Monday, April 7, 2014

Out of focus: The slacker figure in Hindi cinema

An old piece I wrote for GQ and forgot to post.  

“We’re looking for a narrative…a focus…a direction” says an old producer in the first scene of Dev Benegal’s English, August. Narrative, focus, direction: three words that are anathema to what this 1994 film and its protagonist represent. English, August is a rare film that belongs unreservedly to a genre that’s never really taken root in India – the slacker film. That’s hardly surprising. The slacker film says that having no plan is okay; but in India, everyone from God to the tea-seller on the corner has a plan. The slacker film says it’s alright to drift in life; for the majority of Indian parents, drift equals death.

If one looks down the decades, it makes perfect sense why Indian cinema has so few slackers. The cinema of the ‘20s and ‘30s relied heavily on historical and mythological sources, not the kind of material that lends itself to inaction. In the ‘40s, there was a freedom struggle to complete and partition to endure. Slacking wasn’t just a non-option in those days, it was anti-national. The same went for the ‘50s, a time of nation-building and Nehruvian Socialism. That decade is now considered the golden age of Indian cinema, with directors like Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor and Mrinal Sen doing some of their best work, but it yielded few cinematic slackers.

Shammi Kapoor would have been a good candidate for Hindi cinema’s first slacker were it not for his tremendous energy (no true slacker is this kinetic). Other ‘60s stars also rule themselves out on various counts. Dilip Kumar is too earnest to qualify, and Rajesh Khanna put an unacceptable amount of effort into his onscreen wooing. Dev Anand, meanwhile, always seemed to be holding down a job; just look at the titles of his movies – Guide, Jewel Thief, C.I.D.

Come the ‘70s, it was angry young man time. While not every character Amitabh Bachchan played was gainfully employed, they were all men with a mission, decidedly un-slack. Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s blissful comedies yielded a few slackers, though they usually spent the second half embroiled in some complex subterfuge involving the heroine’s dad which required them to be resourceful. On then to the ‘80s, and India’s first real slacker film.

From the very first shot tracing a cigarette’s journey from makeshift coconut ashtray to being passed between three hands (and a foot), 1983’s Chashme Buddoor is delightfully unpurposeful. Farooque Shaikh, Ravi Baswani and Rakesh Bedi are three Delhi University students on holiday, both from college and that terrible Indian affliction – a sense of responsibility. The trio spend their time smoking, chasing girls, roaming around on uncooperative two-wheelers, and smoking some more. The film doesn’t appear to cover more than a few months in their lives, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it returned five years later to find them doing the same thing. That’s the essence of slackerdom: lives without upward mobility or downward spiral, in a state of perpetual drift.

Two and a half decades later, Ayan Mukerji’s Wake Up Sid celebrated – and slyly deflated – this idea of drift. Ranbir Kapoor played Sid, a rich scion who’s content to watch the clouds roll by. So far, so drifty, except then he argues with his dad, who throws him out of the house. Sid moves in with Konkona Sen Sharma’s self-sufficient journalist, but continues to potter around. Kapoor’s gentle performance separates Sid from the kind of rich, brash loafers Shah Rukh Khan used to play in the ‘90s. He’s just a man without a plan, and though he eventually finds a job as a photographer, the movie makes it clear that his slackitude was a character trait, not just the lethargy of the privileged.

In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones usually surfaces as a trivia question (What was Shah Rukh’s first onscreen appearance? What 1989 film did Arundhati Roy write and star in?) What isn’t acknowledged – perhaps on account of it never having released in theatres or on DVD – is that this is one of the most acute, true-to-life films ever made about young people in India. It’s certainly the best Indian film about slackers. Radha, Annie, Kosozi, Mankind, Paapey may be in their final year at the Delhi School of Architechture, their theses may be woefully incomplete, yet no one seems to care. The movie goes by in a rooster-chasing, ping-pong-playing haze. Even the climactic gesture of rebellion by Radha – who makes her final presentation in a sari and a hat – is offhand, a futile protest in a losing game. In a movie whose soundtrack consists of instrumental versions of Beatles songs, these are kids who’ve taken John Lennon’s advice in “Revolution” to heart: they won’t do anything concrete, but they know it’s gonna be alright. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Jal: Review

