I recently saw a middle-aged man watching a familiar but rare film on his cellphone. It was SNS Sastry’s I am 20, made in 1967. This is an iconic talking heads documentary, in which Sastry travels across the country interviewing people born in 1947, the year of India’s independence. Each character is a metaphor for a culturally diverse and economically disparate country.
I am 20 addresses the youth as individuals rather than faceless citizens, respects their beliefs and treats their questions with sincerity and edgy humour. The film resurfaces online every few months, as a reference to the complex themes of nationhood, identity and individuality.
I am 20 was produced by Films Division, the government’s documentary and newsreel producing arm. Films Division is slated to be merged with National Film Development Corporation through a recent order that mandates the vertical integration of four bodies operating under the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The other three are National Film Archive of India, Children’s Film Society of India and Directorate of Film Festivals. The announcement has raised pressing questions for filmmakers and people engaged with cinema.
Films Division is the largest moving-image repository of Indian history. It took over from Film Advisory Board, a colonial organisation that was formed in 1940 to make propaganda films during the Second World War. In 1948, FD became the agency for filming the processes of decolonisation and nation-building. Its newsreels and documentaries were shown in cinemas before the entertainment feature.
It is important to remember that this was decades before we had television. Films Division was the only audio-visual record of India available to us, other than features and rare home movies. Such a time seems unimaginable today, with our image and media-saturated environment.
At its peak, FD produced films in 16 languages for distribution in cinemas across the country. Its archive is an invaluable resource for researchers and filmmakers, as also a repository of rare material on political processes and government programmes revolving around industrialisation, agriculture, health, education and housing. The slate includes biographical documentaries on national leaders, artists and citizens.
Many of these documentaries, which were made in different periods by in-house or independent filmmakers, are a study in diverse cinematic languages. The films are admittedly the state’s record of history and need to be viewed for their propagandist subjectivity. A propaganda film is a historical artefact, as is the image itself, with its own life and multiple possible readings.
The order for the merger of FD with NFDC is quite opaque, and therefore raises many concerns. It does not mention where FD’s most precious asset, its archive, will be housed after the closure of its regional offices, and how accessible the archive will remain.
There is also no mention of FD’s biennial Mumbai International Film Festival, which has been a vibrant platform for documentary, short fiction and animation films from India and around the world. The lack of communication has understandably left the film community concerned that the imminent closure and merger might be carried out in an arbitrary manner, without a clear plan.
Organisations do need a reboot from time to time. Films Division had stopped producing newsreels as they were no longer relevant in the age of television, with Doordarshan reaching people’s homes all over the country in 1982. In the 1990s, the FD documentaries stopped being shown in theatres after a lawsuit by exhibitors, who mentioned the losses in revenue due to these mandatory screenings.
A re-imagination of the organisation’s mandate was inevitable and welcome. The most recent restructuring needs to be more transparent and include the stakeholders of documentary, including independent filmmakers and academics, as was the case in the early 2010s.
In 2012, Films Division, under the directorship of Virender Kundu, sought to collaborate with and create a dialogue with independent filmmakers and examine the vast possibilities of the organisation’s resources and power to become a significant cultural forum.
I was fortunate to have been among the filmmakers who helped form and run FD Zone, a weekly screening programme housed within FD headquarters in Mumbai. At FD Zone, we could access the organisation’s entire archive and screen their productions alongside independent films.
FD Zone ran for three years and spread to nine other cities across the country. Independent filmmakers engaged with the FD archive and screened FD films along with outside productions. This was a very well-attended programme that enthused people to engage with the documentary film. An added attraction was the screening of 35mm prints at a time when theatres across the country were turning to digital exhibition.
Films Division has also invited independent filmmakers to make films with them. Although the process is fairly tedious, the platform does exist. Some landmark non-fiction works have been produced by independent directors through this programme. With the closure and merger of FD, the future of this programme to support documentary filmmaking is unclear.
As a government body, FD has all the bureaucratic ways associated with state control. This aspect has been expressed by some of its in-house filmmakers, from SNS Sastry to Joshy Joseph. The original experiments in non-fiction filmmaking within FD need greater study as examples of cinematic and political expression while working under state censorship.
The directors who have made documentaries within and for FD constitute a formidable Who’s who of Indian cinema. JBH Wadia, Ezra Mir, V Shantaram, Jean Bhownagary, S Sukhdev, SNS Sastry, Vijaya Mule, Pramod Pati, Vijay B Chandra, Loksen Lalwani, Satyajit Ray, GL Bharadwaj, Ritwik Ghatak, Mani Kaul, V Packirisamy, Joshy Joseph, Kamal Swaroop, Anirban Dutta, Renu Sawant and Farha Khatun are just some of the directors who have made highly individualistic films for FD.
Musicians such as Vijay Raghav Rao were nurtured by FD, and he nurtured FD back through his unprecedented work on electronic sound and sound design. Never heard of most of them? That needs a separate discussion on access to the documentary, which makes the role of organisations like Films Division very important.
Because the documentary – including the state-produced documentary – exists at the edge of culture, that edge must be protected. Films Division’s entire body of work needs to be treated as our tangible heritage, preserved and kept accessible to us.
Avijit Mukul Kishore is a filmmaker and cinematographer who works in documentary films and inter-disciplinary moving-image practices. He is involved in cinema pedagogy as a lecturer, writer and curator of film programmes.