What would cinematic thought be like refracted through the master filmmakers of Asia? In her book The Epic Cinema of Kumar Shahani, Laleen Jayamanne responds to this question by formulating a unique theory of the epic form and an epic idiom. Thereby she gives us “epic as living tradition and cinema as heritage for the future.”1

Jayamanne studied film and drama in New York and Sydney. She taught Cinema Studies in the Department of Art History and Film at the University of Sydney, from 1990 to 2014. Her writings have been influential in Cinema Studies because of their innovative approach to gender, acting and performance, cross-cultural and silent cinema.2

Kumar Shahani is an Indian filmmaker, writer, teacher, national television film critic, and public intellectual who was born in 1940 in Larkana, Sind (now in Pakistan). He holds the Independent Artist, Raza Chair, India, and he was a Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Studies of Nantes in France from 2015 to 2016. His writings on cinema can be found in his anthology The Shock of Desire and Other Essays.3

Shahani was part of the first cohort of students at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), who were under the tutelage of its founding director, the distinguished filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak. Ghatak was to become a formative influence and his life-long mentor.

In 1967 he was awarded a French Government Scholarship to study at the Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies in Paris, the alumni of which include Claire Denis, Paulo Rocha, Alain Resnais, Volker Schlöndorff, Theo Angelopoulos, and Nelson Pereira dos Santos. In 1968 he was apprenticed to Robert Bresson during the making of Une Femme Douce (A Gentle Woman, 1969). In that year he participated in the demonstration which successfully reversed the French government’s dismissal of Henri Langlois, the famed director of the French Cinémathèque.

From 1976 to 1978 Shahani was the recipient of a Homi Bhabha Fellowship to study the epic form cross-culturally in India and Europe, and his strong links with France continue to the present day. In 2015 the Nantes Triennial “Festival of 3 Continents” (the cinemas of Africa, Latin America and Asia), now in its 39th year, honoured him with the special retrospective entitled “Kumar Shahani, Form and Thought”.

Shahani visited Australia in 1998 for the “Senses of Cinema” conference in Sydney when his film Chār Adhyāy (Four Chapters, 1994) was screened under the auspices of the Australian Film Institute at the Chauvel Cinema. He was a guest of the Department of Art History and Film at the University of Sydney in 2003 and of the Asia Pacific Triennale held at the Queensland Art Gallery-Gallery of Modern Art (QUAGGOMA) in 2006. A complete retrospective of his films was screened at the 2006 Triennale as part of the inaugural screening programme of the Australian Cinémathèque. In the same year the Gallery purchased four of his films for their permanent collection – Khayāl Gāthā (Khayal Saga, 1988), Kasbā (1990), Bhāvantarana (Immanence, 1991), and Bānsuri (The Bamboo Flute, 2000). 4

Shahani has been the recipient of a number of awards including three Filmfare Awards for Best Film (1972, 1990, 1991), the International Film Festival of Rotterdam FIPRESCI Award (1990) and the Prince Claus Award (1998).5

Jayamanne locates his oeuvre within an interrelated cluster of international and internationalist epic filmmakers such as, Glauber Rocha, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Sergei Paradyanov and the contemporary filmmaker Baz Luhrmann.

Helen Macallan’s friendship with Laleen Jayamanne dates back to 1985 when she worked on Laleen’s film A Song of Ceylon. The following exchange had its beginnings in informal conversation between them about the book.


Let’s begin from the beginning – the genesis of The Epic Cinema of Kumar Shahani. I know that in order to study Shahani’s films you had to go to the National Film Archive of India many times but could you talk about the impetus behind the project?

I was tired of my own cognitive habits as much as the methodologies available to me within cinema studies. Also I wanted to study the work of a master filmmaker of Asia who was outside the western canon which I had been teaching for many years. I wanted to test whether it was possible to use theoretical ideas derived from an Asian director to analyse the work of western filmmakers.

And your research at the Archive – how did you go about it?  

