The screening of six films of the Lumiere brothers at Watson's Hotel, Bombay, on 7 July 1896 marked the beginning of India's engagement with the moving picture. It also laid the foundation of a remarkable body of non-fiction cinematic work.
B.D. Garga's From Raj to Swararj: The Non-fiction Film in India traces the century-old history of newsreels and documentaries in the country. Beginning with an account of the early works of people like Hiralal Sen. J.F. Madan and Harishchandra Bhatwadekar who pioneered the newstreel, Garga goes on to describe what were among the first non-fiction films - Jyotish Sarkar's coverage of the anti-fiction films-Jyotish Sarkar's coverage of the anit-partition demonstration in Calcutta,, 1905 and Charles Urban's spectacular film on the 1911 Delhi Durbar.
Garga also chronicles the landmark events in the development of non-fiction films in India: the propaganda films during the First and Second World Wars, the passing of the Cinematograph Act in 1918 and the establishment of the censor board, Lowell Thomas's journey across the country to film Romantic India, Louis de Rochemont's controversial coverage of police repression in 1930, the series of 'The March of Time' films on India, the founding of the Film Advisory Board and the pioneering efforts of the Information Films of India, and the extraordinary coverage of communal riots during the partition in 1947.
Post-independence, the author throws light on the role of the Films Division and on the work of Mohan Bhavnani, Jean Bhownagary and Paul Zils who crated a sound base for future film-makers. He also looks at the powerful body of works by women directors like Suhasini Mulay, Deepa Dhanraj and Sumitra Bhave, among others, which courageously addresses a number of contentious social and political issues. Critically examining the factors that have stunted the development of documentaries in the country, Garga lauds the efforts of film makers like Anand Patwardhan to keep the movement going in and financial hurdles.
A ground breaking study by one of India's most respected film historians, From Raj to Swaraj not only explodes many existing myths but also reveals astonishing new details about a genre of films that has been overshadowed by the razzmatazz surrounding its more glamorous counterpart, the masala fiction film.
Bhagwan Das Garga is one of India's most eminent film scholars and a founder member of the National Film Archive, Pune. Born in 1924,he began working in films under film maker V. Shantaram. He made his first documentary, Storm over Kashmir, in 1948-49 and has since then written directed and produced over fifty documentary films. Between 1953 and 1957, Garga worked with various film units in Europe and at the Mosfilm Studios, Moscow. He produced the first film anthology to commemorate the golden jubilee of Indian cinema in 1963. In 1967, he was invited by the UNESCO to be on the committee of experts on the 'History of World Cinema'. He served as a member of the Film Advisory Board for many years and was honoured by the film Federation of India for his contribution to the growth of cinema in the country. In 1996, Garga received the first V. Shantaram Award for Lifetime Achievement in the field of documentary films at the Mumbai International Film Festival. He is the author of So Many Cinemas: The Motion Picture in India and The Art of Cinema: An Insider's Journey through Fifty Years of Film History. He lives in Goa with his wife.
Introduction: The Other Cinema
John Grierson described documentary as 'a creative interpretation of reality'. Over the years, with advanced technology, the modes of interpretation have changed but the essential truth of Grierson's definition remains.
It all began with Robert Flaherty's film Nanook of the North, about an Eskimo family and their struggle for survival. Nanook, known for his prowess in walrus hunting, is the binding thread that runs through the film. Living and working with the Eskimos for well over a year, Flaherty had come to admire their traditional ways before the white man's incursion into their territory to 'civilize' them 'destroyed not only their character, but the people as well'.
After nearly two years hard work, Flaherty screened the film in 1922 for some of Holloywood's major distributors, among them Paramount. After the screening, he was told, 'This film cannot be shown to the public. Finally, Pathe took it and released it at a prestigious Broadway theatre, Capitol, with surprising success. Not only did the audience take to it, the critics hailed it as an 'epic' and a 'masterpiece'. The playwright Robert Sherwood wrote, 'It stands alone, literally in a class by itself
.. no list of the best picture of the year or of all the years could be considered complete without it. Sherwood's prophecy came true when four decades later, in 1964, at the Mannheim Film Festival, film-makers from over thirty countries adjudged Nanook as the best documentary of all time. Nanook proved a great success not only in America but also in London and Paris and other capitals of Europe.
