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Identities and Intersections

in Cinema

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14th March 2023 .  6 min read

Identities form the nucleus of story-telling in cinematic spaces; however, the construction and depiction of the same requires to be true to the figures it claims to represent and aware of. The portrayal of identities in and through cinema, not only reflects the society we live in but also the biases within the cinematic circles. Why can't Aladdin be a White man? Why do we need a Black Ariel? Why representation matters but not at the expense of hijacking the community’s narratives? Why accent is a big deal?— many more questions arise when

one looks at the convergence of cinema with identities.

But, what is the importance of talking about the intersection of identity with cinema? The answer to this question is not the same across the board. Abhijit Naskar in The Film Testament (2017) writes that one should “use filmmaking to eliminate racism—use it to terminate misogyny—use it to destroy homophobia and all other primitiveness”; hence, painting a picture of cinema where it has the potential to transform society. 

Most people agree on the nature of cinema to influence and get itself influenced by several factors as the result of the existing cultural feedback loop. However, Russell Sharma, Author of Moving Pictures: An Introduction to Cinema (2020), writes, “...cinema remains more effective at re-affirming a particular view of the world than challenging or changing it. That is to say, it is an inherently conservative medium”. Further, he elaborates that one of the problems here is “the economic reality that cinema must appeal to the masses to survive. It costs a lot of money to make a feature film or tv series. So, filmmakers and their financiers tend to avoid offending our collective sensibilities. They want us to buy more tickets and pay more streaming fees, so they’re going to err on the side of making us feel better about who we already think we are”.

In the context of South Asian cinema, the identities and the representation of the same on the screen have been the product of socio-political changes. For example: in post-colonial South Asian cinema, there is an evident connection between the themes of gender and national identity. This includes “the portrayal of women in the films of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, the mother-goddess construct of Indian nationalism in mainstream cinema, thematic treatments of the relationship between machismo and Hindu/Muslim revivalism, and gender and Muslim identity in the cinema of Bangladesh and Pakistan”. And, together these constructions “offer a fluid approach to the multiple histories and encounters that conjure “South Asia” as a geographic and political entity in the region and globally through a cinematic imagination”. 

There are many South Asian films which either reaffirm the societal hierarchies or challenge them. For example: Agraharathil Kazhuthai (1977), which translates to ‘A donkey in a Brahmin’s village’, is a satirical work that “doubles as a stark reflection of caste-hierarchy and a socio-political satire that challenges the system all at once”. In this film, a stray donkey “wrecks havoc in a Brahmin neighbourhood, agitating its caste-rigid citizens”. 

The first film shot in Afghanistan after the collapse of the Taliban, titled, Osama (2003) gives the audience a glimpse at the life and identity of Afghan women under the oppressive regime. The primary aim of this movie is to show how “underneath the Taliban’s iron fist, the justification of “respect” for women was used to sentence them to a lifetime of inhumane physical and mental agony. This is not how a society that values and appreciates women would treat them”. 


Another film, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (Don’t Cry for Salim the Lame), 1989, is the story of a young Muslim man named Salim who leads a life of crime and takes no steps to walk on a moral path because of the “conditions surrounding his life”. This film by Saeed Akhtar Mirza captures the reality of the Muslim minorities living in India’s urban spaces. Simply put, this story highlights the “issues of belonging, cultural citizenship, and identity in modern India in relation to the overpowering hegemonic discourse of a monolithic India and points out how a privileged meta-narrative of nationhood overwrites local narratives thereby marginalising the cultural life of its minority groups”. 

Cinema does not exist in a vacuum and is itself a boiling bubbling brew of intersections. What is the story about? Where is it based? Who has written the story? What is its primary aim? Who is involved in the film-making? Who is playing the protagonist/antagonist?

What stereotype is the film mitigating or, reinforcing?—and, many such aspects decide the identity of a film as a whole, which can either suit the taste buds of a larger audience or disrupt the status quo. 

"Sabahat Ali Wani is a writer, researcher and artist from Kashmir. She loves to explore the intersection of cinema with gender, identity and politics, and believes that the appreciation of cinema is incomplete without its criticism."

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