The Home and the World: Three Films by Ruchir Joshi

By Jesse Cumming

Working in Bengal, we are obliged morally and artistically to make films that have their roots in the soil of our province.”

—Satyajit Ray, 1958

A whole history remains to be written of spaces—which would at the same time be a history of powers…”

—Michel Foucault, 1980

In a recent article published in advance of the restoration and rerelease of his work, filmmaker and writer Ruchir Joshi detailed the context for creative Indian documentary in the late ’80s, just as he was developing his practice:

Independent documentary makers tended to attempt only two or three kinds of non-fiction films: Films commissioned by NGOs, “activist” films around a social or political issue about which the filmmaker felt passionately, and films to do with culture, usually traditional craft or performance.

Both emerging out of and working against these de facto standards, since the mid-’80s Joshi has produced a number of documentaries, essay films, and experimental shorts that are decidedly not beholden to the more conservative conceptions of nonfiction filmmaking practiced by his contemporaries. Most often taking the form of city portraits, Joshi’s films reveal the influence of such major figures in Bengali arts and culture as Rabindranath Tagore, Ritwik Ghatak, and Satyajit Ray—as well as that of Joshi’s father, the famed novelist, playwright, and artist Shivkumar Joshi, to whom the filmmaker paid tribute in his 2006 essay “Tracing Puppa”—even as they employ a variety of reflexive and experimental approaches that set them distinctly apart from that tradition, reflecting an awareness of how mediated images of India (both at home and abroad) often belie the country’s reality.

Berlin’s Arsenal film archives has now lovingly restored three of Joshi’s key early works—Egaro Mile (Eleven Miles, 1991), Memories of Milk City: Sketches for a Film on Ahmedabad (1991), and Tales from Planet Kolkata (1993)—all of which the director made in close collaboration with cinematographer Ranjan Palit, whose own documentary chops had been honed by his work on Anand Patwardhan’s landmark Bombay, Our City (1985). Though not positioned as such, the films form something of a loose conceptual trilogy, each centring on and responding to a particular form of artistic expression: music, language, and cinema, respectively. (If one cared to classify peddling and sport as art forms in their own right, that trilogy could be expanded to a pentalogy with the films that Joshi made before and after the abovementioned trio: Bargain [1985], about Kolkata’s New Market; and Dream Before Wicket [1994], a cricket documentary Joshi made for the BBC.)

An expansive road-movie-meets-concert-doc-meets-creative treatise that roams across West Bengal in a celebration and examination of the Bauls, a traditional musical form performed by nomadic artists (also known as Bauls), Egaro Mile was initially at risk of becoming the exact kind of prepackaged documentary that Joshi criticizes above. In a letter that Joshi wrote to a friend in America early in the film’s production (subsequently published on the Bengali music site The Travelling Archive), Joshi states that “the safety net is that after one or two more days of shooting we will have the ingredients for a perfectly safe, entertaining, even mildly thott-provoking [sic] documentary. Put in three good songs, link them with a couple of interviews about what/who is a Baul, and one more about a beleaguered traditional performing art in danger of extinction/corruption.” Thankfully, the director resisted this temptation as he allowed the production to stretch over three years, resulting in a 160-minute film whose subtitle (A Diary of Journeys) signals its poetic and intuitive mode of inquiry. “I don’t know where to begin, as I’m sure I won’t know how to end,” Joshi states early on, and, with no set destination or point of departure, he instead proceeds to assemble what he calls “bits of footage like scraps of paper scribbled on in different handwritings.”

To be sure, there is much in Egaro Mile that adheres to the form of the standard ethnographic documentary. Yet even as Joshi presents relatively conventional interviews and intimate observational scenes with a range of Baul practitioners—from amateur musicians to figures like Gour Khepa and Subol Das, who have become stars of the genre and garnered increasing attention in the West even as their peripatetic, non-materialistic lifestyle is seen to be increasingly at odds with elements of a steadily modernizing India—he weaves them together with performance sequences that, with their use of low angles and kinetic handheld cameras, evoke classic American rock-concert documentaries rather than a sober anthropological inquiry. Joshi further destabilizes the documentary form through his regularly recurring voiceover, which does not structure the footage so much as enter into dialogue with it, responding to and questioning the material as if Joshi had stumbled upon it rather than shot it himself; his creative treatment of sound (including the use of field recordings and the disorienting deployment of contrapuntal music in performance sequences) and assorted reflexive manoeuvres (intermittent shots of the film crew and their equipment, a moment in which the Bauls jovially threaten to turn the camera around and make a documentary about the documentarians); and his playful outsourcing the role of voice of authority to his friend and mentor Deepak Majumdar, who was best known as a leading voice in Kolkata’s politically engaged “Hungry Generation” of writers and artists in the ’60s. “How would Deepak put it?” ponders Joshi early in the film, as he considers how to explain the Bauls and their tradition without resorting to didacticism. “He would never for example say…” he continues, his sentence then picked up smoothly by Majumdar, who, seated in a rocking boat, launches into a Baul backgrounder with relaxed, professional expertise.

