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June 8, 2016

SCA Alumni Stories: Veena Hariharan

By Eileen Kwon

Having earned an M.A. and a PhD in Cinema and Media Studies at SCA, Veena Hariharan ’11 displays passion in both her academic and creative works as a tenured professor at the School of Arts & Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. In a recent interview, Hariharan discusses the great value of the critical analyses and academic pursuits of media and cinema in the context of Indian culture and society.

How has your understanding of the relevance of Cinema and Media Studies evolved during your time as a student and professor? As a student my first response to the analytical study of cinema and media was one of naive excitement—that you could study the thing you loved and even get a PhD in it! Today as a professor I try to communicate some of that excitement for the movies by always encouraging students to retain the pleasure of the film text while analyzing it. The study of cinema and media as cultural texts is especially relevant in the Indian context where they are so central to the popular democratic imagination. In the contemporary scenario of a slow but sure cultural takeover by an increasingly intolerant right wing government and the remittances against it, the stakes of the study are now ever higher.

How did you come to pursue a career as a professor in the School of Arts & Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University? Could you share with us your journey as a professor thus far? Immediately after my graduation from USC, I had to choose between a postdoctoral opportunity at a U.S. university and a tenured job at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. At the time the decision was a pragmatic one. Today in hindsight, it seems I was merely following my heart to relocate to my home in India and participate in its intellectual life. Having said that, it has been a long process of learning and unlearning to alter one’s pedagogy to suit a different global context, one that is endlessly challenging but hugely rewarding at the same time.

In the context of transnational cinema, how would you describe the growth of the Art Cinema market? Art Cinema in India, like in many other countries, has been a darling of the international film festival circuit. If the film festival was niche, limited to select filmmakers and audience who sought them out, today’s transnational circuits have made these flows more ubiquitous, influencing a large number of filmmakers, audiences and Web 2.0 users, creating a popular taste as well as market for Art Cinema in India. Further, the success of popular Indian filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap in festival circuits such as Cannes have blurred the boundaries between the art and popular in India. In such a context, the category of Art Cinema is itself open to renegotiation in interesting new ways.

How has Art Cinema and Documentary become integrated into the cultural climate in India? Art Cinema and Documentary have always been part of a certain public discourse of aesthetics and politics in India. However, they remained confined to rarefied spaces of festivals and other niche venues or activist and human rights networks. Today there’s a bigger reach for both and a more ubiquitous percolation of the two into the popular public sphere. This has also forced a re-imagination blurring the boundaries between categories such as Art Cinema and Documentary and mainstream cinema and media.

If you could go back in time and speak to your 20-something year old self, what would you tell her? I would tell her to follow her dreams, to travel the world and find her place in it, even if it means moving away from comfort zones and conventional expectations. I would tell her that it’s completely all right to sometimes lose her way and find new paths and maybe even discover new dreams.

Can you share with us what personal projects you are working on? Currently I am involved in a few projects, all in various stages of completion. I am working on my book on the documentary, focusing on home movies, amateur footage and the first person documentary in India. Apart from that, I am involved in an ongoing project on the art documentary, studying the contemporary phenomenon of the documentary as an object that has now moved into the rarefied spaces of art galleries and transnational art circuits, transforming both art and documentary. I have also been working on a few projects on Eco Cinema in the Indian context, tracing the links between cinema and the precarious ecologies of the times we live in. I am also researching and interviewing for a new project on labor relations in the regional movie industry of Kerala in southern India.