Meet our faculty: Usha Iyer

An affiliate of the Center for South Asia, Usha Iyer joined the Stanford faculty in 2016 as Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies. Below, the center interviewed Iyer as part of their annual newsletter:

How did you become interested in studying cinema and performance in South Asia?

As an undergraduate student in St. Xavier’s College, Bombay, in the early 1990s, I was an English literature major (after battling parental insistence that I study medicine or engineering!). Amidst all the Chaucer, Donne, Austen, and Hemingway, we happened to watch — in a course on adaptation taught by Sangeeta Datta (now an independent scholar-filmmaker in the UK) — the films of Satyajit Ray: Charulata (“The Broken Nest”), Pather Panchali (“Song of the Little Road”), and Ghare Baire (“The Home and the World”). Until then, I had mostly watched popular Hindi cinema (now often referred to as Bollywood), Hollywood movies, and some social-realist films by New Wave filmmakers like Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani. But watching films in an academic context radically changed how we viewed them. Rather than focus only on plot or character, we were encouraged to look closely at stylistic elements, noting how formal aspects such as lighting, cinematography, editing, and sound produced the meaning of the film rather than merely contributing to the “look” of the film. I was hooked! But film studies wasn’t yet an established formal discipline in Indian universities and so I proceeded to do a master’s degree in video production, followed by years of hands-on work in documentary film and commercial television. I couldn’t shake off my academic interest in the study of film as a form though, and so eventually I did another master’s degree in cultural studies, followed by a Ph.D. in film and media studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

What are your current research interests?

I’m just finishing up my first book, tentatively titled The Dancing Heroine: Choreographing Gender in Popular Hindi Cinema (under contract with Oxford University Press) in which I undertake a historical and theoretical study of constructions of gender and sexuality through popular Hindi film dance. Drawing on interdisciplinary work on stardom, gender, and performance theories from the contemporary field of dance studies as well as medieval South Asian texts on performance, I investigate the role of dance in the construction of the stardom of four iconic Indian dancer-actresses from the 1930s to the present: Sadhona Bose, Vyjayanthimala, Waheeda Rehman, and Madhuri Dixit. Current scholarship on Indian and South Asian cinema tends to be primarily focused on narrative and film music. Through this book, I hope to demonstrate how the dynamic figurations of the body wrought by dance produce unique constructions of gender, stardom, and spectacle, and throw light on questions that have long occupied film scholars: how does popular Indian cinema generate spectatorial desire and engagement differently than other cinematic traditions, and what are the specific mobilizations of space, movement, and bodies that create the particular address of Indian cinema?

Another research interest that I’ve recently begun expanding on is the distribution and reception of popular Indian cinema in the Caribbean (Trinidad, Guyana, Suriname), Fiji, and Mauritius. From 1838 to 1917, a large number of Indians migrated to these locations as indentured or contracted labor to work on British sugar plantations. Described as the “Plantation Raj” diaspora or the “old Indian diaspora,” these communities as well as other ethnic communities living in these regions developed an intense and complicated relationship with popular Indian cinema, which influenced music, dance, and other performance traditions in these regions.

What courses are you teaching a Stanford?

I’ve taught a course on Indian cinema for two years now, providing an overview of commercial and art cinemas from different parts of the country. In winter 2018, I’m offering a course specifically on the art cinema of India — perhaps among the first of its kind in the American academic setting — as many students have expressed a desire to more closely study the films and the writings of filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, John Abraham, Mani Kaul etc. I also teach survey courses on “world cinema,” exploring film cultures in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America, Introduction to Film Study, as well as graduate seminars such as, The Body in Film and other Media, Gender & Performance, Theories of Melodrama.

How may your work inform our understanding of the region?

Cinema continues to be South Asia’s most popular cultural form with significant economic and affective investments in its production and reception. Studying popular Indian cinema through a critical lens helps us analyze social, political, and economic transformations in the sub-continent as well as the production of spectator-citizens. In particular, examining film dance, which has featured a syncretic mix of Indian classical and folk dance traditions as well as transnational dance forms since the early 20th century, has the potential to illuminate how the planes of the popular, the national, and the global are constantly negotiated and articulated by popular Indian cinema. A similar impetus to study global, transnational flows through performance traditions of film, music, and dance drives my research interest in the older plantation diaspora in the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, and South East Asia.

This article is part of a series of interviews with recently hired Stanford faculty with expertise in South Asia and Islamic studies.