Mulay and Indira Gandhi, the late Prime Minister of India, meeting regarding the film society movement in India.

Mulay and Deco Film director Paul Zils.

Mulay with the Rector of Poland’s Lodz Film School Jerzy Toeplitz.

Indian filmmakers K.A. Abbas, Vijaya Mulay, and H. Mukherjee.

Mulay at a Tokyo conference.

Production still from Nana (Grandfather): Peasant revolutionary Nana Patil took up armed revolt against the British in 1942 after the arrest of Gandhi and other national leaders.

A peasant revolutionary describing his experiences for Nana. While fighting the British, the revolutionaries set up a parallel government and carried out social reforms and land redistribution.

From left to right, Vijaya Mulay; Gangubai Hangal, musician protagonist of film; Suhasini Mulay, actress, documentarist, and Vijaya’s daughter; N. Rao, cameraman.

Indian film pioneer Vijaya Mulay looks back on her career:

Pather Panchali
(the story of the road)

by Vijaya Mulay

Learning to love film

My love affair with film began 62 years ago in 1940, the year of my marriage. That was the year I went from Bombay to Patna, located in the province of Bihar where my husband was working. I had read about the variegated tapestry of cultures, religions, landscapes, languages, and people in India, but Bihar provided me with my first direct experience of this infinite diversity and plurality. I travelled now not only to a different universe but back in time. If Bombay was the most cosmopolitan and modern Indian city, Patna was its opposite. And, one of the ironies of history is that while in ancient times, Bombay was just a cluster of huts, a large part of India was ruled from Patna, the capital of the emperors Ashoka and Chandragupta.[1] In those days it was called Pataliputra but because of its importance, it was referred to as Pattan, which in Sanskrit means the capital. The Greek ambassador Megasthenes and early Chinese travellers have written glowing accounts of its beauty, wealth, wisdom, and arts. But when I reached it about 2300 years later, it had long since lost its prominence.

In Bombay I never covered my head with the end of my sari, I participated in sports and dramatics, and I loved to wander on my bicycle as and when I pleased. Girls still sat in the front rows in coeducational-school and college class rooms, but in Bombay if a girl came in late and sat at the back with the boys, nobody raised an eyebrow. In contrast, Patna in 1940 was hard on women. Mixed company was unthinkable. Except for the very poor, no woman walked down the streets. When women went out, they took “phaetons” and rickshaws. Young women had chaperons. Married women covered their heads and kept their eyes on the floor when talking to elders. I created a minor sensation a few days after my arrival when I took my husband’s bicycle and ventured out to see the city. Children ran after me, weaving in and out of my path, calling others to see this strange sight. That excursion got me into trouble. I learnt the hard way to curb my Bombay ways.

I hardly knew anybody from the local communities. I was adept in Marathi, my mother tongue; but my knowledge of Hindi and Bengali, languages needed to communicate in Bihar, was very poor; my English was good enough for reading but not for speaking. Moreover, to make friends people need some common ground of experience, work, and ideas, which only happened when I started going to college. My husband had had to abandon his university education because of financial constraints, but he was very keen that I should not suffer the same fate although he could not afford to send me to college since he earned only 120 rupees per month.[2] Patna University fortunately permitted women to study privately in order to sit for its examinations. So I studied at home for my bachelor’s degree, learnt Hindi and a little Bengali, and when our finances got better, I attended college on a regular basis to complete my master’s degree.

But until I went to college, improved my language abilities and made friends, I had little diversions except reading, studying and watching films. We both enjoyed the cinema and saw almost every film, especially the English ones shown at half price on Sunday mornings at the local theatres. Since 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 theatres were then called. We discussed the films between us and also with friends, and it was from these viewings and discussions that I acquired some understanding of the language and grammar of film.

In 1946 I won a state scholarship to study in Britain. Ironically by then I did not want to go as my second daughter was only nine months old. But my husband insisted, arguing that India would soon become independent and need educated women like me. His final argument was unbeatable. Fathers, he said, were also parents, and with a little help from family members like my younger sister, our two daughters would fare quite well. That’s how I went to the University of Leeds for my master’s degree in Education.

