Wednesday, August 15, 2018

How India watched herself in 1967

In 1967, S.N.S. Sastry took a routine government assignment and turned it into one of the great Indian short films. The country had been independent for 20 years, and the government—through Films Division, its newsreels and documentary wing—was looking to play up the occasion. Sastry responded with a 19-minute short, powered by a supercharged score by Vijay Raghava Rao, featuring a cross-section of young people born in 1947: 20-year-olds on their 20-year-old nation. But instead of playing like state propaganda, I Am 20 is anything but straightforwardly celebratory.

I Am 20 is one of a handful of Films Division shorts made in 1967 to coincide with the 20th anniversary of independence. These are available to view on YouTube, and are a precious window to how ordinary Indians regarded their country back then, and how the film-makers chose to present their views. It’s somewhat of a shock to hear, in I Am 20, a young man state matter-of-factly that he doesn’t have any love for his country (this is preceded by a pilot saying that India means everything to him). It’s difficult to imagine a sentiment like this turning up in any film today, let alone a government-funded one.

Sastry’s interviewees come from a variety of backgrounds and have markedly different world-views. There’s the young man whose ambition is to appear for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and be “a cog in the wheel”; the girl who says she was married at 8; the tractor-driving man who says he only splurges on movies. As with a few other Films Division shorts of that time, you get the feeling Sastry is slipping incendiary material past the authorities without them noticing. When one of the subjects talks optimistically about India’s future, saying that the average man has a “capacity to work”, Sastry intercuts between a labourer dragging a heavy cart down a street with shots of better off people in comfortable offices. The idea, unspoken, is that there’s a long way to go.

Sastry was the master of the deflating edit. He even casts a baleful eye on himself. When the IAS aspirant is asked about India’s progress over 20 years, he responds, “Of course we’ve made progress, the kind you show us in your documentary films.”

Face To Face (1967), credited to 20 directors (including future adman Alyque Padamsee), is another assemblage of state-of-the-nation interviews interspersed with scenes from around India. It’s less subversive than I Am 20, but just as clear-sighted. “No clothes, no food, nowhere to live, and you talk of democracy,” a woman in rural Bihar says bitterly. “A hundred years of slavery, it will take at least 50-60 years to remove that,” a taxi driver reasons. Another asks, in English, “Don’t you think India is flop, and getting flopper day by day?” The final words, courtesy a woman from Bengaluru, are poignant, considering the Emergency is only a few years away. “Freedom of speech is the most precious gift of Indian democracy,” she says. “In the end, it will justify the trust.”

It’s not like the government wasn’t putting out propaganda through Films Division—S.M. Junnarkar’s Two Decades is a feel-good summary of India’s achievements since it gained freedom. But they also let through Indian Youth: An Exploration. This early documentary by Shyam Benegal comes alive in its section on student politics in 1967. Over still photographs of burning buses and lathi-wielding cops, a voice says, “The violence in this country is not because of a lack of talent but because of a frustration of talent.”

In the Films Division titles of 1967, we can see that, though there’s still a general air of possibility, the sheen of independence has worn off somewhat, and young people are pushing against the older order and the system. It’s also clear what a rich time for non-fiction film-making it was. That year, S. Sukhdev (whose splendid hour-long documentary India 67 released in 1968) made the short film And Miles To Go, which contrasts the daily life of the very rich and the destitute. It’s didactic, but fascinating for the variety of filmic tricks Sukhdev throws at the screen: farmers lined up like a 1920s Soviet drama, a cavernous room out of Citizen Kane, a drawn-out climactic montage with statues, drawings, still photographs.

Pramod Pati’s Explorer goes even further. It might be the most anarchic 7 minutes ever committed to film by an Indian director. With its barrage of images—chanting priests, lab experiments, youngsters partying—accompanied by a brilliant electronic score by Vijay Raghav Rao, the film can be read as a comment on India pulled between the old and the new, or simply enjoyed for its surreal energy. Watch carefully, and you’ll see a split-second image that says “F*ck censorship”. It’s as if all the hope and scepticism expressed in I Am 20 has been compressed and released as a blast of pure subversive invention.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

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