Michelle Williams Gamaker, Excerpt from ‘House of Women’ (2017) Arts Council England
House of Women revisits the audition for the character of Kanchi, the silent Indian dancer in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 film Black Narcissus. The coveted role went to Jean Simmons (famous for playing Estella in Great Expectations, 1946). To become the “exotic temptress” of Rumer Godden’s novel of the same name, the white English actor participates in a racist make-up technique; wearing dark Panstick make-up and a jewel in her nose.
Shot on 16mm film, the four auditionees come face to face with the inherent violence of the process; discussing the history of photography, colonialism and race, class and gender politics with an anonymous reader, who interrogates their motivation for applying. By auditioning only Indian ex-pat or first-generation British Asian women and non-binary individuals, Williams Gamaker re-casts a Kanchi for the 21st Century, who crucially speaks.