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April 1, 2021

A Conversation with Cinema & Media Studies Professor Priya Jaikumar

Her book Where Histories Reside: India as Filmed Space receives international recognition

By Sofia Rios-Dominguez

With Where Histories Reside: India as Filmed Space, Cinema & Media Studies professor Priya Jaikumar explores the impact of films shot on location in India and how they inform and shape perceptions of a particular space over time. First released in the United States in late 2019, the book has also been published in India and won the USC Phi Kappa Phi Faculty Recognition award. It was awarded the Best Monograph 2019-2020 by the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Scholars (BAFTSS).

Jaikumar is a historian and theorist and her work is mostly focused on colonial and postcolonial history, and the geopolitics of film, which inform Where Histories Reside. She is also the author of Cinema at the End of Empire: A Politics of Transition in Britain and India (Duke University Press, 2006).

What is Where Histories Reside about?

At the most immediate level, I look at films shot on location in India. The book is about a range of films from Britain, the US, Europe and India, shot in India and constructing a sense of the country and its people. I use these films to reflect back on their own frameworks of knowledge, production and vision. So, on the one hand, I’m thinking about location shooting from the 1930s to the 2010s in India to offer a broad history of different kinds of films, screened in theaters, classrooms and state-sponsored venues. In a broader sense, I’m thinking about what happens to our ability to think historically when we focus on spatial politics, spatial memory and spatial justice. That's why the book is called Where Histories Reside. It looks at the histories of various filmed locations and, simultaneously, asks us to think about our own location. What is the place from which you speak and produce your ideas and histories of others?

And what was your process for writing it?

The glimmers of this project began in 2010. I would look at images of shattered architecture and destroyed cities in Iraq and Afghanistan in the New York Times, with the U.S. war. I thought about what it meant to be looking at these images and hearing of these cities for the first time in the context of insurgency and counter-insurgency. I started thinking about the global circulation of these images and the US media’s fleeting familiarity with these cities, even as the people living in those areas were being uprooted, endangered and killed. Susan Sontag calls it “proximity without risk.” My aim was to disrupt the complacency of that perspective by considering the images from the point of view of local histories and lives. I wrote an article on the global circulation of photographs and films on the Indian Rebellion of 1857, against the British East India Company. I realized my broader interest was really in spatial politics and the connection between geopolitics and images. What do such images mean to the people consuming them versus those being visualized? How do I write a history of place-images that reflects a splintered sense of time and meaning?

In your personal research, why did you decide on film as a medium for pursuing history and media theory?

I was a literature major as an undergraduate student. When I took film history classes, I fell in love with the medium. I felt that it brought together everything that fascinated me. The literature-lover side of me is still present. There is fiction and invention even when you're looking at documentary images, but films are more capital-intensive than the literary texts. Studying films immediately takes us to questions of economics and politics, which interest me. The history of cinema and media technologies are intertwined with the history of modernity, with the high tide of European colonialism, and with the globalization of our present times, so films gave me an opportunity to think about these correlations. Also the truth is, I'm just happiest when I'm watching a film.

How are these interests reflected in the classes you’ve been teaching recently?

One example is the class I taught in Spring 2020, CTCS 677, Space Modernity, Energy. It was for advanced PhD students. When I was formulating my ideas for the book, I read widely on questions of place and space in relation to media. I wanted to guide my students through that material, and also extend it. With its roots in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, cinema has always been part of an era when geographical space was transformed by new modes of governance, transportation, mobility, resource, and energy extraction. Using the terms “modernity” and “energy” as guides, we worked our way through some foundational and emergent writings in spatial theory related to cinema and motion, electricity, travel, migrancy, dispossession, and urbanism.

What’s your approach to teaching something as broad as your undergraduate introductory course to World Cinema which you taught in Fall 2020?

It’s an incredibly broad subject, so I start by saying that we have to accept our inevitable shortcomings. Like I said with my book, if we’re conscious of where we are coming from, that gives us a certain self-awareness of our framework and limitations, holding it up for critical analysis. How do you condense the world and its cinemas in one term or ever, really? Despite that, I feel that we should be completely ambitious and try to do as much as possible while realizing that any totalizing vision is impossible and maybe even dangerous. It is too levelling of differences.

One way of being self-reflexive about our limitations is to examine how the films we view and study come to us. I start the World Cinema class by looking at the history of subtitles and at the entry of the so-called “foreign” films into the Oscars. I’m making the scare quotes here, because defining foreign and international is a sticking point. Foreign is wherever you are not placed. It is relative. We also grapple with the socio-political history and aesthetic traditions of different films and geographical regions.  It is really an opportunity for me, and my students, to step out of dominant, Euro-American-centric histories and see the world from diverse points of view, experiences, lives, and forms. It is an incredible immersion in creative responses to domestic and world events from the twentieth century onward, from African and Asian nations, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, South America and more. Cinema students may not get this exposure from other survey classes, so I think it is a crucial course.

What do you hope your students will get out of your classes?

I just want them to leave excited, curious and thirsty to learn more. I feel like in the best classes I took, I had a hundred ideas popping in my head when I walked out of the room. I want my students to go out wanting to watch a more diverse range of films and media, think of media critically, and pursue their own readings. I want them to step out of their comfort zones. Through my classes, I want to give them ways to think and engage with each other and with ideas. Academic freedom is currently under threat with increasingly authoritarian regimes in many places, such as India, Hungary and Hong Kong. The corporatization of universities in countries such the U.S., Australia and the UK stifles research. I see how precious it is, and how threating to those who want to control the cultural and political discourse, to be able to create classroom spaces where we can treat ideas in an egalitarian way. Where we can test them to see what works and what doesn't work. Where we can interrogate everything.

Thinking alongside creative and potentially propagandistic forms of cinema opens up a range of periods, emotions, people, discussions, and debates for analysis. For nuanced analysis. So I suppose that's what I finally want?a non-reductive approach to the world as we find it, with a grounding in the writings and creative works of those who have reflected on the world over time, and today.

How does it feel to have the book be appreciated internationally, first with the India publication and now with the recognition from the BAFTSS?

Writing academic books can be a long and lonely process, with years of research. I am just grateful to get an opportunity to create some dialogue around ideas that interest me, with other scholars, readers and filmmakers. To be invited to give talks, to listen to others, and to enable some conversation is always very enriching. I write about India and the UK in this book, as with my first book. So I’m very happy to have a readership that wants to engage with the book in those countries.