My 'Double Life' at Films Division - Part 2

A edit grab from the film 'Double Life'

Didn't I mention earlier that the film laboratory person at Mahim talked about the state of affairs at Films Division? Well, that day he said something else too. Their laboratory often processed and bulk printed the ‘News Magazines’ that were to be shown compulsorily in movie theaters; after Films Division supplied it with the negatives of the films. The laboratory person had then whispered into my ears something to this effect, “They would order let's say X number of prints that were to be kept in X number of cans for a pan India release. Now, who knows what would be inside those X number of cans? Tell me... who knows? "  

Well, it seems in retrospect, that whisper that day encapsulated in itself the crux of the matter that has been plaguing the organization over the years. Who knows what would be in those cans? Who knows, what are the Films Division films that were being screened at theaters across the country; and how many? Who knows, what are kind of films that Films Division has been making over the years? And who knows - with the advent of TV news and the Internet; and the ease in which these mediums disseminate the non fiction  - why is the Films Division making films at all, as Yezdi Engineer would wryly say, on tax payer’s money? It sure is an existential issue!!

Nanook of the North

Historically the documentary film has always been funded by corporate entities like ‘General Post Office’ or ‘Burmah Shell’. Robert Flaherty's 'Nanook of the North' after which the term 'documentary film' was coined - was supposed to have been funded by a French fur company. Professionally, Flaherty must have been leading a dual life, in keeping the interests of his company in mind and as well as in making the film that he wanted to. It is but natural that the agenda of ‘Night Mail’, made under the aegis of the British ‘General Post Office’ was about a night train that distributes post every efficiently in the UK. Needless to say, this factual film had a whole lot of enactment sequences in it. Although ‘General Post Office’ made poetic films like ‘Song of Ceylon’ that had nothing to do with its core business of postal distribution – gradually corporate films shred out its responsibility of making art out of ‘creative interpretation of reality’ – as John Grierson would call the documentary film - sticking to its core objective of promotion of it's own businesses.

The other biggest source of documentary film funding over the years has been the government, and therefore technically the people of a country who have formed the government. The Russians practiced this art of documentary film funding post the Bolshevik revolution, where a change in regime made the new rulers fund and exhibit pro people documentary films. The Germans under Leni Riefenstahl fine tuned and mastered this art – they made what are now called the propaganda films. We had a situation where Adolf Hitler produced and sort of ‘acted and starred’ in his own full length documentaries. Not to be left behind, the Americans and the British too soon caught up with the rest of the world. The documentary news reel format came in handy for them while seeking public support for their war efforts.

Though the department that made factual news films under the British Indian government initially started out to do so to bolster the war efforts of the British Empire, post Indian independence ‘Films Division’ - the legacy that the British had left behind - focused mainly on the nation building exercises that Nehru and others leaders of the time were envisaging. But I guess, by the mid nineteen seventies, the Films Division factual films were synonymous with boring films extolling - rightly or wrongly – the government policies; and the rulers in power.

So if this was the scenario, why the hell was I insisting on leading a second life at Films Division?


Well, the Russian’s under Dziga Vertov redefined the language of the factual film narrative under governmental patronage in the early 1900s. British-Scottish film maker and theoretician John Grierson, considered the father of documentary film making, was in the US when Robert Flaherty made one of the first documentary feature narrative, ‘Nanook of the North’. As a critic he had coined the term ‘documentary’ after watching this film. A couple of decades later when he returned to the UK, he headed the ‘General Post Office’ film unit and was responsible for training and nurturing creative talents that made lyrical films like ‘Night Mail’ and ‘Song of Ceylon’. 

John Grierson

An article on James Beverage

One of the protegees of John Grierson was a filmmaker named James Beverage. He was associated with the Films Division, first in the early nineteen fifties and then in the sixties. Although he was adept in making ‘nation building’ films that served the ruling regime, he did maintain a continued interest in the making the 'creative documentaries' that his mentor John Grierson had envisaged – the one that interpreted reality. Like Grierson and probably Flaherty, he too lead a double life maintaining a balance between the two. He also trained a vast number of Indian film makers like Fali Bilmoria, Clement Baptista, Jean Bownagary and others. They in turn went on to make memorable Indian documentaries like ‘Dabbawala’ and ‘The House that Ananda Built’.

Not only that, this group of Indian filmmakers even nurtured a second rung of Indian documentary film talents like S. Sukdev, SNS Shastry, Promod Patti, Mani Kaul and others who went on to make some of the most memorable documentary films ever made in the history of Indian cinema. Like James Beveridge had done earlier on, these filmmakers too had been living a double life at FD - making films that mundanely promoted the government policies on one hand and exercising their creative freedom while making a few others - films like 'And I Make Films’, ‘India 67’, 'I am 20', 'Trip', ‘Abid’, ‘Explorer’, ‘Arrival’ and others. These films were edgy, highly experimental and they pushed the boundaries of the documentary film language. In fact, the late sixties – the time when these films were made around the Films Division - is often considered as the golden era of documentary film making in India. 

