Interview with Shankar Mohan - Son of film-maker P. R. S. Pillay

Shankar Mohan


1) What was the educational and professional background of your father Mr. Pillay?

My father was born in the Indian southern state of Kerala. In Kerala, my father and his parents lived in Kottayam District, a place called Kanjirapally. His early education was in Kajirapa;;y boy school, and latter he went on to college. My grandfather was a lawyer, and a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLC). He was keen that his son should take up law, so he sent my father to Madras to study law. My father got deeply involved with film images there. During his spare time, he started going to the Gemini Studios (the most important film studio in Madras, 1940-1969). Soon, he found an opportunity to work as assistant director at the Gemini Studios, and he started to learn more about the filming process. This was in the 1950s. Before he could complete his law studies, he came back home from Madras and told his father that he did not want to pursue law but rather pursue film as a professional career, because he felt he was really passionate about it. To my grandfather regret, my father went back to Madras and joined the film studio system. He learnt everything about the entire process of film-making. In the 1950s, black and white film-making dominated India. He worked in the labs for a couple of months studying the process of black and white film - how to cut a film, how to edit a film, etc. He developed a great passion for cinema.

It was the early 1950s, and no one would finance or fund films (the studio system was coming to an end). During that time in India, particularly in South India, people had to fund their own films. So, my father convinced his father to set up a film company. He came back to his hometown and started a film company called ‘Kalasagar Films’, and under this banner, he produced and directed a feature film, called ‘Thiramala’ (Waves, 1953). It was a very poetic film, which contained about 14 songs. Some of the people who were introduced in this film became major stars later on: the leading actor of that film was Sathyan, of course he is no more today. In Kerala, Sathyan became an iconic figure; his third assistant was Ramu Kariat, later became a major film-maker in Kerala, and won the President’s Gold Medal for his first feature film ‘Chemmeen’ (in 1965); P. Bhaskaran, the music director also became an iconic figure. So, my father introduced a lot of new people and talents who subsequently became iconic figures in the Malayalam film industry. Unfortunately, the film did not do well at the box-office. The film was produced with about 300,000/ (Three hundred thousand) Indian rupees. A huge amount in those days! That was an unhappy situation for my father, and that was the same for most of the producers because they had to finance their own films. It happened even with Dadasaheb Phalke, the father of Indian cinema in Bombay. He had to fund, finance, manage, produce, direct and release his own films, and he died in penury. This is the tragedy with pioneers. As a pioneer, you have to do everything by yourself. My father’s company was shut down, but since his passion was cinema, he looked for other opportunities to make films. He realised that there was a film production studio company called the Films Division (FD) in Bombay, so he joined FD in 1954 the same year that I was born. Following his passion, we all migrated to Bombay. He worked in FD from 1954 to 1962.

2) How did he start working with the Films Division of India? And what do you know about his role in Films Division?

He was scripting, directing, and totally engaged with anything to do with cinema. Before him, a director had just left FD and my father took over his position. During that time, he met a lot of other important figures of the documentary film: Mr. Jagat Murari, Mr. Mohan Bhavnani, and several others. He was very close with Mr. Jagat Murari. FD was continuously making Indian newsreels because it was mandatory at that time and India did not have television yet. So the only way for the government to spread information to the public about various Indian policies related to health, education etc., sports, politics, and international events was done through the compulsory screening of newsreels in all film theatres. Whenever you buy a ticket for a feature film, the screening would start with short newsreels, produced and directed by FD. This tradition has now stopped, because television has taken over and there are a lot of channels in India – we have more than 750 channels today, which is huge. At that time, the public broadcaster Doordarshan had not come out yet nationally. FD therefore performed this major role towards public awareness and so produced a lot of newsreels about on current affairs towards education the public at large.

I still recall a documentary that my father made on gold mine fields (In the Gold Mines, 1958) and more specifically on how raw gold was processed and converted into gold bars. He came back from this particular shooting and told us that the small gold bars may be shinning and easy to look at, but unusually heavy to lift. One cannot lift a bar of gold very easily.. That was how we knew he had gone for shooting.

3) How did his job in FD evolve over the years?

