INDIA: A DOCUMENTARY HISTORY
The 1940s: Hope Revived
When the war finally ended after America dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki reducing the two cities to rubble, Wavell, who had succeeded Linlithgow as Viceroy, drily remarked, “Now for the horrors of peace”. For India, the horrors of peace included the bloodiest ever communal carnage in which over a million were killed, leading to the partition of the sub-continent. In the two-way trek between India and Pakistan some seven million refugees crossed over the borders of the two Bengals and Assam.
This was the biggest exchange of populations in human history. What we see in films like Gandhi and Jewel in the Crown is a mock-rehearsal of the real human tragedy. The horrors of war have been recorded in great depth and detail by Russian, British and American cameramen, but there isn’t even 100 ft. material of this awesome diaspora. Great events in which we are not personally involved are often forgotten. As someone remarked, “With the passage of time we become so insensitive… that we can lie in the disused ovens of Auschwitz and have our photographs taken as souvenirs!”. Filmed history has the unique capacity to warn us against the repetition of such horrors.
IFI (Information Films of India) had been disbanded like so much else after the war. National leaders were busy bickering and bargaining amongst themselves and the British, ironically, in a great hurry to quit India. As a reminder of how little time there was, Mountbatten had devised a tear-off calendar indicating the number of days left for the transfer of power. Sadly, there is no newsreel of the winding up of the empire except for a solitary photograph. No less a loss to posterity is Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech delivered with a depth of feeling he alone was capable of. We have the words but not the face. This, at a time when any number of sync-sound cameras were around! No film can ever hope to recreate such momentous events in history.
The aftermath of global war, and the dissolution of colonialism that followed, was to create new tensions and fresh opportunities. A film unit became “an expression of nationhood, a chronicler of achievements”. In April 1948, the national government approved a scheme for continuing the work of the IFI – now called the Films Division – to produce films “for public information, education, motivation and for institutional and cultural purposes”. Starting with a modest programme, it was to eventually become the largest film unit in the world with an assured (through compulsory exhibition) network of well over 12,000 cinemas throughout the country. India seemed the most exciting and challenging country in the world to a documentary filmmaker. The German filmmaker, Paul Zils, who made India his home for nearly two decades, describes the scene: “This period of ’47 to ’49 was a most exciting one. It was the period of an all-round awakening, the beginning of an awareness of the role of the documentary film… in the interest of the reborn nation… Four hundred million people were involved … most of them illiterate, speaking different languages, highly provincial-minded, industrially backward, exploited and poor, burdened by age-old tradition-customs and superstitions. This was a tremendous challenge”.
The 1950s: A Movement in the Making
In the fifties Indian documentary seemed alive, well and bouncing. Among others, the man most responsible for it was Paul Zils. Zils had arrived in India almost by accident. Starting his film career in 1933 as an apprentice at UFA studios, Zils was said to be a favourite of Goebbels because of his handsome blond looks and ‘full Aryan credentials’. But obsessed with Asia since reading Hermann Hesse’s Siddharth, Zils defected to the United States. It was there that he got Paramount interested in a film project to be shot in Bali, Indonesia. He was hard at work on the film when, on May 10, 1940 he was arrested along with other German nationals and imprisoned in a Sumatra jungle stockade. A year later, when the Japanese were moving rapidly on Indonesia, the German prisoners were shipped to India and interned in a large prison camp in Bihar. Zils found that among the inmates there were a number of musicians, a conductor, composers and writers. With his usual drive and resourcefulness he began to organise musical shows in the camp. The British were so impressed with Zils’ skill that they offered to release him if he would go to work for Information Films of India.
To quote Zils, “I distinctly remember that day in late October, 1945 when I arrived in Bombay first,with a contract signed by the then British Indian Government to head the external unit of their Information Films of India… I assembled one of the best Indian documentary units ever. There was Aubrey Menon, as the scriptwriter and Jean Bhavnagary as research worker and Brian Eastdale, the music composer. And there were some more keen and enthusiastic helpers who contributed considerably to that wonderful spirit which turns a unit into a team”.
When IFI closed down, Zils found himself at a loose end. Many of his compatriots went back to Germany, but Zils stayed on, a decision which proved wise and beneficial both to him and the Indian documentary movement.
The revival of the Films Division on the one hand had made regular film production and exhibition an accepted fact. On the other, it had choked all outlets for the independents. Hardly a healthy situation when a movement was just beginning to emerge. Paul Zils immediately perceived that what the independent filmmakers needed was a forum to stimulate interest in Indian documentaries, “to provide a rallying centre for the documentary film movement”. He sponsored the publication of a quarterly magazine, Indian Documentary, the like of which had not existed before or since.
the magazine Indian Documentary
The inaugural issue came out in early 1949. It had a very impressive editorial board comprising Mulk Raj Anand, B.K. Karanjia, Vikram Sarabhai, Frene Talyarkhan with Jagmohan as Executive Editor. To give an idea of its contents – there were articles on scriptwriting, discussions on Indian documentary children’s films, Unesco’s report on the educational films in India, reviews of recent documentaries, profiles of eminent documentary filmmakers, book reviews, technical notes – all suitably illustrated. This was a valiant effort although doomed from the start for lack of resources. It shut shop after four issues. But Zils was not a man to give up. The magazine reappeared after five years. Its revival was greeted by the Indian press enthusiastically. The Current wrote, “After five years the Indian Documentary makes its appearance as a quarterly with a far wider scope and with very attractive presentation”. The Times of India commented, “With growing interest in documentaries and educational and scientific films, the revival of this journal after a lapse of five years is opportune….by providing a forum for intelligent discussion of documentaries and for comparing the work in this country with what is being done elsewhere, this magazine should help in the raising of documentary production standards”. It is a tribute to the tenacity of the man that without any help from anywhere he published the magazine for five long years, till it folded up forever in 1959. It also speaks of the bankruptcy of our official and non-official organisations that we should have let such an excellent forum close down.
