How Jehangir Bhownagary transformed the Films Division and the Indian documentary

A survey of the government-run documentary production unit between 1948 and 1975 profiles the visionary filmmaker.

Born in Bombay on 5 March 1921 to an Indian father and a French mother, who met and settled in Paris and then sent their son Jehangir to India for part of his education, Bhownagary constantly straddled the boundaries between Europe and India. He came to India at the beginning of World War II to work nightshifts at Reuters; he was later involved in setting up the Turkish consulate, then briefly worked for Tata Sons and co-wrote Gujarati comedies with Adi Marzban. Like many others in the Indian Documentary Film Movement, his involvement with film dated back to the colonial-era IFI. In 1945 he became a script and commentary writer, and a year later he was promoted to assistant producer and news editor of the Indian News Parade. From 1948 till his retirement in the 1980s he worked at UNESCO in Paris, specialising in mass communication initiatives. He would return to India in 1954, only to leave again for Paris in 1957, returning to India yet again in 1965.

What Bhownagary’s impressive résumé fails to convey is that he was above all an artist: a painter, sculptor, poet, engraver, potter, award-winning filmmaker, and an accomplished magician. His unending passion for art and his dedication to creativity translated into his belief that FD’s main role should be to spark the Indian imagination and expose audiences to multifaceted truths. He believed that to achieve this transformation the organisation needed to give voice to individual artists, ‘[f]or there can be as many approaches to documentary film making as there are film-makers’. In the recollection of Janine Bharucha, his daughter, ‘his talent in discovering, choosing and trusting film-makers became legendary. He encouraged a cross-fertilization of talents, inviting artists from different fields, musicians, painters, sculptors, dancers to join the creative process, resulting in the production of one masterpiece after another.’

Jehangir Bhownagary (centre) during a film shoot. Courtesy Peter Sutoris.
Jehangir Bhownagary (centre) during a film shoot. Courtesy Peter Sutoris.

Bhownagary’s first tenure at FD as Deputy Chief Producer in 1954–7 allowed him to realise his vision of nation-building through a cinematic exploration of Indian art. ‘We started by trying to make films that would help build the nation […] so that we, as a sub-continent, may in our unity be enriched by our very differences.’ He produced several highly acclaimed documentaries on Indian art and culture—including the landmark Khajuraho (1956) on the temples in the ‘city of gods’—and was prepared to encourage ‘each director to find and create his individual style and stamp the film with his own personality’. Yet, his three years at FD did not result in a dramatic transformation of FD’s production scheme. He left India in 1957, ‘satisfied that the institution had been invigorated and a team of confident, creative workers pulled together’, but later admitted that it was not until his second term with FD in 1965–7 that he had the opportunity ‘to implement recommendations I had made almost 10 years ago’.


Bhownagary’s recommendations and criticisms were indeed wideranging. He pointed out that filmmakers should not avoid controversy, because ‘[a]udiences resent being taken for fools’. He saw a good deal of bureaucracy in the production pipeline, which in his view resulted in ‘frustrating compromises on quality, a shirking of responsibility all down the line, an erosion of creative sensitivity and the gradual destruction of leadership possibilities’. He also criticised administrators for their lack of awareness of the limitations of the documentary medium, which he said led to the ‘disease of “Put-it-all-in-ism” [… which tried] to make a film say and do much more than it can—merely because a sponsor has a lot to say and is paying for the film’. He also agreed with many independent filmmakers’ criticisms, particularly their attacks on the tender system.

Among his proposed solutions was to create greater autonomy for FD vis-à-vis the government. Knowing that such a transformation could take a long time, he also proposed measures he believed could improve the situation in the short term. He saw the bureaucracy’s immersion in the creative process as key, and urged the administrative staff to join production crews at least once a year and ministry staff to take courses in film aesthetics. He also proposed the creation of three highly paid contract posts to be filled by talented artists to ‘initiate fresh thinking’ and a complete revamping of approval procedures: ‘The Films Division should, however, have the last word in finalising the content and the presentation of the films.’ He was committed to experimental film as a means to break established formulas, claiming that ‘[i]f our government could be persuaded to invest some money in experimental films it would be rewarded a millionfold’,and suggested creating an experimental film wing at FD. He also proposed major changes to the distribution scheme, and encouraged post-screening discussions and training of ‘film users’ and group discussion leaders. Finally, he called for systematic evaluation of rural audiences’ perceptions of the films and for a scholarship scheme that would allow six Indian filmmakers to enrol in overseas film programmes every year.

‘The most exciting phase in the life of Films Division’

How successful was Bhownagary in accomplishing this transformation? Critics have described his tenure as ‘the most exciting phase in the life of Films Division’, calling the films that came out of it ‘remarkable’. The staff believed that he succeeded at adding a ‘personal touch’ to the films, while the directors described his tenure as a time when oppressive measures were relaxed. Bhownagary spoke of his two periods of involvement with the organisation as ‘the two most exciting and fruitful periods of my life’, claiming that many of his ideas were implemented thanks to support from Indira Gandhi and Information and Broadcasting secretary Asok Mitra, who provided him and his colleagues with ‘the freest hand we ever had’.

This freedom seems to have been crucial in carrying out Bhownagary’s vision during his second tenure. Internal dialogue and tensions existed at FD before Bhownagary’s second tenure as Chief Advisor (Films) in 1965–7; yet, those tensions did not lead to significant reform. Bhownagary most likely owed much of his success to the changing political climate and to Indira Gandhi’s support. Another factor contributing to Bhownagary’s apparent success was the advancement in filmmaking technology. During his tenure, FD started using portable cameras and sound-recording equipment and making films based on interviews with the ‘common man’.

‘I Am 20’.

On the other hand, the fact that Bhownagary did not completely break with colonial cinematic influences hindered a more radical reform of FD. One film produced under his leadership, Tomorrow Is Ours (1955), is a prime example of a colonising documentary. The film depicted a government village development officer’s trip to a village meeting, where he talked to peasants about the achievements of the five-year plan. The film constructed several archetypes of ignorant villagers, who nodded with increasing frequency as the officer informed them of the plan’s benefits. Bhownagary said of this film, ‘the plan must be explained to the viewers in terms of their own living patterns.

Jehangir Bhownagary died in Paris on 11 April 2004. John Grierson once told him that he would change the world. ‘Haven’t done it yet. But tried’, Bhownagary wrote back. Turning a heavy-handed bureaucratic operation into one with an environment amenable to innovation and creativity was no small feat, and Bhownagary did indeed try. But he, too, despite his many frames of reference and wide-ranging influences, did not break away from the conventions of colonial filmmaking completely; a significant portion of FD output during his tenure remained tinted by a postcolonial ideology of progress characteristic of most FD-produced films in the first two decades after Independence. The reforms did, however, create opportunities for several outliers to escape this pattern.

Excerpted with permission from Visions of Development Films Division of India and the Imagination of Progress, 1948-75, Oxford University Press.

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