Events congeal into images. The visual of a train, for example, will forever be redolent of dreadful meaning in a country conceived through partition. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs of overfull trains, bodies spilling onto the tracks; Khushwant Singh’s literary evocation of the ghost train as the ne plus ultra of that terrible monsoon in 1947; Ritwik Ghatak’s cinematic rendering of the psychic scars of dislocation as a train hurtling towards nothingness; and Vivan Sundaram’s installation of railway tracks within the monumental colonial edifice of the Victoria Memorial in an artistic staging of modern Bengali history. The many itineraries of the train in visual media have served to instate it as a historical object, encapsulating powerful currents in postcolonial Indian life. Such visual tropes are also capacious, expanding to incorporate not only the event but also its origins and afterlives. After 2002, for example, the imaginary of the train assumes a new dimension.
Images negotiate the space between the more individual frame of reference that is the domain of memory and the collective address of history. The concatenation of historical traumas and the accretion of the traumatic image constitute an archive and a distinct form of historical knowledge that unfolds in a visual register. The image here, is not an abstraction but a complex figuration of that which, in its immensity, cannot be adequately spoken or articulated otherwise. History and historical trauma in particular, therefore, require images.
This might explain to some extent, the anxiety about the failure to visualize the Covid-19 pandemic. Colin Dickey (Contested Images, 2020) has written about the intractable invisibility of the virus, which has in turn engendered a corresponding genre of virus images that figure presence through absence – the ubiquitous iconography of empty city streets. Such invisibility not only poses a problem medically – the high incidence of asymptomatic cases that serve to propagate the virus, or the phenomenon of “happy hypoxia” which prevents detection until it is too late – but also threatens denial. According to Dickey, the failure to picture the body in distress compounds a crisis of indexicality, with political repercussions ranging from the refusal to reimburse treatment costs to the dismissal of the virus altogether by conspiracy theorists and libertarian mindsets. He classes Covid-19 among a spectrum of characteristically contemporary disorders like chronic fatigue syndrome or Gulf War related illness, as diseases which one has to “fight to get” (Dumit qt. in Dickey). By this is meant diseases which are a direct outcome of the wars and lifestyle shifts orchestrated by a late capitalist world order and yet whose symptoms are ambiguous enough as to justify plausible deniability. The vexed question of the visibility of Covid-19 is thus located within ongoing struggles for the dignity of life, labor, and person under capitalism.
Dickey joins his argument about the constitutive instability of the Covid-19 visual archive and the corresponding lack of consensus on the meanings of the virus to historian Sarah Elizabeth Lewis’s lament about the dearth of visuals from ground zero, i.e., the Covid-19 hospital wards resembling war zones (Where Are the Photos of People Dying of Covid? 2020). Lewis’s is an argument about the efficacy of images and their potential to pierce the complacence of different social and political actors, generating a visceral awareness of the effects of the virus. But such a simple faith in the ability of images to signify is complicated in the context of the second wave of Covid-19 in India. Contra Dickey and Lewis who spoke of a visual field marked by absence, the media archive of the second wave is characterized by a surfeit of the visible. From the innards of normally closed-off intensive care units, relatives prodding in vain at the bodies of loved ones, funeral pyres ablaze in symmetrical grids, to the ghastly resurfacing in rivers of the hastily disposed of dead. The spectacle of mass death, in its overwhelming visibility, seems to have paradoxically defied belief. From the under counting of Covid-19 deaths to the furious debates around the veracity of images, one is reminded of the ghoulish confidence of the SS officers who gloated that no one would believe accounts of the concentration camps, such was the fantastic scale of industrialized death (Agamben, 1999, p. 157). Of course, the Nazis also forbade visual documentation of the camps, operating as they did within a very different evidentiary regime tethered to the referentiality of the photographic image. How do we reckon with our own post-truth moment where what is visible is no longer what is evident? How do we build consensus around a representative image of trauma, when, to quote Dickey, “…the image of the disaster no longer has any real capacity to shock a population into awareness, let alone empathy.”? How are we to visualize the virus, if images are the condition for its accession to the historical record? In order to answer some of these questions, we might consider modes of figuration that have always unfolded in an oblique, allegorical register.
