By Artika Raj for Youth Ki Awaaz:
A quick channel surf and a casual flip through the morning newspaper are enough to tell the enlightened that something very sinister is going on these days. Amidst the cows and the bans, the shootings and the shouting, what is clear is that our freedom of speech and expression, those oft-quoted words, actually face a grave threat in this ‘democratic’ nation.
While it might be something most will disregard as an opinion, but ask a creative person what such a threat means to them, and the answers are all too telling. Filmmaker Shabani Hassanwalia, co-director of the recently released documentary ‘Being Bhaijaan‘ and co-founder of Hit and Run Films (which engages with changing socio-political-personal realities through documentaries) had this to say when Youth Ki Awaaz asked her if creative freedom was under threat today, “Yes. I was recently doing some research for a friend’s feature which is set in the Indian Emergency of 1975-77, and interview after interview it was said: those years are like the times we live in now, except that it doesn’t even need to be announced publicly anymore. More and more filmmakers and practitioners feel increasingly watched for the views they hold.”
Not too long ago, filmmaker Pankaj Butalia was left running from pillar to post trying to get his documentary, which takes a look at the violence in Kashmir between the years 2005 to 2013, released, till the Delhi High Court finally cleared it in May this year. Everyone will of course, remember Rakesh Sharma whose film ‘The Final Solution‘ on the 2002 Gujarat riots was initially banned with the decision being overturned after public pressure was built for its release.
Trying to speak truth to power has never been easy but now it is downright dangerous, and there are but a few spaces left where an individual has that freedom to express. For filmmakers in India, the PSBT or Public Service Broadcasting Trust is one such bastion.
The PSBT is a non-governmental, not-for-profit trust that has over the years, mentored or supported over 650 independent films and worked with 450 plus filmmakers. At the rate of one award for ‘every three films produced’, they have bagged 43 National Awards till date, but the work PSBT makes possible is important for reasons more than just those, says Shabani, who herself has worked with them, “Most people I know would never have got their first film done if PSBT hadn’t existed. As an organisation, it has a real vision in partnering with people, with artists from all walks of life, who want to tell a story that will never, ever make it to mainstream media. They really believe in taking a chance on people, and help them find their voice, the value of which just can’t be overstated.”
Recently, director Subasri Krishnan set the cat among the political pigeons when she released her documentary (‘What the Fields Remember‘) based on the Nellie massacre of 1983 that brought the Muslim pogrom back into public memory. Making films such as these that can be termed ‘politically controversial’ for the truth they tell requires a kind of unparalleled creative freedom. We asked the director herself what sort PSBT was able to afford her, “Complete freedom. I have made two films with them and have never once been asked to change anything in my films. They let you make the film you want to, which is a rare thing for the times we live in.”
All this is high praise indeed. And while the directors get their glory and the films their audience, on PSBT’s completion of 15 years of what must most definitely not be an easy journey (public funding woes alas!), it is imperative that we let the amazing team that makes it all possible, speak for themselves of their endeavour. In the midst of wrapping up their annual ‘Open Frame Film Festival’ that showcases the best of their documentaries – Youth Ki Awaaz got team PSBT to give us a full lowdown:
Artika Raj (AR): For a layperson’s understanding, how does PSBT commission documentaries and help film-makers bring alive their vision? What are things you keep in mind when accepting/rejecting proposals, etc.?
PSBT: The mandate of PSBT is democratisation of the media which means providing a diverse range of independent filmmakers from across the country, the opportunity and context to create films that evolve out of their unique creative, political and philosophical positions.
Our attempt is to reach out to a large constituency of filmmakers through our public call for proposals, ordinarily announced twice a year. Proposals received are evaluated by PSBT, our Trustees and project partners, who represent an eclectic range of expertise and interests. We primarily look for ideas that are articulated in nuanced ways – through interesting cinematic treatments and the potential of the filmmakers to deliver on them, on the basis of their proposals, their past work and backgrounds. We bear in mind parameters such as maintaining a balance between first-time and more experienced filmmakers and regional, gender and linguistic representation. Also, we try avoiding films on the same subject frequently, in order to keep our oeuvre diverse. We rely on the collective experience and knowledge of the evaluators to arrive at the best possible commissioning decisions consultatively. Having said this, we accept that there are no fool-proof, empirical formulae, to ensure that our decisions are infallible. Commissioning any piece of art is a process with unpredictable outcomes, which sometimes leads to an outstanding masterpiece and sometimes quite the other.
Our commissioning process doesn’t get over with the selection of the films and providing them financial support. We are invested in every project we commission and work with the filmmaker in realising their vision and aspirations from the film. We have an intense mentoring process wherein extensive feedback is provided to nuance and enrich both, the process of filmmaking and the film.
