From Rajahs and Yogis to Gandhi and Beyond. Images of India in International Films of the Twentieth Century


From Rajahs and Yogis to Gandhi and Beyond. Images of India in International Films of the Twentieth Century, by Vijaya Mulay. Seagull Books, 2010, London, New York and Calcutta.

[Vijaya Mulay, a.k.a. Akka, or Elder Sister, was  born in 1921 in  Mumbai, India. She  is a documentary filmmaker, film historian, writer, educationist and researcher. In 2002 she was awarded the  V. Shantaram Award for Lifetime Achievement by the Indian Government. She is already working on her next book on education.]

           From Rajahs and Yogis to Gandhi and Beyond, RYGB for short, is Vijaya Mulay’s magnum opus on one hundred years, not of solitude but of multitudinous films  made by foreigners smitten with India or by Diaspora  Indians reluctant to forget her. It is also a history of cinema, the story of the author’s love affair with it and an initiatory  journey through the  land whom  the gypsies call bara than, or big place. At 554 pages and with an impressive collection of stills, archival material and documents from private collections, RYGB is worthy of  a Rajah’s library or  a Yogi’s morning meditation. It is also worthy of Satyagraha, or strict adherence to the truth, an ancient principle of Indian culture taken up by Gandhi as his strategy against the British Raj. However, what exactly is truthfulness in film? Cinema is, after all,  the archetypal  purveyor of dreams  and illusions as well  as  the insidious vehicle for propaganda. The author tries to decipher these questions for her readers. She succeeds admirably well.

            RYGB starts off with a foreword by Thomas Waugh, from Concordia University in Montreal, who explains that he particularly loves “Akka’s introspection on her schizophrenic identity as simultaneous film buff and film censor.” The book is broken down  into ten chapters, laid out chronologically so that the reader may enter directly into a specific subject. There are also several appendices containing Louis Malle’s correspondence, a list of German films and synopses of selected films. Chapter 1 is a delightful foray into  Short Films of the Silent Era, with particular attention to so-called Durbar films which,  according to Stephen Bottomore, were  “part of a political and military strategy for keeping India in submission”. They were also the precursors of modern-day historical documentaries. Chapter 2, Rajahs and Yogis, explains  how India was depicted as part of the exotic and mystic east by a “rational” west, with particular attention to why Germans where so interested in the Aryan origins of Indians. Chapter 3, as the title suggests, is about Empire Films of the Colonial Era, because “the need of empires to construct an acceptable public face means that knowledge has to be arranged so as to present a favorable view of those who dominate”. Chapter 4 transitions into Empire Films of the Postcolonial Era. Here the author explains how a changed post-Second World War Scenario necessitated a redefinition of strategies by colonial powers like Britain. Films like Bhowani Junction slyly suggest “that Indians may not prove equal to the task of keeping India independent”. Chapters 5 and 6 honour the  Seekers, as Mulay calls them, or the four directors who did not see India as exotic but rather as the cradle of all Indo-European civilization.  The transformation of Jean Renoir and Louis Malle from France, Roberto Rossellini from Italy and Arne Sucksdorff from Sweden in the arms of an all embracing India is  studied in great detail. This is particularly true of Louis Malle whose life was turned around by India and who  became a life-long friend of the author. Chapter 7, labeled Insiders-Outsiders is a nod to the work of  foreign filmmakers who either lived in India for a long time or made films in collaboration with Indians. The enduring partnership of James Francis Ivory, Ismail Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala are important examples of this category. Chapter 8,  New Trends: From Gandhi to the Diaspora, covers the last two decades of the Twentieth Century.  In this new vision, India is not treated at the Other but as a microcosm of the universe. Mahabharata (1988), a metaphor for the history of humanity -directed by Peter Brook- is based on the well-known Indian epic of the same name.  Chapter 9 is a study of Gender Roles and Relations. Here it is interesting to note that European films did not consider a romance between an Indian and a Caucasian taboo, whereas American films considered it miscegenation.

            Chapter 10, the author’s Conclusions, neatly ties up the apparently disparate themes of the previous chapters. It also provides Vijaya with a forum to delve into the nature of truth (“Everything is correct and so is its reverse”, she notes wryly, quoting Rabindranath Tagore), the deleterious effects of the narcissism that all cultures are guilty of  and  the amazement of modern-day filmmakers who “wonder that India continues to exist as a single entity despite its amazing diversity”. Vijaya Mulay concludes with the realization, as expressed in these films,  that  “happiness is dependent not on material wealth but on maintaining a balance in human relations”. Her insistence on the need to return to India’s culture of integration with nature and its long-standing close relationship with animals, is the author’s final message.

            From Rajahs and Yogis to Gandhi and Beyond is an obligatory text for libraries and  cinema schools and  a wonderful read for movie buffs and India fans. It is a formidable book written by a formidable lady.

Maya Khankhoje, who has known Vijaya Mulay for the last thirty years, always has something new to learn from her.