He was in FD for about eight years and during those years made a number of documentaries and newsreels. He scripted these films himself. Scripting requires discipline. A lot of research was required on the subject before commencing shooting. He was involved in the entire film-making process.

4) What was his work method? How did he make his films and with whom?

I am saying this based on my memories. I used to see him write a lot in the evenings. When I did my homework, I would see him sit in a corner of the house and write on paper sheets. Even typewriters were not easily available at the time, they were all hand-written and he wrote a lot. Before I joined the Film & TV Institute in Pune in 1975, I learnt a lot about script-writing for documentaries from him. He would tell me how to visualise, how to write a script, and discuss on the method of writing commentary for a documentary: you first write the commentary on the left side, before you finalise it, you should ensure that it is technically correct, especially when the film is dealing with technical subjects, it has to be scientifically correct. We may have general knowledge about a particular subject, but when you are making a film, it has to be scientifically and technically correct.

Once he made the facts right, he would modify the commentary. He always said that the commentary should be crisp, clear and simple. These were the three things he would insist on. Do not make it complicated, do not write long sentences, because the audiences have a very short memory span when they listen to it, so make it short and simple. The exact idea you want to communicate should be very clear. These were some of the things my father emphasized. He used to say that- in a documentary, the commentary was very important in terms of narration, and this narration would eventually set the structure for the film. Once the content of the narration is correct, one could work on the formal and grammatical aspects of the narration.

The third emphasis was to locate and identify a suitable person, who had a good voice and could speak the way he wanted him to deliver. He always emphasized that there should be a sense of personal touch in the commentary. Some voices can be very distant and detached when you hear them. He felt that if you want the audience to take interest in the subject of the film, it is always important that the sound of the person reading the commentary should have a sense of warmth and able to connect with the audience at the individual level, this would immediately get the attention of the audience.

Once the commentary was prepared, my father was ready to go for shooting. Sometimes he would take additional shots of the same situation, if required, so that he could make multiple choices and take his final decision during post-production. Otherwise, he was very prudent in wasting raw film. At that time, films were still in black and white, and film reel was expensive, so people had to make economic choices. In today’s digital era, this is not an issue anymore. But at that time, you needed to process the film at a lab, a lot of complicated process were involved. My father also had to learn the art of being cost-savvy in his shooting. He could be economic because he did most of the work at home. So, if did your homework well, when you go for shooting, everything is clear, efficient and cost saving. If he felt there should be alternatives, he would do that also, but of course he did it very carefully. So, that was his style of making films for FD, because FD gave a whole new discipline to the art of documentary film-making. The film-makers worked under a restricted budget and tremendous constraints of manpower and time limits. You would not be able to go for shooting unless you had thoroughly done your paper work.

As for whom he worked with, I think when he was in FD, there was not much choice, because he had to do with the cameraman and sound technician who were allotted to him and who were employed by FD. Today, FD has outside producers or directors whom you can hire as your crew members from outside. But at that time, they were all in-house.

5) What was his general vision for the documentary film?

As I said earlier, he had to make two kinds of films in FD. FD is part of the government of India, therefore it had to follow and publicize the policies of the government. It also had to publicize domestic and international news events through its newsreels for public awareness. Yet, my father also made documentaries on specialized subjects. Both required a certain amount of diligence, hard work and research. He had to be very careful. He needed to know what to shoot exactly for the newsreels. The cameramen would travel with politicians or ministers and shoot there. All they required was to assemble these things during the editing. For example, for a football match, the FD cameraman would go and come back to the FD headquarters. After that, all they had to do was to edit the film.

I remember there were many of my father’s scripts lying at home, in which he noted what he felt about the films he saw. If he watched a film, he would write what he liked or did not like in the film, whether it was an Indian film or a foreign one. My mother keeps telling me that when I have time, I should go through them and publish a book out of these notes. I am too busy right now, but it is one my hope to do a project like this.

6) Did your father keep a full list and personal record of his documentaries produced for FD? If not, why?

He certainly did as he wrote so many personal notes. He was good at writing scripts and he wrote his own scripts by hands until 1962, until he eventually brought a typing machine home. So, I know my mother has kept records of his work with FD.

