Dil Se (From the Heart) is a 1998 Bollywood story of forbidden love between a terrorist and the journalist who loves her. Set in India around the 50th anniversary of Pakistani independence, the film was unsuccessful in South Asian markets but wildly popular in the U.S. and the U.K., and was the first Indian film to enter the top ten on U.K. box office charts.
I am most familiar with a particular epic dance sequence, which takes place shortly after the lovers first meet. In the scene, a train drives through a lush, green, supposedly Indian landscape, while men riding atop one of the train cars — second- or third-class passengers — dance around the female lead. The characters are dressed in a less-than-contemporary, highly romanticized style, and the dancing seems more likely to recall the musical numbers of golden-age Hollywood than the hip-shaking choreography of modern-day Bollywood. Though praised for being highly stylized and a classic example of Indian parallel cinema, the film seems, at least to a Western eye, out of place in the canon of South Asian cinema.
Perhaps it is exactly that — its un-Bollywoodness — which endears it to Western audiences, to the colonizer’s eye. It presents an India that is at once truthful yet framed for the “right” audience. It mimics Western aesthetics, sanitizing South Asian cinema — something post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha would call mimicry, which he contrasts to hybridity. Bhabha uses the term mimicry to unpack the experience of the colonial subject; it represents an attempt to master the behaviours and attitudes of the colonizer. The result can be disconcerting: “almost the same, but not quite.” Mimicry is often considered dangerous by the colonizer and a form of defiance by the colonized.
Hybridity, in contrast, is not an attempt to reproduce the colonizer but to absorb the desired parts of the colonizing culture and in exchange give up some of the colonized society’s original ways. Where mimicry is in effect the colonized adapting to the colonizer, hybridity can be seen as a cultural exchange between colonized and colonizer.
We are accustomed to and expect certain types of cinematic experiences from South Asian cinema: we expect Dil Se, we expect epic love, we expect Hollywood-esque drama, we expect pale actors. We want ‘Indian’ cinema, but we want it served to us in what we believe “Indian” should be.
For the second year in a row, articule will host Monitor : New South Asian Short Film and Video, SAVAC’s annual film and video curated video program. SAVAC (South Asian Visual Arts Centre) is an artist-run centre based in Toronto, and is the only artist-run centre “dedicated to the development and presentation of contemporary visual art by South Asian artists.” Monitor 8 focuses on offering a Western audience (of South Asian diasporas and others) a look at contemporary South Asian culture. Monitor 8 neither caters to Western expectations nor tells us what culture ought to be. Presenting an amazingly wide range of styles, the films and videos of Monitor 8 present work representing “the continuous reshaping of the contemporary South Asian cityscape, as well as reshaping of the bodies that locate themselves within it.” Refusing to cater to any particular audience, the work presented isn’t always easy, but it is always presented with guttural urgency. This screening may not define what exactly South-Asian cinema or video is, or what it has been or might become; rather, it begins to ask the question necessary to move past our personal expectations.
1- Kaleem Aftab, “Brown: the new black! Bollywood in Britain,” Critical Quarterly 44: 3 (October 2002): 88–98.
2- H. K. Bhabha, Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994) 89.
3- “About SAVAC” (SAVAC), http://www.savac.net/about-savac.html (accessed November 26, 2012).
4- Jacob Korczynski, “We shape our image and thereafter our image shapes us” (SAVAC), http://www.savac.net/
monitor-8/page-3.html (accessed November 26, 2012).
Amber Berson is passionate about art and its potential for social change. Her current research focuses on art and mourning, museum practices, narrative theory, and vernacular collections. Her Masters thesis at Concordia University considered how missing and murdered Aboriginal women have been depicted in Canadian Art. She works at Eastern Bloc and most recently co-curated SIGHTandSOUND 2 and Espèces vulnérables at Eastern Bloc, In Your Footsteps at the VAV gallery, Rearranging Desires: Curating the Other Within at the FOFA and We lived on a map… at the Centre for Ethnographic Research and Exhibition in the Aftermath of Violence (CEREV) exhibition space.