Destabilizing the Official Film Archive from Within: S.N.S. Sastry’s And I Make Short Films
“India’s story is there on film,” said James Beveridge (Mohan 1969, 6), referring to the vast collection of Films Division of India (FD), comprised of more than 8000 films on art and culture, development and planning, citizenship and reform, children’s films, defense films, and experimental films, animations, and newsreels. India’s primary state institution of documentary and short film since independence, FD was imagined as a national audio-visual record of India’s story in all its colorful renditions—an all-knowing, positivist archive. On its twentieth anniversary, FD commissioned an experimental film on its history, And I Make Short Films, made by S.N.S. Sastry. The late 1960s saw a period of experimentation at FD under the supervision of Jehangir Bhownagary, when dissonant practices emerged and figures like Sastry, Pramod Pati, and S. Sukhdev came to the fore. And I Make Short Films self-reflexively places film experimentation within the context of national debates about the role of documentary film in a developing nation. As Sastry remixes and reappropriates footage from a variety of sources with techniques like contrapuntal audio-visual montage, the film presents a figurative history of the growing postcolonial nation. Through a focus on And I Make Short Films (1968), this chapter shows how Sastry’s film destabilizes the official archive of state sponsored films from within. In the process, the official film archive transforms into a dynamic entity that is open to foraging and activating histories that challenge a monolithic vision of the Indian nation.
Style, Insider’s Perspective, and Archival Appropriation
Documentary films in India were screened compulsorily before the feature films in theaters across the country, amidst the rising cigarette smoke of impatient audiences and the din of snack vendors. In response to such inattention, Sastry began to use what was called a “flashy and nervous” (Pendharkar 1978, 78) style, leavening serious topics with humor, self-reflexivity, and irony. He achieved many of these effects by remixing preexisting footage with other media like photographs, newspapers, and popular songs—an economical way for a filmmaker with unrestricted access to FD’s whole archive. In fact, in one of his only surviving pieces of writing, Sastry proposed recycling footage through a creative use of sound as a way to save precious raw stock, which filmmakers were always hard pressed to get (Sastry 1968, 9). But, apart from practical considerations, Sastry’s penchant for archival appropriation also derived from his deep knowledge about FD’s holdings, having previously worked as a newsreel cameraperson for FD before becoming a director. Along with the rising impetus towards experimentation during the late 1960s, Sastry’s unrestrained access to footage from FD’s films, his insider’s perspective of working within a state institution, as well as his familiarity with FD’s archive, all provided the perfect storm of incidental and intentional circumstances ripe for the practices of reuse and reappropriation that flourished in many of his films.
This is not to say that Sastry’s work is entirely singular, as various international found footage filmmakers have worked from within or with institutional archives, while trying to rewrite histories through reuse of newsreels, photographs, and posters and by reworking the archive’s own materials. There exist contemporary parallels with Sastry’s practice in the varied works of Arthur Lipsett at the National Film Board of Canada and Santiago Alvarez at the Cuban government’s Cuban Film Institute, to name a few who also made films during the 1960s and 1970s. While Sastry’s reuse and reappropriation at FD runs parallel to this international history of found footage filmmaking and reflects the influence of global developments in political and experimental cinema, his practice is steeped in specific local contexts like compulsory exhibition and constraints of institutional filmmaking at FD.
The Archive as a Promiscuous Site
Consider how an elusive sequence in And I Make Short Films intermixes a scene from a benchmark of Indian art cinema with piercing public images of a Prime Minister’s funeral. We see the young protagonist from Aparajito (1956), the second film in Satyajit Ray’s renowned Apu trilogy, look on as Sarbajaya (his mother) offers water to Harihar (his father) on his deathbed. A cut takes us to the inconsolable face of Hari Krishna Shastri in 1966, at the funeral of his father, the Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri (who succeeded Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964). A loud bang follows, and we see a close up of Harihar rising up to the water but falling back on the bed. A cutaway shot of pigeons flying away from a rooftop signals his death. Sarbajaya’s scream and a shrill flute from Aparajito continue over a series of sudden cathartic cuts as we see Nehru’s face carrying a distraught look, almost as if reacting to the news of the death from the previous scene, a tear drop falling from the eyes of a deer from one of the earliest major Indian animated films, The Banyan Deer (1957), and a shot of the burning pyre at Shastri’s funeral. As Harihar’s reel-life death and the grief of Sarbajaya and Apu runs parallel to the real-life grief of Shastri’s family, the above sequence collapses the differences between the fictional world of Apu and the domain of the Indian nation state facing the deaths of its Prime Ministers within its fateful two decades.
