Minorities in the mainstream,

in cinema

Recently, I was asked to design a course on cinema by a friend who works in a fancy private university. Sadly, I won’t be invited to teach the course, because I don’t have a Ph.D. from a foreign university, clear and simple, never mind that I have all the qualifications to be a university teacher — I cleared those bloody exams and wrote those bloody dissertations.

Anyhow, I was kicked about suggesting movies on the themes of minority identity that I have seen and admired. It was a rare opportunity. I hardly get an opportunity to recommend movies (mostly because, for some time now, I have stopped discussing movies in public, since everyone is doing it.)

So I selected 50 movies I had in my collection and gave the list to my friend. He said this was not enough. He needed to get the course approved by his bosses and for that, he needed a concrete proposal, on the goals and relevance of the subject.

So, after much ado, I wrote a course proposal. The following is a short version.

 Cinema as a mainstream medium

Cinema as a medium of communication can be seen at different levels, serving different purposes. It can be an art form, an entertainment, a social document or a social critique. It can be all of these and at the same time, be a means to something else – a mirror unto our lives.

As a mainstream medium (cinema needs money to be produced. Therefore, it must appeal to the mainstream audience, who will pay at the box office), cinema must, first and foremost, appeal to the mainstream audience. The definition of mainstream varies from society to society, from culture to culture. Broadly, it means representing the prevalent attitudes, values, and practices of a society or group. A cultural construct, when applied to art, mainstream may mean something that is available to the general public, or something that has ties to corporate or commercial entities.

As structuralism teaches us, an idea or a movement cannot be understood fully without taking into account its binary opposite. Again, post-structuralism tells us that when we talk about structures and binaries, there are no fixed centres. The centres are fluid and binaries can be interchanged.

In this context, to understand the mainstream cinema, we have to understand where and how it places the minority identities. The mainstream cannot exist without the minority since it is the minority that accentuates the mainstream. At the same time, it cannot highlight it as well.

A minority is a sociological group that does not constitute a politically dominant voting majority of the total population of a given society. A sociological minority is not necessarily a numerical minority — it may include any group that is subnormal with respect to a dominant group in terms of social status, education, employment, wealth and political power.

Dominant minority groups may include the following:

Racial or ethnic minorities: They may be migrant, indigenous or landless nomadic communities.

Gender and sexual minorities: An understanding of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as a minority group or groups has gained prominence in the Western world since the 19th century. The acronym LGBTQIA is currently used to group these identities together. Besides, while in most societies, numbers of men and women are roughly equal, the status of women as a ‘subordinate’ group has led some to equate them with minorities.

Religious minorities: Persons with a faith which is different to that held by the majority.

Age minorities: This includes the elderly, and children.

Disabled minorities: The disability rights movement has contributed to an understanding of disabled people as a minority or a coalition of minorities who are disadvantaged by society, not just as people who are disadvantaged by their impairments.

 The course in question

The question of minority identity comes to the fore when a minority group comes together to demand its rights in civil society, the rights which the mainstream enjoys. The dynamics is that the mainstream always dominates the minority, suppresses the minority voice and at best try to reclaim the minority within the mainstream fold.

This course, 'Cinema and Minority Identity' proposes to discuss in detail how the minority identities are depicted in mainstream cinema, Bollywood, Hollywood, as well as select cinema from around the world. The course proposes to select films related to a particular minority identity and read/ view it in the context of the identity politics. The course proposes to discuss films of three distinct flavours:

  1. Films with a ‘negative’ portrayal of the minority identity
  2. Films with a positive portrayal of the minority identity, yet seen from a mainstream point of view
  3. Films from the margin, created by the minorities themselves.

While seeing the films as texts, the course will discuss the following issues:

  1. Representation of minorities in a mainstream narrative, its need, and purpose.
  2. Limitations and possibilities of representing a minority issue in mainstream narrative
  3. What happens when a minority identity decides to take the centre stage and decides to tell its own tale?

The bone of contention here is this: Films as a popular medium propose to represent a homogeneous world, where the dominant taste is the mainstream. Yet, minority identities and minority characters exist in films, even on the sidelines. The question is what they do to the narrative in hand? How do they represent the reality outside the imagined world of the cinema? How does the mainstream appropriate these minority voices?

(Example: In ‘formula’ Hindi films, the hero is pitted against the villain. The amount of evil the villain exudes corresponds to the goodness of the hero. The moral degradation of the vamp highlights the purity of the heroine.)

 The films

 Module One: Racial and ethnic minorities

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974, Germany, Dir RW Fassbinder): An old German cleaning woman falls in love and marries a young Arab immigrant despite opposition from all quarters.

Sin Nombre (2009, US/Mexico, Dir Cary Fukunaga): A girl from Honduras travels on a freight train for the promised land on American shores.

Dances with Wolves (1990, US, Dir Kevin Costner): A soldier tries to find life among the wondering American Indians days before the reservation.

The Mission (1986, UK, Dir Roland Joffe): A group of Jesuit priests opens a mission in the remote Amazon forests, and lay their lives fighting against slave traders.

Aranyer Din Ratri (1970, India, Dir Satyajit Ray) A group of Kolkata intellectuals travels to the forest among the Adivasis for a picnic.

Schindler’s List (1993, US, Dir Steven Spielberg): A German national does all he can to save his Jewish employees during the Holocaust.

Do the Right Thing (1989, US, Spike Lee): A day in an American suburb and the clash between the black and the white.

Dr Babsaheb Ambedkar (2000, India, Dir Jabbar Patel): The biopic of the champion of the Dalits.

