Cultivating Asian Media Perspectives

July 05, 2017

Globalization and technological advancement have created a worldwide audience for Asian cinema. The film industries in China and India, for example, are among the oldest and largest in the world. However, few opportunities exist for students to immerse themselves in their comparative study, to appreciate the diverse influences and histories of these industries or to examine how their narratives have transformed over the years.

In light of this, the Columbia Global Centers in Mumbai and Beijing launched an intensive six-week summer program on Media Practices in India and China. Led by Columbia University film scholars Debashree Mukherjee and Ying Qian, 12 undergraduate students at Columbia got an opportunity to pursue learning in real-world settings – through visits to sites of media production and meetings with a wide array of media practitioners.

The program was split equally between India and China, with students spending three weeks in each country, and was organized as part of the Global Scholars Program (GSP) in collaboration with the Weatherhead East Asian institute and the Office of Global Programs at Columbia. Unlike traditional study abroad programs, GSP builds on the expertise, resources, and cross-regional networks offered by the Columbia Global Centers, which enables students to delve deeper into the areas of their interests and conduct research across borders.

As Mukherjee, Assistant Professor, Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia, pointed out, “Both Ying and I are committed to building greater academic visibility for non-Western cinemas and media forms. We wanted to practice and teach comparative ways of thinking, especially in a world of digital proliferation that is strangely making us more and more insular in terms of what we choose to see or engage with. Taking students to both Mumbai and Beijing seemed like a wonderful opportunity for them to gain a first-hand exposure to unfamiliar images and alternative image-making conventions.”

Qian, who is Assistant Professor, Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia, initially designed a proposal for Hong Kong and Beijing. “Debashree independently developed a proposal for Mumbai at the same time. Both our proposals stressed upon the need for inculcating non-Western media perspectives and tried to take cinema out of the fictional realm, into the social realm. And as it turned out, China and India were a natural match – both new, postcolonial nations with a history of ethnic violence and close regional political ties. This was an amazing opportunity for us to work together,” she said.

Experiencing Mumbai

Students pictured during various outings in Mumbai

On May 22, the students arrived at Columbia Global Centers | Mumbai for the first-half of the program. The city is home to Bollywood, India’s Hindi language film industry. “What was truly unique about this opportunity was to be able to situate yourself in a different country,” shared Kelvin NG, a Bachelor’s of Arts student at Columbia.

For undergraduate student Alexander McNab what set the program apart was the opportunity to take his learnings out into the city. “I’ve done a study abroad program before but that was taught entirely in the classroom. This program brought the outside in and took the classroom out into the city as well,” he shared. Both Mukherjee and Qian were convinced it was futile to take students to a foreign city only to restrict them to the classroom. So, together with the Center, they planned daily lectures and readings to introduce concepts and contexts, organized visits by local media practitioners and theorists that were structured as discussions, and built in regular field trips.

Elaborating on creating a balance between theoretical and practical content, Mukherjee shared, “For our session on film journalism, we visited the Asiatic Society, where students looked at microfilm copies of historical newspapers such as The Bombay Chronicle. Students had already examined contemporary film reportage the week prior, and we rounded this discussion off with a personal interaction with noted film critic Anupama Chopra. Each day and week was planned in this manner, to give students a sense of both historical and contemporary practices, using a method of showing rather than simply telling.”

Over the course of three weeks, the students were introduced to the city’s heritage and early inhabitants through guided walks and tours; interacted with eminent artists, including actor Konkona Sen Sharma; filmmakers Paromita Vohra, Anand Patwardhan and Opender Chanana; learnt about film archival and conservation from experts at the Film Heritage Foundation and Osian’s; and visited film sets, festivals and exhibitions.

Emphasizing the Center’s role in transforming a theoretical plan prepared in New York into a real experience in Mumbai, Mukherjee stated, “This workshop was a pedagogical experiment. Mumbai is a media hydra, a city with deep and foundational relations with multiple visual industries. The syllabus reflects this fact of the city’s past and present, but to translate the syllabus into a viable learning experience needs on-site intellectual and logistical support. Having the support of the Center in Mumbai made everything possible.”

Qian underscored the relevance of the Center citing a need to create global spaces of openness and learning. “We can no longer be focused on one country. Having the Center here in Mumbai is how we were able to have this reach with experts; they appreciated the seriousness we give to them. Seeing how much the students are learning here inspires me to be more embedded and I can see the Center continuing to play an important role in creating opportunities for students and faculty at Columbia.”