Bicycle Thieves (1948, Italy, Dir Vittorio De Sica; A man tries to make the ends meet in post-war Italy): Ankur (1974, India, Dir Shyam Benegal; A young man becomes obsessed with the young wife of his disabled retainer): Scarface (1983, US, Dir Brian De Palma; A Cuban immigrant will do anything to become rich): Crocodile (1996, Korea, Dir Kim Ki-duk; A homeless man earns his living by stealing from people who kills themselves by jumping of the bridge):
Tentatively, the course should be completed in not more than 32 teaching hours, not counting the time spent on the screening of the films, which will take place in the classroom interspersed with discussions.
Apart from the classroom discussions preceding/ followed by screenings, students will be asked to prepare a presentation at the end of each module. They will also have to submit a paper at the end of the term, for which the students will choose their topics in consultation with the instructor.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, US, Dir Milos Forman; A group of inmates in a mental asylum rebels against oppression)
Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985, US/Argentina, Dir Hector Babenco; A revolutionary and a pedophile share a cell)
My Brother Nikhil (2005, India, Dir Onir; A sister fights for the dignity of her brother who’s diagnosed with AIDS)
Planet of the Apes (1968, US, Dir Franklin J. Schaffner; A dystopia where apes have evolved and rule the human race)
Traffic Signal (2007, India, Dir Madhur Bhandarkar; A group in the fringes of Mumbai slums struggles)
Hunger (2008, Steve McQueen; An Irish revolutionary goes on a hunger strike)
X-Men (2000, US, Dir Bryan Singer; Mutants with extraordinary powers try to fit in)
The Wrestler (2008, US, Dir Darren Aronofsky; A burnt-out professional wrestler gets ready for his last fight)
Naked (1999, UK, Dir Mike Leigh; A homeless man wanders around the city of London)
Proteus (2003, South Africa/ Canada, Dir John Greyson; Two convicts in colonial South Africa find love and don’t know what to do with it)
Blood Diamond (2006, US, Edward Zwick; A fisherman finds himself among the diamond mines and civil war in Sierra Leone)
The Ghost & the Darkness (1996, US, Dir Stephen Hopkins; Colonial Africa, white hunter, black servants and Indian railroad workers)
Ramchandra Pakistani (2008, India/ Pakistan, Dir Mehreen Jabbar; A Pakistani national and his son mistakenly cross the border and land in jail)
Gandhi (19982, UK, Dir Richard Attenborough; The biography of Mahatma Gandhi)
Louis Malle’s Journey to India (1972, The French filmmaker travels the country with a camera)
Strawberry and Chocolate (1994, Cuba, Dir by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Juan Carlos Tabío; Two men, one gay and one straight, form an unlikely friendship in Communist Cuba)
Wings of Desire (1987, Germany, Dir Wim Wenders; An Angel roams the streets of Berlin and finally gives up his angelic disposition for love)
The Counterfeiters (2007, Germany, Dir Stefan Ruzowitzky; A Jewish scamster would do anything to remain alive)
A Prophet (2009, France, Dir Jacques Audiard; A young Arab learns about life and crime in prison)
The King and the Clown (South Korea, A tyrant king falls for a woman impersonator of a circus troupe)
La Strada (Italy, Dir Federico Fellini, A circus performer finds a simple woman to help him)
Bad Education (Spain, Dir Pedro Almodovar, The consequence of a priest’s behaviour towards two young boys, and how it destroyed several lives)
The Gospel According to St Mathews (Italy, Dir Pier Paolo Pasolini; The story of Jesus Christ told from a Marxist point of view)
The Exterminating Angel (Mexico, Dir Luis Bunuel, Guests of a party cannot leave the house for some inexplicable reasons)
Stalker (Russia, Dir Andrei Tarkovsky; Three men discover the meaning of faith)
The Hole (UK, An adolescent girl kills her companions in a jealous rage)
Kitab (India, Dir Gulzar, Story of a young man)
Taare Zameen Par (2008, India, Dir Aamir Khan, A dyslexic boy finds his true potential with the help of his unconventional teacher)
Battle Royale (Japan; A group of young schoolchildren are pitted against each other in a battle unto death)
The Kite Runner (Afghanistan/US, An Afghani immigrant must confront his past and find redemption)
The Sweet Hereafter (Canada, Dir Atom Egoyan, A young girl betrays her father)
The Sea Within (Spain, Dir Alejandro Amenabar; A quadriplegic man fights for the right to die)
The Diving Bell & the Butterfly (2008, France; A paralyzed man uses just his eyes to write a book)
Mother India (India, Story of a widow and her two sons, one good other bad, and a pair of gold bangles)
Breathless (France, Dir Jean-Luc Godard, A drifter and small-time crook goes to Paris to meet his American girlfriend and meets his end)
Killer of Sheep (US, Charles Burnett; Story of a butcher)