Interview with Paromita Vohra - Filmmaker and writer

Paromita Vohra


1) Along the years, as a documentary filmmaker, you have developed a strong interest in the films of S.N.S Sastry. Could you explain how you first encountered his work and what drove you towards it?

I am part of the last generation to have seen Films Division's documentaries in the theatres, although I don't have very precise memories of these films, only flashes, feelings. I remember the voiceover commentaries, some parades, some dignitaries on official visits, and representations of middle class life. Overall, I don't think my generation thought about these films much.

When I was in college, we were told that Sastry's 'I Am 20' was an important film, but we never saw it, it was not easily accessible in those days. Later, in 1992, when the first Mumbai International Film Festival was organised, I saw 'I Am 20', but it did not register in my mind at the time, but Sukhdev's 'India 67' did. It is only in 2004, during the first Experimenta film festival in Bombay, that I was blown away by Sastry's 'And I Make Short Films'. I had never seen anything like it before, certainly not by an Indian filmmaker. The festival screened Sastry's, as well as Pati's films. It was a very unique experience to see these films, also because I had heard about them long before having a chance to see them. Then, I began to watch more of Sastry's films, I curated a package for the Magic Lantern Foundation film festival, and I think apart from Experimenta (and Amrit Gangar of course), I was the first ones to talk about these films.

Sastry was interested in what documentary cinema, politics, and to be Indian meant and this is what drove me towards his work. 'I Am 20' is serious contemporary thinking about what it means to be Indian, even in such details as gestures. He is the only one to use the documentary as a space for philosophical thinking. It may not strictly serve political activism, but it is strongly political and all forms are important I think, especially in India, we need various films to match the diversity of the country.

2) Do you know anything about Sastry's personal and professional background or where to find more details about his biography?

Sastry died at a young age and was never a star, unlike Sukhdev, who took on the persona of 'male nationalist filmmaker'. So, there is no information available about him. I only know he came from Karnataka and has a son in Bangalore, probably working for FD too, although nobody knows him directly. I think that funding has to come locally for filmmakers to be able to develop their own language, which was the case for Sastry in FD. I also think documentary filmmaking follows eternal cycles of individual voices followed by homogeneity, and Sastry belonged to that cycle of individual voices.

It is significant that Sastry is not much talked about compared to Sukhdev. There is a lot of material available about Sukhdev (a monograph by Jag Mohan, a documentary film by his daugther Shabnam Sukhdev etc.), and so Sastry is left behind, probably because he does not fit any category, because he was primarily interested in the exploration of form and continuously tried to create new form. So, he falls through the cracks. For that reason, his work can be liked, but it does not get as easily validated.

3) You told me earlier that in many ways, your films are similar to his. Could you elaborate on this statement?

The mix of different things, this collage of images and sounds, and also the central concern for politics and the arts, and why they are kept apart are also present in my films and are my driving concerns.

Once, I was part of a group of 10 filmmakers, who had to show both one of their films and one that was influential. I chose 'And I Make Short Films', even though I only saw it after making my first films. I don't think you necessarily need to have seen them to be “influenced” by them. Because these films respond to reality in particular tones, a genealogy exists and you are part of it anyhow.

4) There is a growing, yet recent, academic and filmmakers' interest in the Indian documentaries of the 1960s mainly produced for Films Division, including those made by Sastry. How do you explain this re-discovery of long time forgotten films?

Fetish and nostalgia of a globalizing country. Some people are interested in anthropological and elitist incursions into what they consider 'kitsch' images, into quirk modernity, like in Shanghai girls calendars. And in India, we have very few of such images, so FD footage comes handy. Amrit Gangar has an archival interest for these films, as a means to look at film history and film practice which is different. Filmmakers want to talk about arts and politics, but I don't always see how it illuminates their own work.

However at another level these films belong to the generation of my parents, so there is probably an excitement, as well as a sense of relief, to see images of young people living in the 1960s, because there are few realistic images of everyday life such as those we find in 'I Am 20'. People feel connected to these images, because they provide visuality to their personal history. When I was doing research for my film 'Unlimited Girls', I could not connect my own knowledge of life with general images of women. For instance, I went to an exhibition of images of women from the 18th century to the 1930s, and I realised only pedigreed or categorisable women were represented. My grandmother was an actress, had a very fulfilling and interesting life, though not strictly in terms of ‘achievement’ and a life such as this was not represented in this exhibition. I was wondering where was the feminist in everyday life, because I had seen such women. In that sense, 'I Am 20' is not about pedigreed or cast-type characters, nevertheless, they have something interesting to say about India. This is also probably why people in India, including me, can relate to these films.

