Throwing Light

Insights into the neglected history of Indian documentaries

SNS Sastry’s I am Twenty, released by the Films Division 20 years after Independence, features interviews with a diverse group of Indians, all born in 1947.
01 October, 2016

DURING THE LATE 1990s, as an undergraduate student in Delhi University, my fascination for the Indian documentaries I had seen led me to write my final-year dissertation on the form. I was taken with films such as Shabnam Virmani’s When Women Unite, which recreated the story of women in Andhra Pradesh’s Nellore district who rallied to stop the sale of arrack in their villages. There was work such as Amar Kanwar’s A Season Outside, a haunting meditation on militarism and borders, and Reena Mohan’s Skin Deep, which investigated the ideal of beauty through the personal narratives of urban middle-class women. In hindsight, it was the sense of widening possibilities and themes that I was drawn to.

What I recall most clearly from the days spent researching and writing my paper, in the libraries and personal collections of helpful souls across Delhi, are the difficulties I had in sourcing writing on the history and practice of Indian documentary filmmaking. I got plenty to think about from talking to people working in the field. But when I asked my interviewees to recommend texts, I ended up noting down the same thin list of names. There was a section on Indian films in Eric Barnouw’s Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, and scattered articles in different publications. Through the dial-up internet connection of a cyber cafe near my hostel, I discovered the wealth of writing on the documentary form internationally, including some work on Indian films. But there was little to be found closer at hand.

In the nearly two decades since, the production, consumption and distribution of Indian documentaries have increased manifold, but the writing on these films has failed to keep up. In 2000, the Public Service Broadcasting Trust produced Double Take: Looking at the Documentary, a collection of reflections on the form by practitioners and critics. The noted film historian BD Garga’s 2007 volume From Raj to Swaraj: The Non-Fiction Film in India, often cited as a milestone, traces the history of documentaries and newsreels from the early twentieth century to post-Independence India. Some shorter critical writing on the subject has also appeared in academic publications, and in special issues of journals such as Art India, in 2014, and Bioscope, in 2012.

Visions of Development: Films Division of India and the Imagination of Progress, 1948-1975 Peter Sutoris Oxford University Press India, 344 pages, T995

The two recent volumes under review here therefore address a significant gap. Visions of Development, by the scholar Peter Sutoris,takes up the challenging task of looking at India’s mammoth government-run film-production machinery. For several decades, till the arrival of television, the term “documentary” was used synonymously in the country with the productions of the Films Division. Established in 1948, under the aegis of the ministry of information and broadcasting, the FD was from its very inception the audio-visual arm of the government, a tool in its efforts of nation-building. “Infused with a sense of national adventure and excitement for building a new India, these films show that Nehruvian developmentalism was as cultural as it was political,” contends Sutoris.

FD documentaries and newsreels were compulsory screening in cinema halls across the country. Covering themes from personal hygiene and civic duties to the rituals and cultures of different tribes of India, they adopted a tone of instruction and improvement. As the scholar Arvind Rajagopal notes in his introduction to the volume, the entire enterprise of the FD documentary was in thrall to the enterprise of nation-building. “If the media were a project of the state, the opposite was the case too: the nation state was a project of the media.” This is the argument that Sutoris puts forth, making a case for film analysis as a tool in the study of development.

A Fly in the Curry begins around the period when Visions of Development ends—with the disruptive experience of Emergency rule, beginning in 1975. While the book does look at some of the significant work that was produced by the FD well into the 1980s, it largely focusses on documentaries that emerged outside state-controlled parameters. The authors, Anjali Monteiro and KP Jayasankar, are both established filmmakers, besides being teachers and scholars engaged with documentary production. They offer academic analysis coupled with the insights of interested participants. While the book is far from an encyclopedia or even a history of independent Indian documentary films, it captures many of the significant moments the field has seen since the 1980s. Together, the two books present a view of the many different voices that documentaries adopt, moving from government propaganda to the boldest independent work produced in the country.