The films were projected for me onto the big screen in 35 mm celluloid and that meant I could see them in their original format, something very important for the kind of work I do on the aesthetics of the image and sound – the scale does matter. One whole week was spent at the archive watching all of Shahani’s films in his company along with the film scholar Ashish Rajadhyaksha, the art historian Geeta Kapur and other film scholars. It was invaluable to have that immersion in Shahani’s universe, as were the wonderful discussions around his films. It was also essential to see the films in relation to Ritwik Ghatak’s. He’s been a very important mentor to Shahani and his work is also in an epic idiom, although melodramatically inflected. And I spent a week with Shahani in 2002 when he was a guest of the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore – he had an apartment on the Centre’s campus. It was a chance for me to see something of Shahani’s legendary willingness to be involved with all sorts of communities. He was in Bangalore primarily to curate a film program for the Bangalore Film Society – a program that included films by Ritwik Ghatak, Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, Yasujirō Ozu, Roberto Rossellini, Orson Welles and John Ford. The screenings were held on-campus and the biologists attended and joined in the conversations that they generated so there were opportunities for a dialogue between art and science. India was playing a cricket test match against Australia and whenever the biologists were in the canteen they had their eyes glued to the TV set. But once during an ad one of them asked me why I wanted to write about Shahani’s work. I asked him why he looked at cells every day. He said the cell was mysterious, despite what we already know about it. I replied that’s exactly why I wanted to write about Shahani’s films – they are mysterious and not easily accessible, opaque even. I wanted to understand their dynamism just as they were intent on understanding the intra-cellular dynamism of the cell. Let’s remember Eisenstein considered the shot to be cell-like in its structure. The shot is not the fundamental unit for him, rather its importance lies in its cell-like capacity to divide and multiply zones within itself.

The book gives us a great grasp of the dynamics of his shots so clearly you achieved your objective. It’s not limited to close analyses though – it’s a wide-ranging and comprehensive discussion of Shahani’s brilliant reinvention of the cinematic epic. Something that struck me was how different his concept of the epic is from that which many of us were introduced to in the 1980s – Bertolt Brecht’s theatre-related concept as filtered through the perspective of 1970s English Screen theorists. The complexity of Shahani’s aesthetic means that asking for a quick summary is rather unrealistic but could you give a brief account of its outstanding features?

I’ll be a bit schematic here – you’ll have to forgive the powerpoint-lecture effect. There are three or four key characteristics or elements to Shahani’s epic vision, the first being that the epic optic isn’t centripetal but rather centrifugal – it radiates outwards rather than being confined to a centralised perception and so the peripheral is given as much value as the provisional centre of interest. The eye shuttles between the centre and the periphery.

Could you give an example of this from one of his films?

In Khayāl Gāthā (Khayal Saga, 1988) the lovers in the foreground are the main focal point but a tree framed by a decorative Moghul window in the background also draws our eye towards it, so that the peripheral tree is radiant with light, just as the lovers are.  Another example is the still from Māyā Darpan (Mirror of Illusion, 1972), which is on the book cover.

Laleen Jayammane interview

The Epic Cinema of Kumar Shahani by Laleen Jayamanne (book cover)

The image of the woman – Taran – is not at the centre of the shot. One’s eye is drawn to the black void in the background while the velvet curtain hanging there also modulates the viewer’s perception of the image. As well, the eye shuttles into the texture of the red cotton sari which has a block-printed design reminiscent of that known as Ajrakh, a famous decentring motif in textiles.

For those used to the centralised western perspective it must require a new way of seeing. Is it the same though for Indian audiences? I assume because various forms of decentring are already present in Indian culture – in the pattern of the textile you’ve just mentioned for instance – it’s not the same leap for them.  Or are you saying that Shahani is consciously seeking to elicit in the viewer – any viewer – a new awareness of the process of looking?