Just before Jal got underway, a blurb from a Hollywood Reporter review flashed onscreen. “A breathtakingly photographed tragedy of Shakespearean proportions,” it read. This is hyperbole of Shakespearean proportions, but over the next two hours, our thoughts did turn to the Bard – specifically to slings and arrows, mentally aimed at screenwriter Rakesh Mishra, and to the quality of mercy, dropping like the gentle rain on co-writer and director Girish Malik.

That Jal is overheated is no surprise: it’s set in the salt-encrusted desert of the Rann of Kutch. Naturally, water is an immensely valuable commodity here – something the film never fails to remind us of every five minutes. It’s so valuable, in fact, that you can make a living, as Jal’s protagonist Bakka (Purab Kohli) does, as a water-diviner. Bakka’s success rate is middling: a result, perhaps, of his rather hopeful modus operandi; he twirls a couple of rods, puts his ear to the ground and spends the next couple of days digging and reassuring sceptical villagers.

Water divining is an actual profession in desert regions of India, and Jal might have done well to explore the trade in some depth. Instead, the film wanders off into a strange parallel plot involving a Russian ornithologist, Kim (Saidah Jules), who’s trying to save the migratory flamingo population, dying due to the brackish water. She enlists Bakka, who successfully points the giant drills she’s hired to the right areas and earns the goodwill of his temperamental but water-starved village. But his moment in the sun is short-lived: Bakka’s in love with a girl from an enemy village, and if Ram-Leela taught us anything, it’s that residents of Kutch take their Romeo and Juliet posturing seriously. Soon, there’s a murder, a pregnancy, a sandstorm, an excommunication, a near-rape and an actual rape.

In recent interviews, Malik has insisted that Jal isn’t an art film. He’s right about that. From the title down, the film goes out of its way to be literal. Twelve songs on the soundtrack reference water or the lack of it; one particular piece of background music goes “jal jal jal jal jal jal”. There’s hardly a single important piece of information that isn’t tossed back and forth between characters and verbalised in different ways, so that the audience isn’t left in the dark. Perfectly simple bits of information are further simplified (my favourite: “We’ve located two spots. This is spot one and this is spot two.”) And everything is blown out of proportion – Kim can’t just be a visiting conservationist, she has to have gone to “some of the best colleges in Europe”. Similarly, the village males can’t see her as another pretty white-skinned girl; they have to imagine she’s there to shoot a blue film.

Purab Kohli, in a rare lead role, tries hard to match the film’s conception of Bakka as a randy, preternaturally confident water god. Casting the good-natured Kohli as a virile charmer is a bold move, but he’s too easy-going an actor to get the audience worked up. (It might have been interesting if he’d dropped hints that Bakka is making it up as he goes along, like Shreyas Talpade did in Dor.) Kirti Kulhari brings some fire to her Juliet role, but has little to do in the second half besides look to her lover for solutions. Saidah Jules gets all the worst lines – “Take care of my birds, they’re like babies” are her last words – though it’s debatable whether better writing would have helped her performance.

As Ram-Leela and The Good Road have recently shown, there are few landscapes in this country as photogenic as the Kutch desert. Cinematographer Sunita Radia goes somewhat overboard – zooming over salt deposits, panning around camels – but at least we’re given something pretty to look at as the storyline becomes progressively sillier. Malik deserves some points for ambition (this is his directorial debut), but there’s no denying that Jal takes an interesting premise and runs it comprehensively into the ground. After about an hour, we were begging for closure, but the shadow of an ending we saw was only a mirage.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Pacific Rim: DVD Review

Usually, DVDs made for the Indian market are woefully short on extras. Instead of any special features worth the name, there’s often just a theatrical trailer or a gag reel, which is worse than nothing at all. It gives us great pleasure, therefore, to inform you that not only is the two-disc edition of Pacific Rim filled to the brim with extras, but that these features are genuinely illuminating.

