Interview with Shabnam Sukhdev - Daughter of S. Sukhdev
1) What was the educational and professional background of your father, the late filmmaker S. Sukhdev?
He was self-taught and believed in self-made men. He did not complete his education, because he was thrown out of his college in Punjab the day he cut his hair and stopped wearing the turban. He started to work very early to support his family and probably did all kinds of odd jobs until he started to assist (documentary filmmaker) Paul Zils.
Paul Zils gave him his inclination for documentary filmmaking, but he learnt the craft on his own and became a 'one-man army' as his collaborators and friends described him. This is probably why he had difficulties adapting to the feature film industry.
2) Can you also tell us more about his political commitments, affiliations, aspirations?
He came from the same background of poverty and life struggle he described in his films and that made him very sensitive to social issues in India. He was also linked to the film society movement in Bombay, who wanted to change the world. They were all change makers. They would have loud discussions at home, they would drink and smoke. Some still remember the smell in the room the next day!
3) What was his personal vision for the documentary film?
He wanted to share his concerns, what moved him, in his films. He was very 'Nehruvian' in a sense; he was in love with India and shared his vision for the new independent India. This is why he accepted to collaborate with the State, but at the same time, he was also very anti-establishment.
He wanted to change the world, but he became quite disillusioned by the end of his life. He could see that the post-independence ideals were not happening, because of corruption and other factors.
4) How did he start working with the Films Division of India?
He didn't start with FD. He made his first film for the Kadhi Graham Village (After the Eclipse). This is how he got noticed. His first films were purchased by FD and Jean Bhownagary commissioned the film India 67.
5) He was never a staffed director of the Films Division. Do you know why? And did he make other documentaries for private companies or sponsors? Can you tell me more about his other documentary film experiences?
He was known as the 'Enfant Terrible', the 'Rebel with a Cause' filmmaker, and therefore he wanted to remain independent. Even when working with FD, he never followed the system and got decisions approved directly in Delhi (where the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting is located). So, he had a unique position in this sense.
Because he worked as a propagandist, he was also very good at making advertisement films. Three people remembered one of his ads for sleepers. In advertisement, people remember a story, which they associate with a product. This is what Sukhdev achieved with this film. He was again ahead of his times. But eventually, he wanted to make feature films to reach to a larger audience, but those were much more expensive and thus difficult to make.
6) What was his work method? How did he make his films and with whom?
He never scripted his films. He used a lot of handheld camera, at a time when they were still very heavy, and did most of the camerawork himself. Of course, he was working with a sound recordist and a back-up cameraperson, especially in those days when equipment was so heavy to carry around. His team worked for him, they were on salary. In those days, people were not insecure, they would work on each other's projects.
He shot a lot and always managed to get enough raw stock (the government imposed raw stock quotas in those days), also because he was often working on several projects at the same time and thus could reinvest the money earned with one into another running project.
He edited all his films himself, because the structure was in his head and developed as he was filming. The script was finally emerging during the editing of the film. He could see more than others and therefore could not share the editing with anybody else. Also, people with great talent often don't have the patience to explain to others.
He has influenced later filmmakers, such as Meera Dhewan or Anand Patwardhan, who work a lot like him. Anand, for example, also has his own editing table in his house. I think his practice, if not his style, has been influential.
7) His film 'And Miles to Go' was described as the 'first angry documentary'? Who made this statement and what did it mean exactly?
This expression had nothing to do with 'Angry Young Man' of the 1970s Bollywood films. These films had nothing to do with the fight between the poor and the rich, and Amitabh Bacchan, the iconic 'Angry Young Man', only appeared in the mid-1970s. Nevertheless, bridges do exist between different kinds of cinema.
I don't know who described Sukhdev's films as the 'first angry documentary' or called him the 'rebel with a cause', but it represented his tendency to fight against the censor board, to fight to show his films in different places, including in press clubs, to make sure that journalists would see his films and then would talk about them in the press.
