Time and Technics

Christopher Pinney, UCL Anthropology

Salman Rushdie once suggested in an interview that in India you can traverse several centuries just by crossing the road.  Perhaps another way into the same question was provided by Malraux, (inevitably) more poetically in his Anti-Memoirs (“…in war, in museums real or imaginary, in culture, in history perhaps, I have found again and again a fundamental riddle, subject to the whims of memory which […] does not recreate a life in its original sequence. Lit by an invisible sun, nebulae appear which seem to presage an unknown constellation…Often linked to memory [certain scenes] sometimes turn out more disturbingly to be linked to the future too”).  I’ve always understood Rushdie’s observation to be an affirmation of Kracauer’s argument about diverse materially embedded temporalities which was difficult to reconcile with, for instance, Appadurai’s argument about modernity being simultaneously present, everywhere. Appadurai, I imagine was responding in a Saidean mode to those Orientalists for whom the several centuries that co-exist outside EuroAmerica positions certain regions, if not outside of history, then in a different kind of history. But Appadurai’s assumption was vulnerable to the argument Bhabha makes against the (originally Herderian) claim for a stable national time.

Bhabha’s questions about time-lags and disjunctures, and the manner in which temporality might be materially and technically embedded, and hence fragmented and disseminated, came to mind recently in central India. An old photographer friend was discussing the history of his studio and assembled all his old cameras on his studio front desk as concrete embodiments of passing time. His first was a Yashica 120, then a (now battered) Nikon 35mm analogue camera and then his current working kit of two digital Nikon SLRs. These were all placed together on the desk and manipulated as though they were actual slabs of time. Later that same day I visited Prakash Talkies one of the two remaining cinemas in Nagda Jn, a town which now has a population of about 200,000. When I first started to work here in the early 1980s its population was less than 50,000, four cinemas thrived and it was in Prakash Talkies that fell in love with Reena Roy and Sridevi while I ate freshly roasted peanuts, throwing the shells on the floor.

Prakash Talkies is the local fleapit. It specialises in action movies and when full can seat 600 people. The 6pm show at Prakash Talkies had been cancelled because of lack of customers but this did not prevent the manager, Mr. Porwal from putting on a private test screening.  The cinema was built in 1965 but has a peculiarly ancient and well-cared feel to it, stained with the friendly patina of small-town dreams. Design-wise it is very art-deco and if you didn’t know it was built in the 60s you would think it was a survivor from the 1920s. He was keen to show me the latest cinematic technology, a direct satellite link with his distributor in Mumbai. But to get to that you first have to negotiate two vast hulking machines in the projection room which also seem radically out of time. They were made in 1981 (not 1931 as I first imagined). Mr Porwal knows this because they formerly belonged to another cinema, Kiran Talkies, and he personally installed them in their current location. These vast impressive beasts, having something of the colossal majesty of huge steam locomotives, take up almost the whole of the projection room. It is clear that they are later imports into a room originally designed to house much smaller equipment. To the right side of the room is a wondrous space where film spools hang from the wall like fossils suspended in blue lias, coiled remnants of an ancient epoch. A hand-winder sits, long neglected, on a thin table, like detritus from a Dutch still life, barely illuminated by the bare electric bulbs that hang down from the ceiling.

Counterpoised with this sheer machinicity, the fantastic corpulent image-delivery apparatus of the steam-engine projectors, on the other side of the room, is a tiny air conditioned cubicle measuring about two and half feet by two feet. In this sits a new digital projector together with two servers and satellite equipment, all of which hums efficiently. This tiny intrusion is the end point of a digital superhighway down which the Mumbai distributor, UFO, streams satellite content directly to dusty, crumbly, ancient, Prakash Talkies, hallway between Mumbai and Delhi. Everything that the vast lumbering dinosaur projectors once did is now delivered with superior fidelity by this minute, cool, space.  Here in this tiny room, at the top of a deserted provincial cinema, was something like Rushdie’s street, something akin to my photographer friend’s materialisation of time. Cinematic ammonites glinting in the light cast by the latest, quietly purring, UFO.

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