Film southasia

"Festival of southasian documentries"

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.

(Text by T. Bose for Himal Magazine)
T. Bose is presently Secretary General of the South Asia Forum for Human Rights, Kathmandu.

A Report on Film Southasia 1997

Himal magazine organised Film South Asia ´97 in Kathmandu from 25-28 October 1997. This was the first-ever festival of subcontinental documentaries, and an opportunity to showcase the high standard and variety that are available. There were strong entries sent in from all over, and a large number of producers and directors attended the festival. This gave the event a truly subcontinental flavour. The primary criteria for selection of films among the many entries was subject: they could be made by anyone (including non-South Asians), but they had to be about South Asia or South Asians. Beyond this, the selection panel went first by overall excellence, but also considered regional balance and thematic variety.

Altogether 135 films were submitted to Film South Asia ´97, and 55 were selected for exhibition. A rough categorisation of the films shows the following: there were 20 social commentaries, 10 ethnographic portrayals, nine about personalities, nine on environmental subjects, two historical, and five in other categories.

Divided by country, 36 films at FSA ´97 were from India, eight from Pakistan, four each from Bangladesh and Nepal, two from Sri Lanka and one from Thailand. Looking at the geographic rather than country-wise distribution, the 55 selections do seem to cover much of South Asia. This is illustrated by the map given above, in which the offerings at Film South Asia ´97 are placed according to their approximate location in the Subcontinent. (The distorted nature of the map itself is the result of an earlier exercise by the editors of Himal to ´see´ the countries of South Asia differently.)

The three-member jury (facing page) awarded the prize for the Best Film to The Spirit Does Not Come Anymore by Kathmandu´s Tshering Rhitar. Three entries were awarded the second-best film prize: Nusrat has left the building – but when? by Farjad Nabi from Lahore, Meals Ready by Surajit Sarkar and Vani Subramanian, New Delhi, and Father, Son and Holy War by Anand Patwardhan, Bombay. Muktir Gaan by Tareque and Catherine Masud from Dhaka earned a Special Mention.

Fifteen films from the festival have been selected to be part of Travelling Film South Asia, and they will trek around the Subcontinent and the world over the first half of 1998. The next Film South Asia Festival is slated for September 1999.

In the following pages, we describe some of the documentaries of FSA ´97, with the hope that they will indicate the range and depth that filmmakers have already achieved. In the years ahead, we look ahead to even ´more´ and ´better´ documentaries of South Asia.

Aan Poove (Male Flower), India, 1995
P. Balan (dir)

Seethalakshmi was born into an uprooted tribal family, now settled on the banks of the river Bharathapuzha in North Kerala, India. She lived with her parents and six sisters, who together eked out a meagre livelihood working as seasonal labourers in paddy fields or as casual labourers in the nearby tile factories. She grew up adhering to the traditionally well-defined roles of a girl-child in a society that gave prominence to male-children.

About three years back, Seethalakhsmi discovered a strange transformation she had been undergoing. Her sexuality was in an ambiguous flux, and she was slowly becoming a male child. Later the feminine self in her slowly vanished and she was “re-born” as a male child and renamed Sreedharan. With the transformed sexuality and gender relationship, he had a re-defined role in his family and society. He was freed from all feminine bondage, but had to take up the responsibilities of a male in the family. The film examines the socio-psychological advances that the society of Kerala has supposed to have made. The naked expressions of joy at the “birth” of a male child in a family explodes the myth of gender equality.

Ajit (The Unconquerable), India, 1996
Arvind Sinha (dir)

Ajit is an eight-year-old domestic in a Calcutta household. He is one of the nine children of Muneswar, a landless farmer in North Bihar. This film articulates the failure of the Indian system to provide the basics of life to a large majority of the Indian people.

At another level, the film takes up the issue of unrestrained consumerism in one section of the population in the wake of the so-called liberalisation and opening up of the economy. The marked growth of vulgarity in the name of entertainment in the media is a fallout of economic liberalisation. The film mirrors the influence of all this on impressionable minds, especially those of children.

The invasion through the skies with the advent of innumerable foreign television channels and the consequent social and cultural changes taking place in the country have been examined in the film.

Amrit Beeja (Eternal Seed), India, 1996
Meera Dewan (dir)

While international organisations hotly debate issues like farmer´s rights and conservation of bio-diversity and plant genetic resources, Indian farmers, who comprise one-fourth of the world´s farming community, are totally oblivious of it. These issues are raised in Amrit Beeja.

