My Tryst with Documentary

My filmmaking career began almost three decades ago when I got an offer from S. Sukhdev, one of India´s leading documentary filmmakers, to assist him in the production of a film on the freedom struggle of Bangladesh. It was August 1971. The armies of General Yahya Khan were already rampaging through the cities and villages of what was then East Pakistan, killing and terrorising the civilian masses. Nearly eight million panic-stricken Bengalis had fled to the Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura. I left my job as a sub-editor at the United News of India and teamed up with Sukhdev. I have never looked back.   Making the film on Bangladesh´s freedom struggle was a unique experience. Sukhdev, an ethnic Punjabi Jat from India´s Punjab, was appalled by the mindless violence let loose on the Bengalis by the predominantly Punjabi army of West Pakistan. He blamed it on the macho culture and tradition of valorisation of violence in Punjabi folklore.

Sukhdev´s original idea was to make a film exposing the meaninglessness of violence. He was producing the film with his own money. Back then, no Indian documentary filmmaker made a film with his or her own money. Almost everyone worked for the Films Division of the Government of India or the publicity departments of the state governments.

Government Monopoly
The Films Division had the monopoly over distribution of documentary films in cinema halls all over the country. Sukhdev´s film was not sponsored by the Films Division and there was no guarantee that they would buy it after it was made. The Films Division in fact already had camera teams at the East Pakistan border and newsreels were being shown in the country and Indian embassies abroad. The television market was non-existent in the country, and we had no experience of the overseas market.

We were working with limited raw stock and 35mm equipment rented from a Bombay firm. Our work was hampered by the lack of money as well as by the heavy equipment that we were using for shooting. Whenever we ran out of film, Sukhdev used to rush to Bombay to appeal to the owners of Ramnord Laboratory for an additional loan of raw stock. He negotiated desperately for credit with equipment hire firms and borrowed money from loan sharks at the exorbitant rate of three percent per month to cover the cost of shooting.

Calcutta was then overcrowded with foreign TV crews with their ultra-light 16mm gear and deep pockets to hire vehicles and charter aircraft. Their "exposed" was flown to various destinations in Europe and the US daily. TV networks processed and printed the exposed films the same day and the "visuals" were presented to the "first world" public the very next day. Even India´s Doodarshan was buying footage from these networks. Evidently, there was a market for news footage of the war in East Pakistan.

Sukhdev tried to pre-sell the film to the External Publicity Division of the government. They were interested in a film that focused on the problems being faced by India because of the massive influx of refugees. Desperation drove Sukhdev to accept the offer. The External Publicity Division gave us some raw film and 50 thousand rupees. We agreed to show them a rough-cut by the end of October. The film was to precede Indira Gandhi´s visit to Europe to mobilise international opinion in favour of a possible military intervention. History was being made before us.

Labour of Love

We were convinced that the courage and determination of the Bengalis would ultimately triumph over the brute force of West Pakistan. In the eyes of the destitute Bengali refugees in the makeshift "Boira camp" on Khulna border, we saw the determination to make the ultimate sacrifice. The immortal lines of Rabindranath Tagore´s song, – O´aamar sonar bangla, aami tomai bhalobasi (Oh, my golden Bengal, I love you) – which rent the air of every refugee camp, sustained our faith as much it sustained the refugees themselves. We were innocent idealists, and we were committed to tell this story on film. Sukhdev was the filmmaker and I was his disciple.

It was clear that our film had to be different. We could not limit the film only to the refugee issue. Sukhdev said we must be honest about what we were seeing and what we felt. We decided that our film was going to tell the story of the Bengali people´s love for freedom – the love for their language, poetry, song and culture. When we admitted to the External Publicity Division that we were not going to make a film on the refugee issue, they got angry and refused to give us any more funds.

Our film, Nine Months to Freedom, was completed two months after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman´s return to Dhaka. By then, we had run out of money. Creditors were breathing down our neck. The External Publicity Division was threatening us with legal action. Everyone told us that we were too late. The birth of Bangladesh was already an old story. But we were not to be defeated. We believed that a film which told the story of a people´s indomitable urge for freedom and a people´s love for their culture was dealing with a universal theme and would appeal to the viewers all over the world.

Nine Months to Freedom was an hour-long documentary. It was shot in 35mm colour but it did not qualify for release as a "short before the main feature" in the regular shows in film theatres. We had a film and no scope for showing it to wider audiences. With Sukhdev´s encouragement, I took the unprecedented step of hiring a film theatre and released the film commercially. I borrowed money and rented the morning show slot of Delhi´s Shiela cinema for two weeks. The gamble paid off, and we filled almost 80 percent of the theatre´s seating capacity.

