The story of the growth of documentary films in India began with the establishment of Films Division (FD), essentially the government’s propaganda wing, under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, in 1948. Over 70 years, the organisation emerged as the biggest producer of documentary and short films in the country, and —with around 8,000 films and news reels in its archives—a repository of the history of post-Independent India captured through moving images. With the state relentlessly pushing its productions and showing them at movie theatres before the screening of films, Films Division remained an integral part of the nation’s cinema-going experience for more than 50 years and provided a platform for Indian documentary filmmakers. The recent merger of the Films Division, the Children’s Film Society India, the National Film Archive of India, and the Directorate of Film Festivals, with the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), marked the end of Films Division’s long and illustrious era of documentary film production at a time when the organisation has been sinking into a morass of inactivity and unproductiveness, though it was still coming out with the occasional gem.
Films Division’s origin can be traced to 1940, when the Imperial Department of Information in Delhi set up the Film Advisory Board (FAB), and the British documentary filmmaker Alexander Shaw was brought over to oversee British government propaganda films as the Second World War raged on. Shaw introduced what is now known as the Griersonian genre of documentary film, after the pioneering Scottish documentary filmmaker John Grierson. It was also the main influence for the early state-controlled documentaries made soon after Independence. When the FAB was being conceptualised, the hope was that the Indian film industry would put its weight behind the project. Though initially some production houses like the Wadia Movietone in Bombay, and V. Shantaram’s Prabhat Film Company welcomed the move, for the most part, the Indian film industry was apathetic to it. Practically all the FAB films were war propaganda documentaries like India’s War Efforts, Seamen of India, Cavalry of the Clouds, Defenders of India and others. Two years after coming into being, FAB was replaced by the Information Films of India, the Army Film Centre, and the Indian News Parade. These new bodies did not depart from FAB’s tradition of making war propaganda films.
The government’s dreams and ideals
Films Division held on to the idea that documentaries and short films could continue to be used for propaganda purposes—to encourage a country’s people in the direction of growth and development. The documentaries, the Indian news reviews and reels began to focus on the freedom movement as well as massive infrastructure projects, heavy industries, employment generation, education, and building of dams. All the ideals and dreams of the government found reflection in the films that Films Division produced. Among the early post-Independence documentaries were Made from Mica (1950); Basic Education (1950) by Jagat Murari; My Lady Nicotine (1950) about the tobacco industry and its contribution to the country’s exchequer; and Story of Steel (1951).
Some researchers have pointed out that a study of Films Division’s films, particularly in the first two decades after Independence, can reveal the shift in priorities and vision of the government. Examining the field of education, the anthropologist Peter Sutoris, in his essay titled Elitism and its challengers: Educational development ideology in postcolonial India through the prism of film, 1950-1970, wrote that while India’s reliance on the “quintessentially colonial education model” can be seen in many Films Division documentaries in the early 1950s, “films produced in the late 1950s and early 1960s point to a more varied ideological terrain navigated by the ruling elites. The instrumental vision of education that dominated the films reflected the state’s ideological commitment to use education as a tool for economic development rather than to achieve social justice. Elites were to be educated differently from the masses to ensure that education did not interfere with passing on privilege from generation to generation. Yet this vision was not hegemonic in postcolonial India, as demonstrated by documentaries that espoused a vision of education as a means to achieve social justice and a way for children to discover their own unique potential.”
Documentary makers were also constantly pushing the boundaries of creativity and experimenting with new forms and narratives. Directors like S. Sukhdev, S.N.S. Sastry, P. V. Pathy (whose pioneering ethnographic mode of filmmaking had a direct impact on Films Division’s historical films), and Arun Chaudhuri, whose works were produced by Films Division, were taking Indian documentary filmmaking to its next level of evolution.
The visionary leadership of Jehangir Bhownagary, the unsung doyen of Indian documentary film production, saw Films Division shake loose from the claustrophobic confines of state stricture. During his tenure as Chief Adviser (Films) to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (1965-67), Bhownagary allowed experimentation and gave greater creative license to directors. As a result, propaganda material had to also provide space for constructive criticism and aesthetic presentation. The result was groundbreaking films like Sastry’s And I Make Short Films (1968), Pramod Pati’s Abid (1972), Sukhdev’s Nine Months to Freedom: The Story of Bangladesh (1975), and Mani Kaul’s Siddheshwari (1989).
In subtle artistic ways, these new documentary filmmakers strained at the invisible shackles of propaganda to strive for greater creative liberty and honesty. Sukhdev in AnIndian Day (1967) brought to the screen not just the country’s march of progress, but also the negative aspects that the government would prefer to gloss over. In The Capture of Haji Pir Pass (1968), Sastry showed the selfless courage of jawans in capturing the pass and also the living conditions of the liberated people of the area. Sastry’s The Burning Sun (1973) depicted the inhuman living conditions in Mumbai’s (then Bombay) slums, and the slum dwellers’ angry reactions to the “Garibi Hatao” slogan. While the film did provide the government’s official version of dealing with the problem, it very effectively exposed the hypocrisy of politicians.
