“Everyone talks about new content, but even short-form entertainment online is often derived from films,” says Bharatbala who launched Virtual Bharat in August 2019 as a response to this apparent lack of imagination. The goal of the initiative (funded by Azim Premji Foundation) is to produce “a thousand short documentary films about India, with a cinematic treatment.”
We take a look at the 10 films that are out on Virtual Bharat’s YouTube channel.
Thaalam talks about the boat races of Kerala. It begins with an introduction by AR Rahman who compares India to a boat that can race forward into the future only when all of us come together for a common purpose.
The participants of the boat races synchronise in lockstep to the overall rhythm of the boat. Similarly, there is a unifying theme to the films in the series: India can look to its cultural past to be relevant in the modern world. The films don’t merely document the country’s past, they are also peepholes to its many possible futures.
Haldar Nag an Adivasi poet from Sambhalpur, Odisha, has a message for the world. He writes in Kosli, a dying language threatened by modernity. Ridiculed by his own people, he has found recognition after he was awarded the Padmashri in 2016.
Haldar Nag comes across as a gentle giant. In an early shot, he sits alone on a cot in a spartan room, a philosopher removed from the noise of the outside world. “He was a towering personality with a lot of attitude and I just wanted to capture him as he was,” says Bharatbala.
Most of us are looking to learn from, trade with, visit or even migrate to various parts of the world, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But Haldar Nag wants to stay where he is. And he wants to speak to the world from there. He’s an echo of the voices heard in caves from India’s deep past.
The Assassination of Gandhi
The events around the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Nathuram Godse are well-known. What’s interesting in this film is that it economically tells the story from three perspectives.
The first is Gandhi’s own. He dismisses as irrelevant the question whether he is willing to die for India’s independence. But that is not because he’s afraid of death. On the contrary, he seems to have predicted — even expected — his own assassination. From this perspective, we see Gandhi, the Mahatma. He was a man with an unshakeable faith that both his life and death were in God’s hands.
The second perspective is that of Godse’s brother who made the first failed attempt at assassinating Gandhi. “Notice how he refers to Gandhi as Gandhiji, with respect. Even though it might be a bit controversial, we wanted to include his view too, because, otherwise, the story is incomplete. The viewer must be presented with all the facts and allowed to form his own opinion,” says Bharatbala. This perspective reveals to us Gandhi the politician, loved by many to the point that they would give their lives for him, and hated by some to the extent that they would try and take his life.
The third perspective is that of two living witnesses to the assassination: Sarla Mehta, who lived at Sabarmati Ashram, and V Kalyanam, Gandhi’s personal secretary. From their poignant narratives, we come away with an appreciation for Gandhi, the extraordinary human being.
It’s easy to argue that Gandhism is now passé, only meant to be recollected by children during speeches on Gandhi Jayanthi. Few believe that it’s relevant. Vishwanathan Jayaraman, Principal Financial Advisor, Southern Railways, proves that wrong. A clock ticks virtually from start to end in the film. Jayaraman lives a clockwork life. His weekday might look like that of any other person. Go to work, come back home, have dinner, and go to bed by 9 pm. If you think he goes to bed early, he rises super-early. He wakes up at 1 am. He spins the charkha for a couple of hours. From 3.30 am, he runs 32 kilometres every day — barefoot and wearing only a pair of shorts — on the empty roads of Chennai (and that’s where Bharatbala spotted him during one of his runs).
Why does Jayaraman do this? Has he bought into some cool new running fad? Or, is it because he wants to impress Instagram followers? Not really. He does it because he’s inspired by Gandhi’s idea that one has to do some physical work every day in order to justify the food one eats.
Running is Jayaraman’s interpretation of Gandhi’s philosophy, a way to still and strengthen his mind through strenuous physical effort. While it’s hard for most of us to meditate cross-legged without our legs falling asleep in 10 minutes, Jayaraman sacrifices hours of sleep to run and reach a meditative state of mind.
The Tanpuras of Miraj
“When I found that there was a community of craftsmen in Miraj, Maharashtra, who have been making the finest tanpuras for several generations, I knew there was a story there”, says Bharatbala of this film that lovingly captures in several closeup shots the skilful craftsmanship of the unsung heroes of Hindustani classical music.
These craftsmen have last names such as Sitarmaker and Mirajkar. Their unique profession and town have been inextricably linked to their names for generations. And their names are linked, even if not publicly recognised, to stalwarts such as Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Jasraj, and Parveen Sultana. The best musicians prefer tanpuras from Miraj.
The tanpuras are said to last decades, and are handed down generations. Similarly, the art of tanpura making is also passed down. At the end of the film, we see a little kid called Kasim tighten a screw into a tanpura, a ninth generation craftsman in the making.
Shabad Aag Ki Khushboo
Shabad Aag Ki Kushboo is a story of how teenage girls in Bhaini Sahib, Ludhiana, take to devotional music and spirituality while saying hello to modernity.