When I went abroad, I witnessed the sweeping changes that had taken place in post-war Britain. Many of my classmates and friends had fought and seen war’s horrible, ugly face. Old values were being re-examined and discarded or changed. Especially important for me, most young people no longer had faith in the White Man’s Burden or the Empire. I had gone to Britain feeling great distaste for the British; my sole purpose for visiting was higher education. I was on guard and ready to take offence at the slightest derogatory remark to me or to India, whether imagined or real. But I soon found out that ordinary English folks were hardly like the English “Burra Saabs” (Great Masters) one saw back home. True, some of the people I met had funny notions. The mother of a girl in a school where I taught as part of my study expressed surprise I had not met her brother who was serving in Burma. She had no idea that Burma was a different country or that, in any case, ordinary Indians and British people did not meet socially. I was happy to find that the university atmosphere was free and friendly. One ardent student supporter of the Conservative Party even wanted me to explain why I did not like British rule in India.

The Second World War had just ended and brought a sea change in outlook—at least in the university environment. People expressed sympathy for the Indian cause and admired Nehru and Gandhi. But perhaps the greatest admiration was expressed for the Soviet Union’s fighting the heroic battle of Stalingrad, annihilating the powerful and better equipped German army. War-time slogans urging the Churchill Government to open a second front still remained plastered on university walls. Despite the beginning of the cold war and the Marshall plan in which the U.S. poured billions of dollars into Europe as a tool to fight Communism, Socialism was in the air and the Labour party was victorious in the elections. The workers’ Unity Theatre played to full houses. Films from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe ran often in theatres. In this charged and heady atmosphere, I saw film classics, experimental films, and Socialist cinema. I also gained a better perspective and understanding of the cinematic art by joining the university film society. Film viewing, once a casual pastime, became my serious passion.

On my return to Patna in 1949 I actively participated in the nascent film society movement of India. Since these film societies were the only institutions promoting a different kind of cinema, some of us decided to start the Patna Film Society. Later in 1954 I was appointed Education Officer in the Central Ministry of Education and moved to Delhi; there I found more people like myself and we started the Delhi Film Society. Later eight film societies came together to form the Federation of Film Societies of India in 1959. Satyajit Ray was the Federation’s founding president; Chidanand Dasgupta, a well-known film critic and a founder member of Calcutta Film Society, and I were elected its first joint secretaries.

Locating one’s self 

Locating oneself as a preamble to study in any discursive field is now generally accepted as a useful practice which I am following by giving this personal account. As J.K. Fairbanks remarked whilst talking about historians, “Writers of history are not just observers. They are themselves part of the act and need to observe themselves in action.”[3] I think not only historians but also all those who assess works of others – be it in the fields of literature, films or art must also observe their own selves in action and provide some record of their background and how their work was developed. Such a record is salutary both for the writer and readers. Such information that tells the story of the road the person has travelled makes for better perception and communication.

As I read Fairbank’s ideas about history writing, I remembered how my anti-British attitude developed in my formative years. Since I was ten, the Indian National Freedom Movement had been part of my consciousness. “Swadeshi,” “satyagraha,” and “khadi”[4] were live concepts for my generation. Our elders encouraged us not only to read about our national thinkers and leaders but also about patriots from other countries who fought for their people. I read Marathi books on Garibaldi of Italy, Booker T. Washington of black America, and De Valera of Ireland. We spun cotton on our spindles,[5] participated in protests when Mahatma Gandhi was jailed; we went in processions with the tricolour flag, singing national songs[6] and shouting anti-British slogans. I had never seen an Englishman in Badlapur, my tiny village in the foothills of Maharashtra’s Western Ghats, but that was of no consequence. When I grew up I understood the objectives of the National Movement except I could not follow Mahatma Gandhi’s wisdom—“to hate the British rule but not the British people.” I was very anti-British when I left for England in 1946, and that attitude did not change until I lived in Britain and learnt better.

I also remember my work with the Film Censor Board of India. In 1962 my Ministry deputed me to Bombay to work at the Central Board of Film Censors, as the Board wanted somebody well informed about films. For five years I sat as the presiding officer with other four members from an approved panel that judged Indian and foreign films. It gave me an insight into the biases of panellists that coloured their judgement of a film’s suitability for public viewing. With few exceptions, most panellists were pensioners and well-to-do women, mostly housewives, who could afford to watch films in the morning or afternoon of a workday. I remember how strongly one of them objected to a film of a Russian ballet on the ground that the dancers’ tutus exhibited rather a lot of leg and shoulders. No reasoning of any kind would satisfy her. Finally after recording her minority opinion I passed the film without cuts for universal exhibition.

My work with the Film Censor Board proved a mixed blessing. I had to see films that ordinarily I would have walked out of in sheer boredom. But in those five years I saw a huge number and variety of films (about 3,000 to 4,000 including shorts). Most were quite poor, in the sense that I would not have chosen them for a film society screening. But I did take heart when I realized that if I made a film, it could not be worse than many I certified. I knew then that I longed to try my hand at filmmaking. The other good outcome of this assignment was I received a transfer in 1966 to the Censor Board’s Calcutta office. There I had a light workload and more free time than in Bombay. In this way, I got to observe the way Satyajit Ray and other Bengali directors worked.

