South Asia Center


Sudhir Mahadevan is Assistant Professor of Film Studies, Department of Comparative Literature


What motivated you to study Film, and the particular period you focus on?

The first part of this question requires an anecdotal personal history rather than an academic one. A close friend in college, Amit Varma, who now is a major blogger in India, was an ardent film buff and drew me in. We organized a film festival on campus in Fergusson College in Pune : films by Louis Malle, Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman and Tarkovsky.

We were able to borrow prints from the National Film Archive of India, also in Pune. I think about 10 people showed up for the festival – that’s 10 people for all days, all films combined. I may be exaggerating. After that wild success, I moved to Bombay to finish college. I was a history buff and was planning to major in History, but the English department at St. Xavier’s College was a far more exciting place to be. The Bombay branch of the British Library had an excellent collection of movies to rent; as did Teenage Video Library in Colaba, Bombay, who could procure movies otherwise unavailable in India. The NCPA (National Center for Performing Arts) and the Prabhat Chitra Mandal (another film club) held regular film screenings. The American consulate held film screenings, including a wonderful series on 1970s American cinema (which remains now my favorite decade of Hollywood films). So that was Bombay film culture as I experienced it.

In 1995, I went to Delhi to attend the International Film Festival of India and came across a stand selling issues of Journal of Arts and Ideas. JAI carried articles by Ravi Vasudevan, Geeta Kapoor, Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Madhav Prasad, Tapati Guha-Thakurta and many others, and I think it is one of the most significant bursts of scholarship in the 1990s. It set the tone, the methodologies and the questions to be asked about Indian cinema for a long time to come. It really initiated a process of thinking of the history of Indian cinema in relation to photography, popular visual culture, theater and art from the 19th century. Ashish Rajadhyaksha had written a piece on D.G. Phalke, the pioneering Indian filmmaker and the connections between Phalke, print culture, modern Indian art that would shape not just Phalke’s work, but also Indian commercial cinema’s relation to state patronage and the elite cultural establishment at large. Tapati Guha-Thakurta’s work on the impact of mechanical reproduction on visual culture in Bengal was another huge influence. So JAI was a huge influence as well. Ravi Vasudevan’s work on 1950s Hindi cinema was eye-opening. This was before the days of email. I remember mailing letters to Ravi and Ashish requesting copies of their other articles, and they promptly mailed copies of their writing to me, which was really nice.

In graduate school in New York, I took a seminar on archives co-taught by Antonia Lant (who eventually chaired my committee) and Annette Michelson. I also took an early cinema lecture class taught by Lant and an advanced seminar on what was, in the 1990s, a bourgeoning set of scholarly works on “pre-cinema” – panoramas, dioramas, stereoscopes, magic lantern shows, camera obscuras – all the technologies of film projection, movement, immersive visual entertainment that had preceded the cinema. Those courses also really shaped my interest in the history and pre-history of early cinema in India.

You have been rated as a Hot Professor on Rate My Professor. One chili pepper. Comment?

I’ve been trying for a while now to escape the hordes of paparazzi camped outside my door. But I’ve learned to live- even savor – the bitter rewards of fame and adulation.

Tell us a little bit about the non-academic side of yourself.

I like collecting vintage electronics. I just picked up a Bang & Olufsen Beogram RX turntable and have been haunting Seattle’s fine vinyl stores. I have a bunch of old cameras, a mail-order projector from Sears from the early 20th century, a few Edison cylinder recordings. I’m not a serious collector – that requires time (and money). But browsing EBAY for old stuff and daydreaming that I will one day have a beautiful teak field camera with a bellows lens and a tripod and plates, is a nice way to spend leisure time.

Music: I really like big band, jazz and swing from the early 20th century. The two radio shows I listen to every week are The Swing Years and American Routes, both on KUOW on Saturday and Sunday evenings.

When I go to the movies, I generally prefer to sit apart and watch the movie alone, even if I go with company. Company interferes with my ability to enjoy a movie. Odd. I know.

How has your relationship with India changed from the UW vantage point, and was this something you anticipated?

I didn’t anticipate it, but can understand it. I did not go back to India often during grad school. I’ve gone back more often since moving to Seattle. There’s a very strong South Asian community here at UW. Most of us have deep organic ties – both familial and research-based – to India. That certainly has made India more proximate than when I was living in NYC.