Our work philosophy embodies of a margin of error which has helped shape our work and relationships with our filmmakers. We understand that great ideas and effort do not always yield to great films, and that is something we accept. We believe in standing by a filmmaker who has put in honest effort and hard work and yet not managed to create a film that would change the world. Failure is part of trying. For this reason, our work ranges from great to mediocre to that which should be locked away!
AR: Could you tell readers and aspiring filmmakers what are the sort of challenges you face as an organisation to make these films possible?
PSBT: PSBT was founded as what we always call an embryonic initiative – in the hope that this model would inspire many more PSBTs that would cater to the requirements of a large and heterogeneous country. These 15 years have been a mixed bag of triumphs, challenges and sometimes setbacks. Freedom is the most critical and difficult to uphold and comes with huge costs. It leaves you with fewer friends than adversaries. It has been difficult to sustain in an environment sharply divided between programming driven by commercial concerns on the one hand and state propaganda on the other, in an ever shrinking space for difference. Our choices have been severely curtailed because it is very rare for funds to be available without strings attached, especially on the scale at which PSBT operates. We have had to be extremely careful in choosing our partnerships that allow our filmmakers and us the creative and political independence we hold paramount.
The grants we receive have remained frozen and unchanged in over a decade, which means modest commissioning budgets, that make it impossible for the films we support, to match the standards that documentary films the world over aspire to. It also means that documentary filmmaking continues to remain an elusive livelihood option for most filmmakers.
PSBT, under the circumstances, has done its best to vigorously safeguard its ideals and stand by them, for which we deserve greater appreciation and solidarity from within the filmmakers’ community than we currently receive. There is rarely an appreciation of the challenges we face routinely in order to continue doing what we do. One must always aspire to the ideal, but remain mindful that every battle is important, not easy to fight, and every achievement, however little it may seem, needs to be honoured. Sometimes, in the interest of the larger struggle, one has to embrace the lesser evil, or one risks losing the very edifice upon which you built the movement.
AR: What do you count as a success for PSBT and what counts as failure?
PSBT: The biggest success of PSBT is being a unique platform that exists for filmmakers to make films of personal passion and social relevance with complete freedom, creative and political. While we have an active interest and role in every film, we rarely insist on changes that the filmmaker is not convinced about. We believe in constructive, well-motivated criticism and dialogue and has been able to support truly independent voices that are not subject either to commercial television imperatives or state narratives.
We are one of the largest producers of documentary films in the country and have managed to support a wide variety of both filmmakers and subjects that represent the diversity inherent in the country. We have worked with over 450 filmmakers in the past fifteen years and covered subjects ranging from freedom, conflict, democracy, literature, art, livelihood, gender, development and sexuality to culture, tradition, history, urbanscapes and more. Even if we were to look at this year’s Open Frame Programme – from the quiet life of two women at the Sela Paas at Arunachal Pradesh who run a small eatery, the Japanese anime subculture in Nagaland, the life and work of stalwarts like Shyam Benegal and Adoor Gopalakrishnan, an exploration of masculinities in India, the work of crusaders like Chandi Prasad Bhatt (pioneer of the Chipko movement) to the films on violence and memory to those that look at the present and future of the Anglo-Indian community in India – the canvas is kaleidoscopic and ever widening.
Supporting young, starting out and first-time filmmakers has been the cornerstone of PSBT’s work. Not having previous experience has never been an impediment to working with PSBT. In fact, we especially encourage starting out filmmakers to apply. At any point, at least 60 percent of the filmmakers working with us have been first-time filmmakers for PSBT. We have managed to support people with no background or training in filmmaking to pick the camera and make their first films, whether it was academic Mahuya Bandyopadhyay a couple of years back or activist Pramada Menon, as recently as 2013.
We think we have been successful in expanding the popular understanding of the documentary by virtue of the myriad creative practices our films embody that have changed and critiqued conventional ways of understanding the form. While all our work has not been radical, it has ranged from the observational to the interview-based, to the experimental and the abstract, wherein there is something for everybody, whether the film practitioner or its viewer.
Through modest efforts like Open Frame, our outreach through individuals, groups and institutions, we have helped the documentary become accessible and tangible, not meant for a niche audience alone or something that would leave people intimated on the one hand and disinterested on the other. There are different shades of films available with us that people can pick from, depending on their particular orientations and interests. We are glad that they have become a part of course syllabi, tutorials, annual festivals, conferences, campaigns and projects.
We have managed to sustain a documentary television slot on national television, with the potential to reach out to over five million people, for fifteen years now, with not a single slot missed. In the day and age of competing 24×7 entertainment and programming, having a dedicated space for documentaries is indeed something we count as an achievement.
Despite being made on shoestring budgets, the films have been selected at over 850 film festivals around the world, having been selected by juries internationally. We have won more than 200 awards, including 43 National Film Awards, which stands to reinstate our faith and belief in this small initiative we took, many years ago.
