More than a propaganda machine

More than a propaganda machine

Despite having colonial influences written into its DNA, the Films Division broke new ground in documenting India’s progress, warts and all

Peter Sutoris
At first glance, an analysis of the FD’s (Films Division’s) film portfolio indicates that the organisation’s output was consistent with the ideology of the colonial development regime. However, a closer reading that takes into account the departures from this dominant pattern suggests that the reality was more complex.
Some of the films used techniques not associated with the expository mode of representation, such as interview footage, montage or silent commentary. A number of documentaries produced in the late 1960s questioned the implementation of state policies, and some even hinted at criticism of the ideas behind Nehruvian developmentalism.
Therefore, the FD’s output of films from 1948 to 1975 cannot be seen as fully analogous to the earlier colonising documentary of the 1940s. Gerson da Cunha, one of the voice artists associated with the FD in the 1950s and 1960s, spoke in an interview of a large tree in front of the organisation’s offices where many of the employees would meet during lunch breaks—a modern-day agora where ideas and opinions were exchanged. He recalled a creative working environment filled with enthusiastic artists.
Others had similar recollections: Ram Mohan and Bhimsain, two pioneers of Indian animation whose careers started at the FD, remembered the invaluable training they received that allowed them to become successful animators, while Govind Saraiya spoke of the ‘absolute freedom’ he experienced as a director in the late 1950s.
Radha Chadha, the daughter of Jagat Murari, who directed and produced for FD between 1948 and 1961, recalled a sense of shared enthusiasm, pride and concern for India’s future among the creative staff in the initial years.
Prem Vaidya, a cameraman and director, told me the story of Report on Drought (1967), a film whose realistic depiction of the 1967 Bihar famine became a vehicle for a major fundraising effort by a TV station in Norway. Several of the FD’s earliest films won awards at some of the world’s most prestigious festivals, and FD has been heavily involved in bringing international cinema to India by hosting film festivals of its own.
Even the famous India ’67, a landmark of Indian documentary that exposed the social realities of India twenty years after Independence, was produced by the FD. This raises the question of why an organisation with colonial influences written into its DNA would become involved in projects so markedly different from those of the colonial era.
Part of the answer can be found in the recruitment of filmmakers who were associated with the FD. In post-1947 India, the FD was one of only a few organisations offering the opportunity to participate in making non-fiction films. It thus attracted many individuals with creative impulses and potentially non-conformist views.
Even though many among the first batch of directors were trained in the 1940s at the IFI, others who joined soon after came from different backgrounds. A batch of filmmakers who joined the FD within the first two years had trained at the University of Southern California in 1946-48 as part of the Indo-American Technical Cooperation Mission.
They brought with them a wide exposure to Hollywood cinema. M.V. Krishnaswamy, one of the FD’s early directors, had received training under Roberto Rossellini at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, while Paul Zils, an independent filmmaker trained in Germany and one of the directors at IFI, also influenced the FD through his films.
Many artists who became associated with the institution in the late 1960s had worked in advertising and as independent filmmakers, and their concepts of cinema were markedly different from those of the colonial era. For example, the frequent use of narrative in these documentaries points to a cross-fertilisation of ideas between Bombay film, the advertisement industry and the FD.
It is thus not surprising that the government’s conception of film as a creative enterprise, which led to the recruitment of a particular demographic, contributed over time to the erosion of the authoritarian character of the development project.
As a result, the cinematic form utilised by the FD began to incorporate tendencies that departed from earlier traditions. Even though the colonialism-infused expository mode of representation dominated the organisation’s film output throughout the entire period covered in this book, the 1950s already saw occasional departures from this pattern.
For example, thanks to its emphasis on images over words, Radha and Krishna, an award-winning 1957 short that portrayed the legend of Radha and Krishna through a series of miniature paintings of the Pahari tradition, presents a stark alternative to the run-of-the-mill ‘colonising’ FD documentary.
