How Bharatbala Tells A Story

How Bharatbala Tells A StoryBharatbala
  • 1997. Maa Tujhe Salaam beams across televisions in India and ignites a latent pride in the tricolour. We asked its creator, Bharatbala, the story behind the video and the story behind his life.

Generating Indian soft power must begin within India for Indians with a virtual Bharat, before it sets off to impress or woo the world, believes Bharatbala.

Renowned film director, screenwriter and producer, Bharatbala, builds and rebuilds reunions that become the ultimate image and memory of this great civilisation, its people, stories, and human emotion. He uses narration with serenity and knowledge in such a way that art itself turns narrator.

In 1997, when India turned 50, Bharatbala brought a revolution to the Indian television with an iconic video set to a legend's music. He introduced his version and vision of ‘Vande Mataram’ — those eternal two words in the song that ignited India’s freedom struggle. In their creative tribute, pivoted on Bharatbala's idea, schoolmates, maestro A R Rahman and Bharatbala dedicated their work on ‘Vande Mataram’ to the motherland.

Bharatbala and Rahman, as their teaming up born in Chennai would ensure, succeeded in infusing people of at least three generations that year and years that followed, with a renewed sense of pride. The song ran against a gigantic canvas — in size which only Bharatbala could have covered at that time in a video, and music, without being dwarfed by its overwhelming dimensions and colours. Rahman, in this rendition, spilled the powerful refrain of Maa Tujhe Salaam on Bharatbala’s canvas.

Bharatbala, AR Rahman, and Kanika. 
Bharatbala, AR Rahman, and Kanika. 

At the centre of its visual warmth was a hero — the tiranga — the Indian tricolour, which was passed on in the path-breaking work, from people to people, region to region, fluttering gloriously against wide geographical tapestry and faces that define India. For the first time, the act of holding the tiranga and watching it unfurl, became an act speaking of pride, of patriotism. The eyes, of unknown people your own, stared straight into your eyes. A screen in between. You wanted to go beyond that screen. That pelting hunger — to travel — to touch those lives. “Where was Bharatbala all this while?” Many people asked. Why did it take a filmmaker that long to make tiranga the focal point of all eyes, senses, pride and emotion, on Indian television?

In Maa Tujhe Salaam, the close and tight shots in particular, which captured the beautiful faces of people — from the blazing deserts of the west, the lush green expanse of south, the rugged mountains of north, struck the Indian middle class with pelting hunger to travel India, to “see”, to “see” and know the people. When India turned 60, Bharatbala brought another brilliant work.

This time, he celebrated Jana Gana Mana. Rendering it were India’s celebrated musicians and vocalists offering it to interruptions of measured silence and minimal percussion. The voices, stunning non percussive details and collaborations featured in this work, flowed into every grain of India’s classical music heritage, rediscovering the national anthem as a rendition in devotion. It made the nation young again — at 60.

Behind the meditative response from the musicians to Bharatbala’s idea, shone his own sadhana in art, like gold. In the background of these two emotional milestones, Bharatbala was rigorously and continuously collecting stories from every nook and corner of India. Now, fuelled by his travels to the unknown stories and storytellers, extending through 20 years of research and making, is a new phase. Bharatbala is working towards creating and recreating reunions. He is retelling stories. He is working on short stories. He is making stories burst with character and life. These, he intends to bombard India with. These, he wants people to know India seen and unseen with. These short films, he hopes to celebrate the intangible wealth with.

Everybody needs an inspiration, and to Bharatbala, it came from his father. To many kids growing up in the 1990s, it came from Bharatbala.

In December 2018, at the Conference of Soft Power, New Delhi, he gave a glimpse into the evolving repository of his under-10-minute short films, the process behind the cultural bombardment he is designing, and his ideas on Indian soft power.

This writer attended his session at the conference and followed it up with a telephonic conversation on creating cultural wealth, Indian soft power, his journey through stories, and his father. He turns India audience for India in his continuing beginning to create emotional stories of nationalistic pride, she finds out.

Edited excerpts of the interview:

How can India explore its soft power through short films?

