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A forgotten pioneer

Decades after his death, interest around Pramod Pati, the godfather of experimental cinema in India, is finally being generated. The most recent; an award named after him at the recently concluded MIFF.

February 24, 2014 12:23:05 am

At one point in Explorer, the 1968 experimental film produced by the Films Division of India (FD), for a split second, the screen reads “F**k Censorship”. As a film commissioned by the film body that belongs to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, it was a major subversive triumph for its filmmaker Pramod Pati, who slipped the message right under the body’s bureaucratic nose. Instead of using traditional voiceovers and texts of documentaries, the film plays out like a fast-cutting montage set to an electronic music score. Using symbols, the film explores the mood and ambitions of the youth of the ’60s. Explorer is the definitive instance of Pati’s work: radical and experimental, that broke the shackles of conventional documentary films in India. 

“He is arguably the first filmmaker in India who experimented with form,” says Ashish Avikunthak, an experimental filmmaker and assistant professor of Film Media at the Harrington School of Communication & Media, University of Rhode Island. Pati’s untimely death, at the age of 42 from cancer, brought an abrupt end to a surging filmmaking career. His films were largely forgotten. But thanks to India’s small but growing experimental cinema scene, there is a renewed interest in his work. In the recently concluded 13th Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF), FD introduced a new award named after Pati to honour the most innovative film.

A graduate in cinematography from SJ Polytechnic, Bangalore, Pati started out as a film officer for the Orissa Government in 1952. He later joined FD after his brief training under Czechoslovakian Jef Trnka, considered to be a master of animation, puppet-making, illustration and filmmaking. “Pati integrated Western influences of animation filmmaking to create his own form to make films that had some social relevance. He made a humorously serious animation film titled Wives and Wives (1962), highlighting the positive role of a housewife. Another one I can recall is a nine-minute animation film This Our India (1961), that presented how, under Five-Year Plans, the people of India were striving to achieve a fuller and better life,” says film historian Amrit Gangar. Gangar was a part of the Mumbai-based film society Screen Unit and had screened Pati’s films in one of the first Animation Film Festivals in India in 1976 in Mulund.

Besides Explorer, that evoked extreme reactions in its initial screenings, some of Pati’s other notable works are TRIP (1970) that captured the energy of Bombay; Claxposion (1968), a tongue-in-cheek look at India’s family planning years; Abid (1970), a filmmaker-artist-musician collaboration that used the pixilation technique to show the birth of an art work and the artist’s conundrum of relinquishing it to the world. Most of these works can be viewed on the FD website.

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Pati’s cinema was a product of the new wave cinema of the West. His techniques were influenced by some of the finest animators in European cinema, which he used to “intervene in the world of India’s documentaries”, says Avikunthak. Not much is known about Pati’s personal life because of his early death and the niche appeal of his films. Pati, however, was a buzzing name in Mumbai’s cultural circuit. People have described him as a man obsessed with work, keeping long hours where even his wife had to visit the sets to have a conversation with him. He would also invite participation of people in his projects, including that of the office peon.

A distinctive part of his style are fast-cut images and the inventive use of sound. “He imbues these films with a deep sense of rhythm with his editing technique and sound. In those days, there were no sound designers like today. Pati conceived sound design in a unique manner, the only other example that I find in this realm is Ritwik Ghatak,” says Gangar, who found Pati’s work “refreshing and challenging” when he discovered the filmmaker’s works in the ’70s.

Shai Heredia, a filmmaker, curator of film art and founder of Experimenta — an international festival for experimental cinema in India — describes Pati’s style as, “a collage-like style of juxtaposing contrasting, associative images with loose thematic connections, with an Indian sensibility.”

In his career, Pati donned several hats all at once, including cinematography, editing, producer, scriptwriting other than directing. “He was also different from someone like Mani Kaul, who adhered to structure. He was loose in his treatment, playful and a genuine experimenter,” she says.

According to both Gangar and Heredia, their screenings of Pati’s films in 1976 and 2004 respectively, invoked overwhelming response from the audience. “People loved Pati’s films because they were really modern contemporary works,” says Heredia, who has shown Pati’s films in institutions such as Tate Modern, London, and Toronto Art Museum.

Artist Abid Surti, who collaborated with Pati for Abid, perhaps captures this aspect best in a note he wrote for a Retrospective of Pati’s films in MIFF, 1998. “His films seem incongruous for the time it was made; they feel closer to MTV’s graphics than FD’s documentaries.”

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