At the time there was much rethinking on the role of cinema in general, and documentary in particular, in a growing, evolving society and the forces unleashed by technology and industrialisation and tides of social change. This process was greatly helped with our contact with European filmmakers, first through their films at the 1952 International Film Festival and later in person. Jean Renoir came as early as 1949 to scout locations for his film The River based on a novel by Rummer Godden. It was during the filming of The River that Satyajit Ray met Renoir and observed his shooting which was to provide him with the necessary technical knowhow and encouragement to make his masterpiece Pather Panchali. Roberto Rossellini who had startled the world with his neo-realistic masterpieces Open City, Paisa and Europa ‘51 came to India in 1956. He was well informed on Indian history and civilisation Rosellini was also deeply moved by Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement. With his own cameraman and a unit provided by the Films Division, he travelled around India for several months taking in the Indian scene. The result was India ’ 57, an episodic film which showed the indelible impression India had left on its maker. At first sight, the film appears to be no more than a series of images of the Indian countryside and people but a closer look unravels its depth and complexity. Truffaut likened the film to free verse and called it “a meditation on life, on nature, on animals….”
About this time, two other well known documentary filmmakers, the Russian Roman Karmen and the Swedish Arne Sucksdorff, were drawn to India to witness not only an ancient civilisation but also the exciting drama of a young nation on the move. Karmen had come to India with a formidable reputation, having vividly covered the Spanish Civil War, Mao’s long march in China, the war in Leningrad and the Nazi trials at Nuremburg. While Karmen preferred to film the emergence of industrial India in his feature length film Dawn over India, Arne Sucksdorff went to Bastar in Madhya Pradesh to film the life of the Murias, a people unchanged for thousands of years. Like Flaherty, Sucksdorff spent 18 months with the tribe to get as near to an authentic record of their lives as possible. He is reported to have exposed 120,000 ft. of film for his feature which was eventually named The Flute and the Bow. Two other extraordinary films that he made in India were Indian Village and The Wind and the River, stunningly beautiful, keenly observed, and warmly human.
These filmmakers apart, what really contributed to the growth of the documentary movement was ample sponsorship to independent filmmakers by agencies like the United States Information Service and the Technical Cooperation Mission familiarly known as TCM, the Shell Film Unit and industrial houses like Tatas, Scindias, ICI, Hindustan Lever, ITC, Dunlop, etc. Of the two American agencies, the USIS produced a number of elaborate documentaries on river valley projects, malaria control, road building and Japanese method of rice cultivation. These films had a certain ‘studio’ quality and finish not often found in documentaries. Obviously they had the advantage of sizeable budgets and enough time for production. The TCM sponsored an extensive programme of functional films on subjects relating to agriculture, animal husbandry, irrigation, cattle improvement, farming implements, fertilisers, health and hygiene, literacy, etc. TCM also involved itself in community development programmes (at the time the most radical programme in India) and made motivational films like the one on Etawah in which villagers build roads with their own resources and labour. While the programme had a certain educational value, it also provided “important bread and butter contracts for the established documentary film producers”.
Fali Billimoria and Paul Zils
Perhaps, more ambitious than both were the films of the Shell Film Unit, which commenced production in the mid fifties. Stuart Legg, head of the Shell Film Unit in London, came over to India to prepare a blueprint for a film programme which included films on the major industries of India, village crafts, folk dances and a series called Life in India. To supervise the programme Stuart Legg secured the services of James A. Beveridge of the National Film Board of Canada. Beveridge was an ideal choice having worked with John Grierson, Legg and Ross Maclean. Beveridge realised the importance of documentary and specialised films in the process of India’s dynamic development. “Nowhere in the world could there be a greater testing ground, and a more challenging opportunity for film to prove its worth, than in modern India”, he wrote. Paul Zils and Hari S. Dasgupta were two of the producers who were assigned to make films for Shell. Both had impeccable credentials.
In technique and format the Shell films were distinctly different from those of Films Division. Beveridge attached much importance to thorough research and well written scripts – the foundation on which a good documentary can be created. This is well borne out from the films Shell sponsored.
In the Major Industries of India series Paul Zils shot a 40-minute documentary at Jamshedpur showing how people in the steel town live and work. It had an interesting structure built around seven workers in various sections of the steel plant. What emerges at the end is not only an impressive portrait of the steel plant but also considerable insight into the lives of those who man it. Similarly in the Life in India series, Hari S. Dasgupta adopts the dramatised documentary form for his film A Village of West Bengal, (This film could be said to be a forerunner of Fali Billimoria’s The House that Ananda Built). Dasgupta’s film depicts life in a Bengali village on the banks of Mayurakshi river during various stages of Durga Puja celebrations. A newly-wed girl returns to her parental home just as the goddess is brought during the festival. A parallel is subtly established between the human and the divine. As the village artisans and craftsmen feverishly prepare for the great festival, the social and religious significance of the event is driven home. What further sets the film apart is the fact that we get to know an entire village through an individual and an event.
A Village in Travancore (Fali Billimoria and Paul Zils)
Zils made several films for Shell on subjects as varied as A Village in Travancore, The Martial Dances of Malabar, and the Oraons of Bihar. Of these I particularly remember the first two. A Village in Travancore showed the life and problems of a family, not without a certain lyricism. It won an award at the Cork Film Week and in the words of Basil Wright, the Chairman of the Jury, “The film deserved its award because when we have seen it we are not only better informed about a group of people in a certain far away place, but have received that aesthetic satisfaction that comes from a film sensitively directed…”. Martial Dances was a shorter film but equal in impact. It starts with references to martial and maritime traditions of Malabar. We see the ritual dance of Vela kali and Kalari and boys and girls being trainedin the use of swords and daggers. At the end is tharayaitam, the ceremonial dance in honour of their legendary hero.
Happily Beveridge allowed his filmmakers total creative control. Said Zils, “Shell’s programme is an immense opportunity for the documentarian of my type always keen on covering fresh aspects of the Indian panorama….they give full freedom in handling the subjects in a creative manner…since they have no axe to grind, much objectivity in the treatment is allowed”. Within four or five years Shell/Beveridge created a sizeable body of films – films that were wide in sweep, human in approach and innovative in technique. Even today the Life in India series retains much of its interest and relevance.
