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Recognizing the role of women filmmakers in the history of Indian Cinema

Radio Comes to Rampur (1999) is a short feature by Asha Dutta, made for the Children’s Film Society of India at the turn of the new millennium. The film opens with still black-and-white photographs, as a father tells his son about his childhood in Rampur. The son sees a photo of the family crowded around a radio. “What kind of TV is that?” he asks. Radio Comes to Rampur is nostalgic about this dated media object, and the communal spirit it engenders in Rampur, where festivities herald its arrival. It soon leaves its frame narrative behind and focuses on the reception of the radio by various members of the village. In fact, despite being produced for children, the film mostly focuses on adults, and their mostly adult concerns. The scenes that take place in anticipation of the radio expose the (sometimes petty) intimacies of village life. Dutta’s thoughtful mise-en-scène also underscores the interdependent nature of relationships in Rampur, emphasizing simultaneously camaraderie and antagonism through her use of costumes and space.

The radio takes center stage in a festive event, complete with religious rites and hot jalebi. Ultimately, its introduction is anticlimactic – no one manages to turn it on until the very last few seconds of the evening’s broadcast. At this point, most of the excited audience is asleep together under the sprawling festival tent. Dutta is more interested in demonstrating the promise and purpose of an old technology to new viewers. Now Radio Comes to Rampur itself has become a remnant of the physical media age. The film was shot on 35mm by Ashwini Kaul (who was also the cinematographer of the cult classic Om Dar-B-Dar, produced by another government entity, the National Film Development Corporation). A copy of Radio Comes to Rampur resides in the Shabistan Film Archive, which has rescued reels that were considered lost, or else were discarded by the institutions that produced them.

Radio Comes to Rampur is one of several Children’s Film Society of India movies in the archive, which also contains examples from other government film production units, such as the Films Division. In the last decade, there has been a revival of interest in films from the Films Division in particular, with scholars and journalists celebrating cinematic experimentation by directors such as Pramod Pati, S. Sukhdev, and S.N.S. Sastry. However, women directors were few and far between at the Films Division. As journalist Raj Thapar notes in her memoir, women at the institution were mostly relegated to desk work, sometimes contributing to scripts.[1] Similarly, the National Film Development Corporation did not produce many films by women until the numbers began to rise in the 1980s. The Film and Television Institute of India, founded in 1960, provided a pipeline for Indian filmmakers to work with, or find funding from, other state institutions. The director Aruna Raje was the first woman to receive a technical degree there, in 1969. However, the FTII’s “doggedly patriarchal culture” suppressed women filmmakers for the first few decades of its existence.[2] Many of them ultimately found work with the Children’s Film Society of India. Some early examples in the Shabistan archive include Masterji (1964) directed by the famed film actor Durga Khote with Nilkanth Magdum; Golden Axe (1966), by Parvati Menon, and Lallu the Loafer (1972), also by Asha Dutta. Menon and Datta were both graduates of the FTII.

Indian state film production units often brought in talent from the other arts, such as literature and theatre, to direct films. They also sponsored films by notable figures from the Parallel Cinema movement. Their archives demonstrate the rich impact of cross-pollination in the arts that flourished under socialist state sponsorship. For example, the artist M.F. Husain made Through the Eyes of a Painter (1967) for the Films Division, and the director Shyam Benegal directed productions both for the FD and the Children’s Film Society of India. The CFSI is again notable for working with important women playwrights, theatre directors, and novelists, such as Sai Paranjpye and Ismat Chughtai. Paranjpye had a prolific career, working as a playwright, a television producer and director for Doordarshan (India’s state television channel), and as a director of both significant art films, such as Sparsh (1980), and popular romantic comedies like Chashme Buddoor (1981). Paranjpye also served twice as the chairperson for the Children’s Film Society of India, and made four films for the institute. One of these, Bhago Bhoot (2001) is in the Shabistan archive. An omnibus film she contributed to about the Gujarat earthquake, Chirayu (2000), is also preserved in partial form.

The modern Urdu novelist Ismat Chughtai also contributed to the Children’s Film Society of India. Chughtai’s novels, which advanced her own form of social realism, focused on the daily life of middle-class Muslim women in India. They often dealt explicitly, and controversially, with themes of sexuality. Chughtai’s marriage to a Hindi screenwriter and director, Shaheed Lateef, introduced her to writing for film. She adapted her own stories for film, and wrote several successful scripts. One of her unpublished short stories was also adapted into the film Garm Hawa (1973), a watershed Parallel Cinema film. In the late 1950s, Chughtai formed her own production company, Filmina, with Lateef, which allowed her to produce and direct films as well. These included the film Jawab Aayega (1968) for the Children’s Film Society, which she wrote and co-directed with her husband, who died before the film was completed. The film, which is expressively shot in Orwo Color, makes the most of its verdant location. However, as with Radio Comes to Rampur, it is enriched by a sharp sense for the nuances of social relations, some of which is displayed through various characters’ engagement with nature. Chughtai also demonstrates characters’ observations and worldview through various lenses. The vast mountains, forests, and lakes of Jawab Aayega are a departure from her literary work, which was more often set in the private interiors of Indian cities. Chughtai’s output as a film writer, director, and producer deserves consideration on its own terms. Chughtai and Dutta’s films are but a small sample of diverse and sophisticated women’s filmmaking at the Children’s Film Society of India (which also includes several modes of animation). Their place in the archive should enable more scholars and audiences to discover their valuable work.

[1] Thapar, Raj. All These Years: A Memoir. New Delhi: Seminar Publications, 1991.

[2] Bell, Melanie, et al. "Researching Women's Film History." The International Encyclopedia of Gender, Media, and Communication (2020): 16.

Dr. Simran Bhalla is Visiting Assistant Professor at Tulane University. Dr. Bhalla a holds a PhD in Screen Cultures from Northwestern University. Her research interests include institutional films from the Global South, experimental documentary, and global modernisms.