In your speech while accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award at MIFF (The Mumbai International Film Festival, 2014) you had said, “Today if I ask myself whether my films really make a difference to the people and to the causes they are about, I would have to admit that the difference is marginal.” There have been such severe setbacks for socialism in the decades that you have been active, yet your films continue to work on people’s consciousness. How should one gauge (taking your films as a reference) the importance of political documentaries in shaping people’s consciousness, and how should one gauge the impact of them on the people?
My self-doubt did not stem from the nature of my films. When I said they have not been effective, what I meant is that they couldn’t change the political reality of this country— mainly because they were not seen widely enough. They were not utilized as much as they could or should have been.
Even if I personally showed my films every day with our 16mm or video projector and large screen, in working class-areas, middle-class areas, schools and colleges, how many people could I reach with a few hundred or even a thousand people at each venue? If you look at the population of our country it is no more than 0.01 % of the population that could be reached through individual effort.
So the films have to be used by community groups and progressive parties, and unless they take up cultural resistance as a primary form of resistance, it won’t happen. Unfortunately our Left movements have not done this, though they tried cultural intervention in earlier times. IPTA (Indan Peoples Theatre Association) was a good example. There was a progressive cultural movement and it entered theatre and literature and even mainstream cinema, but it ran out of steam in the late 60’s when the progressive movement itself faced major splits. After this no long-term effort was made by established parties. This resulted in all our films being badly under-utilized. Even though there was a Left front government in Bengal for 30 years, and in Kerala for many years, none actually used our films.
What were they doing? They could see the ideology of communal violence growing all over the country, they could see that our films are actually effective if and when seen by the masses but they didn’t make the effort to actually take these films to the people. They didn’t use their field publicity units, they didn’t make Bengali versions, or Malayalam versions to show these films amongst the people even when they had the political and financial means at hand.
With other parties in power like the Congress party which calls itself secular — I’ve had almost as many fights as I’ve had with the BJP. Not really as many, but with the BJP I take it for granted that they’ll be against my films. I expected that the Congress and other so-called secular governments would recognize that while my films might criticize them, they criticize right wing fundamentalists much more. But my expectations were belied. These so-called secular governments actively tried to stop our films from getting on Doordarshan (National TV). Whenever my films have been shown on Doordarshan, it’s only because we won court cases in the High Court or Supreme Court.
Like you said, you go into working class neighborhoods, schools and colleges and show films, not just your films, but socially relevant films – do you keep your audience in mind while making the film, and what sort of a role does the cinematic language play?
See, I am not an advertising agent. So I will not make a separate film for housewives and a separate film for children, and a special film for older people, or a separate film for Dalits and a separate film for upper-castes. I don’t think you should make different versions for different people, because then what is the truth of what you are saying? I make the film that interests me, that bothers me, so it is a kind of self expression that I am doing, but I try to use a cinema language that I think will communicate with as many people as possible, and I don’t do this very consciously. I think I have average intelligence and if I can understand what I am doing then I think most other people will also understand. Of course the spoken language in the audio track or the subtitles may have to change from area to area in order to communicate across cultures, but the content and form need not and should not.
Today many films that are made in the documentary world, including in India, are guided by the aesthetics and politics of the funding sources that engender them. Such films may sometimes work at international festivals or at elite venues but when screened for working-class or even middle class audiences, fail miserably. The cinema language used in these films is so busy trying to appear artistic by using the “displacement theory” that it fails to communicate. This is not to say that you cannot be artistic while using a language that workers or ordinary people understand. I think that is in fact where art lies, in the very attempt to communicate across class, caste and culture.
Absolutely. This is what I had in mind. Because we had tried to show certain documentaries to working class audiences and we’ve had very negative responses—I mean, we showed a film where the subject matter deals with the working class, but after the film was screened, the people in the audience told us, “What do we get from here? The film showed certain things about us, the life we lead every day, but what do we get from here?” So, somehow, you cross that. You do cross that and somehow manage to make films that talk to all kinds of audiences.
