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Film and Collective Memory Contemporary India’s struggle for cultural memory

ISCTE - PhD in Anthropology Abordagens Regionais em Antropologia Prof .Lina Fruzzetti Paper by Pedro Neto 03/01/2011

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all... Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing...

Luis Bu単uel

Introduction India’s vast territory is home to a socially, ethnically and religiously diverse population - a cultural constellation where tensions and conflicts are frequent within and between different groups. These violent events, often an expression of communalism, occur within the Hindu majority (as a result of its caste system), as well as in relation to other minorities, namely the Muslim, Sikh and Christian communities. The reasons behind this hostility are mainly to do with religion itself, and its claims in disputes over “sacred” sites, contestation on “holy” elements and symbols, riots against commemorations, etc.. This struggle between the “self” and the “other” is omnipresent in contemporary India, being particularly obvious in communal acts. These “(...) communal identities, while always dynamic and changing, have a substantial historical past in India, (...)” (Mahmood, 1993:723), a past and a present tinted with permanent conflict 1, where several cultural identities strive towards a legitimate place on the sub-continent. “These identities do not develop in synchrony but revolve essentially around the Hindu core that has always dominated the society.” (1993:723) Actually, as the hegemonic culture, Hinduism has always been an intrinsic part of India’s official history writing, and has ruled according to its status as such. If “history is no more than the official memory a society chooses to honor” (Hutton, 1993:9), and “there are as many memories as groups” (Halbwachs [1926] 1992:101), this raises questions regarding how the several “other” existing memories can be stored and/or transmitted. Moreover, different “[memories] can play an important role as a source of truth” (Misztal 2003:14), especially when there is not one but several truths. With this in mind, all those multiple perspectives from the different communities of memory ought to be balanced - it is here that memory meets one of its many significances, history’s negotiation towards a plural future. Memory also acts as a

1 Although

some naively argue about the peaceful environment amidst the different communities before colonial rule, communal tensions have been a reality long before it. cf. Mahmood (1993)

warning, allowing past errors to be portrayed and remembered in order to avoid future repetition. The role of memory is also to ensure and improve the conditions of freedom by mastering democratic institutions. Without memory we have no references relating to the “(...) potential dangers to democratic structures and no opportunity to gain a rich awareness of the repertoire of possible remedies.”2 But how can we foster a healthy collective memory that promotes a durable plural society...? “Cultural memory refers to people’s memories constructed from the cultural forms and to cultural forms available for use by people to construct their relations to the past” (Schudson 1995:348). These cultural forms that are distributed across social institutions and cultural artifacts such as monuments, statues, commemorations, ceremonies, festivals, rites, films, and so forth, are some of the cultural collective memory’s storage devices. Of the above mentioned devices, film, due to its characteristics, is one of the most accessible and effective means of reaching and engaging with wider and more diverse audiences. Film has become the most accessible form of popular entertainment in India - the country is home to the largest film industry in the world. But film transcends mere entertainment, for it can be a vehicle to express ideas, create myths, recreate history and memories, and spread propaganda - without ever inherently being any of these. In fact, film has been democratized: nowadays almost everybody has access to filmmaking equipment and can afford the basic materials to produce and distribute their own films. Film offers a new tool to those who have previously been made silent by social, ethnical and/or religious reasons, granting them an opportunity to belong to India’s collective memory. Moreover, it is thought that film can have a role in promoting tolerance within a plural India, with cinema being a way to portray and expose the several “selves” and “others”, based on a collective experience with a cultural ex(change) value. 2

cf. Hosking, G.A. (1989) Memory in a Totalitarian Society, in T. Butler (ed.) Memory, History, Culture and the Mind, pp.97-114. Oxford: Blackwell

Film and Collective Memory - Contemporary India’s struggle for cultural memory

“Cinema creates memories, i.e. the possibility of memory ” Jean-Luc Godard, 1995

Nowadays, collective memory is a growing subject of study, covering a wide range of areas of knowledge. When seen as a reference system, collective memory matters to social and political scientists, filmmakers, artists, and for practical reasons, to everyday people. Collective memory is not a peaceful nor stable issue within most societies - questions such as what should be remembered and forgotten, what happened and through which eyes was it registered, what was (re)created and what was not, are at stake. For some groups within certain societies, cultural (collective) memory is all they can have to preserve their own practices and existence, a “(...) memory that is shared outside the avenues of formal historical discourse (...)”3 In 19th century’ Europe, collective memory played an important role, at a moment when it was in the interests of different countries to construct their citizens’ national identities - “the emergence of the nation-state has been accompanied by inventions of new memories to enhance national identities.” (Misztal 2003:25) Cultural collective memory was built upon “(...) commemorations, rituals, marches, ceremonies, festivals and with the help of teachers, poets and painters.” (2003:15) The task of collective memory was to create a national unity and identity among the different groups of a certain country. What happened then can be now verified on other 3

