Interview with Avijit Mukul Kishore - Filmmaker
1) Can you tell me a little bit about your educational and professional background, as well as about the kind of documentaries you make?
Growing up and studying in the 1980s and 1990s, the activist documentary films were in the foreground, as well as some newsreels in the cinema theatres. My exposure to FD films dates back to film school (FTII, Pune), with the screening of India 67 by Sukhdev and I Am Twenty by S.N.S. Sastry. The teacher in charge of daily screenings must have had a personal interest in documentary, otherwise the Institute was rather indifferent to documentary, focusing completely on studio-based narrative fiction. An interest in still photography before I joined the institute also added to my interest in the documentary. Much later, I developed an interest in the more experimentative, creative and critical films, which were made during Jean Bhownagary's time at the head of FD in the 1960s and his personal examination of cultural production.
Those films impressed me in different ways. I liked this way of making statements through juxtaposition of images, adding a meta-narrative through the associative use of images, even if these films could not always be overtly critical to the state. I also like their sense of humour, their irony and optimism, all keeping within FD’s mandate to talk of government programmes. I respect the positive ending of the films. These 2 films were both made the same year, in 1967, and used a film language that had never been seen in India before. Earlier, the films were mainly used propaganda, a mission that was taken over by Doordarshan in the 1980s. So, these films are both problematic and respectable, in the sense that they imagine a secular, more equal society. National integration was everywhere, on TV and even in music classes in school. The activist films, on the other end, used a similar didactic form (to inform us), but to deliver a message from a different stand-point from that of the state. So, these two films were refreshing to me.
2) The documentary film was born out of a government decision. What impact did it have on the films' content and form?
It did not only have an impact on the documentary, but also on experimental, animation, children and short filmmaking. The official agenda was to inform the people and to create an ideal citizen. There is no uniform history of documentary cinema, different filmmakers tried different things. For instance, V. Shantaram, as a producer in the 1950s, produced films on big infrastructure projects. Some of them are very good films, carrying the idealism of constructing a new nation. Of course, one can criticise the fact that they often overlook the problems of resettlement of people, environmental hazards, and other issues concerned with industrialisation. They showed Nehru's ideal of empowering a new independent nation and this study of the process of history writing is fascinating. The field of documentary also benefited from Indira Gandhi's emphasis on aesthetic experimentation in the late 1960s, by inviting Jean Bhownagary to head FD.
FD provided a mix of positive (such as those on the cast system) and negative (such as those of family planning) films, we can't say they are all propagandist. Behind the general official blanketing of 'Indian cultural', 'food' etc. films, interesting experiments also took place at a case by case level.
These would not necessarily be films that I personally like, but films that are important in terms of history-making. Films in which fiction and non-fiction were talking to each other. In terms of film language, the early FD film was in many instances following the conventions of fiction, by using studio facilities and actors to deliver a message pertaining to nation-building. They broke the boundary between 'real' and 'non-real' very early on.
I think that despite Sukhdev's iconic status, the contributions of S.N.S. Sastry, Loksen Lalvani, Pramod Pati and Vijay B. Chandra were equally important, although less acknowledged. Sukhdev was the first and the most bombastic of the 60s and 70s documentary film makers! Sastry's films are more complex than those of Sukhdev with a sophisticated flourish with film form that was used as a subversive device. I also have a problem with Pramod Pati's films, as they were 'experimental' in form, but outside of any political criticism. In fact, they were largely pro-State. In his 1968 film ‘Explorer’ Pati’s images of Indian tradition are largely Hindu and Brahminical in nature, which is a problem, looking at the multicultural nature of Indian society. Sastry is more critical politically, but his films haven't been thoroughly studied yet.
3) How influential were these late-1960s films in India at the time of their release? What about today?
These films may not have been widely distributed as the bulk of the films produced and released in theatres were the regular newsreels and state documentaries. Some of these experimentative films were circulated within cultural circuits. The films received a mixed response and a fair amount of criticism. In his book on the Indian documentary, B. D. Garga mentions that some films like Pramod Pati’s ‘Explorer’ were considered to be a waste of public money. It was a conservative reaction. Yet, I don't buy the story according to which the audience broke chairs in a film theatre after watching ‘Explorer’!
Public memory and imagination was perhaps more affected by nation-building and communal harmony animation films, which were widely screened on public television Doordarshan and continue to circulate on the Internet.
