Marcus Banks: Revisiting Raju

Raju and His Friends was released almost exactly a quarter of a century ago, and revisiting it now at the invitation of the FocaalBlog editor is something of a trip in a time machine for me. As I discuss below, ethnographic film and anthropological theory have moved on considerably since then. The question, therefore, is whether the film still has relevance to students and fellow academics today.

The forty-minute film was made as my “graduation” film at the end of a one-year training fellowship at the United Kingdom’s National Film and Television School (NFTS), a scheme organized by the Royal Anthropological Institute and funded by a generous award from the Leverhulme Trust. The aim of the scheme was to second tenured anthropologists to the NFTS for one year, to complete basic documentary film training and to shoot a film, after which they would return to their universities and continue as practitioner-scholars. In fact, only one of the four who won the competitive scholarship was already employed, the rest of us being post-docs and temporary lecturers. Of the four, I was the one who fulfilled the brief least, as after Raju I never shot or directed another film, although I remained involved in film production for a few years after the NFTS.

For those who haven’t seen it, the loosely observational film follows Raju—a young urban Indian man—in his daily routines, interacting with family and friends in a number of casual encounters. The film is structured into eight scenes, or vignettes, and seems to span two days and the evening and night between these days, although in fact the scenes were shot over several weeks and are not presented in chronological order of shooting. “Shop opening” (Raju’s family runs a luggage shop in the center of what was then a small and rather sleepy town, Jamnagar, in western India) marks the start of the first “day.” It is followed by “Suitcase sale,” in which we see Raju and his elderly father selling a suitcase to a couple visiting from the rural hinterland. This then leads into a discussion about the pace of life in Jamnagar compared to metropolitan centers, such as Bombay, and then on to a discussion about marriage and the importance of local social ties. The third scene, “Rooftop,” takes us up onto a rooftop overlooking the town center, the only place we could film away from inquisitive crowds. In a scene specifically inspired by David MacDougall (To Live With Herds, 1972), Raju first shows us the city’s various districts (Hindu, Muslim, Jain) and key buildings, but this then leads into a further discussion of marriage in which he reveals that he, a Jain, has a platonic relationship with a Muslim women he will never be able to marry. From this scene we move directly to the next, “The wedding,” which presents a quick overview of a wedding to which Raju has been invited. The following scene, “Beraja,” takes us out into the countryside on a visit to Raju’s ancestral village, where he and a cousin perform a short ceremony in front of the family’s ancestral deity in the family home. The scene concludes back in the city, at Raju’s family’s home, at the end of the day. Raju plays with his brother’s baby son, and for the first time we meet female members of the family.

The next “day” then opens with the sixth scene, “Ordering tea”: Raju and a friend from school sit and drink tea at Raju’s shop. The next scene, “At school,” follows Raju to a private Muslim school where he had briefly taught a few years earlier; there is more tea drinking and laughter and banter between the staff and their former colleague, who is clearly very much at ease. In the final scene, “Dhorivav” (the name refers to a well), we travel with Raju and a few school friends to a picnic spot just outside the city; there they reminisce on their school and college days as the sun sinks low and brings to an end both the second “day” and the film itself. The closing credits not only identify the camera operator, the sound recordist, and so on, but also include a still image of Raju and me.

I had worked as an anthropologist in the city of Jamnagar for several years before making the film, and I knew Raju, his family, and his friends, very well indeed. Although they were Jains, the subjects of my original research, Raju and his circle, for a variety of reasons, had never been very important informants for my enquiries. However, when it came to selecting a film subject for my NFTS final film, I knew that by making a film with Raju I could achieve the kind of intimacy that I wanted to characterize my film, shot as it was in the aftermath of the “writing culture” debates. My initial anthropological intention was to make a film that challenged then-conventional notions of caste as the major structuring principle in Indian society and to explore instead the importance of affect and particularly friendship. Raju’s friendships crossed caste, class, and religious barriers, and while I appreciated that he was quite unusual in this, I wanted to demonstrate to non-Indianist viewers that India was not quite as rigid in social organization as they might have thought.

Interestingly, Raju’s own view of what the film was “about” was almost the opposite. Far from wanting to be seen as an unusual (and, in my eyes, commendable) exemplar of social boundary crossing, he decided that I had cast him in “the movie” as a kind of middle-class everyman, one who went about his daily routines, interacting with family and friends as he did so. The film would be of value, so he told me, to my students, to show them what everyday life was like in India. This difference aside, we both agreed that the film would counter misconceptions held by Westerners about poverty in India. (I also instructed my cameraman that there were to be no shots of elephants.)