At the outset, we are a deep civilisation, the understanding of humanity is a lot more deeper, of culture, art, heritage, etc. There is a very deep-rooted understanding of life. So, when you go behind making short films related to culture, which is deep-rooted, one does definitely bring about a deeper understanding of philosophy, which somewhere, is so universal, that it will connect with a much wider audience. At the core of it, it is universal. So, when you start making one particular film, for example, about an adivasi boy from a deep Sambhalpur, you don't know his language, you don't know their culture, but somewhere you understand the humanity. It just becomes a universal connect. Since we have an ancient civilisation, since you dig out a deep-rooted story, it starts resonating with anybody, irrespective of their religion, culture, language, etc. Also, it transcends generations. A young person connects with it. A person, who is in his eighties or nineties, who has lived a life, also sees a connect. So, in that sense, if you are able to curate and cumulate wide meaning stories, from the remote corners of India, then, a collective of that becomes power. And it is creative power. It definitely evolves itself into the idea of soft power.

Maa Tujhe Salaam did not stay with just the celebration of India's 50 years of independence. Tell us about the efforts that went behind this great work that has stayed young for 20 years since 1997.

I come from a family where my father was part of the freedom struggle. The sense of nationalistic values was somewhere kind of a DNA of growing up. It was actually my father who inspired to create whatever there be in the so called India space, whether it was Vande Mataram or Jana Gana Mana. All such is one trigger from my father, of what inspired me or what continues to inspire me. When you set off to say, hey, let's create an idea called Vande Mataram, which is still like an anthem or a voice that brought a nation together during the freedom struggle, then that song, which is a national song, inspires you to create new fervour for young India. We could have done a music video — typical. Right? But I don't believe in that. It is much bigger than a music video or even, then, a feature film, so I said let us create an idea which really amalgamates from every corner of this country. I took a journey of India. Through Vande Mataram and other projects related to India, I travelled 150,000 odd kilometres, by road, travelling across India, it definitely keeps inspiring you. Every time you go back, it continues to inspire. I also want to mention about Kanika. She has been a creative powerhouse. We both work together. She happens to be my wife. She is an independent director, she has edited all our films. She has been a strength in all our challenges.

It’s not like saying 'achcha, wo kar diya' (ok, it is done). ‘Ek gana kar diya’ (one song is done). It's an emotion. The idea is that as a creative person, you create ideas which are timeless. That's why, you saw it in the 1990s, and you play it to today's kids, the millennial generation, it does inspire. So, that is the core of it. That gave me the strength to believe and say that if we genuinely do a creative idea with honesty, passion, and it brings together a genuine emotion, then, it keeps strengthening you to keep doing more. It is not public service advertising. It is not a social message. It's an emotion, it is pride. It is an emotion which is about pride. So, that gives me the strength and the courage, to keep doing it.

How did your father inspire you?

He said, “in ads you create ideas for products; you create a creative idea that emotionally connects with a consumer, so, he said why don’t you create a big idea for India?” And. “Why don’t you create an idea that inspires a new generation, why don't you create an idea that did what Vande Mataram did to us when we all were part of the freedom struggle? Can you find new fervour and new purpose and new meaning for it?” he asked. It worked.

Your work on Vande Mataram hit the Indian television roughly five to six years after the country saw communal riots. Between 1990 and 1997, there were short videos screened on Indian television calling for national integration and unity, which could be bracketed under public broadcast messaging. Maa Tujhe Salaam stood out owing to the emotion in it. Do you agree?

True. The emotion. Even today when I set off, or speak about an idea, I don't say “ye nationalistic rakhna chahiye, yeh desh bhakti hona chahiye”, or this is the target. Then at the starting point itself, you fail. So, we are not bracketing it and making it like a product that's meant to serve some interest. It is a creative idea. I take it like one more creative idea. The idea is consumed by a wide section of people, so, suddenly, it becomes special and stays longer. To be honest, I didn't have an idea — like ‘hum wo karne waale hain’ (we are about to do this particular thing). It was just a challenge that my father posed to me and I jumped into it and it took shape.

Please recount people's response to this new visual and musical language.

Not many people know me. But they know my work. The idea is much bigger. The simple thing and first thing. What is Vande Mataram? “We feel the pride. We feel cool to hold the flag and to look up at the flag.” We made the largest flag at that time — it was 60 feet by 40 feet. The moment you go to a landscape, or rural India, and took that flag, it is magical, people in the villages are not expecting anything. But yeh ‘apna desh hai’ (this is our country), yaar'. How do you quantify? It is something that brings the nation together. You felt like what is it that we can do today to create that? First — it was not cool to hold the flag at that time. It changed. As long as we to do it in a creative way, it changed. Today, you see, (laughs) everywhere they are putting up a big flag. It is good! It is not that we did any marketing — nothing of that sort.