Rural women from Dharwad district of Karnataka set the theme and tone of the film, by conscientiously rejecting the Western model of modern farm technology. They try to prove the naturalness of age-old methods of cultivation and speak out in angry terms of the influx of multi-nationals, and of banks, which give loans only for fertilisers and artificial aids, but leave the poor farmer sometimes financially ruined. The film celebrates the scientific basis of women´s age-old knowledge, while using humour, poetry and music with text inspired by “Vrikshyayurveda”, the ancient Indian plant science.

Father, Son and Holy War, India 1995,
Anand Patwardhan (dir)

Father, Son and Holy War explores the possibility that the key to the psychology of communal violence against “the other” in India could lie in male insecurity, itself an inevitable product of the very construction of the notion of “manhood”.

The first part of the film “Trial by Fire” portrays personal battles of some brave individuals against the tide of fanaticism and the “purifying” fire rituals of the upper castes and the communal fires that raged in Bombay in 1993 after the demolition of Babri Masjid.

“Hero Pharmacy”, the second part, traces the development of “manhood” in the Indian psyche on both sides of the communal divide. Hindus have been brought up to believe Muslims are invaders who raped their women, destroyed their temples and practised forcible conversion. Today a section of the Hindus want revenge. But the Muslim minority, despite fears of genocide, are not about to take things lying down. The result is carnage.

Fate Worse than Tragedy Bangladesh, India and Nepal, 1996
Bjorn Vassnes (dir)

The film is about floods in Bangladesh, and different strategies used to cope with these. The main focus is on the Flood Action Plan, one of the biggest environmental experiments in history, which will affect the fate of about a hundred million people, who believe they need the floods because the floods give them everything they need: water, fertile soil, fish, etc.

At the same time, the film attempts to show that the flood problem cannot be solved without a regional approach. The big difficulty is that the rivers run through more countries than one. What happens in the Himalaya and northern India has consequences for the farmers and fishermen of Bangladesh. And the biggest problem for Bangladesh is not too much water, but too little, especially after India built the Farakka barrage.

Aur Woh Raks Karte Rahi (And She Dances on), Pakistan, 1996
Shireen Pasha (dir)

Distinct and individual in her art, Tehreema Mitha, a classical dancer in Pakistan, has been dancing professionally since 1991. Within a very short time, she has gained critical acclaim and recognition as one of the few serious choreographers and trained dancers in Pakistan.

Tehreema received training in the classical tradition of Bharat Natyam from her mother, Indu Mitha, and she has experimented with new techniques and developed a creative and contemporary style of her own. The film examines dance in a social context and spotlights Mitha´s dance, her constant struggle for excellence in her work and balance in everyday life.

Meals Ready, India, 1996
Surajit Sarkar & Vani Subramanian (dir)

“Meals Ready” – all across South India, these two words beckon the tired and hungry into eating places both small and large; inviting them to a multi-course meal that is centred around rice. The film explores the rice market in South India and uncovers the social and economic factors that influence the growing and selling of rice these days.

The film discovers that the unequal bargaining power of growers, financiers and buyers has a direct link with the divides of power and privilege that cut across rural Tamil society – be they the hierarchies of caste and gender, or politics and religion. Any market-led economic change that ignores these divisions only threatens to deepen the inequalities that exist in rural society.

Dry Days in Dobbagunta, India, 1995
Nupur Basu (dir)

One of the most powerful women´s agita-tions in India in recent years has been the struggle against liquor. Dry Days in Dobbagunta is about this struggle. It focuses on the agitation that began in Andhra Pradesh in 1991, and forced the state to declare prohibition in 1995. Rural women were the leaders, and the main participants in this movement. The film also looks at the women´s anti-liquor struggle in another southern state, Karnataka, and the extreme impoverishment of rural communities due to the increasing alcohol dependence of the men.

Sonamati (A Very Ordinary Gold) India, 1996,
Sehjo Singh (dir)

When the desert of Bikaner in Rajasthan becomes irrigated, barren tracts of land become prize properties. All traditional land holding deeds are cancelled and a new dispensation introduced. Unintelligible government notices determine villagers´ fates, families are realloted land and maps are redrawn. The trauma all this causes to the villagers is not of concern to the bureaucrats. Illiterate Sona Bai, with her knack of reading between the lines, becomes the natural leader of the women in fighting officialdom. With confidence she deals with the authorities. There are victories and setbacks but the fight does go on.