The scene transitions to a lot of people crying and then cuts to the shadow of a galloping horse, and we see Nehru riding it. A cleverly edited found-footage montage makes it appear that a crowd of people are looking at him in abject melancholy. An eyeline match fakes a quick exchange of nods between him and the recently elected Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Finally, we see Nehru batting in the cricket field; he hits a ball and as it goes in the air a solemn music rises. The umpire indicates that the player is out. The innings of the famed first Prime Minister of India are over, the film seems to tell us. The melancholy abruptly turns into a warning, as loud gunfire overwhelms and rages over the music and we see a shot of Nehru’s dead body covered with garlands. Gun sounds continue as we see still photographs featured in quick succession of three world leaders who were assassinated: Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King.
This sequence exposes the paternalistic dimension of the Indian state and its leaders like Nehru and Gandhi. At the same time, it reveals the international dimension of the nation’s postcolonial history from the time of its independence, as it moves from personal tragedy in fiction, to the national tragedy of deaths of two Prime Ministers, and finally invokes figures of world leaders whose deaths left indelible impacts on the political landscape of the world. However, more than a simple evocation of contemporary political or cultural events, the sequence puts on display the permeable boundaries between the domains of art and public life, inscribed by social and cultural memory activated through recognizable ephemera.
This last dimension is further strengthened as Sastry uses several scenes from the popular Hindi film Jis Des Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960), the most enigmatic being a gloriously lustrous Kammo, played by Padmini, swimming sensuously in a pond. Sastry intercuts shots of Padmini swimming with the movement of an underwater turtle. Next, we see Padmini emerge breathless from the water in a celebratory declaration of love, singing “Ho Maine Pyaar Kiya (I have fallen in love!).” As the playback singer’s breathy heaving continues, Sastry cuts to footage of a competitive female swimmer catching her breath. This popular film’s excerpts would be unmistakably recognizable by the movie-going audiences even as they become ambiguously transformed through this intercutting and activate familiarity as well as alienation with them. While operating through formal and affective logics, the above cuts suture three different somatic dimensions—the sensuality of desire from a popular Hindi film song, the lithe aquatic rhythms of the turtle, and the matter-of-fact journalistic image of a young woman swimmer triumphantly catching her breath.
In both the above examples, the film makes formal connections between images and sounds from different media topographies to perform a historical function. By remediating film ephemera, it turns the archive into a promiscuous site, one where the banality of everyday life shares latent affinities with the vernacular idioms and somatic energies of popular films and art cinemas.
It must be emphasized that such use of preexisting footage, while present in Indian parallel cinema, was never commonplace in FD’s films. Indeed, the film offers a jarring contrast to other FD productions that deal with its own history, such as Through a Lens Starkly (Kuldeep Sinha, 1992). A somber and monumental film, Through a Lens Starkly presents FD’s history with interviews while using preexisting footage denotatively to illustrate what is being said. The only exception is the film’s ending sequence, which suddenly evokes an expressive tone through an eclectic mix of rapidly cut visuals and sounds, exploding with multi-valent connotations. This ending sequence, it turns out, is made up of excerpts from And I Make Short Films, including the above-described scene of Nehru on a horse, albeit with minor modifications. This brief part of And I Make Short Films’s most evocative montage sequences turns Through a Lens Starkly’s sombre and monumental take on FD’s history into an expressive document where meanings are not easily attributable to images.