Take for example Jana Gana Mana. It is the National Anthem. You stand and render. But imagine a country which is so rich in music, and music is not engaged. So, we thought, why don't we use our music, which is so great. There are celebrated artistes — from Hindustani to Carnatic to folk. And make them sing the anthem. It is the power of an idea. Execution is not simple. But it is doable. It is all doable.

How did your work on Vande Mataram and Jana Gana Mana embolden you?

The thing is, nobody put that effort, maidan khaali tha (the field was vacant). And the idea was great, so it clicked. Vande Mataram was not just Maa Tujhe Salam, one song. We made five songs, seven videos, whatever, but I made 200 one-minute films at that time. One-minute films that told stories about people, places, landscapes and art. That's what emboldened me to say, hey, now is the good time for me, when technology is available, go and make, now, a repository of the great stories of India.

It is true that India needs to explore its soft power in the global context. At the same time, we need to generate soft power for India and use it effectively within India — for Indians, first. Do you agree?

Absolutely. First of all — who are we going to woo and what is this idea of soft power? Soft power is not something like a military might. It is the cross cultural influence. And we are such a diverse country, we must influence our own culture first. We have no understanding. I told you that a child in Nagaland might never come to Odisha. How will a child know what exists in this country? So, I think, the first priority only is to create soft power within India. That's what is my purpose, of creating virtual Bharat — (to create) soft power within India. So that once you build and create the sense of pride and strength, in every nook and corner, on an average, they feel the confidence, they feel pride, somewhere everybody has pride in the subconscious mind. We just invoke. We are not telling them “tum paisa do udhar jao, ye gana gaao, kucch nahin” (we don't ask them to sing for money). It just gives them the confidence and feel good about their society, an art, a tradition. How do we celebrate the wealth that we have — the intangible wealth?

Narrating stories on cultural heritage, virtual arts, rituals, landscapes and compelling stories of India, from Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat, is a mammoth exercise. You are targeting short films under 10 minutes in the language of origin. What would these films achieve in intangible terms?

I intend to take these films, movies and short films, not just for a digital media, or television, I am going to show them on the streets. When we did Vande Mataram, for the first 100 days, we had 200 cinema halls across India playing the song Maa Tujhe Salam and the film, before every feature film. Then, the National Anthem is played at cinema halls. So, you have a space, there is a collective space where people come together. If it inspires, it is emotional, you have done the job. So, I am for all kinds of platforms. Radio, cinema, television, digital platforms — these are all your vehicles. But what we need is an emotional, charged up creative idea. That's it. Once we have that, you can use all these platforms. Unfortunately, all these platforms are used for Bollywood songs predominantly. Today's songs are not that will stay with you for a lifetime, they use music, that's a business model — that's perfectly fine. But there is a case for this as well.

For a consumer, who is using this content, the most treasured wealth or asset will be pride, respect and wanting to engage with our culture and celebrating and preserving the culture. Today, so many art forms are dying, so somewhere there will be a sense of respect. For example, an average person will start respecting creativity, which is a massive transformation. We will be invoking creative thinking. Especially if you show it to children at an impressionable age, imagine the lasting impact it will have. It will bring in them a sense of love and pride for their own art. That's a very positive sign. What else can I ask for?

Recently, you thanked Prime Minister Narendra Modi for “recognising and finding” Haldhar Nag, the Sambhalpuri poet, who was awarded the Padma Shri for his art. It led you to make a film on his art. Tell us about the process of walking the miles to dig out such stories.

It is not that one day we just woke up and said let's do this. This is the research and collections of stories and ideas over the last 20 years. Now, I put it together to say, let's use that material and try to put them together as stories. Create a compelling narrative. Obviously, we are looking at what is currently happening — in the space, especially in the last four years, I find that unknown heroes, unsung heroes, are being awarded the Padmas. They have given their life-work. And that recognition (for their work) — is amazing. In that process, I found Haldhar Nag. I found his story so compelling on what he was doing. I found him where he is. One is about finding somebody. One is finding the story. At the end of it, you have to absorb his story and you have to create a piece of art. You have to uniquely tell his story. I did not go and interview Haldhar Nag. If I made a short film (the approach would have been) “jao Haldhar Nag se baat karo, aur pata lagao kya kar rahe hai, kya kahani hai aapki (go talk to him, find out what he is doing, ask him about his story)". No. Let's use his poetry and tell everything about what that man stood for and what he does. And picture him according to that. So, I have to see everything as a piece of art.