Paramount, which had earlier rejected nanook, now offered a contract to Flaherty to go anywhere and 'bring back another Nanook'. The outcome was moana (1926), a film about the primitive Polynesian culture which greedy traders and earnest missionaries had almost obliterated. When shown to critics in New York, playwright Lawrence Stallings wrote, 'I do not think a picture can be greater than this Samoan epic. To Flahertys great annoyance, Paramount's publicity boys advertised it as 'The Love-Life of a South Sea Siren'. Years later, Flaherty asked Paramount for the negative of the film for preservation in a film archive. He discovered to his horror that it had been destroyed to make room for a commercial film.
When it seemed that Flaherty had seen the last of Hollywood, he received a call from Irving Thalberg, the then production head of MGM to collaborate with W.S. Van Dyke on a film to be shot in the South Seas, a location Flaherty was familiar with. Arriving on location, Flaherty saw a contingent of technical crew and production staff large enough to intimidate the small Polynesian community. He withdrew from the project. Flaherty's other brush with Hollywood was collaborating with F.W. Murnau, the celebrated German director of classics like The Last Laugh (1924) and Tartuffe (1926), in the making of Tabu. When the two men met, they discovered that much as they admired each other's work, their approach to film-making was totally different - the essential difference being that while Murnau believed in imposing a dramatic structure on the story, Flaherty preferred to discover drama in the life of the people. Despite differences, Tabu (1931) was completed and proved a commercial and critical success.
In 1934, Flaherty was fifty years old and had just three films to his name. Despite his woefully small output, he commanded enormous respect. V. Pudovkin, Sergei Eisenstein, G.W. Pabst and Murnau were among some of his admirers.
It was around this time that Flaherty met Alexander Korda who had made a fortune out of his film The Private Lives of Henry VIII (1933). Korda wanted Flaherty to film Kipling's story Toomai of the Elephants set in India. He knew that no one could do it better than Flaherty. Equally, Flaherty was excited by the thought of filming in India. Taking advantage of Flaherty's interest, Korda cleverly inserted a clause in the contract that gave him the film's editorial control.
Flaherty arrived in India at the end of February 1935 and was received with much cordiality by Viceroy Lord Willingdon and the Dewan of Mysore, Sir Mirza Ismail, who placed at his disposal living quarters for the crew, animals in the royal zoo and helpers and attendants. Flaherty set up a laboratory for processing and printing his film. He was delighted when he found the boy Toomai (Sabu) and the elephant around which the story is build. Over a stay of several months, Flaherty shot 300,000 feet of film which when projected in Kordas London studio looked marvellous but lacked a story. Korda got his brother Zoltan to shoot several scenes with Sabu who had been brought to London and insured for 50,000 pounds. This additional material was grafted onto Flaherty's film. A great showman, Korda released the film (now called The Elephant Boy) with great fanfare in London and Paris to ensure its commercial success.
Enlightened sponsorship is a rare happening in a film-maker's life. When it does occur, the result is The Louisiana Story (1948), Flahertys last film and an enduring masterpiece. Standard Oil Company of New Jersey had approached Flaherty to make a film on the romance of oil drilling in the vast southern plains of America. The company made Flaherty an unusual offer whereby it would underwrite all production costs and he could keep all the earnings. Notwithstanding the industrial significance of oil, this was not Flaherty material. However, as he travelled further, Flaherty discovered to his delight that the early settlers in the bayou country of Louisiana, living in the proximity of oil deposits, were simple, gay people of French origin who still retained their folk ways and traditional culture. Flaherty wove a story around a driller who befriends a small, half-wild Cajun boy. From this slender material, Flaherty made a film of steely strength and compelling beauty. The film had its world premier in August 1948 at the Edinburgh Film Festival where an audience of two thousand gave it a standing ovation. Virgil Thomson, who had scored the music for a film. Critics hailed the film as the major work of a maestro, who, to quote Grierson, 'had caught the eye of the gods'.
Flaherty died of cerebral thrombosis on 23 July 1951. He was sixty-seven. In thirty years, he had made only six films. When someone mentioned this to G.W. pabst, he replied, 'Yet, what films!' Flaherty founded no school. Yet, his influence on film-making not by design but by instinct and inclination. Thus was born the 'documentary' or non-fiction film.