The 1960s: Sinchronous Sound and Fury
The sixties turned out to be an exciting decade. At last, the documentary idea had caught on. Its tremendous potential, range and effectiveness as a medium of communication was becoming apparent to the policy-makers and intellectuals alike. It is not without some significance that India’s leading art magazine Marg devoted an entire issue to documentary films. So did the prestigious political monthly Seminar. Abroad, a new type of documentary film was taking shape. Aided by lightweight cameras and synchronous sound tape-recorders, filmmakers in France (Jean Rouch, Ruspoli) and the United States (Richard Leacock, Al Maysles, Pennebaker) had given their films (Yanki No!, Primary, Crisis, The Chair) a depth of detail and a sense of urgency unknown to cinema earlier. The filmmaker was no longer the promoter of ideas or ideals that Grierson had ordained him to be, his credo (the cinéma verité or direct cinema practitioner) was to bear witness, to observe a situation as faithfully as humanly possible, without his own prejudices intruding upon it.
The Indian filmmaker could not remain untouched by these stirrings. Commenting on films like Face to Face, I am Twenty, Report on Drought, India ‘67 and Explorer, the noted film critic Bikram Singh said that they reveal "a degree of sophistication which was rarely to be seen before the sixties.. there is today greater willingness to face facts and, occasionally, even to stick the neck out (and) say an oblique ’boo’ to the establishment". Before I come to avant garde filmmakers like Sukhdev, Pati, Sastry and Chari, it is necessary to discuss the work of Fali Bilimoria, Clement Baptista, Shanti Chowdhury and some others, which had the necessary innovative edge and a healthy regard for craftsmanship. No one epitomises these qualities better than Fali Bilimoria.
Fali Bilimoria started his film career with Paul Zils in the late forties and later became his partner. He was trained as a cameraman under Dr. P.V. Pathy, an early associate of Zils. Bilimoria was to later direct a large number of films including such well-known ones as A Village in Travancore, The Vanishing Tribe, The Call and Water, but the film that brought Bilimoria much critical acclaim (and a nomination for an Oscar in 1967) was The House that Ananda Built. A quiet film about a vaishya peasant family in Nadpur village, Orissa, it examines the farmer’s traditional way of life and changing relationships with his sons who have migrated to different parts of the country and are living at varying levels of modernity. In the Indian context, it was a very interesting theme, but unfortunately the 20-minute format within which this was sought to be examined defeated its purpose. In the process it became a well researched, well written, long essay illustrated with portraits of the family and other inhabitants of the village.
The House That Ananda Built (Fali Bilimoria)
It’s a pity, because Bilimoria had the necessary expertise and his writer K.S. Chari, a keen exploratory sense. Despite all this, it remains a landmark film. Bilimoria followed this up with two other films the Last Rajah – a film on the ruler of a small state who had to change his lifestyle with the dissolution of the princely system – and another film on theAnglo-lndian community.
Clement Baptista had come to films after securing a diploma in Fine Arts and mural painting. He had also taught at J.J. School of Arts. During the War he joined the Army Film Unit as an art director. After the War, together with his friend and co-officer in the army, V.M. Vijaykar, he formed his company Hunnar Films. Clement Baptista made films on a vast variety of subjects but his natural inclination was for art and animation films. This came out strongly in Kailash at Ellora, on the famous rock-hewn temples. Baptista’s approach was uncommon in the sense that he used architectural designs to bring out the fact that carving out a temple of this size and dimension from solid rock was a unique accomplishment of man and his endeavour at artistic creation. A film in an entirely different mood and genre was Dubbawalla (Tiffin carrier). It examines the daily collection, transport and distribution of hot lunches to tens and thousands of Bombay’s workers from suburban homes to metropolitan offices. The dubbawalla is a unique institution in the life of Bombay’s citizens. Baptista covers not only the journey of the dubbawalla but also shows the housewives bargaining at vegetable markets. This unique enterprise is run by totally illiterate people who have an amazing capacity to remember which dabbah belongs to which person.
Shanti Chowdhury came to film making via civil engineering which he had studied in England. It is no wonder then, that his work was marked by a certain precision and a good deal of concern for detail. This was clearly evident in his film To Light a Candle about Dr. Welthy Fisher, the renowned adult educator who had set up the Literacy House in Lucknow in 1953. This was followed by Entertainers of Rajasthan which concerned the itinerant minstrels and entertainers of the desert. These ranged from puppeteers to acrobats to singers, actors and dancers. Chowdhury was able to capture not only the colour and spectacle of these traditional artistes but he closely observed with compassion their lives, their sorrows and frustrations.
Shanti Chowdhury made several films on Indian painters. Starting with Tagore’s Paintings, a film designed as a grand tour of the Master’s disquieting yet utterly fascinating private world. Without any guiding comments, Chowdhury used Tagore’s own words which I thought was a very clever, and perhaps, a pure way. Another film was on the modern Bengali painter Paritosh Sen. Though he was clearly influenced by Clauzot’s The Picasso Mystery, the film was not without its originality. For instance, when the painter attacks a canvas with an amazing, almost beastly energy in front of our very eyes, the process of creation begins-lines, sensitive colours, new shapes and fresh forms emerge. Something of the same quality was evident in a more finished form in his film on M.F. Husain, A Painter of Our Time.
Sukhdev, who had served a long period of apprenticeship with Paul Zils and later became his assistant, is generally regarded as one of India’s best documentary filmmakers. He showed an early promise with films like And Miles to Go and After the Eclipse, both of which had a socio-political content. However, he came to the fore with an hour-long documentary India ‘67. This was followed by another monumental work Nine Months to Freedom on the emergence of Bangladesh. And Miles to Go, Sukhdev’s first angry documentary showed us the inequalities of Indian society. While a lady applies perfume, a slum dweller is shown taking out lice from her hair. In a similar vein contrasts are juxtaposed at every level of urban living. Unfortunately while the visual impact, as in most of Sukhdev’s films, was stunning, the film lacked depth and analysis. It created a sensation but did not set the mind thinking. After the Eclipse, much of which was shot inside a prison with Sukhdev himself playing an inmate, was a compassionate dramatisation of jail life. It is the essential humanity, even among murderers, that Sukhdev brought out with considerable success.
His earlier two films could be said to be a preparation for Sukhdev’s most mature work India ’67. The film was a highly cinematic perusal of the contrasts and contradictions that abound in Indian life. In the film the filmmaker takes us on a countrywide tour and provides a kaleidoscopic view of the new with the old, western ways encroaching upon tradition, technological advances and age-old methods. All this is familiar stuff but what gave the film its uniqueness were the keenly observed small details. I think Satyajit Ray was entirely right when he remarked: “I like India ’67 but not for its broad and percussive contrasts of poverty and influence, beauty and squalor, modernity and primitivity – however well shot and cut they might be. I like it for its details – for the black beetle that crawls along the hot sand, for the street dog that pees on the parked bicycle, for the bead of perspiration that dangles on the nose tip of the begrimed musician”.
