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Visions of Development: Films Division of India and the Imagination of Progress, 1948-75

New York: Oxford University Press / London: Hurst & Co. Publishers, 2016

With a foreword by Arvind Rajagopal

Visions of Development is my first book. It is the outcome of research undertaken over 5 years in India, UK, France and USA. The book examines the Indian state’s postcolonial development ideology between Independence in 1947 and the Emergency of 1975-77. It pioneers a novel methodology for the study of development thought and its cinematic representations, analysing films made by the Films Division of India between 1948 and 1975. By comparing these documentaries to late-colonial films on ‘progress’, the book highlights continuities with and departures from colonial notions of development in modern India. It is the first scholarly volume to be published on the history of Indian documentary film. Of the approximately 250 documentaries analysed in the book, many of which have never been discussed in the existing literature, most are concerned with economic planning and industrialisation, large dams, family planning, schemes aimed at the integration of tribal peoples (Adivasis) into society, and civic education.



Reviews of Visions of Development

‘Through the original prism of film documentaries, this captivating book sheds new light on the continuities and contrasts between economic policies in colonial and independent India.’ — Jean Dréze, Honorary Professor, Delhi School of Economics

‘This is the definitive book on the documentary films produced by the Films Division of India, and the pioneering role that this organization played in articulating and disseminating understandings of a “new India” in the years after independence. Painstakingly researched, bursting with original and often counter-intuitive insights about the fractured visions of development that emerged from an official state agency in the “high noon” of the developmental state, this pioneering book will be invaluable not just to students of Indian documentary film history, but those interested in wider questions of cultural politics; the aesthetics and politics of developmentalism; and the practices of postcolonial nationalism and state-formation.’ Srirupa Roy, Professor and Chair of State and Democracy, Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Göttingen

‘Peter Sutoris has written an extremely well researched account of the evolution of the Indian documentary and its role in projecting “Visions of Development” during the Nehruvian and the post-Nehruvian eras of contemporary Indian history.’ –– Shyam Benegal

‘In this important book, Peter Sutoris provides a richly detailed account and astute analysis of documentary film-making as a feature of India’s national development regime during early decades of state planning. Using sources from previously untapped archives and insights from several disciplines, he shows how state programs and programming designed from above on lines inherited from India’s imperial past came to include voices from below that would help to propel India’s development regime into the age of globalization.’ — David Ludden, Professor of History, New York University

‘In this engaging book, Peter Sutoris ventures beyond the banalities of factories, tractors and statistics to look upon the dreams contained in the developmental imagination. It is to his credit that, as we share his view from a darkened cinema hall, we can still hear the sound of the projector in the background.’ — Benjamin Zachariah, Heidelberg University, author of Developing India: An Intellectual and Social History

‘Sutoris’s history of the Films Division of India is a landmark publication, the first meticulously researched book-length study of the subject. Its publication is extremely well timed to meet unprecedented public and scholarly interest in the output of the Films Division. Sutoris’s account of the production of government propaganda films proceeds against the backdrop of a very comprehensive analysis of statist developmentalist thought, thus ensuring the book’s appeal to historians and political scientists of the post-colony/Third World as well.’ — Kaushik Bhaumik, Associate Professor, Cinema Studies, Jawharlal Nehru University, India




This interdisciplinary book explores state ideologies of development during the period 1948-1975 by studying government-sponsored documentary films made by The Films Division of India (FD) during this period. It seeks to illuminate several key research questions related to Indian social and economic history, including: How did Indian Independence impact the prevailing ideas about development among ruling elites in India? To what extent did the state’s development policies during the Nehruvian period break away from what David Ludden has called the “development regime” steeped in colonial ideology of progress? Another set of questions the book sets out to address is pertinent to film history and development studies: To what extent did the post-Independence Indian Documentary Film Movement succeed in creating an alternative to the British ‘colonizing documentary’ of the 1940s? In what ways can film analysis illuminate the study of development? And finally, can documentary film be an effective tool for development?

This book is based on research spanning five years and encompassing archives and interviews in Asia, Europe and North America. It is the first book-length scholarly project on the history of Indian documentary film. The core of the research focuses on a sample of approximately 250 films about which almost no scholarly writing has been published so far, as well as a body of government records not kept in official archival collections that had not previously found their way into the scholarship on this period. The manuscript focuses on five samples of films: documentaries about economic planning and industrialization, large dams, civic education, family planning, and “social uplift” of Adivasis (indigenous peoples of the Indian subcontinent). My approach combines archival research with film analysis, oral history and development studies, pioneering a novel methodology for the study of development thought. The arguments and methodologies explored in this volume are relevant to the social and economic history of post-Independence India, development studies, film studies, postcolonial studies and media and communication studies.