At some point in the not-so-distant future, an alien race called the kaiju begun their assault upon earth. The best defense we could come up with, of course, was to create giant robots called jaegers, controlled by two pilots who synch their consciousnesses within the body of the machine. There’s a little suspension of disbelief required, obviously, but for this reviewer at least, last year’s Pacific Rim was a great throwback to the early days of cable in India and long afternoons of watching anime monsters and robots very similar to the ones in Guillermo Del Toro’s film. There’s a moment when Rinko Kikuchi’s pilot shouts “For my family!” at the height of one battle, and it’s cheesy beyond belief, but also thrilling in the way those throwaway TV serials used to be.

Del Toro is well-schooled in both the kaiju and mecha traditions of Japanese filmmaking. His audio commentary goes into great detail about the taxonomy and cultural kinks of kaiju (a tradition that includes Godzilla) and historical antecedents of mecha. And that’s only a fraction of what he covers in his commentary: he also finds time to discuss why Pacific Rim is full of sports movie clichés, why he used the language of the western rather than the war film, and how he and his team created the outsize special effects. There’s plenty there for the trivia hunter:  Del Toro mentions how his friends Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) and Alejandro Iñárritu (Biutiful) weighed in with suggestions, and why Rian Johnson (The Brothers Bloom) deserves credit for the film’s ending.

The commentary alone is worth the price tag, but there’s a solid set of bonus features on disc two as well. Thirteen “Focus Points” – short making-of featurettes with charmingly geeky names like “Goth Tech” and “Honoring the Kaiju Tradition” – take up roughly an hour. Then there are artist sketches for the jaegers and the kaijus, deleted scenes, a look at the digital effects process and the obligatory blooper reel. Del Toro takes centrestage for most of the extras, though we also hear from the actors (among them Idris Elba and Charlie Hunnam) and technicians (who mostly talk about the challenge of living up to their director’s genuinely enthusiastic but outsize demands).

This review appeared in Time Out.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Ankhon Dekhi: Review

An intertitle at the end informs us that Ankhon Dekhi is dedicated to Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul. This makes sense – not only because Rajat Kapoor assisted these directors early in his career, but also because his latest feature is a fair idea of what a Shahani or Kaul film might look like if they were at all fun to watch. This is not to belittle the achievements of these two great, serious directors. It’s just that it’s a brave soul who reaches for Satah Se Uthata Aadmi instead of Chupke Chupke at the end of the day. Ankhon Dekhi is satisfying on both levels – it has the look and feel of an art film, with its meticulous framing and philosophical digressions, but none of the intellectual distance of one.

Kapoor, who’s written and directed the film, plays Rishi, the younger brother in a lower middle class Old Delhi joint family. Normally, Rishi –upwardly mobile, looking to break with tradition and family – would be the natural dramatic centre, but this film is more interested in his mild-mannered elder brother Bauji (Sanjay Mishra), who decides one day that he’s no longer going to believe anything he can’t see with his own eyes. This leads to his quitting his job, causing a minor sensation in the neighbourhood, and driving his long-suffering wife round the bend.

What looks like a pretext for a few easy laughs evolves into something more profound. Bauji isn’t really trying to be difficult or impress anyone; he’s simply attempting to rearrange his world until it assumes a shape he can understand. He’s ridiculed initially and is unmoved; later, he gains a flock, and remains unimpressed. Like Yossarian sitting naked in a tree in Catch-22, or Bob Dylan circa ’66 confusing a gaggle of pressmen by interviewing them, this is Bauji’s way of countering a world gone crazy.

