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Relations between Asia giants showcased in film

By YANG HAN in Hong Kong | China Daily | Updated: 2021-03-10 10:38
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Editor's note: This news column showcases stories from around the world that bring a touch of positivity to the fight against the deadly coronavirus.

Theaters may be shut in most countries but an Indian filmmaker and Sinologist is counting on online channels to reach an even wider audience for his work during the pandemic.

In late January, the first public screening of Joe Thomas Karackattu's documentary Those 4 Years was hosted online by Hong Kong Baptist University. The screening attracted viewers from both China and India.

Karackattu's film narrates the movement of Chinese people to the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu from 1865-69. It looks at their role in bringing tea plantations to the Nilgris, a district in Tamil Nadu that is now synonymous with these crops.

Karackattu, faculty-in-charge of the China Studies Centre at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, spent three years traveling across India, Malaysia and Hong Kong to do fieldwork-from shootings and interviews to archive visits.

"Since this is my second film. I feel the sudden change induced by the pandemic, especially the inability to be physically present at a screening and to interact with audiences," said Karackattu.

In 2016, Karackattu's first film was a documentary on the connections between the southern Indian state of Kerala with China.

Despite zero face-to-face contact with the audience in the online mode, Karackattu said the good side of the story is that the number of viewers has expanded exponentially. He also thinks the response from viewers was "superb", as many said they were amazed by the rich cultural and historical connections between the two countries that are yet to be unearthed.

He considers himself lucky as all the fieldwork for his second film was completed before the pandemic, and the lockdown period allowed him to concentrate on editing, recording voice-overs and postproduction work.

As the focus of his research was primarily on sites from where the movement of workers was happening, with Hong Kong an integral part of the narrative, he conducted intensive fieldwork in the city. He eventually chose it as the place to host the first public screening.

Karackattu said the reason he tries to turn his research findings into films is because he wants viewers, not just scholars but also the general public, to better understand the topic.

"I want many more of these amazing stories from the past to be brought to wider audiences who can have a peek into these rich histories," said Karackattu.

"India-China relations deserve more investment of research efforts."

He said there is "an ocean of domains" that remains untouched. "Especially the local histories of places and the connections that survive from the past," said Karackattu.

For example, for his first film, Karackattu traced the 14th generation descendants of a person that left the Indian city of Calicut, or Guli in Chinese, for China around 700 years ago.

History traced

"Having traveled 20,000 kilometers to locate them, and having finally found them in Guangxi (Zhuang autonomous region), I was thrilled to expand my research into other connections," said Karackattu.

It was during this time that the connections from India in the mid-19th century with Hong Kong and primarily the Straits Settlements (former British colonies in Southeast Asia), the background of his second film, became his focus.

He said India and China need to have more people-to-people exchanges, whether through tourism or academic and business contacts.

"We need eclectic voices to contribute to the policy ecosystem in India that decides on China, and vice versa," said Karackattu.

Looking back at history, Karackattu said countries have been able to move forward and build solid partnerships based on strong interdependencies via close economic and people-to-people exchanges.

"My effort is only a drop in the ocean of work that connects India and China."

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