Having initially shaped films on politically neutral subjects such as Indian art and culture, alternative cinematic approaches also entered the domain of the development documentary. For example, Towards a Better Society, a 1953 short that critiqued untouchability, told the story of a fictional villager who took the initiative to fight against the practice.
Even though this documentary highlighted the many ways in which measures taken by Nehru’s government aided the villager’s efforts, the film’s recognition of individual agency and its appreciation for a grassroots initiative in social development represented a break from the conventions of colonial filmmaking.
Formal experimentation reached its height during the late-1960s ‘golden period’ of FD history, which is associated with the tenure of Jehangir Bhownagary, who was invited by the then Minister of Information and Broadcasting Indira Gandhi to revive the FD. At the time, a number of creative artists and independent filmmakers—including S. Sukhdev, Pramod Pati and S. N. S. Sastry—were bringing fresh treatments of the cinematic medium to the forefront of government filmmaking.
Visual story-telling, non-linear editing, interviews with the ‘common man’, pixilation, stop-motion animation and other techniques entered the FD’s formal repertoire.
The artists associated with this ‘golden period’ openly criticised the implementation of government policies by including in their films interviews with citizens who were dissatisfied with India’s (lack of) development.
As elaborated in Chapter 6, S. N. S. Sastry, one of the directors active during this period, even began to question the philosophical foundations of Nehruvian developmentalism. A formal departure from the expository mode of representation thus eventually led to a departure from thematic agendas strictly linked to the ideology of high modernism.
These trends complicate Ludden’s notion of Nehru’s government as a ‘development regime’. Ludden’s argument is largely based on applying a nineteenth-century notion of colonialism—one associated with imperial hegemony, the civilising mission and a singular vision of modernity—to a post-1947 context.
The colonialism of the first half of the twentieth century, however, differed from this conception in several important respects. Growing participation in the colonial project by Indians themselves (as evidenced, for example, by the involvement of Indian filmmakers in IFI), technological advancements (including the advent of film, a medium inherently influenced by trans-national cultural trends) and the growing tension among the various strands of the nationalist movement were among factors that set apart twentieth-century colonialism from its earlier forms.
The changes initiated by the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1919 significantly boosted Indians’ participation in provincial legislative councils. The Simon Commission, a group that included seven members of the British Parliament who were sent to India in 1929 to develop a proposal for India’s constitutional reform, advocated the establishment of representative provincial governments.
The Government of India Act 1935, which largely adopted the Simon Commission findings, established direct elections and bestowed additional powers on self-governing provincial bodies. Indian nationalists took advantage of these reforms to engage in many aspects of governing the Indian polity.
Ludden’s argument does not fully consider these shifting dynamics, which meant that multiple layers of overlapping agencies were already involved in governing India prior to 1947.
It is thus not surprising that the FD did not speak to its perceived development subjects with a single voice. The films point to a complex interplay among at least three groups of actors who brought different agendas to the table: political elites (Nehru and the Congress leadership), civil servants representing the ‘middle layer’ of state bureaucracy (employees of the various ministries sponsoring production of individual films), and filmmakers employed by the FD.
The tensions between these three groups at times created space for a fourth—the subjects of development projects themselves—to exert agency in the production process, particularly through the ‘interview film’ of the late 1960s. Each film was the result of a complex interplay between a multitude of agents, whose adherence to the official government line varied.
The extent to which the FD’s institutional culture and production policies allowed these different agendas to interact increased over time, for example, with much greater openness to filmmakers’ agendas during the ‘golden period’. This book argues that the FD was not a monolithic structure throughout the period from 1948 to 1975, but an institution that represented a battlefield of ideas about development that enabled heterogeneous influences, voices and agendas to enter the arena.
Edited excerpts from Visions of Development: Films Division of India and the Imagination of Progress, 1948-75 (320 pages) by Peter Sutoris. Excerpted with permission from Oxford University Press.