Cinema is a time capsule that records the conscious response of filmmakers to the state of their environment, nation and culture. Soviet Montage’s fast-cut editing was informed by the economic anxiety of the Bolshevik revolution, during which only leftover scraps of celluloid were available to filmmakers. The long takes and minimalist canvasses of Italian neo-realism reflected a society desperately trying to heal itself after the ravages of war. Czech New Wave’s surrealist imagery and satirical, non-linear narratives expressed an oblique, fugitive disillusionment and rebellion against communist authoritarianism. The Indian Parallel Cinema movement was a formalist reaction, confronting political and social realities glossed over by the mainstream industry of Bollywood.
Outside of feature films by auteurs like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Mani Kaul, Govindand Aravindan, Adool Gopalakrishnan, and Shyam Benegal, most of Parallel Cinema consisted of documentary and experimental film produced through the Films Division of India, a government agency that funded works reflecting the country’s social and political culture through a variety of aesthetic or propagandistic lenses. The location of this work had been ambiguous, especially to those like me who lived outside of India. It wasn’t until five years ago, in a project on the internet called Sarkari Shorts—Sarkari being a Hindi term here meaning “of the government”—that I learned of this vast trove of cultural history gathered in the post-Independence era.
Sarkari Shorts was a year-long venture on Tumblr by writer Alexander Keefe; it caught my attention as it began inconspicuously adding rare Indian films from the Films Division era that had been uploaded on Youtube, and then lost in the algorithm. My first thought was that the Films Division must finally be opening its vault of cinema riches to the world as part of an online digital archive project. The truth was much more intriguing. “I just started because it was something that was there for me to do, and I could do it,” Keefe told me over the phone; Sarkari Shorts was a personal project, started on a whim.
Keefe lived in India on and off starting in 1995 and worked there as a writer and archival researcher until 2009. He grew to love the country and its cultural history, taking on many projects aimed at drawing global attention to the nation’s artistic treasures. “It’s a fun project to revisit films from the Films Division and see how they’ve changed over time. It’s a unique experience to re-encounter these films,” he said.
It’s lucky for us that this inner desire manifested itself in Sarkari Shorts. It’s also lucky for Keefe, and bittersweet for film history, that the Films Division did not really pay much heed to maintaining intellectual ownership of its own material on the internet, and many of the films remain readily available for free streaming.
Preserving cinema in India has not been considered culturally or societally important. What little preservation there is, is still purely economically motivated; distribution companies only re-master and release movies that can be sold at a sizeable profit. Archival efforts in India for the sake of cultural preservation alone are still left to passionate free agents such as the late P.K. Nair, the late B.D. Garga, Lightcube Film Society, and Sarkari Shorts.
Curating endeavors, like Shai Heredia’s Experimenta project, are commonly focused on developing an alternative established canon, thus inherently excluding certain films; Sarkari Shorts doesn’t discriminate with respect to quality.
“I did not want to mine this archive for treasures, but encounter and write about it as it is.”
Sarkari Shorts is the goldmine in itself, with us as its miners. Its all-encompassing nature allows us to discover these films on our own time, and in our own way. This is the purest form of cinema preservation, the artistic goal of which is solely to celebrate its existence.
Sarkari Shorts thus includes political propaganda (Modhu Bhose’s 1945 The Outcast), profiles on Indian legends (Gulzar’s 1992 Pandit Bhimsen Joshi), children’s animations (Vijaya Mulay’s 1974 One, Many, and Unity), essay films (Mani Kaul’s 1975 The Indian Woman), experimental works (Pramod Pati’s 1968 Claxplosion), and even tourism films like G.L. Bharadwaj’s Destination Bombay (1976). Keefe also presents a host of historical artifacts from post-independence India: political flyers, posters, photographs and comics, plus quotes from various artists and lengthy essays of his own.
Authenticity is a clear priority in the collection of Sarkari Shorts. Keefe notes “the cliché of the Films Division era of cinema” is that many of the movies are “boring, reductive, and ugly.” These aren’t mutually exclusive positions.
Cinema requires some re-mastery to preserve in its original form, but like the characteristic pops and skips in a vinyl record, original film prints have their own historical charm. When I recently attended a retrospective screening of Jonas Mekas’s Guns of the Trees, projected from its original 16mm print, the sensation of experiencing the physical relic of a bygone era was powerful in itself. Aside from the grain and damage marks, the blends and contrasts of blacks, whites, and greys transmitted, in a delicate and subtle way, the sense of having travelled through time.
The historical context of these films also confronts the viewer with problematic and complex notions of intent. The influence of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation on a resurgent Ku Klux Klan, and the romantization of Nazism in Germany stoked by Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, have gone through cycles of critical examination of their artistic merit as cinema, in contrast with their harmful propagandistic aims. To what extent does a contemporary engagement with these works perpetuate their propaganda? Or can they serve as cautionary tales? Does the art outweigh the danger?
In A. Bhaskar Rao’s Planned Parenthood (1949), which Keefe describes as a “neo-Malthusian nightmare flick,” images of poverty and malnourished children are exploited to stoke fear of India’s population growth in the viewer. The film, which uses hens and chicks as metaphors for a mother and her children, contrasted with an overworked husband (the “breadwinner”) puts the blame squarely on women for the problem of overpopulation, and drives sympathy towards the men who must deal with the negative consequences of their wives’ uncontrolled fertility.
Is this film worth including in a collective archival effort towards the preservation of Indian cinema? Keefe acknowledges that he “had reservations about it,” because the inclusion of such films requires a direct response to them. It requires their context to be both heard and rejected, to make sure it isn’t taken as truth. Keefe’s essay on this film is rich in historical context and deep insight:
India soon found itself positioned as a kind of ideal test-case for the “Third World” and its problems, a laboratory for experimentation in solutions proposed by population control advocates like International Planned Parenthood, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the UN, as well as foreign governments like the United States, who encouraged the Indian government to pursue target-based family planning by tying it to much-needed food aid. It’s a shameful history…
Understanding the history and the puppet-strings controlling propaganda illustrates how the persuasive force of cinema and other arts can be co-opted by state power to its own ends. It’s important that these artifacts exist, to remind us that the arts we love don’t remain innocent in the hands of oppressive forces, and their formalist attributes and functions, the pan, the dolly, the cut, the sound, are malleable tools. As Keefe points out, “these ruinous materials may have let us down, but that does not mean we should reject them, nor hail them as a shrine.”
Keefe mentions that almost all of his blog’s metrics indicate a large engagement from India, and little elsewhere. What is the importance of Sarkari Shorts to an American and European audience?
Current film discourse is shifting towards an acknowledgement that the political and social functions of cinema are as important the art itself. Among other things, Sarkari Shorts is a thorough investigation of cinema as politics, filled with organized, insightful essays and films presented in a viewer-friendly and reader-friendly manner. Film critics and cinephiles worldwide, looking to see how Indian movies and our ideological discourses on gender, women’s rights, religion, and race collide, will find much insight in this compilation of political films, government artifacts and documentaries from some of India’s greatest filmmakers.
In 1989, when the National Film Registry in the U.S. started cataloguing cinema as “culturally and aesthetically important”, there was a de facto recognition that cinema had gained its due respect as an intrinsic part of American culture. In India, as well, cinema will always have much to say to us about the state of the nation. Cinema is an art but also an educational tool. Alexander Keefe’s Sarkari Shorts project is a goldmine, free to all, so that we can excavate and determine the good and the bad, the important and the frivolous—the lessons we take as hopeful guidance for the future of India, and the cautionary tales of mistakes we hope never to make again.