Even as Bauji makes his stand, everyday life – report cards and illnesses, domestic squabbles and weddings – continues unabated. It’s the specificity of this clutter that sets Ankhon Dekhi apart from other smartly written films that follow the mainline of a story and keep everything else as background decoration. Kapoor keeps everyone and everything in focus. Every person who wanders in front of the camera is worthy of interest: not just Bauji and Rishi and their families, but a series of minor characters ranging from the priest’s gossipy son to a math teacher who has a crisis of faith. The level of detail owes as much to the writing as it does to the sound recording (Resul Pookutty, Amrit Pritam Dutta), with multiple voices overlapping and talking at cross-purposes like in an Altman film. And cinematographer Rafey Mehmood works wonders, creating the illusion of depth in crowded, cramped spaces.

While it might hamper the film’s chances at the box office, the absence of known faces goes some way towards establishing the ordinariness of the characters. Just how distracting better-known actors would have been in these surroundings is underlined by a Ranvir Shorey cameo. The audience, aware of his long-standing association with Kapoor, laughed as soon as he appeared onscreen and the spell was momentarily broken. Luckily, the cameos are few and brief, and we’re mostly carried along by a lively, if unknown, cast. They mesh so well together that it seems unfair to single anyone out; even Mishra treats his rare lead role with the modesty of a supporting player.

In the past, Kapoor has directed films that were mildly amusing, and one – the 2008 black comedy Mithya – which was strange, searching and almost great. Ankhon Dekhi is unquestionably great, but don’t take our word for it. See it, as Bauji would insist, with your own eyes.

This review appeared in Time Out.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Queen: Review

We’re only two-and-a-half months into the new year, but there’s already a neat little narrative forming around the unusual prominence of strong female characters in Hindi films in 2014. It started with Madhuri Dixit and Huma Qureshi in Dedh Ishqiya, puppet masters disguised as damsels in distress. This was followed by the kooky, off-kilter pill popper played by Parineeti Chopra in Hasee Toh Phasee and Alia Bhatt’s damaged kidnapping victim in Highway. Compared to these characters, with their unexpected quirks and shadings, Rani, the protagonist of Queen, is a more conventional figure. All credit to Kangana Ranaut, then, who builds her from the ground up and makes her so appealing that the audience doesn’t mind playing cheerleader in what is clearly going to end up a redemption story.

Before redemption cometh the fall, which arrives in the form of Rani’s fiancée, Vijay (Rajkummar Rao), backing out two days before their wedding. Shy, under-confident Rani is devastated, but when she recovers slightly, she realises their honeymoon tickets to Europe are still valid, and that she may as well go for her first trip abroad. You know what they say: Paris when it fizzles.

If you’ve ever watched anything that falls roughly within the jilted-woman-goes-on-a-vacation genre, you’ll be able to map out the broad trajectory of Queen. Rani must get her groove back – or realise that she had one in the first place. So even though Paris is forbidding at first, she’ll soon meet Vijaylakshmi (Lisa Haydon), a sexy single mom who may as well have “free spirit” tattooed on her tanned legs. And thus Rani is dragged out of her salwar-wearing shell, first by the “hippie-type” Vijaylakshmi, and then by the trio of men (from Japan, Russia and France) she ends up rooming with in Amsterdam.

So we watch Rani drink, let her hair loose and develop a small crush on a parody of an Italian chef (Marco Canadea, over-the-top but enjoyable). But director Vikas Bahl and co-writers Parveez Shaikh and Chaitally Parmar are careful not to have Rani transform too quickly or drastically. All too often, we’ve seen characters in our films alter beyond recognition after a few days abroad. Rani starts off simple and retiring, and ends the film just as simple, and a shade less retiring. But Ranaut’s playing is so sympathetic and free of artifice that it’s plain to see how much this small fillip in confidence means to Rani.