The key argument of the book lies in the continuities in development thought from the late-colonial period into the first 27 years of Indian Independence, as reflected in similarities between FD films and documentaries made by its colonial-era British predecessor, Information Films India. The manuscript points out a number of ways in which government development ideology perpetuated colonial approaches throughout the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and into the 1970s. The state’s effort to polarize Indian society between government “experts” in charge of defining “development” and the “masses” tasked with carrying out state blueprints is evident in colonial and Independence-era documentaries alike. The model of development championed by the state in these films—one steeped in an imported, colonial conception of industrial modernity—also points to significant continuities from the colonial into the postcolonial era. FD’s Orientalist portrayal of indigenous populations as the “backward other” to be “civilized” by the state, and the depiction of overpopulation as a consequence of rural Indians’ irrationality and unchecked sexuality are also among the themes of continuity explored in the book. Further continuities are evident in the concept of citizenship championed by these films—a concept that put the interest of the state ahead of the individual interests of its citizens, in a reversal of a conventional interpretation of liberal democracy. This volume also explores the role of gender in the Nehruvian development ideology, showing continuities in the portrayal of stereotypically “female” roles. The book argues that within the organizational structures of FD, these continuities were reflected in the retention of staff trained by the British in the late-colonial period as well as in coercive policies regulating film production and distribution that suppressed individual artistic voices in favor of statist visions of development. These internal continuities resulted in the perpetuation of an out-dated style of documentary filmmaking structured around “voice-of-god” commentaries merely illustrated by film footage, a style pioneered by the British in the 1930s. The primary argument of this book thus suggests that Nehruvian developmentalism was steeped in British colonial notions of development and modernity and suffered from authoritarian and coercive tendencies that became an obstacle to India’s development in 1948-75.

The secondary argument of the book, however, complicates this notion of a linear colonial-postcolonial continuity. The manuscript questions the interpretation of mid-20th century colonialism as a monolithic force by showing that late-colonial films made by Information Films India reflected a number of overlapping agendas, some of which were shaped by Indian nationalists. The multiplicity of agencies is a theme explored throughout the book. From its inception, FD brought together a diverse group of actors: nationalist political elites, middle-class civil servants and artists with creative tendencies. By analysing de-classified internal FD correspondence that was made available to me for the purposes of this research, I was able to identify internal tensions within the organization as early as the mid-1950s. These tensions show that just as late colonialism could not be reduced to notions of total imperial dominance, the civilizing mission and a singular vision of modernity, Nehruvian developmentalism was neither monolithic nor hegemonic in post-Independence India. A close reading of FD’s cinematic output points to voices of dissent throughout the organization’s history. In particular, the period 1965-67 was significant due to a large number of films departing from the accepted norms of statist filmmaking both in their content critical of state policies and their formal experimentation that broke away from the “voice-of-god” commentaries of earlier films. This period saw unprecedented creativity, and thanks to the exposure these films received abroad, it put India on the map of world documentary cinema. Frequently described as the “golden period of the Films Division,” the films produced at this time make it impossible to fully reduce FD (and the state development ideology it represented) to an outpost of colonialism in postcolonial India. Yet, even during the “golden period” FD kept producing films in line with colonial ideologies, which points to the coexistence of both approaches.

By fusing the primary and the secondary arguments, the book posits that this coexistence of colonial influences and contradictory forces was a manifestation of the interplay of a multitude of agents—politicians, civil servants and filmmakers—shaping the content and form of the films. The political elites’ definition of ‘development,’ the visions of modernity held by civil servants involved in the production of the documentaries and the individual directors’ strong views on the aesthetics and purpose of documentary film as well as their occasional activist tendencies and concerns about the human costs of state development policies were all factors that intersected at FD. Despite their differences, each of the three sets of agendas was significantly coloured by the experience of colonialism, which helps explain the powerful forces creating continuity within FD. The differences between the groups, which widened over time, created contradictory tendencies within the organization, and acted to subvert the persistence of colonial ideologies. The subversion was not complete, however, and important continuities remained throughout the entire period covered in this volume.

These complex dynamics have important implications to multiple areas of knowledge. My arguments are both novel illustrations and refinements on the concept of a “development regime” rooted in colonial-era discourse on development articulated by the historian David Ludden. While FD films analysed in this book support Ludden’s overarching argument, they also suggest that his interpretation needs to be complicated. FD’s goal of bringing large strata of the Indian society on board the government’s development agenda shows that the development regime was not merely an elitist phenomenon controlled by government politicians but a broader structure of power in which the middle class also participated. The implications to development studies are two-fold: on the one hand, the book suggests a number of limitations of the ideology of Nehruvian developmentalism. On the other hand, the themes of dissent identified by my manuscript also suggest that alternative ways of thinking about development outside the dominant government model may have had their proto-origins in pre-1975 India. The application of the film scholar Bill Nichols’ concept of “expository mode of representation” (of which the “voice-of-god” commentary is a key feature) to these films also presents a contribution to South Asian film studies, since this is the first scholarly attempt at systematically applying a film studies perspective to FD’s cinematic output. Because the book includes a section on animation, a medium that was pioneered in India by FD, it also breaks new ground in South Asian animation history—a nascent area in which no scholarly books have been published so far. The use of Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism in this book to illuminate the relationship between the state and India’s indigenous populations links this volume to postcolonial studies. An extensive section on large dams makes a contribution to the environmental history of South Asia, resonating strongly with the writings of Ramachandra Guha on the human consequences of large dams. Finally, the novel methodology of this book—using film as a source to understand issues of development—is unprecedented in the scholarship of South Asia, making this volume a unique example of a previously unutilized link between seemingly disparate academic disciplines. 

This book is almost entirely based on primary research of sources that have not previously found their way into published academic writing. My research extends well beyond the boundaries of collections kept in official archives and into personal collections and other unofficial depositories. Apart from a large sample of films, the book relies on numerous unpublished reports, written correspondence, personal diaries and oral history (in many cases interviews with people who have passed away since the time of the interview). It includes an Appendix, “Guide To The Study of Films Division,” and it is my hope that the extensive references in the footnotes together with the information contained in the Appendix will make it possible for other scholars to build on my work and follow up with studies exploring the many facets of government-sponsored film in India and elsewhere.