A frequent charge brought against Bombay’s popular cinema has been that it is escapist, choosing to ignore the harsh realities of life in a country with devastating inequalities. An early film society discourse polarizing the populist tendencies of the mainstream Bombay film and the political drives of the different parallel cinema movements has ossified into a certain cultural commonsense about the different mandates of commercial and art – read realistic – cinema. Such a characterization has, of course, been disputed, perhaps most notably by political theorist Ashis Nandy who observes that the Indian popular cinema constitutes a “slum’s eye view of politics.” Just as the slum as an informal urban settlement represents the space beyond the jurisdiction of the planned city, its obdurate visibility tarnishing visions of the “city beautiful,” popular cinema embodies the “disowned self of modern India returning in a fantastic or monstrous form to haunt modern India” (Nandy, 1998, p. 7). Arjun Appadurai similarly makes a case for reading Bombay cinema as a dreamscape that inscribes daily struggles over scarce resources into cinematic images of home, love, and justice. He writes, “We can see in these films that the Bollywood urban dreamscape is not narrowly escapist. It is a populist commentary on a city where people are made and unmade by virtue of houses built and destroyed, mansions for the rich, hovels for the poor, and an ongoing preoccupation with the water’s edge, where freedom, air, light, and love are to be found… They are a form of cinematic realism into which Mumbai’s poor can insert self-narratives and from which they can add movement, plot, and character to their dreams about new, secure, and sustainable habitation” (Appadurai, 2015, p. 406). For Appadurai, cinematic images are not narrowly reflective but also provide cognitive maps that allow viewers to locate their everyday struggles for survival within a larger configuration of the city, state, and politics.
In both Nandy and Appadurai, therefore, the Bombay cinema emerges as a site where the unequal project of modernity is registered as a battle of optics. The popular cinema, like the slum, makes visible those subjects consigned to the penumbra of the postcolonial developmentalist state. The devastating unfolding of Covid-19 in India similarly participates in a politics of visibility, the very frequency of words like “expose,” “reveal,” and “illuminate” in media reports, signaling the visual metaphor used to make sense of infrastructural breakdown. In the first wave, the subject most fixated on in news coverage of the Covid-induced lockdown was the migrant worker, internally displaced and hence outside of the political calculus of the electoral party system (“In Conversation with Raqs Media Collective,” 2020). As civil category, the migrant worker is marked by a precarity that transcends the simple dichotomy of have and have-not that has traditionally articulated social and economic class. Rather, it is to do with a particular regime of bureaucratic visibility, the ability to be imaged, located, and thereby accounted for in public databases that determines citizenship in contemporary systems of biometric governance. Even as the sight of the migrant worker registered a new awareness of the vast laboring mass invisibly propping up the smooth functioning of the millennial metropolis, the images of exodus – on foot, in packed buses, and trains – inexorably mapped on to the extant repertoire of Partition images. But then, perhaps it is not surprising that the necropolitical logic of a lockdown, hastily imposed and without provisions for those whose lives are endangered as much by hunger as by Covid, echoes the originary violence of the re-allocation of populations that marked the divided sovereignty of India and Pakistan.
A leading protagonist of the endless mediatic stream of the second wave was the cremation-worker, a profession traditionally held by the most down-trodden section of Indian society, belonging to the Dalit or untouchable caste. Across India, in lonely funeral grounds restricted to the public, these last-rite workers cut solitary figures amidst raging pyres, their customary precarity – without adequate safety gear – heightened amid a catastrophic public health crisis. At the same time, as Nikhil Pandhi points out, it was also a moment in which the experience of “as-if-untouchability” – the unprecedented situation of bodies abandoned for fear of contamination – by an affluent middle class suddenly stripped bare of its habitual privilege, teased an unexpected affinity of the most and least privileged (“COVID-19 and India’s New Viral Necropolitics,” 2021). For Pandhi, the different class narratives of the first and second waves, from the foregrounding of the experience of the migrant worker to the social media outpouring of the privileged reduced to pleading for leads on oxygen cylinders and ICU beds, Covid-19 exposes a continuum of entangled identities much as Nandy’s slum embodies the abjected and quarantined other of the upwardly mobile postcolonial imagination. The popular cinema and the deadly new virus, then, work analogously, activating an optical unconscious as it were of the Indian social-political (visual) order.
