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Vijaya Mulay: Still documenting, at 87

By Frederick Noronha

Vijaya Mulay has witnessed two generations of documentary filmmaking. In this interview, she talks about her films, the challenges facing documentary filmmakers today, and her stint as first woman president of the IDPA

Vijaya Mulay has witnessed two generations of documentary filmmaking

Going strong at 87, Vijaya Mulay has seen two generations of documentary filmmaking. Not that she’s throwing in the towel. Instead, she’s turned to writing. Her book, From Rajahs and Yogis to Gandhi and Beyond: India in International Cinema was recently published by Seagull Foundation of Kolkata.  

Mulay was the first woman to get the V Shantaram Lifetime Achievement Award for Documentaries at the Maharashtra International Film Festival (MIFF) in 2000, and another lifetime achievement award (Vikram Sarabhai Award instituted by CEC and UGC) for educational communication. 

Her next research project is about motivated people, “especially marginalised ones like subsistence farmers, tribal people, women”. People who have been using the new technology, film, or visual representations, to speak to others. 

Mulay helped organise a programme of films made by dalit women in Pastapur, Andhra Pradesh, at the 2002 MIFF. She also showed the films at the Iceland Film Festival in 2005 and has used them in her talks at educational institutions that teach  film studies in Montreal. 

As chairperson of the focus group on educational technology, set up by the National Council for Educational Research and Training, in 2004, while preparing the framework for a national curriculum, Mulay says she “realised many other dimensions of the problem of reaching people”. 

How do you see the documentary scene as having changed over the years? When did you first get involved in it? 
Availability of user-friendly equipment for recording has changed the documentary scene tremendously. It has given voice to those who perforce had to remain silent. 

I have been involved with documentaries since 1946. 

What are the challenges facing documentary filmmaking in India today? 
There are two main challenges. The first is a lack of facilities to show documentaries as widely as they need to be shown -- in theatres, at private screenings, during lectures on pertinent topics, and on television. Second, the vagaries of censorship that has scant regard for freedom of expression guaranteed under the Indian Constitution. 

A good bureaucrat should consider himself or herself a servant of the Constitution and not of the ruling government, especially if it goes contrary to the dictates of the Constitution. Many seem to forget this distinction. 

What are the positives that documentary filmmakers can expect now? 
The solidarity that seems to be emerging among documentary filmmakers who are using it to show their films as widely as possible. There should be more help from a government that claims to be a ‘people’s government’. But that is unlikely to happen for some time. 

What were the advantages of filmmaking in the past era? 
One advantage was that you cared more for the craft of cinema, and the artistic aspects with respect to lighting, photography, audiography and editing, etc. Doing this was more satisfactory (when using) the old technology. This is not to say that one cannot make an equally good film using modern technology, but not only is the depth and gradation of colours not the same but many of the films made today are real slap-dash affairs. There was also better collaboration between the director and her crew (in those times). 

Tell us about your stint as the first woman president of the IDPA. What were the concerns facing you then? 
The IDPA (Indian Documentary Producers Association) was racked by ‘internecine warfare’, with accusations and counter accusations over very petty things. It appeared as though its main purpose of promoting documentaries had been forgotten. There was a real danger that it would be closed down. I have been a member for a long time and personally knew its founders (German filmmaker based in India) Paul Zils, Jag Mohan, Clement Baptista, Vijaykar, etc. I knew how well and with what care they had tended the fledgling in its early days.  

I felt that, though old, I had to do something. I was elected with the largest number of votes probably because I carried a lot of goodwill in the opposing camps. But my time was spent in stabilising the IDPA. After that was done I stepped down, two years ago. I have no interest in holding posts per se,and coming down from Delhi every month at my own expense, by air as I was quite old -- 85 to be exact -- was a serious drain on my finances. 

Could you tell us a little about the first film you worked on, and how that was different from filmmaking today? 
My first film of 18 minutes was entitled The Tidal Bore. It was made in 1967 on the fantastic phenomenon of the sea tide coming into the river at Kolkata, on some days in summer, vertically like a wall of water.  I have written about how I ventured into making this film in my book From Rajahs and Yogis to Gandhi and Beyond: Images of India in International Cinema of the Twentieth Century.  

I worked with 35 mm cameras and old technology. 

What is Ek, Anek, aur Ekta about?  
Ek, Anek, aur Ekta is a children’s film that was repeatedly broadcast on television. It carries the message (without articulating it verbally) of how we Indians, though different in many ways, are essentially one (unity in diversity).  It was made in 1974 and it is seven minutes long. I wrote the script and songs, barring one, and directed it. People your age will remember it as Ek Chidia, Anek Chidia. I was also its producer for the NCERT. 

During the course of your career, how many films were you involved in? Which two or three stand out the most? Why? 
About 30-35, I should say. The three that stand out for me are: The Tidal Bore, my first film as an independent producer, and on which I learnt a lot, especially as it opened my eyes to the value of this medium for education; the second film I value is a small one of four minutes titled Na that was made for children in the age-group 6-9 years, to make them instantly recognise the letter Na and its elongated form Naa in the Devnagari script.  Very few films cater to this age-group. I used different techniques and it was instantly popular as the song was catchy and it was a lot of fun.  The last film I made was of about 80 minutes, for Films Division, on the maestro Gangubai Hangal, who is now in her 94th year. I was able to show different facets of this remarkable woman who, coming from a marginalised class, had to struggle hard to learn music and gain recognition, and yet is so very humane and humble. 

My book From Rajahs and Yogis to Gandhi and Beyond: India in International Cinema, published by Seagull Foundation of Kolkata, is not about documentaries alone. It is about how we see the ‘other’. I firmly believe that learning to discover the ‘otherness’ of the ‘other’ without being frightened is the key to universal understanding and a weapon against corporate globalisation. 

Do you think India is sufficiently aware of the quality and quantity of documentary films that are coming out today? If not, why? And what can be done to remedy the situation
  I am not clear exactly you mean by “India being aware”. India is many things. I am presuming that you mean the government, the elites, the middle class, etc -- those with some modicum of power in their hands.  If this is so, my answer is no, they don’t. But for me they are not important enough to bother about. It is ‘we the people’ (not merely of the Barkha Dutt weekly NDTV programme variety, but everybody) who have to learn to use this facility that has become so very user-friendly, to give voice to those who have never been heard before. We must use it as part of our common weaponry to make the world a better place. 

(Frederick Noronha is a freelance journalist based in Goa. He is interested in developmental issues)

Infochange News & Features, April 2010