Anticipating Tales from Planet Kolkata’s head-on confrontation with the colonial gaze, Joshi explicitly positions the collage-like assembly of Egaro Mile against Le chant des fous (1979), an earlier documentary about the Bauls by French filmmaker Georges Luneau. This is not only a matter of correcting Western errors and distortions (such as Luneau’s exclusion of women Bauls, addressed here by way of extended sequences featuring performer Ma Gosai), but also of interrogating the constructedness of all such image-making, whether domestic or foreign. Joshi is all too aware that his own project circulates within a globalized economy of images (one that his subjects have participated in as well: Joshi’s highlighting of Baul legends Luxman and Purna Das’ appearance on the cover of Bob Dylan’s 1967 album John Wesley Harding is only one of several points in which he traces exchanges between the Bauls and assorted Western parties), even as it both descends and braches away from the history of Indian filmmaking itself. Directly invoking Satyajit Ray by shooting a sequence in Boral, the village on the edge of Kolkata that was immortalized in Pather Panchali (1955), Joshi situates his nominal exploration of an indigenous artistic tradition within a wider analysis of representation, one that he would carry even further in his subsequent two projects.

Released the same year as its predecessor, Memories of Milk City feels like a conscious counterpoint to the sprawling Egaro Mile in both its runtime (a bright and lively 14 minutes) and its considerably more geographically concentrated subject: the Gujarat state capital of Ahmedabad, located in the heart of the nation’s milk region. Over a montage of city-life fragments, including repeated images of cattle roaming the streets by day and youthful patrons of chai vendors and ice-cream stands by night, Joshi inserts a voiceover written and narrated by playwright Madhu Rye, a friend and contemporary of Joshi’s father. Though Gujarati by birth, Rye confesses early on, “I’ve never lived in Ahmedabad…Far from Gujarati speakers, I drew first breath in Calcutta”—a bit of biographical background that highlights the fibrous connections that exist between language, self, and place. Along with personal reminiscences and observational commentary, Rye also incorporates passages of rhythmic, nearly abstract wordplay from his play Pankor Naake Jaake, which he wrote in response to the Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 1969—an invocation that here serves as a commentary on the ongoing victimization of Gujarat Muslims, which has only grown in the decades since.

With nary a wasted second in its dense, layered 38 minutes, Tales from Planet Kolkata immediately stakes out its aesthetic and political project with its palimpsestic opening scene. In an explicit evocation of Apocalypse Now (1979), the shadow of a ceiling fan passes over the face of a white man in a stuffy hotel room; the camera then pans over to reveal a copy of City of Joy, the 1985 novel by French author Dominique Lapierre that served as the source for the Roland Joffé-directed 1992 bomb starring Patrick Swayze; finally, the rotating fan blades are cut against footage from Louis Malle’s Calcutta (1969) of a Kolkata street performer spinning atop a pole. It’s a fitting visual metaphor for what follows, as Planet Kolkata’s interrogation of the representations of the city in film and media is frequently dizzying in its use of cinematic and textual citations, dissonance between sound and image, and fluidity of form (particularly the latter, as Palit pushes his cinematography to even greater formal extremes by putting the camera in frequent motion, setting it at oblique angles, shifting focus, and experimenting with abstract rephotography).

Joshi makes his intentions plain early on, as, sporting sunglasses, a boyish bob, and a Malcolm X T-shirt, he declares to the camera, “I am here to make an excavation of images, of feelings or whatever after 25 years or a quarter-century after Louis Malle. Louis Malle, he talked about an ‘impossible’ camera; I want to see his beloved Calcutta through this impossible camera. See how it has changed, what has happened to it, and what has happened to the impossible images of Louis Malle.” Invoking works by great Indian artists like Ghatak as counterpoints to the outsider images by such Western directors as Renoir, Pasolini, Malle, and Joffé, Joshi reserves his most venomous judgments for the latter, whom he aptly dubs a “no-hoper kino-carpetbagger” and whose City of Joy becomes a central target of Planet Kolkata. (Joshi includes behind-the-scenes footage of the film’s shooting as well as an interview with one of Joffé’s locally hired assistant directors, who describes the exploitative cluelessness of the visiting filmmakers as well as his inability to identify anything resembling his own city in the final product.) Balanced against such excoriations is a moving elegy for Joshi’s recently departed friend Deepak Majumdar, to whom the director addresses his voiceover. (While his name is never directly invoked, the 1992 death of Satyajit Ray, which marked the end of an era in Bengali and Indian filmmaking, also hangs over the film; indeed, the title of Ray’s book of collected film criticism—Our Films, Their Films—could well serve as a subtitle for Joshi’s project.)

