Sunday, November 06, 2011

Seeing...Part I

Why And How Seeing Is Not Just An Act Of Believing// Notes On Culture Studies

Is Seeing Believing?
Seeing is believing, goes the old adage. Yet, this simple act, which we perform every-day, is loaded with political and cultural meanings. What do we do when you look at someone, or something? We perceive the object before us, and arrive at a meaning which the object purportedly manifests. But, how do we know that when we arrive at the meaning, it is the inherent meaning of the object? We do not. As post-structuralism tells us, meaning of a construction is never fixed; it changes in the proc-ess of seeing.

Let’s try an example. Sometimes in 1980s. the so-called Bandit Queen Phoolan Devi, a runaway woman from a lower caste family in the Behmai village in the heart of Mad-hya Pradesh, is beaten up and then raped, for her alleged association with the bandits of the Chambal ravines. Sometimes in 1990s. A filmmaker from Mumbai makes a film, where the scene is recreated. The film is released amidst controversies, and we en-ter the darkness of a local theatre and witness the rape, shot in dark, fragmented im-ages. What’s the scene supposed to mean? Is there an inherent meaning to the scene, or the meaning is constructed by each viewer, based on his/her personal experiences?

First, let’s look at how the scene was constructed. Except for the rape victim herself, no one who participated in the actual event was alive (Phoolan Devi had shot them in full public view a few years later), when Mala Sen wrote the book, all the information the authored gathered came from second-hand sources. When Shekhar Kapur decided to make the film, he relied on Mala Sen’s information, but how he visualised the scene was his own. Then, the scene was shot of Ashok Mehta, and later edited by Renu Saluja. When the film was ready for release, it was sent to the censor board, who ob-jected to the ‘brutality’ of the scene, and demanded certain cuts. The cuts done, the film was released. The audience saw the film and was transported back to the ‘original event’ via the medium of cinema. But, how original was this representation?

Now, the audience. Would a man and a woman react similarly to the scene? Yes, we understand the injustice and crime the scene underscores, but would the intensity of reaction to this crime be same for everyone? It is doubtful.

Liberal humanism makes us believe that a work of art, and for that matter, any event, should illicit similar responses. But, is it really the case? Coming back to the scene in question, how an upper class man (who shares the same background as the perpetrator of the crime) would react? How would a Dalit woman (who shares the same back-ground as the victim) would react? You can turn to any conceivable category and ask the same question. There would be a reaction, but the reaction would be different every time.

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