In Bombay, we released the film at Regal cinema where it ran for almost 12 weeks. However, our share of the gate money from the commercial release was too little to pull us out of the financial crisis we were in. But it was a tremendous triumph. The film was later invited to the Cannes, Moscow and Berlin film festivals. It was purchased by Japan´s NHK TV in 1993, and the money helped us pay off some of the creditors.

East Bengal to Khalistan
To survive, Sukhdev returned to making advertising films that sold soap and soup. It was a strange shift. With him, I too moved from uncompromising idealism to crass commercialism. These "quickies" as we called them were made and re-made until they satisfied the creative directors of the advertising agencies. The creative directors, in their turn, were controlled by the sales managers of the manufacturing companies. The product was god and the "pack-shot" the ultimate revelation of its glory. The only good part was that there was no shortage of money. But how long could you go on making one-minute commercials. We were desperate to make longer films. But the experience
of making Nine Months to Freedom deterred us from venturing into another independent film.

Finally, an opportunity arrived. It was June 1974. Railwaymen had given a call for an all-India strike in support of their demand for higher wages. Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister, I.K. Gujral her Minister for Information and Broadcasting. He called Sukhdev and offered him money to make a series of documentaries which would explain why the railwaymen´s strike was bad for the country.

These were to be ´independent´ films made under the banner of United Film Arts, the company owned by Sukhdev. Sukhdev agreed to make the films as proposed. He felt convinced by Gujral´s argument that the strike would destroy the fragile economy of the country and bring enormous hardship to the ordinary people. But I was not convinced. It was clear that there would be nothing ´independent´ in this enterprise. The films would propagate the government´s point of view and paint the workers as villains without giving them a chance to explain their position. Time had come for a parting of ways and I left Sukhdev, the person who had taught me everything I knew about filmmaking.

Seven years later, in 1981, in collaboration with Suhasini Mulay, I made An Indian Story on the blinding of undertrial prisoners in Bihar´s Bhagalpur district. The film exposed the nexus between the landlords, the police, the politicians and the bureaucrats. It was banned by the Film Censor Board. I challenged the ban in Bombay High Court and got the order quashed.

But unlike Nine Months To Freedom, this film was not released in any theatre in India for the simple reason that no theatre owner was ready to show it. It was seen by only a limited number of viewers, the film society circuit and other interested groups. However, An Indian Story was shown in many international film festivals, and won some awards and acclaim. And commercially it was a greater success, since it was purchased by several television stations overseas. But India´s own Doordarshan never showed it, though the film was given the National Award for best documentary of the year 1982.

In 1985, Suhasini and I made a film on the Bhopal gas tragedy. The film Beyond Genocide was again banned by the Film Censor Board. Back to Bombay High Court we went and got the ban lifted. It seemed that this 80-minute long film might meet the same fate as that of An Indian Story, but we were determined that it should be shown in the country on the national network of Doodarshan. When our offer was turned down by Doordarshan, we challenged the refusal in Delhi High Court. After two years, the court finally ordered Doordarshan to show this film and it was finally shown on the fourth anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, at 10:30 in the night.

In 1987, we started making a film on the Khalistan movement. The film was completed in 1989 and we called it From Behind the Barricade. The Film Censor Board wanted us to remove all visuals of the damage wrecked on the Golden Temple by the Indian army action. The Board´s contention was that the film would undermine the nation´s integrity and arouse communal passions. We appealed to the High Court of Delhi. It has been almost ten years and the appeal is still pending.

Constricted Space

In my experience, the space has shrunk for independent films which deal with so-called controversial issues of personal freedom, group rights and focus on the injustice perpetrated in the name of the nation by the majority against the minority. Thanks to globalisation and the proliferation of satellite TV channels, more money has become available to filmmakers to make documentary films. But the question remains, in a world where the television channels are ultimately controlled by the advertising agencies, what space is available for films which really question the dominant value system.

In 1992, I walked away from a contract with Britain´s Channel 4 because I disagreed with the Commissioning Editor´s demand that my film on the adivasis (indigenous people) of Jharkhand should stick to only the religious and cultural aspects of their life. After Jharkhand, which I managed to complete in 1993, without the support of Channel 4, I have virtually stopped making films.

But there is still my film on Kashmir to be made.

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Himal Southasian