Sutoris describes The District Officer, one of the last films made for the Information Films of India before the colonial body was dissolved.

Sutoris traces a continuity between the films made by the colonial-era government body the Information Films of India, which operated from 1943 to 1946, and those made by the FD. From being a propaganda machine for the Allied effort in the Second World War, the IFI in the last few years of its existence produced films on Indian industry, agriculture and history. “Filmmakers started portraying underdevelopment rather than the Axis powers as India’s chief enemy,” the author notes. After Independence, this agenda was brought to fruition by the FD. Besides the institutional framework, the filmmakers themselves were an important thread of continuity. “Many of the pioneers of the FD came from the ranks of former IFI employees,” points out Sutoris. These included two future chief producers, Jehangir Bhownagary and Ezra Mir.

Similarly smooth was the transition from depicting colonial authority figures enlightening native populations on screen to showing Indian elites doing the same job. As an example, Sutoris describes The District Officer, one of the last films made for the IFI before it was dissolved, directed in 1945 by Mir. The British had been replaced by Indians in leadership roles on screen, he writes, “yet their interactions with their ‘subjects’ were portrayed in much the same light as the interactions between the coloniser and the colonised in earlier films.” While they grew in different directions, the roots of India’s post-Independence film production unit, Sutoris establishes, lay in the inherited conventions of colonial-era filmmaking.

To capture the violation of women’s rights implicit in the state’s policy of forced sterilisations, the director of Something Like a War, Deepa Dhanraj, had to film many of her subjects without their consent.

Visions of Development has some fascinating insights into the scale of enterprise that underlay the FD. In the mid 1960s, the organisation was releasing three films per week on average, in addition to a weekly newsreel. In the decades to come, this output would reach about 25 million Indians a week. The book’s strength is in its paring down of this scale to anecdotes and insights that capture the daily existence and contradictions of this giant undertaking. Besides archival analysis and historical material, Sutoris draws on interviews with documentary practitioners and their families. The picture that emerges is of a machine-like, lumbering organisation—one that had little space for individual voices. “There was no such thing as a ‘director’s cut’ at FD,” Sutoris notes wryly. He describes how, when Ravi Prakash’s 1956 production, Spring Comes to Kashmir, won an award at the Berlin Film Festival, the contingent that travelled to receive the honour comprised an “‘official from the ministry, a famous film actor and a documentary film director’. Ravi Prakash was not invited to attend, and the director who received the award in Berlin on his behalf would later describe the ceremony to Ravi Prakash who stayed at home in Bombay.”

Sutoris’s descriptions of the failings of the FD’s policy of compulsory exhibition (“a curse and a blessing”) are similarly touched with whimsical memory. While the policy guaranteed a vast audience for the films, it also meant that this audience was very heterogeneous, and content had to cater to a vast range of social groups across the country. “The scale of distribution also meant that in some cases the films took a very long time to reach the viewers ... The length of the distribution cycle would often render the films and newsreels outdated; as one critic pointed out, in some parts of India, the footage of Jawaharlal Nehru’s funeral was being projected at the same time as his successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, was dying.”

Unsurprisingly, the audience responded to the forced screening of FD films and newsreels by finding different ways to not see them. Sometimes they simply left the theatre for a smoke. Some theatres advertised the time when the main feature would begin, so people could time their arrival to the end of the documentary. So while lakhs of people saw the films daily, a visiting Canadian official noted in 1957, they saw them “passively, thus nullifying the very objectives behind their production and compulsory exhibition.”

However, it would be a mistake to treat the FD as a space of homogenous dullness, and Sutoris is at pains to introduce nuance in his description of the work and functioning of the organisation. He considers the FD a battleground of ideas and a platform for some of the most inventive filmmaking India has seen. In part, this was due to the kind of people who came to work at the organisation—often young, creative individuals who, while in sympathy with the goal of nation-building, sought at times to challenge the status quo. Moreover, besides filmmakers who had trained and worked abroad, he points out, during the late 1960s there was cross-fertilisation with artists who had worked in advertising and independent cinema. Within the constraints of the FD’s goals, the book notes, there was experimentation and enjoyment of the creative enterprise of filmmaking.