Do you find that you view India through an American lens or do you view America through an Indian lens?

For good or for bad, I’m unable to shed both lenses.

How do you see your contributions in your field impacting Americans as well as Indians, the world?

I hope it will encourage us all to dress better. Just kidding. Contemporary Indian cinema and media are going through changes at every level, seemingly at a breakneck pace. I hope those of us who focus on the early 20th century have some light to shed on what’s happening now in the early 21st century.

What films do you feel are essential to represent South Asian society as you wish to tell the story?

This would require a very long list, but I’ll focus on Hindi cinema and Indian parallel cinema, since those are the two courses I’ve taught so far. I’m sure at least one of my colleagues will be horrified that I missed some important film; but that’s what’s great about Indian cinema.

In more or less chronological order by decade starting from the early 20th century up till the recent present: Raja Harishchandra, Sant Tukaram, Awara, Pyaasa, Mother India, Do Bigha Zameen, Mughal-e-Azam, Devdas, Pather Panchali, Meghe Dhaka Tara, An Evening in Paris, Junglee, Jewel Thief, Sara Akash, Bhuvan Shome, Uski Roti, Garam Hawa, Ankur, Guddi, Chashme Buddoor, Golmaal, Zanjeer, Sholay, Deewar, Amar Akbar Anthony, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, Parinda, Roja, Baazigar, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Satya, Hey Ram, Lagaan, Bunti aur Babli, Rang de Basanti, Maqbool, Omkara, Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year, Dev D, LSD: Love, Sex aur Dhoka, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, Udaan.

If you could design the ideal course what would it entail?

A sequence of courses: 1896-1945, 1945 to 1990, 1990 to the present, all focusing on Indian cinema, with a sampling from across the subcontinent.

Who/What are some influences in your life? In your career trajectory?

I think my father gave me (and my sibling) a free rein to pursue whatever we wanted. That was exceptional in the context of his family. Eunice De Souza, the chair of the English department at St. Xavier’s College, Bombay in the 1990s, was a huge influence, not just on me, but on so many of my friends and batch-mates. Her way of thinking and the impact it had on us, continues to ripple through our intellectual lives. I’ve also been fortunate to have close friends who have also been superb mentors. I think that’s important.

Did you ever consider pursuing any other field of study?

I worked as a freelance journalist in Bombay and wrote some pieces on assignment for CY Gopinath of Sol Features that got published in Midday, and to be frank, wasn’t terribly keen on coming to the U.S- I applied to graduate school for the heck of it, and was pretty certain I wanted to be a journalist and work for, say The Hindu, in Madras (now Chennai). But then I had this serious interest in film too so I guess my life took a different turn. I seriously contemplated switching to Library and Information Sciences at one point after I moved to the U.S because I worked for many years in many of the departments of the Bobst library at NYU – Summers were periods of full time . I also thought it would be cool to own and run a newspaper stand in NYC, but I was young and idealistic then.

There is a tendency to see the pursuit of careers in subjects other than medicine and engineering in the South Asian community as less than stable. What are your thoughts?

I’ve certainly felt the brunt of this medicine/engineering preference. In retrospect, and in terms of the aspirations of post-independence India, up till, say the 1990s, it is comprehensible. At any rate, when a tendency becomes conspicuous and visible, that may mean it’s already on its way out – we are able to talk about it because we have ourselves managed to, or are trying to, escape this pressure. That I suppose is a good thing.

What is your idea of a perfect day in the life of Sudhir?

These days, it would mean an enormously productive morning and afternoon in terms of writing, with little distraction, and an equally unhindered two to three hours of reading before going to bed. I know. It’s pretty expected. Maybe in a few years, I’ll say something that sounds like copy from an ad for a tourist resort: “take a walk on a sunny beach; enjoy our award-winning cocktails; and watch a movie over dinner under the stars of an open sky. Tonight’s show: a heart-pounding thriller about a professor trying to finish his manuscript.

South Asia Center
University of Washington
303 Thomson Hall
Box 353650
Seattle, WA 98195
(206) 543-4800 phone
(206) 685-0668 fax

Anand Yang, Director

Keith Snodgrass, Associate Director

Molly Wilskie-Kala, Program Coordinator

Nick Gottschall, Graduate Student Assistant

Robyn Davis, FLAS Coordinator

Sunila Kale, Graduate Program Coordinator