So at least three stores on a single stretch of 30th Ave near my home sell South Asian videos; today I walked into the one that looked the most promising, and came out with used DVDs of Sholay (Ramesh Sippy, 1975) and Devdas (Bimal Roy, 1955), the former having been recently enjoyed viewing, the latter a blind buy but not an uneducated one. I was also looking at a few Raj Kapoor films that I passed up--I didn't have much cash to expend today.
On thing peturbed me early on. As I walked into the store, I immediately asked the attendent in the tiny shop if he had Hindi and/or Bengali films with English subtitles. No doubt a bit surprised at seeing a white guy and his white girlfriend in his store, he sputtered back something to the effect of, "No Bengali, just Hindi. All of them having English subtitles." Fair enough. So I started looking, and he asked what kinds of things I wanted. "Well, I'm not really sure, I'm just looking for now. Classical films, I guess." "You mean black-and-white? Here is Barsaat, this is classic." "OK. Oh, do you have Awaara?" "Hmm. I'll look." Etc. I saw a DVD spine that read 'Ghatak' and I pulled it out. "That's action film," the clerk tells me. "You want action film?"
"No, not really. I just saw the name, and I'm looking for films by a director with this last name, Ghatak." It was at this point that I realized the clerk's English wasn't very good, because it was very difficult for me to explain that, no, I wasn't looking for action films. It doesn't help that I'm stupid and not thinking on my toes, that Ghatak made Bengali films and that the clerk said right off the bat that he doesn't have anything Bengali. (There's a place two blocks away that does advertise both Bengali and Hindi stuff, but when we looked in the store window that appeared to have almost entirely music, few movies. I didn't go in.)
And so I'm realizing how difficult some of this subcontinental cinematic exploration might be, because the monolithic Indian cinema we tend to think of in hip "multicultural" white America is no monolith at all, and really diving into the stuff of the subcontinent means sampling things and tracking down titles in several different languages of production. I have no idea where to find anything in the Tamil-language cinema, or Punjabi, for starters, except online. This makes things tough, because part of me doesn't want to resort to ordering everything online. For better or for worse I want to cling to the idea that hunting through the films of other cultures necessitates a certain personal investment in those cultures' communities, particularly the communities here who share my home in New York. Being into South Asian cinema because you saw Ghost World, then Lagaan, and then started renting a lot of Bollywood DVDs from Kim's Video isn't likely to work as a lasting foundation for real cultural contact. It's a trend, like East Asia has provided many trends to American viewers in the know, for decades now. (My antipathy towards trends comes partly from the fact that I am so hopelessly inept at them.) I kind of want to be the awkward white guy harassing bored Indian store clerks to find the particular masala movie I'm looking for. I want to discuss with friends of mine how their culture, and how their parents, see these movies, and think of these movies. Otherwise any amount of multiculturalism is really just variety for a white person's--this white person's--cultural capital, and not real dedication to learning about something new, something different.
Maybe my recent interest in South Asian cinema will fade after a few more titles and a little more reading under my belt, because it's just a phase; or perhaps it will morph into a more manageable slow burn, like my spark for silent film caused earlier this summer by reading Paolo Cherchi Usai. Really I'm talking about Bollywood and the cinemas around it as a way of getting at the central point, which is that cinephilia need not be about only amassing knowledge and experience for oneself, but stretching oneself to meet other people's knowledge and experience.