Sturken, M. (1997) Tangled Memories: The Vietnam war, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembrering. Berkeley, CA:University of California.

latitudes. New or recently independent countries (e.g., ex-Yugoslavia countries, Israel, and post colonial countries, as is the case of India) feel compelled to create strong cultural identities, drawing from previous collective memories (some already forgotten or non-existent), and simultaneously shaping present and future ones. Yet the memories of people and/or communities who have experienced a common event are “(...) never identical because in each of them a concrete memory evokes different associations and feelings.” (2003:11) These constructions are established according to different levels, the individual and his communities of memory: family, ethnic/religious group, nation. This means that on the process of memory creation, several constraints and obstacles have to be dealt with. Memory is indeed a construction, but one that happens on a negotiated/existing basis. As Schudson points out: “no one who would remake the past can do so without encountering enormous obstacles.” These include “living memory,” “multiple versions of the past,” “a memory industry and memory professions” (e.g., historians and writers of school textbooks), “the motive for history” (“legitimation” or a “search for guidance”), “the treason of the history clerk” (insider accounts), “conventions of historiography and attitudes to history,” “the ambiguity of stories,” “institutionalization of memory,” and “the past as scar” (1995: 207-219). These obstacles remind us that the construction of collective memory is a complex process, involving multiple struggles between competing players, and the required “(...) dialectic relationships between the popular memory and the dominant discourse.” (Misztal 2003:63) In India, this issue of disputing memory is visible on the Hindu nationalist discourse towards the other minorities. In fact, these “other” communities often have to contend with the dominant memory being used with political aims and against their own. The controversial quarrel over sacred Ayodhya, is a sad example of that. But, as Misztal states, “Nationalism, which sees identity as rooted in some notion of shared traits (ethnicity, culture, religion, language), argues that nations, as

communities of memory, protect remembrance of the past and use memory as a political instrument.” (2003:133)


Today, the function of memory, on its preservation and presentation, is being increasingly assigned to the electronic media. And with the growing presence and role of new media (television, internet, film) in contemporary society, memory is changing its construction and transmission modes. “The nature of this media and [its] interest in meeting public demands for instant entertainment are not without impact on the content and form of representations of the past. Thus the input of media into how and what we remember is a crucial factor influencing the status of memory in contemporary societies.” (Misztal, 2003:22) The media’s ability to select, present, and manipulate reality, in a way made most evident in the medium of film, asserts its position as an exquisite tool for social and memory control. As Laramee pertinently argues, we can “revisit (other) memories, and even create new ones through film.” (2009:155) Politicians, film directors, religious leaders, and people in general understand the power of film, and often feel tempted to use it to their advantage. Cinema is a powerful “weapon that shoots 24 frames per second,”4 for visual images have an extraordinary impact, transcending time. “A film motivates thought and action and assures a high degree of attention and retention as compared to the printed word. The combination of act and speech, sight and sound in semi darkness of the theatre with elimination of all distracting ideas will have a strong impact on the minds of the viewers and can affect emotions. (...) It cannot be equated with other modes of communication.” (Fischer 2009:51)


cf. Solanas, Fernando; Getino, Octavio (1976) Towards a Third Cinema in Movies and methods: an anthology, Volume 1, Bill Nichols (ed.) pp. 44-65, University of California Press

Although these attributes present in film represent its greatest assets, they can also be instrumental in turning film towards more sinister purposes. If “(...) individual experience is structured and understood through cultural narratives” (Misztal 2003:74), cinema as a “culturemaking narrative” is indeed a privileged and delicate one. “There [is] a whole tradition of struggles which were transmitted orally, or in writing or in songs,” (Pearson 1999:179) and which nowadays are preserved through film. What was once assigned to “poets and painters”, has now been transferred to filmmakers, bloggers and journalists. This “obsession with memory” is reflected in projects regarding the preservation of memory, in increasingly complex ways from a technological standpoint, often including clips of oral testimonies and video interviews (one of the major memory projects is the Shoah, about the Jewish community during the Holocaust). It is possible to depict the increasingly “authoritative role of films which try to tell us how it really was”, (Huyssen, 1995) when it comes to recreating memory and history.


