Ministry of Light: Experimental State-Sponsored Films from India, 1968-1975

Can cinema make you a good citizen? For a half century, the Indian government hoped so: until 1994, they required commercial cinemas to screen twenty minutes of state-sponsored content before the feature presentation, forcing its movie-mad people to absorb information about the country’s progress and development. In the 1960s, the organization that produced these shorts—Films Division—grew tired of dry documentaries and began to experiment. Its filmmakers played with form, and used diverse modes such as animation, mixed-media, and even claymation, to present a more diverse and ambivalent vision of India to its people. The FD also funded films from India’s new wave (sometimes known as Parallel Cinema), which exchanged big Bollywood fantasies for micro-scale neorealism. This series presents a selection of Films Division’s sharpest verité and wildest avant-garde shorts, as well as Shyam Benegal’s state-supported masterpiece of alternative cinema, Nishant.

Series curated by Simran Bhalla, PhD student in Northwestern University's Screen Cultures department

Films Division Shorts

Thursday, September 21, 2017 7:00 PM FREE
(various artists, 1966-1975, India, approx. 95 min.)

This Bit of That India (S.N.S. Sastry, 1975, 20 min.)

I Am 20 (S.N.S. Sastry, 1967, 19 min.)

Thoughts in a Museum (S. Sukhdev, 1968, 19 min.)

And I Make Short Films (S.N.S. Sastry, 1968, 16 min.)

And the Stars Look On (Omprakash Mehra, 1968, 12 min.)

Yet in Him We Trust (S.N.S. Sastry, 1966, 1 min.)

Explorer (Pramod Pati, 1968, 7 min.)

Claxplosion (Pramod Pati, 1968, 2 min.)

Directors at Films Division, the Indian government’s film production unit, were at the forefront of the country’s cinematic avant-garde. Twenty years after Independence, they reflected on India’s progress with dynamic experiments in film form. These rarely screened shorts are on subjects of development such as family planning, science and technology, and poverty reduction. Characterized by an often psychedelic, postmodern cool, the films also manage to construct sly critiques of the state that sponsored them. 

Simran Bhalla (series curator and PhD student in Screen Cultures) will be in conversation with Rochona Majumdar (Associate Professor of South Asian Languages and Civilizations and Cinema and Media Studies, University of Chicago) after the screening.

Nishant

Friday, September 22, 2017 7:00 PM FREE
(Shyam Benegal, 1975, India, FORMAT TBD, 140 min.)

India’s art house boom of the 1960s and 1970s owes much to the government: many “parallel” or new wave films were funded by the state-run Film Finance Corporation, whose mission was to promote art cinema. Shyam Benegal, one of the leading auteurs of this genre, found support from the FFC for his first two films, allowing him to establish his career. For the third film—Nishant (1975)—he faced red tape, and turned to an advertising agency for money to help complete his film. The result is his most incendiary work of social realism, fiercely critical of the feudal and patriarchal oppression that was still endemic in India. It features the great stars of Indian art cinema, including Shabana Azmi, Amrish Puri, Girish Karnad, and Naseeruddin Shah, in his first role.