Death Race Calcutta: Ruchir Joshi’s Essay Films

In their shapeshifting forms and eclectic details, Joshi's work reinvigorates the essay film and challenges Western perspectives.
Andrew Northrop

Tales from Planet Kolkata (Ruchir Joshi, 1993).

The essay film has always been a shapeshifting entity. It is an offshoot of the documentary mode that fully employs the potential of montage, with various texts and personal reflections interfacing and proposing new ideas, much like written counterparts. It’s a genre that defies immediate and digestible definition in most cases, with Dziga Vertov, Chris Marker, Harun Farocki, Agnès Varda, Thom Andersen, and Orson Welles employing different strategies in their respective canonical examples. In the United Kingdom, the yearly Essay Film Festival champions and explores the form, often incorporating study days and seminars. This year, the festival presented three densely structured and unique films by Ruchir Joshi, an Indian cultural writer and novelist. In the early 1990s, Joshi produced two short essay films focused on the Indian cities of Ahmedabad and his hometown of Calcutta, and an expansive feature concerning the nomadic Baul musicians in West Bengal. In Joshi’s hands, the essay film undergoes a level of transformation, one where dominant Western ways of looking have to be challenged in order to propose new ways of presenting Indian cities and musicians onscreen. 

In Tales from Planet Kolkata (1993), visual artist Tony Cokes proposes that the Western world would create the city of Calcutta if it didn’t already exist, because “familiar images of Calcutta seem to exist to make the Western viewer feel more comfortable, more human, maybe even a little luckier than they actually are.” At the time, Calcutta was India’s punching bag, a city suffering from political neglect and negative media portrayals. Joshi and Cokes met while studying at Goddard College in the 1980s, and Cokes’s appearance acts, in part, as an implied citation to his own film Black Celebration (A Rebellion Against the Commodity) (1988), a found-footage rereading of uprisings in Black neighborhoods in the United States during the 1960s. His long-form monologue in Tales from Planet Kolkata—delivered as a voice-over accompanying images of Calcutta’s cracked walls and transitioning into an onscreen address—confronts how Western viewers perceive “third world” cities. While pointing to the way that certain locations in the United States have also been framed as undesirable, Cokes identifies “an industry of fear behind the camera.” It's a critical stance that is unsettling yet necessary. Given the preexisting perception of Calcutta, a course correction is needed.

The short opens with a meticulously shot homage to Apocalypse Now (1979). Joshi himself jokingly delivers a would-be French cineaste’s monologue fixated on Louis Malle’s 1969 documentary Calcutta, and a fake American talk show host suggests Calcutta’s post-apocalyptic feel warrants a Death Race 2000 (1975) offshoot called “Death Race Calcutta.” A singing storyteller uses a traditional scroll painting to joke that the film’s production team is “sure to botch the job,” and Cokes is later heard reading a laundry list of ethnographic establishing shots that the film doesn’t deliver on. A Western production—City of Joy (1991)—is observed being filmed, and a local actor comments on its depiction of the city over a beer. Joshi’s use of the city’s pre-colonial spelling in the film’s sci-fi title is its own critical exploration, asking the viewer to consider at which point another location might be presented as another planet, and why. 

Tales from Planet Kolkata (1993).

Under cinematic influence, parts of a city become attributed to certain directors, become tourist spots, or even have films named after them. This is true of Paris, London, New York, and other, often Western, cities, but Calcutta not so much—its filmic representations are largely ethnographic, exploitative, or imagined. In response, Tales from Planet Kolkata is a film that seeks not to prescribe a dominant filmic representation of the city, but to explore the available options, be they serious or humorous. In a tour de force of media language and filmmaking modes, Joshi mixes new and unique frameworks with discussions and parodies of those that haven’t worked prior. These ways of analyzing, challenging, and hypothesizing act in tandem, providing multiple frameworks for the viewer to assess. The film is consistently shapeshifting, and the viewer is permitted to travel out of the film and back in again as and when associations take hold. 

The breadth of approaches Joshi employs in his films form a collective dialogue, which balances the scales of representation, even going so far as to cast doubt on the stylistic and narrative choices the director himself makes. From the perspective of strict categorization, it might be easy to classify his feature-length documentary on Baul musicians, Eleven Miles (Egaro Mile, 1991), as a different kind of film from Tales from Planet Kolkata and Joshi’s other short city symphony, Memories of Milk City (1991), both of which followed the production of the feature. In some ways it is different, as it is focused on musicians opposed to locations, but Joshi’s approach to depicting the wandering musicians establishes the structure that his shorts would later take. 