“(...) We witness a process of denationalization of memory as well as trends towards the fragmentation and democratization of memory. As previously marginalized groups have access to resources and to the public space to cultivate and express their memories, they undermine in turn, the authoritative memory of the dominant culture.” (Misztal, 2003:47) Dominant culture was, and still is, the main “producer” of collective memory, though currently not to the same degree as in the past. New media, especially film, make the democratization of memory become real. This is possible because, among other reasons, film has itself experienced the same process. Nowadays, filmmaking equipment is more affordable than ever, as are the means for its distribution, allowing for access to a viewership that is larger and more varied than was ever possible. This is achieved not only through legitimate means of online and

retail distribution or sales, but also resorting to illegal internet piracy and black market distribution. Moreover, the creative process itself is at times an assimilation of themes and narratives present in western, mainly Hollywood, films.5 Therefore, the ability to make video-films, now possible with lower budgets, as a means of bringing marginalized issues, and peoples (and even nations) to a visible position is certainly a crucial step in the democratization of memory, which precedes its further politicization by the different cultural communities at stake. This allows for minorities (Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, etc) and marginalized social elements within the Hindu community (women, lower caste, etc) to have an opportunity to establish their own memories through film. Although progressive democratization of memory and film is an ongoing process, India’s dominant discourse through politics employs other means to exert control over film’ contents.


All media within India is supervised by two regulatory institutions: the Films Division and the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). Created by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the Films Division is meant to facilitate “the production and distribution of newsreels and short films required by the Government of India for public information, education, motivation, and for instructional and cultural purposes.”6 This provides the Indian government with a monopoly over the financing, production, and distribution of films. At the same time, the very structure of Films Division allows for politicians to influence output in order to make propaganda that suits their agendas. The other ruling body, the CBFC was created as a means to “(...) reviewing, rating, and certifying all films, television programming, advertisements, and promotional material that appear 5

cf. Supermen of Malegaon, available at 6

Pendakur, Manjunath, (1995) Cinema of Resistance: Recent Trends in Indian Documentary Film, Documentary box 7 cited in Fischer, John (2009)

in cinemas and on televisions in India.”7 CBFC has the authority to ban films outright, or refuse to issue censor certificates to certain films unless specific alterations or cuts are made. Without “censor certification” films cannot be screened in Indian theaters. Thus, films wanting to be officially screened have to be state-produced or state-approved. If in the entire country, censorship is controlled by “(...) a small number of people who are loyal to empowered politicians, it is therefore easy for the State to maintain its stranglehold over public discourse.” (Fischer, 2009:48) Consequentially, the government’s control over the educational and media system results in a “collective memory [which] is fragmented, full of black holes, dominated by ideological values and used to produce legitimacy for the ruling élite.” (Misztal, 2003:20) At the top of the list of censored films are documentaries, which, as a genre, usually question the existing political and religious hegemony, messages that the Indian government prefers to keep silent. Within India, independent political documentaries offer an alternative perspective to the “typically jingoistic projects” which are state-produced; “instead of exotic people, hungry and tortured humans came up as protagonists; instead of ritualistic song and dance, minority peoples from the lands beyond central India voiced their anger, fear and frustration common to minorities in any totalitarian country; instead of the plastic gloss of national pride, the basic formation of the modern State were questioned.”8 Cinema in India is an industry with inexorable ties to the government, and this promiscuity is easily identifiable - faces from Bollywood films are frequently part of political parties, especially the Bharatiya Janata Party (Hindu radical party), and the Congress Party (pro-secular party). Another issue regarding this democratization of film, that of viewership, comes across as a double-edged sword. On the one hand we have a more escapist cinema, Bollywood-like and stateapproved, and on the other hand a more realistic form of filmmaking, featuring social and political

7 8

Kumar, Keval J., (2000) Mass Comunication in India, Mumbai:Jaico Pub. House, pp.168-170 cited in Fischer,John (2009)

