Ek Anek Aur Ekta: How Vijaya Mulay's 1974 animated short film reflected the optimism of a young nation

Aditya Mani Jha

Jun 02, 2019 09:35:32 IST

People learn in the darndest ways. A fair cross-section of British millennials today grew up learning team play, fairness and even counting from the Teletubbies. Think about that; the educational tool in this case was a bunch of humaniform creatures with televisions embedded in their tummies. At the time of the show’s release in the late ‘90s, The New York Times had called it “slightly surreal” (read: unintentionally trippy). Not to put too fine a point on things, I always thought those Teletubbies were up to their eyeballs in uppers, probably coke. No creature —  man or teletubby — could be that consistently ecstatic. Of course, the British were neither alone nor early in recognising the potential of films and shows made with the express purpose of educating children. America had invested in state-sponsored educational programming since the Interwar years, and this really took off post WWII. China, where illiteracy was a big issue in the first half of the 20th century, formed state-owned film studios from the 1930s onwards, where the mandate was to educate the people and reorient their lives along the lines of state-approved ideals.

In India, however, perhaps the single most influential piece of educational programming wouldn’t arrive until 1974 — this was Ek Anek Aur Ekta (One, Many and Unity), a seven-minute animation film written and directed by Vijaya Mulay, who passed away earlier this month, aged 98. A documentarian, film historian, educator and former head of the NCERT’s Center for Educational Technology (CET), Mulay also received a National Award for Best Educational Film for Ek Anek Aur Ekta.

Edutainment and the Nehruvian ethos

The short film teaches children about the classic ‘unity in diversity’ theme that newly-independent India put such a high premium on (at least on paper). It does so through a young girl teaching her little brother about the titular concepts through a flock of birds. When a hunter captures some of them in his net, the rest of the birds gather around, lift it collectively and fly away, net in tow. A kindly bunch of mice then gnaw away at the net, eventually freeing the captive birds.

In a New York Times interview from 2012, Mulay recounted how the film came to be in the first place. When she was working in the Education Ministry as part of the CET, Mulay was tasked with making a series of films for children, working in tandem with UNICEF — the model was Britain’s Play School initiative and similar measures employed by the US government.

As Mulay said, “The programming for health and agriculture was undertaken by Doordarshan; however the Education Ministry decided to make programmes for education for part of the time allocated to it. Since Doordarshan programming has always been more for children of the 9-plus age group, we felt that though the target group was fixed as the 6-to-12 age group, there was hardly anything that would engage the attention of younger children of the 6-to-9 age group. Also, the usual didactic programming would not be of much use.”

The young girl was voiced by the then-six-year-old Sadhna Sargam, who’d later become one of the breakout playback stars of the ‘90s, with chartbusters like ‘Saat Samundar Paar’ from the film Vishwatma. The closing song, ‘Hind Desh Ke Niwasi’, would become a Doordarshan staple, as would the film itself — generations of Indian children would grow up watching it and humming along to the lyrics. The fact of the kindly older sister narrating the fable is not a coincidence. While researching films set in India later, in her seventies, Mulay later wrote, “A major feature of the patriarchy syndrome has been that only the male characters can be agents of action. The strong, intelligent and noble male acts; the passive woman usually suffers in silence”. It’s clear that she wanted to turn this around in her own work.

There are very solid reasons behind the popularity and enduring appeal of Ek Anek Aur Ekta. Like the aforementioned coked-up Teletubbies, it kept things simple and to the point. The music was loopy and rhythmic while the lyrics were easy to remember. Moreover, kids everywhere are very comfortable with animal metaphors. As Jacques Derrida and others have pointed out, animals are the first Other for a child, the first “not-me” creatures they encounter (this also speaks to why attitudes towards birds/animals are often assessed to figure out child neurosis patterns). Animals cannot speak, but the child quickly realises that they too have free will. Animals cannot walk on two legs, but the child quickly realises that they can and often do move quicker, more efficiently than itself. It is this ‘unequal equality’, this subliminal tension between familiarity and the alien that storytellers use to put their point across.

