Cinema documentary era revived for television channels (Column: B-Town)


The latest decision by the Information & Broadcasting Ministry takes one back to the days of the Films Division and watching films in cinemas. In those days, a 15-minute documentary produced by the Films Division, an arm of the Government of India, was a part of your film viewing experience. It used to be screened before the main feature started.

These features were purely propaganda vehicles for the government — the only way to let people know what progress the country was making and how the government was working. Mostly, sugar-coated propaganda.

How did the people who went to be entertained and for the feature film to start, took to these 15-minute features? Surprisingly, the people did not mind them at all. The wait before the main feature only added to the excitement. Also, a cinema outing for a layman meant three hours of fun. (In those days, any duration less than that was not ‘paisa vasool’, or worth your money.)

There was no television and few people listened to radio news since that was also propaganda aired by All India Radio (AIR). Socialism was in the air. India was a democracy even then, but the government forced its writ on just about everything.

One need not be in a cinema. A screen anywhere attracted crowds. Films Division features were also screened at public places over the weekends. The FD used vans, which landed at public places such as Chowpatty or Marine Drive in Mumbai, to screen these propaganda features. It was the magic of the silver screen where a few hundred people gathered to watch whatever was being offered!

Those were the days when the term ‘silver screen’ may have been coined. Folks lapped up everything beamed on the screen, be it an advertisement film, a slide show or a Films Division documentary. The ads you see on television were screened in cinemas and generated a fair share of revenue for them.

Yet, there was a class that did not quite take to these government propaganda films. They would ask this typical question of the usher, “When does the main film start?”. That was the time for them to enter the cinema. Can’t blame them. The Films Division feature was meant to be screened for an entire month before the new one replaced it.

Most people did not mind these 15 minutes of distraction before a film, but for the cinema managements, it was not a fair deal at all. You would expect the government to pay the cinemas to show their propaganda, but it was not so.

No, not only did the government or Films Division pay for this 15 minutes of playtime, on the contrary, the cinemas had to pay FD 1 per cent of their housefull capacity. Mind you, not 1 per cent of the actual collection, but what it would be if the film were drawing a full house. It did not matter that the film was faring poorly!

Thankfully, with the arrival of the government-owned television channel, Doordarshan, this practice was discontinued. After all, the government had its own medium. Otherwise, too, the cinemas had no courage to defy the government and film people rarely, if ever, go to court.

Now, the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, under Clause 35 of its guidelines, wants all Indian television channels to air at least 30 minutes of content of national interest every day! This is to be effective from January 1, 2023. Foreign and sports channels have been exempted.

Now, with Clause 35, the present government has kind of revived the same one-sided exploitation of the media that was earlier carried out through the Films Division.

This is an additional burden on the news channels because they have to not only dedicate these half-hour slots to what is described as content of national Interest, but the burden of producing also lies on them. And, daily at that! Earlier, the FD provided the content. For the holding companies of these television channels, this is an additional burden.

The I&B Ministry has listed eight subjects on which the content should be made. These are: education and spread of literacy, health and family welfare, agriculture and rural development, science and technology, welfare of women, weaker sections of society, protection of the environment and wildlife and of cultural heritage, and national integration.

So, when will these 30-minute documentaries be aired? There are no directives about that. All television channels need fillers. The early morning, pre-dawn slots are dedicated to astrology, religious sermons and yoga. The late night slots are filled with telemarketing programmes or interviews with filmmakers recorded many years ago. It is a daily routine for entertainment channels to keep repeating such interviews relating to films made and forgotten years ago.

The channels will have to comply, but, certainly, they can’t be expected to telecast their programmes at prime time! At the same time, the Ministry would not expect these programmes to be aired as fillers past midnight or pre-dawn.

There are two possibilities for TV channels. One is to find sponsors, which is quite likely because some or the other enterprise will certainly relate to one of the eight themes laid down by the ministry. The other wise decision would be to outsource to new young talent out of filmmaking or journalism courses, who now showcase their inclination and talent for cinematic content with short films via the online medium. These are called reels and show a lot of potential. For them, it will be challenging to produce interesting stuff. Even news agencies can source such content.

The content that this government-enforced demand had better be interesting enough for television viewers not to reach out for their remote.


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