Filmmaker Bharatbala, the man behind AR Rahman’s Ma Tujhe Salaam/Vande Mataram video, has taken up a monumental challenge. Through his new project Virtual Bharat, the advertising filmmaker and documentary director aims to produce 1,000 short films that will explore Indian history, culture, folklore, art, music, literature, and human stories.
“In a few years’ time, Virtual Bharat will be a virtual museum of Indian stories existing in the online cloud,” the director told Scroll.in. “The largest repository of high-quality content on India, it will be like a small Netflix for our country which will enrich, educate, and entertain audiences.”
Bharatbala said that 70 films have already been shot, which will be rolled out over the next year. The research is ready for at least 300 others. The first film, Thaalam, is already out on YouTube. Featuring narration by AR Rahman, the film introduces the culture of Chundan Vallam, or snake boat racing, in Kerala. Sudeep Elamon is the director and cinematographer, one of several talents who are part of Bharatbala’s project.
“The source of this project goes 22 years back when I made Vande Mataram,” Bharatbala said. “I am a gypsy. I have travelled across India and the world. The stories I saw, the people I saw, I wanted to encapsulate in a systematic manner, and not just music videos. The presence of online content platforms, good internet bandwidth and accessibility in India got me working on this three years ago.”
The films in Virtual Bharat will be no longer than 10 minutes, have state-of-the-art production values, and be given the “grand feature film” treatment “though the subjects are real people”. Celebrities such as Rahman will introduce each short “to generate initial interest and draw audiences to the project.” Gulzar and Shreya Ghoshal have been roped in for two other shorts.
The one featuring Gulzar follows the story of Padma Shri-winning poet Haldhar Nag from Orissa. Shreya Ghoshal will introduce a film on a Punjab village, Bhaini Sahib, where every child is said to have been trained in Indian classical music.
“Right now we are making two-three films a month,” Bharatbala said. “The job now is to put out the first 20 films which will showcase the diverse subjects and places we have covered. The key thing to remember here is that the craft and story have to be timeless.”
Bharatbala’s fascination with documenting India and packaging it through slick pop videos has roots in his conversations with his father. A top ad filmmaker working from Chennai in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Bharatbala was inspired by his father to make the Vande Mataram video with Rahman.
“He was a freedom fighter,” Bharatbala said. “He told me, you generate these big ideas for clients to create empathy for a product. Why don’t you do the same for India? Vande Mataram was a war cry for us. Why don’t you reintroduce it to a new generation?”
The filmmaker took a break from advertising for two years and contacted Rahman, his longtime collaborator in advertising and schoolmate, to embark on the Vande Mataram project.
“Rahman had only made film albums till then, but I told him this is an opportunity to make a solo album,” Bharatbala said. In 1997, the 50th year of India’s independence, Rahman release the album Vande Mataram. The song Ma Tujhe Salaam and its video by Bharatbala became “viral, as you say it these days”.
The recreation of the nationalistic song, however, drew criticism from some quarters. “Of course, people who had lived with earlier versions of the song did not like it, but what we tried to do was not sell pseudo-patriotism, but make the song important and relevant to young minds,” Bharatbala said.
Three years later, in the 50th year since the Indian Constitution came into effect, Bharatbala released a video of the national anthem sung by several Indian stalwarts on Republic Day. Produced and arranged by Rahman, the anthem featured such names as Lata Mangeshkar, Bhimsen Joshi, Jagjit Singh, M Balamuralikrishna, DK Pattammal, Bhupen Hazarika and Hariharan.
“This video came about because we looked for a good, solid rendition of the national anthem, but we just couldn’t find any,” Bharatbala said. “We thought, why not take the voices and the musicians that shaped India for 50 years and do the anthem together again? Imagine, so many of these people aren’t alive now, but this document at least exists.”
These videos, along with Bharatbala’s work for the government’s Incredible India tourism campaign, plus his research for designing the opening ceremony of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, shaped Virtual Bharat, he said. As part of the project, the director said he might also release his documentary Gurus of Peace, which features Nobel Peace Prize winners such as the Dalai Lama, Shimon Peres, Lech Walesa, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Mikhail Gorbachev.
What is the fuel for Bharatbala’s continuous pursuit to film India? “Passion and excitement,” the director said. “It keeps me young. This is oxygen for me.”
In between, Bharatbala also made two feature films: the English film Hari Om (2004) and the Tamil Dhanush-Parvathy Menon starrer Maryan (2013). Among his planned projects that did not work out was a historical film, The 19th Step, to be produced by Disney, and based on the Kalaripayattu martial arts system.
“That film could have been something,” Bharatbala recalled. “But Kamal Haasan walked out for another project. Tadanobu Asano came down and trained for the film. It was Disney’s attempt at getting a Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon from India. Maybe, someday, I will return to it.”
So no more films now? “I have written a Hindi war film, a story that needs to be told, but I can’t reveal more.”