The visual possibilities of cinema had begun to excite the imagination of avant-garde artists in various disciplines in the 1920s and 1930s. 'Cinema is the music of light', added Abel Gance. The documentary was enriching itself with new ideas and fresh ways of expression. One of its best example was Un Chien Andalou (1929), a collaboration between Luis Bunuel and the surrealist painter Salvador Dali. The film was based on a dream Bunuel had in which 'a long tapering cloud slices the moon in half'. Using this as a symbol, in one chillingly memorable sequence in the film we see an extra-large close up of the eye as a sharp razor cuts through the retina.
Meanwhile, Dziga Vertov had stirred up much debate and discussion in Russia in the 1920s with his radical ideas and revolutionary concepts. He made frontal assaults assaults on studio-manufactured films which he described as 'living corpses of movie dramas garbed in splendid technological dressing'. Of all his films, Vertov is best remembered for The Man with the Movie Camera (1929), a kaleidoscopic view of life in the Soviet Union seen through the lens of a camera in which the cameraman becomes an active, visible participant. Vertovs 'camera eye' was later to become almost a cliché in the films of Chris Marker, Sidney Lumet and Jean-Luc Godard.
In Germany, Joseph Goebbels took over as Adolf Hitler's propaganda minister in the mid 1930s. Both men were ardent film buffs and understood the propaganda potential of film in mobilizing people around Nazi ideology. Leni Riefenstahl's Triunph of Will, documenting the Olympic Games hled in Berlin in 1936, captured in all its terrifying immediacy the mob frenzy and the almost mythical authority of Hitler.
From now on, almost every country in Europe and the United States used film for propaganda, a process which reached its pinnacle during the Second World War. As each side claimed to be telling the truth, it become impossible to differentiate between truth and falsity. For once Goebbels was honest when he said, 'Propaganda has nothing to do with truth'. Whatever the argument for or against it, there is no denying that the propaganda film brought to the fore some of the best talent in every country, enriching the medium in unexplored ways of approach and style.
While the documentary flourished in the West there were vast vacant spaces in Asia and Africa under colonial rule. The key to colonial domination was the control of the media, of which film was fast emerging as the most potent. In India, it was only during the Second World War that the government, of necessity, set up a film unit (the Film Advisory Board and later Information Films of India) to promote war effort films.
After independence, the British legacy had a marked influence on the Films Division set up by the new national government. Its control firmly in the hands of bureaucrats in Delhi, it became the official mouthpiece of the ministry of information and broadcasting. With its tight grip on production and exhibition, over the years it grew into the largest documentary film unit in the world, producing films with the regularity of a 'sausage factory'. Yet, it would be unfair to say that nothing of significance emerged from the Films Division. Tired of its inertia and 'play safe' attitude, whenever a film-maker has taken a deep breath and flexed his muscles, the results have been surprisingly rewarding. Sadly, such instances have been few and far between.
With the entry and amazing reach of television in India, Films Division became increasingly irrelevant and redundant. For a time it appeared that television would nurture the documentary movement. It hasn't. On the contrary, it has hijacked most of its features in its programmes - news, investigative (sting) operations, art and culture - without in any way improving upon them. In such a dismal scenario does documentary have a future? The answer would be 'Yes' and 'No'. To take the negative first, it has no future as long as it continues to be an appendage to the main feature film and is restricted to the ten to twenty-minute format. It must begin to think of itself as a distinct genre regardless of the time frame. The content must determine the duration of a film, not the other way round. There are subjects crying for more space and time that are literally stifled by the time constraint.
Documentary certainly has a future if it can fight the battle on the same turf as the fiction film. Much before the advent of the narrative film, Charles Urban had produced a documentary on the 1911 Delhi Durbar, which ran for two hours and earned for him over a quarter of a million pounds. More recently, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) has abundantly proved that the feature documentary has come to stay. In the US, its box-office takings for the first six weeks amounted to more than $100m. Nearer home, Anand Patwardhan's War and peace was successfully shown at two multiplexes in Mumbai, something unheard of earlier. As he says, 'Audiences in India are ripe for good documentary films. I had full houses just by word of mouth publicity'. Another documentary film-maker Nick Broomfield puts it cogently, 'It's encouraging that more documentaries are being released theatrically. Because they are shown on the big screen, they have to take on a bigger, more epic quality, both thematically and visually
.' He firmly believes that documentaries made for the cinema will have to be better executed and will need a broader frame of reference. Only such films will last longer and mean more to future generations.
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