There’s a simple reason. I show my films and I learn from my audiences all the time. I think I am able to make films that actually communicate only through a process of trial and error. There were times when people didn’t understand why a film was made in a particular way. Also a film can say different things in different ways to different audiences, and you live with that. I mean, when I show Jai Bhim Comrade to upper-class/caste audiences at colleges, the questions that arise are totally different from the ones that are asked when I show it in a working class area. In a typical discussion after a screening in a working-class area, people did not ask me questions; they came up to me, took the mike and talked about what the film meant to them. It was nothing like the standard Q&A sessions of the colleges where somebody asks you a question and wants the filmmaker to respond. Nobody here was so interested in that, they wanted to relate what they had seen on film with what they had experienced in life – which I found very exciting because it became a forum for people to grab the mike and speak out.
In contrast for upper caste audiences in India the first question that always comes up is the reservation issue (reservations is the term for positive discrimination in favor of the weakest sections). I am not unhappy about this because these discussions need to be brought to the surface and dealt with in depth. People think of reservations as the evil that is causing our caste system to continue. They don’t understand that a reservation policy has existed for centuries through which manual scavenging and a host of “dirty” jobs that no else would do were reserved for the “lowliest” while land-holding and education were cornered by the elite. I completely agree that reservations are a temporary measure and once genuinely equal opportunities are achieved for all, reservations can be done away with. For this to happen we have to make sure that, from the primary educational level through all the higher stages, the children of the rich and the children of the poor go to the same schools and colleges and get the same physical nutrition. If you don’t give them equal opportunity how can you begin to talk about merit?
Sanjay Kak recalls an experience of seeing you when he was in college. He envisions you like a one-man army, who moved around with a single projector taking the films to different places. Since then, you have been doing this. So tell us something about your screening practice.
First I had to raise enough money to buy a projector. It takes more than one man, you need a whole team, especially as in those days the equipment was so heavy. It was not only the projector that was heavy, celluloid film prints used to be so expensive that one 16 mm print of any film, in those days would cost some 10,000 rupees—10,000 of those days is comparable to today’s one lakh rupees. And every time the projector faltered which was often enough, the print would get spoilt; sometimes it would get scratched, sometimes it would snap. So maintenance was also important. It became easier with video, everything became smaller—and then with digital, it got even easier. Today projectors have become much more common so you need not carry your own everywhere.
And now there’s Internet. I am still not happy with it in the sense that for me the net is the last option. If your film gets banned or frequently attacked by right wing goons, you have no other choice but to put it on the net. But the net by itself is a lonely activity in the sense that one person watches it on his or her little computer. They may share it with others but I’m not convinced this has the same impact as what happens in a room where people have direct discussions. Also, in our country, not enough people have computers, and net speeds are also not good so only poor quality videos can be uploaded and downloaded by most users.
There was a time when you fought legal battles like the ones for ensuring rights to screening on television primetime, but now state television has become somewhat irrelevant . . .
You mean Doordarshan? You’d be surprised actually—study the figures, Doordarshan still reaches a huge number of people because it is not that private channels go all over the country. In the hinterland, Doordarshan still has a very big range, so it is still an important medium.
So can you tell us a little bit about what you learnt from those legal battles? What were the major hurdles and points where the battle seems to get stuck in a bottleneck?
The major obstacle of doing a legal battle is that you have to have time and money, not that my lawyers charge me money, lawyers did it free or for very little money but still, in court, a substantial amount of money and four-five years of time gets spent on average for each case. 90% of the time in court nothing happens. You go to court and the matter does not reach or something goes wrong and you’re just sitting there doing nothing. It’s very frustrating but ultimately we did make headway.
I’ll say this is about the legal aspect, which is important because every time that you fight and win a case, it actually sets a precedent for all others—these small cases accumulate—so if you have a whole lot of cases that uphold the freedom of expression, then it is good for everybody whether it is cinema, theatre or literature, all these cases create precedents.
Moving on, Can you tell us what you think are the most effective strategies for the distribution of political documentaries in the present times?
There have been multiple studies; there is no one strategy. I mean in the sense that, going to court is obviously one of the things that you have to do; it cannot be the only thing—you can be stuck in court for years, then what do you do in the meantime? So you have to have many different ways of making sure your work is seen, by any means necessary. Public screenings of uncensored films are not legal but there is a grey area between a private and a public screening, so we explore this grey area to our advantage.
So what are the various efficient avenues apart from the television channels for distributing a political film that could potentially be stopped?
