It is interesting to note that in the title of German artist Mario Pfeifer's film 'A Formal Film in Nine Episodes: Prologue and Epilogue' at Project 88, the place eludes mention. Pfeifer films Mumbai, eschewing the Indo Gothic silhouettes, the sweep of bay, or Marine Drive, that recur in Bollywood films. The margins of urbanization he locates us in could have been in any city in India.
Two other artists showing in the city offer a comparative look at Pfeiferâ's responses to location, familiar and unfamiliar. Photographer Dhruv Malhotra's deeply absorbing probe of New Delhi's Noida district playing at Chatterjee & Lal, for instance. While Malhotra's title was a clear location, nothing in the photographs gave away that location; an evocative sense of place achieved in a night glow that makes for a cinematic day for night, it documented Noida's lonely among the detritus. But here again, it could have been anywhere at all. This sense of the intense local is, in a sense, a universal eye that Pfeifer, a German, and Malhotra, an Indian, use to bring a formal element to work: even as it has a definite sense of place, it does not necessarily need identification.
And at Mumbai Art Room, a Canadian-British artist, Dean Baldwin, on a residency in the city, responds through another marginal lens to Mumbai's itinerant hawkers. Western art history and local craftmanship fashion his work 'Calyx-Krater Chamber'. A large urn held sangria on opening night; set in a Greek symposium or gathering place, using Dharavi potters, marble workers and metalsmiths, he creates an installation around a food stall as a meeting place. For the artist in a foreign place, looking for the familiar in a chaotic landscape, Pfeifer uses a formal structure, Baldwin responds with Western art history: that could be a strategy or a limitation, but is it really?
Is this just a unidirectional gaze of outsiders through the marginalized? Who really is the outsider-other? Most of Pfeifer's characters are immigrants or migrants to the city, as would have been the Dharavi potter that Baldwin collaborates with in this complex gaze of the artist as translator, the viewer is placed as translator too. Would citizens of the city locate their city and its recent inhabitants? Indeed, watching Bombay Talkies, a just released anthology of four films on the city by young Hindi film directors (Bollywood and independent cinema), the protagonists they choose are no all-conquering heroes of yore; they respond to the city through its current shifting landscape and the marginalized/minority, much like Pfeifer does. In a sense, in this city, like other megapolises, exploding hierarchies are open to interpretation, which makes everyone an insider-outsider simultaneously.
In 'A Formal Film' Pfeifer chooses locations that his distanced eye is unhindered by. Where a dust inheritance of incessant construction settles over people and place, the cinematographer of the film, Avijit Mukul Kishore, makes colour vivid, in a city so tired and jaded with its own expansion and collapsing infrastructure. Non-actors play out scant characters, weave a loose narrative, and recur in a landscape that, from an ice factory in Versovaâ€™s fish market and mangroves along suburban creeks to urban hinterlands, is as unseen and foreign to most Mumbaiites as to Pfeifer. It becomes a reflection, not so much of an elite-poor divide, but of the bewildering, rapid urbanization spreading further north of the city.
Flaneur-like Pfeifer observes. There have been outside observations in the past 'Pier Paolo Pasolini, Louis Malle, Roberto Rossellini' but Pfeifer chooses to stay more with cinematic technique and art history over linear narrative. The nine episodes are nine independent vignettes; 'epilogue' and 'prologue' in this case mislead to expecting narrative linearity. Screened separately, three each on three separate screens, sound overlaps and there's no synchronization, much like ambient sound is in Mumbai. Treated with formal rigour, each episode stands on its own. Amos Vogel, cofounder of the New York Film Festival would espouse this approach. 'We need new options because the old fashioned, straightforward, linear narratives with their beginning, middle and end have none of the real mysteries of existence that we all know to be true of our lives,' he says to Doug Aitken, author of Broken Screens. Aitken affirms, 'Nonlinear structures allow you to explore time to open it up, to pull it back, and reveal the inner workings of a single moment.'
In that, Pfeifer grapples the impossibility of presenting a Mumbai with an upheaval in unstructured urbanization going on. The cliches are in flux, new ones are being made and he positions himself in the interstitial spaces of this changing demographic of people and space, showing evocatively the mere existence and single moments that the majority eke out in this city. Loosely weaving together a love story that becomes apparent only at the end, with the recurrent characters appearing together, the nine episodes touch on the quotidian and the transient: barber shops, local markets, a shanty in a wasteland under shadows of encroaching high rises, an eye clinic offering laser correction and then the ice factory.
In iridescent blue that stays the length of the episode at the ice factory, Kishore's camera pans an independent love story to labour: one is taken immersively through the motions of manufacture; an ice cold environment exudes breathtaking colour and continuity. This continuity is seen in all the episodes; Pfeifer shot all in single takes, economizing on film (shooting on 35mm is expensive) and the vagaries of shooting in a city like Mumbai. The epilogue, which is a long shot from the back seat of an autorickshaw traversing the city at night, brings in sound in much the same way the other episodes do, as a third person never seen. A barking dog, a voice in an apartment, the music in the rickshaw, all are located in subjects off camera.
Engaging deeply with a city not his own, Pfeifer's extensive research has led to a published reader that is in parallel with the film. Working with designer Markus Weisbeck and architect Raghunath Vasudevan, the book's production is another formal exercise. Scouring the city for popular art and old type setters and letter presses, the production of the reader is an ode to the city's ability to assimilate: of migrants and immigrants, of popular culture and kitsch, of co-existing outdated manufacture and new technology, of multiple gazes - the new citizen, the old denizen, the foreign. Who is to claim authenticity? Who is the insider, who the outsider?
Pfeifer's formal film joins the canon of films on India; his, set in contemporary times, with the accompanying reader, gives much food for thought. To read, to see, to ponder: a city that at present its citizens know not quite so well.
'We read, we travel, we become.' (Derek Walcott, 'The Prodigal')
(All images: Mario Pfeifer, A Formal Film in Nine Episodes, Prologue & Epilogue, 2010, 35 mm Film / Multiple-High-Definition-Video Projection for Exhibition Space, Stereo, Colour, Hindi, Tamil with English Subtitles, 51 min; Â© Mario Pfeifer, [blackboardfilms])