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Call to I&B Ministry  

Shutter Films Division, sell off its prime real estate, and subsidize onion & pulse cultivation and ‘gaushalas’ with the proceeds

While we continue with our NFDC expose, in a new series of articles we shall examine various institutions under the aegis of the Information & Broadcasting Ministry of India (MIB) and their relevance today. They have no reason to exist yet they do. They perpetuate a corrupt crony culture that drains and ties up thousands of crores of precious resources of our heavily taxed nation and gives rise to bureaucratic micro-corruption and misgovernance.

The Films Division of India (FD) is one of them. It came into existence in 1948 as a film production house owned by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB), Government of India (GOI), to produce documentaries and news magazines and build a film archive for posterity. Today FD produces and distributes documentaries, and organizes the Mumbai international Film Festival (MIFF) of documentaries and shorts every two years. It has its headquarters in Mumbai and regional centres in Bengaluru and Kolkata.   

Have you watched any FD film in the past 15-20 years?

Out of 100 film aficionados, 90 will say no.  This is the grim reality. Have you ever wondered what is the total population of these film aficionados, film festival officials and programmers, and audiences in India? Even if you take an extremely generous guess the number will not cross 10,000.  So, about a thousand among the most avid film enthusiasts would have watched FD films produced in the past 15-20 years. Among the lay public, you will find it impossible to locate a soul who has watched an FD documentary in decades.

There is an old GOI law that makes it mandatory for cinema theatre owners to screen a documentary short before the main feature. Once in a while an FD doc may find a release window owing to this law and when it does, its atrocious quality makes audiences laugh and mock and boo at it. Theatre owners pay a certain percentage of their box office earnings for screening them and it used to be a major source of FD revenue. However, this window has also been taken over by the likes of Devendra Khandelwal Productions who used some court verdict to push FD shorts out of theatres and have their insipid social service message films screened instead.

The journey of FD from its glorious newsreel days to its pitiable present

Those were the glorious pre-television days when film audiences across India waited for the customary FD newsreel with its signature tune and the grainy opening frame with the Ashoka pillar in the middle, as eagerly as the star-studded blockbuster that followed. The quality of these newsreels was really good and the crystal-clear voice-overs were a treat for ears. FD had some of the most cinematically literate technicians, directors, and producers who understood their job well. They had learnt the art and craft of documentary filmmaking while working with world-class documentary filmmakers and newsreel producers.

They took great pride in what they did. They were passionate pioneers unlike the latter day FTII-trained lot, most of who turned out to be freeloaders and filmfakers who had learnt to live off free coins right from their institute days. They networked well with the political and bureaucratic establishment, created a cosy club of back-scratching cronies, and turned the FD establishment into a decadent self-serving den of parasites. As the last of the old guard bid adieu to FD, its life force was gone and what remained was a dead carcass that hosted maggots and parasites of all kinds.

The death knell of FD – advent of News TV, satellite, cable network, internet, digital age

FD completely lost its relevance as satellite TV channels arrived on the scene and ended the government’s monopoly over the audio-visual news medium. It was already a rotten, moribund, and corrupt institution by then and was hardly geared to deal with the changing times. It suffered more as some well-established names of cinema in India found a way to bypass it by forming a Delhi-based Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT) that is free from governmental control and yet is entirely dependent for funding on the public broadcaster Doordarshan and various ministries including the Ministry of External Affairs.

This development turned FD into a second-rated establishment and added further to its redundancy. Since PSBT is based in Delhi, it has better access to bureaucracy and is thus privy to various sources of free coin. Truly speaking, PSBT is also a conduit for bureaucratic micro-corruption and cronyism. The only difference is it’s a separate trust with a permanent board of trustees that has well-known names of cinema who incidentally also have a long history of surviving off government largesse.

PSBT simply makes FD look like a poor ragged country cousin. Public-funded broadcasters of India like DD News, Lok Sabha TV, and Rajya Sabha TV prefer to support and engage with PSBT, a private trust, instead of FD, a government-owned entity, for some strange, inexplicable, and dubious reasons. Bluntly speaking, PSBT is also a club of elitist cronies and freeloaders cross-funded by GOI and its ministries. It’s modeled on similar institutions in the west that are supported and sustained by constant infusion of public money in the name of performing a noble public service. The ancient ‘durbar’ culture continues to survive in one form or another.

FD has no reason to exist; it just provides gratuitous employment to a handful of useless and incompetent freeloaders and corrupt bureaucrats

It’s a reprehensible crime against humanity in a land where farmers commit suicides in droves, to continue maintaining a rotten institution like FD that supports a tiny cabal of freeloaders who make third-rate documentaries and shorts that nobody, including them, would like to watch. There is not a single reason for FD to exist even for a day except if the government takes pride in maintaining the skeletal white elephant at the cost of people.

FD serves no national interest or purpose any more. It does not even serve the cause of documentary filmmaking. GOI does not have to promote cinema and documentary filmmaking in a situation where we have hundreds of news and infotainment channels reaching directly to the consumer through multiple technology-driven platforms. No handholding is needed here in this time and age when every citizen is a filmmaker and has the power to make a documentary or short with his mobile phone.

Had someone like this writer been the Minister of Information & Broadcasting in the Modi Government, in the first month of taking over the reins of the office, he would have done the following: 

  1. Announce the instant shuttering of FD
  2. Order the transfer of its equipment to Prasar Bharati
  3. Send its library of films to the National Film Archive of India for safe-keeping, digitization, and reissue
  4. Relocate and absorb its staff and technicians in Prasar Bharati or offer them VRS
  5. Sell off the prime real estate owned by it
  6. Hand over the resultant proceeds to the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry to subsidize onion and pulse cultivation and ‘gaushalas’

Now, the problem is neither the Prime Minister nor his Minister of Information and Broadcasting is well-versed about the film industry and its functioning. They rely on bureaucratic feedback. The irony is even the bureaucrats in the I&B Ministry are clueless about ground realities and suffer from absolute lack of vision. They can simply quote ‘fake figures’ drawn from reports of some of the industry associations and follow the policy of maintaining ‘status quo.’

What is needed here is decisive and bold action to shake and shape things up and bust the status quo

It's the kind of action taken by the Prime Minister in disbanding the Planning Commission. It’s time for our I&B Minister, who is also the Minister of Finance, to appreciate the fact that there are better ways to tackle the problem of widening ‘fiscal deficit’ than cutting down essential subsidies that provide a notional sense of relief and well-being to people. He must cut down the flab in various ministries including the I&B Ministry and shuttering FD can be a good beginning.