5) To which extent were Sastry's films similar or different from those of his contemporary documentary filmmakers, such as Pramod Pati, Sukhdev and the like?

To me, Sastry's films were politically more complex and stylistically more interesting than others. Pramod Pati made films along the line of what was already established as 'experimental cinema', Sukhdev’s work drew from agit-prop and following in certain ways the Griersonian tradition. Sastry developed his own style of communicating with people living in his time. There is a notion of history of political documentary and it is often considered that Anand Patwardhan set a template for political documentary filmmaking in India, which was then copied and mimicked by others. It had to be against the state, so if official documentaries used a Voice-of-God commentary, then political documentarists would not use it for instance. Sastry does not fit this oppositional template, yet I consider his films political too. His film 'I Am 20' does not offer a top-down relation from the filmmaker to his subject, a convention followed by most FD films.

I am also wondering if he saw 'Chronicle of a Summer', made in 1961, before making 'I Am 20'. Both films ask very long questions and show a conversational connection between the filmmaker and his interviewees. It is perhaps because technology (and more specifically portable cameras) made such films possible that filmmakers started to make such kinds of films in different parts of the world. Technology allowed these filmmakers to express themselves, so technology interacts with politics, economics and the arts.

6) Sukhdev made 'India 67' the same year as Sastry made 'I am 20', and both films deal with the situation of India 20 years after independence. In your views, what are the main similarities and differences between these 2 films, and what makes I am 20 specifically unique in the history of Indian documentary cinema?

The use of the first person – which Sastry uses in 'I Am 20' – is counter to FD orthodoxy (inherited from Grierson) which everybody followed, yet I consider that documentary filmmaking is all about the 'I'! Based on these multiple interviews, 'I Am 20' fragments the 'I', which all together make up India. He is not offering a unified pan-Indian identity, although it was the official mandate of FD, which makes this a highly subversive work.

'I Am 20' is also among the first Indian documentaries to be made of interviews. The film does not ally with the nation state, through its formal gestures. Contrary to Sukhdev, Sastry never celebrated the nation in his films, his subversive filmmaking was able to sow the seed of doubt. Yet, they share at least one similarity: both films give importance to pleasure.

Sastry's film is cerebral, playful, generous, doubtful, whereas Sukhdev performs the anguished revolutionary soul. Because Sastry does not play that game, there isn’t an easy space for him in the film sphere. Sukhdev's film is hybrid, and still refers to westernized linear and unitary forms, whereas Sastry's one is heterogeneous, which is essentially an Indian thing. It shows that everything coexists at the same time, searches for a form that will contain unresolved multiplicities. In his interviews, he is not looking for the point of view of experts in a talking head style. People are not typecast and stereotyped, yet their lives are implied through small details (e.g. Amir Khan's film). His film is both reliable and unreliable, the spectators trust it or not in their own terms. This is due to his sensibility rather than ideology. He saw arts, and film more specifically, as a way to understand the world rather than reflecting it.

This is what I wanted to achieve in my film 'Unlimited Girls' (2001), although I had not seen 'I Am 20' yet. The women I interviewed were not supposed to be representative of any preconceived idea. I wanted to break away from this search for intimacy in documentary filmmaking, according to which people have to tell you their secrets. I wanted to see if a film could be intimate in a different way – the particular, urbane intimacy of strangers. I always asked myself whether I would have made my film differently if I had already seen 'I Am 20'...

7) Shabnam Sukhdev, Sukhdev's daughter, told me that these filmmakers showed their films to each other before their release, commented on each others' films etc. Do you know about Sastry's relations with fellow documentary filmmakers, and about his work method?

I don't have any specific information about that. But one can see from the films that they used each other's footage. They must have been friends, they belonged to a small group after all, just like writers, musicians... But again, Sastry remains quite mysterious. We can hear his voice in 'I Am 20', but he never appeared in his films and there are no photographs of him. Nobody knows what he looked like.

8) Sastry's body of work seems quite eclectic. Among his films, some seem quite propagandist, such as The Capture of Haji Pir Pass about the 1965 war between India and Pakistan or his portrayal of PM Indira Gandhi in Our Indira. What are your views on such films?