Joshi visualizes the film’s nebulous approach as three maze-like drawings that appear on title cards throughout the film. In one scene, a similar structure is drawn over a map of West Bengal using spilt ink, echoing an earlier voiceover in which Joshi observes that “the maze only becomes interesting when you don’t have a map.” Eleven Miles sits somewhere between an essay film and a road movie in many ways, and its journey is a fragmented one, filmed over three years. Joshi’s consistent questioning of documentary conventions adds charm to the film's complicated attempt to capture musicians who are known for being nomadic, elusive, and often unwilling to be filmed. Throughout, Joshi’s voice-overs share not only his diaristic notes, but his thoughts on how the film might be structured, repeatedly uttering the phrase, “I don’t know where to begin, as I’m sure I won’t know how to end.” This quasi-mantra acts as a gentle acknowledgement of the weight of trying to depict a complex subject and a group to which one doesn’t belong, and can just as easily be applied to Joshi’s subsequent documentaries. 

Eleven Miles (Ruchir Joshi, 1991).

Films about musicians can often rely on convention: relaying a concert, charting a narrativized path through a performer or group’s history, deploying frequent talking heads. But a documentary style that knows the outcome before filming starts does not, and cannot, suit every subject. The Baul, as an anomalous group of outsider musicians who have had immeasurable impact on Bengalese culture since the 15th century, certainly don’t fit that mold. Though their lyricism shares traits with aspects of Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religions, their songs are framed around the devotional energy within the body. Each individual Baul has their instrument of choice—a stringed drum called the ektara, a lute dotora, or a dubki drum in many cases—which work independently when they travel solo, and complement each other when the singers congregate.

Much like the essay film as a form, the Baul defy immediate definition, and Eleven Miles includes complicated and conflicting opinions regarding what defines one. Some suggest that true Bauls no longer exist, and others give looser, more spiritual definitions of their constitution. Joshi even speaks to an actor who was cast to play a young Baul in a feature film despite not being a Baul himself, which was criticized by members of the Baul community. This reaction demonstrates how the Baul would be dissatisfied with a film that painted with too narrow a brushstroke. Such a misstep would overlook the eclectic details that can only be gleaned through sustained engagement, and miss that not all Baul are strictly reenacting a tradition, but often updating them in ways that are personal. In one of the film’s most enjoyable performances, one singer refers to the body as a spiritual light requiring batteries, showing how a century-old tradition can be adapted to the imprints of modernity.

Eleven Miles (1991).

Eleven Miles establishes Joshi’s multimodal approach towards his subjects, with the film drifting between modes of inquiry, including Direct Cinema-style shots of performances, lyrics shown on title cards, snippets of interviews and conversations, personal reflections, and commentary on how the film itself might be structured. The cosmic mistakes of filmmaking are also permitted to appear. Joshi’s voice-over acknowledges the times when his crew were unable to film something interesting owing to missing pieces of equipment or poor lighting conditions, and in one instance describes the luck of the production having a lens they thought stolen returned by a Baul at 4 a.m. Joshi also likens a misloaded and coiled-up reel of film to a flower that had received a jolt of joy, evoking an earlier appearance of a man who suggests that a Baul is someone who has felt the flower burst in his heart. Joshi allows these moments to be nourished by the mindset of the Baul themselves, attaching lyricisms to occurrences that would otherwise be glossed over as mistakes or missed opportunities. It is these moments that define the maze-like structure Joshi presents as a psychogeographic journey wherein all moments are nourished by each other, opposed to a point A, point B narrative.

The same maze-like structure could equally apply to the director’s shorts, which are not only marked by chance encounters, but by the influence and inclusion of cultural theorists, such as Cokes in Tales from Planet Kolkata and poet Madhu Rye in Memories from Milk City, the latter about Ahmedabad, a city known as the milk capital of India but also the site of historic and ongoing religious riots. While surveying the city’s nightlife, Joshi and his crew stumble upon a group of young men who huddle around the camera and compete for the limelight by saying divisive statements in an attempt to challenge the filmmaker’s presence. This encounter interrupts the flow of a preexisting poem by Rye, which is intermittently spoken over the film alongside an original text written especially for it, and has a fast staccato delivery of rhyming lines. As the camera moves around, trying to decide on one subject amidst the group of competing revelers, the poem intersects with the images when it can, as if the film’s editing is being put off balance by the chance encounter. The prevalence of food in Rye’s preexisting poem suits “milk city” well, as food vendors are shown preparing dishes and sacred white cows walk around the city freely, often as if they are escorting the camera. In Rye’s original text for the film, he adds that “the city spreads fat, bulging with fax, phone and Xerox shops,” capturing a transitional period for Ahmedabad, one where Americanisms and globalization seep in against the backdrop of the city’s religious turmoil, while encapsulating the relationship the city has to food in India’s economy. By the same token, Rye’s writing speaks to the region’s literary history and its association with the Gujarati language. Joshi’s father, Shivkumar Joshi, was a part of this heritage, living in Ahmedabad before Calcutta and writing numerous plays, novels, short stories. Although this isn’t signposted directly in the film, it is certainly part of its connective tissue, and viewers coming into the film with an understanding of all three writers’ work would undoubtedly latch on to these threads. 

