The Films Division was created in 1948, the year after India’s independence. Imbued with a new discourse of official nationalism, it was to reflect the shifting ideologies of the emergent nation state. Describing the performative pedagogical functions of nationalism, historians such as Partha Chatterjee suggest the postcolonial state attempted to educate its citizens through state-funded initiatives. One such was the FD’s production of instructive live-action documentary and animation films. Of these, conceptually and quite literally, animated shorts occupied liminal spaces. Intended for the child and untutored adult (unflatteringly referred to officially as ‘the illiterate masses’) these were first screened before the main show or during intervals at cinema theatres and later in the 70s and 80s between ads on TV. Animation filled the temporal space-between. And memorably so, as right up to the 90s these state-funded shorts were among the few instances of the medium to be seen. For my generation, growing up in India before economic ‘liberalization,’ they remain iconic of a shared moment in childhood.
Two films from this oeuvre are Ek Anek aur Ekta (One, Many and Unity, 1974), directed by Vijaya Mulay and animated by Bhimsain, and Gubbara, The Balloon (1985) directed by B.R Shendge and animated by J. Pulekar, M.V. Phadke and A. Gongade. The vision and voice of government are apparent in these works. Through allegory, symbolism and song, they prescribe solutions to the young nation’s problems.
Given India’s remarkable regional, religious and linguistic diversity, state concern for harmony and cooperation were often underlying themes. “Unity in diversity” emerged as a recurring trope for many films, including Ek Anek. To summarize its script: a girl explains the idea of unity to her little brother with a folktale about birds that escape a hunter’s net by flying away together and asking mice to cut them free. Inspired by the story, the boy gets together with several other children to help them all to mangoes from a large tree.
The legacy of a violent history is discernable here, from communal tensions within the country to larger traumas such as the Partition riots of ‘47 and the Indo-Pak wars of ’65 and ’71. An attempt to forge a sense of shared ‘Indianness’ continues to be one of the most compelling preoccupations of animation from India. In Ek Anek, we see the adaptation of a popular folktale from the centuries-old Panchantantra to allegorically provide answers for the present, foreshadowing the hundreds of animated films made more recently that are based on myths and folklore. Using a storyteller or sutradhar, music and the mnemonic devices of rhyme and repetition, Ek Anek ingeniously translates familiar oral devices into a memorable work of animation.
In The Balloon, we have another source of tension – the role of rumour in events. A passerby startled by a burst balloon runs and mentions a gunshot to a lady on her way to fetch water… and things balloon from there. Painterly speech bubbles, abstract use of type (the village itself is constructed from newsprint), and musical notes all cleverly suggest the imaginary powers of the spoken word, ending with the unambiguous official message ‘Do not spread rumours.’ Notably, The Balloon was made in the aftermath of political oppression and civil unrest with the Emergency of 1975-77, and the violence following then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984.
Intriguingly, both films signal the power of tradition and orality in the sub-continent in divergent ways. In Ek Anek aur Ekta, an oral tale conveys timeless wisdom; in The Balloon, messages exaggerated by word-of-mouth are the source of chaos: two animated reflections from the Films Division on the dialogue between indigeneity and ‘Indianness.’
Chatterjee, Partha. Empire and Nation: Selected Essays. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
Chatterjee, Partha. The Sacred Circulation of National Images in Traces of India: Photography, Architecture, and the Politics of Representation, 1850-1900. Edited by Maria Antonella Pelizzari. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
Roy, Srirupa. Beyond Belief: India and the Politics of Postcolonial Nationalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.
Anitha Balachandran is an animation filmmaker and illustrator from India. She’s currently working on an animadoc about an early twentieth century classical musician using a range of archival recordings and experimental image-making techniques. She has an MA from the Royal College of Art in London and is a graduate of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India. She teaches in the animation programmes at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore, and Jamia University in New Delhi.