Femininity, Spies, and Other Notes on Global Cinema


Femininity, Spies, and Other Notes on Global Cinema

Q&A with Professor Samhita Sunya
Samhita Sunya headshot

rofessor Samhita Sunya teaches and researches global cinema in UVA’s Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures department. She spoke to UVA Global about her recently-published book, her global courses, and her current research and other work.

Congratulations on your new book Sirens of Modernity: World Cinema via Bombay (2022, UC Press), on the concept of world cinema in the context of popular Hindi film/songs of the 1960s and its revealing themes, including gender, excess, and popular cinephilia. Can you tell us about the research that led to this book?

Sunya: I started graduate school in 2007, at a time when scholarship on popular Hindi cinema – aka “Bollywood” – was mushrooming in an exciting way. I was interested in asking questions about longer histories of Hindi cinema, and to this end, I spent several months at the National Film Archive of India (NFAI). From Hindi remakes of Tamil comedies that starred Mehmood, which I had long known and loved, to coproductions that I initially came across in film magazines at NFAI and other libraries, I kept finding myself drawn to a set of seemingly oddball films from a “long” 1960s period. These films didn’t seem to fit in any existing scholarly histories of cinema: whether on coproductions, art cinema, world cinema, South Asian cinema, Hindi cinema, or Cold War-era cinema.

Sirens of Modernity cover
Sirens of Modernity book cover

These films argued that the feminine excess of Hindi cinema could cross boundaries of language and draw the world together through fraternity, friendship, and love.

Among other similarities, all of these films made arguments about the belovedness of the mobile singing dancer-actress. The dancer-actress stood in, in highly gendered ways, for the Hindi song-dance films themselves. These films argued that the feminine excess of Hindi cinema could cross boundaries of language and draw the world together through fraternity, friendship, and love. Even today, “love” is often invoked as an antidote to “hate.” My research examines Hindi films’ own Cold War-era arguments about love—in the iteration of cinephilia—to better understand relationships between popular politics and popular media, which have been so central to the experience of modernity on a global scale.

Before joining the faculty at UVA, you held an assistant professorship in Visual Culture at the American University of Beirut from 2014-2016. How did this experience impact your research and your teaching?

Sunya: As many graduate students do when they are on the “job market,” I applied to everything I possibly could! When I came out of the process with a job offer from the American University of Beirut, I was thrilled, partly because I had by then come across several reports that mentioned the centrality of Beirut as a hub of film subtitling and distribution for Hindi (and other) films between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s. On the one hand, the time I spent in Lebanon allowed me to continue looking further into this history of media distribution, and I learned so much. Much more importantly, it was an experience that solidified my sense of the impact of U.S. wars and policies on the lives of people in the Middle East (among other regions), and hence, a sense of my responsibility—as a U.S. citizen now teaching at a U.S. institution—for educating future generations of students not only about the pasts and presents of these interventions, but also about the diverse range of modern histories and cultural forms that comprise this region of the world, against stereotypical and often racist representations that have long been staples of Western media.

Film still with caption "My love is as pure as the Ganges' water, as this snow."
Film Still with Caption "My love is as pure as the Ganges' water, as this snow."

Your location in the Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures department allows you to teach a broad range of globally-oriented courses, such as “Cinephilia & Global Modernity” and “Film Festivals & Global Media Cultures: Middle East - South Asia Spotlight.” What have been your favorite courses to teach so far and how do you find that UVA students respond to these global courses?

Sunya: Among my favorite globally-oriented courses that I have taught here are “Film Festivals” and “A Thousand and One Nights at the Cinema.” Both these courses were ones that I developed and customized for opportunities specific to my position at UVA: the “Film Festivals” course is a tie-in to the Fall-semester Virginia Film Festival (VAFF), where I have been a Guest Programmer for the last five years. Students volunteer at the festival as part of the course, and many of them go on to stay involved with VAFF! The “Nights” course grew out of my determination to be creative in customizing cinema and media courses to the Middle East - South Asia orientation of my department. The tales of A Thousand and One Nights, which originate from the Middle East and South Asia, might constitute the most popular compendium among literary sources that have been adapted to the screen.

You are working on a new project about the espionage genre and histories of informal and clandestine film distribution. Can you tell us about this project?

Sunya: This project, tentatively titled Agents on Location, examines two figures together: that of the secret agent in espionage films, on the one hand, and that of the film distribution agent, on the other. They come together in a material history of South-South networks, as several Hindi spy films from the 1960s and 1970s, for example, featured sequences shot on location in places like Beirut, Hong Kong, and Singapore, which were dramatized as hubs of smuggling at the same time that they were, in fact, key hubs of informal media distribution.

Besides your academic research, you remain quite busy in the worlds of cinema and cultural archival, as well as creative projects. What else have you been working on lately?

Sunya: As I was nearing the completion of my book that has now come out, I decided to start school again! I enrolled in an online Certificate in Museum Studies from Northwestern University’s School of Professional Studies, in hopes of thinking more seriously about public-facing projects and collaborations. I have one final course to complete, and I have so far gained a nice combination of historical knowledge and hands-on experiences with museums through this program. I am also working on what I hope will be a more creative project: a cultural history of carrom, a very popular South Asian tabletop game, alongside a set of carrom-related short stories. So if you find me playing carrom on Grounds, it’s of course research! : )