South Asia Seminar Speaker: Priya Jaikumar
Remembered by fellow documentarians as “Nehru’s favorite cameraman, ” N. S. Thapa directed several landscape and industrial shorts for the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting’s Films Division unit from the 1950s to the 1990s. Everest (1968) is one of his award-winning films, which records the historic expedition of the first all-Indian team to scale Mount Everest, on May 20th, 1965. The story of this film’s production, however, is less matinee-worthy. Films Division initially blocked Thapa’s involvement in the film, so that he was never part of the climb that his film triumphantly documents. The visual aesthetics of the film’s completed version, and its haphazard production process, tell parallel stories about cinema’s status as a visual image and a regulated object. Everest uses a visual lexicon of nationalism characteristic of several Films Division landscape documentaries. At the same time, such shorts register the variable styles of Films Division’s cameramen and directors, and the precarious creative autonomy of its commissioned filmmakers, who were impacted by the institution’s funding structures and the state’s film stock rationing and administrative procedures. In this talk, I use landscape shorts as a provocation to thinking about the relationship between onscreen cinematic spaces, and the institutional and social spaces of bureaucracy, industry, and ideology. The effort is to push back the horizon of historical analysis, so that space refers simultaneously to the visual unit within a film’s frame, and the concept driving a historiography of the state’s efforts to transform a place into a politico-economic territory.