There are plenty of successes, but there have also been failures, the biggest being the lack of funding, that has disallowed us from further diversifying or expanding our work or improving the budgets at which films are commissioned. Despite creating a credible space for films in public interest, funding options remain few and far between. We have not been able to create a self-sustaining business model that would not have to rely on funds from outside. Despite the popularity of the documentary, it is still not a mass product that would be commercially viable. We are aware that other documentary distribution networks have attempted and given up distribution efforts. This affects not only the future of these films but also the future of bodies like ours that find it extremely difficult to survive.
While we have reached out to a considerable number of filmmakers from different parts of the country, we feel a lot more needs to be done to reach those in even more remote corners. We make a special effort to commission filmmakers from regions where there is little support for the arts, especially films, but we have not been very successful. This is in part because the wider pool of filmmakers we commission from is itself biased in favour of regions and places that are better off in terms of opportunities and access to resources. We feel this especially with relation to the North East from where we have supported films, but not as many as we would have liked to.
The filmmaker community in India is large and heterogeneous, which is its strength. However, it is our sense that we have not managed to galvanise them to speak in one voice, in support of efforts like ours. We have many supporters but also those who remain dissatisfied, or indifferent at best, chiefly because of the small budgets we are forced to work with or the limited number of films we can produce at any given point in time.
AR: With the advent of digital media and savvy smartphones, sharing and dissemination in audio-visual format has become a lot easier. Would PSBT be tapping into this new trend in some way? What’s the plan going ahead into your 16th year?
PSBT: Technology is intimately linked to patterns of art practice and consumption, the audio-visual medium in particular. One is witness to the great surge in the creation and distribution of material, especially over the internet. One is also aware of its wonderfully revolutionary potential. In keeping with that, to start with, in the interest of reaching a larger number of people across the world, which single DVD distribution can never dream of reaching, we have put out over 250 of our films on our YouTube channel and are pleasantly surprised at its success. Today we have viewers we had never hoped to reach, and that is an immensely gratifying part of what we do. We are not commercially driven and our primary objective is for our films to be watched, discussed and debated and the internet is indeed making that possible, whether on computers or mobile devices.
Having said that, we also recognise that the reach of the internet, especially in the country, is limited, which still leaves out a large chunk of people outside our ambit. We are open to the potential of technology and are ourselves hoping to evolve and learn as we go along. We have taken the first step.
AR: How do you view social advocacy through your films and the impact they have?
PSBT: Advocacy is a very big and critical part of our work and often a factor in the films we commission. It is a responsibility. It is our belief that films are a great means of initiating conversations, dialogue and discussion, the crucial first step to any kind of progressive change or impact.
While we have no tangible statistical proof to support our claims, there are at least two ways in which one can sense the impact our work has. One, people have found in PSBT, the opportunity and empowering context to pick up the camera and tell their stories and of those around them. A recent example of this is Pushpa Rawat, who along with her mentor Anupama Srinivasan, made a film on her life and those of her friends – young, aspirational women from a small neighbourhood. We are glad we could be part of her journey. Or Sange Dorjee Thongdok, the first person from his state to attend a film school. These little possibilities keep us going.
Two, by virtue of the vast array of subjects they deal with – people’s movements, social commentaries, investigative films, personal narratives and more – our films are potent resources for advocacy. Each film is a statement and gesture of solidarity on our part. It is our objective to make these freely available to whoever wishes to watch and use them. We have packages of films that have been found especially useful for campaigns, whether on gender and sexuality or debates on development, environment or others.
One also has to be realistic while speaking of impact. It comes in many forms. For us, even one person finding a film informative, moving, disturbing, motivating, delightful or transforming is impact and a good place to begin. It is a start.
AR: State intervention in freedom of speech and expression matters is under fierce scrutiny today, with many fearing the worst. How does PSBT, which is dependent on State funds, achieve independent functioning?
PSBT: Ensuring the independence of our filmmakers and the work we do is the founding principle of PSBT. We are a not-for-profit that receives grants from the Government that are governed by the rules applicable to Grants-in-Aid that allow us to function independently. This is a position we have not compromised on and will not in the future either. Filmmakers who have worked with us will bear testimony to this. This is also reflected in the greater number of people who apply to us with every subsequent commissioning cycle. Standing up for freedom and independence are tough battles, but we remain committed to fighting them. We believe we work with public funds that belong to the people of this country, in whose interest and trust we attempt utilising them with responsibility and accountability, and we take this mission very seriously.
In the past, we have worked with other partners such the MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the UN System in India, which goes to suggest the diversity of institutions that have found our work valuable and credible.
Our efforts at promoting cultural expression, freedom of thought and information and reaching out to marginalised audiences have been recognised as a Global Best Practice by UNESCO.
Our Trustees are some of the most steadfast voices on freedom of expression, and that has also helped us safeguard our autonomy.
To know more about PSBT, head here.