That’s what is at stake in these shots. A perception of perception which has a rational component. Shahani’s not aiming though for “distanciation” in the Brechtian sense: rather it’s a way of making the entire space erotic or enchanted through its sensory surplus. Although he’s fully conversant with the Brechtian aesthetic he’s far from the rationalism of Brecht. His work takes its energy in part from the miniature Moghul paintings of the 18th century where there’s no single point perspective stabilising perception. Everything seems in sharp focus in these paintings – not just the mythical lovers Radha and Krishna who figure in so many of them. And Shahani has a much larger archive than Brecht to draw upon for his epic practice because India has so many living traditions of the epic as oral form. Many of the art forms deemed separate entities in western thinking are intertwined – for instance the word “Natya” means both dance and drama. Shahani works off this double meaning of the word by creating a form of acting where a dance-like walk turns almost imperceptibly into everyday movements or the reverse. Walking is a key dynamic component in his work with the actor – it’s a means of lifting the everyday-body to another plane of affectivity and thought.

Laleen Jayamanne interview

Mirror of Illusion (Shahani, 1972)

Is it useful to make comparisons between his conception of the epic and the Hollywood one?

That’s my second point. The Hollywood epic is about scale, large armies, weapons, lots of money expended on great battle scenes and a concern with national destinies. And it’s centred on the hero and his epic quest. The three unities of time, place and action are important in Hollywood cinema. In Shahani’s films the epic is less a quantitative concept – it’s more about the quality of perception that radiates or emanates outward in a kind of effulgence. His epic practice includes the lyric, the dramatic and narration and so has more flexibility to shuttle among them than the Western mode of the epic, which is largely dramatic in conception. There’s greater temporal freedom in the Indian version because it can activate different rhythms which are not tied to the three unities of Aristotle. In Hollywood or Hollywood-like films the action is tied to a dramatic, metrically pulsed temporality involving actions and reactions and the resolution of dramatic conflicts.

You also discuss the fact that there aren’t any “characters” as such in Shahani’s films.

Yes – Shahani is emphatic that there are no “characters” in his films. That’s actually my next point. In his films the actors are iconic figures (moving towards archetypes) who shape-shift through the subtlest of movements with the aid of materials/costumes and colour. They’re epic personae who enfold within themselves the capacity to metamorphose in the blink of an eye. The changes are never announced: they happen at a threshold that’s nearly imperceptible – through, for instance, gestures enfolded in the everyday, or through a cloth being draped in a particular manner. It’s an approach which confirms a tenet of classical Indian aesthetics – obliqueness, indirection. Whereas Hollywood changes are emphatic, announced and thrilling. While in the Brechtian epic mode changes are not only emphatic, they are also demonstrative and rationalistic – they have a wonderful pedagogic function. Also important to Shahani’s films is the coupling of reason and revelation. Revelation for him isn’t of the order of the religious but a result of the activation of the cinematograph’s potential to confer value on anything-whatever, at any instant-whatever.

Yet he confers exceptional value upon textiles.

That’s the last point. Costumes, the material with which they are made and the very fabric of the films, are lined so to speak with the rich Indian material culture of cloth. They – the costumes – also ‘act’. They’re alive and form a partnership with the actor – they never function as simple accessories. They enable metamorphoses, and just as they ‘texture’ the actor they also texture our perception so that the subtle movements become sensible to perception. They often divert our attention, luring us toward centrifugal awareness whereby the whole world is vivid, pulsating with potential.

Laleen Jayamanne interview

Mirror of Illusion (Shahani, 1972)

The relationship between texture and the audience’s perception of it is a vital component of Shahani’s aesthetic, but you also make the point that it’s important for humans in general. Could you explain this?

Apprehending texture is fundamental to us as humans because it sensitises the eye to differences, imbuing it with haptic values. Haptic isn’t the same as tactile perception. It’s the power to differentiate between components within the cell-like shot which may signal a quantum change. The haptic power is an inalienable gift.

Laleen Jayamanne interview

Mirror of Illusion (Shahani, 1972)

Could you talk about the narrative themes in Shahani’s films and any threads between them.

There are a number of linked themes. Each is set for instance in a different part of India, showing the vast geographical range of the subcontinent and the diversity of its cultures: Islamic, Hindu as well as many others. Another significant theme is that of women – they play a central, privileged, active role in all of Shahani’s films.

How does this happen at the level of individual films?

