Celebrated new wave filmmaker to attend three-day conference on Indian cinema

In 1913, director Dadasaheb (Dhundiraj Govind) Phalke released Raja Harishchandra, India’s first feature film.

A century later, the University of Chicago is bringing together cinema experts and acclaimed Indian new wave director Adoor Gopalakrishnan for a three-day conference on the highlights, achievements and progress of Indian cinema in its first 100 years.

The April 11-13 event, “Celebrating 100 Years of Indian Cinema,” will feature a symposium on the past and future of Indian art cinema and a retrospective of Gopalakrishnan’s films, some of which have never before been shown in the United States. Bangalore-based film scholar Ashish Rajadhyaksha will deliver the conference’s keynote address.

In recent decades, “the face of Indian cinema has transformed completely,” said conference co-organizer Rochona Majumdar. “We’ve invited a group of eminent scholars to reflect on the legacy of new wave cinema in today’s context. Do the works of filmmakers today bear an imprint of that earlier period?”

Majumdar also hopes the event will bring greater awareness of Indian art film and the work of directors like Gopalakrishnan in the United States. “All of Indian cinema is not Bollywood,” she said.

Gopalakrishnan is closely associated with India’s new wave movement, which emerged in the mid-20th century. Indian new wave was “both deeply local and extremely global,” Majumdar explained. New wave filmmakers were influenced not only by European art film, but also by their country’s tumultuous post-independence period.

“The new wave filmmakers registered this turbulence in their films,” explained Majumdar, associate professor in South Asian Language and Civilizations. “They questioned some of the hopes and promises that were made to the population at large in the moment of independence, and yet their films have an element of hope.”

Gopalakrishnan was born in the state of Kerala in 1941, and is one of India’s most celebrated contemporary filmmakers. In 2006, he received the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, India’s highest prize for cinema. He also received the Padma Vibhushan, one of India’s highest civilian honors, for his contributions to film.  

Like many new wave filmmakers, Gopalakrishnan engaged with contemporary political and cultural issues in his work. Yet Majumdar said his films are notable for their rejection of dogma and nuanced attitude toward leftism and Gandhism. “His films articulate a quiet critique of the process of ideology becoming fossilized,” she said.

Four of Gopalakrishnan’s films—Mathilukal (The Walls, 1990), Vidheyan (The Servile, 1993), Elippathayam (Rat-Trap, 1981), and Nizhalkkuthu (Shadow Kill, 2002)—will be screened at the conference. The conference will open with a showing of The Walls, the story of an imprisoned man who falls in love with an unseen fellow inmate by hearing her voice in his cell.

With help from Indian Consul General Mukta Dutta Tomar, as well as the Directorate of Film Festivals and National Film Archives in India, Majumdar and fellow conference organizer William Mazzarella, professor in anthropology, were able to obtain each of the films in their original 35-millimeter format.

The professors’ “historical commitment to celluloid,” drove them to find the 35-millimeter films for the conference screenings, Majumdar said. “It was a lot of effort, but we hope it will be worth it.”

“Celebrating 100 Years of Indian Cinema” will take place at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, Thursday, April 11 through Saturday, April 13. The Office of the President, the Division of the Humanities, the Committee on Southern Asian Studies, and the Franke Institute for the Humanities Are sponsoring the event. For a full schedule and additional information, please visit http://southasia.uchicago.edu/indiancinema/.