Adriana Michele Campos Johnson, addressing the particular case of Latin American cinema, proposes considering cinema as one among an arsenal of visual technologies that increasingly constitute the primary infrastructure of global capitalism. Her argument is about the work of cinema within a new hegemony of the visual across “public media (TV shows, films, advertisements), private forms of communication (FaceTime, the sharing of photos), tools for governance and administration (the use of surveillance cameras and satellite imagery)” (Johnson, 2018, p. 79). Under such conditions of the entrenchment of the visual – where to be seen is to be counted – visibility itself emerges as a contested resource, similar to struggles over land or water (p. 78). Films are thus divided into those of thick visibility – which accept the optical basis of contemporary forms of belonging, and consequently push for visual inclusion – and those unfolding an aesthetics of thin visuality – refusing to allow the image to bear the weight of signification (p. 82-89). For Johnson, the latter constitute the most radical cinematic response to this new visual order. On the other hand, the virus too could be said to extend a gesture of thin visuality, evading as it does the representational schema of the medical, political, and social establishments as they stand today. Even the CDC-sanctioned scientific illustration of the Covid-19 virus, painstakingly rendered through sophisticated 3-D visualization techniques, and circulated extensively from the early days of the pandemic, fails to provide complete knowledge of the virus. Instead, there is a morbid discrepancy between the faintly humorous graphic of the spiked virus cell resembling a dust ball and the universally devastating consequences of the viral spread. It indicates a gulf between reality and its representation that not even the protocols of scientific imaging are sufficient to overcome.
The popular cinema tradition in India might chart a third path refiguring the question of visuality altogether. This is a cinema that has always worked by displacement, refusing the mandate of representation only to register, as if by default, traces of historical moments and their reverberations through time. It is a cinema that has always subordinated the charge of the indexical to the material presence and circulation of the image in space. As a hybrid form – simultaneously an industrial commodity, a consumer product, an aesthetic object, and a technological process – the mainstream film has always been marked by a confluence of different modes rather than the dictates of a representational project. It is a cinema and culture, moreover, that gestures to a world that is always already mediated, where people approach their real lives as if it were a film. It allows us, in other words, to access a level of reality that exists at the level of the image. It is to such a form that we must turn, then, to apprehend our new reality, caught between the visible and the invisible.
Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, Zone Books. 1999
Appadurai, The cinematic soteriology of Bollywood. In P. van der Veer (Ed.), Handbook of religion and the Asian city: Aspiration and urbanization in the twenty-first century (pp. 403-415), University of California Press, 2015
Chakravarty, In Conversation with Raqs Media Collective, Critical Collective, 23.Jun.2020
Dickey, Contested Images: The challenges of visualizing a pandemic, Real Life, 26.May.2020
M. C. Johnson, Visuality as infrastructure, Social Text 136, 36(3), 71-91. DOI 10.1215/01642472-S6o91c7ia77l8T, 2018
A. Lewis, Where Are the Photos of People Dying of Covid? The New York Times, 01.May.2020
Nandy, Introduction: The Indian popular cinema as a slum’s eye view of politics, in A. Nandy (Ed.), The secret politics of our desires: Innocence, culpability and Indian popular cinema (pp. 1-19), Palgrave Macmillan, 1998
Copyright © 2021, PhotoSouthAsia. All Rights Reserved.
Amrita Chakravarty was invited to write this essay for PhotoSouthAsia by our Guest Editor, Gayatri Sinha. We encourage you to begin with Sinha's introduction, The Aesthetics of Toxicity, and to also read Sinha's other invited essayists:
Ravi Agarwal: Biological to Biopolitical
Rustom Bharucha: Beyond Photography
Photograph © Amrita Chakravarty
Amrita Chakravarty is a PhD student with a joint affiliation to the departments of Film and Media and Comparative Literature at Yale University. Her research is interested in the alternative archival imaginations embodied in Bombay cinema's distinctive filmi culture. It also looks at the ways in which old filmi culture interfaces with the new digital economy of platforms.