SNS Shastry

Now, who would not like to get associated into this historical lineage? While one was not interested in the ‘government agenda’ films that the organization made, the real bait was its off shoot – the creative documentary. But unfortunately, in my first stint of association with Films Division, except for ‘Voices of Mini Tibet’, none of my films broke any new grounds. The system within the organization bred some stylistic rigidity that I could not break, however much I wished to.


Fortunately for me and many of my ilk, during the first decade of this century, the digital medium was slowly exposing itself onto us. Shooting on Mini DV tapes and self producing movies was very much possible and affordable. So, it was no longer mandatory for documentary film makers to depend on Films Division to make films. Good riddance, I thought then. I had my feature films to concentrate on, besides the odd self funded documentaries.

A still from 'Miyar House'

In 2001, I had shot the dismantling of my ancestral house that was to be reconstructed by a dedicated person named Vijayanath Shenoy onto a heritage village, where more such houses were being reconstructed. The shooting was self funded and was shot through a mini DV camera on a shoot-what-you-get basis. There was no preconceived idea of how the film would finally shape or what form the it would take. The initial purpose was documentation of the dismantling process. For seven to eight years I was not getting a grip of the shape that the movie should take till I decided to use the Sanislavaskian method of forcefully staring at a blank paper with a fierce intent to write. After the initial block, the words would flow, the wise man had said, referring to the occasional blankness that actors experience when they come on the stage.

A newly bought laptop forced me into assembling the footage six to seven years after I shot it. Once I saw the assembly, I knew I had a movie on hand – the movie not only dealt with the dismantling of the house, but also with the melting of an entire life style of rural India in the previous century and the realisation of the inevitability of it. By 2011 ‘Miyar House’, as the film was finally called was complete. It did quite well in the Film Festival circuit in India. It was also in the competition section of the Mumbai International Film Festival for Documentaries and Short film organized by Films Division, the following year. So, I would assume my name was circulating and moving around the corridors of Films Division in between some of those brown files that had red ribbons taped onto them, yet again.

And then around the same cinematic time, I got a call from the good old Suresh Menon who was still hanging on in Films Division. By then Babu Ramaswamy had got himself deputed to the regional office of the Central Board of Film Certification in Chennai. The grapevine was that he knew that he had no chance being the Chief Producer at Peddar Road and so it was better that he retired in his own own home turf at Chennai. Yezdi Engineer was already retired by then and although the Chief Producer was someone else, Suresh Menon was in charge of many things including the newly defined concept of 'Outside Producers'.  

Apparently there was a lot of churning happening at Films Division, they were in the process of shifting into the digital – standard definition, HDV, HD and other formats. Duration was no longer an issue; you could even make a feature length documentary now. They had recognized that 10 or 20 minutes ‘Film Magazines’ for mandatory screenings in movie theaters would not be viable. There were also making a call for proposals on their web site. Wow! Online application from the good old Films Division – that was really something! 

And guess what? Though it was sounding increasingly mythical in nature, I caught the legacy bug of the 'creative documentary' kind, yet again.

Publicity material for 'A Pinch of Salt'

“Floating Healers” and “A Pinch of Salt’’ were the first two films I that made in this phase for Films Division, applying online. They were not 'News Magazines' of the earlier kind, but it was insisted by a rigid contract that these films be 52 minutes in length, the standard length for a TV documentaries the world over for a slot of an hour. Why was Films Division insisting on 52 minutes, when it had nothing to do with television broadcasting? These films were not even being shown on the National Broadcasting TV station, Doordarshan. The only time Films Division was trying to get into TV  and broadcasting was when we were told by the then Chief Producer Bankim Kapadia that there was a proposal sent to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry that FD be given a separate channel to run, only meant for documentaries. The channel would not only show FD documentaries, but also other Indian documentaries. Till date, that proposed channel has never been materialized.

A still from 'Rice and Rasam', a movie I did for PSBT

So I had no idea why was Films Division insisting that its documentaries be 52 minutes in length. The guess was that other organizations that made documentary films since the beginning of the 21st century like the PSBT (Public Service Broadcasting Trust) were also insisting on 52 minutes. They were winning national awards, film festivals were screening their films; and they were also letting people shoot in the Mini DV format. People making movies for PSBT were having relatively more creative freedom, than when compared to people making films for Films Division. The assumption is that Films Division had no other option but to reinvent itself if it wanted to be relevant to the changing times. News had become the purview of Television. The social media too was catching up with current affairs. Every now and then there were rumors floating around that this historical department of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had outlived its purpose, and would be closed down. That it never did, is a different issue.    