In Mirror of Illusion the young girl, trammelled by her feudal father and the feudal milieu, demonstrates the powerful dormant energy which is activated by her at the end. She derives energy from the iconic form of the goddess Kali. In Tarāng (Wave, 1984) the theme is presented through the story of the working-class woman and the wife of the industrialist who are brought into a convergence as doubles (sakhi). Its narrative of class struggle moves from the contemporary urban milieu to a mythic, epic encounter on a bridge between master and servant at the end. The film has both historical and contemporary resonance. The servant metamorphoses through costume, walk and gesture into an iconic semi-divine figure. In Kasbā (1994) two female types, the maternal woman and the dynamic worldly business woman, are counterpointed, again operating in a feudal family. The dynamic figure seems to operate beyond distinctions between good and evil despite the horrific violence of infanticide, which is presented quietly. It’s based on Chekov’s short story In the Gully.

Laleen Jayamanne interview

Wave (1984)

The theme of women seems inseparable from that of class – what about issues of nationhood and nationalism?

Well, in Chār Adhyāy (Four Chapters, 1997) it’s a major theme coupled with the theme of woman. The leading revolutionary figure who is involved in the nationalist struggle embodies the contradiction between being a woman in love and becoming iconic as the “mother of the nation”. There’s an exploration of the burden of iconisation of woman explored here within the violent Hindu fascist tendencies in the nationalist struggle. The main actor who in real life is a dancer embodies a number of iconic/archetypal roles. The shifts amongst them are of a very subtle order. They’re marked, for instance, by differences in clothing, a style of hair, gesture and movement. In doing this, the film demonstrates the very process of iconisation which synthesises the variety of actual women into an archetype. Accordingly, in this film the iconic archetype of the mother is the paradoxical site of both valorisation and contestation of feminine identity.

Shahani’s work belongs to a historical moment, a moment that can be called internationalist in outlook and practice within the long twentieth century. You can track this through the history of Marxist thought as well as through the thrust of the European political avant-garde. Here Eisenstein may be taken as an exemplary figure. He tapped Japanese graphic design to develop his theory of editing as montage. He also drew on Japanese theatrical practice for his theory of acting in montage. In the broadest sense Shahani’s project is one of “reclamation of cultural traditions” after the onslaught of colonialism. He also inherits the internationalist outlook of the Nehruvian nationalist state’s modernisation project after independence in 1947. His later work was done within the transnational moment in global image production. For example, his unrealised film project on the “World History of Cotton”, signals a global perspective on the Indian material, cotton cloth, that powered the industrial revolution.

Your description of the figure of the wanderer in Khayāl Gāthā (Khayal Saga, 1988) evokes for me Gabi Teichert, the schoolteacher/archaeologist figure in The Patriot – Alexander Kluge’s use of the metaphor of the archaeologist who ‘digs’ for the past in order to make sense of the present.

And she finds that official narratives distort history. The seeker in Khayal Saga is in pursuit of a different kind of knowledge, although there’s a similar sense of the layering of time in The Patriot. It’s set within legendary eras, but Indian trains frequently rhythmically cut across the epic terrain and the student at times has contemporary attributes and clothing. He walks though the India of legend, seeking, on an epic quest, to learn how to sense epic signs! Familiar legendary lovers are represented with the music of Khayāl making available this classical musical form in a modern setting of ruined historical architecture. It feels like a contemporary fairy tale exploring the cultural archives of Islamic and Hindu art both together, and that’s important in the context of the rise of Hindu fundamentalism. Shahani’s practice is syncretic in that it works with the diverse, rich archives of Indian art, architecture and music, but within the contemporary. He was taught by the historian of ancient India, D.D. Kosambi, to understand the materialism encoded in myth. He’s been trained to see the materiality of Indian culture in its long duration and the pedagogic function of epic signs, shuttling between myth and history. This movement is one of the great strengths of Shahani’s epic idiom.

You mention that Shahanis’s films were funded and produced by public institutions originally set up by the Indian government to promote cinema and culture after independence.

Yes – the Nehruvian State. All his films including his shorter films Bhāvantarana (Immanence, 1991) and Bānsuri (The Bamboo Flute, 2000) were funded in this way.

