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Updated: October 31, 2012 17:20 IST

Cutting across cultures

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TRANSCENDING BOUNDARIES Dr. Francis Jarman. Photo: Special Arrangement
TRANSCENDING BOUNDARIES Dr. Francis Jarman. Photo: Special Arrangement

Dr.Francis Jarman tells Soma Basu films and plays make us thoughtful about other cultures and people

What happened in Cawnpore in 1857 is giving sleepless nights to Dr. Francis Jarman today. The playwright and author of 51 books and novels and teacher of interculturalism wants to demystify the ‘classic villain’ Azimullah Khan’s role in the Indian mutiny.

“When something awful happens in history, blame is put on one man,” says the Associate Professor from the University of Hildesheim, Germany. “But massacres are far more complicated. All kinds of people get involved and their different levels and intensity of emotions contribute to making a jigsaw puzzle. The surviving document on Azimullah Khan is fragmentary and suggests that his role and rise as a leader in pushing India to warfare against the British is perhaps exaggerated. I always wanted to write a historical play about India and this is it.”

Dr. Jarman was visiting SCILET, Madurai, in his capacity as consulting editor of The American College Journal of English Language and Literature. He teaches comparative cultural studies and is particularly drawn to India and the British Raj. Why? “I was not there at the moment!” he smiles.

“Cultural differences and similarities,” he says, “are equally intriguing. It is helpful and fascinating to know your own culture and at the same time cultures that are foreign to you teach you more.”

‘Onion in layers’

Dr. Jarman likens each person’s cultural personality to an “onion in layers”. Interculturality is not easy, he explains, but in any given situation an individual will put these separate cultural identities in an order of priority. His class of students from different nationalities, their subtle interaction and attempt to understand each other’s way of life excite him. “I see poetry, magic and colour of the unfamiliar in each of their action and its reaction,” he adds.

Raised and educated in England, Dr. Jarman grew up on the theory that the model of multiculturalism – wherein parallel communities don’t need to integrate and ethnic minorities need not concede to the values of the majority population – is a failure. “Post-9/11,” he says, “it became even more pronounced that multiculturalism was based on a popular but intellectually dubious idea: that all things should be treated as being of equal value.”

Dr. Jarman did his doctorate in applied linguistics and intercultural communication, tracing the manipulation of images of Asia in modern Western literature and popular culture. Since the demise of dogmatic multiculturalism, transculturalism is fashionable, he points out. A fairly new subject, it gained momentum in the last decade when big businesses realised its utility in dealing with customers in other countries. Intercultural workshops for people going abroad came into vogue. Everybody is interested in social analysis of people of different origins and seeks theoretical knowledge of intercultural experience.

That knowledge is best provided by films and plays, says Dr. Jarman. Films can highlight, focus, entertain and inspire in ways that fly-on-the-wall documentaries can't. They must not be mistaken for real life, though they lead us back to it and make us more thoughtful about the people and cultures that we encounter. Today, more people are living across and between cultures. Many people are transients and films often portray their interactions. Film makers show a greater commitment to ethnographic consistency and accuracy of intercultural situations.

Dr. Jarman’s pet project is to analyse films on the basis of 20 cultural dimensions that he has indexed. These, he says, provide a framework for describing and analysing cultural phenomena. His students list various cultural standards as they view them on the big screen. With the help of their analytical findings, Dr. Jarman has built a database of 130 intercultural films.

As examples, he cites The Namesake, based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer-winning novel. Directed by Mira Nair, it shows the clash of Indian and American cultures, which becomes more obvious as a result of generation gap between the main characters. “There are two different cultural perspectives – one of an Indian immigrant who struggles to accept the American philosophy of life and the other of an Americanised child whose Western values stand in opposition to his parents' traditional and conservative views. The film gains greater interest from the intercultural point of view because it is just one person – the main character – who symbolises the two different cultures,” he explains.

Similarly, the tragicomedy Bhaji on the Beach, directed by Gurinder Chadha, allows a closer look into the interior lives of British Asian women. “It highlights the British, Indian, British Asian and African British cultures and symbolises cultural mixing and the blurring of cultural identities,” Dr. Jarman says. Bend It Like Beckham, by the same director, showcases British and Sikh cultures.

All such films are intercultural communication in action. When we analyse the interaction between members of different cultures, Dr. Jarman explains, we consider how each member “scores” within a particular cultural dimension. If they are similar within that dimension, communication will be comparatively uncomplicated. If they are very different, that area of human behaviour is one in which intercultural misunderstandings are likely to occur.

The best possible arrangement for cultural groups, says Dr. Jarman, is to live in tolerance and mutual respect, all doing things happily their own way and following their own values. “That would be an ideal world.”

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