Interview with Kumar Shahani - Filmmaker

Kumar Shahani


1) Mr. Shahani, you are known as a key contributor to Indian art cinema. However, in your early career, you have also made a few documentary films. Could you tell us what drove you to documentary filmmaking at the time?

Well, I do not believe that there is a fundamental difference between documentary and fiction. It is an outdated notion that some people make documentaries and others make fiction films. Any film has to speak that language of movement, of colour or black and white, and of sounds. It is different from literature, but it includes literature. It is different from music, but it includes music. Film is an inclusive form, especially when you think in terms of visuality as a whole. Whenever I could get an opportunity to speak about my immediate environment or my takes on it, I would jump at it and make a film.

2) Up to the mid-1970s, how many documentaries did you make in total, for whom and on which topics?

I did not make any documentaries. I made a film called ‘A Certain Childhood’ (short film, 1969) which was on mentally-retarded children. That was a great opportunity to understand the subjectivity, to understand somebody who is not mentally-equipped to deal with the terrible things that happen in the world, but yet that all of us are facing the same situation. And I made this film immediately after I came out of film school in Poona (Pune). I was given much freedom from the sponsors and I loved making that film. I don’t know if it is available any longer, whether people have preserved it. There was another film made on steel, which is also untraceable now. It was about the railway system and was sponsored by those people who made steel, there was one sequence which I have done with absolute freedom. It was like playing music through the making of steel, it was very beautiful, the red, hot steel made the temperature rise to 200-300 degrees centigrade, so I took a lot of risks to shoot this sequence. It was a very lovely experience. That part of the film is good, but the rest of the film was mostly about statistics. A lot of such films were also produced in China, Russia and America of course.

3) So far, we could only access 'Fire in the Belly', a documentary you made for the Films Division of India in 1973, and held at the National Film Archives in Pune. The film deals with food shortages. Could you comment on your experience of working with the Films Division, and about the content and style of this film?

The working experience (as an independent filmmaker) with the Films Division (FD) was horrible. I got banned as an ‘extremist’ after making this film. After that, I had to wait for many years before I could even speak to FD people. And when I made the next film for them, the FD Chief was scared as hell for everything and wanted to completely censor it. So, I did not sign the contract. This film was on computer science. Even this kind of film was censurable, that is what FD is. Then after a long time, about two or three years ago, they invited me to be a jury member at the Mumbai International Film Festival, which they organise. And they offered me to make a film on perfumery, an area where India’s contribution is very great. But I cannot agree with their contract for the film, the nature of all governments whether in China, Pakistan, India, America or France is the same. They are all are claiming to be the people’s ‘something’: democracy, socialism, communism, capitalism, whatever belongs to the people, but in reality they are not.

There was a deliberate roughness that I wanted to bring out in ‘Fire in the Belly’. I wanted this film to be rough. After I made this film, as I told you, they find I was somebody against happiness or something, against the government. They banned the film, they would not show it at festivals or even in the cinemas.

4) Apart from 'Fire in the Belly', your early documentary films are hardly accessible today in Indian film archives, on DVDs, in film festivals or elsewhere. How do you explain this situation?

I do not know why, people may not want to preserve my early documentary films. I was quite surprised when ‘Fire in the Belly’ was finally shown along with my retrospective in Brisbane, Australia, in 2006.

5) Did you keep a personal record of these 1960s-1970s documentaries? If not, why?

I have no personal record of any of my works, the reason is simple, I do not have the money for it.

6) In India, it seems that the documentary film and art cinema mainly came out of government decisions rather than from filmmakers rebelling against the domination of commercial. Do you agree with this statement? Where do you locate your early films against the background of official filmmaking?

I am sorry to say that I do not agree with the way you put it. There was the idea of developmental work in all spheres immediately after independence. After India became independent, they did want to dismantle the colonial structure. Even the politicians at the time wanted to do that, now all that is called Gandhism and Nehruvian politics etc. The present government, and for the last 20 years or so, has been demolishing everything the Nehruvian government tried to do. It very much wanted to develop the country. You have seen that kind of thing in China too, for example, they wanted to demolish everything in the Chinese opera, which is ridiculous. Of course, Chinese opera is a product of feudalism, there is no doubt about it. You can demolish it, it is in itself – while being a product of feudalism – protesting against feudalism. It is very formal. That is the problem with the Western type of social sciences, when uncarefully applied to our modes of thinking, whether Chinese, Indian, Pakistani or whatever. Comments like ‘it is feudalism’, ‘it is colonial imperial’, whatever, actually it is dialectical, not only dialectical, it is synthetic! This is contrapuntal, taking from music or taking from western music. There are multiple screens at work when you read Indian or Chinese epic literature. They do not accept any one single line, instead there are all these curved lines. They are inclusive forms, therefore something steps into your individuation. So, all these things have to be talked about.

