While the Wesleyan Film Series is usually enough to satisfy even the most finicky film major’s demands for the creme-de-la-creme of cinema, from time to time it gets supplemented by an unaffiliated film series that showcases culturally different perspectives—most recently, and for the first time ever, the South Asia Film Series. While it is already half over, you can be sure to catch the remaining two films on Saturday April 21 and Saturday, April 28 at 2 p.m. in the Center for Film Studies. Aside from showing Wesleyan (as well as the broader Middletown community) a slice of South Asia, these films have an ulterior motive: to promote, advertise for, and contextualize Gayathri Khemadasa and Jeff Hush ‘84’s new opera, “Phoolan Devi Opera.”
Gayathri Khemadasa is a visiting Fulbright Scholar at the University, where she is finishing and performing her opera, which melds classical music with the Indian folk tradition. She came here by way of Sri Lanka, her birthplace, and Prague, where she studied classical piano, to work with Jeff Hush, a former dance major and the librettist for the opera. The opera is about the life and times of Phoolan Devi, an Indian “Bandit Queen” who fought for the lower castes of India, especially women and who managed to rise from a childhood as a poor, oppressed child bride to become a member of Parliament.
Khemadasa was first introduced to Devi when she saw the movie “The Bandit Queen,” which was shown at the film series last Thursday. Khemadasa was initially so horrified by the experiences this freedom fighter had to go through (gang rape is only one of many) that she couldn’t even finish the movie. But then she came across Devi’s autobiography, which was recorded orally due to her illiteracy.
“I read it and was totally amazed by her strength because it was expressed in her own words, something I didn’t see when watching the film,” Khemadasa said.
Displeased by the representation of her as a victim in the film, Khemadasa knew she had to find a way to tell this extraordinary woman’s story the right way—the way she would have wanted it.
“At the end [of the autobiography] she says, ‘Sing of my deeds,’” Khemadasa said. “So when I heard that, I thought, ‘Okay, opera’s the medium.’”
She approached Hush about helping her, and the rest was history. Selected scenes will be performed at South Church in Middletown on Saturday, May 12, at 8 p.m.
As for the South Asia Film Series, it came into being as a way to make “Phoolan Devi Opera” more accessible. Hush, who aside from writing the libretto is also in charge of publicizing the opera, wanted to attract viewers who wouldn’t necessarily go to see an opera, or viewers who are unfamiliar with the culture. He sat down with the Chair of the History Department, William Pinch, and the two of them came up with the idea for the film series.
“We were trying to find a way of expanding the idea of an opera, which seems to many people elitist,” Hush said. “That’s how we got interested in the idea of a film series. We brought it together as an outgrowth of the opera.”
The form of opera was used to express tensions between elitest art and utter poverty.
“The whole idea of making an opera about someone who was illiterate and low caste is far from the world of opera,” Hush said. “It’s a large part of why we call it an untouchable opera—because it’s not something that you ordinarily find in opera. We’re bringing something that hasn’t been touched on before in opera.”
Along with trying to bring a wider audience to the opera, the film series is also designed to put Devi’s life and story in a social and historical context. “Sholay,” which played last Saturday, is not only a popular Bollywood film but the first film that Devi saw (as described in her autobiography).
“The films are part of painting the picture of her culture, the village life, banditry in Indian,” Hush said.
Hush is equally captivated by Devi’s life and her deeds, as well as what they represent for Indian culture, not to mention underdogs everywhere.
“Her life illustrates the developments and changes in this culture,” Hush said. “It sometimes sounds like we’re hero worshippers when we talk about her. But the reason is because she was put in the position of a victim, and she overcame that in an incredibly way. The closest thing we can think of in our culture is Malcolm X. She’s India’s Malcolm X, basically.”
And much like Malcolm X, Devi is a controversial figure, so much so that a local Indian newspaper, when told about the opera, refused to run anything on it.
“[They] immediately replied that they were not interested in promoting leftist propaganda,” Hush said.
Still, their opera is not making any overt social commentary. They aren’t sugarcoating it but are rather simply attempting to tell the complicated story of Phoolan Devi, from her grand deeds (such as negotiating her own jail sentence) to tales of her ordinary life in the village arguing over lentils. Viewers can make their own judgments from there.
“I mean, having all those obstacles on her and how she managed that—it could be an inspiration to anybody anywhere,” Khemadasa said.
The South Asia Film Series is all about supporting this opera. There are two films remaining in the series: “Pather Panchali” on April 21 at 2 p.m. and “Eyes of Stone” on April 28 at 2 p.m. “Pather Panchali” is about a young girl named Durga growing up and exploring her existence in a small village, which is where Devi spent a good portion of her life.
“It’s as poetic a film as you’re ever going to see,” Hush said. “You really get a sense of Indian life in the village. You feel almost as if you’re an anthropologist living in the village.”
If that sounds appealing to you, be sure to be at the Center for Film Studies at 2 p.m. next Saturday. The South Asia Film Series certainly is a special opportunity not only to see films that wouldn’t normally be shown in the States, but also to get to know the culture and times of the “Bandit Queen.” The films hope to encourage audiences to come to watch scenes from the actual “Phoolan Devi Opera” on May 12, to see the story of an amazing woman told just as she meant it to be.