Nandita Das talks about the Children’s Film Society as she prepares to step down as its chairperson

On July 31, Nandita Das completes her three-year tenure as Chairperson of the Children’s Film Society, India. Before her departure, she will achieve a milestone in the history of the organisation by releasing its film, Gattu commercially. In its 57-years of existence, CFSI has shown its films through district education officers, voluntary organisations, private schools and in film festivals. Conceived in 1955 by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, it is an autonomous body affiliated to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, which funds films for children.

In a tête-à-tête with The Hindu, Nandita Das speaks about the organisation and its journey through the years. Excerpts:

How many films has the Children’s Film Society, India made so far and why is it not so well known among children?

That’s the sad part. Since its inception, the society has made 250 films but not released a single film commercially. After joining, I asked my staff to show me the best 20 films that the society has produced, they couldn’t provide a selection. To my surprise the society had never had any creative auditing! What’s the point in making a film if you can’t show it to those for whom it is made?

Children can’t access these films on DVDs/CDs because there have been no marketing of these films and they were lying in the office just like that. Some very old films have been damaged and need quick restoration.

CFSI has a glorious past with its maiden production Jaldeep that won the first prize for best Children's Film at the 1957 Venice Film Festival. But as time went by, with a bureaucratic set up, CFSI couldn’t fulfil Nehru’s dream.

What was the state of affairs when you took charge?

When I joined the society, there were no heads of the promotion, marketing and production departments so I made many systemic changes. Moreover, in the organisation most people came from the film fraternity and rest were bureaucrats. So we also included an educationist, Kavita Anand who is now the Vice President of CFSI. There were other lacunae like films could be submitted only in 35 mm. With the digital revolution and a very limited budget of Rs. 4 crore 35mm was no longer possible. But surprisingly, we had not exhausted even that corpus for good film making. Earlier the quality of film submission was so poor that it was difficult to decide which one to pick and screen for the children.

What changes were you able to bring in as the chairperson?

I used my goodwill to invite people like Gulzar saab, Vishal Bhardwaj and Mohan Agashe to be on our advisory panel. We went to Riverside School in Ahmedabad and showed 25 films to the kids, teachers and parents. We have repeated the exercise in the last two years across small towns and villages. We then asked for a feedback and received over lakh responses which proved to be an eye opener.

Then restored and digitized 50 films which are now available with Shemaroo and Crossword Books. The exciting addition to the collection is the Hindi animation of Satyajit Ray’s Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne as Gopi Gawaiiyaa, Baja Bajaiyya. We have also subtitled and restored several films in different languages.

Most importantly, our budget has gone up to Rs. 13 crore which includes expenses for festivals, programmes and salaries. Now we spare Rs 2 crore for funding children’s films depending upon their nature.

What was the response to the Hyderabad Children’s Film Festival last November?

This time, I raised the bar. We decided to move out of CFSI and invited top of the line films from around the world. We called it ‘The Golden Elephant’. We were surprised to see that this week-long festival saw 152 films from 37 countries attended by over 1,75,000 children from all parts of the country, many of who had left their little villages and towns for the first time. Films made their entry for the first time even from the North East region and Kashmir. This was way above the expected estimate! South America and Africa were being represented for the first time in the fest.

In the Indian section films like Stanley Ka Dabba, I am Kalam, Chillar Party, and future releases like Dekh Indian Circus and Vihir were screened.

Don’t you think three year tenure is not enough to change a set up and attitudes? As the changes are beginning, you are leaving…

See, it’s never enough. Even in six years, things would feel the same, so it is best to initiate, pass on the baton and keep supporting from the outside as I have decided to do.

What is the film Gattu all about, which is releasing on July 20?

Gattu is a charming story of an orphan who is street smart. His dream is to cut a black kite that flies highest in the sky.

How he achieves this dream is the crux of the film. It comes with subtle social message minus any preaching. I assure, the film will rekindle the joy of childhood in adults too.