Nonetheless, India ’67 is a film of extraordinary visual beauty and unfailing compassion. It is a film charged with passion. With its rather loose structure and occasional self-indulgence (it is by no means a flawless work) but these are the excesses of a brilliant talent. That it aroused diverse and extreme reactions was a tribute to its maker who despised neutrality in art.
When the Bangladesh pogrom began, Sukhdev was one of the very few Indian filmmakers who was in ngladesh pogrom began, Sukhdev was one of the very few Indian filmmakers who was in the thick of the action at considerable physical risk. The result was Nine Months to Freedom, a work of compelling power. The Bangladesh story is placed in historical perspective from the emergence of Pakistan upto the return of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to his people. The basic conflict that arose between the two wings of Pakistan – the language problem, the riots, the demands for freedom from exploitation and for self rule, the crackdown by the Pakistan Army, the exodus of refugees, the nine-month-long struggle, the genocide and the rapes and mass destruction – Sukhdev’s camera shows it all. Here I must mention that the young Dacca filmmaker Zahir Raihan gave Sukhdev some of the grisly footage personally shot by him, of the atrocities, including a view of a corpse with its innards being ripped open by a dog. Later Raihan was killed by Pakistani forces .
One man had enlivened the documentary scene and some of this excitement spilled over even to 24 Peddar Road, the headquarters of Films Division in Bombay. There is no doubt that filmmakers like S.N.S. Sastry, T.A. Abraham, Chari, Prem Vaidya and Pramod Pati were greatly influenced by Sukhdev, not so much in style as in spirit.
Explorer (Pramod Pati)
Pramod Pati who died of cancer at a young age, was probably the most original talent working in the Films Division. He made a number of films on a variety of subjects including, This Our lndia, Ravi Shankar, Hamara Rashtragan, which were all competently made, but it was in his very short films lasting sometimes one or two minutes such as Klaxplosion, Perspectives, Trip, Violence and Explorer (seven minutes) that Pati came into his own. Here it is well to mention that Pati had his early training in animation filmmaking under the celebrated Jiri Trinka, the Czech master. With work ranging from folklore (Czech Legends, 1953) and national literature (The Good Soldier Schweik, 1954) to Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1959) Hans Anderson and haunting visions of present and future, Trinka made the puppet film into a new and important genre. His example was of inestirnable importance to other filmmakers working in the same genre.
Pati’s work evoked extreme reactions. Explorer which lasts just seven minutes but whose visual and aural impact is felt a long time after, is a probe into the young urban Indian mind. Pati contrasts and juxtaposes Tantric symbols, images of meditating sadhus collide with teenagers doing the twist, computers are cut with the chanting of prayers. But the camera always returns to the young people in labs, libraries, fields – all of them searching, seeking, exploring. The film had no narration. When it was shown in theatres the audience reaction was extreme. Used as they were to the didactic ‘narrated’ documentary, the film came as a shock. At a seminar in the Films Division after the film was shown, the noted film critic and filmmaker K.A. Abbas called it a waste of public money. K. Subrahmanyam, the veteran Tamil filmmaker, compared Pati to Norman MacLaren. James Beveridge was so impressed as to say that the film “as well done as one could find anywhere, in any country no matter what its resources”.
That Pati was not given to gimmickry but had a genuine urge for experimentation was clear in a much shorter film Perspectives which lasted under a minute and had no commentary. It is virtually a oneshot film in which the camera follows a jet plane taking off and pans down to show a little girl and a wrinkled old woman sitting close together in front of a hut, saying the letters of the Hindi alphabet aloud together. The film was produced to mark International Adult Literacy Year and won Pati a well-deserved international award. Pati’s early death was a tragic loss to experimental cinema.
For too long the Indian audience had been “informed and educated” through didactic narrated documerltaries, it was about time – and 20 years after Independence, the right time – that the Indian citizen would speak from the screen. Two films that started the trend were K.S. Chari/T.A. Abraham co-directed Face to Face and S.N.S. Sastry’s I am Twenty. Face to Face showed a cross section of people – students, workers, taxi drivers, intellectuals and peasants (and the distinguished journalist Frank Moraes) – airing their opinions on democracy and India 20 years after Independence. These expressions of criticisms, frustrations or optimism are placed in the context of the sharp, distressing contrasts of life in contemporary India. This was probably the first film which gave a sense of feedback. Chari, who had started his career as a senior commentary writer in the Films Division, went on to make two more films, Transition and Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan.
The City of Bombay (Aziz Padamsee)
S.N.S. Sastry, whowas a diploma holder in cinematography from the Bangalore Polytechnic, had joined Films Division as a cameraman and started directing films in 1956. Sastry had made a large number of films but it was with I am Twenty that he made his mark. I am Twenty was structured around interviews with young people who were born in 1947 when India attained her freedom. The film made a tremendous impact because the young people whom Sastry interviewed on camera came out with force and pungency. They looked credible and convincing and expressed their feelings with candour. Young men with uncertain future questioned bitterly:
“Is it freedom to starve and go naked?”
“Well I don’t love my country… and even if I did, to whom should I speak of my love.”
This note of dissonance, an element of doubt was something new to Indian documentary, at least the official documentary. The value of the film lay in the fact that it provided a basis for discussion. This is what a good documentary is all about.
Sastry later made several other notable films like And I Make Short Films, On the Move, Yes It’s on, Burning Sun. Like Pati he too died tragically young. While driving his daughter to school he suffered a fatal heart attack.
The interview film initiated by Chari and Sastry was put to effective use in Report on Drought which was factual, terse, stark. A film that created something of a commotion was O.P. Arora’s Actual Experience, on family planning. Arora who had earlier made films like Kulu Manali and Narmada revealed remarkable aptitude for interviewing people. In Actual Experience Arora’s concern was to find out if the new methods like loop were favoured by women. Most women came out forcefully against the use of loop for various reasons. As expected, the film was held back from release. This was significant as the interview film had irritated the authorities and startled the smug
The 1970s: Turbulent Years
The 70s were both the best and the worst of years. Best, for the exciting new talent that appeared on the documentary scene bringing in fresh energy, radical outlook and innovative technique, notable among them Shyam Benegal, Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, Vinod Chopra – the last three being alumni of the Film Institute, Pune. Worst, for the trauma caused by Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s Emergency that stifled much of the creative impulse and the equally barren period of the Janata party rule, remarkable only for its ambivalence. More of these later.