Dutta, Madhusree, In Defense of Political Documentary, Himal Southasian 20 (October-Novemeber 2007) cited in Fischer,John (2009)

themes, frequently censored by the government. Most of the Indian population lives in precarious conditions, dealing with communal, caste and gender turmoil on a daily basis. Therefore, the question of what people want to see on a film is extremely important. As the legendary Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan put it: “Why should somebody pay to see a film with poverty in it when there is poverty in their neighborhood every day? People don't wish to be reminded where they live.”9

Conclusion Contemporary collective memory is a peremptory subject today, not only in India but around the world, deepening the outcome of multiple competing discourses. It is called upon in order to shed some light on political and social cultures. The dilemmas regarding what and how we should remember, with a view to ensuring a better and more plural society, were introduced through collective memory, under the belief that “(...) today’s human rights language, the politics of identity and the spread of democracy facilitate the forging of a new connection between memory and justice.” (Misztal 2003:145) Memory is a way to address some of the most pressing concerns of modern societies, with India being a prime example, with its global, ethnically and culturally pluralistic society. “Hence, solving tensions between multiple memories is an essential concern. Efforts to enhance mutual trust by fostering reflective memory in all communities are therefore the crucial element for a democratic pedagogy.” (2003:156) The role of memory is to deal with past injustices without compromising society’s hypothetical cohesion. Remembering past behaviors sharpens our moral standards, though

Buncombe, Andrew, 2010, Indian cinema reveals a dark side, available at news/indian-cinema-reveals-a-dark-side-2026767.html 9

there is a delicate balance to be struck in the way we put memory, since its “sacralization is another way to render it sterile.”10 Within the context of the democratization of memory, film is undoubtedly one of the means through which this process is most apparent, not only in the ease with which it exposes audiences to different world views and perspectives, presenting alternative notions of “self” and “other”, but also in its ability to reach a large number of people across the cultural and geographical divides. And if we consider memory to be an agent of change, film emerges as a determinant factor.11 Ultimately, even if film doesn’t in itself possess the power to directly affect change, it will always be effective as a means of documentation for future memories: “for memory’s sake.” (Laramee 2009:157)

I am what I remember. John Locke


Todorov, T. (1996) The abuse of Memory, Common Knowledge 6(22): 6-26 in Misztal (2003)




- Halbwachs, Maurice, (1992 [1926]) On Collective Memory, London, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press - Hutton, P (1998) Collective Memory and Collective Mentalities, Historical Reflections, 15(2): 311-22 - Huyssen, A. (1995) Twilight Memories, London Routledge - Laramee, M. (2009) Hailing and Haggling with Third Cinema: Hybridity and the Deconstruction of Cultural Boundaries in Bye Bye Africa (8), in Re-thinking Third Cinema the role of anti-colonial media and aesthetics in postmodernity, Ekotto, Frieda; Koh, Adeline, (eds) pp. 147-172, Berlin: Transaction Publishers - Mahmod, Cynthia Keppley, (1993), Rethinking Indian Communalism. Culture and Counter-Culture, Asian Survey, 33 (7) - McQuire, Scott, (1998) Visions of modernity: representation, memory, time and space in the age of the camera, London: Sage - Mistzal, Barbara A., (2003) Theories of Social Remembering, Philadelphia: Open University Press - Murphy, David, (2001) Sembene: Imagining alternatives in film and fiction, Africa World Press: Oxford - Pearson, R. (1999) Custer loses again: the contestation over commodified public memory, in D. Ben-Amos and D. Weissberg (eds) Cultural Memory and the Construction of Identity, pp.176-201. Detroit, Mi: Wayne Street University Press - Schudson, M. (1995) Distortion in collective memory, D.L. Schacter (ed.) Memory Distortion. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Films - Good Copy Bad Copy, (2009) by Andreas Johnsen, Ralf Christensen, and Henrik Moltke available at http:// - Rang de Basanti, (2006) by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra

Internet - Fischer, John, (2009) Opression2, Indian Independent Political Documentaries and the Ongoing Struggle for Viewership available at -Godard, Jean-Luc, (1995), Press Conference at Montreal Film Festival, available at - Hamilton, Anne, (2008), Constructing Memory through Film:Comparing Political Culture in Spain, Russia, and Argentina, available at pages83945/p83945-10.php - Kumar, Priya Haryant., Ruptured nations, collective memory & religious violence : mapping a secularist ethics in post-partition South Asian literature and film available at

Film and Collective Memory: Contemporary India Struggle for Cultural Memory  

How film can reshape the collective memory of Indian people

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