7) In 1966, Mr. Pillay won the President of India’s medal for his documentary ‘Virginia Tobacco’. However, very little information about this film exists today, even on FD’s website. Could you describe the content and style of this film, and perhaps some background information about the production process of this film?

This film reflects his entire attitude towards documentary film-making, especially related to a particular subject. It was a well-researched subject about a particular type of tobacco, called Virginia. This tobacco can be used for several purposes and not only for smoking. He did a lot of research, went to the tobacco fields to see how a particular leaf was cultivated, how it grew, was harvested and dried – he studied the whole technical procedures. He did a lot of groundwork and research for this film. It was eventually a well-made film I can still recall this film today.

In terms of style, it followed a well-structured narrative, which covered the tobacco business right from cultivation to the end products in a clear, crisp manner. For shooting and research, my father went to a couple of locations where the crops were harvested and also to the factories where the leaves were subsequently dried and converted into tobacco.

8) Do you have any comment on why ‘Virginia Tobacco’ was particularly noticed and appreciated?

It was a very detailed, compact and informative film. And as I just said, it was well made, effectively narrated and very informative.

9) As far as we know, except ‘Virginia Tobacco’, several of your father’s films made in the 1950s and 1960s received national and international awards. Can you tell us more about these films?

I remember there was one more film made on palaces in Jaipur and Udaipur, in the north-west state of Rajasthan. I can recall ‘Udaipur- City of Lakes’ made around 1962-66. And the one I mentioned before, on gold mines. The memories are from my childhood, as I saw these films at the time of their release.

10) It seems that today, only ‘Assam’ (1958); ‘In the Gold Mines’ (1958); ‘Emergency Relief’ (1959) and ‘Glimpses of Jammu’ (1960) are available on the FD database. Do you have any idea why these four films are the only ones preserved and distributed today, out of his 50 or so films made for FD?

Unfortunately, the Films Division is not in very healthy condition today. They have to deal with manpower and other issues. It was a brilliant institution that did excellent work in the past, and which produced some of the best documentaries and newsreels of India. It also produced some of the best animators in the country, and talents like S. Sukhdev, I.S. Johar, Jagat Murari, Mushir Ahmed and several Indian documentary film-makers are well-known today thanks to FD. But with the documentary craft exploding and with the growing digital boom, the entire film-making process has changed. Also, since the entire documentary movement in India has become a very personal movement, institutions like FD are not required anymore; people do not need large amounts of money to make their short films and documentaries. If one has a good portable camera, one can make a beautiful documentary. The entire craft and discipline of making documentary films has dramatically changed. This is why the role of this institution (FD) needs to be redefined.

11) In 1966, your father was deputed by the Government of India to head the Army Forces Films Division, of the Ministry of Defence in Delhi. Can you tell us about his experience as Director of this Division, as well as about his documentary practice there?

During his term in Delhi for this organisation (from 1966 to 1975), my father was primarily involved in making different kind of documentaries. These films were previously made by FD in Bombay, before the government realised that Defense was a very specialized area. These films were requested by the Ministry of Defense and mainly dealt with the training requirement and documentation purposes of the Indian army. They were basically training films on warfare, army engineering or other related subjects. That was specialized work on specialized subjects, and it required my father and his team to often go to sensitive areas to shoot live situations.

For example, he would film how to make pontoon bridges used by the army. When soldiers needed to carry huge trucks and tanks across a large river, they would join small boats together, and create a bridge over them, called a pontoon bridge. It is technically strong and efficient. So, my father and his team shot the entire process. If the army needed to teach an engineering course on how to make a pontoon bridge, it was available on film as a teaching aid. The Ministry of Defense would assign the task of making such training films. When my father was the head of this organization, a lot of these documentary training films were made. The Ministry of Defense felt that an independent, dedicated department needed to be set up in Delhi, that would focus on making these films to improve the army training methods and quality.

I remember when the Bangladesh war broke out (in 1971), a film had to be made on the entire refugee problem. Because before the liberation of Bangladesh, thousands of refugees poured into West Bengal and it became a major problem for India. No country was coming forward to solve the problem. These people had to flee their homes, women would be raped in Bangladesh, and massacres took place. Records had to be made on what was happening, so that it could be shown to various countries and presented to the United Nations to attract international attention. It was this department that made these films. They made a lot of these films during this turbulent period.

