Presentation: Engineers in Indian Cinema

Engineers in postcolonial India

Arundhati Virmani

Abstract of presentation in « Journée de l’Inde, Maison Méditerranéenne des Sciences de l’Homme, Aix-en Provence

28 May 2011

Since independence, projects of economic development and modernisation of Indian society attributed a legitimacy and a heightened social recognition to the engineer’s profession. Far from being a new profession, the engineer had nevertheless received a renewed social recognition as a result of British colonial policy of railway development and urban infrastructures from the end of the 18th century onwards. The present inquiry into the social responses and reception of the figure of the engineer after 1947, defined with reference to his skills and his technical knowledge in a society still strongly dominated by membership of caste or community is based on a corpus of Indian films produced since the 1950s when Nehru’s government set in motion a modernisation of the country founded on the principles of technical and practical knowledge.

A study of the cinematographic representations of the engineer in the different regional languages offers us a perception into the paths of insertion of this technical group in Indian society. Confronted with other professions such as doctors, lawyers, university professors or policemen, already well integrated in the social system, the engineer is seldom the protagonist of a fim. Hero of a national project led by elites who were products of the new meritocratic system, he is constantly obliged on the field to negotiate with prevailing working conditions and practices in order to achieve the transformation he is expected to to introduce in the urban and rural landscape of modern India. Bearer of practices expected to « revolutionize » society, he incarnatees the tensions between a knowledge imported form the West and the social values and traditions of his own caste or community. A comparison of films produced in the 1950s-1980s and the 1990s to dates highlight the shifts in the engineer’s place and rôle in Indian society and state structures. More recent films ofcourse focus on the figure of the computer engineer which highlight a new kind of tension : sought after in the international market, the engineer has abandoned the mission hitherto assigned to him of modernizing his own country. It remains to be seen if films simply mirror big social transformations or contribute to some of the key transformations in Indian society by suggesting new models of behaviour ?

Arundhati Virmani, after her PhD in history from the University of Paris I-Panthéon Sorbonne taught in Delhi University before moving to France where she taught in the University de Bordeaux. She currently teaches at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences sociales, Marseille.

Her publications include India : 1900-1947. Un Britannique au cœur du Raj (Paris, Autrement, 2001) and A National Flag for India. Rituals, Nationalism and the Politics of Sentiment (Delhi, Permanent Black, 2008)

Forthcoming Atlas historique de l’Inde (Paris, Autrement, 2012)

Emotional Pasts : Questions for Indian Political Culture (Delhi, Three Essays, 2012

Kaala Patthar [Black Stone] is a 1979 Indian drama film directed by Yash Chopra ; starring Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor who plays an engineer incharge of the mine.


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