From 2012-2015, a programme called FD Zone was held every week at the Films Division (FD) headquarters at Peddar Road in Mumbai. The organizers screened old and new documentaries, shorts and animated films, free of cost. On 29 August last year, a week before a selection of films by students of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) was to be shown here, the programme ran into trouble. Some of these films documented the then ongoing protests against the contentious appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the chairperson of the institute. The screening was called off and FD Zone was suspended for over a year.
Last month, with a documentary about saxophone players in Mumbai (Praveen Kumar’s Sax In The City), it has resumed its screenings as quietly as it had stopped. There is an uncomfortable silence around the FTII episode, and the odd, abrupt break. What people are happy to speak about, though, is how important the space is for the documentary scene in the city. Most are just glad that it has resumed. This is the only place in Mumbai that screens documentary films every week (Vikalp@Prithvi and the National Centre for the Performing Arts have screenings once a month).
“There is no distribution chain for documentary films,” says film-maker Barnali Ray Shukla. “I don’t think Indian audiences are ready to pay to watch documentaries.” Her film Liquid Borders, shown at FD Zone on 4 November, explores the lives of people on India’s borders with Bangladesh, Pakistan and China that are marked by water bodies. Saumyananda Sahi’s Remembering Kurdi, which screened the week before it, is about a village in south Goa that has been wiped off the face of the earth; it made way for the building of a dam in 1975. However, parts of the village resurface every year for a few days. The people don’t show resentment toward the government, but by showing their longing for their lost land, the film asks important questions about displacement.
These initial screenings give us reason to be hopeful that FD Zone hasn’t been spooked into selecting titles that are politically toothless, even if their implications are subtle. What is missing right now, though, is the thoughtful curation of the earlier FD Zone. Before its enforced absence, films would be introduced by one of the curators, and screenings would be followed by a moderated Q&A session with the film-maker. New films would often be paired with older ones with thematic or stylistic similarities. In what turned out to be the last screening before it stopped last year, Sandhya Kumar’s Hockey In My Blood was shown along with an FD-produced film from 1971 about a 12-time National Billiard champion Wilson Jones, the double bill promoted as a “Sports Day” special. Three films by Kashmiri film-maker Raja Shabir Khan were shown on the eve of Independence Day.
Foreign films would occasionally be shown: Citizenfour, Crossing the Bridge: The Sound Of Istanbul, a programme of German animation films made during the Nazi period. FD Zone also introduced new generations of film-makers and audiences to some of the inventive, exciting work of FD legends such as S. Sukhdev, S.N.S. Sastry and Pramod Pati.
FD Zone’s success was in large part due to FD’s former director general V.S. Kundu’s wonderful equation with the documentary film-making community. “Curation is an important part of audience development, to build a serious culture of film appreciation amongst people,” he says over phone from Haryana, where he is currently serving as additional chief secretary in the Tourism department. “When you see three back-to-back films, the experience is more than the sum of its parts.” The free, open-to-all screening format was conceived under Kundu, who completed his three-year term in May last year, as part of FD’s efforts to “expose the public to different kind of cinema to balance out the lopsided aesthetics of commercial cinema”. FD Zone is an equal collaboration between FD and film-makers, he says. “It is not even a part of the official FD programme. We spent little money on it and there is no great amount of public funding that goes into it. Directors are given a meagre Rs1,000 for taxi charges. FD’s state-of-the-art theatre facilities are grossly underused, so we wanted to make the venue available for a group of film-makers who would programme the event.”
Four documentary film-makers—Surabhi Sharma, Avijit Mukul Kishore, Pankaj Rishi Kumar and Madhavi Tangella—volunteered their time and ran the show for more than three years. They would source new films, promote them and make sure that at least one of them was present at the screening every week. However, by the time FD Zone resumed, they had all moved on to other projects. “I’m hoping that the larger film-maker community of Mumbai will take it forward from here,” says Sharma.
Kumar, who ended his involvement after FD Zone was put in limbo, says there was an understanding between Kundu and film-makers that there would be no censorship, that films could be screened without a censor certificate. Two incidents breached this understanding: the FTII episode, and before that, the cancellation of a screening of Kamal Swaroop’s Dance For Democracy/Battle Of Banaras, which ran into trouble with the censors.
For most people, though, the resumption is positive news. As we sat after a screening in Light of Persia, the Irani café that’s a familiar haunt for the FD faithful, film-maker R.V. Ramani said that he wasn’t worried about censorship, because that is a constant negotiation for documentary film-makers anyway. “I am just happy that it is happening again. Keep the screenings on, make people involved and let the people talk,” he says. Namrata Rao, editor of Titli and Katiyabaaz, who used to travel from the suburbs to watch films at FD Zone, says, “In film school we would watch a lot of films that were for the sake of cinema,” adding, “After we graduated, those kinds of films would still be made but there was no way to see them. FD Zone, for me, filled that space. It is also a place to meet people who are interested in those films and talk about them.”
Having restarted the screenings, FD is looking, as it did in the past, to involve film-makers. “The space has been created for film-makers to watch, discuss, debate,” assures V. Packirisamy, deputy director general, FD. “We want to retain that spirit. We don’t want to only show films produced by FD. We want independent film-makers to come and curate films for us.” He adds that they were in touch with some filmmakers. “FD Zone is the same as before. We just want to show good films.”
Screenings at FD Zone are on Fridays at 6.30pm. For details, visit the Facebook page of Films Division India.