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New York's Whitney Museurn showcases a slew of new and not-so-new films

By Mina Kumar

India Currents Magazine
November 1994

Years ago, when V.P. Singh launched his election campaign for prospective Prime Minister, I myself was extremely pleased. I thought it would be good for Indian unity to have a Sikh heading the government. When I stated this conviction to my aunt's sister, she became hysterical with laughter. She thought it was nearly as funny as the time I expressed my pleasure that a woman, Jyoti Basu, was the Chief Minister of Bengal. Until I was 17, I had no clue that not all Singhs were Sikhs, and not all Jyotis and Devis were women.

This despite years of playing authority on all matters Indian to the untutored masses of Northern American suburbs. They would ask me why Indian women wore dots on their foreheads, whether I had been sold in marriage as a child, whether V.S. Naipaul presented an accurate portrait of India, whether the majority of Indians approved of India's tilt toward Moscow, and I would answer, to the best of my ability. And similarly, I imagine, the Indian American filmmakers in the Whitney Museum of American Art's recent series discuss India to the best of their ability.

Titled "From India to America: New Directions in Indian American Film and Video", the film series showed September 21 through October 16 in New York.

The series' curator, L. Somi Roy, developed the program as a part of the Whitney Museum's focus on American film. While some of the scheduled works look at subjects such as Trinidadian singer Calypso Rose and San Francisco sex workers, many of the films and videos attempt to wrestle with the filmmakers' Indian heritage. The heterogeneity of pieces and perspective make it difficult to posit any particularly Indian American aesthetic; one of the few common threads is the shifting distances between the reality of India and the India in these works.

David Rathod's improbable and unfocused film, West is West, tells the story of a young Indian man in a San Francisco motel trying to get into U.C. Berkeley, seduce a white woman, and escape immigration officials. The immigration officials think he's a Sikh terrorist. In one of the film's numerous errors, the protagonist protests that he couldn't possibly be a Sikh because his name is Desai, not Singh. In the theater I howled, feeling quite superior in Indianness -- thanks to my aunt's sister -- to Rathod.

While index scales of Indianness are somewhat subjective, the demand for authenticity which viewers bring to the cinema are never stronger than in an issue like cultural identity. The woman in the screening room next to me felt deeply irritated by Michelle Taghioff's short film, Home.

A charming, if slight, piece of parallelism, Home depicts the briefly intersecting trajectories of a handsome middle-aged woman who l has come back from America to Bombay to visit her father's grave, and a lovely, buxom teenager yearning to escape her familial demands and go to America and become a writer.

Home eschews the cliches that so easily clog the discussions of diaspora: It is the girl's friends who encourage her to stay home and bear with her father's abuses, and the girl's old aunt who encourages her not to follow in the footsteps of a previous generation of women who aborted their ambitions. The natural and affectionate relationship between the young heroine and her brother gives Home an appealing verisimilitude. The woman next to me did not care: She was annoyed by a scene in which the older woman, on returning home, insists on speaking English to a Bombay-resident who is unable to comprehend her. "This woman left India as an adult," the woman next to me fumed. "She couldn't have forgotten everything. This is all so unrealistic." She was further miffed that the Bombaywallahs in both West is West and Home spoke in Hindi, not in Marathi.

And so it goes. I was irritated by the essentialist discourse on Indianness in Erica Surat Anderson's video None of the Above on people of mixed race. When Keshini Kashyap and Dharini Rasiah begin A Crack in the Mannequin by reciting the pre-conceived notions they were disabused of through contact with working class South Asian women, they immediately alienate those among their audience who weren't already classist, navel-gazing elites.

All of the viewers in the screening room bonded briefly over criticisms of Mira Nair's flaky and shallow Mississippi Masala (one person referred to it as "Mississippi Brand Prepackaged Masala"). I quoted from Lata Mani's acuminate critique of the dualism of backward East vs. progressive West in Indu Krishnan's Knowing Her Place.

This is not to say that it is impossible for Indian Americans to do good work. Vivek Renjen Bald -- who, like Erica Surat Anderson and Michelle Taghioff, is also of mixed heritage -- may mispronounce "Ahmad," but his awareness of the problematics of positioning himself as a source of knowledge on "Indianness" makes his video on South Asian taxi drivers one of the best works in the Whitney series.

The humor and humanity of Taxi-vala, often reminiscent of Gurinder Chadha's wonderful video Acting Our Age on Punjabi seniors in a British community center, lies in Bald s willingness to let his subjects speak. The South Asian cab drivers spout everything from sexist ideas about a woman's place to questions about the rich and poorly dressed punks they ferry around the East Village. Bald the bohemian Indian American auteur tries to explain where the punks get their money from and what their lifestyle is all about: a beautiful moment of interaction between the America Bald lives in and the South Asian culture he is reaching out to.

Similarly Sandeep Bhusan Ray's hilarious documentary: Leaving Bakul Bagan acknowledges the invasiveness of the camera. One of the women in the video flees the camera's approach only to return a few minutes later with her hair smoothed back and lipstick on, an the young protagonist protests when the camera records her attempt to rescue her underwear from the roof where it has fallen.

Ray tells the story of a young woman's last few days before going to America for studies without obviously trying to shape them into a convenient meta-narrative. Even the curfew imposed in the aftermath of the demolishing of the Babri Masjid, which could have easily been handled in a way that perpetuates stereotypes of Indian life - is shown in subtle colors. The protagonist worries about whether she will get to the airport, her brother castigates her for her selfishness, she asks him what his worry will achieve. Ray's reluctance to editorialize beyond highlighting the tensions that exist in contemporary Indian life make this video superbly credible.

Considering the limited amount of knowledge about India in the West, it is both tempting and easy to spread stereotypes -- Apache Indian's bhangra songs where India consists of tigers and Taj Mahals are only one obvious example -- and, for an audience of South Asian origin, the success of the works are in proportion to how much they resist this tendency. Where filmmakers examining Indian culture listen to the voices of people from India, instead of working within their own imagined India where all Singhs are Sikhs (or vice versa), their explorations are revealing of India and America instead of their own biases.

Mississippi Masala