A foray into the vintage world of India’s experimental cinema

A still from ‘India ‘67’  

The age-worn brown-tinted frames populate an old movie reel, pink blobs of distortion disfiguring its moving images. Long wavy lines of wilted decay adorn its face like scars on an age-old war veteran. Its grainy-yet-hypnotic texture complements the spontaneously put together montage of remarkable images, unrelated, capturing in each frame, the dullness of daily human life.

For what can be said about it with absolute conviction — this vintage video collage serves as a window into our past, offering a fleeting glance at the lives of men swept away by the tides of time but immortalised by the ever-observing eye of the camera.

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The Government of India’s Films Division is home to many such movie reels, now digitised, classified by film nomenclature as experimental short documentaries. A treasure trove of such content which undertakes an aesthetically pleasing retrospection of Indian culture is readily available on YouTube for anyone to glance through but barely has any takers.

Government of India’s Films Division

Government of India’s Films Division  

This can be attributed to the fact that these films are not particularly viewer-friendly. Non-adherence to any coherent narrative structure and the lack of an underlying central theme can make them a tedious watch for the contemporary Indian audiences.

Case in point, the short titled India ‘67 (also known as An Indian Day) by one of India’s erstwhile leading Griersonian documentarian S. Sukhdev. A wordless assortment of moving images from the year 1967, the documentary collates visually, the lives of people from the country’s urban and rural abodes.

National Film Award for Best Experimental Film
  • The National Film Award for Best Experimental Film was one of the National Film Awards given by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and Directorate of Film Festivals, India. It was instituted in 1966 and awarded at the 14th National Film Awards and lastly awarded in 1983, and discontinued after that.
  • Through the Eyes of a Painter (1967) written, directed and filmed by M. F. Husain won the award in 1967. Films by S.N.S Shastri, Vidhu Vinodh Chopra and Sunny Joseph have also been feted with this accolade.

As the piece keeps chugging along with one image being replaced by another, it starts collocating contrasting Indian lifestyles into a heady mix of playful introspection, highlighting the dichotomy between two different worlds which co-exist within a larger whole.


From the get-go, Sukhdev indulges in some adventurous editing, breathing in a surreal quality to the seemingly dull images. Not many would have considered using the audio of The Beatle’s classic hit Love Me Do with the visual of an Indian farmer ploughing his field. But Sukhdev’s filmography is littered with such bold choices.

India ‘67 may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but is a must-watch for the more adventurous viewers.

So are the films made by the stalwart documentary film-maker S.N.S. Sastry. He is credited with the creation of seminal works like I Am 20 (1967) and Flashback (1974), among others. In the experimental realm, Sastry’s And I Make Short Films (1968) is a pioneering effort, laying down the groundwork for a quintessential experimental short film, where stylised editing of moving images gain precedence over an overarching narrative theme.

The documentary is an impressionistic portrayal of short film-making, where displays of Sastry’s deft editing reflects a unique brand of tongue-in-cheek humour, a narrative device used by him to make sense of the moving images on display.


It questions the constructs of censorship and conventional cultural norms, along with providing a biting critique on the very nature of audio-visual documentation, parodying the medium it chooses to express itself in.

It does so by masterfully capitalising on the Eisenstenian technique of combining two unrelated images in an arranged sequence, giving rise to different, unique realities — an approach, consciously executed by Shastri in many of his other productions.

Take, for instance, his short documentary film titled This Bit of That India (1972) which chronicles the lives of foreign students studying in Indian universities.

A still from ‘This Bit of That India’ (1972)

A still from ‘This Bit of That India’ (1972)  

A stylised examination of youth culture and diversity using similar tropes of experimental film-editing, the documentary wages war against the preconceived notions of education and progress, juxtaposing moments of individual freedom with the inner workings of educational institutions, eloquently capturing the perpetual state of conflict between the two.

Indian renditions of popular American songs from the ‘60s: the likes of California Dreamin’ and Barret Strong’s Money add cinematic flair to the youthful aspirations of the documentary’s subjects, making it more than just a trip down memory lane.

Among other works by Indian documentarians, Mani Kaul’s Arrival (1980) stands out.

A visual exploration of the socio-economic forces shaping a modern city, Kaul’s depiction of human labour is stark in its portrayal, comparing the lives of daily wage workers with that of livestock. The entire production, characterised simply by a quirky score and lacking in any dialogues, exudes an aura of an impending apocalypse.

A still from ‘Arrival’ (1980)

A still from ‘Arrival’ (1980)  

Kaul uses the camera as an impartial observer, encapsulating the plight of the needy at the heart of a bustling metropolis, sometimes inter-cutting it with graphic images of animal slaughter.

The viewers are left spellbound by the aesthetic pleasantness of the shots and then gripped with repulsion when the notable similarities between them become too hard to ignore. Arrival was one of the last recipients of the National Film Award for Best Experimental Film before it was discontinued in 1983.

In hindsight, many other films could have been added to this singular list of visual productions. However, speaking for the aforementioned, each of them has been blessed by the unique touch of an Auteur’s idiosyncratic techniques. They manifest beneath their polished exteriors, a cornucopia of didacticism — providing them with a depth of morally conscious artistry which transcends the changing trends of popular culture and what may appear to us as technological limitations.

And, at the heart of them all lies the burning desire to capture the moment — the here and now — for the purposes of silent re-examination at a future date. They may or may not shed light on the burning existential queries surrounding human existence, but are capable of serenading viewers with their anomalous magnetism, sedating them with the intoxicating drug that is nostalgia.

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Printable version | Oct 17, 2021 1:16:59 PM |

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