Monday, February 24, 2014

An oblique boo: Treasures from the Films Division vault

An expanded version of a piece I did for The Indian Quarterly. 

In America, they filmed a platinum blonde movie star singing “Happy Birthday” to the president. The British recorded for posterity the few seconds for which Charlie Chaplin and Mahatma Gandhi appeared on a balcony together. Yet somehow, in India, we have scant footage of the moment our country became independent. There’s a video fragment of Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny” speech, but it’s so blurry that one might as well be watching a completely different night. It’s quite possible that a clearer video might have been captured if the government’s newsreel and documentary unit, Information Films of India, had not been dissolved in 1946. Its post-independence avatar, Films Division, would only come into being in 1948.

Films Division was created to facilitate “the production and distribution of newsreels and short films required by the Government of India for public information, education, motivation, and for instructional and cultural purposes”. Which sounds terribly official and boring, but FD found a way to insert itself into the lives of Indian moviegoers. The Cinematograph Act of 1952 made it compulsory for all cinema halls in the country to screen an FD short before any feature film. Camille Deprez writes of how, even in its initial years, FD’s films were reaching a weekly paying audience of 20 million viewers. This, she says, “marked India as unique compared to anywhere else in the world”.

There’s no denying that many of these films – and there were more than a hundred new ones every year – were “boring, heavy-handed and disenchanted”, as Srirupa Roy bluntly put it. Yet, through guile or official oversight or sheer brazenness, a couple of them rose above their intended function as delivery devices for information and propaganda. Some were, dare it be said, worthier of attention than the classic Bollywood flicks they prefaced. I Am 20 more than holds its own against Jewel Thief. And there’s more restless energy packed into five minutes of Abid than the entire four hours of Mera Naam Joker.

Since its formation, Films Division has produced over 8,000 documentaries, animations and shorts. Last year, in an unexpected but welcome move, the organisation started separating some grain from six-and-a-half decades of chaff. In January, it launched a YouTube channel and began to upload some of the Division’s more notable efforts on it. The channel now has 170 videos, ranging from feature-length documentaries to minute-long experimental films. (Other users have uploaded FD films on YouTube as well.) Though the majority of directors featured on it will probably be unknown to the casual viewer, if you’re lucky, you’ll come for Satyajit Ray and end up staying for Pramod Pati. 

The 1950s shorts uploaded are interesting in an academic sense, but do not suggest that Indian documentarians were pushing – or were being allowed to push – the boundaries of their craft at the time. There’s the odd impressionistic venture, like V Shantaram’s Symphony of Life (1954), a ten-minute meditation on nature and tribal life that’s unique for having no narration and synching its editing to music. Still, it wasn’t till the ‘60s that Films Division directors started, in the words of critic Bikram Singh, to “stick the neck out (and) say an oblique ‘boo’ to the establishment”.

The Man Who Made Short Films
Seventeen years after Jean Rouch quizzed young Parisians for his documentary Chronicle of a Summer, filmmaker SNS Sastry trained his camera on a group of 20-year-olds born on August 15, 1947. I Am 20 asked socialites and farmers, factory workers and IAS aspirants about themselves, their lives and their country. Instead of the happy slice of patriotism officials might have been led to expect, there’s a good deal of candour in their responses, and in some cases, doubt and disillusionment. When asked what comes to mind when she thinks of her country, a young woman replies: “I think of India when I see the long queues, people waiting patiently for buses, for ration.” And the declaration by another respondent – which Sastry mischievously places after the patriotic pronouncements of a fighter pilot – that he doesn’t have “any love for the country” is so un-Indian in its matter-of-factness, it prompts a surprised “Really?” from the interviewer.

I Am 20 is political filmmaking, but of a very fleet-footed sort. Sastry’s droll juxtapositions comment on the action without going the full Potemkin: one particularly memorable cut takes viewers from sitar music and stone carvings to shots of factories and a guy singing “I Should Have Known Better”. There’s little of the solemnity one would expect from an exercise of this kind. For starters, Sastry keeps distracting viewers with violently shaking backdrops. He also allows his respondents to take jabs at sacred institutions, like the young man who insists that his ambition is to join the IAS and become “a cog in the machine”. There’s even a dig at Films Division, when the same kid deadpans that India has made the “kind of progress which you show in your documentary films”.

