As a young cinephile growing up in the suburbs of Dallas, Suneil Sanzgiri came to see how filmmaking could structure the experience of time. Editing, he realized, allowed a filmmaker to disrupt and reconfigure past and present, concatenating current experience with history, memory, and future imaginings in a single form. The artist, whose father emigrated from India to the United States in 1968, paid close attention to the formal techniques and political concerns of subcontinental auteurs such as Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. Their films, rich in critical depictions of colonialism and nationalism, allowed Sanzgiri to access a cultural heritage that he didn’t know firsthand.
From this diasporic position, Sanzgiri has developed an experimental film practice concerned with the ethics of mediating lived history, specifically anticolonialism in South Asia and its resonance in the present. To begin this journey, the artist started at home, drawing from stories related to him by his father. Shashi Sanzgiri was raised in colonial Goa, where as a child he witnessed India’s 1947 independence and partition. As Shashi explains in At Home but Not at Home (2019), these world historical events came alive through personal experience: Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, for instance, remains vivid in his memory because a cousin organized a memorial procession in their village.
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Such recollections are representative of Sanzgiri’s treatment of history, which repeatedly telescopes from the familial to the realm of epic national and international struggle. In a manner reminiscent of fellow contemporary moving-image artists Naeem Mohaiemen, Bouchra Khalili, and the Otolith Group, Sanzgiri treats colonial history as a potential spur to revolutionary action in the present.
Shashi is a recurring figure in Sanzgiri’s films. In Letter from Your Far-Off Country (2020), for instance, he narrates the life of Prabhakar Sanzgiri, a distant relative who was a Communist trade-union activist in the 1930s and ’40s and later, a biographer of the anti-caste activist B.R. Ambedkar. Sanzgiri uses the compositional strategies of desktop cinema, formally juxtaposing Prabhakar’s story with YouTube clips and text exchanges with Shashi, as well as original 16mm footage of the 2020 student protests in Delhi against the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens. These regulations, initiated by the right-wing government of Narendra Modi and his BJP Party, threatened to strip thousands of Muslim and minority citizens of their rights. Sanzgiri positions the contemporary protests within a montage of still images and found footage of anti-caste and anti-capitalist activism from the past five decades.
Sanzgiri’s films consistently reframe our understanding of the past. Golden Jubilee (2021) uses Shashi’s childhood memory of a local spirit known as a devchar to highlight the plight of farmers in the state of Goa, whose livelihood has been threatened by extractive mining practices. Interspersed throughout the film are virtual models of Shashi’s ancestral home, animations of the devchar, and footage of the Goan landscape shot from a surveillance drone—all elements cohering into a critique of capitalism’s global reach. Together with At Home but Not at Home and Letter from Your Far-Off Country, the film forms a loose trilogy, suggesting that decolonization is best conceived as not a single historical event, but an ongoing process of fits and starts, ruptures and gaps.
What makes Sanzgiri such a bracingly relevant artist is not only his aesthetic and ethical rigor, but his ability to reclaim histories once stolen by imperialism and now menaced by ethnic and religious sectarianism. “What is liberation when so much has already been taken?” asks a disembodied voice in Golden Jubilee. Through his films, Sanzgiri doesn’t attempt to resolve such questions, but urges us to ask them seriously, persistently, and with nuance.
This article appears in the May 2022 issue, pp. 50–51.