Shyam Benegal who shot to sudden fame with his first feature film Ankur (1974) had begun his career with the well-known advertising agency, Lintas. He worked his way up from scripting ad films to making them himself. He had also been a film buff and read a considerable amount of theoretical work on cinema before he made his first documentary, A Child of the Street (1967) about juvenile vagrancy. It traces the traumatic experiences of a nine year old boy in a metropolitan city, his search for parental love and shelter before he ends up in a rehabilitation centre. The film had urgency, compassion and sociological concern. For a first film, Benegal also used his camera with surprising skill.
His next film Close to Nature took us to the tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh, providing a kaleidoscopic view of tribal life at different times and in varying moods – worshipping their gods, singing and dancing as dusk fell, bargaining in the marketplace, living in the ghotul (an institution where young people live together). It was a tricky film to make and required greater involvement and rapport with the subject. Unfortunately, Benegal failed to achieve this. One wishes Benegal had put to better use the words of Verrier Elwin with which he ends the film: “We must help the tribals to come to terms with their own past so that their present and future will not be denied from it, but be a natural evolution from it… we must not impose our own ideas on them. We must not create a sense of guilt by forcing on them laws that they do not understand and cannot observe”.
Nevertheless Close to Nature was way ahead of Films Division’s scores of films on tribal life where the district officer gets them to parade before the camera. (Perhaps an exception could be made of Prem Vaidya’s Man in Search of Man on the tribals of Andaman and Nicobar Island.) Indian Youth: An Exploration, as the name suggests, was Benegal’s attempt to understand the problems of modern Indian youth, both urban and rural, at various social and economical levels. Here he is clearly more at home than in the world of the tribals – eschewing a didactic approach, he presents a panorama of quick, flashing episodes, of several young people as they struggle through a fast-changing world, so different from the world of their parents. Another film, Horoscope for a Child, on protein deficiency among growing children, succeeds in being much more than that. Woven around a taxi driver’s family living in one of Bombay’s numerous chawls*, we get acquainted with a whole way of life, thus experiencing the problem in a socio-economic context. Benegal later moved to a different genre, and made several films on Indian music, notably Tala and Rhythm, The Shruti and Graces of Indian Music, The Raag Yaman Kalyan. In a sense, this was pioneering work which found greater maturity and finer expression in Mani Kaul’s hour-long Dhrupad.
Mani Kaul came over to documentaries after he had made three feature films, Uski Roti, Ashad Ka Ek din and Duvidha. His first documentary was The Nomad Puppeteers of Rajasthan, an area he knew well enough having been brought up there. Mani follows a troupe of puppeteers as they move from place to place entertaining and ekeing out a miserable living. An entire family is involved in entertaining and making the puppets which they carve out of softwood and then paint and clothe. To our dismay we discover that this remarkable art is on the wane with the easy accessibility of the moving pictures. What is even worse, the puppeteers now prostitute their art by enacting scenes from popular cinema where the puppets dance to the tunes of film songs. But it need not have been so. Mani carries out his argument with great force and urgency in his next film Chitrakathi.
Made for the Films Division, in a 20-minute format which proved hopelessly inadequate, Chitrakathi is about the folk artists of western India who narrate with the help of leather puppets. Mani takes us to the sleepy Konkan coastal village and introduces us to the family that has preserved this unique art for several centuries. Now it faces extinction because younger men would rather go to the city and earn a living there, than practise an outmoded art which holds no future. What happens to these men who migrate to the big cities? Mani Kaul presents a searing study in Arrival. To the city come men, women, fruits, flowers, vegetables, goats and sheep – all ready for consumption. It is the process of consumption/exploitation that forms the core of the film. In a collage of images held together by an engaging soundtrack we are shown the brutality and dehumanisation of city life. Perhaps the best part of the film is the scene in the slaughterhouse where Mani shows us the routineness of death – rows upon rows of slaughtered goats and sheep, all ready for human consumption. Because he refuses to sentimentalise, the effect is electric. Only once before have I experienced the same cold academic ferocity, in Franju’s La Sang des Betes. Mani extends the slaughterhouse metaphor to labour-intensive areas where human beings are exploited and reduced to insignificant cogs in a giant, merciiess machine. The film raises more questions than it can possibly answer. That perhaps is its intention.
Dhrupad (Mani Kaul)
Dhrupad, a 72-minute long film which features two famous masters, the Dagar brothers of Dhrupad school of Indian classical music, is truly a pioneering work in the sense that nothing quite like this had been attempted before. It not only captures for us, and posterity, the magical quality of the two great masters’ voices, but provides a valuable clue to the evolution of their art with its beginning in tribal music; Mani Kaul puts forth the argument that tribal music had two aspects: one concerned itself with ritualistic hymns and the other related to changing seasons, as also birth, marriage, death, etc. While the folk music stayed in the villages, the ritualistic music evolved into classical music and moved to the courts. In a simple yet effective structure, the film opens on the historical monuments at Gwalior, Agra, Amber and Mandu to the accompaniment of veena* recital. It is in this setting that the great Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar explains the intricacies of Dhrupad style. The concluding passage of the film is on a panoramic shot of Bombay as the music reared in the courts of princely states undergoes a subtle change in a vastly different, industrialised milieu. Shot with immense love and care for tone, texture and colour, it is a landmark film.
Unfortunately, Kumar Shahani has not been very active in the documentary field, but one still remembers his moving film on spastic children, A Certain Childhood (a Leela Naidu production). It was probably the earliest in-depth study on the subject. Abandoned, vagrant children was also the subject of Vinod Chopra’s An Encounter with Faces which won him several awards, including nomination for the Oscar at the 51st annual AcademyAwards. In this film Chopra takes over where Shyam Benegal had left off: he examines the lives of these children who lead a dreary, loveless existence at a rehabilitation centre. Using no narration and letting the children speak for themselves, Chopra turns his film into an authentic document.
