K.P. Sasi: An Activist First, And Then A Filmmaker
By Devapriyo Battacharjee
11 April, 2010
The Verdict Weekly / Media Praxis
In times when documentarists are making eulogistic corporate films and government-sponsored documentaries, there are people who are willing to bear the cross and carry it all alone. Documentarist and filmmaker K P SASI is one of them. No wonder he calls himself, “…an activist first and then a filmmaker.” Known for his incisive analysis, Sasi’s works explores the socio-economic contradictions and collision between the commercial interests and the lives of masses as well as the socio-ecological issues that crop up in the name of ‘development’. DEVAPRIYO BATTACHARJEE talks to this reticent but highly-charged filmmaker. Excerpts from the interview:
Most of your work focuses on challenging the western concept of ‘development’, and the existing ruling class political ideology propagated in the corporate establishment media. However, unlike other documentary film makers, it has been noticed that you take a plunge into documenting of issues through a creative tunnel, rather than giving it a cold, bland and clinical treatment. Eg: Gaon Chodab Nahin or America America.
Social movements are the matrix for my inspiration. Moreover, I read a lot and sift the chaff from the grain to get to the kernel of truth through serious deliberation and discussion. Lot of propaganda by the ruling class under the veneer of serious social reformation and change makes to the front page headlines. And when I reflect over issues and move amongst the masses, the thinking process finds its expression in the creation of a politically meaningful film.
An approach to a documentary film making is divided into several schools and genres: Which do you personally feel has a lot of potential?
I have experimented with most of the genres while trying to depict and explore anger, pain and other facets of emotions. However, I do agree that satire is less used by activists in communicating ideas amongst down-trodden and other socio-economic classes…but then the latent potentiality of satire does pack a lot of punch. Strange it may seem but it is yet to be explored fully.
One of the things which one notices in your work is the use of animation and graphics.
Animation is an effective tool. I really hope that more and more people involved in documentary films, make use of animation to communicate ideas and the potential fall-out and ramifications of some of the critical and grave issues we are facing today’s world.
Like any other segment of film making, documentary film making is also witnessing massive technological upheaval in its production modalities. In what way has these changes helped the documentarist? Are they just ornamental changes? Like Everest Complex… one clims Mount Everest because it is there.. a common phenomenon in today’s world which has a fetish for instrumentation.
I started with Regular 8 mm in 1982. Then, it was black and white technology without negative. It ran with a speed of 16 frames per second. I used it because that was all I could gather for a no-budget film. After that, till date I have experimented with 16 mm, U-matic Low Band, U-matic High Band, VHS, SVHS, 35 mm Cinemascope and various kinds of digital formats in recent times.
You have formed a company called Visual Search. What are its aims and objectives? How does it survive, since nowadays there is a fad about using the term, revenue model?”
Visual Search till date has received no funds from any vested interest group nor does it have any revenue model. The resources come from contributions arising out of specific projects or through the sales of CD and DVD of the films which we make. It is a platform to use films to widen the space for social activism so as to inspire, inform and motivate people.
What is the status of contemporary documentary film making in India?
Depends on what kind of documentaries one is talking or discussing about. Most of the documentaries churned out in India are either made by the government bodies or by the corporate world. Both have their own vested interests. The kind of documentaries made by Visual Search or like-minded documentarists comprises a very miniscule section of the thousands which are churned out on regular basis in lieu of monetary considerations…
Can you elaborate on the changing face, content and ideology of documentaries in post-1947 India.
The post-1947 India witnessed a long period of boring documentaries thrust upon the theatre goes in 35 mm format. They were mainly produced by the Films Division of India.
Of course, nobody denies that that there were no creative and socially and politically conscious people in the field at that point of time. But then exceptions are always there. Majority of the documentarists then, indulged in government propagands.
Doordarshan also more or less followed the same line of thinking. Now take for example the present scenario with innumerable departments and institutions of central and state government bodies … hordes of documentaries are sponsored, funded and made. And nobody watches including the officials themselves.
But in post-emergency era, a small group … socially and politically conscious emerged. And it is this group which is attempting to make documentaries as they should be. Rest is a survival game like any other occupations.
What are the common problems faced by the documentary film makers today?
Mainly, funds, distribution, a wider network of screenings and spaces in the mainstream channels.
What changes would you like to see in order to have a healthy space for documentary film makers?
First, people who sceen films should involve the audience in a purposeful dialogue over the subject of the documentary. Second, there has to be a serious deliberation over the modalities of the distribution of meaningful documentaries.
Third, this can be done only when more and more, small, medium and larger film festivals in India are organised by socially active groups, student bodies and people’s movements.
And of course, the channels should also realize and make a serious effort to telecast socially meaningful and though-provoking documentaries rather than airing mindless filth.
Commercial cinema makers keep on getting benefits from the State. Nobody knows as to what kind of support is extended to documentary film makers in India.
As I said earlier, the State is the largest producer of documentaries in the country and then comes the corporate world. Of late, in some of the government initiated film festivals, you do find some space for meaningful efforts.
Government has made it mandatory to screen documentary films before screening of every feature film in theatres. Will this move help the documentary film makers in any way?
It really depends on what kind of documentary you show.
The good side of the technological change is that it simplifies the production processes but then there is also a dark side… technology tends to make people lazy and complacent. Some of the best camera persons in the history of Indian cinema came during the period when the limitations of technology forced them to struggle. I do not know whether we have such people today…
If you really collect all the documentaries produced by various institutions of the government bodies…the collection will spill out from all the corners of a building like ….Parliaments House. But one thing I should tell you, I am glad that most of them have never been seen by people.
Ilayum Mullum: This film is a critical reflection on the widely-held belief in the power and respect enjoyed by women in Kerala, a state in south India known for its high literacy and political awareness, its matrilineal tradition, and relatively high degree of employment among women. This myth is questioned from a women's perspective and forms the central issue of the film. Ilayum Mullum is based on actual incidents that took place in Kerala
Resisting Coastal Invasions: A 52-minute documentary, vividly captures both the magnitude of the threat and the heroism of the fishing communities. It analyses the ramifications of the CZM notification and the dire consequences it will have on the 10,00,000 fisherfolk populating India’s coasts. The film is a bold indictment of the government’s plans to deregulate the coastal zones
America, America: A music video that cocks a snook at the great American empire and exposes the American war machine for what it is - global terrorism. Directed by K.PSasi and based on Kamaan Singh Dhami’s Anti-war song “American War Paar Da! (Check Out the American War!) “, the 4-minute music video is a satirical but severe indictment of America’s role in escalating world conflict. Originally written following the post-9/11 bombing of Afghanistan by the USA, and developed to address the occupation of Iraq, the song comments on various aspects of the American empire - its stockpile of nuclear bombs, its cozy relation with fanatical and dictatorial regimes, and in fact, the very notion of American peace and liberty
Living in Fear: A documentary on the radiation hazards caused by the Indian Rare Earths Ltd., Alwaye, an undertaking of the Department of Atomic Energy, in its efforts to produce thorium, a fuel for the fast breeder technology in India
Development at Gunpoint: A documentary film on the social and environmental impact of bauxite mining in Kashipur, Orissa, and the subsequent struggle of the adivasis in the region