Division bell

Meet the Films Division head bureaucrat whom documentary makers actually love

A petition asking for an extension for VS Kundu, who has completed his term as Director General of the government-run producer, has been sent to I&B minister Arun Jaitley.

The Films Division’s headquarters on Peddar Road in Mumbai resembles a construction site. Yellow-hatted workers purposefully walk about. Drills of various sizes are hard at work. Sacks of cement lie here and there. Employees function out of temporary cabins. The Director General, the organisation’s head, used to sit behind a desk the size of a bed in a chamber the size of a living room. He now sits behind a desk the size of a desk in a normal-sized office. Not for long: Varinder Singh Kundu’s three-year term ends on May 31, after which the Indian Administrative Service officer will be repatriated to his state, Haryana.

A routine move, it appears, but the 53-year-old bureaucrat’s exit has sparked off anguish among a section of documentary filmmakers, who worry that the changes that he effected might be undone. In a petition being circulated and signed by such filmmakers as Amar Kanwar, Pankaj Butalia, Nishtha Jain, Miriam Chandy Menacherry, Chandita Mukherjee, Gautam Sonti and Sunanda Bhat, an appeal for Kundu’s extension has been made to Arun Jaitley, Minister of Information and Broadcasting, which governs FD. “Till four to five years ago, in the eyes of the documentary community, Films Division was an organisation that seemed to have outlived its purpose,” the petition, dated April 11, dramatically (and somewhat ahistorically) states. “Since Shri V.S.Kundu took over as Director General of Films Division, with his tremendous capacity to involve the entire filmmaking community in working with him, he has managed to transform Films Division into an organizsation which is actually doing in the field of documentaries what various film commissions have said needed to be done by state institutions to help meaningful cinema survive.”

The letter requests that Kundu’s term be extended at least until the next Mumbai International Film Festival in early 2016. “…as filmmakers familiar with the running of many international film festivals we have seen that festival directors and teams are usually given long term appointments so that they can take responsibility and shape and build a festival into the future. We appeal to the Ministry to please follow this logic and permit Shri Kundu to continue for eight more months to ensure a smooth transition.”

Kundu doesn’t look likely to stay in Mumbai after his terms ends on May 27. The Ministry has already advertised for the DG’s post, and a few candidates have been interviewed. As per the rules, a bureaucrat needs to apply for an extension, which the government might then consider. “I have not made a request for an extension,” Kundu said. “I had committed that I would be here for three years, and I have not asked for an extension. I need to go back to my life.” He has been living above his office in the FD guest-house in the same building as his office all these months. “It has been a great opportunity, but I have personally gone through bad phases,” Kundu said. “My family is back in Chandigarh. My mother is old, and it would have been unfair to uproot her from there and bring her to a new place without any social support. My wife has had to stay back and take care of her.”

FD Fan Club

The outpouring of affection for the Films Division caps a lovefest that began when Kundu took over on May 28, 2012. He stepped into the shoes of Kuldeep Sinha, who was not very popular among independent filmmakers. The government-run producer has a sizable staff of directors and technicians with the capacity to churn out close to 60 documentaries, newsreels, shorts, and animation every year. The Films Division has had its glory years, mainly between the 1950s and the '70s, and its fallow phases. It has always had a tentative relationship with outside as well as in-house filmmakers on the question of creative control. Depending on who you talk to, FD is a behemoth that produces yawn-inducing propaganda; a halfway house that has some rotten eggs but many dedicated officials; and a vital producer and festival organiser.

The battleground where competing ideas about the balance between aesthetics and politics were fought was often Mumbai International Film Festival. Matters reached a head in 2004. Outraged that MIFF selectors were rejecting one politically sensitive documentary after another, several filmmakers pulled out of the event and set up a parallel festival, Vikalp Films for Freedom.

Yet, some among the same documentary network are clamouring for a government official to stay rather than leave. Some of this has to do with a anxiety that MIFF will get a saffron tint (a repeat of 2004, essentially), and some to do with a general concern of the future of the many forward-looking initiatives that Kundu has introduced.

Saving today for tomorrow

For instance, the re-modelling of the two FD buildings,  which is taking place even as construction of the National Museum of Indian Cinema continues on the same premises, is part of a modernisation plan that could potentially create a documentary studio set-up, says Kundu. “The buildings had been planned for celluloid-based workflows ‒there were huge rooms for checking film, for instance,” he said. “A lot of space had not been properly utilised, so we decided to optimise and put modern workflows into place.”

