Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

Film Fragments, Documentary History, and Colonial Indian Cinema

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

Film Fragments, Documentary History, and Colonial Indian Cinema

Article excerpt

Résumé: Seulement trois documentaires muets indiens existent toujours. Au-delà de l'analyse textuelle, l'examen de ces films soulève plusieurs questions historiographiques, telles que la formation accidentelle du canon reliée au hasard de la survie ou de la disparation des oeuvres; les conditions de lecture partielle que ces films permettent; les relations entre le cinéma local et le cinéma colonial, en particulier pour les films de promotion de la Indian Railways; et les styles de photographies déployés dans ces documentaires, tel le pittoresque.

Although there is a substantial historical record of the hundreds of silent nonfiction films produced in South Asia between 1899 and the early 1930s, only three silent Indian documentary films have actually survived. The historical account of this period of documentary history in South Asia can be reasonably fleshed out with the information that is available about filmmakers, production units, the titles and subject matter of specific films, and even some film stills.1 In such an account of South Asian documentary film history, however, the three surviving films would merit hardly even a footnote were it not for the accident of their survival. Yet, unlike, for example, the celebrated status of a text like Beowulf not only as the only (accidentally) surviving English epic, but also as a highly representative one, no such honor has befallen these three films, which remain unremarkable and marginal in every way except in their survival. As such, these films had no entry in the groundbreaking and comprehensive Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema of 1999, and the only written discussion of these films is in the catalogue of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival of 1994, which showcased Indian silent cinema.2 Not least of the reasons for the resistance of these films to any inclusion in a canon or auteur-based approach to the writing of Indian documentary film history is the fact that each of the terms in the phrase that I have used to describe them, "silent Indian documentary," is open to question, as will become clear in the course of this discussion.

Yet, despite their seeming insignificance, by virtue of their present existence, these three films, Travels in Bengal (989 feet), The Shortest and Best Route to South India (647 feet), and Khedda Operations in Mysore (621 feet) persist in exercising a certain weight against the logic of the historical record.3 With the undeniable force of their sheer material presence, even as ruins that bear the traces of time, these films invite a consideration of questions of historiography that Walter Benjamin raised more than seventy years ago as he collected what he dubbed the "refuse of history" for his monumental and incomplete Arcades Project.4 Benjamin's conception of a materialist history privileges fragmentation of meaning over unity and linearity, and foregrounds the work of time by positing a dialectical relation between past and present in the body of the historical image or artifact. The ruin is the central metaphor here precisely because it exists in the present, while carrying traces of the past in the contours of its decay. By their accidental survival, these three films have been automatically "blasted out of the continuum of historical succession."5

One of the key differences in any approach to these three films and Benjamin's planned methodology in his Arcades Project is the element of choice or design in Benjamin's collection of artifacts that would serve as objects in a "show" rather than "tell" form of history writing.6 In fact, it is precisely the element of the accidental in the existence of these films that interests me, specifically in terms of the implications of randomness for historiography. A theory of accidental fragments becomes a foundation for history-writing in the work of the German historian Johann Gustav Droysen who "believed that remains accidentally left over are what grab the attention of the historian, precisely because they were not intended to be sources, something predestined for becoming history. …

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