My first film

Both Ray and Louis Malle, whom I met in Calcutta, when he came there with a French film delegation in 1967, encouraged me to indulge my desire of making a film. I decided to take the plunge once I found a suitable subject. That happened soon enough. To get to my office I had to go along the Hooghly River where, on certain days, I would see the amazing Tidal Bore phenomenon, that is, the tide coming in from the Bay of Bengal like a wall of water, often 15 feet high. That aspect of nature intrigued me. Why did the tide come vertically on one side of the shore on some days but flow in normally on other days? My friends did not know so I approached the officers at the Port Trust of Calcutta who were delighted with my interest in the phenomenon. They drew charts and talked about celerity and surface tension of water that apparently changed with the amount of silt in the river basin.

I hardly understood any of it and it took me some time to learn how and why bores are caused. I thought of making a film on Tidal Bores that explained in simple language what it was all about and also communicated the thrill and the drama of what I had experienced. Regularly while watching films, whenever I saw technical excellence, I noted names of talented young technicians who were not then well known, and from them I assembled a production team. Ray agreed to speak the commentary. Malle sent me some negative film stock from Paris. My friends and daughters assisted me in my venture with money, as a loan if I could return it or a donation if I could not. I also borrowed some money on my insurance policy.

I then left the Censor Board, went back to my parent Ministry of Education and made my first documentary in 1967-68 on a shoestring budget. That project taught me a lot about filmmaking, and most important, it also taught me to be more humble and tolerant in criticizing the first efforts of others when I wrote about films. The Tidal Bore, my first film, had modest success in that the Indian Government sent it as its official entry to the Mannheim Film Festival. Later the Films Division bought the film for public circulation in theatres all over the country. That minor success enabled me to pay off my loans but best of all, it vetted my appetite to use media in a more meaningful manner in which the viewers especially children and teachers would be challenged to think and act. I wanted to explore the entire media and communication field.

Multi-media for development

The opportunity to do so came when India decided to embark on the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE). The goal of this program was to test the feasibility of communication satellites to reach “backward” areas and populations to activate them for bettering themselves. The U.S. had agreed to loan India their ATS6 communication satellite for one year; it had one video channel and two audio channels. UNICEF hired me for two months to make test modules aimed at children in the 6 to 9 age-group. I made two modules using different techniques and strategies that were field tested and proved to be both effective and popular. In 1975 I was asked to head the newly established Centre for Educational Technology (CET) to design appropriate education technologies. Our immediate task was to prepare educational films for broadcast via the American satellite to primary schools in 2400 villages in backward rural districts, in 6 states. It meant programming in four languages.

CET decided that our programming should be for teacher training in areas in which new educational programs like a new curricula in science teaching was initiated by the National Centre of Education Research and Training (NCERT). Its motto was “Science is doing.” It placed emphasis on students’ discovering the world around them through activities. Most teachers were used to traditional teaching modes that relied on memorizing and clueless about translating the motto into practice. Moreover, they hardly had any materials to conduct classroom activities, and their own knowledge in science, even for teaching it in the lower grades, was limited. My colleagues and I well understood that a 22 minute TV program could hardly have a lasting impact on teachers, especially in regards to changing their attitudes and teaching methods. We therefore devised a two-week multimedia program to be used in teacher training camps. The camps, with one high school teacher in charge (trained by CET to act as a guide and answer questions of teachers), were held in each of the 2400 villages; teachers from surrounding villages were invited to live in that “TV village” for the camp’s duration.

The multimedia components were television and radio broadcasts —“radio-vision” programs, specially prepared booklets for further reading, and manuals for instruction in several practical activities that a teacher could do with no cost or low cost materials, to be used under the guidance of a senior teacher in charge to iron out wrinkles. We also devised fail-safe alternatives for the video programs in case electricity failed at the time of broadcast. Our “TV Village” project was closely monitored and assessed by several national and international agencies including CET. In that one-year we ran the whole teacher training program twice, each time with about 24000 teachers. After the first trial we made some changes that our research team suggested. It was one of the most successful SITE programs, and in a year our outreach was 48000 teachers.

