Book Review

Paper Bound | Mohamed Shafeeq

Book: Performing Self, Performing Gender: Reading the Lives of Women Performers in Colonial India. 

Author: Sheetala Bhat

Publisher and Year: Manipal University Press, 2017

Manipal University Press has released Performing Self, Performing Gender, a book on the women performers in colonial India, authored by Sheetala Bhat.  Primarily a reading of biographies and autobiographies of women performers, the book looks at three categories of performers – the tawaif, the theatre artists, and the film actresses. The three different domains of performance invite very different kinds of public responses; all of which played a role in the self-narrativization of these performers who had to claim a space for their self through the very language which the society at large had bestowed upon them. Bhat’s effort is to read their voice through the many contradictions their self-narratives offer.

The chapter on film actresses is primarily a reading of the narratives on Durgha Khote and Hansa Wadkar, two early female stars from the Marathi film industry.  These early actresses in the film industries were faced with a double-demand: to continue the tradition of modernity that was put forth by their Anglo-Indian predecessors, and to pander to the construction of a chaste Indian femininity.  The self-narratives of these early actresses are read as negotiations of this double-demand. Bhat notes that the peculiarity of the film medium meant that the actresses in films did not have to undergo as much censure as the tawaifs who would be translated as ‘prostitutes’ in governmental parlance.

Sheetala Bhat (second from left) at the book release.

Rather, the term ‘actressy’ – which had implications of being a ‘loose woman’ – nevertheless acknowledged the primacy of their performer self than reduce them to their sexuality.  

An alumnus of Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities (MCPH), Sheetala Bhat is an actress herself, and the book is an act of reflection on the weight of history within the individual.





Book: Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema

Author: Negar Mottahedeh

Publisher and Year: Duke University Press, 2008.

As opposed to instincts and other sexual drives, says Christian Metz banking on psychoanalytic theories of Freud, the drive to perceive (see or hear) is not fulfilled by any concrete object.  Hunger can be satisfied with very specific objects (and by them alone, which makes it an easy or a difficult drive), but not so with the desire to see, because the latter is premised upon the distance between the object and one’s own body.  Cinema, Metz goes on, is defined by a drive even more intense, precisely because the object in its distance is already constituted as an absence.  In cinema, when the actor was there, the spectator wasn’t, and when the spectator is there, the actor isn’t. The pleasure of cinema, therefore, is the pleasure of looking at that which is not there; and therefore all the more pleasurable.  It is premised upon the audience’s absence from the screen space. (S)He is there but his/her presence is unacknowledged. The pleasure of looking in cinema is voyeurism, and Metz would call this pleasure “unauthorized scopophilia.”  But what if the spectator is accounted for within the movie itself?  What if the film is made as ‘to be looked at’; when the scopophilia is acknowledged and regulated? This is one of the questions that are at the heart of Negar Mottahedeh’s Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema.

The figure of the woman would become central in elucidating a new aesthetic, one which would adequately reflect the new ethos of the Islamic Republic, where the cultural policy is to fight the corruption of the sensorium by western imports and to create a media culture which would help build a new people.  The seismic shift that accompanied the conception of cinema in post-revolutionary Iran is to think of cinema no more as a private activity, like reading a novel, which the western practice of it takes as its conceptual premise, but to treat cinema as contiguous with its space of exhibition, the hall.  The “rule of modesty” which regulated how a woman can be seen in public was applied to cinema in 1982-83, thereby banishing the unveiled woman out of sight. Cinema was now a public practice, and the public nature of it is to be incorporated into the cinematic space, even if the diegetic space was to be read as private (Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman mentions this vexation even as it displaces it – the female actor of the play “Death of a Salesman” points to the ridiculousness of being fully clothed even as the scene is suggestive of – transgressive – intimacy). This reconfiguration of space was one of the determining conditions of possibility of Iranian cinema, which would then give rise to a national form of enunciation.

a still from The Song of Sparrows (Majid Majidi, 2008)

The initial reaction of the filmmakers to the new injunction was to stay safe by avoiding female characters altogether. But it took only a couple of years for the situation to change. The push to modesty was productive for Iranian cinema now that representation had to be innovated. Focusing on the works of the domestically popular Bahram Bayza’i, and the internationally renowned auteurs Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Mottahedeh argues that the figure of the woman became a crucial node through which Iranian cinema would forge a grammar of its own, a national tradition of difference within the field of international cinema. The cinematic space was now conceived of as a space occupied by the non-familial male, who will now be outstripped of his controlling gaze, a situation that the author aligns with the negative aesthetics of the feminist avant-garde.

Mottahedeh is building a case for national cinema than reading these films as a continuation of European movements, say the French New Wave. Her larger concern is to read Iranian cinema as displaced allegories of their determining conditions of production.  She maintains that a ‘national tradition’ is to be understood as a function of form, a position of enunciation and not as the content of the cinema. Mottahedeh places ‘Iranian cinema’ as operative in the logic of the ‘imaginal world’ – a world in which the linearity of time, the past the present and the future, gives way to its simultaneity (not to be confused with circularity). This imaginary world is the habitation of the Shiite belief of the Imam who has gone to recluse in the historical past but will appear before the world at an appropriate time and wrought in the performative economy of ta’ziyeh. The simultaneity of time gives rise to a different grammar of cinema which does not adhere to the realist chronology or consistent spatial ordering. Defined thus, the select Iranian films that she details in her book are deployed to illustrate a different operational logic at work, one which is at a remove from understanding cinema as a hermetic and secular art.    

The deployment of direct address in cinema has also been central to making meaning in Indian cinema and the question has by now spawned a rich collection of works. It would be an interesting exercise to enquire into the varied notions of the private and the public in these different locations as played out in these national cinemas even as they are united in their rejection of ‘unauthorized scopophilia’ as the central tenet of the cinematic practice.   


About the Writer

Mohamed Shafeeq Karinkurayil is a Post-Doctoral fellow at Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities (MCPH), India.