Over the (all-too-brief) reading week, I watched an Indian art-house film from 2002, Mr. and Mrs. Iyer. The film is set in 2001, around communal riots in an unspecified region of the country – somewhere near an unnamed hill station (!). Photography plays a significant role in the film, as the hero is a wildlife photographer by profession.
The film starts with the following quote by a tenth century Indian saint and poet:
For what shall I wield a dagger, O Lord?
What can I pluck it out of
Or plunge it into
When you are all the world?
While this is most obviously a challenge to the logic behind communal violence, it can also be read as call to stop it by another means. As the movie progressed, I was reminded a number of times of Susan Sontag’s idea that a camera is much like a weapon – a gun in particular. But, for the sake of this argument, let’s say it can function as a dagger as well. After all, if photographs have a punctum that can pierce the viewer, then a pointy weapon is appropriate. Barthes’ got my back on this one.
Throughout the movie our hero, Jehangir “Raja” Chowdhury, wields his weapon. None of his photographs are of wildlife, however. Under the duress of the violent and traumatic circumstances in which he finds himself, he begins photographing the aftermath of the violence he has narrowly escaped. The most haunting of these are of a pair of glasses dropped by an elderly Muslim gentleman who is forcibly removed by Hindu rioters from the bus that Raja, the heroine (Meenakshi) and a number of other passengers were on travelling down from the hills.
This image in particular, taken with a recurring song in the soundtrack -“Don’t Look Away” – emphasizes this notion of the camera as a weapon to be wielded against communal violence. It forces one to look, to acknowledge.
In the same series of photographs to which the one of the glasses belong are a number of others. Raja gets off of the bus (which is stuck in a long convoy brought to a standstill by a derailed train) the morning after the attack and begins taking photographs – first of the remnants of the victims of the night before, and then of the vehicles in the queue. Finally he turns his attention to the people: the drivers, the passengers, workers, vendors of snacks who have taken advantage of a captive market of sorts.
But aside from the turbaned Sikhs, and the Hindu women who wear bindis, there is no way of knowing who is Muslim and who is Hindu. These are people who respond in similar ways to the situation at hand.
While race has been shown to be a primary issue in photography – especially in the twentieth century, as scholars such as Malek Alloula, Christopher Wright, Lucy Lippard, Shawn Michelle Smith (and many others) have shown, in this postcolonial Indian film, it is religious and cultural differences which hold sway. Many, of course would argue, that this is racism of a sort, especially if one is inclined to take Foucault’s definition of the term.
The album which emerges by the end of the movie, held in two undeveloped rolls of film, contains the narrative of the protagonists: a Muslim man and a Hindu woman, and her child. A family, thrown together by extenuating circumstances. But the backdrop of their album is hardly one of bourgeois familial bliss. The unconventional, violent setting of the album is part of what makes it so striking to the film’s audience. It brings to the forefront that something is wrong, that something needs to be changed on the subcontinent so that the family can exist in peace.
The album is the combined work of the protagonists – both have a part in its creation. This is especially significant given the often gendered nature of photography. Meenakshi Iyer, who gives her name to Raja to save him from the rioters in a powerful reversal of typical gender roles, also wields a camera. While she never escapes her role as a protective maternal figure (which in many ways symbolizes Mother India herself), this is made into her strength. For in giving her protection to a Muslim man, she casts the violence which would have destroyed him as illegitimate. The camera helps bring her to this conclusion. Aside from being something they bond over, and a signifier of a documented “reality,” it leaves behind traces of her realization. The album which narrates her discovery of a shared humanity, and even love, is Raja’s parting gift to Meenakshi.
There is a lot to be said about this film – which is itself an assay against communal violence, using a camera of a different sort. I have barely scratched the surface here, but this is a film I highly recommend!