Once the remodelling has finished, FD should have “industry-standard infrastructure” for filmmakers that is primarily for its staffers but can also benefit independent filmmakers. “The renovation has been planned to allow in-house and outside directors to use the services efficiently,” Kundu said. “Budget accommodation rest-houses are being planned on the premises, for instance. We will be pitched slightly below the market rate, and there will be a discount for documentary filmmakers who register with us. The facilities can even be made available to feature films.”

Another important project started by Kundu, and which will require oversight to be maintained as per its original vision of access to all, is the Archival Research Centre. It was set up in September 2013, and makes available the library of FD’s output of over 8,000 titles in its 67-year history to researchers keen on studying the reflection of the nation’s progress in the films that were meant to record this forward march.

“Thousands of FD titles have been digitised from their celluloid-based formats, but most of them were still available only on DVD,” Kundu said. “There was no platform to quickly compare films, so we have put the entire library on a server and have installed software that that allows researchers to annotate, categorise and create meta-data.” The celluloid-based films, meanwhile, are being converted into digital files and stores on linear tape open formats, which have a longer shelf life than digibeta tapes.

Several FD classics have also been released as DVDs that are affordable and more attractively packaged than they used to be.

Another aspect to the FD’s efforts to preserve its rich history is its inclusion in the Media Ecology Project, which is being executed by several universities and archives in the US, including the Library of Congress and UCLA Film and Television Archive. “If you want to look at any particular aspects of the state’s involvement with cinema, it will be there on the server,” Kundu said. “You can look at data across time and conduct your research.”

The Films Division’s emphasis on recording the present for the sake of the future includes collecting rushes of commissioned shoots, doing a rough edit of these rushes, and storing them for people to look at later. The organisation’s staffers (around 400 in Mumbai and around 450 more in the rest of the country) have also been recording interviews and opinion monologues of eminent people about their life and times.

“If you don’t get an opportunity to make a film, at least the opinion has been recorded,” Kundu said. For instance, FD staffers recorded a conversation with Chris McDonald, president of the board that organise the Hot Docs documentary festival in Toronto every year, when he dropped by the FD office, and it has been included in the archive. “Much of this footage won’t be made into a film, but these assets acquire tremendous meaning over a period of time, and all of them will be in the public domain.”

Building a foundation

Kundu is a classic foundation builder, a bureaucrat with a reputation for directness and efficiency that has been earned over 28 years of experience in the fields of finance, education, science and technology, information technology and rural development. He was Principal Secretary for industrial training and vocational education in Haryana before being posted to Mumbai. Kundu had never worked for the I&B Ministry in any capacity, but cinema was a private passion ‒ he was part of a small film club operating in Chandigarh.

“I had seen very few documentaries before I came to FD,” Kundu said. “FD has converted me.”

One of the reasons filmmakers love to hate FD is because of the “tremendous goodwill” that they actually have for the government-run organisation, he claimed. “Their frustration came because a disconnect has developed between the organisation and filmmakers,” Kundu said. They lost faith and they resented the organisation, and many didn’t want to have anything to do with it. Their resentment is as great as their love.”

One of the first things Kundu did after moving to Mumbai FD was to get a lowdown on its operations from the staff. He then set up FD Zone, a series of weekly screenings in Mumbai and other cities that is curated by independent filmmakers and showcases titles from FD’s vault and outside productions. The club’s name was suggested by Kundu as a tribute to Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, in which the “Zone” is a place of wish fulfillment.

“FD Zone was started for two reasons: we had infrastructure tremendously suited to screening documentaries, and we wanted to start interactions with filmmakers on the outside,” he explained. “It was an easy enough thing to do, but it was significant in terms of its outcome. It helped filmmakers reconnect with the Films Division.”

Another step taken towards bridging the gap with the outside world without compromising FD’s role in the equation is to tweak the manner in which films are commissioned. Typically, the Films Division funds non-staffers and owns the copyright. Some of the films that were sanctioned recently, such as Kamal Swaroop’s Rangbhoomi, have been made on a so-called ad hoc basis ‒ the organisation didn’t commission the idea of retracing Dhundhiraj Govind Phalke’s years in Varanasi in the early 1920s, but loaned technicians for the shoot and extended post-production facilities to the filmmaker. “This process transfers current technology and aesthetics to the technical teams at FD,” Kundu explained.

The Films Division is also adding the number of screens it has on its premises in Mumbai, and by the time MIFF will be held next year at the FD headquarters, there will be at least five fully functional screens, Kundu says.

This is among the promises he won’t be around to see to its logical end, but he does pledge to attend MIFF. “One of the fallouts of this assignment is that I am desperately in love with documentary filmmakers,” he said. “They are an impossible group of people, very difficult and extremely opinionated and stubborn, but what passion they have for what they do! It is amazing.”

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