In times when you can neither trust the message nor the messenger, the Public Service Broadcasting Trust is making films which provoke debate and advocate change. Rajiv Mehrotra, the face of the Trust, gives us the details

In a country where subversion in art is still equated with sedition, where the political climate or market mood decides the interpretation of creative pursuit, independent filmmakers look towards the basement of A-86 Nizamuddin East for some sunshine. It houses the office of the Public Service Broadcasting Trust and is a destination where a filmmaker can have his say without falling for the lucre of advertiser-driven private channels or the bait of state managed propaganda.

Over the last decade, PSBT has commissioned, produced and mentored around 500 films with more than 350 independent filmmakers. The films have won more than 150 national and international awards and 35 National Film Awards. “We believe this is a very important initiative in the democratisation of the electronic media, where independent filmmakers can find money and space to articulate their agendas and concerns. They are not necessarily films that we agree with ourselves, because if they were then they would not have been truly independent. From sexuality to disability, to the whole range of gender issues, the subjects we support are extremely diverse. Fifty to sixty per cent of our films are made by first-time filmmakers. So we are creating a large constituency of independent films,” says Rajiv Mehrotra, Commissioning editor and Managing Trustee of PSBT.

Since all the films are funded by different government agencies, it puts a question mark on the nature of this independence.

Explaining the model in the larger context, Mehrotra says, “We are an embryonic initiative in public broadcasting, independent of the twin pressures of eyeball-driven private media and state managed propaganda to meet the real communication needs for education and entertainment of the people. In liberal democracies, public broadcasting retains its autonomy because the board is managed by a group of credible people who represent both artistic talent and personal integrity. We have a distinguished board of trustees (Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Sharmila Tagore, Kiran Karnik…) and that itself gives us the autonomy which would not have been otherwise possible. But I agree that our voice is not heard widely enough and loudly enough. ”

His dream is to create an atmosphere so that a thousand PSBTs could bloom. “Then it will become a movement. The particular model cannot quantitatively expand. We feel that there should be a PSBT in at least every region of India. Then the agenda and concerns of local people could be addressed.”

However, beyond an Open Frame Festival here or a Doordarshan slot there, there is no outlet for the films. “Unfortunately, that is a big challenge because the government tends to retain the rights and 50-60 percent of the royalty. The rest we share with the filmmaker. It doesn’t leave us with enough money to aggressively distribute the films. So we are more of content producers. There is a Doordarshan slot, there a slot on NDTV which is being revived, and BBC has picked up some of our films. But still the outlet is very modest. There is a tie-up with the American Library of Congress which acquires most of our works. They have a wide distribution network in the U.S. We are lobbying that we should be allowed to retain the revenues and recycle it into dissemination because some documentary films have commercial potential. We are hopeful that in the next Five Year Plan something will unfold.”

Mehrotra says there are no significant censorship issues. “No film has been rejected in its totality. Many times filmmakers jump the gun when they get rejected at the first point. Sometimes it is for publicity. My experience says that if you are patient to go through the entire appellate process, very rarely a film gets rejected. It can get delayed. The courts are in favour of freedom of expression.”

Despite making quality documentaries we have yet to crack the international market. Mehrotra agrees. “We have no market because we are working on low-end technology. While the jury will say great work, when it goes to television unless your film has 5.1 Dolby Sound the channel won’t like to buy it. We make films on a budget of 5 to 10 lakh rupees while internationally the minimum budget of a documentary is one crore. It means compromise on research, choice of technology and the number of shooting days.”

It also means lack of experimentation in ideas and narrative forms. Here Mehrotra differs. He says the filmmakers are experimenting a lot in terms of technique. “So much so that I have suggested to the government to introduce a national award for the best experimental film but when it comes to ideas and narrative form I see a much bigger problem. And it is not just documentaries, it is true for all arts. Smaller countries like Egypt and Taiwan are making a huge international impact and we are not really there. Even in fiction there is lack of original work. This has to be recognised, otherwise we are deluding ourselves.” A multiple National Award winner and a known TV personality, Mehrotra is out of the limelight for a long time though his books on spiritualism do keep the stalls buzzing. A student of the Dalai Lama and late Swami Ranganathananda, president of the Ramakrishna Mission, Mehrotra says his spiritual enunciation has taught him the notion of empowering others.

Having said that, Mehrotra informs us he is writing a book on Vivekananda and is working on a national film on him too, which will be released next year to coincide with the 150th birth anniversary of Ramakrishna Paramahansa’s prime disciple.

“In our community we have lost the notion of sadhana. We tend to believe that everything could be learnt through a crash course. The Right wing has sought to usurp Vivekananda as a national symbol. And I think this is as an outrageous thing to bind him by the boundaries drawn by the British mapmakers. He wrote so much on so much that you can extrapolate a lot from his ideas but what excites me as a failing spiritual aspirant — because I went nowhere — is to look at the sadhana of the masters. You look at their practices and their techniques. It is not only about looking at the spiritual aspect of Vivekananda. It is how we transform that into concern and service for others.”

The winners

Three of PSBT’s films won laurels at the 59th National Film Awards

Mindscapes…Of Love & Longing by Arun Chaddha: Best Film on Social Issues

Explores the sexual identity of the disabled

A Drop Of Sunshine by Aparna Sanyal: Best Educational Film

Takes a controversial and contrarian view towards recovery from schizophrenia.

There Is Something In The Air by Iram Ghufran: Best Direction and Best Editing

A series of dream narratives, and accounts of spiritual possession as experienced by women petitioners at the shrine of a sufi saint in North India.