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Considering the aesthetic and cultural aspects of state sponsored filmmaking in India

Young Badal lives in the hills of Uttarakhand. He shares a deep bond with Meena from Varanasi and misses her when she returns to the city. He decides to send his paintings to her via an unusual route—the river Ganges. Placed in a box lined with red and white stripes, the precious gift travels through the Bhagirathi River in the hills of Uttarakhand and into the Ganges. Bobbing up and down though the river’s obstacle course, it manages to keep moving with the current. We see the river’s confluence with Alaknanda in Dev Prayag, and its flow through Rishikesh, Laxman Jhula, Haridwar, Kanpur, Allahabad, and finally the banks of Kashi, a.k.a. Varanasi. Traversing the geographical obstacles through the waterbody that forms a major artery of the land, the box reaches Meena’s school. Neither the holiness of this river’s water nor the reference to the holy city of India (Varanasi) is material to the film; rather, it shows how the river has shaped civilization along its banks, how the water from different rivers meets and unites the two children across state borders and vast distances. In this film, the landscape is imbued with Badal’s imagination: the mountains are Badal’s books, the waterfall a bearded old man beard who watches over him, and the river a long tumultuous yet reliable postal service that leads to a friend. The logic of a child’s imagination yields a fantastic filmic moment where nature acts as infrastructure to bring together Badal and Meena. A love for land and nature radiates from what masquerades as a geography lesson. Made by the prolific Urdu writer and filmmaker Ismat Chughtai along with filmmaker Shahid Lateef, this 1968 film Jawab Aayega in Shabistan Film Archive’s collection of children’s films, epitomizes the question of what it means to look at the world through a child’s eyes.

With the above question as one of its founding inspirations, the state-funded Children’s Film Society of India (CFSI) was established in 1955. As an autonomous institute under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the Society’s 250 films contain a wide variety that includes many by India’s leading filmmakers. Aiming beyond pure entertainment, the CFSI’s mission was to produce films that offered tools for preparing children to meet the demands of adulthood. Indian children’s cinema has commonly been seen as a negotiation between a quest of “wholesome films which uphold and reflect the richness of Indian cinema and society” and the commercial demands to reach a broad demographic of audiences, and many of CFSI’s films have been seen to conform and promote ideals of familial and social life rooted in patriarchy. [1] While this may be true, Shabistan Film Archive’s collection of films from CFSI shows that its significance to Indian film histories is more than a sum of its thematic explorations. The Shabistan collection highlights that CFSI’s films not only have a wide variety of themes but also innovative aesthetic forms. Jawab Aayega remains a compelling children’s film even today not just because of its theme but how it translates it to the cinematic medium by creating a unique dynamism between the aesthetic and narrative demands of tapping into children’s imagination.

Another major highlight of the collection is the renowned film and theatre actor Durga Khote’s rare venture in filmmaking, Masterji, made in 1964. This film stands out among children’s films through its stark realism, which adds poignancy to its affirmation that education can offer value to lives of the most underprivileged children and does not need to be through institutional means. The film begins with the masterji, played by Shambhunath Bhulal, singing and teaching the song Kaun hai humko sabse pyara, desh hamara… (Who is the dearest to us, our nation…) to his students at a small school. However, he is soon fired from the school due to budget cuts and loses both his source of income and the sense of purpose in life. Masterji meets an orphaned child Ramu who works odd jobs to sustain himself, and he begins to feel a sense of purpose—he offers the child a place to live, cooks for him, and begins to teach him. One by one more kids come into his life, like Gopal and the talented Munni (played by a young Reema Lagoo). But masterji remains hard pressed for cash and must sacrifice on many fronts, to the point of selling his beloved musical instrument. With masterji’s help, the children learn how to write and read and make toys. Above all, they realize the extent of his sacrifices and attempt to use what they’ve learned to make money to help support him. The children win a prize, with which they then pay back to their teacher by restoring to him his beloved musical instrument. The austere depiction of poverty in Masterji plays hand-in-hand with an affirmation of community. The way out of poverty for orphaned kids is through a selfless, loving, and committed teacher who imparts knowledge to them that they can use. It expresses the belief that if responsible citizens, regardless of age, take it upon themselves to contribute to each other, everyone can make a worthwhile living and live a respectable life. The value of patriotism seems to take the shape of sharing knowledge, care, and gratitude.

Masterji gave Reema Lagoo (known for her famous roles in Hindi cinema) an entry into films and she was mentored by Khote to perform in the film. One of the tender moments in the film is when Munni wins their hearts with a dance performance carrying a little doll and finds a place in masterji growing household/school. If Masterji was the singular debut of Lagoo as a child actor, another film in Shabistan’s collection, Charandas Chor (1975) saw the screen debut of Smita Patil, the leading actress of the parallel cinema movement in India. Charandas Chor was Shyam Benegal’s adaptation of the folk-tale play by Habib Tanvir. Thus, a closer look at the Shabistan collection reveals fluid cross-connections between CFSI’s films and performers, actors, and theatre artists from a variety of avenues.

The collection also shows the institution’s ties to the film industries through the work of music composers like Salil Chaudhary, who did music for Jawaab Aayega, or Prem Dhawan, who worked on Masterji, forming crucial trajectories between institutional filmmaking and popular music. Significantly, Shabistan’s collection offers insight into CFSI’s collaborative efforts with other countries, such as the collection’s Indo-Russian film Kala Parvat (Black Mountain) made in 1970. It was co-directed by M.S. Sathyu (known for his film Garam Hawa on the partition of India) and the Russian filmmaker Alexander Zagurdi and was shot in the Karapur forests in Karnataka.

Apart from the diversity of styles and themes in CFSI’s films, Shabistan’s collection demonstrates how it acted as a cinematic playground in the 1960s and 1970s that brought together filmmakers and artists from India’s mainstream and regional film industries, as well as art cinemas. While many of the filmmakers have been otherwise studied for their larger filmography, their work for CFSI has largely been relegated to obscurity. Shabistan’s collection holds several CFSI films that include lesser studied works of renowned directors like Sathyu, Benegal, and K.A. Abbas. Along with Khote and Chughtai’s films discussed above, many of the films in the collection are made by women directors like Parvati Menon, working during the 1960s to the contemporary. Furthermore, beyond the work of individual directors, the collection undergirds a complex ecology of artists, performers, and collaborations that transcends institutional and national boundaries.

Shabistan’s collection of CFSI films is a unique resource for film enthusiasts and scholars alike and will spark interest in the aesthetic and cultural aspects of filmmaking under the state funded institution. It points out a major lacuna in Indian film studies and histories and signals the need to study the dynamic ways in which filmmakers tackled the formal aesthetic challenges of showing the world through a child’s eyes.

[1] Noel Brown, 'A Brief History of Indian Children's Cinema,' in Family Films in Global Cinema: The World Beyond Disney, ed. by Noel Brown and Bruce Babington (Londong and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2015) 187.

Ritika Kaushik is a PhD candidate in the Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. Her dissertation studies the relation between documentary film, the state, and bureaucracy, through state sponsored documentary film institutions in India during 1960s and 1970s.