Could you talk about those films?

Immanence is a dance film. In it the great Odissi dancer Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra dances in many modes, including resplendent mythical female roles. He also dances on a beach with the waves as his partner – there are magnificent crane and moving shots – the camera dances too – it’s an intoxicating exchange between nature and culture.

Laleen Jayamanne interview

Immanence (Shahani, 1991)

The Bamboo Flute is Shahani’s tribute to the humble Indian instrument of the cowherd, but also the instrument of the god Krishna. The film demonstrates the unbroken link between folk popular and classical performance, including its passage to a highly evolved form. There are breath-taking sequences of a festival of flutes (of a dizzying range), and dances among the peasantry that have a Dionysian intensity. And like Immanence, The Bamboo Flute is close to nature – microtones are active in the movements of the camera and the flute. “It’s the grammar of the Universe!” – that’s how the Australian composer Lisa Lim described it.

Whether it’s film, performance, scholarly or other writings, your work is characterised by an element of surprise. Readers, especially those new to your writing, may be surprised (not to mention relieved) that your voice has none of that “bleached” monotonous quality which Roland Barthes complains plagues academic prose. You often upset scholarly conventions – especially the insistence on consistency of style. For instance, in the book you employ both the personal and the impersonal pronoun and there’s an alternation between academic, poetic, and vernacular writing. At one point, the quiet progress of the text is suddenly disrupted by a disorderly “ouch!” You’ve talked elsewhere about the importance you attach to writing but could you recap the thinking behind your idiosyncratic approach?

It makes writing more enjoyable when one can shift registers and I hope reading too. Also, I’ve programmatically taken up Meaghan Morris’s statement that our inability to change our mode of address is potentially debilitating. There’s an ethic of speech and writing here that creates an ethos (ethic) that affects the logos (word) introducing pathos (feeling) in academic work, which includes teaching.

Without a doubt for me the biggest surprise came in the middle of the book when suddenly I found myself reading about Baz Luhrmann’s epic movie Australia. It’s as if in the beautifully integrated patterning of its material (to borrow from the clothing metaphors you use) a strange piece of patchwork has appeared. But you explain the unexpected insertion of a chapter on Luhrmann’s use of the epic in a way that makes it sympathetic with the book as a whole.

I like to be surprised in intellectual work. It was quite unexpected for me as well. Yes, it seems odd but it was completely necessary for me do that. One of the official readers bluntly suggested that I delete the chapter. I answered by saying that the book would unravel if that happened.

I remember you telling me at the time the editors at Indiana Press responded to that criticism with the comment that what you have achieved is a piece of art/scholarship.

“We are far freer than we think” as Foucault once said. I don’t like the idea of blowing my own trumpet.

Well you aren’t, and it’s a relief that there are still pockets of the academic press not in thrall to the Taylorised product. Can you explain why bringing Luhrmann’s Australia in at that middle-point of the book arose from a sense of necessity? 

It was about the imperative to counterpoint Shahani’s esoteric practice with a global brand of popular cinema that has something esoteric about it. I wanted to use the sensitivity to materials derived from Shahani to think the collaboration between Catherine Martin and Baz Luhrmann in producing a textured surface for their films. They use the latest technology but also work within an anachronistic craft ethos creating handmade costumes and infusing them with couture values. That chapter creates a series of divergent connections with Shahani’s practice and is made possible by the previous chapter on the “second nervous system”. If it’s the spine of the book then the chapter on Luhrmann elaborates a new circuit for it right in the middle.

The concept of a second nervous system presupposes a first one. What does that consist of?

The first is about the every-day body, its reflexes, sensory-motor mechanisms, repetition, habit and recognition. The “second nervous system” is Eugenio Barba’s term. He develops the concept by considering the actor training in the classical traditions both of the east and the west. This entails a drill-like training of the body, in most cases from childhood. Paradoxically it’s on the basis of these invariant movements that gradually a “luxury balance” of an “extra-daily-body” is released allowing the performer freedom to respond to each moment spontaneously and in a fresh manner unbound by habit. Doing this opens up a “resonant body”, a body able to connect the sub-cortical with the cortical. The “resonant body” is Suely Rolnik’s concept, a Brazilian therapist/curator who studied with Gilles Deleuze and was in therapy with Felix Guattari after her experience under the Brazilian junta.