So, for no apparent recognizable reasons the first two films that I did in this phase for Films division were 52 minutes each. While “Floating Healers’ dealt with the journey of a medical boat that operated in the remote areas of Sunderbans in West Bengal; “A Pinch of Salt’ was about a salt pan community of Agarias as they migrate temporarily into the barren Little Runn of Kutch in Gujarat and how it effects the education of the children of the community. The subjects were exciting per say, the location exotic, the people featured in these movies too belonged to an 'alien' culture which was different from that of the movie maker. Well, ‘Nanook of the North’ too had all these three elements. Technically it was possible to make a historical connection and seek a legacy.

But somehow, these two documentaries did not fit into John Grierson’s definition of the documentary form being the 'creative interpretation of reality'. So, the mythical historical lineage was still illusive. In simple consumerist terms, there was no job satisfaction. For one, Films Division insisted that I get a producer for the documentaries. It by all account meant that the number of shooting days would be restricted, as the producer would too would want to have control over a larger share of the budget. So, staying with the subject for some time to get to know them intimately before shooting and filming with them for over a period of time was simply out of reach.  

A still from 'Floating Healers'

Plus I had my own limitations on how I approached the making of these documentaries. The scripts that I submitted had a format that penned down definitive visuals on one side, and audio on the other, which would probably mean that there would be very little scope left to chance or discovering new things at the shooting stage. On the other hand, I knew that I had to follow the journey of the medical boat or the Agaria family as they went about their job. While the first aspect brought in a certain amount of rigidity, by nature the second aspect is candid, highly unpredictable and exciting. Reconciling the two diametrically opposite approaches within a short span of shooting time that the budget allowed was hard. The easy option was to quickly stage the 'candid' journeys that were already scripted on paper. 

The historical lineage to Robert Flaherty in this respect too was indeed established, as even in ‘Nanook of the North’ the protagonist’s journey was staged and enacted; and was passed off as ‘real’!

Did I want this?


Old Films Division logo

At this stage I do have a confession to make. During my first phase of association with Films Division, when I was trying to impress the Late Babu Ramaswamy to get him allocate films to me, I hit upon an idea, which at that point of time I thought was very cool. By then I had purchased a new computer, and somehow I thought that if I presented the script in a different format, there would be chances that I would get some films. So, with a little help of from Google I created three columns in the script – one for visuals, one for narration & interviews; and the third for the other sounds. I started filling the three columns with ease, thanks to my vivid imagination. For quite a while, I was told, that this style of presenting a script had become a reference point for new film makers who pitched proposals to Films Division. Late Babu Ramaswamy used to show my script to others saying that it would be ideal if the proposals be in this format. 

Yes, I plead criminally guilty.

So, when I submitted the script for ‘Sarvodayagram’ – a film on a school run by a person inspired by the ideals of Acharya Vinoba Bhave or for ‘The Siri Festival' – a film about an annual festival that celebrates the mass possession of the women folk in coastal Karnataka, or for 'Let we Forget’ – a film about the rehabilitation of paraplegic Indian soldiers, or for 'Kodavas - the worrier race' - a conventional anthropological film about a distinct community; it was only on the basis of write ups in magazines and on the net; and books on the subject. I never made any physical contact with the subject, except over phone. There was simply no budget or inclination for a reconnaissance trip in Films Division. My assumption is that most of the Films Division films made at that time had similar modus operandi, except when perhaps the subject were in Mumbai itself. No wonder that I could never ever establish the evasive creative lineage with John Grierson!

Only ‘Voices from Mini Tibet’ stood apart for me, as the only script I had for it was that I would shoot the location and the people there in with an extreme wide angle lens and record sound bites of people on selected topics that concerned the Tibetan refugees. There was an element of exploration and the excitement of it, during the process of making this film.

And then came ‘BV Karanth : Baba’.  The initial application for this movie too was done on line. Although Films Division was still insisting on a 52 minute film, one of the major differences with this film was that they were no longer insisting for a producer. There was a reason why you needed a producer in Films Division. You needed to make the movie by initially putting in your own money and then submit the film to get the payment. If you asked for an advance you had to give a bank guarantee to the amount that was to be taken from Films Division. It is THE standard process if you are taking an advance from the Government of India; whether you are a film maker or a road constructor it would not matter.  Not getting a producer would also mean that I myself had to provide that bank guarantee to Films Division.