- The story of India’s growth of documentary films began with the establishment of Films Division, essentially the government’s propaganda wing, under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, in 1948.
- Researchers said a study of Films Division’s films, particularly in the first two decades after Independence, can reveal the shift in priorities and vision of the government.
- The visionary leadership of Jehangir Bhownagary saw FD shake loose from the claustrophobic confines of state stricture.
- From 1953 to 2020, FD documentaries have won innumerable national film awards.
Masters of Indian cinema
At the same time, Films Division was also producing documentaries made by masters of Indian cinema like Satyajit Ray (Rabindranath Tagore,1961; TheInner Eye, 1972), Ritwik Ghatak (Scientists of Tomorrow, 1967; There Flows Padma, The Mother River, 1971), Mrinal Sen (Moving Perspectives, 1967; An Article of Faith, 1969, in collaboration with Vijaya Sharma), Adoor Gopalakrishnan (Guru Chengannur, 1974; Past in Perspective, 1975; Krishnanattam, 1982), and Shyam Benegal (Indian Youth: An Exploration, 1968; Close to Nature, 1968; Tala and Rhythm—Mridangam, 1972).
Internationally acclaimed film director Goutam Ghose, who made Films Division documentaries Chains of Bondage (1977) and TheBird of Time (Sarojini Naidu) (1991), feels that even though the institution was conceived to preserve India’s heritage but used as a propaganda machine, great films were nevertheless produced. “Over the years, Films Division has produced so many wonderful documentaries,” he said. “It is a treasure house, the works of some of the most important documentary filmmakers of India.” Incidentally, Films Division is at present making a film on Ghose.
From 1953 to 2020, FD documentaries have won innumerable National Film Awards. Even with its slump in production, the institution bagged several national awards in the last 10 years, including for Rangbhoomi (2013, dir. Kamal Swaroop), Tender is the Sight (2014, dir. Torsha Banerjee), Elephants Do Remember (2019, dir. Swati Pandey, Viplove Rai Bhatia, Manohar Singh Bisht), and Charan-Atva: The Essence of Being a Nomad (2019, dir. Dinaz Kalwachwale). However, the number of national award-winning documentaries appears to have decreased since the 1980s.
Shift in priorities
Films Division began to lose its prominence from the early 1980s because of the Union government shifting its priority to the growth of television and Doordarshan. Eminent film scholar and writer Ashish Rajadhyaksha pointed out that it was also during this period that the country saw the rise of the independent documentary filmmaker, who did not really need state support. “When this shift started taking place, along with the expansion of television, Films Division started losing its relevance—mainly because the government seemed to have abandoned it,” Rajadhyaksha told Frontline. Matters worsened with the privatisation of television and the shift of technology from celluloid to digital. “After that, Films Division had no real role to play, and remained a repository and archive of an era... but still, Mani Kaul made a film like Siddheshwari in 1989, which won the National Award for Best Documentary that year,” said Rajadhyaksha. Though its recent merger with NFDC has elicited outrage from an influential section of people in the film industry, Rajadhyaksha, the author of the seminal Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, said, “Unlike a lot of my friends, I am neither horrified nor surprised.... Films Division had lost direction. The change may not be great, but the status quo was not great either.”
Ghose pointed out that the institution was important for its archives alone. “The newsreels were mostly shot with celluloid; and I have personally seen that, at least 10 years ago, the celluloid negatives were so well preserved in the Films Division archives,” said Ghose. “They are priceless audiovisual documentation of our history. On the other hand, I have seen the Doordarshan archives, and that was, unfortunately, not in good shape.” Films Division’s archives are invaluable to not just documentary filmmakers but also to those who are making feature films that require historical footage. Ghose recalled how useful newsreels were when he was making his first feature film. “When I made Maa Bhoomi (1979), I got some brilliant footage of the annexation of Hyderabad from Films Division, and also of the clashes that were taking place between the Telangana revolutionaries and with the Indian Army,” he said.
While it has been a little over six months since the merger and it is still too early to tell whether the Ministry made a wise decision, the prevalent state of confusion and uncertainty has prompted filmmakers and academics to voice concern over the future of Films Division’s archives and its method of functioning. “It is a very important organisation,” said Ghose. “While it is important for Films Division to work independently, I do not know how it is functioning under NFDC now.” Madhuja Mukherjee, filmmaker and film studies professor at Jadavpur University, hopes that the merger will further activate the archive to facilitate research. “It is not only the largest audiovisual archive of post-Independent India but it is also an integral part of the history of going to movies in India,” said Mukherjee. “For many years, the experience of viewing films in the cinema hall would be incomplete without Films Division newsreels.”