I had known about Raju’s platonic romance—laid bare in the “Rooftop” scene—for a couple of years before we shot the film. At this time I was making annual visits to the city, and Raju and I had kept in touch by letter in the interim (there was, of course, no email then, and international phone calls were costly and extremely difficult to organize). I had not anticipated, however, how large a part this romance would ultimately play in structuring the film. At the time of shooting, my cameraman (Andy Jillings, a fellow NFTS student) suggested that the romance could be a keystone around which the film revolved, but I rather hoped to keep it in the background; while the relationship was an open secret known to Raju’s family, friends, and others, it was not something they wanted broadcast (possibly, quite literally).

However, once back in England, as I attempted to edit the footage, I could see the logic of my cameraman’s position, one that was echoed by my tutors at the NFTS. Thus, in the final cut, the first day of the film largely concerns family matters and kinship, and the scenes increasingly build to a midpoint climax where, in the wedding scene and beyond, we see the life that Raju will never have—as a married man, with children, fulfilling his filial duties. The second day then focuses on the comforts of friendship and the satisfaction that Raju finds in his relationships with his friends, male and female (the private Muslim school serves members of the Shia Daudi Bohra sect, which advocates female education; consequently many of the teachers were women, including Raju’s platonic soul mate, although she does not appear in the film).

Some two decades on, I am not sure I made the right decision on this. I feel fairly comfortable about the ethics of presenting the story (Raju thoroughly endorsed it, though his elder brother and de facto head of the family was not at all pleased), but I think it gets in the way of the more academic aims I set out with. It does, however, seem to be the hook that draws most viewers into the film.

The film thus exemplifies a tension right at the heart of ethnographic film: the tension between the cinematic and the sociological. Raju is very well shot, sometimes beautifully so (I can say this as I was not the camera operator). I am particularly fond of the closing scene, in which Raju and his friends are silhouetted against the early evening sky, which adds an appropriate touch of nostalgic wistfulness to their reminiscing. In that sense it is a very distant cousin of some of Robert Gardner’s films, Forest of Bliss (1986) most obviously.

But I think the film also packs in a lot of sociological information. Some of this information concerns the pace of small-town life before the economic liberalization measures that were just on the horizon, and it therefore now has historical value. I strongly disliked Pankaj Mishra’s Butter Chicken in Ludhiana (1995) when it was first published, finding it patronizing and at times even sneering in its discussion of the “aspirational middle classes” in “small town” India. The merchants and shopkeepers, who were my research informants and the subjects of the film, are the very people Mishra claims to be writing about, yet I did not recognize them in his travelogue.

In hindsight, and setting aside his youthful cosmopolitan prejudices, Mishra paints a picture that is at least partly familiar. I last visited Jamnagar in 2000, and there was no doubt that there had been spectacular economic growth. The narrow streets of the old town, now obviously the center of a city, were packed with expensive cars, and many of my middle-class merchant friends were sending their children (or grandchildren) to private English-medium schools, seeking health care at private clinics, and, in other ways described by Mishra, were buying themselves out of the state and seemingly distancing themselves from any sense of civic engagement, let along responsibility. Following Mishra, this seems to be depressing analysis and prognosis that applies to my first field site.

Yet, if it has no other ethnographic value after twenty-five years, I would like to believe that Raju and His Friends allows insight into a world of affect, of informal voluntaristic relationships, as well as loving familial relationships, that cannot have been entirely swept away by India’s neoliberal economic policies over the past two decades, and to which I hope the film stands as testimony.

Finally, I hinted at the start of this piece that my own career could be seen as a failure of the Leverhulme training scheme, as I never authored another film. I do not, however, see it this way. The NFTS training, including the preproduction, location shoot, and postproduction activities surrounding Raju opened my eyes to the backstage life of all ethnographic and nonfiction films, in a way that merely reading some of the many “how I made my movie” accounts published in the 1990s could not have done. By having practiced practice, as it were, the early years of my academic career were greatly strengthened, and I had the confidence to develop a research and teaching pathway under the rubric of “visual anthropology,” while at the same time seeking to challenge the definition of visual anthropology itself, away from a definition based on the medium of ethnographic film production and toward a more inclusive and analytical agenda centered on representation and visual analysis.

Marcus Banks is Professor of Visual Anthropology at the University of Oxford and Head of the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, where he teaches social anthropology and visual anthropology. His work focuses on visual anthropology and ethnographic film, Indian urban society and Jainism, ethnicity, nationalism, and neo-nationalism.

Cite as: Banks, Marcus. 2014. “Revisiting Raju,” FocaalBlog, DATE, URL.