A still from 'B V Karanth: Baba'

I not only managed the bank guarantee, but also decided to use the mini DV format that would enable me to shoot for a larger number of days. Unlike the previous two films, the shooting was spread over a year or so, as it took that much time coordinating to get that many numbers of people on to the camera. Plus, we had to travel, to Puttur, Mysore, Heggodu, Bangalore, Bananas, Delhi and Bhopal for the filming. As I was my own boss, I had now run out of excuses of not getting myself into the mythical lineage of the creative documentary types. It was high time that there had to be some sort of a delivery.

BV Karanth was a vagabond theater practitioner. He would not stay in one place for more than three to four years. That was the story of his life, right from his childhood days, as aptly depicted in his autobiography. He was dead 10 years before I decided to make a film on his life. There were no recordings of his plays, and if they were the quality of it was bad. As I was hunting down for some archival material on him, I suddenly realized the futility of it. What if I used relevant portions of his autobiography and incorporate them into the film, as a narration?

Although the initial idea was to have one voice narrate the story in first person, I extended the idea to include hordes of disciples of Karanth who would read relevant portions from his autobiography standing on theatrical spaces upon which Karanth mounted his plays. When I was dealing with Karanth’s life in Bhopal, for example, I identified his students there and made them read out stories about his life. So, everyone was speaking in first person Karanth’s voice, as if they themselves were Karanth. This I thought would be an apt homage to the theater director, who had trained many practitioners all over India – practitioners who owed their lives to the theater training that they received from him.

This format of using secondary source as the primary material for your documentary and acknowledging it as such is not Greiorsonian in nature. Harun Farocki, maybe first used this format, in his film ‘The Inextinguishable Fire’ in 1969. It is a film about the corporate involvement in the war efforts of the United States of America. Farocki was a German film maker making a film about the Vietnam War that the US military waged. The film dealt with the usage of the Napalm bomb that the Dow Company in America were researching and manufacturing on behalf of the US military so that they be used against the Vietnamese people. The entire shooting was done in Germany itself. For example, instead of showing the ‘real’ footage of the horrors of the effects of the Napalm bomb, Farocki read out actual testimonies of the Vietnamese people who were affected by the bomb.

Harun Farocki in 'The inextinguishable fire'

US film maker and film academician Jill Godmilow, a self declared fan of Farocki, was in Poland in the early eighties when the Solidarity movement erupted there, all of a sudden. She thought it would be an apt subject for a documentary film, came back to the United States of America and raised some funds. Unfortunately for her, there was a regime change in Poland and therefore she did not get a visa for Poland. Unperturbed, she hired Polish based actors residing in the United States and made them enact real interviews of real polish workers that really happened in Poland. The usage of this format in both Farocki and Godmilow were highly political in nature. Whereas, I was incorporating this form for the Karanth film, which was basically biographical in nature.

Apart from having these first person Karanths so to say, I was also layering the documentary with the views of Karanth’s contemporaries of the times he lived. There were situations were events would occur in Karnath’s life, Karanth had a point of view on, his contemporaries would either endorse it or may be even contradict it. So, there was no ‘one’ single truth about Karanth’s life, in the documentary. For his students, Karanth was a master in theater music. He had left behind a legacy of theater music that was fortunately widely recorded and documented. I had great access to this music and to some of the music directors that he had worked with. The emotional quality of this music was used whenever I wanted to underline an emotional moment in Karanth’s life. Mimicking the vagabond life that Karanth led, my camera was always on the move – at appropriate times I incorporated moving buses, cars, tangas, boats, trains and various other modes of transportations within the movie.

So, this film was a construct, the material were sometimes taken from the real but many times secondary sources became the primary material. There was no ‘pornography of the real’, as Jill Godmilow had said in one of her films, describing the usage of the Grisersonian ‘reality material’ or the un-obstructive observatory fly on the wall camera. I not only made such a structure known to Suresh Menon, but also got an approval from his team. Yo man!!! Maybe for the first time in my association with Films Division I was actually thinking of a radical form and incorporating it into my movie too.  The two were mutually exclusive. It was akin to having the cake and eating it too.

Having a multi layered narrative in the documentary meant that the initial cut of the film was two hour long. I reduced it to 93 minutes, and I felt that there was no further scope for any more trimming. The pace of the film was fast, mimicking the very life that Karanth led. Also, I had to let the music play out for the audience, so that they get a feel of it and therefore I could not possibly cut it off after a line or so. So, I shot off a letter to Films Division requesting them to let me keep the length that I had, giving them - as Babu Ramaswamy used to say - reasons for me to do so. I was prepared for a long haul of creative battle. To my utter surprise, I got a letter almost immediately stating that my length is appropriate and is approved; the caveat was that I would not get extra money for the extra length that was there in the movie. The second aspect was a fit case for a long crib and some emotional tear jerking but was understandable, as Films Division contracts have always been one sided. The approval of the length was a surprise.

That was when I realized that Films Division had bumped into a bureaucrat named Virender Kundu.

(To be continued...)


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