I am less familiar with these films. Sukhdev mainly remained a prisoner of his idea of himself. To me, this is the main conclusion that comes out of his daughter's film 'The Last Adieu'. But Sastry did not use the same cannonball style of filmmaking. His film 'Our Indira' represents Indira just like Nehru used to be represented in the previous period.

In his film on musician Amir Khan, we understand his deep interest in people as people. The film is unique in many ways. We discover Khan's music through images of his wife, through the presence of the domestic identity. The film is a response to Amir Khan, Sastry brings himself in the film, like I hope I do. I like that emotiveness. I like to see a liberated man talking about female beauty and he had a very broad vision of beauty. He is also quite playful, he recognizes a quirk in Indianess, in the manners of being modern Indian characters. In 'I Am 20', when a young man says 'why should I love India?', Sastry not only captures his foolishness and innocence, but also some sort of truth and he is doing it with a lot of warmth.

9) Jean Bhownagary, as the FD's Chief Adviser at the time, is often praised to be the one who scouted these new talents and gave them the space to express their creativity. In your opinion, what was the exact role and impact of Bhownagary's appointment in FD?

He only worked for FD for a short time. He certainly had an aura, but after he left, his dynamics dried out. Only Sukhdev continued to get away with it. People don't look at individual personalities in FD, although they were quite different from one another.

10) You are among the few people who have researched FD films and FD papers. Would you say that the entire filmography of Sastry is currently available in FD?

They should all be there. The theory according to which some of Sukhdev's sensitive films are missing from the archives does not apply to Sastry. He had his own company for some time, yet he continued to make films as an outside producer for FD, so all his films should be available there. And he died soon after, so I don't think he made more films than those we already know.

11) Did you find any written document that gave you a better understanding of his work? In what ways?

From his few letters to the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting I could find in FD, I could feel his frustration and stress. He was fighting for form. You will never read that he is anti-establishment, but because he wants to do his job well and because that objective crosses the line of FD's mandate, one can say he was indeed anti-establishment. His brightness was not considered as greatness and that, I suppose, created frustration, or perhaps is it the projection of my own feelings?

I discovered this internal correspondence quite recently, so it did not really change my perception of his work. When I look at the first notes I wrote in preparation for the Magic Lantern Foundation package, I already mentioned that he died young, that I could see his frustration. I can understand that being part of non-conventional cinema in the 1960s, being in between, not having access to success, all this explained to me why he (and others of his generation, like Pati and Sukhdev) died young.

12) The 1960s were also the period when parallel cinema developed in India. What were the main similarities and differences between documentaries and parallel cinema in terms of content and form? Why were they similar and/or different?

It is often thought that filmmakers, frustrated by the way they were treated by the system, would become alcoholics or addicts and died young or wasted away because of this – this has also been spoken of when it came to filmmakers making films for NFDC. 

Also, a certain aesthetics transferred from documentary to parallel cinema, but that was lost in the post-Emergency context. There are two ways to look at it, either Bhownagary should be considered the sole individual who gave a space to creative documentary filmmakers or that space existed before him, in the unique access filmmakers had to a nation under construction. In both cases, after the Emergency, FD collapsed and its creativeness was transferred to parallel cinema. The budget limitations were the same in FD and in NFDC (this is a recurrent complaint in FD correspondence), and there is a link between aesthetics and funding. Some were able to transcend this limitation (restrictions can instill creativeness), yet it is a fact that the government did not even cover the production costs. So, making such films built this greater masculine figure, who fights to make his films, no matter what, even for free. It contributed to constructing this ideal of the messianic directors. When there is no money, there is always a guru.

A Socialist ideal is also present in both types of films. Yet, most individual voices in parallel cinema quickly became templates, a sort of well-behaved cinema. Some exceptions remain, such as Saeed Mirza, a precursor of the Ram Gopal Varma gangster film, before its more recent 'Scorcesian' evolution. I think the Indian masculinity in those characters mixed the masculine and the feminine (a friend made me notice that babies in India all dress like baby Krishna, their clothes are not gendered), and did not mimic these Westernised machos. To better understand our film history, we need to explore and nurture ideas that are typically Indian, rather than use Western references and theoretical frameworks.


- Dr. Camille Deprez (2015)