Deepak Majumdar in Eleven Miles (1991).

Using outside texts as a departure point is one of the essay film’s common tropes, evoking written citations, but Joshi often goes a step further by incorporating theorists and poets into the body of the film, Cokes and Rye included. In Eleven Miles, Joshi’s mentor and friend Deepak Majumdar occupies that role, and his death before the making of Tales from Planet Kolkata leaves Joshi questioning what his contributions to that film would have looked like. In Eleven Miles, Majumdar’s passionate discussions of the Baul provide necessary exposition for the viewer, while expanding on the events and people Joshi meets during the course of filming. Moments where he gets overexcited or incoherent are kept in, often followed by Joshi’s hands creeping into frame and passing him a large bottle of alcohol that they are sharing while afloat on a raft. These less formal appearances are a lighthearted way of underlining how our friendships with others can help us to make sense of the world and the things we enjoy. 

Eleven Miles, Memories of Milk City, and Tales from Planet Kolkata are multifaceted explorations of their subjects that reach deep into the potential of the essay film as a form, and the breadth of their approaches could be attributed to their unusual production contexts. They were commissioned by Alan Fountain at Channel 4, one of the United Kingdom’s dominant terrestrial television channels. Channel 4 itself is unusual in that it is publicly owned, but privately funded, differing from the BBC, which is funded by the country’s television license. Established in 1982, Channel 4 had a degree of operational independence and was often able to commission arthouse-style programming. Black Audio Film Collective’s landmark essay film Handsworth Songs (1986) emerged from this period, and broadcast blocks were regularly devoted to experimental programming through the 1990s. A public television channel funding and screening complex, essayistic works on a modest budget would be unheard of now, but the recent restorations of Joshi’s Channel 4-funded films showcase a time when they were. Tales from Planet Kolkata feels comfortably funded, with a wide variety of crane shots, and the three-year shooting period of Eleven Miles points to Fountain having not only a great deal of faith in Joshi delivering something worthwhile, but also the means to support such a lengthy project. Though funded from outside, the films’ identities feel distinctly about India, from within India. This can be attributed to Joshi’s identity, of course, but it owes more to the fact that these films are so densely populated with regional references, which challenge the Western viewer’s perspective, and ties to other texts or events, all of which continue to aggregate and inform each other well into repeat viewings.

Memories of Milk City (Ruchir Joshi, 1991).

Documentaries made for television often screen once or twice and are then archived. Unlike films on the festival circuit, this often means works are shelved soon after audiences first encounter them and do not receive the circulation and longevity they deserve. Joshi has remained a cultural columnist for various outlets, writing op-eds and having published several novels. He often turns back to Calcutta and Ahmedabad as a subject or setting, evoking their complicated histories and their ongoing representations or modern changes. His first novel, The Last Jet-Engine Laugh (2000), looks back on three generations of a family history from the perspective of a protagonist in a near-future Calcutta, borrowing moments from Joshi’s own history—namely, his parents being peaceful revolutionaries in Ahmedabad during the fight for India’s independence. Joshi also credits his father as an important source of support during his initial filmmaking endeavors. There is often a sense in Joshi’s work that historical events always bleed into the present, which is especially important for cities like Ahmedabad and Calcutta, both of which still face many of the issues evoked in Tales from Planet Kolkata and Memories from Milk City. Echoing Joshi’s own mantra of “I don’t know where to begin, as I’m sure I won’t know how to end” in Eleven Miles, there’s a sense that a new viewer or reader could begin at any stage in his output, be it filmic or written, and move backwards and forwards, each component feeding and nourishing the other.

It is often the case that essay films warrant repeat viewings. The essayistic incorporation of a text, an event, a personal reflection, or even a writer’s oeuvre can create departure points for the viewer that activate information already acquired, or encourage further exploration that would re-amplify certain notions on a second viewing. The necessary steps Joshi takes to portray India’s cities and outsider musicians more fairly exemplify the essay film’s potential, while also answering why those subjects require essayistic exploration. At the same time, Joshi’s efforts push the essay film’s boundaries in highly rewarding ways, providing commentary on the construction of the films themselves and challenging the Western viewer’s positioning. Eleven Miles ultimately feels like a music documentary that has been out of view for too long, and one that is deserving of being placed among the most beloved films concerning musicians. Likewise, Memories of Milk City and Tales from Planet Kolkata stand distinctively as city portraits investigating locations that require a different documentary approach than the canon of Western-made travelogues. That viewing Joshi’s essay films several decades later still raises unique questions is a testament to their power. What can we learn when we employ multiple approaches to looking rather than one? How do we as a Western audience look at modern day Calcutta and Ahmedabad, if we do at all? Even more astutely, Joshi’s style of filmmaking looks to the possibilities of the multitude—there are multiple ways of telling and looking, not just one.

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