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Mainstream, VOL LX No 3, New Delhi, January 8, 2022

Lights! Camera! Action! Cut | Sagari Chhabra

Friday 7 January 2022, by Sagari Chhabra

Unesco recently declared Kolkata’s Durga puja to be an intangible heritage of humanity; something to be cherished, celebrated and preserved forever. However, at the same time we have received the news of the closure of the Films Division, National Film Archive and the Children’s Films’ Society of India – as we know them - and their possible amalgamation into the NFDC – National Films Development Corporation. This news has been received as a shot of horror by the film-makers’ community and the larger community of lovers of cinema and over 1500 filmmakers and artists have signed a letter of protest.

Documentary filmmaker, Anand Patwardhan whose seminal work has won numerous national and international awards says, ‘this is a continuing attack on the freedom of expression.’ He adds, ‘this centralizing mission is an attack on our film archives and their agenda is to erase and rewrite history.’ He cites the example of the movement of precious artefacts from the National Museum and the National Archives as part of the Central Vista project. Needless to say, the film-makers have not been consulted nor have any of the stakeholders of the film community. The Bimal Julka report been not made public despite a Right to Information query.

While the National Film Archives, Films Division and Children’s Films Society all fall under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and are not autonomous, each of them serves a special purpose. The National Film Archive was set up in 1968 by P.K Nair, a soft-spoken gentleman and film scholar who was my first teacher of cinema as I attended the Film and Television Institute’s film appreciation course set up him while I was still in college. He shared how he had painstakingly sourced ‘Tukaram’ and our earliest films by Prabhat Talkies and now FTII is housed in what used to be the Prabhat Studios. India which makes the largest number of films in the world never had an archive and it was Nair who saved our film heritage from extinction. Every film selected by the Indian Panorama – India’s official selection of the best films made that year – are housed in the National Film Archives at Pune. The NFAI is a treasure house and now has over several thousand films.

The Films Division created in 1948 provides a cinematic record of Indian history: the surviving footage of the freedom struggle – four women going down a road in burkhas shouting slogans of Quit India, the Union Jack going down and India’s tri-colour being hoisted, the funeral procession of Mahatma Gandhi – can any monetary value be placed on the invaluable audio-visual treasure of India? In independent India as well, if you want to see the refugees trickling out of Bangladesh into Tripura and the 1971 war leading to the creation of Bangladesh you will have to go to the Films Division which has head-quarters in Mumbai and branches in Kolkata, Delhi, Chennai and Bengaluru. The Films Division also hosts the Mumbai International Documentary, Short and Animation Film festival which is a valuable festival where many filmmakers have the privilege of screening their films and seeing the cinema of filmmakers from across the world. The Films Division also recently opened a Museum of Cinema which was inaugurated by the Prime-minister in 2019.

The Children’s Films Society has had a special niche in creating films for children, that are fun and are full of meaning. It has been headed earlier by Sai Paranjape and later Nandita Das a sterling actor-director. The Directorate of Film Festivals organizes the International Film Festival and the national awards function which award the Rajat Kamal. In other words, each film body has its own unique, indeed special cultural function while a lot can be said about improving their performance but this cannot be done by centralizing them which is the bane of creativity.

While the film industry has been overtaken by the glamour of Bollywood that thrives on commercial success, the most meaningful, lasting work of social and historical value has been done by documentary filmmakers who work on shoe-string budgets but have a deep passion for social change. They are the overlooked by the powers that be for they work outside the ambit of commercial success yet document living history. Their work is invaluable as they have created some of the most outstanding films of the world dealing with people and real-life situations; women, dalits and minorities experience discrimination and yet the struggle for equality continues. While the critical edge has been provided by independent filmmakers only some of their outstanding work has been housed in the National Film Archives.

The closure or even merger of these institutions will destroy their unique identity besides as a filmmaker pointed out, ‘NFDC makes losses and is not run by film professionals’. My small brush with NFDC was when I went there to do a telecine transfer for my film. The telecine equipment just would ‘not work’ and I was asked to go to a private setup in Bombay. I fortunately called Zarine Gupta a social worker and the lovely wife of the managing director, Ravi Gupta who asked me to wait till her husband returned from a meeting. A call from Ravi Gupta who said he wanted the telecine to work in ‘no uncertain terms’ got the machine instantaneously moving.

Films are an expensive, complex cultural medium and every branch: scriptwriting, shooting, postproduction is a specialized process in which an entire team deals with the different organisations involved. Documentaries cannot be equated with fiction films and commercial companies cannot do archiving. It requires passion honed with professionalism and funds. Cinema requires a kaleidoscope of contributions which can come from the state – this includes the central and state governments - corporations and individuals some of who would like to bequeath their films as well.

Centralisation will be the death of cinema; what the film bodies need is autonomy along with specialized care.

As Raj Kapoor sang in the film, Awara:

‘ Ai bhai!
Zaraa dekh ke chalo
Aage bhee nahin
Peeche bhee;
Baaye bhi nahin daaye bhi,
Oopur hee nahin
Neeche bhee.
Ai Bhai!’

O brother!
Look a little and walk,
Not only ahead
Behind as well;
Not only left but right as well,
Not only upwards,
Down as well,
O brother!’

Meanwhile the struggle for freedom goes on against the closure and merger of these film bodies for it will only result in destroying the available institutions. This stranglehold will throttle the voice of the people; what is at stake here is the freedom of expression and our own heritage. If this goes through the spirit of democracy gets another slash.

(Author: Sagari Chhabra - is an award-winning author & filmmaker. Her film, ‘Tatva’ was awarded a Rajat Kamal and Indian Panorama selection in 1995. She is the director of the ‘Hamaara Itihaas’ archives.)

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