7) How would you compare the official mission stated by the government for the documentary film and for art cinema? Were they similar or different, and in what ways?

This is also only if you think about other arts, in that sense, because of the pressure brought upon the government. From a distance like mine, who does not have anything to do with any official institutions, I would never even have a job in my life, not even with a private company. Being an independent person, I would never find a job. But I had a voice. The good thing about ‘independence’, as it is called, is that even people like refugees in India (I was born in Pakistan), we were still allowed to have a voice. Now, in the past 30 years, even that has been threatened, you cannot have a voice anymore.

8) In the 1960s, the Indian government developed a series of new institutions to promote and protect cinema, including the National Film Archives, the Film Institute, the Film Finance Corporation and later NFDC, and so on. When you started to make films in the late 1960s, to which extent did these institutions influence your vision for the cinema? To which extent and in what ways did they support (or not) your films?

I created these institutions, I was part of that generation. At that time, we had to struggle, but we had a voice. Indira Gandhi, who was ruling the country at the time, would reply (through her secretory or somebody) to the questions, she would say this is something I can do, I am trying to do or I am going to do. There was a sense of responsibility that the government had towards us, at least they had to show that. But now this is not happening anymore.

9) You studied under Ritwik Ghatak at the Film Institute in Pune and his influence over your work is often mentioned. Ghatak made 2 documentary films for the Films Division, 'Durbargati Padma' and 'Scientists of Tomorrow'. What do you think about these films and how did his vision for the documentary influence your own documentary films?

I do not know these two films too well, but I have written a lot on other films made by Ghatak, you can refer to them. He was a great teacher, in a way that his teaching were supposed to be: first of all, he would tell you ‘do, re, mi, fa’ and you repeat after him. As soon as you come to a stage, you can begin to sing on your own. He tried to encourage you not to imitate others, but on the contrary that your individuation is most important. He was that kind of teacher. I was very happy to have him as my guru and he was very happy to have me as his student.

10) Filmmakers like Rossellini, Bresson or Eisenstein are also mentioned as major influences in your work. They all reflected on the notion of the 'real' and how to represent it in films. Could you mention some of their influential concepts or ideas in this specific area?

The key to this is Eisenstein’s response that realism is like a fetish. Sometimes, we wear a diamond, it is an object nature but you make it a magic object. It is a real thing but not a sign, which you make women so fond of. He felt all realism is like that, which I think is a beautiful idea. That is how Rossellini came into the picture. For Bresson, for example, the ‘real’ was to try to get rid of all ideologies around and to observe. He did it with an extraordinary method. In his film ‘The Trial of Joan of Arc’ (1962), he is showing just by observing the trial, but this is actually how he is getting to the passion of Joan of Arc, It is wonderful.

11) These filmmakers were also very concerned with the socio-political context of their times. How do the socio-political issues of India make a mark on your work?

It had always underlined everything I did. And I talked to every possible political and economic experts before I made any film, so I knew their views. I listened to them, but I did not follow any one of them.

12) Our research project focuses on the period from 1948 to 1975. Over that period, which filmmakers would you say played an important role in defining Indian documentary filmmaking in India and why?

I do not want to be subjective. I normally do not speak about my contemporaries in a sort of easy way. So please forgive me for not answering this question.

13) According to you, what are the best achievements and main limitations of the documentary film over the period 1948-1975?

It is the same situation for feature films and it has to do with the prevalent idea of positivism, the positivist response of calling something ‘fact’ and others not. That kind of thinking interferes with imagination. Not only here, but everywhere else. That is one major limitation. The achievement would actually be something that would overcome that extreme positivist attitude. One can be historical without being positivist. I think that is the way to overcome such limitations.

14) It is the same situation for feature films and it has to do with the prevalent idea of positivism, the positivist response of calling something ‘fact’ and others not. That kind of thinking interferes with imagination. Not only here, but everywhere else. That is one major limitation. The achievement would actually be something that would overcome that extreme positivist attitude. One can be historical without being positivist. I think that is the way to overcome such limitations.

Actually, whether I am writing on documentary or fiction films, it is in the end on cinema.


- Evey Shen (2015)