Michelle Williams Gamaker, The Dissolution trilogy, 2017 - 2019.

Michelle Williams Gamaker

The Dissolution trilogy

21 August – 12 September 2021

MattFlix presents Michelle Williams Gamaker’s film trilogy Dissolution, shown here in full.

The Dissolution trilogy comprises House of Women (2017), The Fruit is There to be Eaten (2018), and The Eternal Return (2019). The films form part of Williams Gamaker’s series on Fictional Activism, which explores British studio films made during empire.

Conceived as an antidote to cinema’s propensity to classify and typecast individuals, particularly the historical (and ever-present) side-lining of actors of colour, Dissolution revisits two marginalised figures from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 film Black Narcissus: Kanchi, the silent dancing girl, and Sabu, the prince, played by Krishna Istha in all three films.

Fascinated with Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Williams Gamaker contemplates the notion that over time her brown protagonist would be mutable and reincarnate with each shift in location and context. The gender non-binary fluidity Istha embodies enabled Williams Gamaker to write characters who defy categorisation through continuous change.

House of Women, the first instalment in the Dissolution trilogy, visits the 1946 auditions held for the casting of the mute dancing girl Kanchi in Black Narcissus (1947). To fulfil the role, Jean Simmons had to wear dark Panstick make-up and a jewel in her nose to become the “exotic temptress” of Rumer Godden’s novel of the same name.

House of Women recasts the role, auditioning only Indian ex-pat or first-generation British Asian women and non-binary individuals living in the UK. Unlike the original role, the recast Kanchi of the 21st century speaks back. Shot on 16mm film, they introduce themselves to an anonymous reader and recite a personalised alphabet including references to the history of photography, cinema and gender politics. The audition space and the violence of the camera’s gaze are brought into question, playing with the inherent voyeurism of the director – and by inference the viewer – in watching young hopefuls competing for a role.

Duration: 14:00. 16mm film transferred to HDV, colour, sound.

The Fruit is There to be Eatencontinues the artist's interrogation of the 1947 film Black Narcissus. After winning the audition in House of Women, Krishna Istha returns as the recast Kanchi to deliver a vocal and fiercely political performance. The second instalment in the trilogy frames the radically redressed relationship between gender non-binary Kanchi and the missionary nuns, Sister Clodagh (Charlotte Gallagher) and Sister Philippa (Catherine Lord), who begin to unravel from their spiritual path.

In the Missionary schoolroom, the locus of British colonial indoctrination, Kanchi’s return seeks to disrupt the convent’s hierarchy challenging the students to refuse the lazy repetition of knowledge, now redundant on the film set they find themselves on.

Duration: 26:45. HDV, colour, sound.

The Eternal Return spotlights actor Sabu, who was ‘discovered’ in 1936 by anthropologist filmmaker Robert Flaherty who, after gathering footage in a maharajah’s palace, brought the 12-year-old son of a mahout [elephant driver] from Mysore to Hollywood. Flaherty cast him in Alexander Korda’s Elephant Boy (1937), which catapulted Sabu to international stardom. Sabu went on to major roles such as Abu in The Thief of Bagdad (1940), Mowgli in The Jungle Book (1942), and The Young General in Black Narcissus (1947).

He became a household name, appearing on stamps and tea sets, endorsing cereals, starring at the 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair and featuring in lifestyle magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. Krishna Istha makes their cinematic return as the struggling actor Sabu in 1952 as he supports his family by performing – once more with a troupe of elephants – in Tom Arnold’s Christmas Circus in Haringey Arena.

With the inclusion of British Pathé footage of circuses in 1950s and 60s Britain and their bizarre parading of tame beasts as ‘exotic entertainment’, the film shows the indignity Sabu felt by being similarly deployed. The film thus explores the notion of success in the absence of agency as it imagines the resentment of an individual for whom the price of prosperity was to be typecast. In Sabu’s case, this was the conflation of his background and his career that imposed a seemingly inescapable relationship with elephants; the animals recur throughout his filmography. It also highlights how, in spite of his extraordinary fame, Sabu was cast as the sidekick and was rarely afforded the lead or love interest in films of any artistic merit.

Duration: 17:00. HDV, colour, sound.

Production Credits for House of Women (2017)
Written and Directed by Michelle Williams Gamaker

Jasdeep Kandola
Arunima Rajkumar
Taranjit Mander
Krishna Istha
Anonymous Reader
Kelly Hunter

Director of Photography Tom Wright
Editor Michelle Williams Gamaker
Sound Recordist Martin Clarke
Post-Production Sound Mix Sara Pinheiro
Focus Puller Chris Connaty
Lighting Rich Shaw
Grip Francis Sylver
Set Assistants Sophie Bramley and Jay Delves

Telecine grading Hannes Bruneel
Film Processing De Jonge Film Lab, Belgium
Colour Grading and VFX Remco Hekker (Photon Power)

Supported by Mondriaan Fund, Netherlands

Production Credits for The Fruit is There to be Eaten (2018)
Written and directed by Michelle Williams Gamaker

Krishna Istha as Kanchi
Charlotte Gallagher as Sister Clodagh
Catherine Lord as Sister Philippa

Convent School Students
Krisna Agraan
Tiffany Chan
Amelia Cutler
Mattina Hiwaizi
Katayoun Jalili
Zarina Muhammad

Kelly Hunter as the Voice of Rumer Godden

Director of Photography Richard Lonsdale
Sound Recordist Nathaniel Kastoryano
Composer Wayne Urquhart
Producers Michelle Williams Gamaker & Elan Gamaker
First Assistant Director Teddy London
Editors Michelle Williams Gamaker & Elan Gamaker
Make-Up Umber Ghauri
Colour Grading Dan Ward at Black Shuck Cooperative
Dubbing Mix Wayne Urquhart
Soprano Vocals Pamela Hay
Pianist Richard Black
Technical Assistants Sophie Bramley & Nik Jaffe
Set Assistant Janis Ströbl
Set Photography Katayoun Jalili
Script Consultant Elan Gamaker

Shot on location at Sands Films and the Brunel Museum, Rotherhithe, London.

Supported by Mondriaan Fund, Netherlands and Goldsmiths, University of London.

Production Credits for The Eternal Return (2019)
Written and Directed by Michelle Williams Gamaker


Krishna Istha as Sabu
Catherine Lord as Tom Arnold
Charlotte Gallagher as Marylin Sabu
Kariss Young as Clown
Seth Gunner as Paul Sabu
Julia Gamaker as Jasmine Sabu


Cinematography Dan Ward and James Wreford (Black Shuck Cooperative)
Sound Recordist Martin Clarke
Composer Wayne Urquhart
B-Unit Composer Morgan Quaintance
B-Unit Make-Up Urmilla Chowdhury, Jashmin Patel
Producers Michelle Williams Gamaker & Elan Gamaker
First Assistant Director Teddy London
Editor Neal Markage
Script Consultant Elan Gamaker
Make-Up Katie Cresser
Colour Grading Black Shuck Cooperative
Dubbing Mix Wayne Urquhart
Production Assistant Alya Soliman
Production Advisor (SFX) Sophie Bramley
Assistant Sound Nik Jaffe
Set Photography Ellen Jane Rogers
Archive Footage British Pathé Limited

Shot on location at Rivoli Ballroom and The Agency, London.

Supported by The Elephant Trust.

With additional support from Black Shuck Cooperative, Kimatica Studio, Goldsmiths Research Support Award, and Tintype Gallery, London.