Ek Anek Aur Ekta: How Vijaya Mulays 1974 animated short film reflected the optimism of a young nation

Vijaya Mulay. Image via Facebook/@nfaiofficial

Ek Anek Aur Ekta also belonged to, dare we say, simpler times. Although the events of the Emergency would change that soon, circa 1974 we were still a nation in infancy. Government jobs were still top of the hill and governments hadn’t lost the trust of the people entirely — yet (although the events of the Emergency would change that soon). Nehruvian ideas of nation-building were still in vogue.  The legacy of the CET belonged to this realm: think about the genteel picture-books published by the National Book Trust (which was started in Nehru’s time, in 1957), for example. In Ek Anek Aur Ekta’s hopeful tone and overall messaging, we see the optimism of a young nation. Does it sound saccharine today? On some days, sure. But this was a product intended for children, after all, and a child deserves hope before they inevitably meet cynicism.

Film buff, historian, maverick

In the introduction to Mulay’s 2010 book From Rajahs and Yogis to Gandhi and Beyond: Images of India in the International Films of the Twentieth Century (published by Seagull Books, we get to see the beginnings of her devotion to movies). “My love affair with cinema began more than 60 years ago, in 1940, the year of my marriage,” Mulay writes. The young woman who would ride her bicycle all across Bombay (“I never covered my head with the end of my sari”) without a care in the world had to “curb her Bombayite independence” as a married woman in Patna, where women did not have the same freedoms and “mixed company was unthinkable”.

With entertainment options suddenly limited, Mulay took to cinema very quickly. “My husband and I both enjoyed the cinema and saw almost every film, especially the English ones shown at half price on Sunday mornings at the local theatres. Neither of us had any religious bent. Our friends joked about our regular ‘church’ visits, by which they meant our Sunday attendance at the ‘bioscopes’, as the film theatres were then called. We discussed the films amongst ourselves and with friends. Out of these viewings and discussions, I acquired some understanding of the language and grammar of film.”

Ek Anek Aur Ekta is rightly considered a classic today, but it’s important to remember its ultimate purpose — to inculcate a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect, traits in short supply in our country today

Ek Anek Aur Ekta is rightly considered a classic today, but it’s important to remember its ultimate purpose — to inculcate a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect, traits in short supply in our country today

Later in the same chapter, Mulay also details her lifelong friendships with Satyajit Ray and Louis Malle — the latter’s letters to Mulay are included in the book as one of the Appendices. When Mulay decided to make a film for the first time, in 1967, she chose to tell the story of the Hooghly river’s tidal bore, a phenomenon where the tide from the Bay of Bengal comes crashing down the river, often reaching heights of up to 15 feet (“Why did the tide rise almost vertically on one side of the shore on some days? Why did it flow in normally on others? My friends did not know”). Ray himself agreed to do the commentary for this documentary, while Malle very generously sent her negative film stock from Paris. Her daughters assisted Mulay financially (“as a loan if I could return it or as a donation if I could not”).

Making The Tidal Bore was a bit of an eye-opener for Mulay — she realised that the medium held great untapped educational potential.

“The film, made on a shoestring budget, taught me a lot about filmmaking; it also taught me to be more humble and tolerant in criticising similar first efforts by others. But, best of all, I realised what an effective educational tool a good film could be, making as it does distant lands and people tangible and real to children and at the same time clarifying difficult and abstract notions through the visual medium. (…) The Tidal Bore was a descriptive, informative film. Later, I made others that aimed at stimulating and encouraging viewers.”

Ek Anek Aur Ekta is rightly considered a classic today, but it’s important to remember its ultimate purpose — to inculcate a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect, traits in short supply in our country today. In many ways, India over the last decade or so has clung stubbornly to certain old-fashioned ideas: what counts as ‘progress’, who is a ‘strong leader’ and so on. As Mulay wrote in Rajahs and Yogis, “values and mores are not absolutes or sacred cows; if they have outlived their raison d'etre, one should not be afraid to alter or even discard them”. We’d all do well to remember these words.

Updated Date: Jun 05, 2019 11:15:45 IST