Peter Sutoris

Interview with Peter Sutoris - Independent scholar


1) You started researching the Films Division of India as part of your thesis. Could you explain what drove you to this topic and how your research started?

As a documentary filmmaker myself, I had a personal interest in understanding whether film could be effectively used for development. Films Division (FD) seemed like a logical place to go, because as far as I know, it represented the biggest attempt to use film for the development of a country in the history of the medium.

When I first came to India and looked at FD archives, questions popped into my mind about India’s post-colonial condition after Independence, the aesthetics of developmentalism and the agency of filmmakers within the state-run system. I realised that these films could be used to study the politics of the period. And so, although the use of documentaries for development was my original angle, I soon started focusing on examining the unique expression of politics through visuals, and the way visions of India’s leaders were communicated to the citizens of the country, which became a really fascinating window into the ideology of the ruling elites at the time. In that sense, film became a tool to understand the limitations of the models of development that the government was trying to pursue at the time.

2) What were the main difficulties you faced during this project?

Access to sources was very challenging. At the time I first came to FD, there was little interest in the archives, FD Zone [free film screenings organised by FD] did not exist, as far as I knew there were no other scholars who were looking at the archives, and so there was no culture of thinking about these films as sources for scholarly enquiry.

But I received a lot of help from FD, especially after they realised that my project spanned not only the film archive but also various document archives. That gave me tremendous access to sources that had not been looked at before. It was also difficult to track down people for the oral history part of the research. There were not enough written documents about these filmmakers, and often I had to rely on people still in involved with FD.

Another challenge was the sheer scope of FD production, and how to narrow down and find an angle that was specific and clear enough, rather than simply writing an overview of what FD had created over the years. There were a lot of hard decisions I had to make about which arguments to include in the book, and which ones to exclude.

- Dr. Camille Deprez (2015)