In the new edition of our ongoing Home Theatre series, we look at documentaries that can be watched online without having to pay for a streaming platform membership. The Films Division’s YouTube channel seems an unlikely place to begin this journey. After all, the state-funded organisation has historically aimed to educate rather than entertain.
Ever since it was set up in 1948, the Films Division has produced paeans to five-year plans and dam building, lectures on family planning and social etiquette and tone-deaf explorations of complex social phenomena. These documentaries, which often featured an ebullient voiceover in an Anglicised accent, lend themselves to easy parody, and are often dismissed as propaganda – rightly so.
Despite this, the Films Division has over the years produced talented, independent-minded filmmakers who went beyond the call of duty and headed in the direction of beauty. They exploited the joys and possibilities of the documentary form to its fullest, creating works that have endured the passage of time.
An important sub-genre of the Films Division documentary is the biographical tribute – the lives of great men and women considered in right earnest. This type of documentary can sometimes be an audio-visual version of a school textbook chapter. But, in the hands of a skillful filmmaker, it can yield pleasure and wisdom and even create a sense of wonder.
Here is a list of the 14 most engaging biographical documentaries available on Films Division’s YouTube channel. (Many more are not. Those who still have DVD players can visit the Films Division website to shop for copies).
An Indian Day
The subject of celebrated filmmaker S Sukhdev’s biographical documentary is India itself. (The film is also known as India 67 since it marked two decades after independence.) The assembly of images and sound effects is edited to resemble a day in the life of a country of multiple and contradictory realities and impulses.
A man gets a hair-cut; a woman prepares meals; young men and women dance at a party; there are weddings and funerals. Impressive-looking factories work with rare efficiency, even as a poster by a workers’ union declares, “Hitler Reborn at Pathankote Crushing Innocent Employees”. Shots of overhead power lines are juxtaposed with the Qutab Minar – a visual snapshot of an uninterrupted continuum of smart Indian engineering.
The images range from the mundane to the profound, and the overall effect is of a patchwork quilt crammed with swatches of all colours and sizes. The movie star-handsome Sukhdev inserts himself into the tableau, visiting his ancestral home in Punjab and pausing a moment to gift himself some close-ups before proceeding to capture a country on the move.
And I Make Short Films
SNS Sastry was one of the brightest sparks to emerge out of the Films Division. A separate list can be dedicated to this outlier who left his individual stamp on commissioned productions. If An Indian Day uses the country as its canvas, And I Make Short Films is an effort of more modest, but no less enthralling, portraiture. The subject is the Films Division recruit attempting to go beyond the syllabus.
The montage of both complementary and opposing images is affectionate, playful and ironic. The famous declamatory voiceover that drones on about steel plants is pasted onto images of movie theatres. “Use your blazing eyes,” a voice exhorts as the film captures the thrum and throb of Films Division’s documentation of the 1960s – the death of Jawaharlal Nehru, unrest on the streets, Ravi Shankar tuning his sitar, MF Husain making his first documentary. This tribute to and critique of Films Division is proof that once upon a time, it was possible to work for the government and yet stand up to power.
Ustad Allah Rakha
Shekhar Nair’s crisp film on tabla legend Allah Rakha is a good example of miniaturised portraiture done well. The quality of the uploaded video is poor – it appears as though somebody played the original on a screen and then filmed it – but there are some great moments here of Allah Rakha dominating the stage, photographs from foreign tours (including one with Marlon Brando and Ravi Shankar), and glimpses of his family members, including a very young Zakir Hussain.
SNS Sastry again, this time studying the acclaimed Hindustani classical singer Amir Khan. This unconventional portrait is mysterious and pointed, of the moment and timeless. The film moves in very close on its subject – only Khan’s eyes and mouth can be seen in one frame – as well as observes from a distance as the singer practises, performs and spends time at home with his family.
A singer must have a poetic sensibility, Khan says off camera, and the film that captures this phase of his rich life is equally lyrical. Also in the frame is Khan’s third wife Raisa Begum, who praises her husband but also complains about him. A shot of Raisa Begum with her hair floating in the breeze would not be out of place in a movie.
Among Films Division’s most far-out mavericks was Pramod Pati. He has since been recognised by film scholars as an early practitioner of Indian experimental cinema. Pati’s 1972 film on painter and writer Abid Surti is actually about two artists at work. One is Surti, who enters a white-walled room and covers every inch and corner with brightly-coloured abstract works. The other is Pati, who speeds up the film to create a hyper-kinetic and cartoonish effect. Vijay Raghav Rao’s music add extra layers of fun and energy to the proceedings.
Yash Chaudhary’s Sohrab Modi benefits vastly from a candid interview with the legendary actor and director. One of the architects of the historical genre, Modi was renowned for his booming voice, impeccable Urdu diction, and impressive screen presence. Modi speaks frankly about his love for history – it can help us understand our past and mould our future, he says – as well as his early failures, the making of Jhansi Ki Rani, and the aborted attempt to direct a film on the emperor Asoka.
His actor wife Mehtab, who starred in Jhansi Ki Rani, sums up her husband’s commitment to cinema in three words: he was all “film, film film”, she says.