Such impulses reached their height between the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period the author calls the era of “transient outliers.” This is a time associated with the tenure of the charismatic Jehangir Bhownagary, who was invited by the then minister for information and broadcasting, Indira Gandhi, to revive the FD as the Chief Advisor (Films), from 1965 to 1967. (Bhownagary’s first tenure at FD was as Deputy Chief Producer, from 1954 to 1957.) A man of diverse talents, Bhownagary was himself an award-winning filmmaker and artist who straddled the West and India in his upbringing as well as his cultural resources. Under his charge, the FD saw a shift towards films that experimented with the cinematic form, and also hinted at criticism of state policies by allowing their subjects to talk back to filmmakers, and hence audiences. This section, as well as the portraits of “outliers” such as S Sukhdev, one of the most influential and iconoclastic filmmakers of his generation, make for absorbing reading. Sukhdev’s hour-long India ’67 is a remarkable work, stitched together from images of the independent country on its twentieth birthday. It has no commentary, and is laced with humour, realism and nuance.

A Fly in the Curry: Independent Documentary Film in India KP Jayasankar and Anjali Monteiro Sage India, 276 pages, T795

Bhownagary had also set up the animation unit of the FD in 1957, which went on to produce some of the organisation’s most experimental and enduring work. This included the films of Pramod Pati, who was trained in Prague and returned to head the unit in 1959. There, he produced films such as Explorer, in 1968, and Trip, in 1970. The former, a psychedelic mix of images and sound, had shots interspersed with frames spelling out the words “F*CK CENSORSHIP.” Incredibly, the FD released the film across India. Sutoris quotes Pati on its reception in the theatres, where it “shocked the average cinemagoer and in some cases drove a few out ... the Films Division even received a bill for furniture destroyed by the audience while viewing the film.”

Instances such as this add credence to Sutoris’s core argument, that while the FD represented a statist vision, the organisation’s output is also inhabited with greater variety and creative exploration than it gets credit for. Some of these experiments would go on to influence successive generations of filmmakers. The feminist filmmaker and writer Paromita Vohra, for instance, has written in a journal article about feeling a strong connection to the work of SNS Sastry, who made several films for the FD. “Though I had never seen Sastry’s work until more than half way into my working life, I would identify my work (and the work of some other filmmakers as well) as being part of that genealogy.” Sastry’s films not only subtly critiqued Nehruvian developmentalism, they went against the anonymity of FD productions. His I am Twenty, released 20 years after Independence, features interviews with Indians born in 1947—a set of diverse voices, including those of young people critical about India’s path of development. “As Paromita Vohra has noted,” Sutoris writes, “Sastry’s reconceptualisation of citizenship reflected his commitment to the concept of heterogeneity as an essential feature of being Indian: ‘Yes, I am Indian, but I am not Indian like [the government] thinks Indians are.’” Such inventiveness, sporadic though it may have been, is important to acknowledge.

Anand Patwardhan’s pioneering film Waves of Revolution follows the Gandhian socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan during his mass movement for what he called “total revolution.”

The FD produced work well into the 1980s, including some landmark films such as Mani Kaul’s experimental and lyrical Siddheshwari. But as Sutoris notes, the decline of the organisation can be traced to the Emergency, when it lost its credibility by being made subservient to the needs of Indira Gandhi’s government. In 1976, for instance, a four-hour-long documentary film, Indus Valley to Indira Gandhi, was commissioned, at the cost of several lakhs, to highlight her achievements.

There has been some interest recently in the mixed body of work that the FD produced over its long life. In 2012, the FD in Mumbai began a film club called FD Zone that screened archival films as well as contemporary work, which became a popular draw and was expanded to other cities. This question of the FD’s imprint on later films is one that Sutoris addresses through the book. Early on, he quotes the noted director Anand Patwardhan as remarking that while the FD exposed a huge audience to the documentary form, “Nothing that I saw of Films Division made me make films a certain way.” However, the writer argues, despite its apparent irrelevance, the legacy of FD documentaries is still worth evaluating. “Even if many contemporary directors may not be in direct conversation with the heritage of government filmmaking in India, the landscape they are navigating continues to be shaped by this legacy.”