Give me the most boring idea. Can I make it the most creative idea? That's how I look at things. For example, this year, we are celebrating 150 years of Mahatma Gandhi. What ideas are we using to celebrate Gandhi other than the traditional governmental ideas? How do people celebrate Gandhi? Kuchh hua hai kya (has anything been done)? Even during the 50th year of India's Independence, I did not say, “next year is 50th year, let’s come up with an idea, it will be good timing.” No. it just so happened that in 1996, my dad inspired me and it just happened that next year was the 50th year of India’s Independence, and we were ready.

This year is Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. For Gandhi, I said let's find people who have deeply interacted with Gandhi and are alive. I found five of them. There is a lady called Sarla behen. She, at the age of six, joined Gandhi at Sabarmati Ashram. She was there till the very end, when he was shot. She lived her entire life dedicated to the Gandhian way of life and she lived her childhood completely at Sabarmati Ashram. She is 94, I think. I took her back to Sabarmati Ashram. I made her walk to every corner, and be reminiscent of Gandhi and what happened at that time. We are also trying to take back to what had existed at that time. It is all about the power of the idea. It is all about the creatives. It is not ki chalo Kuchipudi pe ek film banate hain, Benaras par ek film banate hain, Kathakali par ek film banate hain (let's make a film on each dance form). It is not done like that. You will have to find a creative way. Because only then the power will hold, it will inspire.

You recently said that you have researched on 300 stories, and working on a thousand. The number of films made will take up the magnitude of your work, creative power and soft power generated, while the motive will remain the same. How do you work towards it?

I should not have said “thousand” (laughs). Sometimes, when I show people one or two films and say it is going to be a thousand, they think, oh what the hell is it going to be? In fact, I won't go into thousand films to make it thousand films. I have already shot say around 15 films — it hasn't come the way I wanted it, so it will never be put out.

Every idea has its own difficulty. It has just manifolded now. First, it is all about the creative difficulty, isko kaise banaaein, how to make this into an inspiring creative thing. First of all, it has to excite you. It is not like a project. It has to excite me. Each film. And ground zero. It is not that I am going to do it to please myself. What I am putting together, is also about finding young minds from across India. Like a cinematographer from Thiruvananthapuram, a music composer from Bangalore, or somebody from Pune, somebody from Guwahati, young directors, sound designers. Finding them and using them. The first thing they think of is (making) a feature film. I say pehele 10 minutes ka ek film banaiye (work on a 10-minute film first). This is also to tell the young fresh talent to believe that this is also an exciting place to be in. In the arts and entertainment space, it is also skilling talent to do this. It's a good job.

Not setting an agenda for you. Have you thought of a plan for screening of films?

As part of virtual Bharat, we are also figuring out how government schools can have a screening set. If the Central Board of Secondary Education starts making it mandatory for government schools to have screening rooms — imagine each class attending 40 minutes of content every month. Imagine them watching it together. They will reach the details. Let's be honest. There is a lot that can be done. I am a small person. Am ambitious, but dekhte hain (let’s see).

Tell us about A R Rahman the collaborator.

Rahman and I are schoolmates. We have known each other for 35 years now. Even before he did Roja, he had done more than 60-70 commercial films, as a composer (for commercials). We are still the same (laughs). Now he is so big. We have worked on ideas together — timeless ideas. It is challenging. We worked together and it was not like 'Rahman mil gaya', it could be the case for many filmmakers. I want to create an idea which is exciting and challenging for him, and which is even more challenging for me to create as a visual narrative. This jugalbandi works.

Tell us about the experience — of walking the miles to reach the unknown storytellers of India and that of telling their story to India for creating a cultural legacy.

It is the journey of the last 20 years that has taken me to the nook and corner. I did Incredible India. Wo kya hai (what’s that)? Commercial hai — 30 seconds — 50 seconds. But for that it took a humongous effort to make. Let's look at the last five years. The leaps and bounds technology has taken and the connectivity it has brought. It is not anymore just communication. It is a medium for consuming content. Now that space is available, and I don't have to bring a person to the theatre to watch it. Uske haath mein jo phone hai, us se hee dekh sakta hai (he uses his phone to watch it). We need to use the platform. I thought this is the right opportune time. Also, importantly, if you look at the West, they have great museums, whether in Europe or America. It is a culture in the society there — a constant craze to go and understand the different cultures. Whereas in India, it is not so. Museum is not an exciting place to go. I thought that this is the right time. We don't need brick and mortar museum. Let's create a virtual museum of India — a virtual museum which brings architecture, performing arts, music, human stories, anything and everything about India. I call it virtual Bharat. It is like a virtual museum to me.

Sumati Mehrishi is Senior Editor, Swarajya. She tweets at @sumati_mehrishi 


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