His films were quite journalistic too; they were investigative. When something important was taking place, he would feel the urge to be there and report on it, just like he did during the war in Bangladesh, which led to the making of '9 Months to Freedom'. He had this ability to be at the right place, at the right time, but with a strong bias. His heart beat for India, for misery, for poverty.
8) Apparently, Jean Bhownagary, FD's head at the time, followed the making of 'India 67' very closely. In what ways?
Jean Bhownagary knew Sukhdev was making an expensive film, but he recognized his genius and gave him the space he needed, because he knew something unique would come out of it. The length of the film was not even determined in advance. So, he gave him the trust and the space, rather than a close follow-up of the film production.
9) To which extent would you say his films contributed to change how films were made at Films Division in the 1960s and 1970s?
He created a niche for himself. He was a public figure in many ways, he knew the media and was eager for the people to see his films. He would never miss the moment; he knew where he had to be. He also had great performers involved in his films, to enhance his images. For instance, in his film on wild life (Wild Life in India), his shots of snakes are matched with percussions, something unique at the time. He was a master of sound design; he understood how sounds and images can create a third meaning. The juxtaposition of sounds and the structure of sequences was a great contribution. The jump cuts and the use of silence were also key to his style. He was very gutsy, in the use of extreme close ups for instance. Something nobody saw at the time. The way he went from one sequence to the next was also quite unique, but as many talented people, he also probably did it partly without realising what he was achieving.
His comments were also very important. He manipulated images to speak his truth. He had his own voice. He was an author and not only a propagandist. His style was very diverse in the end, but overall one can say he had an eye.
His films were futuristic. He would make comments on 'what's to come' and he pre-empted a lot of things that later took place in India.
Other people like Pramod Pati or S.N.S. Sastry were also very creative. They actually engaged with each other, show their films to each other before their release. Documentary cinema was finding its idiom at the time.
10) What was his relation with the Indian art/parallel cinema? Did he feel close or disconnected to their aesthetic and social aspirations?
I think he was a pioneer of the Indian New Wave, but somehow his work never blossomed in the world of feature films, perhaps because he never wanted to compromise. Yet, his themes and style were very much similar to that of the New Wave. He also addressed the cast system and the divide between the rich and the poor in his films. They were his key concerns. He actually had very harsh words about the rich, some who knew him told me that 'he hated the rich'. And he himself never valued money, he threw it away or used it to buy equipment.
He also helped young filmmakers making their first feature film, such as Gautam Ghosh. He gave him some raw stock to make his first feature, and he regretted that Sukhdev died before he could see the completed film.
11) Where were his films exhibited? Were his films exhibited in theatres as part of the general compulsory screening regulations?
His films were part of the compulsory screenings in theatres. 20 minutes versions of his documentaries were made for this very purpose. His films were also shown in festivals, in India and abroad, and from 1972 onwards on television. Television was a good development for him.
He was invited to international film festivals and to seat in film festival juries abroad. Leibzig and Berlin were part of his regular screening platforms. He even won awards there. He made a film on the Kumbha Mela, which is not available in India. Perhaps Leibzig would have a copy of the film. Uma da Cunha (film critic and key figure of the film society movement in Bombay) also took him to Cannes once.
12) What do you know about the reception of your father's films by the general audience in India? His complex position between propagandist messages and social criticism is often mentioned. What are your views on this?
His films came around at a time when people started to be tired of propaganda and then the Emergency kicked in. So, these were critical times in India. People were tired of state control. This is why I wanted to know whether he was a sell-out, if he had finally given in his ideals? But in the end, he believed in what the government wanted to achieve (which is shown in his films), not in the means used to get there.
Perhaps the State also used him and his success as a filmmaker... Eventually, when the government changed after the Emergency, he was identified as a sell-out and did not receive any commissioning from the state anymore, and thus started to make corporate films. This is when the disillusion started. He was making a film on the actress Meena Kumari, which he never finished. Gulzhar, who respected his work, later completed it. They had studied in the same college in Punjab. Sukhdev was always surrounded by lots a talented people, musicians, painters, writers, filmmakers... He was involved in collaborative projects towards the end of his life. He was developing a feature film project and was working on the writing of the script.
