As PSBT’s Open Frame International Film Festival concludes, its managing trustee Rajiv Mehrotra talks about personal and organisational journeys
In the tranquil basement office of Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT) in New Delhi’s Nizamuddin East, one’s eyes stray to the symmetry of DVDs reclining on each other. Then there are the drawing boards, detailing bits of work that is ongoing, phone numbers and dates. The elegant portrait of the Dalai Lama might initially not appear to belong to this scene, but on talking to Rajiv Mehrotra, managing trustee of PSBT, the connection becomes clear. In their own unique way, Mehrotra and PSBT are both treading the middle path.Since its inception in 2000, the path that PSBT has pursued towards the popularisation of documentary films is one of independence from the twin pressures of eyeball-driven private media and State propaganda. “We adopt, follow and embody principles of public broadcasting though on a very small scale,” Mehrotra says.
This means working on public money, so as not to succumb to agendas of commercial broadcasting. “Public broadcasting occupies the middle space and serves the agendas and needs of the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised who are not of interest to commercial broadcasters or sometimes even the State.”
PSBT has supported the production of 540 documentaries with over 350 filmmakers, two-thirds of which are first timers. These films have tackled a number of issues over the years, ranging from gender and sexuality to conflict and the environment. They have also reaped a rich crop of awards, including 37 National Awards and several more at various other national and international festivals. Moreover, PSBT films are telecast regularly on Doordarshan and NDTV, an area other independent films struggle in.
As commissioning editor of PSBT, Mehrotra has had a hand in the success of these films. But for long years, his passion lay in theatre. Having graduated from St. Stephen’s College, where he was secretary of Shakespeare Society, he went to Oxford. “I did theatre at Oxford at the highest levels. I was directing Shakespeare with all British actors. I also did Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq, an awful student production that got very good, polite reviews. I was directing a play pretty much every term, which was a lot…”
Upon returning to India, a career in theatre was very much on the cards. “There was a group called Theatre Action Group (TAG) with Barry John that I was a part of. We had this great idealistic vision that we would form a travelling theatre company and spend the rest of our lives doing theatre. We did travel for some time and I realised it wouldn’t make me a decent living. There was a quick reality check,” Mehrotra says. Having made an award winning film on drug addiction in his undergraduate years emboldened him to take up a course in film direction in Columbia University. “Apart from enjoying the experience of filmmaking for the first time in my life I came out on top of my class,” he remembers.
Mehrotra is perhaps best known for his In Conversation, a series of interviews with public personalities for television, which ran for over 500 episodes. Additionally, he has also made films on Sri Ramakrishna, Angkor Vat, Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India, and on the Dalai Lama.
PSBT grew from a discontentment with the prevailing atmosphere of the 1990s, when the documentary was largely a State controlled medium. “The agenda was of the State, funding was exclusively from the State and there were limitations on raw stock…” To ward off undue interference, it was important for the organisation to have “credible trustees who would lend it authority and help protect us.” Its trustees include, among others, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen, Aruna Vasudev and Fali S. Nariman. “In the initial years we evolved some basic tenets that have stood by us. Firstly, we work with filmmakers and not production companies or middlemen. Secondly, we demonstrated to the Government and to ourselves that there has not been a single recalcitrant filmmaker…and thirdly, we respect the independence of the independent filmmaker,” Mehrotra says.
Since a number of first-time filmmakers are commissioned, the PSBT model emphasises mentoring and training by internal and external evaluators at each stage of the process. This is in the nature of provocation rather than intrusion, he adds. For the same reason, its model cannot be quantitatively enlarged. Qualitatively, however, a lot remains to be achieved. Given the modest budgets filmmakers work with, the PSBT films are often unable to meet baseline technical standards required for television screenings.
The Open Frame International Film Festival has been a prominent feature of PSBT’s work since the beginning. With its unique mix of screenings and panel discussions, the festival is an invitation to engage actively with the documentary form. The 13th edition of the festival, which comes to a close today, focused on narratives of and by women. “People think a film festival is a festival. Of course it is, but we also do workshops before the festivals so that you get sensitised in how to appreciate a film. This year we got filmmakers to lead the discussion because we felt that discussion was becoming a discussion on content issues. But we also want to push the boundaries of the genre, so that people reflect on what creative devices were used. We are using an art form to tell a particular story, so you want to look at the form, and communicate in deeper and more profound ways,” Mehrotra says.
While the difficulties associated with distribution of documentaries are well-known, Mehrotra says selection is the toughest part of the process. “It’s very difficult to predict from a written proposal which film is going to succeed which is not…The challenge with public money is that it doesn’t allow for failure. We have been lobbying to say ‘please give us a margin of failure’. Unless we take risks, we will not push boundaries of excellence. I believe we can double the quality of our films if we can provide a safer space for some failure,” he says.
Rajiv Mehrotra is also the founding trustee of the Foundation for Universal Responsibility of H.H. the Dalai Lama, set up with the aim of “promoting his non-political agendas” with the money from the Nobel Peace Prize he won in 1989. Around the time that the prize was announced, Mehrotra was in the middle of his film on the Dalai Lama, which was broadcast on PBS after a great deal of mentoring. “That was my first exposure to the enormous value that mentoring to a young filmmaker can have,” he remembers.