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About Edit Room

Edit Room is the blog for the editors of the Wide Screen journal. Edit Room is a continuation of the Subaltern Cinema blog[i]. Edit Room purveys the field of cinema and TV with a critical eye and comments and reports on films, companies, events, policies, people, technology. Stay tuned! The blog contributors are:


Gopalan Ravindran is a Professor in the Department of Mass Media and Communication, University of Madras, Chepauk Campus, Chennai 600005 India

Kishore Budha has recently finished his PhD from the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK

Kuhu Tanvir is a journalist with NDTVmovies.com, an Indian television news and entertainment company

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[i] From Subaltern Cinema

We have met with curious inquiries about the usage of the term “Subaltern”. A clarification is in order. (Note: We do not take a particular approach or theory… neither are we restricted by scope… what is outlined here are mere starting points, which are open to debate)

The term subaltern in academia is usually associated with post-colonial theory, with reference to marginalised groups and the lower classes; Gayatri Chakravorty’s seminal essay 1988 “Can the Subaltern Speak?” described the term with reference to the stripping of individual agency due to their social status.

The application of the term Subaltern to Cinema can be traced to our early discussions about Indian cinema, which threw up two issues:

  1. The lack of legitimacy of popular Indian film form in film theory or indeed film discourse.
  2. Conversely, the ascendancy of Indian popular cinema has led to a valorisation of the popular expression in the Academic and public sphere.

This is of particular interest as it informs us of the processes of (inclusion into) film theory. It is this process that legitimises the popular Indian cinema as being the true representation of Indian (and indeed South Asian) imagination and aspirations with problematic consequences. While the academic discourse shut the Indian film out of any analysis (for its implicit state of not-yetness when compared to western-style realism) the popular discourse admonishes the “alternative” cinema for its inability to replicate the success of the popular film both at home and abroad. Indeed as Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has argued, Western interviewers and critics all to easily subject the subaltern filmmaker to questions based on Western pre(assumptions) (Women Film Directors, Greenwood Press, Page 37).

Sumit Sarkar, pointed at this problem when he argued that the “mainstream secular” shares some of the characteristics of the nationalists who prioritize national unity of internal divisions. As he argued:

Research increasingly indicates that not everything in colonial South Asian history can or should be reduced to a single interpretative frame. Such an assumption occludes or distorts many largely autonomous narratives by imposing on them a single evaluative criterion of ‘contribution’, or otherwise, to anti-colonial endeavour or cultural authenticity (read here).

Subaltern Cinema borrows from these concerns to understand the discourse that wields power to legitimise and “other” cultural expression. For example the popular Indian, Chinese, and Korean films (which increasingly resemble the western film form) are being promoted as the standard to aspire for. Thus, the “other” is understood through the lens provided by the economic muscle of those who are in a position to buy the cultural products (for example, the west through a repeated act of “purchase” of the fantasy martial arts film defines what China is). In the process, cinematic diversity is given a go by. This raises many issues:

  1. can the “other” popular film enter the classical film studies paradigm, or is its significance limited to post-colonial/cultural theories?
  2. if yes, what will be the cost for entry into film theory or even global film discourse?
  3. however, this hides the larger questions of power. Is this model of the dominant vs marginalised narrative valid in the current and emerging changes brought about by technology?

Meanwhile… Poly-centric cinema

The term Subaltern is used to raise awareness of this irony and problematic of the center and periphery, the superior and the inferior. Susan Haywards (398:2000) referred to the “Third World Cinema” as the “Subaltern” against Hollywood:

The first paradox to emerge in relation to Third World Cinema is that if we were to take all these cinemas as a whole (as we do with Europe in our definition of it as Second cinema), then it is this cinema that makes up most of cinema (in terms of output and audiences). Yet, this cinema is treated as if it were the subaltern, the shadow cinema of the ‘real’ cinema of North America and Europe. Furthermore, the Western world has a very poor idea of what this Third World Cinema is and seems far from curious to import it and find out. Even the act of talking of this cinema as one entity (a unified whole) is part of the problem. (Cinema Studies: Key Concepts, 2000, Routledge)

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster finds similarities between Subaltern Cinema and Subaltern Studies:

“Subaltern Cinema is not unlike the Subaltern Studies collective, which Spivak locates as oppositionally involved in bringing hegemonic historiography to crisis.” (Women Film Directors, Greenwood Press, Page 35)

In the context of the position of Hollywood (as one of the poles) and the discourse surrounding the ascendancy of “Bollywood”, “Korean New Wave”, “Chinese Cinema” , we invariably fall into the trap of a polar view of cinema. However, the changes in technology, which are redefining production, distribution, and consumption allows us to re-examine existing hegemonies and reconceptualise cinema as a poly-centric phenomenon. The poly-centrism should not be viewed as a given but merely as a possibility, which will allow us to critique cinema. Thus, we have now expanded the scope of our discussions to include other cinemas from around the world.