A determined man can beat the system. Loksen Lalwani did. Working within the fusty Films Division (which he later left) Lalwani made a searching study of the lives of coal miners in Bihar in his film Burning Stone. Lalwani shows us the inhuman conditions in which the coal miners work and live. He also underscores the constant fear of the money-lenders and the shenanigans of the politicall trade union leaders. Lalwani’s camera follows them to the pits – revealing their primitive safety measures and the unremitting misery and squalor of their hovels. The only place where they can seek oblivion and indulge in fantasies of a glorious future for their children is the cheap liquor shop.
When asked why he chose to call his film Burning Stone, Lalwani replied, “I could have called it ‘black diamond’ as coal is referred to… but for the miners it is a burning stone. It is burning in the depths of the earth like a volcano waiting to erupt..”.
Cinema Cinema (Krishna Shah)
They Call me Chamar, Lalwani’s next film, was reportedly based on a newspaper item, of a brahmin having married a Harijan* girl. Socially ostracised, he is driven to the bustee* of the chamars* who live by skinning dead animals. Vultures peck at dead carcasses as we approach the chamar bustee to meet our protagonists. Lalwani lets the couple alternately relate their story which forms a powerful indictment of a cruel social system. It is a pity a man of such strong conviction and social consciousness died so young.
And now the bad news.
The portents were all there but it was the suddenness of it which took everyone unawares. On 26 lune 1975, the President of India through a proclamation declared that “a grave emergency exists, whereby the security of India is threatened by internal disturbances”. Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister, was more reasurring, “The President has proclaimed emergency. This is nothing to panic about”. As always, the axe fell on the media – press, radio, television, film. The earnest, authoritative Vidya Charan Shukla took overcharge of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry from Inder Kumar Gujral. Soon after assuming office, Mr. Shukla went into action. What happened to the press, radio, TV and feature film industry is only too well known. Perhaps less known is the irreparable damage Emergency and men like Shukla did to the documentary film.
Emergency highlighted the vulnerability of the government-controlled media— AIR [All India Radio], TV and Films Division. Mr. Shukla and his ilk instilled fear in every area of creative and organisational activity. And to use Mr. L.K. Advani’s famous phrase, men began to “crawl when asked only to bend”. Fear stalked the corridors of Films Division. “The largest documentary film unit in the world” was reduced to an impotent giant. In an atmosphere rife with suspicion and supression, ‘seasonal’ filmmakers and political adventurists jumped on to the gravy train. According to the White Paper on Misuse of Mass Media, a number of films including Agya Do Hukam Karo, Zimmedar Waris, A New Era Begins and Godmen of Ganges were purchased by Films Division on orders from the Minister, bypassing both the Film Purchase Committee and the Film Advisory Board. Crude propaganda, hastily churned out by Films Division, filled the screens of the country. Mercifully, people could not be forced to watch it.
Prisoners of Conscience (Anand Patwardhan)
The pity and sorrow of it was that when Mrs. Gandhi was voted out of power and the Janata Party brought in, nothing but nothing changed materially. Although the government was new, the men who constituted it were not. No sooner did they get into power than they resorted to the same old game of revenge and reprisal. Mrs. Gandhi was declared persona non grata on AIR, Doordarshan [televisione nazionale] and Films Division. Once when a TV producer unwittingly allowed a documentary in which Mrs. Gandhi had briefly figured, he was summarily sacked. Worse still was the case of an FD documentary which showed a portrait of Mrs. Gandhi in the background. All prints of the film were ordered to be withdrawn from the national circuit. So much for the high-minded declarations of Mr. L.K. Advani.
Like the proverbial silver lining to the dark cloud, a significant development in the aftermath of Emergency was the political comment film. Credit for this should go to a young man, Anand Patwardhan, who was more of a political activist than a filmmaker. He took to filmmaking to put across his socio-political views to a wider audience. Patwardhan got considerable media attention with his half-hour 16 mm black and white documentary Prisoners of Conscience on the condition of political prisoners in India before, during and after the Emergency.
Another documentary on political prisoners was Utpalendu Chakraborty’s Mukti Chai. Shot mostly with hand-held camera which gave it a certain sense of urgency, Chakraborty postulated that right from the Rowlatt Act to the proclamation of Emergency, the repressive forces have never really let the individual out of their grip. A more effective, well-made film was Gautam Ghose’s Hungry Autumn which won its director a prize at Oberhausen. Taking off from actual famine conditions in 1974 in West Bengal, the film analyses the basic Indian agronomic situation, widespreaddestitution and its repercussions on rural and urban societies.
In the investigative genre, a truly courageous film was the Tapan Bose [Bos]-Suhasini Mulay [Mule] film, An Indian Story, on the notorious Bhagalpur blindings and the whole pattern of police brutality in India. Anyone who has ventured to make an unsponsored film knows the hazards of raising funds. Even the eventual fate of such a film is uncertain as Tapan was to discover later. Bhagalpur blindings had hit the headlines when it was discovered that some policemen had forcibly blinded 34 under-trial prisoners by puncturing their eyes with a thick needle and then pouring acid on the wounds. Tapan Bose started off by interviewing three of the blinded men in Delhi and then went to Bhagalpur to finish the film. Needless to say, the authorities tried every trick to dissuade Tapan and uniformed policemen shadowed the crew throughout. To cap it all, the censors banned the film only to be saved by a court order. For the socially committed, independent filmmaker it is a tight rope walk. It would appear that the establishment takes sadistic pleasure in keeping him poised so precariously.
The 1980s: Is Anyone Watching?
The ’80s witnessed the pathetic downhill slide of Films Division. Lacking leadership, ideology and creative impulse, it now seemed to have lost the will to live. It was no longer the favoured agency of propaganda for the government. Those favours were now being bestowed on Doordarshan. In a bid to cut it to size, in 1984, the government drastically curtailed its production programme from 104 to 52 films a year, and suspended the production of about 200 films “to clear an unprecedented backlog accumulated over a period of four years and involving crores of rupees”. This led Chidananda Dasgupta to write in the Indian Express, (Chronicles of a Death Foretold – Nov. 24, 1985) “Now, rumours are afloat that Films Division is on its death bed. It is time for the scribes to get their obits ready – or so it seems. If true, is this a case of murder, suicide, or just slow decay?…. It is alleged… that Films Division has fallen into official neglect and is now being readied for axing. But the seeds of its destruction were planted earlier. The hardening of its arteries, to change the metaphor, has been evident for a long time”. Harsh words these, but they underline a painful reality.