In many ways, Rani is a close cousin to Sridevi’s Shashi from 2012’s English Vinglish. Both are retiring sorts who find themselves on trips abroad; both are tethered to men who think they’re a little too hip for them. Yet, where Shashi ended up sacrificing freedom for family, Rani takes her new-found confidence and literally runs with it. Queen isn’t path-breaking – there are too many stock characters and predictable scenarios for that – but it has a big heart. After a while, even its clichés are rendered warm and fuzzy.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Shaadi Ke Side Effects: Review

Shaadi Ke Side Effects is a colossally boring film, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t make a great drinking game. You do a shot every time there’s a thundering cliché along the lines of “having a baby affects your love life” or “men can’t take responsibility”. You do two shots if there’s a reference to Vidya Balan’s weight, three if you spot a lift from Knocked Up or Modern Family or half a dozen other probable sources. And if you laugh, you’re out, because alcohol’s wasted on anyone who finds this film funny.

After a night of let’s-pretend-we’re-married-to-other-people, Trisha (Balan) and Siddharth (Akhtar) realise that an unplanned stork visit is in order. Rather than taking care of things and spending the rest of the film in a Bergmanesque funk, they decide to have the baby. Everything’s cute for about five minutes. Then Trisha starts scolding Siddharth about everything from baby towels to his piñata skills. Two hours later, she’s still yelling and he still has that martyred look.

Director Saket Chaudhary and his co-writers Arshad Sayed and Zeenat Lakhani make Trisha out to be a terrible scold, but let’s look at the evidence. She’s the one who gave up a corporate career to raise the child; her biggest crime is being a little obsessive with her parenting. He, on the other hand, is the jingle composer who decided to become a parent after some backwards advice from a stranger with quadruplets, the father who leaves his toddler behind with a horse-handler, the family man who goes to the extent of creating a new identity so he can move into a PG accommodation and spend time away from his home every few weeks. Yet, Trisha’s the one who has to stop eating ice-cream because it’s making her fat.

It’s depressing to watch Akhtar and Balan try and ground these caricatures in reality, only to be tripped up by tin-ear writing and bombed by clichés. The only thing less surprising than Trisha and Siddharth’s marriage coming apart at the seams is the way it’s hastily sewn back together. Ram Kapoor, Vir Das and Ila Arun turn up for cameos, as do Samsung, Royal Enfield and a bunch of other product placements. There’s even a split-second clip from Chaudhury’s previous film, the unrelated Rahul Bose-Mallika Sherawat starrer Pyaar Ke Side Effects. Hubris. Learn it in Bollywood.

This review was for Time Out Delhi.

Monday, February 24, 2014

An oblique boo: Treasures from the Films Division vault

An expanded version of a piece I did for The Indian Quarterly. 

In America, they filmed a platinum blonde movie star singing “Happy Birthday” to the president. The British recorded for posterity the few seconds for which Charlie Chaplin and Mahatma Gandhi appeared on a balcony together. Yet somehow, in India, we have scant footage of the moment our country became independent. There’s a video fragment of Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny” speech, but it’s so blurry that one might as well be watching a completely different night. It’s quite possible that a clearer video might have been captured if the government’s newsreel and documentary unit, Information Films of India, had not been dissolved in 1946. Its post-independence avatar, Films Division, would only come into being in 1948.

Films Division was created to facilitate “the production and distribution of newsreels and short films required by the Government of India for public information, education, motivation, and for instructional and cultural purposes”. Which sounds terribly official and boring, but FD found a way to insert itself into the lives of Indian moviegoers. The Cinematograph Act of 1952 made it compulsory for all cinema halls in the country to screen an FD short before any feature film. Camille Deprez writes of how, even in its initial years, FD’s films were reaching a weekly paying audience of 20 million viewers. This, she says, “marked India as unique compared to anywhere else in the world”.

