Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 4, September 2000

Dir. Andrej Fidyk

Battu's Bioscope

Colour, Bengali with English Subtitles,
58 mins, Poland, 1998

reviewed by Kylie Boltin

  1. Made specifically for the Western art-house documentary film circuit, Battu's Bioscope is a Polish directed and globally funded short film which centres around a roaming cinema house carrying a bioscope, or a film projector, throughout rural India. The film shows Mr Battu, an ageing cinema fan, and his assistant Mama taking popular Bombay films 'to the masses'. Following Mr Battu who believes 'the temporary world is just an illusion...(and) the screen shows the world how it really is,' the film maps the bioscope's journey from urban Calcutta to the most isolated of rural Indian populations. In capturing Mr Battu's journey, Battu's Bioscope documents the pan-Indian movement of the film industry and highlights the internal differences that mark the contemporary Indian subcontinent. The film parodies elements of Bombay cinema and reveals characteristics of the industry. As a global, multi-dimensional project, Battu's Bioscope questions the role, function and structure of the documentary format, the film industry and the contemporary global/local Indian nation space. [1]
  2. Conventional discussions of documentary film tell us that 'if the material is actual, then it is documentary. If the material is invented then it is not.'[2] Within this exposition, documentary cinema, as the antithesis to narrative cinema, is intended to inform. This ideology stems from the function of documentary cinema as the extension of the anthropologist's gaze in which the camera masquerades as an invisible voyeur into the lives of its subjects. Within this structure the Cartesian divide between subject and object remains uniformly intact.
  3. Battu's Bioscope first extends and then disrupts this traditional conception of documentary cinema. Led by the narration of Mr Battu, the film exposes the urban/rural divide within the subcontinent. This divide is a form of distinction measured in terms of cultural capital acquired by knowledge claims to its film industry. The travelling bioscope, as the film's central motif, documents the hierarchy of cultural distribution by illustrating how the history of the cinema locates itself within India's decolonising imaginary. The journey thus symbolically re-enacts the postcolonial journey of India as it emerged from a colony to an independent nation.
  4. Bombay cinema must be seen as a series of foundational narratives that together inform the cultural identity of its indigenous and diasporic audiences. Vijay Mishra tells us that Indian films were 'homologous with the narrative paradigm established over two millennia ago in the Sanskrit epics, namely the Mahabharatha and the Ramayana.'[3] Within this perspective, Bombay cinema expresses cinematic adaptations of traditional ideological structures of Indian morality and dharma, as prescribed by these texts of Hindu mythology. Following India's independence, the cinema emerges as a central site of collective national identity construction. Rosie Thomas suggests that the seminal film hit Mother India (Mehboob Khan, 1957) reveals this process. Mother India celebrates the subaltern and emphasises the politics of the freedom movement by using the discourse of 'nationhood as womanhood'.[4]
  5. The 'epic' text and the 'postcolonial' text are foundations of both the Bombay film industry, and the contemporary Indian national subject as constructed and informed by film. Battu's Bioscope documents the uneven distribution and consumption of this national culture. As we see Mr Battu's diligence rewarded by his 'masses', we also notice the audience's increasing eagerness as cultural capital is accumulated. This strategy expresses how the cinema can be a cultural tool for mediating the contemporary urban/rural divide.
  6. While Battu's Bioscope documents the trajectory of 'taking the cinema to the masses' and invites its (Western) audience into the lives of selected Indian subjects through the narration and voice of Mr Battu and Mama, it also showcases the conventions of the Bombay film to a predominantly Western art-house cinema audience. This process operates both within and outside of the text. The mise-en-scène parodies particular cultural sensibilities and techniques unique to the cinema.
  7. In one comic scene set in the Orissan seacoast town of Puri, Mama is framed by a wide-angle shot sitting in a coloured boat. He is drunk, connoted by his incessant swaying, and is rambling to his employer Mr Battu. Their interactions parody traditional Bombay film sketches in which two men, bound by the bond of friendship (or in this case, employment and a common goal) engage. This relationship is termed as 'dostana' and is a central motif of Bombay cinema . Conventionally dostana reveals itself through song, evident in the 1975 mega-hit Sholay (Ramesh Sippy) in which the central relationship between the two male protagonists functions as the film's narrative engine. As a narrative trope into the song, dostana is a vital point of connection for the indigenous mix of elements that together constitute Bollywood cinema.
  8. The song is integral to the composite nature of the cinema as a masala. It functions as one of the indigenous elements necessary to the success of a film. The song is also subversive. It interrupts the linear narrative of the film text. Thomas suggests that the song-and-dance sequences enable the local audience to withstand the 'patently preposterous narratives, overblown dialogue (frequently evaluated by film-makers on whether it is 'clapworthy'), (and) exaggeratedly stylised acting'.[5] As a disjunctive site within the film sequence, as a 'soundtrack' to the cinema, the song lends itself readily to the task of national identity constitution. Within this framework, the importance of the film song cannot be underestimated. Fidyk's allegiance to the song through the deployment of dostana provides a way of enabling the Western audience into an 'other' cinematic world.
  9. Battu's Bioscope is a new documentary genre characterised by hybridity. First, the central documentary motif of 'taking the cinema to the masses' is interrupted by the intrusion of traditional narrative techniques.

