In the early 1970s, as the Indian state was encountering multiple outbursts of dissent and unrest, it tried to redefine media strategies in relation to documentary film production. Films Division of India (FD)—India’s official state institution of documentary and short film made a series of short films called Violence: What Price? Who pays? and two documentaries on the impending railway strike of 1974. I locate this moment of exigencies as a shift in the relations between film, state and media publics in the shadow of the impending national emergency (1975-1977)—a period of 21 months that saw restrictions on constitutional rights and civil liberties, suspension of elections and the arrests of opposition leaders.
In examining this campaign, I layer the close analysis of the films with archival material about film production, nationwide discussions to counter social unrest, and an audience reception study that mapped viewer’s reactions to the films. I argue that this campaign led to new determinations about the appeal of the film medium along with research on the “psychographic” profiles of the film viewers they sought to influence. My approach brings together the anthropological studies of mass publicity and the public sphere (Cody, 2011; Mazzarella, 2013; Rajagopal, 2009) as well as media infrastructures (Larkin, 2008) with the study of useful cinema and official films (Acland and Wasson, 2011; Vasudevan, 2011). I aim to punctuate the attempts to use the “appeals” of the film medium with the reactions of the film viewers to illustrate the possibilities of a resistant media public of official films. Thus, I draw attention to not just a gap in intention and reception of propagandist films or the ineffectiveness or indeterminacies of the films, but offer new knowledge about the metamorphosing relations between the indeterminate film infrastructures and the public sphere in India.
Ritika Kaushik is a PhD candidate in the Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. Her dissertation Sarkari Film: State Sponsored Documentary Film Practice in India (1960s-1970s) studies the relation between documentary film, the state, and bureaucracy, through state sponsored documentary film institutions in India during 1960s and 1970s. Her scholarly interests range from documentary film, government film, compilation film/found footage/appropriation film, and are located at the intersections of film historiography, aesthetics, theories of the public sphere, and critical archival studies. Her work has been published in the peer reviewed publication Bioscope: South Asian Screen Studies (2017, 2020) and in Economics and Political Weekly (2020).
Looking for India’s first sex education film Gupt Gyan (Secret Wisdom, BK Adarsh; 1974) is to come to terms with its overwhelming ephemera. Excavating this part feature part documentary through broken web links and remakes as soft porn, we find a highly discolored pirated copy of the original film with peculiar sound dissolves. The film’s presence has also been felt in theatres showing soft core pornography and in well-known pirated markets selling its VCDs along with other adult films. In the original version of Gupt Gyan, its opening credit is an exhaustive list of government officials who were instrumental in its production. For its initial release (in big film theaters across the country) it was publicized as highly entertaining yet a mainstream sex education text in service of the larger public good. Its attempts to turn covert sexual knowledge into an official scientific, medical discourse that can also be experienced as a popular film is striking. It is a peculiar mix of young love, sexual discovery and medical footage of diseased genitalia and childbirth as well as animated graphics on the workings of sexual organs.
I am interested in the way in which this quasi-non-fiction film repeatedly lends itself to its misreadings. Brian Larkin’s (2008) conception of the material and epistemic instabilities of media technologies that produce unintended consequences helps situate Gupt Gyan’s complex historical and contemporary reception through the constant making and remaking of its genre. I see this film through a material (and immaterial) understanding of waste in obsolete media forms (Parikka, 2015), like old VCDs, broken web links, and in obscure parts of the city in single screen soft porn theaters. I will excavate this highly obscure film through the intersection of fiction and documentary, and its presence in official and unofficial networks of media and memory.
Ankita Deb is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Art History-Film and Media Studies at Stanford University. She did her Masters in Arts and Aesthetics and MPhil in Cinema Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. She is interested in media infrastructures, piracy, queerness and sexuality in Global South, archival memory, etc.
Vinzenz Hediger is professor of cinema studies at Goethe University Frankfurt, where he directs the Graduate Research Training Program “Configurations of Film”. His publications include Films That Work. Industrial Film and the Productivity of Media (AUP 2009, with Patrick Vonderau) and Films That Work Harder. The Circulations of Industrial Film (AUP 2022, with Yvonne Zimmermann and Florian Hoof). He is a principal investigator in the “Normative Orders” and “ConTrust” research groups at Goethe University.