There’s no denying that many of these films – and there were more than a hundred new ones every year – were “boring, heavy-handed and disenchanted”, as Srirupa Roy bluntly put it. Yet, through guile or official oversight or sheer brazenness, a couple of them rose above their intended function as delivery devices for information and propaganda. Some were, dare it be said, worthier of attention than the classic Bollywood flicks they prefaced. I Am 20 more than holds its own against Jewel Thief. And there’s more restless energy packed into five minutes of Abid than the entire four hours of Mera Naam Joker.

Since its formation, Films Division has produced over 8,000 documentaries, animations and shorts. Last year, in an unexpected but welcome move, the organisation started separating some grain from six-and-a-half decades of chaff. In January, it launched a YouTube channel and began to upload some of the Division’s more notable efforts on it. The channel now has 170 videos, ranging from feature-length documentaries to minute-long experimental films. (Other users have uploaded FD films on YouTube as well.) Though the majority of directors featured on it will probably be unknown to the casual viewer, if you’re lucky, you’ll come for Satyajit Ray and end up staying for Pramod Pati. 

The 1950s shorts uploaded are interesting in an academic sense, but do not suggest that Indian documentarians were pushing – or were being allowed to push – the boundaries of their craft at the time. There’s the odd impressionistic venture, like V Shantaram’s Symphony of Life (1954), a ten-minute meditation on nature and tribal life that’s unique for having no narration and synching its editing to music. Still, it wasn’t till the ‘60s that Films Division directors started, in the words of critic Bikram Singh, to “stick the neck out (and) say an oblique ‘boo’ to the establishment”.

The Man Who Made Short Films
Seventeen years after Jean Rouch quizzed young Parisians for his documentary Chronicle of a Summer, filmmaker SNS Sastry trained his camera on a group of 20-year-olds born on August 15, 1947. I Am 20 asked socialites and farmers, factory workers and IAS aspirants about themselves, their lives and their country. Instead of the happy slice of patriotism officials might have been led to expect, there’s a good deal of candour in their responses, and in some cases, doubt and disillusionment. When asked what comes to mind when she thinks of her country, a young woman replies: “I think of India when I see the long queues, people waiting patiently for buses, for ration.” And the declaration by another respondent – which Sastry mischievously places after the patriotic pronouncements of a fighter pilot – that he doesn’t have “any love for the country” is so un-Indian in its matter-of-factness, it prompts a surprised “Really?” from the interviewer.

I Am 20 is political filmmaking, but of a very fleet-footed sort. Sastry’s droll juxtapositions comment on the action without going the full Potemkin: one particularly memorable cut takes viewers from sitar music and stone carvings to shots of factories and a guy singing “I Should Have Known Better”. There’s little of the solemnity one would expect from an exercise of this kind. For starters, Sastry keeps distracting viewers with violently shaking backdrops. He also allows his respondents to take jabs at sacred institutions, like the young man who insists that his ambition is to join the IAS and become “a cog in the machine”. There’s even a dig at Films Division, when the same kid deadpans that India has made the “kind of progress which you show in your documentary films”.

Almost as if he’d been asked “And what do you do?” by one of his subjects, Sastry proceeded to turn the camera on himself. And I Make Short Films (1968) packs a feature film worth of material into 17 minutes. Images of musicians, rioters, lovers, animals replace one another at lightning speed, the soundtrack fading in and out like someone switching between a dozen different radio stations. There’s no narration, no plot, no safety net. Sastry takes particular delight in dancing around the issue of the documentary’s ultimate purpose. “We are filmmakers”, a voice says. “We are sociologists”, another argues. Even in this very personal exercise, there are political undertones. As an off-screen voice praises the government’s Five Year Plans, the accompanying images are of starving villagers and dry crusts of bread.