Almost as if he’d been asked “And what do you do?” by one of his subjects, Sastry proceeded to turn the camera on himself. And I Make Short Films (1968) packs a feature film worth of material into 17 minutes. Images of musicians, rioters, lovers, animals replace one another at lightning speed, the soundtrack fading in and out like someone switching between a dozen different radio stations. There’s no narration, no plot, no safety net. Sastry takes particular delight in dancing around the issue of the documentary’s ultimate purpose. “We are filmmakers”, a voice says. “We are sociologists”, another argues. Even in this very personal exercise, there are political undertones. As an off-screen voice praises the government’s Five Year Plans, the accompanying images are of starving villagers and dry crusts of bread.

In the late 1950s, Pramod Pati went to Prague to study puppet animation. One of his instructors there was Jiří Trnka, whose 1965 film The Hand was a chilling indictment of Soviet censorship. Pati’s approach was clearly informed by Trnka’s, but where the Czech animator’s brand of subversion was sombre and measured, Pati’s was freewheeling and joyous. His 1968 short Explorer might be the most bizarre seven minutes ever committed to film by an Indian director, populated as it is with images of saints and statues and dancing teenagers, billboards that read ‘F*CK CENSORSHIP’, mushroom clouds, and dozens upon dozens of eyes.

Pati joined Films Division in 1959 as the head of its animation unit. In a celebrated 1970 short, he applied a stop motion animation technique called pixilation to a live subject, the Bombay artist Abid Surti. Abid is a rare home-grown example of the psychedelic ‘head’ film, full of pop colours and Surti’s magnificent poker face. In a later interview, the artist recalled how Pati landed up at his studio after the original subject, MF Husain, had dropped out. “[He] was a giant of a worker, very cooperative, very understanding, and very loving,” Surti recalled. “He used to work, I should say, about 19-20 hours a day while we were shooting it.” The 20-day shoot became an event in itself, with Satyajit Ray and BR Chopra dropping in.

God in the Details
While Sastry and Pati were linked by their avant-garde tendencies, the third great director of the fertile ‘65-‘75 period, S Sukhdev, walked a path very much his own. His India ‘67 (actual title: An Indian Day) is probably the best-known work to emerge from Films Division. The film was in the running for the Golden Bear at the ’68 Berlin Film Festival. American critic Albert Johnson spoke of its “highly cinematic perusal of the contrasts and contradictions in India” and called the director the “most exciting film master, since the rise of Satyajit Ray”. Ray himself has written in praise of the film, saying “I like it, 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.”

To gather footage for this hour-long documentary, Sukhdev travelled across the country, shooting everything from an artists’ village in Cholamandal to a Shiv Sena agitation in Bombay led by Bal Thackeray. Though the film was commissioned to celebrate 20 years of independence, Sukhdev proved as adept as Sastry at avoiding unnecessary chest-beating. Shots of Gandhi Samadhi, for instance, are combined with the recollections of an old flower-seller who talks about bringing her boy to the Mahatma’s funeral. This is one of the few scenes where there’s something resembling narration. Most of the time, the viewer is given the freedom to form his or her own story out of Sukhdev’s contemplative images. Fittingly, Gulzar’s tribute to Sukhdev, Ek Akar (1985), was also sans narration.

Sukhdev directed, shot and edited the film himself – a remarkable feat. He even turns up onscreen in a homecoming scene that ends with him looking around his old room and picking up a pillow embroidered with the words ‘sweet dream’. The little details that impressed Ray so are everywhere: a sketch of the goddess Lakshmi on a shopping bag; a bagpiper at a wedding; couples close-dancing to “Hava Nagila”. Often the details turn darker, like the protest notice that reads ‘Hitler Reborn at Pathankote’ or the image of flies buzzing around the skulls of dead cattle (the latter anticipates the close-ups of human corpses in his 1975 film about the Bangladesh War, Nine Months to Freedom). Sukhdev’s subversion is less gleeful than Sastry’s or Pati’s, but just as effective: it’s no coincidence that the village teacher is trying to get his students to use kranti (revolution) in a sentence.