A FLY IN THE CURRY  delves into the far more eclectic terrain of independent filmmakers working across varied themes and techniques. The authors state that their understanding of the term “independent” extends beyond questions of institutional support, to apply to films that “embody a critical vision” in the face of established narratives or power structures. They avoid chronology, and instead examine certain tropes within the movement, such as gender, power relationships between directors and their subjects, and links between films and social movements. The book moves across the range of issues that these films have taken up, the many voices they speak in as well as the challenges that define documentary practice in India. The title is a tribute to the idea that the documentarist is less a fly on the wall, or a neutral observer, and more a fly in the soup, or “an actor whose presence precipitates action.” The replacement of “soup” with “curry” is a hat tip to their Indian setting.

For the authors, the significance of the “new kind of ‘independent’ documentary” that emerged from the late 1970s onwards was linked to its ability to create social space for dissent. They explore this idea at length in an early chapter titled ‘Flying Solo.’ The pioneering work of directors such as Anand Patwardhan and Deepa Dhanraj, they write, “arose in the context of social movements; their films exposed and critiqued injustice ... and celebrated the resistance to it.” Patwardhan’s Waves of Revolution, which they refer to as perhaps the first “independent” production that emerged in this period, succeeded to a degree on both these fronts.

Shot clandestinely between 1974 and 1975, it was a document of the Gandhian socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan’s mass movement for what he called “total revolution.” Patwardhan worked with a borrowed camera, using outdated film stock, capturing footage of rallies and speeches. The film was completed in 1975 and was screened secretly during the Emergency. A print was cut up and smuggled abroad, where it was reassembled and circulated. From this early work on, Patwardhan has remained one of the most influential filmmakers working today.

The theme of feminist awakening is one the writers explore in some detail, partly through the work of the director Deepa Dhanraj. In FD films, Dhanraj says, “nobody spoke”—or if they did, it was in pre-scripted dialogues. “But I think the excitement of actually having a Devdasi woman speak on camera was almost enough for us.” Such comments are an insight into the value placed by directors on providing space for their subjects’ voices. One of the enjoyable aspects of reading the recollections of a key contemporary figure such as Dhanraj is that she can look back on her work critically. For instance, to capture the violation of women’s rights implicit in the state’s policy of forced sterilisations in the 1991 Something Like a War,

Dhanraj found herself in the difficult position of shooting in family-planning camps without the consent of her subjects. The authors quote her as talking about this “ethical dilemma.” “Because you are obviously adding to their discomfort ... They can’t just kick us out because we have come with these powerful guys, right?” Nevertheless, she decided to shoot the footage that she needed, given the importance of the film’s theme. “When Something Like a War was made, there was not a single feminist critique of the family-planning movement,” she says. Crucially, in the scenes located in the camp, the authors write, “the woman does not come across as a victim; she shouts at the end: ‘Get off me, you bastards!’”

The division of the book into thematic chapters allows the reader to delve into the material in a way that a chronological narrative may have hampered. It also helps the authors explore critical questions on documentary practice, such as whether these films have any significant impact. This is a question that often comes up when talking of documentaries: what did they achieve? If your film doesn’t cause change or create transformation, has it failed? It is a concern that perhaps comes out of the FD legacy of filmmaking, with its didactic approach and emphasis on documentaries as social instruction. Monteiro and Jayasankar connect this with the power equations embedded in post-Emergency independent films, which tended to be made by middle-class individuals trying to address specific social “issues.” the individuality of protagonists over their identity as victims.