The FD Zone 1 presents a wide-range of films and looks at them as historical documents. The audience is a mix of people – a lot or regulars and then depending on the subject of the programme, each film brings its own crowd. We usually try to create a conversation between FD films and independent documentaries and various kinds of films together, either within the same programme or over separate ones. People are informed of our screenings through our mailing list and Facebook page, and sometimes the press picks it up. Mr. V.S. Kundu (General Director of FD) insisted that is should take place on a weekly basis, for people to come to FD and engage more with the place. In other cities, programmes are organised on a monthly basis with the support of partner institutions, such as universities or the Habitat Centre in Delhi for instance. FD also has a YouTube channel where one can view a selection of their films. It would be interesting to look at which films get more hits and how people navigated through the Internet before getting to a particular film.
4) What do you know about the relations, which developed between the documentary film and art/parallel cinema over this period?
The late 60s were the time for innovation in the documentary medium and the birth of the Parallel Cinema movement in fiction films. Many eminent figures in the Parallel Cinema movement, as well as those working before it, made films for FD. Satyajit Ray's ‘The Inner Eye’ for instance, was widely distributed. His documentaries were informational, but I don’t find them particularly interesting in terms of story-telling and form. Ritwik Ghatak's ‘The River Padma’ is a very interesting, over-the top melodramatic film made during the Bangladesh Liberation War, when Pramod Pati was the Chief Producer at FD. Many of the Parallel Cinema directors' documentaries were not very inspired, with the exception of Mani Kaul's ‘Arrival’, which came in 1980. The documentary form was often approached with a sense of dismissal by most fiction filmmakers, whose schooling was very different and I might add, devoid of exposure to the possibilities of the non-fiction form!
5) What was the importance of the documentary film in a national context dominated by commercial cinema and from the 1970s onwards by television?
Television only became a competitor in 1982, when it went national and colour, with the Asian Games that were held in Delhi that year. Doordarshan slowly picked up the mandate of Films Division of communicating messages of the government to the masses. Both media were similar in their approach.
The documentary in India is vibrant now, with many state, NGO and independent film makers producing films, in a multitude of voices, but it will never be mainstream. It was only mainstream when the screening of documentaries was compulsory in the theatres. Now filmmakers have to look for a documentary audience, so the cultural circuits and organisations are the ones promoting documentary cinema.
Shorter films require a different language. At first, Nehru and Gandhi looked upon entertainment cinema, as a negative influence on society. The Children’s Film Society of India and the Film Finance Corporation (which later became NFDC) were created out of the need to produce films for children and those which were more artistic in nature, respectively. The Film Institute was formed to impart an education in film, to ‘improve’ the standard of our cinema.
All of this happened from the late 1950s to the late 1960s. Indira Gandhi, as Prime Minister, opened up Films Division to make it more credible, in the way Rajiv Gandhi opened up Doordarshan in the mid-1980s.
6) Can you identify best achievements and main limitations of the documentary film over the period 1948-1975? Which are the historical, political, economic, social, cultural or artistic reasons responsible for these achievements and limitations?
S.N.S. Sastry's work sums it up completely. He was critical, but he also had a sense of pride and joy in the possibilities of the film medium and national optimism. The best achievements of the documentary film relate to its contribution to writing our national visual history (of course, from the State’s point of view) and to film form. I would also say that some film makers were very original in their exploration of film language as a political form in a way that was complex. It was also often celebratory of the medium of film itself.
In terms of limitations, I would say that most of FD’s films remain overtly, blatantly propagandist and one-sided about official policies. This would include films on a variety of subjects including infrastructure creation, family planning, the Green Revolution and the Emergency.
7) What is the heritage of these pioneer filmmakers for contemporary documentarists like you? Is the work of a particular filmmaker inspirational to you, in what ways?
I personally quote extensively from FD, consciously or unconsciously. For instance, I have directly quoted from FD films in two of my films. Filmmakers respond differently to this heritage. As far as I am concerned, I consider that these filmmakers explored very specific areas of both aesthetics and politics.
I think documentaries have more freedom to explore style, because they are not tied by mainstream distribution requirements, they are limited to smaller theatres and niche audiences. Public funding is often the only kind of funding available to documentary film makers. Private funding works in a very small channel and is tied to international broadcasters who bring as much, if not more, of a stranglehold over content and form.
- Since 2012, FD Zone took the initiative of screening documentary films each Saturday in one of FD's auditorium for all and for free. Initiated by FD and curated by local filmmakers, film critics and scholars, it aims at bringing more people to Films Division and promoting documentary cinema at large.
- Dr. Camille Deprez (2015)