Curation, Archiving, and Found Footage Filmmaking
Giovanna Fossati has argued that “found footage filmmaking, in its practice of selecting and presenting films made by other filmmakers and changing their ‘meaning by placing [them] in a new context,’ shares an inherent aspect of the practice of film archiving.” (Fossati 2012, 3) I contend that Sastry’s work begins to resemble that of an archivist as well as a curator, making FD’s archive a dynamic entity where film meanings and the categories that govern them are in constant flux. Sastry’s work as a filmmaker shares deep synergy with contemporary curators and archivists who carefully analyze, organize, and make records accessible to the public. For example, his work can thus be seen as akin to archives like Arsenal—Institute for Film and Video Art in Berlin, as its Indian cinema collection contains a range of experimental, art films, and both independent and state sponsored documentaries, even as the access to prints to many of which remains quite uncertain or impossible in India. Arsenal’s collection includes films like Ray’s Aparajito, Jehangir Bhownagary’s Radha and Krishna (1957), or Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957) whose footage features in some form in And I Make Short Films (and many more in Sastry’s Flash Back (1974)). This correspondence between selections of films is reflective of the shared synergy of an accidental archivism that pervades both Arsenal’s and Sastry’s work. Just as archives write history by selecting which films to preserve, found footage filmmakers similarly “rewrite film history” by using the films from within the institution (Fossati 2012, 4).
It is also significant here that only in the last two decades have films like And I Make Short Films taken a prominent place in experimental film history in India, owing to sustained curatorial efforts, like Shai Heredia’s Experimenta, which in 2004 re-introduced FD films from 1965–75 into discourses around experimental cinema. This has been followed by Amrit Gangar’s Cinema of Prayoga (2006), Heredia and Nicole Wolf’s co-curation “Experimentations from India” for Berlinale’s Forum Expanded in 2008, the weekly film club “FD Zone” (which programmed films from its own archive with contemporary documentaries), and other efforts of individual curators like Avijit Mukul Kishore.
Just as such curators have shown how Sastry’s films offer alternative entry points into experimental film histories of India, we may also see in them insight into alternative histories of the Indian nation. And I Make Short Films unsettles the Indian nation’s official historical trajectories as imagined through film, by selectively juxtaposing the heterogenous audio-visual ephemera surrounding events that define India’s postcolonial moment (such as Nehru’s death) with the dynamic promiscuity of popular visual culture and art. Given his intentional interventions and insider’s perspective, Sastry shakes the positivist logics of the archive from within, mobilizing the possibilities of access offered by the archive’s own creation. At the same time, through formal interventions that activate multiple valences of social and cultural memory from seemingly banal bits and pieces of history, his films make way for unexpected and uncontrolled meanings. Sastry’s recycling of preexisting footage moves away from a representative logic to one of historiographic method, where the past is not something being re-presented, but is something to be recalled, remembered, reused, and re-made in the present. It is this logic that in turn destabilizes the archive as a static repository of the past and transforms it into a promiscuous site through new uses and relations between sounds and images. As contemporary archivists and curators compel us to look back at complete films and their connections to larger film histories, it is also pertinent that we take seriously this ephemeral and sensuous archive created intentionally through films like And I Make Short Films.
Fossati, Giovanna. 2012. “Found Footage Filmmaking, Film Archiving and New Participatory Platforms.” In Found Footage Cinema Exposed edited by Marente Bloemheuvel, Jaap Guldemond and Giovanna Fossati, 177–84. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press & Eye Film Institute Netherlands.
Mohan, Jag, ed. 1969. Two Decades of the Films Division. Bombay: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India.
Pendharkar, P.B. 1978. Panorama Catalogue. Bombay: Directorate of Film Festivals, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India.
Sastry, S.N.S. 1968. “Sound.” Close-Up: The Magazine of the Film Forum 1 (July): 8–9.
 James Beveridge, a Canadian filmmaker, exerted immense influence on the Indian documentary movement as he was closely associated with FD.
 Sastry worked for FD from the 1950s till his death in 1978.
 Case in point was the experimental film Badnam Basti (1971), which was considered lost until 2019, when it was found accidently in Arsenal’s archive.