Even as Planet Kolkata is intensely local, rather than simply identifying the ways in which Kolkata has been (mis)represented it pushes further to interrogate the reasons why, and to examine the deep imbrication of power and visual culture. The early nods toward American culture (in the Coppola quotation and Malcolm shirt) indicate that the film’s treatise on mediated oppression extends beyond the confines of the city, and indeed the continent. In one sequence, the camera is placed in a rickshaw behind the head of the driver; as the driver halts and turns to address the camera, he reveals himself as the Black American video artist Tony Cokes, a friend of Joshi’s and collaborator on the film’s script. “There seems to be an industry of fear on the other side of the camera,” he declares, positing that Kolkata’s use as a shorthand for suffering and social decay is intended to “make the Western viewer feel more comfortable, more human, maybe even a little luckier than they actually are.”

Aligning such images of Kolkata with those of 1992 Los Angeles and 1967 Detroit, Planet Kolkata also expands on the race-based media analysis of Cokes’ videos Black Celebration (1988) and Fade to Black (1990), and even mirrors the former film’s experimental analysis of mainstream news coverage of the 1965 Watts riots through a scene in in which Joshi and Cokes respond to an archival British news report on protests in Kolkata in the late ’60s. (“There is a Third World inside every First World. There is a First World inside every Third World,” asserts Cokes, by way of Trinh T. Minh-ha.) Of course, as good postmodernists, Joshi and Cokes are quick to implicate their own complicity with the systems of power that have exploited the country via the film’s financing by British television. “The sahibs at Channel Four, have work to Ruchir sanctioned,” sings a traditional scroll painter as he displays a contemporary scroll portraying the process of filmmaking, drawing a parallel between traditional and modern forms of storytelling. “They want a Mahabharat in half an hour’s fraction. Nine people are involved in the action. The English make a strange contraption.” 

In the years following his initial burst of experimental documentaries, Joshi turned more towards writing (“accidentally,” in his words), becoming a regular contributor to The Telegraph and The Hindu, where he remains a columnist on Indian culture and politics. His journalistic work yielded the 2011 book Poriboton: An Election Diary, which assembles a series of dispatches written around West Bengal in advance of the state election in which the 34-year rule of the Communist Party of India (CPIM) was brought to an end by the victory of Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress; in witty and elegant fashion, Joshi shifts back and forth between the politicians’ electioneering and the concurrent and competing spectacle of that year’s Cricket World Cup.

In addition to his journalism, Joshi has also published short stories and a novel, The Jet Engine Laugh (2000), with a second slated to appear in 2022. Centred on a Joshi-like protagonist named Paresh Bhatt (and including a father figure named Shivkumar, who shares biographical similarities with Joshi’s own father), the novel spans a century—from 1930 to a speculative 2030—crisscrossing the subcontinent and occasionally beyond in the course of its non-linear family saga. Tracing a political trajectory from the Gandhian anti-violence embodied by the Shivkumar character to the violent militarism of Paresh’s daughter Para, a crack squadron leader for the Indian Air Force in its ongoing future wars, Joshi touches on several milestones and major events in contemporary Indian history—Independence, Indira Ghandi’s State of Emergency from 1975 to 1977, the 1984 Bhopal disaster, the 1998 nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan in a moment of heightened tension—and then carries the 20th century’s misery forward into a future in which south Mumbai and Karachi have been decimated by a nuclear deployment, Europe has implemented fierce anti-immigration policies, and most of the water in India has been contaminated, with the remaining freshwater owned and distributed by Japanese corporations. 

Despite his increased focus on the written word over the past two decades, Joshi has produced a handful of mid-length videos that continue his early films’ interest in people, politics, and place. Shot in New Delhi, A Mercedes for Ashish (2006) is another portrait of a city in flux (with a repeated motif of buildings either being demolished or constructed), with the eponymous auto positioned against the rickshaw as a means of examining the increased disparity of wealth between the upper and lower classes. Its title a nod to Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta: My Eldorado (the director’s contribution to the 1990 omnibus film City Life), My Rio, My Tokyo (2012) examines the sometimes harsh final period of CPIM rule in Kolkata through a series of connected, observational “video-poems” supplemented by onscreen text and voiceover.

Though not without their moments of visual grace and poetry, these recent video projects are rougher in construction than Joshi’s 16mm works, and also render their references and locations more oblique to non-Indian viewers (like this author). Even as they were explicitly positioned against Western ways of looking, Joshi’s early films were also more immediately legible to Western audiences—a possible condition of the support they received from international funding bodies. It could thus be argued that, with his videos, Joshi has been even more successful at producing works that are both formally and conceptually at odds with standard Western conceptions of documentary, cinema, and India itself. Pace Pasolini’s declaration, in his Notes for a Film in India (1968), that “a Westerner who goes to India has everything, but gives nothing,” Westerners have been giving the people of India a skewed vision of themselves and their cities for over a century. In the films of Ruchir Joshi, these assumptions and reductive stereotypes are resolutely handed back.