As I said, my main attempt is always to get maximum viewership. I am not satisfied with going to film festivals and film society screenings and a few colleges here and there. Television and commercial cinema are the bastions waiting to be stormed and to some extent, it’s happening—there are some films that have got that space. They are struggling because so far most of them have not done well. Once they get into the commercial theatre, not enough people are buying tickets, so that has to be understood — how to get people, how to publicize the fact that your film is in the cinema now, and make sure there’s an audience. You need the cooperation of the media, you have to have an SMS campaign, WhatsApp campaign, you have to use all the tools at hand to make sure people watch the film in the cinema. I think the time has come when documentaries of this kind will get an audience.
So, would Jai Bhim Comrade be releasing in cinemas?
Jai Bin Comrade could have been released a bit earlier, I don’t know, now it’s a bit…it’s three years old, so I’m not sure. But I think it certainly can be released in the ‘B’ cinemas, not the ‘A’ cinemas which are those big multiplexes where they show all the Bollywood films, but there are other smaller-sized ones, small town cinemas, especially in places where there’s a big Dalit population—it would work in these areas. It needs some political guts on the part of the theatre owner though.
I should tell you that quite a few years ago, 2005 I think, we actually hired two multiplex cinemas in Bombay as an experiment to release our anti-nuclear docu “War and Peace”. It released at Fun-Republic and Inox. They gave the theatres to us for a week each during monsoon time when they were not getting audiences anyway—monsoon and exam time — so they gave it on the basis that we got 40 % of the gate money and they got 60 %. In those days, there was no pre-installed video projection, so I had to actually rent the video projectors also. We made our own banners and publicity posters. In spite of all that we broke even. To break even we had to have several houseful show, which we got, thanks to the media writing about it extensively.
Going back a little, your Waves of Revolution and Prisoners of Conscience started a new era, I think everyone across agrees on that, so don’t you think that the Indian public was going through that particular phase where people started questioning nation building?
See, the thing is that films work best when they are tied to the moment—so my films were seen a lot because of the Emergency. During the movement against the Emergency, it was the one film that was shown against the Emergency. And after the Emergency, Prisoners of Conscience which was about the political prisoners still in jail, coincided with the time when a civil liberties movement had woken up because people had gone through the Emergency. It was a period when everybody wanted to assert their democratic rights. Films when tied to movement do get seen much more. It had nothing to do with me. It was in the air.
Nonetheless, after these two films in the Indian documentaries, there was a new kind of upsurge.
No, I don’t think it has anything to do with me…it had to do with the change of technology; many more people had access to the means of production as first the video age and then the digital age dawned in the 80’s and 90’s.
Let’s now move on to something a little subjective. Documentaries are of various types, right? Some documentaries are very phenomenological, they would not try to analyze things—observational, I could say, you do not get too much into analyzing and questioning things. For example one can show poverty, one can show distress, labor rights being violated, but not question who is responsible. So, your films are not like that, and you have maintained this, so does it have something to do with the way you think documentaries should be made?
Not just documentaries, fiction also…I mean, when I see a film like Slumdog Millionaire, it makes me very upset—yes, it describes things as they are in slums very often but what does it say about cause and effect? The film locates the criminals and the bad guys who are also from the slums and it also find that the only escape solution is to win a lottery. Without questioning the class system that creates this lottery, it shows that one guy out of a million will win a lottery, and get out of there!
So you think that cinema should not be that way?
No, no I’m not a Stalinist who wants to make everybody make films exactly like me! But that’s not the way I would make films.
You take a clearer position, I think that’s the difference. A filmmaker taking a position, in some way, through portrayals of various voices . . .
I’ve been criticized exactly for this. People who consciously or unconsciously supported the status quo have called me a propagandist for 40 years. Of course they often disguised their real motivation behind notions of “art” and “aesthetics”.
But I think this is precisely why your films work in working-class audiences. While they are too…
Believe it or not, they actually work even with Hindutva—the Hindutva who likes my films doesn’t remain Hindutva. I’ve met people who were Kar Sevaks, who actually went to demolish the Babri Masjid. After they saw Ram ke Naam they contacted me to say that this film actually changed their mindset. They had believed they were doing something in the national interest. They realized that they were being used. That’s not something just the film did, reality also did it. They understood after many years that demolishing the mosque was a wrong thing to have done.
Another thing I wanted to ask you about were the characters in your films. There are documentaries in which there are individual characters and the documentary follows them etc. But in your films also there are very memorable characters, who linger in the consciousness for a long time after seein the film. For example Sheetal Sathe’s mother or Pujari Laldas, characters like this. And you somehow seem to bring out something from them that stays. So can you tell us how you manage to do that, there must be some kind of method by which you bring our such strong characters yet they are not just individuals, they are located within collectives, within the common people. It doesn’t become just an individual story, it’s never about Sheetal’s mother’s personal life or nuances. So can you tell us a little about that?
