By VK Cherian
The first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, is known for his development model and how it shaped the country. But an aspect that is not often highlighted is his contribution to the field of Indian cinema. Nehru was a known cinephile who not only played an integral part in the emergence of Bollywood, but also supported and encouraged the genre of ‘films with a message’.
This was particularly relevant, as has been pointed out by Aruna Vasudev, a documentary filmmaker and an eminent scholar on Asian cinema, in her book, The New Indian Cinema (1986). She wrote that until 1951, cinema was ‘treated at worst as a reprehensible, though unavoidable, social catastrophe, at best a barbarous pastime for the uncultured’ and gave the entire credit of the development of the Indian film industry to the Film Enquiry Committee (FEC) set up by Nehru in 1949. The committee examined the state of the film industry and proposed measures to further its development along desirable lines.
While the government focused on the development of post-Independent India, Nehru did not fail to include the film sector as part of his vision. Based on the FEC report, he called for a national seminar in 1955. With BN Sircar as the chairman, Devika Rani as the executive director and Prithviraj Kapoor as the director, the six-day seminar offered recommendations for an institutional structure, such as training, archiving and funding of films for new talent to change the course of Indian films.
Films, development and diplomacy
While some saw cinema as a catastrophe, Nehru viewed it as a tool for the education and development of the country’s identity. During his inaugural speech at the first International Film Festival of India in January 1952, Nehru stressed the need for more cultural interventions in the field of films. ‘Film has become a powerful influence in people’s lives. It can educate them rightly or wrongly… I mean that they should introduce artistic and aesthetical values in life and encourage the appreciation of beauty in all its aspects. I hope that films which are just sensational or melodramatic or such as make capital out of crime, will not be encouraged. If our film industry keeps this ideal before it, it will encourage good taste and help pave its own way in the building of a new India...,’ he said.
Nehru realised the need for aligning the Indian film sector with the best of global trends and invited Parsi polymath and filmmaker Jean Bhownagary to be the information adviser to the newly formed Indian government in 1951. In fact, it was Bhownagary who had organised the first International Film Festival of India in 1952. Furthering this vision of promoting Indian creative arts through cinema, Nehru then brought in British film scholar Marie Seton —an old associate of Nehru’s confidant, Krishna Menon.
Seton landed in India in the summer of 1955 and played a major role in the governmental acceptance of Satyajit Ray’s first film Pather Panchali (1955). She became Nehru’s and his daughter Indira Gandhi’s eyes and ears on Indian films, lecturing on film appreciation across the country, their emergence on the global map and unified the sporadic film society activity in cities across India.
Under Nehru’s leadership, the government laid the foundation for cataclysmic changes in Indian films over the decades. These included the formation of the Film Finance Corporation (FCC) in 1960 [which became the National Film Development Corporation (NDFC) in 1975], establishment of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) at Pune in 1960 and the formation of the National Film Archives of India in 1964. ‘With the FFC’s policy decision in 1968 to start giving loans to new film-makers for “small budget, offbeat” films, the means of production were radically expanded and the ground work for arrival of alternate cinema was laid,' Vasudev wrote in her book.
Ever the statesman, Nehru was also well-versed with the skill of using the appeal of film stars as a tool of diplomacy. He would often ask filmmakers KA Abbas, Prithviraj Kapoor, Raj Kapoor and actor Nargis to lead and be part of cultural delegations abroad. Fuelling the fascination of countries such as Russia and Egypt with Indian films, the inclusion of members of the film fraternity was significant in international diplomatic relations.
Nehruvian ideals in cinema
‘Apart from the policies relating to films, Nehru’s “occidental” impulses in bringing modernity to the traditional society emerging from the yoke of colonialism influenced themes in films of people like KA Abbas and Chetan Anand in the 1950s,’ said Darius Cooper, Professor of Literature and Film and Humanities in English of San Diego Mesa College, USA. He focuses on two films from 1954 that literally presented ‘Chacha’, or Uncle Nehru, and how children responded to the Nehruvian utopia of the first Five-Year Plan. In Raj Kapoor’s Boot Polish, the orphaned brother and sister go from the shameful act of begging to the more honest activity of boot polishing. This symbolised Nehru’s vision for the inclusion of all marginalised communities. And Chetan Anand’s Taxi Driver, which represented the maligned Anglo-Indian community as actual characters in the film’s narrative. Even Shri 420 was a ‘weak stereotypical critique of Nehru’s urbanised progressive schemes’.
Thus Nehru not only initiated policies but also influenced the creativity of a host of artists in filmmaking as well. When Nargis attacked Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali for selling Indian poverty abroad, Nehru justified the ‘poverty portrayed with empathy’ in the film, influencing national acceptance. All these decades later, Ray’s debut film is widely recognised among the all-time 100 best global films. Indeed, Nehru inspired and promoted a generation of creative artists in independent India, many of whom such as Ray, went on to make their mark on the global map of films.
VK Cherian is a senior media professional, film society activist and author of India’s Film Society Movement: The Journey and its Impact (Sage, 2017).
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Updated Date: May 28, 2019 10:16:01 IST