As early as 1966, the Chanda Committee in its report on Documentary Films and Newsreels had remarked that “because of organisational defects the documentaries are produced mechanically and disinterestedly, making them dull and uninteresting. Their treatment is often superficial and the absence of humour and satire is a contributory factor. Also, the pattern of documentaries has now become so stereotyped… it is easy to anticipate sequences and conclusions”.
An Indian Story (Suhasini Muley and Tapan Bose)
It is a saddening thought that in its 40 years existence, Films Division has failed to build an identifiable image of Indian documentary. If anything, it has become an object of derision typifying Donald Richie’s famous quip, “Official anything is bad but official films are worst”. It is a well-known fact that most theatres in the country show these documentaries under duress and sufferance. The common practice is either to keep the lights on while the documentary is screened or to show only the beginning and the end of the film. However, Films Division can take comfort from the fact that the country’s well-over 12,000 theatres contribute to their kitty substantially, while they may deny exposure to their films.
A true documentary must mirror the conditions and probe into the problems of human life. Its tradition has not been self-congratulatory, but self-questioning. Unfortunately our bureaucrats have never understood this, their argument being: as they were paying the piper, they must call the tune. That tune has never been in consonance with the mood and reality of the situation. Hence, the credibility gap and walkouts from the theatres. According to the Working Group on National Film Policy (May, 1980) one reason why Films Division films fail to attract audiences is their superficial and simplistic approach, and the non-involvement “of the filmmaker with the problems which he attempts to depict”. Any documentary worth its name is never neutral and non-controversial. If it is to serve as a positive catalyst of social change, it must shock, inspire and provoke and not indulge in a balancing act as most FD documentaries do.
Indian documentary faces an unprecedented crisis. It can only come out of it if the government relaxes its vice-like control on exhibition outlets. Nothing else will change the situation. In an editorial in Screen, B.K. Karanjia put it succinctly, “The very manner in which we exhibit the Films Division’s newsreels and shorts (by compulsion and, adding insult to injury, on payment) makes a travesty of a fundamental democratic principle. The documentary in India is made and shown by bureaucratic fiat, but that is not how good documentaries are made and it is certainly not how good documentaries need be shown… There is also no dearth of exhibitors who would be willing to show such films provided they have interest and quality. That is the first thing – compulsion must go”.
India Cabaret (Mira Nair)
Despite official apathy and indifference, a new kind of documentary has taken shape – not of smiling faces and lush fields but the struggle and strife of our multitudes. Scraping together the funds somehow or the other, the filmmakers have gone ahead regardless of the limited outlets available to them. Subjects which had been taboo earlier and swept under the carpet by the official media were now brought out in the open. As a result, we have courageous exposes of caste and communal riots, police brutality, industrial neglect, urban unemployment, bride burning, and other issues of social urgency. Interestingly, a number of films on current social problems have been made by women directors, among them Uma Segal, Meera Dewan, Mira Nair, Manjira Dutta and Suhasini Mulay.
Uma Segal, a graduate of the Film and TV Institute, Pune, made a 42-minute film Shelter (1984), on the plight of pavement dwellers in Bombay whose dwellings had been demolished and who were deported to far-off places. Using a candid camera style of spot interviews, Segal examines the issues involved and builds up a case against the demolition of the hutments. The film makes the plea that the pavement dwellers provide essential services to nearby high-rise buildings but are unable to get accommodation for themselves. Interestingly, the film was awarded the Special Jury Prize which Segal refused: “The very government which was and is responsible for the demolitions, instead of showing reason… has continued demolitions with impunity on a massive scale. I find it ironical that the very same government chooses to give me an award”.
Anand Patwardhan’s Hamara Sheher ([Bombay, Our City] 1985) centers around the same theme but has a greater thrust. Made possible through donations from individuals and public bodies, Patwardhan’s film was well over two years in the making. Motivated by the large scale attacks on slum dwellers in 1982/83 he found, “that it wasn’t just the authorities who were determined to demolish them, but that the entire middle-class opinion was being mobilised against slum dwellers”. The film counters the argument that slum dwellers are a drain on the economy. On the contrary, Patwardhan avers, they contribute to it as workers in industry and other labour-intensive fields.
The filmmaker was criticised for manipulating some of the interviews – specially those of the affluent section – and using them out of context. Dismissing the criticism, Patwardhan said, “the objection is come because we have actually put them in context… the background of poverty”. It is a film made with compassion and conviction. Pity that it has remained unseen except for special screenings for film circles and seminars on housing. Another film which focussed attention on the (in)human condition is Sashi Anand’s Man Vs. Man (1983) which questions the wisdom of government legislation banning hand-pulled rickshaws in Calcutta which would throw well over hundred thousand people out of employment.
Meera Dewan who had been deeply concerned about the plight of women in a traditional, male-dominated society, won a prize at Oberhausen for her film Gift of Love (1983). It is a trenchant indictment of the widely-prevalent but pernicious dowry system. Not a day passes without some young married women, unable to meet the demands of her greedy in-laws, being set aflame. Meera Dewan’s film deals with two such cases. Interviews with victims, relatives, a lawyer and a social scientist are juxtaposed with scenes of merry-making during an Indian marriage. The filmmaker thus effectively brings out the brutality of the system which, to quote a critic, “penetrates right into the skin”.
Bombay, Our City (Anand Patwardhan)
Communal clashes have been a part of the Indian scene from the days of the Raj. The official media has either tried to cover it up or play it down. What is needed is a more mature approach to a problem that cannot just be wished away. Hence it is rare that one comes across a film like Deepa Dhanraj’s What Happened to this City (1986). The film depicts a Hindu-Muslim communal riot in Hyderabad, a city where for about 800 years the two communities had lived in harmony. It attempts to analyse the 1984 riot when for nearly 10 weeks large parts of the city were swept by waves of communal violence followed by a continuous period of curfew. It also exposes the process of political manoeuvering.
