Five Questions with Krishna

Posted: June 23, 2011 - 15:14 , by Laura Comerford

Submitted by Netta Kornberg, Intern with the Institute for Contemporary Culture.

In 2008, when Srinivas Krishna’s When the Gods Came Down to Earth was installed in front of the ROM, we had no idea he’d be back three years later, this time for Bollywood stars rather than Hindu Gods. On Sunday June 26 at 1pm, the Toronto-based writer-producer-director-actor-artist will be giving a personalized tour of the ICC’s Bollywood Cinema Showcards exhibition. The ROM isn’t the only major institution he’s working with this summer- he’s also put together one of Luminato’s most engaging installations in collaboration with TIFF, My Name is Raj.

It’s no surprise that Krishna’s summer is filled with Bollywood. He has had a long relationship with the industry; elements of Bollywood Cinema are apparent right from his breakthrough film Masala.

In the lead up to Krishna’s “Fresh Perspectives” Tour, we got him to answer five questions about Bollywood, filmmaking and writing an opera.

1. What is your favorite Raj Kapoor film and why?
Awaara—Raj Kapoor’s groundbreaking international hit of 1951 is certainly my favourite. It’s a multi-layered, story-within-story whose central theme is nature versus nurture: is your character determined by your birth or by societal conditions and expectations? In a country that had only recently won its independence from colonial rule and was taking charge of its destiny, yet where hierarchical caste-based identities still prevailed, Awaara struck a powerful chord. The sweep of its story combined with naturalistic performances, memorable characters, ironic, witty dialogue, fantastic sets and dream sequences, gorgeous black and white cinematography and, of course, the songs, all make it as fresh today as it was when it was released sixty years ago.

2. What influence has Bollywood had on your films, installations and other pieces?
Quite a bit – more than I am probably aware of. I owe my love of Indian movies to my older sister Shaila who would take me along when, as kids growing up in Toronto, she’d go to the Indian cinema theatre. That was a time before it was known as “Bollywood.” It was simply Indian cinema. What I grew to love most about Indian cinema is that it makes no pretense of realism, of representing the “objective” world; there is never any doubt that we are watching a movie with its own internal frames of reference. This gives Indian filmmakers a great deal of freedom to be inventive with the form – the music, the melodrama, the fanfare and sheer entertainment value of the experience they offer – because they owe their fidelity not to how we see but to how we feel. This was a valuable lesson for me.

3. You have often been identified as part of the South Asian diaspora, and some of your work comments on the position of South Asian diasporic people. Masala has been analysed through this lens; your piece When the Gods Came Down to Earth was recently part of the IAAC Exhibition of Contemporary Indian Art of the Diaspora. Do you see yourself as part of a ‘diaspora’ or your work emanating from a diasporic location? What does it mean to you to sometimes be considered diasporic?
It’s a good question. Masala was certainly among the early films to address the shared experience of South Asians in Canada. However, when I made and released Masala in the early 1990′s, I found that South Asians did not engage with it as much as mainstream audiences. Perhaps because the idea of a South Asian diaspora was so new at the time and the conversation about what it meant to be a South Asian abroad was only just beginning. People weren’t comfortable with it. So I basically stopped expressing the South Asian side of my life in my work for a period of time. Of course, things have changed. That conversation has been going on for some time now. Not just in movies and literature— there are conferences and academic departments dedicated to studying it. The South Asian diaspora is a fact now. As a result, when I recently returned to South Asian subject matter — in my film, Ganesh Boy Wonder, and in my art installations, When The Gods Came Down To Earth and My Name Is Raj – I found a ready audience for my work. So what can I say? Long live the diaspora!

4. What have been some of the challenges and advantages of making a movie out of Canada ?
Many of the challenges I’ve faced in Canada are the same as everywhere else, mostly having to do with finding enough money to meet the budget, getting distribution, and the like. However, we face one challenge that is quite unique to English Canada, and that is not having much of a domestic audience. Our success depends on our ability to export our films and, therefore, even at the stage of writing, we start thinking about foreign audiences. That said, there are indeed significant advantages to working here. We have great talent both in front of and behind the camera. And perhaps because of our lower budgets we are able to make more personal films.

5. You have written for television dramas, mini-series, dance films, feature films, stage plays and operas. What common threads in your diverse written work would you point to in terms of content, style, form, etc.?
Identity and experience. I am fascinated by the way people see themselves and the transformations they go through, especially characters who strive to transcend their social identities. In any work I do, I keep coming back to the formal challenges—and pleasures—of communicating the quality and structure of experience, the intense subjectivity of how we feel versus the objective reality of our actions and how we are seen. In the conflict between the two lies for me a great deal of the drama, comedy and pathos of life.

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