A Common Tune
The one element that unites these diverse films is the music of Vijay Raghav Rao. Rao was an extraordinarily versatile talent. An in-demand flautist, composer and arranger, he conducted the national anthem at the 1947 Independence Day celebrations. He performed for Gandhi in person and for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. When Led Zeppelin recorded with local musicians in Bombay, it was Rao who interpreted for them. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1970.

Rao was to FD’s directors what Vanraj Bhatia was to the parallel filmmakers of the ‘70s and ‘80s: a composer malleable enough to handle a wide range of styles and temperaments. He matched the schizophrenic charge of Pati’s Explorer with impressionistic bursts of sound – instruments (sitar, ghatam, clarinet, drums, sarangi, harmonica, strings) sped up and distorted, combined and contrasted. For MF Husain’s Through the Eyes of a Painter, he provided groovy backwards sitar, a year after the Beatles did the same with guitars on Revolver. I Am 20 opens with a lightning-fast taan, followed by percussion that mimics the rhythm of a train. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Rao used it again the following year, in his soundtrack for Mrinal Sen’s seminal 1969 feature Bhuvan Shome.  

Rao could, of course, come up with more traditionally structured pieces when required. India ’67, for instance, has a number of sustained compositions in an array of folk and classical styles. Still, it’s remarkable how a trained classical musician like Rao was willing to put his ego aside and contribute music that often served the interests of the film more than his own reputation. Did purists look down on his score for Trip – a series of electronic blips – or his inventive use of birdsong and ticking clocks in Abid? Even if they had, it probably wouldn’t have bothered Rao much. “I would like to remove a misunderstanding that documentary film music consists of only old type classical music,” he said in an interview. Abid Surti, meanwhile, echoed everyone’s feelings when he called Rao “the king of music at that time at Films Division” in a 2005 interview.

Maps and Legends
One of the pleasures of FD’s YouTube channel is the opportunity it affords to make your own little discoveries. For every proponent of Sastry or Sukhdev, there’ll be another who finds the elegant shorts of Vijay B Chandra more revelatory. There are also a number of hard-to-find films by big-ticket directors, like Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Past in Perspective (1975), Girish Karnad’s Kanaka Purandara (1989) and Shyam Benegal’s Indian Youth: An Exploration (1968). Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Oscar-nominated An Encounter with Faces (1978) – a moving look at children’s homes in Bombay – is an essential entry in the Indian documentary canon, as are Mani Kaul’s Arrival (1980) and Dhrupad (1983). Satyajit Ray’s shadow is cast over four films: two by him (Rabindranath Tagore, 1961; The Inner Eye, 1972), and two – by BD Garga and Shyam Benegal – about him. (Benegal’s documentary has the added attraction of Govind Nihalani as cameraman and Smita Patil and Om Puri behaving like excited schoolkids in the master’s presence.)

Then there are the one-offs; films made by professionals from other fields. City on the Water (1975), by architect Charles Correa, is a melancholy tribute to 70s Bombay. Koodal (1968) is painter Tyeb Mehta’s devastating indictment of animal slaughter. Graceful panning shots give way to quick-fire images of fornicating cattle, followed by meat hooks hanging from the ceiling. The squeamish should be grateful that Mehta doesn’t go as far as George Franju in his 1949 slaughterhouse documentary Blood of the Beasts; instead, he ends with a montage of religious idols, the last image being that of Nandi the bull. Equally experimental, if less coherent, is a 1967 short by Mehta’s Bombay Progressive Group cohort MF Husain. Through the Eyes of a Painter begins with Husain explaining what a daring thing it is that he’s doing, making a 15-minute film with no narration and no identifiable link between images of daily life in Rajasthan. Evidently, the Berlin Film Festival thought it was pretty daring too, because they awarded Husain the Golden Bear for Best Short Film.

Even if you see all this, there’s a lot left. I haven’t even touched upon FD’s pioneering animated films, their biopics on forgotten legends like Sohrab Modi and Gangubai Hangal, the time capsules announcing everything from the formation of Nagaland to how happy the nation is under Emergency. It’s amazing how so many of these films, despite the restrictions placed on them, still pulse with a vitality denied to all but the best of Indian feature cinema. In I Am 20, a young man talks about wanting to “go through this country top to bottom, walking at a leisurely pace, seeing all kinds of people”. One could achieve something similar by watching these films.

All images, moving and still, used above are the property of Films Division. 

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