Crash course in Indian experimentalism: an interview with filmmaker Shai Heredia | Bleader

Crash course in Indian experimentalism: an interview with filmmaker Shai Heredia



Pramod Pati combined a variety of visual and sonic techniques in his classic short Trip (1970)
  • Pramod Pati combined a variety of visual and sonic techniques in his classic short Trip (1970)
Wednesday at 4:30 PM, Doc Films will host Experimenta India, a traveling two-part program of experimental Indian films curated by filmmaker and programmer Shai Heredia. It should make for an informative introduction to an area of film history that’s barely known in this country, and Heredia and University of Chicago professor Rochona Majumdar will be on hand to explain the cultural context from which it emerged (for a sneak preview, you can watch one film in the program, Pramod Pati's 1970 short Trip, here). Last week I contacted Heredia for a brief lesson in the Indian experimental tradition; our conversation follows the jump.

Ben Sachs: Could you tell me about the films in these programs?

Shai Heredia: The first program looks at historical [experimental] work from the late 60s and early 70s, which was often produced by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting under the Indian government. There was a period when they made very experimental work—there was a community of artists at Films Division making this work. The films are pretty radical, and they were often shown in the cinemas before features!

The contemporary program has four works by women experimental filmmakers, because I felt that this is a vibrant time [for female artists in India]. There are women working in different styles and exploring different ideas across the country. There’s really a wide variety of work that’s being made.

Sachs: Do the films in the first program represent the earliest experimental filmmaking in India, or were there experimental traditions prior to these?

Heredia: Well, experimental film doesn’t really exist as a genre [in India] as it does in the U.S. Like, Dadasaheb Phalke directed the first feature film in India, but prior to that, he was making these experiments with time-lapse photography in the 1920s. He’s considered the father of Indian cinema, but he was also a photographer, a printmaker, and a sculptor. He taught himself how to use a camera and how to process his own work—he was just interested in different technologies. So, some of us consider him the first experimental filmmaker from our part of the world.

Dadasaheb Phalke
  • Dadasaheb Phalke
Sachs: Do you see his influence on the films in this program?

Heredia: I think that’s a big leap to take, but I do think that those of us who have had access to his work have found it really inspiring. His work is definitely an inspiration for the experimental community. He also had some interesting ideas about performance—he was working back in the day when women weren’t acting, so there are men in drag [in his films], and sometimes he got his daughter to perform.

Sachs: Could you tell me a bit more about the climate that produced this wave of experimental films in the 60s and 70s?

Heredia: Prior to independence, Films Division of India was essentially a British propaganda unit, documenting India and presenting newsreels across the country. With independence, the [new national] government shut down Films Division—so when Jawaharlal Nehru was making his first speech, “A Tryst With Destiny,” there was no way to shoot it. Nehru had a socialist vision for India, and he considered science institutions to be like modern temples; he wanted to develop science and technology as part of his plan for a socialist utopia. He reinstituted Films Division in the late 40s to provide information for the country. It produced a lot of straight documentaries, but it also had a strong connection to the Soviet style of filmmaking. A lot of filmmakers in India were training with Soviet technicians—some went to Slovakia to train, even.

In the late 60s, Indira Gandhi appointed this producer Nagary to head Films Division, and he was critical of that kind of straight documentary filmmaking. He felt the country needed more film artists, so he created an atmosphere at Films Division where people could experiment. They started doing found-footage stuff, crazy animation, some radical montage work. . . . He orchestrated for [Indian] filmmakers to train with Czechoslovakian filmmakers [who were doing more avant-garde work at the time]—like, this one guy, Pramod Pati, trained with the great animator Jiri Trnka. And Pati is one of the leading pioneers, in my book.

But then there was the Emergency of 1975, and that kind of ended everything. A lot of criticism of these filmmakers surfaced—that they were wasting the public’s money, et cetera. So, Films Division went back to making straight newsreels and things like that. But those experimental traditions have reemerged in the last few decades.