Bharatbala: Patriotism is a personal emotion, not something to be advertised
The veteran filmmaker discusses his new project, Virtual Bharat, an online compendium of 1000 short films from various parts of India
Imagine India on a boat… begins AR Rahman in Thaalam, the inaugural short film of Bharatbala’s Virtual Bharat project. “The boat is only as strong as the people in it.” The theme of national integrity has been a defining strain of Rahman and Bharatbala’s friendship. In 1997, the composer-director duo gave us the Vande Mataram album, a prismatic tribute to 50 years of Indian Independence. They stepped up the grandeur in the Jana Gana Mana video, mapping the musical diversity of India as it transitioned into the new millennium. Now, in 2019, the childhood friends are back with another ambitious ode to their motherland.
Thaalam is the first of Bharatbala’s proposed 1000-short film project, and it was released last week on YouTube. The 5-minute piece charts the annual boat races in Alappuzha, Kerala. From the first shot, the style is distinctively Bharatbala, featuring his precise imagery and sense of framing. The filmmaker says he was less interested in the competitive nature of the event than the cultural euphoria around it. “The Nehru Trophy Boat Race is a well-known subject. What inspired me to do Thaalam is that these racers are all ordinary men — farmers, schoolteachers, fishermen, postmen, plumbers. Despite coming from contrasting backgrounds, they assemble together and find their thalaam. That’s the bigger idea behind these films, to find our rhythm as a nation.”
Bharatbala conceived this project three years back. The advent of digital content platforms and the democratisation of data inspired him to create a ‘virtual museum’ of India. So far, he has locked 300 story ideas and finished 70 films. He plans to release at least one film a week, gradually stepping up the number. “By and large, India is not a documentary-consuming country. So the idea is to weave a high-quality narrative under 10 minutes. Also, through these stories, I want to bring out fresh talent from every part of India.”
This week’s film from Virtual Bharat focuses on Haldaar Naag, a Sambalpuri folk poet from Odisha. The next one will centre on a village in Punjab, where every child is trained in classical music. There’s also a film about menfolk who dress up as goddess Kali during Dusshera celebrations in Tamil Nadu. “These are timeless stories that we are exploring from a contemporary perspective,” Bharatbala notes. “For instance, we have a five-part series on 150 years of Mahatma Gandhi. For that, we found the last private secretary of Gandhi, who is now a 94-year-old. We also found a lady who had been living with Gandhi from the age of six at Sabarmati Ashram. So I took her back to the Ashram and we filmed her reminiscing her life from all those years ago.”
Bharatbala identifies patriotism as a ‘personal emotion’, and not something to advertised. Through his work on the Virtual Bharat Project, he wants people to appreciate the richness of India — its heritage, folk arts, and so on. Recalling his experience on the Jana Gana Mana video, the filmmaker adds, “The rule of standing up for the National Anthem in theatres first came in Mumbai. There was an old video of a tattered flag and crackling music. We replaced it with our Jana Gana Mana. We did not tell anyone to stand up and sing with the anthem — people joined. I feel if you do something creatively, celebration, patriotism, pride will automatically happen. It doesn't need to be told.”
Outside of ads and music videos, Bharatbala has directed the 2004 short film Hari Om and the 2013 Tamil feature Maryan, starring Dhanush. Asked about his return to the fiction space, the filmmaker shares, “I am almost there. By early next year, I will be able to start my next Hindi film. Right now, all my focus is on Virtual Bharat.”