Interview with V. S. Kundu - Ex-Director General of Films Division of India
1) When and how did you join Films Division and what is your mission within this organization?
I joined Films Division in the end of May 2012. I am a career bureaucrat and belongs to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). I have no background in filmmaking, however I do have an interest in cinema. So, when this opening came, I thought that it would be interesting for me to work in this field. The mission at that stage was to understand that Films Division was an organization lacking in productivity, efficiency and there was not enough transparency in the processes. I was asked to come in and see and try to revive the organization, and also revive the productivity and efficiency within the organization.
2) The documentary film in India was born out of a government decision. What impact did it have on the organization of Films Division, and on the films' content and form?
The journey of Films Division has been interesting. In 1948, this organization was setup and it was not something very new because Information Films of India was already active before independence, from 1941 onwards. They were producing propaganda films for World War II and subsequently for the government. When India became independent, the Photo Division and Films Division were setup. The idea at that stage was to create a communication bridge between the government and the new citizens of India, as there was no other means of communication. In the urban areas, newspapers and radio (All India Radio) were the only means of spreading news. In the rural areas, there was nothing. Very few villages had radio connection, which was largely a community radio connection, which would come alive maybe 1 hour a day. That was also essentially for passing news about famine, or agricultural news and agricultural practices. This was an instructional channel. Films Division was therefore created to create audiovisual material, which would communicate to the citizens what the government is doing for them as well as important events happening in the country. These films were shown before the main feature film in all the theatres. In the villages, these would be shown at the village fair, in a tented cinema. In these tented cinemas, movies were also screened. At that point of time, these were the government's most effective ways and means to get the message across to the public.
Films Division was created as a state owned production house, which created newsreels and news magazines and took these to different parts of the country. A distribution network was created through which these films were distributed. In 1952, we also organized the first International Film Festival of India (IFFI). That is how we got into the promotion of cinema as a medium of expression. For the first few editions, IFFI was organized by Films Division. Gradually the filmmakers within the Films Division became more mature and started to understand the medium. They also had a lot of interactions with the National Film Board of Canada and the British Film Institute. Because of this, a certain amount of maturity came into the films produced by Films Division. In the 1960s, a lot of work was done in experimental documentaries, essentially documentaries made at the end of the 1950s and in the 1960s. Animation also started at that time. Films Division pioneered animation in the country. Short films and short fiction films also started around the same time in the Films Division. In the late 1950s, the Film and Television Institute and Film Finance Corporation were setup. So, commercial or art fictional cinema became the mandate of the Film Finance Corporation, which subsequently became the NFDC. Films Division concentrated primarily on documentaries, short films and animation genres. That is where most of the work was done. The 1960s was a very productive period for Films Division. Large number of experiments were done in the form, content and presentation of documentary and animation films.
Also, the Emergency happened at that time (1975-77). Film is a very strong medium and at that time there was no strong television presence in the country, so Films Division became the strongest medium of dissemination of information for the government. Films Division became a very important government tool during the Emergency. After the Emergency, the creative freedom of the directors who were working for Films Division was not so developed and therefore the in-house directors produced run of mill documentaries. Although outside directors like Mr. Mani Kaul still made very creative documentaries.
In 1990, Films Division started the Bombay International Film Festival, subsequently known as the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF), which focused on documentary, animation and short films. This probably has been the event that has best contributed to documentary filmmaking in India. It influenced large numbers of filmmakers, by exposing them to international documentaries, to the power of documentaries. A number of filmmakers active in the country today were actually encouraged by MIFF to become documentary filmmakers on a full time basis. In that sense, Film Division has contributed tremendously to the growth of independent filmmakers in the country. MIFF has been the platform, which has showcased their talent and exposed them to the cutting edge works done in the international arena.
3) What do you know about the impact of the former British colonial film units and on the early organisation of FD? Has the structure of this organisation evolved from the initial model over decades?
In the colonial times, the focus was on newsreels, which were essentially information films. There were no actuality films, but more like narrative storytelling. It was all about depicting information about events, natural calamities, sports and how government was making the effort for developing the country, for the sake of her citizens. At that stage, the entire workflow was essentially focused on these newsreels. Gradually, Films Division started promoting cinema, which then became more important. Therefore, in the coverage of newsreels, the craft improved and matured over a period of time. Independent lines were created in Films Division for animation films, creative films and experimental films.
These opportunities came because Films Division started making documentaries revolving around stories. They brought in a narrative to newsreels and they deviated from what was happening or what was being done, that is to depict life stories from different parts of India. This created a deeper impact on audiences. Films Division evolved from an informational agency into a cinema production house. Films Division has also ventured into making fictional films in regional languages. These films were from any duration between 40 minutes to 2 hours. These regional films were particularly done for the languages, which did not have a film industry of their own.
4) What was the exact role and significance of private companies in the development of FD and documentary film in general? Which ones are included in the FD catalogue?
Private companies had no significance, since very few of those produced documentary films. There were some independent films, which were made at that time. Filmmakers actually ventured into making films on their own. In those days, making a film was an expensive proposition, where one needed equipment and raw stock. The raw stock was controlled by the government and not easily available and difficult to purchase. To purchase raw stock, one needed to submit a script for approval. Therefore, not many landmark documentary films were made by private companies in those days.
Later on, after television and private channels came into broadcasting services, the market for making independent documentaries and private production houses came into existence.
5) Most of the time, in-house directors were eventually promoted to the rank of Chief Producers. How did this system influence the organisation, content and form of the films?
The idea of promoting the in-house directors to the rank of Chief Producers did not work very well for the organization. Prior to the Emergency, people were mostly hired from outside as Chief Producer and not promoted within the organization. Until the early 1980s, there were no Chief Producers who rose from in-house directors. There was a phase where all the producers were filmmakers or people connected with films. They brought in their own creative inputs, vision and therefore some respect, the quality grew in Films Division. But when the in-house directors started rising to those positions, a decline came in the output of Films Division. This was primarily due to two reasons. Firstly, these directors used to work in documentary cinema in a certain way and they propagated that particular mode. So, the films made by Films Division during those times became very one-dimensional. They would follow an absolute linear kind of structure and became very boring and less creative. Secondly, since they had spent so much time in the organization, they were involved in internal politics and groupism. Therefore, some in-house directors would be favored amongst others. The internal harmony of the organization got disturbed.
In-house directors and the outside film directors who made films for Film Division had rivalry issues amongst them. Within the Films Division, the in-house directors came into control and would discount and disregard documentaries made by outside filmmakers. All this worked against the growth of the organization. In my opinion, the top hierarchy of the Films Division should be somebody recruited from the outside who will work in spite of internal prejudices and be unbiased to bring in harmony and growth to the organization.
6) Can you identify the best achievements and main limitations of the documentary film over the period 1948-1975?
The best achievements are the ones I have already mentioned earlier (Bhownagary).
The main limitations are probably due to the recruitment of inadequate staff, and accommodation of leadership inputs of the head of this institution.
7) For the past few years, FD is working hard on the preservation and dissemination of its films. Would you say that all the films produced by FD are in the catalogue, or that some have been lost over the years? For what reasons?
When I joined FD, the database available on CD-ROM was using a programme that had not been updated for a long time and that created a lot of problems. We are still in the process of finalizing our catalogue, using a new and more professional software. It is already made accessible to the public in our research centre, but films still need to be added. The figure of 8000 films includes not only documentaries, but also weekly newsreels, animation films, publicity films and other shorts. So, I have no reason to believe this number is inaccurate. Yet, we need to finalize our catalogue before it can officially be made public.
- Dr. Camille Deprez (2015)