On December 3, 1984, the Union Carbide’s plant at Bhopal filled the air with the deadly poison methyl isocyanide (MIC), leading to the world’s biggest industrial disaster. Thousands died and many more were permanently maimed. The Tapan Sinha-Suhasini Mulay-directed Bhopal Beyond Genocide is a powerful expose of the multinational’s criminal negligence. The film highlights the inadequacies of relief which made the aftermath even more tragic, and predictably, like their earlier film An Indian Story, the Censor Board refused its certification and the producers had to take the matter to court. Though the film was chosen as the ‘Best Documentary of the Year’ it has never been publicly shown. The producers refused the award in protest. “It was the frustration of many years which came out in the open,” they stated. In contrast, Prakash Jha’s Faces After the Storm, on the victims of communal riots at Bihar Sharif was a tame affair. Sponsored by Films Division, the constraint showed in its content and approach.
Oppression and exploitation is the stuff of Manjira Dutta’s Raaste Bandh Hain Sub ([Le strade sono tutte chiuse] 1985) too. In the anthropological genre, this could possibly be the first film to explore in some depth and detail the lives of a backward tribal people living in the hilly terrain of Jaunsar Bawar, in Uttar Pradesh. The film also focuses on the failure of rural land reform measures, the persistence of bonded labour and political corruption which makes a mockery of rehabilitation programmes. Another film that has the same anthropological motivation is Muzaffar Ali’s Vadakath – A Thervad in Kerala. The film, based on the Vadakath family of Anakara in Kerala, focuses on the matrilineal system, in accordance with the prevailing customs of the region. Muzaffar Ali takes us to the beautiful old house of the Ammu Swaminadhan family where traditionally the property has been handed from mother to daughter for generations. At a family get-together the women recall their childhood nostalgically. It is an intimate and keenly-observed film.
It appeared that the 20-minute format forced by Films Division was being increasingly discarded in favour of longer films. Prolific as always, Shyam Benegal made two important films in 1985, one on Jawaharlal Nehru (180 mts.) and the other on Satyajit Ray (150 mts.). The Nehru film, an Indo-USSR coproduction directed jointly by Shyam Benegal and Yuri Aldokhin was an ambitious production, wide in scope, rich in resources – technical, artistic and archival. The filmmakers chose a first person biography approach, relying for the spoken text entirely on Nehru’s Autobiography, his Selected Works, and Glimpses of World History and his speeches.
The film opens on Mrs. Indira Gandhi recalling that the most remarkable thing about her father was the poet in him. What follows – after his birth in Allahabad and early life at Anand Bhavan, his student days in England at Harrow and Cambridge – is as much the contemporary history of India as the life of Nehru, so intermingled were the two. Nehru’s was a fascinating life. The man who believed in ‘living dangerously’ was at once a poet, a romantic, an idealist, a revolutionary, a writer and historian. Unfortunately, the film fails him, and remains at best an overlong, dreary document. The Satyajit Ray film is the more interesting of the two. Probably the presence of Ray has something to do with it. Opening with Ray at work on the sets of Ghare Baire, most of the film is composed of conversation between the two filmmakers interspersed with excerpts from Ray’s films. In both films one got the feeling that Benegal was in awe of his material. While the first-person approach can make for purity of a kind, it can also place severe limitations on critical analysis and comment.
Boatman (Gianfranco Rosi)
Talking of feature-length documentaries, I must mention Mani Kaul’s Mati Manas ([La psiche dell’argilla] 80 mins, 1985). Like his earlier film, Satah Se Uthatha Aadmi [L’uomo che si erge dalla superficie], on the Hindi writer Muktibodh, Mati Manas is multilinear and defies conventional distinction between a documentary and fiction film, thus creating, what Mani calls, “a non-fictional reality”. The film traces our entire cultural superstructure, myths, rituals etc. in the act of pottery making, one of man’s earliest occupations. Mani’s film starts with a museum exhibiting terracotta of the past and moves out to the vast central Indian plains which saw the rise of one of the most ancient civilisations of the world, and the extreme south with its ritualistic pottery, linking the pot – a symbol of creation – with the rhythm of life.
Barring the films of Shyam Benegal and Mani Kaul, most of the films mentioned earlier were unsponsored – undertaken as an act of faith, by courageous young men and women. Deeply troubled by certain socio-political problems, they sought to bring these out into the open for a wider discussion. That they failed to achieve this, is a sad commentary on the state of affairs. It is a frustrating situation. On the one hand, Films Division will not let go its control on exhibition outlets; on the other, Doordarshan is too busy profiteering from the insatiable hunger of the audience for jejune entertainment with its incredibly bad and indifferent sitcoms and soap operas, forgetting its function towards the community.
Doordarshan’s in-house production of documentaries is lamentable. In the past, they have been rehashing material acquired from Films Division. I may be forgiven if I cite a personal example. On Sarojini Naidu’s birthday this year, DD had announced a film, Sarojini Naidu – The Nightingale of India, the title of a film which I had produced and directed some years back for Films Division, and had won me Filmfare’s Best Documentary of the Year Award. On viewing the film, I was shocked to discover that large chunks from my black and white film had been clumsily strung together with material shot in garish colour. Shown on the national network, it was a Calcutta Doordarshan presentation. There was not so much as an acknowledgement of the original material which had taken me months to research and acquire.
Sooner or later Mandi House must realise that television is at its best when tackling non-fiction subjects. Doordarshan suddenly came of age with graphic reportage on the surrender of terrorists in the Golden Temple and the two-part Bofors programme. These have not only given DD a raison d’etre but proved the power and potential of the medium. Which brings me to Ramesh Sharma’s two documentary-based programmes: Focus and Kasauti. Kasauti is about the ‘marginal people’ – people who are not in the mainstream. It is a new concept for Doordarshan though an old and tried one elsewhere. Ramesh Sharma, its producer who first came into prominence with his feature film New Delhi Times, confronts us with the stark reality of Indian life with subjects ranging from prostitution to mental asylums, drug addiction to dacoits. His style is direct, the approach compassionate, the result disturbing and thought-provoking. In Focus, Sharma goes into areas as diverse as advertising and tourism, Gorkhaland and nuclear power, the Punjab problem and the new Indian Cinema. Programmes such as these earn DD the discerning viewers’ patronage and respect.
The tragedy of Indian documentary is that for too long it has leaned on official patronage. This has stultified its growth and deprived it of an identity. The honest fact is that we do not have what can be called an ‘Indian Documentary’. We have to create one, in order that o ne of the greatest mediums of the 20th century is not mortgaged to the purveyors of meretricious and mindless fare. As Goethe said:… “a great public is entitled to our respect, and should not be treated like children from whom one wishes merely to extract money”. (from: B.D. Garga, Cinema in India)