In the late 1950s, Pramod Pati went to Prague to study puppet animation. One of his instructors there was Jiří Trnka, whose 1965 film The Hand was a chilling indictment of Soviet censorship. Pati’s approach was clearly informed by Trnka’s, but where the Czech animator’s brand of subversion was sombre and measured, Pati’s was freewheeling and joyous. His 1968 short Explorer might be the most bizarre seven minutes ever committed to film by an Indian director, populated as it is with images of saints and statues and dancing teenagers, billboards that read ‘F*CK CENSORSHIP’, mushroom clouds, and dozens upon dozens of eyes.

Pati joined Films Division in 1959 as the head of its animation unit. In a celebrated 1970 short, he applied a stop motion animation technique called pixilation to a live subject, the Bombay artist Abid Surti. Abid is a rare home-grown example of the psychedelic ‘head’ film, full of pop colours and Surti’s magnificent poker face. In a later interview, the artist recalled how Pati landed up at his studio after the original subject, MF Husain, had dropped out. “[He] was a giant of a worker, very cooperative, very understanding, and very loving,” Surti recalled. “He used to work, I should say, about 19-20 hours a day while we were shooting it.” The 20-day shoot became an event in itself, with Satyajit Ray and BR Chopra dropping in.

God in the Details
While Sastry and Pati were linked by their avant-garde tendencies, the third great director of the fertile ‘65-‘75 period, S Sukhdev, walked a path very much his own. His India ‘67 (actual title: An Indian Day) is probably the best-known work to emerge from Films Division. The film was in the running for the Golden Bear at the ’68 Berlin Film Festival. American critic Albert Johnson spoke of its “highly cinematic perusal of the contrasts and contradictions in India” and called the director the “most exciting film master, since the rise of Satyajit Ray”. Ray himself has written in praise of the film, saying “I like it, but not for its broad and percussive contrasts of poverty and influence, beauty and squalor, modernity and primitivity – however well shot and cut they might be. I like it for its details – for the black beetle that crawls along the hot sand, for the street dog that pees on the parked bicycle, for the bead of perspiration that dangles on the nose tip of the begrimed musician.”

To gather footage for this hour-long documentary, Sukhdev travelled across the country, shooting everything from an artists’ village in Cholamandal to a Shiv Sena agitation in Bombay led by Bal Thackeray. Though the film was commissioned to celebrate 20 years of independence, Sukhdev proved as adept as Sastry at avoiding unnecessary chest-beating. Shots of Gandhi Samadhi, for instance, are combined with the recollections of an old flower-seller who talks about bringing her boy to the Mahatma’s funeral. This is one of the few scenes where there’s something resembling narration. Most of the time, the viewer is given the freedom to form his or her own story out of Sukhdev’s contemplative images. Fittingly, Gulzar’s tribute to Sukhdev, Ek Akar (1985), was also sans narration.

Sukhdev directed, shot and edited the film himself – a remarkable feat. He even turns up onscreen in a homecoming scene that ends with him looking around his old room and picking up a pillow embroidered with the words ‘sweet dream’. The little details that impressed Ray so are everywhere: a sketch of the goddess Lakshmi on a shopping bag; a bagpiper at a wedding; couples close-dancing to “Hava Nagila”. Often the details turn darker, like the protest notice that reads ‘Hitler Reborn at Pathankote’ or the image of flies buzzing around the skulls of dead cattle (the latter anticipates the close-ups of human corpses in his 1975 film about the Bangladesh War, Nine Months to Freedom). Sukhdev’s subversion is less gleeful than Sastry’s or Pati’s, but just as effective: it’s no coincidence that the village teacher is trying to get his students to use kranti (revolution) in a sentence.

A Common Tune
The one element that unites these diverse films is the music of Vijay Raghav Rao. Rao was an extraordinarily versatile talent. An in-demand flautist, composer and arranger, he conducted the national anthem at the 1947 Independence Day celebrations. He performed for Gandhi in person and for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. When Led Zeppelin recorded with local musicians in Bombay, it was Rao who interpreted for them. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1970.

