By Sara Patterson
Originally starting her career as a South Asian historian of gender, Prof. Rochona Majumdar has expanded her research to encompass Indian cinema. She recently received the 2023 Chidananda Dasgupta Award for Best Writing on Cinema for her book, Art Cinema and India’s Forgotten Futures: Film and History in the Postcolony (2021).
In the Award’s citation from the Chidananda Dasgupta Memorial Trust, Majumdar’s book is recognized for not only its discussion of film practice and film societies in Bengal, but for its intriguing questions about how art cinema offered new insights into postcolonial Indian culture, history, and politics.
“With her detailed background in South Asian 20th-century culture, Rochona Majumdar has a particular insight into the role cinema has had, not only in social change, but in creating social networks,” said Tom Gunning, professor emeritus in the Departments of Cinema and Media Studies, Art History, and the College at UChicago.
Filmmaking in India began in 1913 and like Hollywood, India had studios in Bombay, Madras, Lahore, and Calcutta, creating movies in its own style and languages. But many filmmakers were dissatisfied with the fare churned out by the studio-system. They wanted a different and new kind of cinema, one that would challenge and influence audiences into taking films as seriously as they did the other arts.
It is from the ranks of these renegade dreamers that filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, and Mrinal Sen emerged. Their work and the network of film societies that introduced Indian audiences to the cinemas of the world is the subject of Majumdar’s book. The first Indian film society was established in 1947—the year that British colonial rule of the country ended.
“To study cinema, I had to retrain myself to be more attentive to the relationship of sound and image,” said Majumdar, professor in the Departments of South Asian Languages and Civilizations (SALC), Cinema and Media Studies and the College and chair of SALC at UChicago. “As a historian, I wanted to work out why a set of films were more effective than written histories in both reflecting and anticipating the challenges of postcolonial democracy. What aesthetic tools did filmmakers deploy to craft new modes of historical thinking? For me, Bengali directors Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, and Mrinal Sen serve as case studies. I see them as historians working in the new medium of film.”
In Art Cinema and India’s Forgotten Futures, Majumdar argues these three pivotal filmmakers wanted their films to help make good citizens capable of exercising good judgment. Their films contain democratic principles and serve as a reaction against mainstream films. At the same time, the differences between Bollywood films and art cinema must not be overdrawn. Songs and melodrama are common to both. The treatment, however, is very different.
“Starting with her award-winning essay on how the idea of “Art Cinema” moved through India, she has developed a powerful and compelling argument about how to think of the emergence and success of Bengali filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, and Mrinal Sen,” said Daniel Morgan, professor in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies and the College at UChicago. “Her book, Art Cinema and India’s Forgotten Futures, not only shows how these filmmakers responded to the transformations in India from the 1950s through the 1970s but also, as Majumdar argues, that the treatment of history, time, and artistic form in these films largely anticipates the emergence of postcolonial scholarship many years later.
“These filmmakers, and the films they made, become in her hands newly legible not just as a place where lines of historical and political forces cross, but as a site of original thinking about the process and implications of modernization in India during the decades after Independence. It is a wildly original work, which has profoundly transformed how we think about these major filmmakers.”
While the study of film was new for Majumdar, she has an abiding interest in gender and maternity as shown in her first book, Marriage and Modernity (2009). She traced the social history of the dowry system in modern India, which was pioneering in its demonstration of how a traditional marriage practice was monetized in a changing marketplace, according to James K. Chandler, the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor in the Departments of English Language and Literature, Cinema and Media Studies, and the College at UChicago.
In her second book, Writing Postcolonial History (2011), Majumdar explores the influence of postcolonial theory on the history of writing in India. After writing those two books, her curiosity about culture and the aesthetics of mass democracy led to her interest in Indian cinema.
“My colleagues in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies taught me how to be a film scholar,” Majumdar said. “Without our conversations, my book on Indian cinema would not be possible. Collaboration continues to be very important to my work.”
A recent event “Guerrilla Fighter: Mrinal Sen and the Legacies of Radical Cinema” that Morgan and Majumdar organized to mark the birth centenary of Sen, one of the filmmakers featured in Majumdar’s book, drew large crowds over three days. The event included four screenings of a feature-length film by Sen, an exhibition of his papers and memorabilia, which are now part of the Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections, and a conference. Through her involvement with the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory and the Committee on South Asian Studies, Majumdar tries to foster collaborative and interdisciplinary work in the Humanities Division.
“Rochona Majumdar is one of those rare scholars who can migrate from field to field, not just to contribute to it but also to excel in it at the highest level,” Chandler said.
Additionally, Art Cinema and India’s Forgotten Futures received an Honorable Mention for the Modernist Studies Association Book Prize 2022 and was commended for the Kraszna-Krausz Moving Image Book Award 2022.
Currently, Majumdar is working on two projects. The first is book project “Hindoo/Presidency College: Exclusion and Excellence” with two colleagues in India, which is the result of three-year collaboration with two colleagues in India, Upal Chakrabarti and Sukanya Sarbadhikary. The second is the translation into English of 50 Years in Politics as I Have Witnessed It by a leading exponent of Bengali-Muslim thought, Abdul Mansur Ahmad (1898‒1979).
The first book is about the beginnings of a modern liberal arts education in colonial India and the challenges to that project. The translation project sheds new light on Bengali-Muslim thought, the history of partition, and the founding of Bangladesh.