The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Spectacle and a richness of style

A pathbreaker in the field of film studies passed through the city last week, giving students the rare chance to learn directly from an internationally-renowned theoretician. Laura Mulvey, who pioneered the concept of spectatorship of film, gave talks at Jadavpur University and St Xavier’s College.

Known primarily as a feminist film theorist, Mulvey is a widely-read academician, besides being an avant-garde film-maker. The professor of film and media studies at the University of Birkbeck spent the first two days of her stay at a seminar organised at Jadavpur University, entitled Encountering Theory: Three Decades of the Humanities Experiment.

Her first paper, Rethinking Cinema Spectatorship: From Feminism to New Technology, charted much of her own intellectual development, touching the areas in which she is widely referred to across Indian syllabi. On Day II, she participated in a discussion on Inheritance of Feminist Theory, along with speakers including Jasodhara Bagchi. The Calcutta leg was among the last of a three-week India tour, organised by the Bangalore-based Centre for the Study of Culture and Society.

Though Mulvey admits to not having sampled as much Indian cinema as she would have liked, Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa made it to her list of the Top 10 films of all time, compiled for Sight and Sound magazine. It is Dutt’s melodrama, merged with social comment, that intrigues her more than the realism of, say, a Satyajit Ray, “who is much more a part of British culture”. Apart from the two masters, her exposure to Indian cinema was limited due to lack of availability. “I have seen Mother India, of course, and one Amitabh Bachchan spectacle, Deewar, without subtitles, and had no problems. In fact, I made my class watch it without subtitles as well,” laughs the 62-year-old, who plans on stocking up on Indian DVDs before she leaves.

The richness of Indian film-making styles, with its “evocative shots” is lost, feels the veteran, in new-wave cinema, such as Jogger’s Park, which she took a break out of her hectic schedule to catch. “The first half of the film, with its wide shots and realism, looks too much like Hollywood cinema. It is the second half, which returns to melodrama, that is more interesting to me.” But Mulvey does understand the backlash in a section of Indian spectators demanding a cinema more reflective of daily life.

Mulvey, whose last film, Disgraced Monuments, was made in 1994 on “a study of iconoclasm in the Soviet Union after the fall of communism”, chooses now to stick to academia. “It is too hard now to make experimental cinema. I decided I was too old!” she confesses. After the funds allocated to avant-garde films dried up (“a small amount is all you need to make that kind of cinema”), she chose to concentrate on her teaching and research. Her film Amy! was screened at the St Xavier’s College auditorium, where she also gave a talk on Looking at the Past from the Present: Rethinking Feminist Film Theory of the 70s.

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