The second nervous system is activated by the diversion of the first in two different ways.  Baz Luhrmann operates what I call a break/flow system, which consists of sharp, emphatic cuts. Each cut harnesses energy for the actor performing in strobe like a strobe light with many facets catching the light in quick succession. I call this acting in strobe. Shahani’s actor and the image/sound are activated by the second nervous system through a glissando or sliding across thresholds of sensations and affects. Through this a continuum of differentiation is created. These are transmitted to the viewer as well. This is what I call modulation of forces – that could be in gestures, voice, sounds, light, colour, costumes – micro-perceptions abound. The actor as modulator does not perceive with the eye alone but can sense and activate kinaesthetic, proprioceptive and cutaneous sensitivities of the body. These are transmitted to the viewer as well.

I’m not sure that I understand what you are saying in terms of how these processes actually function, but that’s probably because they seem to occur at a relatively subconscious level. Also I’m unfamiliar with your terminology. Cutaneous I assume has something to do with the skin? What does proprioceptive mean?

Proprioception is one’s internal awareness of one’s body in space, spatial orientation. Cutaneous relates to our skin and its tactile sensory sensitivity, including sensations such as hard and soft, hot and cold etc. And yes, these processes operate at a subconscious level and when they’re activated the body senses them faster than the mind. So there’s a lag between sensory bodily awareness and intellectual understanding. You could call this body a thinking body to make a distinction between its powers and those of the conscious intellect, cognition. These complex subconscious processes activate, with a sense of immediacy, our latent synesthetic capabilities. They have the power to mingle our senses and create relays among them. This capacity to sense threshold phenomena attunes one to perceiving epic signs. Following these one can make a cartography of the sensory and affective events in the films. The second nervous system and the “resonant body” enable us to sense the world of the films not so much in terms of forms and functions but as fields of forces, they tune the actor and the viewer to sense those signs which are not linguistically formed. So my Luhrmann chapter is not so much a patchwork as a divergent new circuit in the book powered by the second nervous system, using terms borrowed from neurophysiology.

By modulations do you mean variations?

Not exactly – it’s not a matter of themes and variations rather it’s to do with a continuum of differentiation. Shahani uses extremely subtle minute variations, not only tones and overtones but also microtones as in Indian music. Sound and visuals are structured on this sonic principle. An example is the image of Taran walking through the film in Māyā Darpan. There’s a continual opening of rhythmic temporal zones and voids creating a power which permeates the eye as well. “It’s chronology, not narrative, that we have to abandon” is what Shahani says. In relation to this, his takes are long but they’re not like the sequence shots in the neo-realism of, say, Vittorio De Sica.The neo-realist sequence shot has a teleology built into it but Shahani’s long takes are a part of the aesthetic of indirection that I mentioned earlier. They’re modulatory units where time and movement dilates and seems to go into a void to re-emerge freshly. One feels that the shot must end at a particular moment but in a surprising way it doesn’t. It’s as though it were a long exhaling breath which goes into a void and then slowly turns into an inhalation. The feel of a breath is very active in Shahani’s shots – it’s what makes them delicate, subtle – it subtilises matter. I think there’s a convergence between the notion of the “resonant body” and the “subtle body” here. Suely Rolnik’s idea can be thought in relation to the Tantric idea of the “subtle body” as well. This is so of the human body of the actor as much as the body of the shot thought of as cellular. The resonant body is one that is open to the other, a non- hierarchical receptivity to difference. It’s a generous body where both the rational and sensory faculties are active rather than repressed. One might call this a micro-politics of receptivity.

The concept of the second nervous system is central to the book?