12) Can you tell us about your father’s association with other public organisations related to documentary film-making during and after his period in the Armed Forces Films Division? (such as the Kerala State Malayalam Film Awards Committee).

When my father was in Delhi, he was active in theatre. He directed a lot of plays at home on weekends; I would sit and watch in a corner sometimes. He was always into film and theatre. The Kerala government invited him as the chairman of their film jury during the early 1970s. Before that controversies were always happening at some point during the film awards announcements and proving an embarrassment. Once they brought him on board, there were no further controversies in terms of the selection of films. I think they continuously invited my father as chairman of the State Film jury continuously for a period of 4 years.

In 1975, the Kerala government invited him to Kerala. At that time, about 150 films were made in the regional language; Malayalam, every year. Yet most of the films were made in Madras until 1975. All the studios, recording theatres and processing labs were in Madras. There was no film industry in Kerala. So, the films were made by Kerala people, but in Madras the neighboring state. But the Kerala government thought they should have their own film industry in Kerala. They discussed with my father and he gave them a blueprint for setting up the Chitranjali film studio complex. My father left Delhi and returned to Kerala in 1975 as the chairman of Chitranjali film studio complex. They had several studio floors, complete recording facilities and laboratories. If a film-maker had an idea, he could approach this studio, write down his idea, complete the script, shoot the film, record it, process it, and complete it- all in one place. Part of the vision for this particular project was to set up a chain of theatres in Kerala, so they could release the films in the chain of theatres and ensure these films were exhibited. My father was the chairman initially for 5 years and his appointment was extended for 3 years twice. I think he was there as Chairman for about 11 years in total. He gave a whole new vision to the Malayalam film industry. He is basically responsible for transplanting the film industry from Madras to Kerala.

13) What do you know about the reception of your father’s films by the general audience in India?

This is the problem. There is no general audience for documentaries in India. Audiences are there for commercial films, which include songs, a lot of drama and melodramatic scenes. Even for feature films made by eminent film-makers like Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Mrinal Sen, Satyajit Ray, or even Ritwik Ghatak, initially they had no general audience. The audiences slowly grew for this kind of cinema.

I was the director of the International Film Festival of India (Goa) for 4 years (from 2011 to 2014) and the Director of the Mumbai International Film Festival, organised by FD, in 2012. The Goa International Film Festival is the official film festival of the government of India. It is primarily a feature film festival, but as the Director of the festival, I realised that documentaries had no audience. What I used to do is setting up a documentary section. I would carefully choose 5 or 6 interesting, outstanding documentaries in the international section and present them there. So, along with the feature films, these documentaries would also be seen by the same audience. There used to be a special section for Indian documentaries, I used to screen the documentaries first and screen the feature films subsequently. These are strategies we have to adopt to make documentaries more popular. Documentaries need an audience, documentary films are in search of an audience. They can be films based on sports, adventures, sciences, social issues and so on, it depends on the subjects and if the audience is interested in such topics.

There are also short fiction films but we do not categories them as documentaries. They would have an audience. Because documentaries are like essays, how many people would buy a book of essays? But people generally will buy a novel or short stories. This is the same problem with documentaries; you must have passion as a documentary film-maker to go on making such films.

14) Has any organization kept personal papers, photographs or memorabilia of your father?

Yes, FD and the Armed Forces Films Division (AFFPD) would definitely have some documents. The Kerala State Film Development Corporation (KSFDC), under which the Chitranjali film studio complex was set up, would also have some, as he was the founding chairman of KSFDC. These were the three organisations he worked for in his life.

15) Overall, what would you say constitutes his main contribution to Indian documentary cinema?

I would rather think in terms of the entire cinema movement, not only documentaries, because he started his career as a feature film-maker and then went on to make several documentaries and newsreels. He promoted various aspects related with the cinema. He was primarily a visionary, who made all kinds of films and greatly contributed to the overall growth and development of the Kerala (Malayalam) Film Industry.


- Evey Shen (2015)