Nowhere in Africa (1989, Germany, Dir Caroline Link): A German-Jewish family travels to Kenya to survive Holocaust.

Trikal (1976, India, Dir Shyam Bengal): The fortunes of a Portuguese family at the time of Goa’s independence.

Medea (Italy, Dir Pier Paolo Pasolini): The Greek tragedy of Jason and Medea gets an ethnographic, feminist makeover.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssssss Song (the US, Dir Melvin Van Peebles): A black drifter kills a white man and goes on the run.

 Module Two: Gender and sexual minority

Volver (2006, Spain, Dir Pedro Almodovar): A woman buries her husband and confronts her past

Bent (1997, UK, Dir Sean Mathias): A young man in concentration camp learns the importance of identity politics.

Law of Desire (1987, Spain, Dir Pedro Almodovar): A film director gets embroils in a possessive relationship, as he tries to deal with his transsexual brother/sister)

Umbartha (1982, India, Dir Jabbar Patel) A woman from a middle-class household decides to go working at the risk of losing her marriage.

The Crying Game (1992, UK/Ireland, Dir Neil Jordan): An IRA foot soldier becomes obsessed with the girlfriend of one of his victims to discover that she’s not a girl.

Maati Mai (2005, India, Dir Chitra Palekar): The story of a woman gravedigger in rural Maharashtra.

Sita Sings the Blues (2008, US, Dir Nina Paley): The Ramayana from the point of view of Sita, and of a western woman, told with the help of Jazz.

Heaven on Earth (2009, India/Canada, Dir Deepa Mehta) Girish Karnad’s play Nagamandala gets a modern makeover in Canada.

Tamanna (India, Dir Mahesh Bhat): A eunuch adopts a girl child.

 Module Three: Religious minority

Jait Re Jait (1977, India, Dir Jabbar Patel): The ethnographic tale of the Thakur tribe of Maharashtra.

(2010, France, Dir Xavier Beauvois): A group of Christian priests tries to survive in Islamic Morocco in the time of the revolution.

Diksha (1991, India, Dir Arun Kaul): A Brahmin boy and an untouchable forms an unlikely friendship.

The Valley of the Bees (1968, Czech Republic, Dir Frantisek Vlácil): The dark sides of religious fanaticism in an isolated monastery.

Module Four: Age Minorities

Umberto D. (1952, Italy, Dir Vittorio De Sica) A retired old man journeys to find the meaning of life.

Chop Shop (2007, US, Dir Ramin Bahrani): An orphan who lives in a junkyard dream of owning an ice-cream parlour.

Mysterious Skin (2004, US, Dir Gregg Araki) Two victims of child abuse take two very different ways to channelise their traumas.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Spain, Dir Guillermo Del Toro): The line between fact and fiction blurs for a young girl in the last days of Franco’s Spain.

Spirit of the Beehives (1973, Spain, Dir Víctor Erice) A young girl is haunted by the Frankenstein’s monster.

 Module Five: Disabled Minority

My Left Foot (1989, UK, Dir Jim Sheridan): A man suffering from cerebral palsy learns to paint.

Iqbal (2005, India, Dir Nagesh Kukunoor) A mute, Muslim boy fulfills his dream of being a cricketer.

The Man without a Past (2002, Finland, Dir Aki Kaurismäki): A man is beaten up and cannot remember who he was.

 Module Six: Economic Minority

The Bicycle Thieves (1948, Italy, Dir Vittorio De Sica): A man tries to make the ends meet in post-war Italy.

Ankur (1974, India, Dir Shyam Benegal): A young man becomes obsessed with the young wife of his disabled retainer.

Scarface (1983, US, Dir Brian De Palma): A Cuban immigrant will do anything to become rich.

Crocodile (1996, Korea, Dir Kim Ki-Duk): A homeless man earns his living by stealing from people who kill themselves by jumping off the bridge.

Secondary Texts/Films

Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985, US/Argentina, Dir Hector Babenco): A revolutionary and a paedophile share a cell and ideas.

Planet of the Apes (1968, US, Dir Franklin J Schaffner): A dystopia where apes have evolved and rule the human race.

Proteus (2003, South Africa/ Canada, Dir John Greyson): Two convicts in colonial South Africa find love and don’t know what to do with it.

The Ghost & the Darkness (1996, US, Dir Stephen Hopkins): Colonial Africa, white hunter, black servants and Indian railroad workers.

Louis Malle’s Journey to India (1972): The French filmmaker travels the country with a camera.

Strawberry and Chocolate (1994, Cuba, Dir by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Juan Carlos Tabío): Two men, one gay and one straight, form an unlikely friendship in communist Cuba.

A Prophet (2009, France, Dir Jacques Audiard) A young Arab learns about life and crime in prison.

The King and the Clown (South Korea): A tyrant king falls for a woman impersonator of a circus troupe.

Bad Education (Spain, Dir Pedro Almodovar): The consequence of a priest’s behaviour towards two young boys, and how it destroyed several lives.

The Gospel According to St Mathews (Italy, Dir Pier Paolo Pasolini): The story of Jesus Christ told from a Marxist point of view.

The Exterminating Angel (Mexico, Dir Luis Bunuel): Guests of a party cannot leave the house for some inexplicable reasons.

Stalker (Russia, Dir Andrei Tarkovsky): Three men discover the meaning of faith.

The Diving Bell & the Butterfly (2008, France): A paralyzed man uses just his eyes to write a book.

Okay, now the 100-rupee question: Why am I making this public? Simple. The course did not take off. So I figured I will make the list public. Perhaps, someone reading this will pick on the ideas and do something with it. Please feel free.