Marubhumi, India, 1995
Amar Kanwar (dir)

Marubhumi is the story about water in India´s desert-state of Rajasthan. It strings together glimpses of the history, politics and development of water harvesting in ancient and modern Jodhpur.

The story in the film is based on the narratives of two old men in their 70s, both residents of Jodhpur city – Liaquat Ali Khan, who was the Municipality Chairman of Jodhpur in 1964, and Y.D. Singh, who was Famine Inspector in 1964 and who retired as the Superintendent of Jodhpur Zoo. As the two old men travel through the water story of Jodhpur, there comes a point when they decide to even revitalise the traditional water harvesting system and demonstrate the wisdom of the desert folk.

The film includes rare archival footage of famine, relief work and migration in the 1920s in Rajasthan as well as archival footage filmed during the construction of the first British dam built in the Indian desert.

Muktir Gaan (Song of Freedom) Bangladesh, 1995
Tareque Masud & Catherine Masud (dir)

Twenty-five years in the making, this film began with the ambition of Lear Levin, an American filmmaker, to make an epic documentary in the tradition of Robert Flaherty on the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. Levin and his crew came across a troupe of travelling musicians, members of a larger cultural movement known as the Bangladesh Mukti Sangrami Shilpi Sangstha, who were traversing the zones of war singing songs of struggle to inspire the guerrilla cadres and the millions of refugees. Levin, who did not know any Bengali, followed this troupe and captured the spirit of the Bengali people through 20 hours of beautifully photographed footage. However, he became so caught up in filming that he returned to the US only just as the war was coming to an end. he was unable to get funds to complete the project and for 20 years, the footage lay in storage in his basement in New York.

In 1990, the directors tracked Levin in New York with the intention of making a film based on his footage. It took five years to complete the film, which supplements Levin´s footage with archival material on the major events of the war from around the world.

The Spirit Doesn´t Come Anymore, Nepal, 1997
Tsering Rhitar (dir)

The Tibetans´ belief of curing diseases by invoking certain spirits/protectors has been practised and socially accepted for over a millennium now. In the Tibetan tradition, this art is mostly inherited by the healer´s son – sometimes by a daughter, who hereditarily possesses this inborn channel which only needs to be opened to be initiated as a healer. This is how the tradition is

With a history of 13 generations of continuous spiritual healers in his family, 78-year-old Pao Wangchuk is frustrated that his son does not want to continue the lineage. Karma, like many youth of today, is given to drinking and the easy life, and can´t live up to the demands of being a spiritual healer. In the conflict between father and son, Pao constantly complains that Karma is wasting away his life, and is worried that the family lineage will die out. But Karma doesn´t care. He resents, and is frustrated by, his father´s constant complaining and mistrust.

Red Earth, India, 1995,
Rahul Roy (dir)

Neeraj, a young man from Varanasi, aspires to become a famous wrestler. Ratan Patodi, from Indore, publishes a monthly magazine on the art of Indian wrestling – a tradition he asserts is disappearing. Near New Delhi´s Jama Masjid, Khalifa Barkat is putting a group of young boys through the grind. He abuses, cajoles and pushes the young wrestlers as he introduces them to the art of wrestling.

How are these akharas organised? What kind of masculinity are they defining? How do the wrestlers look at themselves and at the male bonding they are a part of? Red Earth attempts to unravel the wrestling way of life – the physical and mental disciplining by which wrestlers become ´real men´.

Achin Pakhi (The Unknown Bard), Bangladesh, 1995,
Tanvir Mokammel (dir)

Lalon Fakir (?-1890) was a unique figure among the bauls of Bengal. Known to have lived for 115 years, Lalon´s lyrics have enchanted the people of Bangladesh and of West Bengal for generations. Bauls, the troubadours of Bengal, with their mystic songs and inimitable life style, have always been an object of curiosity. Baul songs, depicting asceticism and transience of life, also express the pathos and pangs of the downtrodden subaltern people. But even among the exotic bauls, Lalon´s position as a folk-philosopher and as a composer of songs, was unique. A hundred years after his death, Lalon still has immense popularity on both sides of Bengal and, in fact, his influence and popularity has been growing. But surprisingly, very little was actually known about Lalon´s life and much of it was shrouded in mystery. The film aims to find Lalon´s persona, his philosophy, and tries to explore the lyrical beauty of Lalon´s songs.