This project taught me several things. First, never trust the experts’ advice on teachers’ needs and skills, especially if coming from those who have never taught in a rural school. The teacher those experts visualize is a mythical figure. I asked the experts devising the new science curricula to give me a list of 15 topics they considered difficult for teachers to understand since I was to direct CET’s multimedia program, including television programs, around these topics. Thankfully CET decided to test their list in the field and found it wide off the mark. The second lesson the project taught me was never to overload the program with content, and third, I learned to keep the language as lucid as possible. After I saw how long a teacher in a poor area had to pour over communications received from above to make sense of them, I decided to phrase our communications in terms that were simple and lucid.

Research in film studies

In terms of my own academic work, most of my research work has been in the field of education and using media for development. I have made and written on films and have even taught a course on film appreciation at the Film and Television Institute of India. But barring researching for films I made, I have not undertaken any research work in film studies. At the ripe age of 78, one ordinarily does not embark on a major project of the kind that I have now undertaken. What propelled me was the death of a friend.

The notion of studying films on India made by non-Indians crossed my mind during the 1995 Festival of New Films and Videos in Montreal as I watched David Thompson’s film on Jean Renoir made by the BBC Omnibus series. In the section relating to Renoir’s film The River, based on a Rumer Godden novel, Adrienne Corri, who acted in The River, spoke eloquently about the French director. She said Renoir’s spirits revived in making a film in India. He was very unhappy with his Hollywood experience. I had also read about Rossellini’s Indian experience and his enthusiasm for India, so I thought it might be worthwhile for somebody (not me) to examine what India has given to such sensitive and creative filmmakers like Renoir and Rossellini.

Louis Malle’s death in November 1995 eventually moved me to pursue this new project. Malle first came to Calcutta in 1967 with a film delegation. Since I was the highest-ranking officer dealing with films in Calcutta, my bosses in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting asked me to arrange meetings with the delegation and program a festival of French films. The famous director and I set off on a wrong footing when Malle learnt that I was the Censor Officer. At the dinner in honour of the delegation he was sitting next to me and could not wait to express his disgust at my job. On the cover of the festival brochure he wrote down, “I hate all Censors,” and passed it to me. I was taken aback. But I had read about the troubles that he had with censorship in France and USA. I suppose I also vaguely remembered how once I myself had looked at all British people with a jaundiced eye. I somehow managed a smile but asked him how he expected me to take his remark. Should I consider it a poor joke and laugh it off or ignore it with a stiff upper lip? He was immediately contrite and apologized. I suppose he inquired about me later and learnt that I was a film buff and not bad as censor officers go.

Our acquaintance soon changed into a strong friendship that survived the barriers of distance for twenty-eight years. In the glittering cinema business, I have never met anybody who despite his talents was so modest. Malle was warm-hearted and had a childlike curiosity. He also had the capacity and desire to probe beyond the obvious. He hated the poverty and obvious misery he saw in Calcutta’s streets, but he was also aware of the strength that under girds Calcutta and its people. He visited Orissa where, sleeping under the stars and talking to fishermen, he saw a different world and a culture that charmed and soothed him. He had been under stress for some time; he was at odds with Gaullist France. So he decided to get to know India better in the only way he knew – filmmaking. In his first letter to me from Paris he wrote about his resolve to come back, expressing delight that the Julie Christie project he was committed to was postponed.[7]

That many Indians and the Indian Government condemned Malle’s India films without even seeing them distressed me. I had seen them and knew that no censor officer could invoke any censorship rule to ban them. I immediately wrote an article for the journal Filmfare. Years before, I had met Prime Minister Indira Gandhi several times when she was the vice-president of the Federation of the Film Societies of India and I, its secretary; and later again when I was a censor officer and she in charge of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. I knew how she had rescued S. Sukhdev, a very talented documentary filmmaker, when censors insisted on some cuts in his work.[8] I suggested Malle write to the Prime Minister and I personally carried his letter to Mrs. Gandhi in which he urged his films at least be viewed before being condemned. Three days later her social secretary called saying the anger was not directed at Malle but the BBC; Mrs. Gandhi would personally view the films and sort the matter out. But that never happened as India was soon plunged into a war against Pakistan over Bangladesh.[9]

I spoke to Malle on the phone a few days before his death. I made plans to visit him in Los Angeles. But that was not to happen. Later, after his death, when I was going over his letters, as a part of remembering him, I realized something that I had not grasped before: how India had changed Malle. I had not fully comprehended it because the information had come to me in bits and pieces. Here was a first-hand experience of how one non-Indian filmmaker, a very creative and sensitive one, perceived India—and why. I could not wait in the hopes that someone younger than myself would take up a study about how non-Indian filmmakers perceived India.

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