It is, and that’s what allows me to bring Luhrmann’s practice into contact with Shahani’s. Textiles and colour play a key role in both their films. The Luhrmann chapter demonstrates – in the emphatic Brechtian sense of the term – how an Asian cinematic master’s thought can be productive in exploring the work of a western filmmaker. The cinema studies field is not always level: even now, in the context of an opening up of global cinema, there’s often a tendency to privilege western theoretical thought and little curiosity about deriving ideational material from an Asian master of cinema.

In relation to the emphasis on textiles and texturing you use the images of the loom and the railway track in a wonderfully generative way.

Those two images are central to my way of thinking about Shahani and Luhrmann together. I refer to film history – the pioneering historical Lumière brothers’ film Arrival of the Train at the Station (1895) and counterpoint it with the less well-known Manakis brothers’ Women Weavers of Avdela (1907). Both work with the idea of the grid, which of course is based on quantitative measurements. In the Lumière brothers’ film there’s a homology between the cinematograph and the train in that both are structured on modern clock time. On the other hand, the Manakis brothers’ film on the women weavers shows an ancient technology linked to human civilisation – the modern frontal framing is characteristic of early modern Balkan image production. The warp and the weft provide the mathematical grid and the intricate geometry of the weave is handed down from hand to hand from weaver to weaver.

Weaving is a recurrent motif, a significant image, in Shahani’s work isn’t it?

Yes, and it’s not just the warp and the weft that’s important to him but as in weaving the diagonal line cuts across the grid laterally and thus has the power to develop intricate ornamental patterns transversely. Transversality is Felix Guattari’s concept developed in his schizo-analytic psychotherapy. It’s about moving cross-diagonally in order to connect uncommunicating layers of experience – to even connect a-signifying particles of the psyche – or in Shahani’s instance, of the shot. These a-signifying particles can only be sensed and connected transversely.

The term ‘a-signifying’ – do you mean by this that these particles have no conventional meaning for the viewer and can only be intuited?

That’s a simple explanation in terms of Guattari’s non-linguistically based semiotic diagram. The images of the loom and the train track which derive from the Manakis and Lumière brothers’ films allow me to mentally superimpose the track on the loom, which makes my brain spin and enhances its power to connect transversely. I like this conjunction of modern technology with the archaic, cinema and civilisation – they provide a conceptual loom of sorts.

So the image rather than the word as a conduit to research! Could we go back to Baz Luhrmann – how does the idea of a second nervous system operate in the acting and editing in his films?

His films are characterised by what I call “acting in strobe” (or in fits and starts) which consists of quick cuts that draw attention to themselves in an emphatic way. Each of these cuts in, for instance, Australia and Moulin Rouge reconfigures the acting persona. But it takes a highly skilled actor such as Nicole Kidman to do what Luhrmann calls “throwing a character this way and throwing a character that way” in quick succession. As I’ve indicated, in Shahani’s films the metamorphoses of the actors happens in a very unemphatic manner, usually within the space of the shot and without the aid of hard cuts. Both Shahani’s and Luhrmann’s actors activate a second nervous system in their own unique ways. It’s the divergent connections that interest me.

In terms of another brand of global popular cinema, the immensely successful Bollywood cinema – what is Shahani’s relationship to it?

He and Bollywood tap similar archives – the rich heritage of dance, song and mythical narratives and cloth in Indian culture. Where they are different is that Bollywood creates epic melodramas with just a handful of epic devices such as songs and dancers in direct address. Shahani doesn’t work with melodrama. He gets great strength from the pre-Bollywood Hindi cinema – from enormously popular films such as Sant Tukaram and Awwara in which Raj Kapoor plays a Chaplinesque role. Others include Pyaasa and Mother India, which was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Film category.6 They’re not only canonical films of Hindi cinema, they’ve reached an international market – for example, the Soviet Union and the Middle East. What also needs to be said is that Bollywood is a recent response to globalisation. Ashish Rajadhyaksha has written brilliantly on the topic. He cautions against the assumption that the term globalisation is interchangeable with Americanisation and also that Bollywood stands for all of Indian cinema, and he discusses the ways in which Indian cinema is being reconfigured by Bollywood. 7

Could you talk a little more about the cross-cultural dimensions of Shahani’s work? 

