India is a place of abundant contrasts: part of the population lives in full post-modernity, modernity can still be found in another, while another segment - perhaps the majority of the population - lives anchored in feudalism. From a western standpoint, Indian film is a complex thing that breaks with the aesthetic codes and parameters established in the West in its themes and forms. Understanding it means delving into the culture and idiosyncrasy of its peoples.
The programme Off-Bollywood, created to mark the occasion of India’s appearance at ARCO’09 as a guest country, presents an opportunity to analyse this world, its ideological positions and alternative aesthetics with respect to the giant Bollywood industry with its omnipresent and strait-jacketed kitsch styling. The choice of videos and films, inspired by the country’s social reality, reflects the surprising variety of fiction and documentary, styles and genres that are found in today’s India.
The filmmakers included in this exhibition explore themes like migration, the caste system, social classes, gender, sexuality and religion, inventing new ways of seeing and understanding the culture, at the same time that they question overarching social systems and expose the complex cultural relationships involved in filmmaking. Films by Anand Patwardhan (Mumbai, 1950), Amitabh Chakraborty (Calcutta, 1959), Avinash Deshpande (Amravati, 1959) and Pramod Gupta (Calcutta, 1980) constitute true ethnographic documents of the socio-political and economic reality of their creators.
Filmmakers from other countries have also found inspiration in the kaleidoscopic Indian society and used films to introduce their somewhat vexing ways of understanding the world to the west. In Between the Lines: India’s Third Gender (2006), German Thomas Wartmann (Munich, 1953) documents the effort made by photographer Anita Khemka to portray the life of eunuchs, while PeÅ Holmquist (Kristianstad, 1947) and Suzanne Khardalian (Beirut, 1956) take a closer look at the life and struggles of Vandana Shiva, ‘The Green Killer,’ in Bullshit (2005).
Two earlier co-productions between India and the United States, Kings with Straw Mats (1998) by Ira Cohen (New York, 1935-2011) and Forest of Bliss (1986) by Robert Gardner (Brookline, MA, 1925), explore mystic experiences during the celebration of Kumbh Mela and everyday life in the holy city of Benares.
Finally, the experimental film by Amitabh Chakraborty (Calcutta, 1959), Kaal Abhirati (1989), whose title literally means ‘time addiction,’ investigates the theme of time perception using scenes from daily life in Calcutta.