Mani Kaul’s genre-defying project on the Hindustani classical singer Siddheshwari Devi is about the very elusiveness of the biographical documentary. Siddheshwari (1989) combines fragments from a biography of the singer, staged scenes from Siddheshwari’s life (Mita Vashisht plays her as an adult) and imagined encounters with the people who moved and influenced her. Beautifully shot by Piyush Shah, the film has an oneiric quality, which is enhanced by the Varanasi setting, Mita Vashisht’s sensuous performance and the judicious use of Siddheshwari Devi’s unforgettable voice.
Pandit Bhimsen Joshi
No experimentation or rule-bending here, just the vibe of a filmmaker enjoying the time spent with his subject. In Pandit Bhimsen Joshi (1992), the singing legend gives Gulzar a peek into his journey and his domestic life. We see Joshi electrifying the stage as well as having lunch with his brood. Gulzar coaxes Joshi into revisiting the hardships he endured before he attained recognition and respect (they include working as a helper at the home of Bengali actor and singer Pahari Sanyal).
Joshi also recalls singing alongside Manna Dey for the film Basant Bahar in 1956. The scene revolved around a contest between a singer, played by Bharat Bhushan and voiced by Manna Dey, and a less competent rival, voiced by Joshi. Dey was most embarrassed about emerging the winner, but Joshi put him at ease. The reminiscence ends on a lovely montage of the performers singing lines from the same song.
A Painter of Eloquent Silence: Ganesh Pyne
Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s documentary examines Ganesh Pyne’s thematic concerns with death, his penchant for allegory, and the influence of cinema on his art. Pyne’s paintings are visual allegories of individual lives under the shadow of death, Barun Chanda’s voiceover observes. Pyne, in keeping with the title, remains silent – a contemplative figure who prefers to communicate through his brooding figures and surrealist imagery.
This documentary shouldn’t be on the watchlist, only because it is incomplete. We’re including Kalamandalam Gopi in the hope that somebody at Films Division might notice and replace the YouTube upload with a complete version.
In 1975, Adoor Gopalakarishnan made a documentary on Guru Chengannur, the renowned Kathakali performer. The film was marred by an English dub over the Malayalam speaking portions. In Kalamandalam Gopi (1999), the original language is mercifully left untouched. Gopalakarishnan follows Gopi, the Kathakali actor prized for his ability to convey emotion and grace from beneath layers of make-up. Gopi doesn’t merely reproduce what he has been taught but interprets it, his mentor explains. Gopi uses hand gestures the way we use words in a conversation, a critic observes. After being treated to Gopi’s performances, rehearsals and make-up sessions, we finally meet the artist, standing in a pool of artfully lit darkness. He begins to talk about his life and the film ends abruptly.
A Few Things I Know About Her
The title of Anjali Panjabi’s gorgeous film on the sixteenth-century mystic Meera is a play on Jean Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967). Like Godard’s film, Panjabi’s quest to understand Meera unfolds as a visual essay. In the absence of reliable records of Meera’s life, Panjabi examines the emotions that the Krishna devotee continues to evoke among her followers and the balladeers who keep her songs alive. Meera comes into view as well as drifts out of the frame as Panjabi wonders, “How is her person so faint when her poems are etched so strong and unembarrassed in a book I hold 500 years later?”
Jabbar Patel’s feature-length documentary on Kumar Gandharva relies on rare footage and photographs and revealing interviews. Hans Akela is framed as a grandson’s quest to better understand the renowned family patriarch. As Bhuvanesh Komkali unlocks the family vault of memories, Gandharva comes alive. A child prodigy to whom fame and respect came early, Gandharva believed that a note should resonate within soon after it had been sung. Hans Akela doesn’t dare to dissect Kumar Gandharva’s legacy in any meaningful way, but it works well enough as an introduction to a legendary figure in classical and folk music.
Once again, no surprises here, only heaps of fascinating detail about the rich and short life of singing star Kundan Lal Saigal. Yash Chaudhary’s KL Saigal (2006) begins by asking a bunch of youngsters if they have heard of one of early Indian cinema’s most popular performers. Is he related to Baba Sehgal, one woman wants to know.
Among those interviewed are Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Manna Dey, Ameen Sayani and Pran Nevile (who wrote a biography of Saigal in 2006). Saigal’s singing had so much spontaneity that the lyrics sounded like dialogue, Mrinal Sen observes. The documentary is enhanced by clips from the films in which Saigal did double duty as a singer and actor, including Devdas (1936).
UR Ananthamurthy… Not a Biography but a Hypothesis
Girish Kasarvalli’s documentary on renowned Kannada writer UR Ananthamurthy can barely keep up with its subject’s fierce intellect. We are left with shards of insight into Ananthamurthy’s approach to writing, which emerge from a conversation with him as well as interviews with commentators, including Ashis Nandy, Shiv Visvanathan and N Manu Chakravarthy.
Ananthamurthy, who grew up “very poor and very rich culturally”, talks about his early influences, his formative years, and his shifting approaches to world building over his literary career. You need to think that you are in time and also beyond time, he observes.
Corrections and clarifications: The entry on the documentary on Bhimsen Joshi misidentified the film for which he sang alongside Manna Dey. It is Basant Bahar (1956), not Baiju Bawra (1952).