On a particularly hot and humid Monday morning, about 25 students gathered in a classroom on the top floor of Ascension Hall, taking seats around the perimeter. Uma Vangal stood at the computer near the front, draped in a beautiful silk sari in shades of blue and gold.
“So tell me,” she said, “What did you think of Sholay?”
Hands shot up.
“It wasn’t as long as I thought it would be because it was entertaining,” said one student of the 1975 204-minute Indian film that the class had screened the night before.
Another said, “I definitely feel like we went through every emotion by the time it ended.”
The immediate and extensive participation, Vangal said, is one of the reasons she chose Kenyon for her teaching as a Fulbright scholar this semester.
“Kenyon College students have a certain commitment coupled with a curiosity,” Vangal said. “It’s very endearing.”
Vangal, a documentary filmmaker, teaches at LV Prasad Film & Television Academy in Chennai, India, and has also worked with students at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. Her Kenyon class, titled “Indian Film as a Social Lens: Bollywood and Beyond,” is filled with primarily non-film majors, those studying history, sociology and political science who are interested in India.
She teaches the students the “rasas” or emotional states an Indian film should take viewers through – unlike American-genre films that focus on only one or two such as romance or fear. And she also instructs them that an Indian film cannot be viewed like a traditional Hollywood film – there’s melodrama with jumps in continuity and plenty of “mystical realism.”
Indian cinema, she says, is the “opium of the masses.” It’s not to reflect real life, but instead to be something fantastical so viewers can have a vicarious experience.
Yet Vangal is hoping her students do see a slice of Indian life beyond what the mainstream media portrays through the films she’s showing in her class (and in a film festival that runs Sept. 16 through Dec. 2) – and just by her presence.
Part of her commitment to her Fulbright grant, she said, is being a kind of cultural ambassador. She brings food for her students and other staff members to try, such as lightly fried and spiced chickpeas, a favorite food of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Indian god who is the “remover of obstacles” (an exhibit of popular mass-produced images of Ganesh are on display at the Gund Gallery through Nov. 24).
She is expanding her own growth while in Gambier, as well, using her free time at Kenyon to finish writing a book on women in Indian film and work on a documentary about an Indian music teacher at Miami University.
She had the opportunity to take her Fulbright scholarship to Duke University – her son is working on a master’s degree in computer science at nearby North Carolina State University – but elected to come to Gambier instead.
“We were all very enthusiastic” about her decision, said Wendy Singer, Roy T. Wortman Distinguished Professor of History, who Vangal credits with being instrumental in her decision to choose Kenyon.
Singer and Vangal met in Chennai in the spring of 2012 when Singer was finishing up her own Fulbright-Nehru Scholarship.
“We shared similar feelings about film. A lot of the Indian films that I liked or didn’t like, she liked or didn’t like, too,” said Singer about Vangal. “I thought this was the beginning of a conversation that would have a lot of fruit.”
For Vangal, the decision was easy.
“I chose Kenyon because it’s a small liberal arts college,” she said. “And of course a beautiful campus with history and character.”