BY Shanay Jhaveri in Features | 29 MAY 14
Featured in
Issue 164

Reel World

‘Sarkari Shorts’ and the Films Division of India

BY Shanay Jhaveri in Features | 29 MAY 14

Natya Chetana theatre group poster, date unknown, from the ‘Sarkari Shorts’ Tumblr ‘Poster Women Project’. Courtesy: Poster Women Project, Zubaan, New Delhi

The Indian Government established the Films Division of India in 1948, under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, for the production and distribution of information films and newsreels. Its foundation was part of a creditable institution-building effort in post-independence India in the field of modern and contemporary art initiated by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The early material distributed by the Films Division was modelled partially on the approach advanced by John Grierson and British documentary film traditions, essentially operating as mouthpieces for the state’s industrializing projects.

It was under the direction of Jean Bhownagary – who was deputy chief producer between 1953–57 and appointed chief producer in 1965 – that the Films Division produced some of its most challenging work. During Bhownagary’s tenure, filmmakers including Pramod Pati, S.N.S. Sastry and S. Sukhdev developed films that experimented with found footage, montage, time lapse and animation. The modernist painters M.F. Husain and Tyeb Mehta also both directed films at the institute during this period. Facing strong criticism from certain factions by the late 1970s, Bhownagary departed and the Films Division returned to making leaden documentaries. The present-day activities of the organization – which include the facilitation of the Mumbai International Film Festival for documentary, short and animation film – are of little note. Access to its archive of over 8,000 titles was difficult until it embarked on an ambitious digitization project in 2012. Since then, selected films have been made available on DVD and others are regularly being uploaded to YouTube. Under the aegis of a receptive new director, V.S. Kundu, special screenings have been arranged; one notable recent session was by the academic and documentary filmmaker Peter Sutoris, who is working on a book about the Films Division, titled Visions of Development.

In a national context where most government institutions are barely functioning, mired in nightmarish bureaucracy, their archives barred, the Films Division endeavours to embrace new technologies, and its platforms of exchange and distribution are unprecedented. Though there appears to be no discernable rationale in what it selects to release, its decision to make available on YouTube early newsreels and films that were uncritical of the national emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from 1975–77, during which civil liberties were curtailed and suspended, is commendable. For art historians, curators and critics the films serve as crucial primary sources, enriching and even complicating the writing of a history of modern India.

By offering digital access to its holdings, the Films Division is allowing its archive to be shared in unexpected ways. Regardless of the organization’s intentions, individuals outside of a South Asian framework will foster their own connections to the material; an incredible actualization of this is the Tumblr ‘Sarkari Shorts’, maintained by the writer Alexander Keefe.

Providing annotations and background context where necessary, Keefe’s notes on the films are compiled from studies by scholars and curators such as Camille Deprez and Shai Heredia (whom he credits) along with his own tracking down of older sources by, or relating to, the filmmakers themselves. For example, Keefe has been researching B.D. Garga who was both a critic and a director of the Films Division. Keefe maintains that he is not interested in trying to set himself up as an expert, stating: ‘I have my own (idiosyncratic) interests and obsessions and gravitate towards those films that resonate. I write about that resonance and then try to assemble the materials to convey it on “Sarkari Shorts”, by way of penumbra maybe. I would say that the non-Films Division material on the blog is intended to have a penumbral relation to the films.’

What is remarkable about ‘Sarkari Shorts’ is that it exists autonomously, and has no interaction with the Films Division itself. Keefe’s broad-ranging enthusiasm sets the archive within a wider network of associations, incorporating material including postage stamps, poetry, feminist poster art and logos from the 1970s. Keefe himself queries whether the Tumblr exists ‘symbiotically with the Films Division YouTube channel rather than parasitically’. Either way, it’s the breadth of Keefe’s subjective impulses that makes visiting ‘Sarkari Shorts’ a pleasurable, and occasionally revelatory, experience.

Not only are the Films Division works being re-engaged, however; Bhownagary himself is also being reconsidered. The Clark House Initiative in Mumbai has actively been drawing attention to his expanded practice as a magician, mime artist, painter and printmaker in stimulating ways. A ceramic mask crafted by Bhownagary was included in the exhibition ‘L’exigence de la saudade’ (The Urgency of Nostalgia) which the Clark House Initiative curated at the Kadist Art Foundation in Paris last year and, for their most recent presentation, ‘The Kinematic Modern’ at Art Dubai Projects 2014, they commissioned the Indian artists Amol Patil and Yogesh Barve – who were working from original story boards – to re-animate a filmic collaboration between Bhownagary and the Hungarian cartoonist Trince. It is through such acts of configuration that further learning seems possible. Whether online or in exhibitions, it is the mindfulness with which state archives, individual histories and artistic practices are received and appraised that is essential.

Shanay Jhaveri is curator, modern and contemporary art, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze