More than 1,500 filmmakers, academics, students, and members of the civil society signed a letter Thursday, as part of a signature campaign, to be presented to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The letter opposes the Centre’s decision to merge the public-funded institutions Films Division (FD), National Film Archive of India (NFAI), Directorate of Film Festivals (DFF), and Children’s Films Society of India (CFSI), with the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), before the end of January.
The ministry, under former I&B minister Prakash Javadekar, had announced in December last year to merge the four public bodies with NFDC, a “loss-making” public sector undertaking.
In the letter, dated December 19, 2021, the signatories expressed surprise that the 2019 Bimal Julka High-Powered Committee report was submitted “without engaging with the primary stakeholders”, including “members of the film fraternity and employees of the above-mentioned institutions”. It further raises concern about the fraternity/public’s “inaccessibility of the original report” in spite of an RTI application. It seeks the release of the original report, on the basis of which the restructuring is taking place. The Ministry, in a statement last year, had recommended a review of the functioning/closure of NFDC and CFSI, to be merged under an “Umbrella Organisation”, which, technically, should have been Films Division, the biggest of all these five entities, with over 400 employees across India, says a senior official at the FD.
The signatories include actor Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah, Sonali Kulkarni, filmmakers Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Goutam Ghose, Vikramaditya Motwane, Ashim Ahluwalia, Gitanjali Rao, Nandita Das, Pushpendra Singh, Sanjay Kak, Payal Kapadia, Sanal K Sasidharan, cinematographer RV Ramani, editor and IDSFFK artistic director Bina Paul, lyricist-writer Varun Grover, among others.
Filmmaker Prateek Vats, one of the drafters of the letter, said, “There is a deliberate attempt to create confusion and obfuscate things. Earlier, meetings would take place and the minutes would be shared in public domain. Right now, we don’t know the state of affairs as no information has been handed out. One day we are told that these institutions will be ‘merged’, later we are told that they are being ‘shut down’. These institutions have existed for a while, of course, they need an upgrade. But shutting down things is not the way.”
In a letter dated December 7, 2021, addressed to I&B Minister Anurag Thakur, Kerala’s Rajya Sabha MP John Brittas asserted the “merger” of the four public bodies under NFDC is a “deviation from the recommendations of Bimal Julka Committee Report”, and sought clarity to address the fears of possible “real-estate business” in the matter as well as “the uncertainty about the future of non-profit activities of FD, NFAI, and DFF”. A week later, the Centre ordered the shutting down of all the FD branches, NFAI and CFSI before January end. “Nobody I know of has seen the Bimal Julka Committee Report,” said Vats.
The signatories urge the government to “declare FD, NFAI, CFSI archives as National Heritage”, seek “transparency” and an “abeyance” in the restructuring process of these institutions till these issues are addressed. “Obviously, this merger doesn’t seem to behove well for the larger good of preserving our film history. Some of these institutions have recorded India’s history almost since independence. Let there be wider public debate with stakeholders and concerned citizens before any drastic policy decision is taken,” says film historian Amrit Gangar. His team set up the first computerised database of all FD production of films since inception in 1948 to 1991. He was the curator for National Museum of Indian Cinema set up by FD under MIB.
“We are able to make films, especially documentary films, only with foreign funding, where we go with begging bowls. On one hand, you say Make in India, and on the other hand, you are privatising government/public bodies. They tried to privatise FTII, too. International grants are highly competitive, and don’t give grants to films on art and culture, or history – which the FD and Public Service Broadcasting Trust supported. PSBT has stopped commissioning/funding, but when they did, hundreds of films were made in a year. FD and PSBT support enabled regional films and non-cosmopolitan, non-English-speaking filmmakers from smaller towns and villages. With this merger/closure, whatever little support there was to us, goes away,” says documentary filmmaker Nishtha Jain. She mentions that FD properties and that of the other bodies are situated in prime locations, and there might be corporate/real-estate interest in them going forward.
Plus, if the new body under NFDC will “target the OTTs, it defeats the purpose” as for that Bollywood is already there. “The big OTTs in India don’t showcase Indian documentary films, and if the films are even slightly critical of the government or the majoritarian ideology, those films won’t get the green light,” added Jain.
“This (merger/closure) is an attempt by the government to control the freedom of expression at every cost, to control the whole ecosystem of audiovisual medium,” said National Award-winning documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, “These are public assets and should remain as such, and not controlled by a single-point person.”
In October, the Delhi High Court dismissed FD staff’s petition challenging the Cabinet “merger” decision as “premature”.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior official at FD said, “Time to time, there have been attempts to streamline FD’s activities. Established more than 70 years back, naturally, you have to. Celluloid to digital activities transition should have been streamlined long before. The 1997 Shyam Benegal Committee Report expanded the charter of the Films Division,” but the recommendations were not implemented. “After the newsreel era, filmmakers could release 20-minute social issue-based documentaries in theatres. These screenings were mandatory, and 1 percent of the income collection went to FD, but over time, this too stopped.”
FD was asked to make a film on Rajinikanth to be screened at the National Film Awards this year, before conferring the Dadasaheb Phalke Award to the actor. “We made the film, which started with a lovely interview of actor Kamal Haasan, which we were asked to cut. Rajinikanth seemed upset about it but kept quiet. This is the kind of control exerted by the PM ad cell, under the PMO, which has been micro-monitoring in the last two years. It controls an FD film’s final content even after the FD director general approves a film. You are cheating people if in the name of documentary, the films being commissioned/produced are pro-government. The censor board itself is in charge here,” said the senior official. Last week, the CBFC chief executive officer Ravinder Bhakar replaced FD director general Smita Vats Sharma and also took charge as the head of NFDC and CFSI. “The NFDC is also being used for political purposes ahead of crucial state elections,” he added.
NFAI has around 9,000 titles in its audio-visual archives, he said, adding, “Crores of money has been pumped into the National Film Heritage Mission (NFHM) project. Films of Mrinal Sen, for instance, which were anti-establishment, were restored. How will all of that fit in now? If it is used for making money, the entire meaning becomes different. Heritage archiving is to preserve our history, not to make money. When the government stops funding, it will be in the red, and they might opt for disinvestments. It’s absurd that the NFHM should go to the market. NFAI and FD Archives should be declared national heritage.” Another FD staff member added, “As employees, we should know where we are going to be? There’s no clarity from the government.”