Well, I think that emotional appeal happens when audience starts to identify with a person on-screen, but it can’t be done at the risk at making the whole film such a microcosm that the entire world is seen through one person. At least, I don’t do that.
Maybe someday I will; I’m not against it—it’s just that it has become so fashionable today. In the world of documentaries—it’s not just fashionable, it’s become mandatory. If you look at the funding agencies, and if you go to any of these pitching sessions—please forgive me for this bitching session about pitching sessions— where the funders decide what kind of film should be made and how and what is the style, they are all the time telling the filmmakers: “Make the story character-based, it must be character-based”, as if there’s a real law against making films on society and about class, about larger things. So I don’t want to take the risk of making a film where people think this is one story, it’s not happening to everyone.
At the same time, I think that if you follow a few people, when you’re making a film over a long period of time, you get to know who you really like, the characters in the film, and you bond with them. And in my films I’m always trying to avoid putting in a narrative commentary. I do it when I have to do it; some vital information has to be put across, which cannot be put across by what you have captured in front of the camera. Then you find the most efficient way to do that. So I do use narration when I have to but sometimes the protagonists in my films become my voice, because I identify with them so much. Like Pujari Lal Das…I was thrilled to come across him—he made my voice unnecessary.
When I came across Sheetal Sathe and the music of Kabir Kala Manch, they became so dynamic. I mean, Vilas Ghogre was also dynamic, but he was dead, so to me Sheetal and Kabir Kala Manch became the continuation of the tradition of Vilas.
Can you tell us a little bit about mass movements and their organic relationship with political documentaries?
The forces that are fighting communalism today are few and far between. The cause that is dearest to my heart, and has been for the longest time, is fighting communalism. In the last one and a half decades I had put all my eggs in the Dalit basket. It didn’t happen by theory. It happened when I got closer to the community—I went to Ramabhai Colony, interacted with so many people from the Dalit movement, I realized that there is a tradition of reason in the community which is an antidote to the Manuwadi-mindset. It’s a historical tradition which I could see living in people when I went to the house in Ramabhai colony where this person’s two daughters are named Knowledge and Equality. And this is 21st century India, where everyone is named after gods and goddesses! In Kerala or Tamil Nadu you may come across people named after Lenin and even Stalin. But not Equality and Knowledge! So that is what I was so excited about and that is what comes through in the film. Later we encounter a leadership that betrays this tradition of reason for short-term gains by aligning with communal forces that are superstitious at the core. That is the tragedy the film unfolds. It was quite some time back when I had put my eggs in the Left basket. Then I removed them and put them in the Dalit basket and now I’m looking for a new basket. Basically I think we have to invent our own baskets.
Don’t you see an overlap between the Dalit basket and the Left basket?
Of course there’s an overlap. But we have to search for a way that doesn’t get stuck in isms, doesn’t get stuck in one source of inspiration; I mean, I’m as much a Gandhian as I am an Ambedkarite as I am a Maoist. All these things are intermixed in all of us actually; it’s just that artificially, we decide to cut off one part of our brain to follow a line.
I should speak more about Gandhi because Gandhi is today hated by a section of the Left and a section of Dalits, and of course by the entire Hindutva right. But the more you think about it, the economic paradigm of the Left and the economic paradigm of the Right, are not radically different! They both see the world as having infinite resources, which you can exploit in any way you like. Gandhi, intuitively, was talking about a world and a kind of economics that would actually challenge the forces that led us to global warming, that led us to climate change, that led us to nuclear disaster.
In your films you have used songs in plentitude. The iconic Ek Katha Suno Re Logon, Majhi Mai from Jai Bhim Comrade, even in Hamara Sheher you played songs at the end…
In Hamara Sheher/Bombay: Our City I filmed a song by Vilas Ghogre that also opens Jai Bhim Comrade, it was also in Occupation Millworker because workers had broken in and occupied a mill that had locked them out. I showed Bombay: Our City to these workers during the occupation.
And in ‘War and Peace’ you also used songs from that Ekta Manch, the peace march. So how do you discover these songs and what is your . . .