    Second, it is a masala comprising 'foreign' elements. As a Polish national investigating India's indigenous film industry, Fidyk's own personal displacement functions as a metaphor for both the structure and form of his film and the changing global/local nature of the cinema itself. This displacement brings together at least two divergent cinematic worlds.

  10. Contemporary Bombay cinema is no longer purely a 'national' technology. With the rise of Non Resident Indian (NRI) communities abroad, the cinema now accommodates a transnational, diasporic audience. This shift is reflected at both the level of image and text. Traditional epic and national texts are challenged by the emergence of a 'new' global Indian narrative used to signal the growing Indian diaspora(s) abroad. Fidyk highlights this shift by using reception as a site to express how traditions are displaced in an increasingly globalised world. While foreign elements of the cinema, such as Hollywood action, cinema-inspired car chases, adultery and clothing, resonate with its diasporic audiences through the appeal to Western genres, they are rejected by the communities isolated from the new transnational elements of the cinema.
  11. Battu's Bioscope deconstructs Bombay cinema for its predominantly Western film audience by the close examination of audience response. It reveals that the 'mass' appeal of the cinema is contingent on the suspension of disbelief, and an acceptance of the changing form, narratives and the new cultural representation that now mark the industry. Fidyk reveals that the pleasures of the cinema, as experienced by Mr Battu, rely on specific historic and cultural film capital and knowledge frames. While isolated rural India may have rejected the cinema in Battu's Bioscope, the intended (Western) audience of Fidyk's film may have found a way to appreciate it.


    Photos of Battu's Bioscope and Andrej Fidyk are from San Francisco Film Society's 42nd San Francisco International Film Festival website.

    [1] The term, 'global/local' expresses the space produced by the contemporary diasporic subject. See Rob Wilson and Wimal Dissanyake (eds.), 'Introduction: Tracking the Global/Local,' Global/Local: Cultural Production and the Transnational Imaginary, Durham: Duke University Press, 1996, pp. 1-20.

    [2] Lindsay Anderson, in G.Roy Levin, Documentary Explorations: Fifteen Interviews with Film Makers, Garden City: NY: Doubleday & Company, 1971, p. 66.

    [3] Vijay Mishra, 'Towards a Theoretical Critique of Bombay Cinema,' Screen 26, 3/4, (1985): 133.

    [4] Rosie Thomas, 'Sanctity and Scandal: The Mythologization of Mother India,' Quarterly Review of Film and Video 11, 3, (1989): 18.

    [5] Rosie Thomas, 'Indian Cinema: Pleasures and Popularity,' Screen 26, 3/4, (1985): 127.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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