As a student of both Robert Bresson and Ritwik Ghatak, he inherits two enabling traditions to work with, within an internationalist framework. He has studied the epic form cross-culturally including Buddhist iconography and Hindu Bhakti religiosity – it’s an example of his cross-cultural approach within India. He’s also studied the various European masters of the epic. He went to Hungary in the 1970s to observe Miklós Jancsó at work, to the Berliner Ensemble to study Bertolt Brecht, and to the Krasnogorsk Archive in Russia to study Sergei Eisenstein. It’s the extraordinary diversity of this cross-cultural research project that has allowed him to not just imitate but to develop his own unique epic idiom.

In relation to cross-cultural cinema, I’ve been thinking about the chapter “Memory of the World” and the undergraduate cinema studies course that you taught at Sydney University under the same name.

Yes – “Memory of the World: Key Films”.

The idea of a cultural memory of the world which cinema is able to bring into existence seems central to the book – it seems to be at the heart of the many cultural dimensions which you’ve just described as having a part to play in Shahani’s conception of epic cinema. What’s striking to me is that India remains what Pierre Nora describes as a “memory-based society”. For instance, in the book you speak of the ways in which the collective heritage of two great epic poems continues to find expression in both popular and high art.  It seems that it’s Shahani’s acute sense of history which allows his epic idiom to take on a new life and form – it grounds and facilitates the incorporation of cross-cultural memories.

I think that’s true. Mythical time is atemporal – eternal – whereas history is the time of change. By shuttling between the two the epic has the added power to subtly indicate the conditions under which the solidity of identity may be challenged. And the epic sign, like the commodity, is excessively familiar to those in India. It’s on the basis of this very familiarity that Shahani elaborates this sign with the rich sensory material of the culture and the cross-culture components are an important part of the dynamic. The sensuous abstraction of the sign invites us to decipher his films using our powers of imagination and reason.

A final question  – is your book itself structured on the principle of a second nervous system?

I hope so! What do you think?

This is an edited version of the interview which was recorded at UTS Sydney by Salvatore Panatteri on January 15, 2017.


  1. Meaghan Morris, “Reviews,” Indiana University Press website,  http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/product_info.php?products_id=807302.
  2. Laleen Jayamanne, The Epic Cinema of Kumar Shahani (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2015); Towards Cinema and its Double: Cross-Cultural Mimesis (Bloomington Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2001); The Film Maker and the Prostitute: Dennis O’Rourke’s The Good Woman of Bangkok, co-ed. (Sydney, Australia: Power Publications, 1997); Kiss Me Deadly: Feminism and Cinema for the Moment ed. (Sydney, Australia: Power Publications, 1995) and director of the 16mm film A Song of Ceylon (Australia: Australian Film Commission, 1985).
  3. Kumar Shahani, The Shock of Desire and Other Essays, ed. Ashish Rajadhyaksha (New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2015.)
  4. Also known as Birah bharyo ghar aangan kone. The National Film Development Corporation (India) issued Shahani’s Chār Adhyāy (Four Chapters, 1997) on DVD with English subtitles. Access to his other films is through the Film Archive of India although subtitled reference copies of the four films purchased by the Australian Cinémathèque can be viewed on DVD in the QAGOMA Library, Brisbane. The degraded pirated versions to be found on YouTube and elsewhere offer a very inferior viewing experience.
  5. See http://www.princeclausfund.org/en/network/kumar.html.
  6. Sant Tukaram, Vishupant Damie & Sheikh Fattelal, 1936; Awwara, Raj Kapoor, 1956; Pyaasa, Guru Dutt, 1957; Mother India, Mehboob Khan, 1957.
  7.  See Ashish Rajadhyaksh, Indian Cinema in the Time of Celluloid: From Bollywood to the Emergency (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009), and “The ‘Bollywoodization’ of the Indian Cinema: cultural nationalism in a global arena”, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 4:1 (2003), pp. 25-39

About The Author

Helen Macallan is a film scholar and a Research Associate in the School of Communication, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney.

Related Posts