Songs are all around us; you’d have to be deaf not to hear. Songs carry culture, carry peoples’ protests more eloquently than written words sometimes. I often play songs even before my screenings, and I have a whole collection of songs that I can choose from.
Tell us something about your view of documentary aesthetics?
For a long time, my aesthetics were completely unconscious. I never thought about aesthetics at all for the first many films that I did. My first brush with film theory came when I read something from Third Cinema on Latin American films that were being made in the sixties and seventies. Julio Garcia Espinoza set out a very compelling theory called Imperfect Cinema. I was thrilled because somebody was describing what I was already doing, at least somebody was saying it was the right thing to do! I never did what I did because I read the theory first, I did it because my camera was hand-cranked. Of necessity I used cheap equipment, non-sync sound, outdated stock, and produced films with ample scratches – all the things he talks about. My genre was completely imperfect. So I was happy that there was a theory about all that.
But in reality I’m always trying to do better. I’m not trying to make imperfect cinema on purpose, I’m trying to deliver my best with whatever equipment I have. With whatever medium I have, I’m trying to improve it as much as possible, because you don’t want bad sound getting in the way of communication or shaky camera getting in the way of your characters and stories. For a while I used mainly hand-held cameras as I didn’t have a tripod, later on, I started using a tripod when time and the situation allowed, but I didn’t have a theory about it. I don’t think that putting your camera on a tripod and moving it very slowly makes it art.
Sometimes we see in a documentary or a fiction that the sound and the sight are so breathtaking and so perfect, somehow it doesn’t match the subject that has been portrayed. For instance the way often a slum kid is portrayed.
Yes, you could get into that argument, whether cinematic beauty is in itself a distraction from the main story. You doubt whether it really happened or was acted and scripted; that possibility is there. But I still would not introduce any element of cinematic noise on purpose. I’m always trying to minimize the noise. I just won’t remove it at the cost of breaking the moment. I mean, if something very important is happening, I won’t waste my time getting the perfect shot because I might lose the moment.
How do you fund your films?
Funding my films over the years has become easier. Initially it was through friends and family, and then slowly the films started to sell. Sell, as in occasionally a television channel would buy it and show it abroad. Occasionally I would win a case against Doordarshan and they would have to pay for it. Occasionally there is some prize money and there are DVD sales. When I’m really out of money I travel and do lecture tours, and get paid for doing these lectures. But now television is becoming much more difficult for me than it used to be. For a while there were some TV channels that actually bought my work without prescribing to me what I had to do. They bought my finished product. But now it’s very difficult to sell a finished film. They’re not interested in a finished film as they want their name on it and they’ll interfere with how it’s made. This I can’t allow.
Coming to that, can you tell us about the level of interference that is going on with the documentary scenario, especially in India? How much are they controlling and how independent is the documentary today?
On the level of interference I can’t speak from personal experience. Some people say that you can get some channels that won’t interfere much. It’s possible, some TV commissioners might trust the filmmaker but I think that’s rare. With younger filmmakers, I’m sure they interfere a lot, and sometimes their aesthetics get internalized. People internalize them without even being aware that its the funding agencies that influence their work. It’s not necessarily a single phenomenon—it’s like a consensus. It happens in the film festival circuit—it’s not only the funders, and it’s not only television—it’s also what’s considered to be good cinema, what’s considered to be artistic. A film that’s extremely effective in a working class environment and could actually create consciousness of a kind and breakthrough in terms of how people see the world, is unlikely to be considered as good art. Such a film would most likely be rejected as propagandist, left-wing and outdated.
Now, my last question. In your films made in the seventies, the State was a direct enemy during the Emergency. Before and since that phase, the Indian working class has had to fight religion, caste oppression, gender oppression and other non-state factors that gave rise to communalism. So how are you going to plan your next projects?
Well, as it happens, almost by accident, I’m on a sabbatical. My last film was completed in late 2011—and since then, I’ve not made a film. I’m not in the mood to make a film actually. I should have been documenting the rise of fascism and in my younger days may would have done that. Now I’ve got the feeling that I’ve already said this…how many times will I say the same thing? How many times am I going to say that this is fascism, this is right-wing fundamentalism. Unless I get excited about something new I can intervene in and contribute to, I’m not highly motivated to pick up my camera. But I’m not unoccupied. I’m showing films, traveling, looking at my own archives that I have been filming for many years; doing some housekeeping. When the time comes to shoot again, I’ll be ready.