“The girls dressed in white look like a congregation of angels when they are performing devotional music,” remarks Bharatbala. But they also look like regular schoolkids when we see them playing badminton on rooftops and getting a thrill out of riding triples on a scooter. Typical fun-loving teenagers; it’s just that, in addition, they’re also God-loving.
Silambam is told from the perspective of a modern woman, with an emphasis on the grace and meditative quiet that comes from its practice. But that doesn’t mean it’s martial origins are blunted. As the short puts it: a woman’s grace comes from confidence of her deadly strength.
“When I saw Aishwarya Manivannan, an international silambam champion and a modern woman, performing in a nine-yard sari, I knew I had to make a film on it,” says Bharatbala. So, one might view Silambam as a narrative about women’s empowerment.
But, it’s also a narrative of how silambam went underground during colonial times by morphing into a performance art, only to revive itself after Independence. There’s an even older narrative in film about how hunter-gatherers refashioned into a combat weapon the simple stick they used during long treks through jungles.
Bharatbala insists that he is “not interested in hunting for messages” as his intention is only to capture things “as they are, in an engaging way”. But Silambam certainly has a sharp perspective. It puts a woman, a world champion, at the centre of a film on silambam, a martial art that’s typically depicted as the domain of men in popular culture. If that’s not a message from the filmmaker, it must be a message from the times we live in.
Grandmother’s School tells the story of how elderly women or ‘grandmothers’ in Fangane village, Maharashtra, are going back to school. Years ago, they visited schools to drop off their children. Now, they are students and are being dropped off by their grandkids. But why would these women, after all these years, bother to go to the Aajibainchi Shaala or Grandmother’s School? One of them answers that if she met her maker after her death and he asked her what she did with her human life, she would want to say that she went to school.
A soundtrack, sung by Nilambari Khirkire, accompanies most of the film. It’s a musical version of the rhyme that the women are shown learning in school. It goes like, “We have books, we have sight, but yet, we cannot read”. We are shown a visual of the women holding up their slates like little kids for the teacher to see. We too feel their triumph as the rhyme continues in the background, “With Ganesha’s blessings, our wishes have finally come true”.
Probably, we’ve all had the exhilarating experience of watching a child read or write for the first time. But to watch an elderly woman do that — with the same child-like excitement — is touching. Savitribhai Pule, quoted at the end of the film, would be smiling from her grave.
Most of us have worn a Kolhapuri chappal at some point, or at least aspired to have one. Kolhapuri Chappals is a layered narrative about the artisans who have been making them for generations. Even Shivaji preferred Kolhapuris, we are told. But the story is as much about kings who patronised them as it is about Saint Ravidas, the patron saint of leatherworkers, who gave these artisans their dignity.
“Every cobbler in Mumbai has his picture. But I didn’t want to deliberately push that angle too much. You want to be evocative, but you don’t want to get too involved with the subject and overinterpret something,” says Bharatbala, when asked about a couple of references to Ravidas in the film. But as with most other films in the series, Kolhapuri Chappals too has a subtext that’s only alluded to.
The artisans and their families work diligently to transform their labour into footwear that provide years of comfort and durability. Kolhapuri chappals have won design awards at international exhibitions. Yet, these artisans have gained little recognition for the work they do. Even though it’s not a financially rewarding profession, they still teach their craft to the next generation, much like the tanpura-makers of Miraj. One of the artisans quotes Ravidas, “One must do one’s work with dedication without considering it an imposition of one’s caste”.
Ravidas himself belonged to the Charmarkar community, who have traditionally been cobblers. While the film doesn’t judge, it seems clear that as a society we might have to assess existing social structures that don’t really serve everyone equally. That someone works without expectation of reward doesn’t mean that it’s okay when they don’t get their fair reward, especially when they are artisans of such exquisite craftsmanship.
Lockdown India: Uthenge Hum
There’s little one can write about nothingness. And nothingness is what Bharatbala’s response to the unprecedented pandemic depicts from beginning to end. An eye that is accustomed to see people sees ghosts where the people are missing, a horror of absence.
God’s eye views of cities across India that look like ghost towns are interspersed with shots of solitary men of various faiths praying to their respective Gods.
When talking about the Virtual Bharat series, Bharatbala mentions that he wanted to make sure that the films have a timeless quality, that they would be relevant 20 years from now. It’s difficult to predict how the other films in the series might age. But 50 years from now, Uthenge Hum would probably be shown to our grandchildren at school. They would see how an entire nation was shocked into a lockdown by a pandemic captured on camera.
Yet, the tone of the film is not one of despair. In a way, the series comes full circle with the latest film. Thaalam, the first film, talks about all of us staying together to help India move forward. Uthenge Hum talks about staying apart and believing together that India can hold its ground firmly against the pandemic. Hope can spring from nothingness too.