An important thread in the book is the deepening of form and the growing diversity of voices evident through the 1990s. In part, this was linked to shifts in technology, and in part to the increasingly varied approaches of the filmmakers themselves. The authors explore this in a chapter titled ‘Flying into the Looking Glass,’ which is perhaps the most enjoyable part of of the book. They begin with Eyes of Stone, the 1990 film by Nilita Vachani, a pathbreaking work on spirit possession and exorcism as a means of resistance among women. Through the story of Shanta, who comes to the temple of Bhankya Mata in Rajasthan, Vachani creates a layered portrait of how one woman finds unusual ways to exercise her agency.

While Vachani’s feminist outing was ahead of its time, the interest in foregrounding marginalised narratives has only grown since then—with the 2012 Nirnay being a more recent example. The film emerged as a collaboration between the director Anupama Srinivasan and her assistant Pushpa Rawat, when the latter decided to make a film about her own life. In Nirnay, Rawat turns the camera on her family and female friends, their desires and dreams, and in particular their powerlessness in taking the big decisions of their lives. She interrogates the arranged marriages of her friends, own love match to a neighbour called Sunil. But eventually, even her own romance does not work out as she had anticipated—the two families disapprove of the match due to a difference in caste—and Sunil marries a girl chosen by his family. The authors quote Srinivasan on Rawat’s approach to the film. “Pushpa was very keen that the film should be something that everyone can watch. Not a boring documentary.” The sentiment is illuminating of how far the process of making films has moved—from being a tool controlled by the elite to a means of self-realisation for a young woman director.

While highlighting the vibrancy of independent filmmaking, the authors also take note of its low moments and challenges. In particular, they refer to the difficult question of funding and how it affects the independence of filmmakers. “The 1990s witnessed a tremendous spurt in NGOs and multilateral aid agencies supporting media production around issues such as HIV/AIDS, gender, local self-governance ... among others.” Many of the resulting productions, they argue, tended to be top-down and cliched, serving as vehicles for set positions. The director Saba Dewan refers to this phenomenon as “the NGO-isation of all documentary and also feminist documentary.”

The book also gamely enters into the debate on how images travel across international borders. They quote the director Ruchir Joshi on his moment of epiphany when, after the screening of his 1993 film Tales from the Planet Kolkata at a film festival in Germany, a German film critic attacked his work for being too obscure and layered with specific cultural references. In response, Joshi found himself “incandescent with rage,” recalling all the time he had spent labouring over subtle clues in the work of European directors. The rules for South-to-North exchange of images, he realised, are caught in the trap of cultural racism.

The book takes note of the fact that documentary practice is growing in unexpected directions. A case in point is the work of Amar Kanwar, who has both enriched and moved beyond the role of the filmmaker, channelling various crises and voices through objects, video footage and text. The authors also refer to developments such as the Public Access Digital Media Archive, or, which are extending the way in which documentaries are viewed. provides users access to video footage that they can annotate, combine and watch in different ways. At the same time, there is growth in the number of screenings through non-broadcast networks and rare commercial releases of documentaries such asFaiza Khan’s Supermen of Malegaon, in 2008, and Fahad Mustafa and Deepti Kakkar’s Powerless (also released as Katiyabaaz),in 2014,which signal a different relationship with the market. Documentary production stands at the cusp of a range of practices, “from community video and web archives to digital video art.” This has created a space for reimagination and change as documentaries address this new media environment, the authors note.

This sense of writing and thinking about documentaries. Visions of Development is a scholarly work that is made accessible by its descriptive style and anecdotes. A Fly in the Curry, which is an academic text in tone, is also rich in detail and description, but lacks the enthusiastic informality that would make it appeal to an uninformed but interested reader.

Anand Patwardhan’s pioneering film Waves of Revolution follows the Gandhian socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan during his mass movement for what he called “total revolution.”

From A Fly in the Curry in particular, it seems apparent that alongside the proliferation of non-fiction films—from YouTube diaries to corporate-funded videos—independent documentaries continue to be relevant. In fact, they are at the heart of many different kinds of social churning. The scene is one of fluidity and innovation, as it has been for decades. The writing will have to keep up.