13) He received the prestigious Padma Shri after making 'India 67'. Do you have more details about why he received this title and what it meant for him and for his career?
Indira Gandhi suggested his name. Nobody had received this distinction at such a young age (35). It opened a lot of doors for him; this is when he started to be invited in international film festivals. He felt very proud that the Indian government recognized his films. I suppose he felt the responsibility to accept the government's commissions after that. As a passionate and talented person, he was probably not in synch with how the world functions.
14) Has the Sukhdev family or any other organization kept personal papers, photographs or memorabilia of your father?
Neither his ad films nor his film on family planning are available right now. He also shot a lot of home videos, which I donated to FD. He was constantly working, so the house was full of visual and sound footage, some of which is used in my film (The Last Adieu), as well as writings. I have his collection of film transcripts, his sound recordings, as well as the letters he wrote to my mother.
Most of his films, including home movies, have been given to FD, as they were quickly getting spoiled in the house. I also gave them '9 Months to Freedom'. Unfortunately, there is no trace of those home movies now. They have probably been shelved, but the staff in FD probably doesn't know what they are.
15) You also became a filmmaker and recently made a documentary film about your father, 'The Last Adieu', with the Films Division. Can you describe the project behind this film, how did you select the interviewees and why you made the film with the Films Division? Where has it been screened and what can you say about the reception of the film so far?
I was trained as a filmmaker at FTII, but I was more into fiction. I lived in Canada for 7 years, but had a hard time finding funding for my fiction films there, so I started to apply for small grants to make documentaries. Themes of reconciliation and memory are central in my work, and they are also at the centre of 'The Last Adieu'. I soon realized that you are a changed person by the end of making a documentary, you evolve, you develop new points of view. This is when I started to think about my father. I realized it was time to look at his films, which I never did before.
Then, I returned to India and started to teach in media schools, including the history of the Indian documentary film. The work of Sukhdev could not be avoided, but I realized that no one knew him or his work. So, my more serious engagement started with a poetry festival in Canada. I wrote a poem about my father and saw the possibility of making a film about a daughter who didn't like her father but starts to love him, to understand and forgive him by watching his films and meeting his friends.
I started the project in 2006, but had to stop shooting until my mother would be ready to open up and talk about him. Then, I met Mr. Kundu, the Director General of the Films Division. I sent him a draft of the film, which he accepted. From that moment on, I was forced to address the project, before that I was toying with it, contemplating it. A one-year journey started then. I collected hours of footage, including with my mother. She knew him the best, even before he started to make films, and I needed to get the truth about him from her. The editing of that long footage was a long and tedious process.
In my film, I only focus on the most important and well-known aspects of his films, but there are other facets in his filmography. He made all sorts of films, ads films, films on wildlife, on kathak... All those films have been left out.
The truth in this film is as honest as it can be. The very personal equation between my mother and father do not really appear in the film, because it was not relevant to documentary cinema and to the topic of the film (which focuses on my father's filmmaking).
One interview led me to the next. I also went through old photos with my mother and I had a list of people from the book on Sukhdev published by Jag Mohan. I was also tied by economic constraints. I could not go around India to interview everybody. So, I mainly shot in Bombay, Pune and in a film festival. I rushed some of the interviews, such as the one with Sashi Kapoor made in 2006, as I knew he wasn't well and that most of them may go soon.
It was a deliberate choice to make the film with FD, because they gave him a platform back in the days, so I felt I owed them a certain allegiance. Also, I was an apprentice with N. S. Thapa and at the time, everybody welcomed me in FD. Their love came from their love for Sukhdev.
I also made the film to be useful to younger filmmakers. My cameraperson was a student at the time, and after each interview, I also asked him if he had questions to ask too, as a young person. So, the film was conceived as a film teaching tool about Sukhdev, Films Division and documentary history.
- Dr. Camille Deprez (2015)