Rao was to FD’s directors what Vanraj Bhatia was to the parallel filmmakers of the ‘70s and ‘80s: a composer malleable enough to handle a wide range of styles and temperaments. He matched the schizophrenic charge of Pati’s Explorer with impressionistic bursts of sound – instruments (sitar, ghatam, clarinet, drums, sarangi, harmonica, strings) sped up and distorted, combined and contrasted. For MF Husain’s Through the Eyes of a Painter, he provided groovy backwards sitar, a year after the Beatles did the same with guitars on Revolver. I Am 20 opens with a lightning-fast taan, followed by percussion that mimics the rhythm of a train. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Rao used it again the following year, in his soundtrack for Mrinal Sen’s seminal 1969 feature Bhuvan Shome.  

Rao could, of course, come up with more traditionally structured pieces when required. India ’67, for instance, has a number of sustained compositions in an array of folk and classical styles. Still, it’s remarkable how a trained classical musician like Rao was willing to put his ego aside and contribute music that often served the interests of the film more than his own reputation. Did purists look down on his score for Trip – a series of electronic blips – or his inventive use of birdsong and ticking clocks in Abid? Even if they had, it probably wouldn’t have bothered Rao much. “I would like to remove a misunderstanding that documentary film music consists of only old type classical music,” he said in an interview. Abid Surti, meanwhile, echoed everyone’s feelings when he called Rao “the king of music at that time at Films Division” in a 2005 interview.

Maps and Legends
One of the pleasures of FD’s YouTube channel is the opportunity it affords to make your own little discoveries. For every proponent of Sastry or Sukhdev, there’ll be another who finds the elegant shorts of Vijay B Chandra more revelatory. There are also a number of hard-to-find films by big-ticket directors, like Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Past in Perspective (1975), Girish Karnad’s Kanaka Purandara (1989) and Shyam Benegal’s Indian Youth: An Exploration (1968). Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Oscar-nominated An Encounter with Faces (1978) – a moving look at children’s homes in Bombay – is an essential entry in the Indian documentary canon, as are Mani Kaul’s Arrival (1980) and Dhrupad (1983). Satyajit Ray’s shadow is cast over four films: two by him (Rabindranath Tagore, 1961; The Inner Eye, 1972), and two – by BD Garga and Shyam Benegal – about him. (Benegal’s documentary has the added attraction of Govind Nihalani as cameraman and Smita Patil and Om Puri behaving like excited schoolkids in the master’s presence.)

Then there are the one-offs; films made by professionals from other fields. City on the Water (1975), by architect Charles Correa, is a melancholy tribute to 70s Bombay. Koodal (1968) is painter Tyeb Mehta’s devastating indictment of animal slaughter. Graceful panning shots give way to quick-fire images of fornicating cattle, followed by meat hooks hanging from the ceiling. The squeamish should be grateful that Mehta doesn’t go as far as George Franju in his 1949 slaughterhouse documentary Blood of the Beasts; instead, he ends with a montage of religious idols, the last image being that of Nandi the bull. Equally experimental, if less coherent, is a 1967 short by Mehta’s Bombay Progressive Group cohort MF Husain. Through the Eyes of a Painter begins with Husain explaining what a daring thing it is that he’s doing, making a 15-minute film with no narration and no identifiable link between images of daily life in Rajasthan. Evidently, the Berlin Film Festival thought it was pretty daring too, because they awarded Husain the Golden Bear for Best Short Film.

Even if you see all this, there’s a lot left. I haven’t even touched upon FD’s pioneering animated films, their biopics on forgotten legends like Sohrab Modi and Gangubai Hangal, the time capsules announcing everything from the formation of Nagaland to how happy the nation is under Emergency. It’s amazing how so many of these films, despite the restrictions placed on them, still pulse with a vitality denied to all but the best of Indian feature cinema. In I Am 20, a young man talks about wanting to “go through this country top to bottom, walking at a leisurely pace, seeing all kinds of people”. One could achieve something similar by watching these films.

All images, moving and still, used above are the property of Films Division.