By Nitin Rao & Sudev Sheth
November 12, 2020
With its characteristic song-and-dance sequences set in dreamy landscapes, India is globally renowned for Bollywood films. However, much as mainstream movies have informed public opinion, it was actually an earlier tradition of cinema production that inaugurated India’s love affair with the moving picture. This was, of course, the iconic Films Division of India which was established in 1948 by the Government of India under its Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
In the decades after Independence, Films Division harnessed the emotive powers of cinema to become the chief producer of documentary films, animation shorts, and motivational biopics. Having produced 7,504 unique film reels over the past seven decades, the Films Division archive boasts a whopping 116,190 minutes of footage in black-and-white and color. This would be the equivalent of 80 continuous days of movie watching.
Iconic films include S.N.S. Sastry’s documentary I Am 20 (1967), Pramod Pati’s humorous animation about marriage called Wives & Wives (1962), and Chandrashekhar Nair’s biography of tabla legend Ustad Alla Rakha (1970). Each of these films captured critical moments of India’s initial years as a new country. For example, I Am 20 features a medley of interviews with young men and women born on Independence Day in 1947 as they embark on adulthood some two decades later. Wives & Wives was not only an early family planning propaganda film, but also earmarked India’s pioneering efforts to develop indigenous animation technology.
There have been several scholarly works on Films Division. Early studies by Jag Mohan (1990) and Sanjay Narwekar (1992) document the establishing of the organization. More recent scholarship takes resolutely critical views of Films Division. Prominent among them include Camille Deprez’s study of how John Grierson, who coined the term “documentary” in 1926, influenced Films Division from 1948 to 1964. Anuja Jain, Ritika Kaushik, and most recently Peter Sutoris demonstrate how Films Division was both a statist tool and a bureaucratic force that defined the Indian film landscape, especially into the 1980s. We hope that this page and the data we have provided will inspire further research into the iconic Films Division archive.
Between the 1950s-1980s, Films Division played a key role in shaping attitudes towards national history and social welfare. In addition, several films focused on economic development, education, and the politics of an Indian state committed to industrial growth and technocratic superiority. While readers can watch individual films online, new data science tools have enabled us to visualize aspects of the historic Films Division archive as a whole. Taking a bird’s eye view of the films in the collection, we can track film output by Year, Class, and Subclass.
Here are six key visualizations that convey the breadth and depth of India’s iconic Films Division holdings over the past seven decades:
The visualizations above help us see that cinema beyond Bollywood was crucial in shaping national identity and public views about a range of subjects from animal husbandry to personal hygiene, and from artistic traditions to India’s foreign relations. These charts represent initial forays into analyzing the Films Division archive as a whole. We invite readers to download the entire data set and further explore trends in government sponsored film production. Additional visualizations are available on our public Tableau site.
With additional inputs from University of Pennsylvania undergraduate Rachel Hong. This article was also published on Medium.