In Locating World Cinema, M.K. Raghavendra opts for an interpretation of world film texts that pays specific attention to the context of articulation and eschews a “universalist” theory-down approach; this implies the overarching importance of the “local” meaning, which he demonstrates in the individual chapters. The author does not state explicitly why he chooses the particular auteurs he studies, although there is an indication in the introduction, where he notes that one of the challenges of studying world film “is the depth of understanding of the local culture that is considered essential in order to interpret a film convincingly.”1
In Chapter 1, Raghavendra explores the world of film festivals and their trajectory. He assesses the situation today by critiquing a set of prize-winning films, which while catering to the demands of festivals and trying to address a global audience directly instead of local audiences in their own countries, find themselves impoverished in richer local elements. Chapter 2 explores the pre and the post war cinema of Kenji Mizoguchi, contextualizing the director’s films in the two eras and, at the same time marking out his cinema’s peculiarities, associating the differences with the effects of the war. The cultural convictions inherent in the earlier films give way to an understanding of the instability of the precepts the director once held dear.
In Chapter 3, Raghavendra deals with one of the more difficult filmmakers in world cinema, Jacques Rivette. Raghavendra reads Rivette’s cinema in an ingenious way—as the relationship between the world and the narratives we construct to come to terms with it. Raghavendra reads Celine and Julie go Boating (1974) as a meditation on the act of reading a story or watching a film, gradually making meaning out of the sensory stimuli provided. Chapter 4 yields insights into the respective cultures where directors Martin Scorsese, Eric Rohmer, and Abbas Kiarostami worked, which influenced their narrative approaches towards the portrayal of heterosexual relationships. Scorsese privileges the individual-as-type while dealing with Travis and Betsy in Taxi Driver (1976); Rohmer’s approach depends on the French notion of the citizen; Kiarostami smudges the dividing line between his characters and actors, implying their interchangeability and downplaying the individual.
In Chapter 5, Raghavendra discusses Robert Bresson’s narrative strategies. Bresson famously used hands and feet instead of faces and “models” instead of actors, allowing them to “be” rather than “enact.” This is Raghavendra’s elaboration on the strategy, which draws on a Jorge Luis Borges parable: “…the countenance is an index of individual identity while hands and feet are not…It would perhaps be more appropriate to attend to hands and feet, which not only cannot be associated with individual identity but are also less self-conscious.”2 He also makes connections within Robert Bresson’s cinema between the black and white and color films.
Chapter 6 is about the Indian and Pakistani “B” horror film in which Raghavendra points out the crucial difference between the two cinemas: horror films are enjoyed by a pre-modern public in India and devoured by the educated elite in Pakistan. He makes the case that horror films are transgressive in nature since they work against the professed ideology of the nation-state; in Pakistan they can even be read as un-Islamic.
Chapter 7 on Soviet/Russian cinema is exhaustive and Raghavendra traces its trajectory from Vsevolod Pudovkin to Alexander Sokurov. Soviet realism and montage were contrasted unfavorably by André Bazin with the kind of realism in which mise-en-scène (rather than montage) is the operating principle, but, Raghavendra demonstrates that the films of the early Soviet directors have a sense of movement as orchestrated music that was unmatched, by comparing Pudovkin to D.W. Griffith. Soviet cinema is not known to the world at large due to the isolationism of the Brezhnev era. Here the way cinema transformed is associated with state policy, especially with regard to censorship. The chapter includes analyses of films by Andrei Tarkovsky, Kira Muratova, and Aleksei Balabanov to show change, going right up to the first decade of the new millennium.
Chapter 8, also on Russian cinema, deals with the director Aleksei German, who is only now beginning to receive the attention of the West through his last film Hard to be a God (2013). Raghavendra uses Mikhail Bakhtin’s literary notions of polyphony and the carnivalesque to explain the films. He argues that German’s Khrustalyov, My Car (1998) uses personal memory as a way of questioning Stalinist historicism: the film is set in the year of Stalin’s death, examining it through memory, like Fellini’s Amarcord (1973) but politically.
Chapter 9 deals with the themes of Zhang Yimou’s films in a neatly organized fashion. Raghavendra discusses Chinese cinema before, during, and after Mao, offering us a sense of its history in relation to the actions of the state. Zhang is usually taken to be a critic of patriarchy (Raise the Red Lantern, 1991) but Raghavendra takes the opposite view, that the filmmaker values social order most of all and shows feminine sexuality as threatening it. In a sub-chapter entitled “The empire strikes back” he argues that, to Zhang, the People’s Republic of China is actually a continuation of the Empire, with kinship between Imperial-dictate and that of the Party. This chapter reads like a cheeky historical account of communism in China through film, since Zhang had the unofficial position of a poet-laureate.
Given the range of his explorations the author comes across as someone who is passionate about cinema but is open about his likes and dislikes. The writing style is lucid, the ideas expressed in the book are complex and demand attention, but the engaging descriptions of films will interest even those who have not seen them. The chapters are long and deal with a large number of concepts: textual analysis in the case of individual directors and histories of their particular cultures. There is always a coda at the end of every chapter that succinctly sums up the key points. This book, which constantly makes connections between cinema and literature as well as various other cultural signposts should prove to be an invaluable addition to the literature on world cinema for film students and general readers alike.
Devapriya Sanyal has a PhD in Literature from JNU and is the author of Through the Eyes of a Cinematographer: The Biography of Soumendu Roy (Harper Collins, 2017).