Mapping India’s Films Division using Data Analytics

With its characteristic song-and-dance sequences set in dreamy landscapes, India is globally renowned for Bollywood films. However, much as mainstream movies have informed public opinion, it was actually an earlier tradition of cinema production that inaugurated India’s love affair with the moving picture. This was, of course, the iconic Films Division of India which was established in 1948 by the Government of India under its Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

In the decades after Independence, Films Division harnessed the emotive powers of cinema to become the chief producer of documentary films, animation shorts, and motivational biopics. Having produced 7,504 unique film reels over the past seven decades, the Films Division archive boasts a whopping 116,190 minutes of footage in black-and-white and color. This would be the equivalent of 80 continuous days of movie watching.

Iconic films include S.N.S. Sastry’s documentary I Am 20 (1967), Pramod Pati’s humorous animation about marriage called Wives & Wives (1962), and Chandrashekhar Nair’s biography of tabla legend Ustad Alla Rakha (1970). Each of these films captured critical moments of India’s initial years as a new country. For example, I Am 20 features a medley of interviews with young men and women born on Independence Day in 1947 as they embark on adulthood some two decades later. Wives & Wives was not only an early family planning propaganda film, but also earmarked India’s pioneering efforts to develop indigenous animation technology.

There have been several scholarly works on Films Division. Early studies by Jag Mohan (1990) and Sanjay Narwekar (1992) document the establishing of the organization. More recent scholarship takes resolutely critical views of Films Division. Prominent among them include Camille Deprez’s study of how John Grierson, who coined the term “documentary” in 1926, influenced Films Division from 1948 to 1964. Anuja Jain, Ritika Kaushik, and most recently Peter Sutoris demonstrate how Films Division was both a statist tool and a bureaucratic force that defined the Indian film landscape, especially into the 1980s. We hope that this page and the data we have provided will inspire further research into the iconic Films Division archive.

Between the 1950s-1980s, Films Division played a key role in shaping attitudes towards national history and social welfare. In addition, several films focused on economic development, education, and the politics of an Indian state committed to industrial growth and technocratic superiority. While readers can watch individual films online, new data science tools have enabled us to visualize aspects of the historic Films Division archive as a whole. Taking a bird’s eye view of the films in the collection, we can track film output by Year, Class, and Subclass.

Here are six key visualizations that convey the breadth and depth of India’s iconic Films Division holdings over the past seven decades:

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This captures the total number of movies produced by year. In 1950, the unit produced 37 reels, and by 1975 grew to screening 135 films. Several films produced just before Independence were absorbed into the Films Division after its establishment in 1948.
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This graph captures the average duration of films, broken down by decade. An average correlation line mapped on top of the data suggests an overall increase in the duration of films. The cheapening of recording technology, maturation of film making, and the growth of television broadcasting all contributed to the overall lengthening of films over the years.
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Films Division organizes its archive according to the broad category labelled ‘Class’. Over the years, films falling under the Agriculture, Biography, and Arts ‘Classes’ makeup 1,230 of the total number of films produced. This is 16% of the total archive.
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In addition to the ‘Class’ category, Films Division further tags each film with a ‘Subclass’ genre. The subclass conveys the topic of the film. Here are the Top 30 Subclass categories organized by total number of films produced. Based on this chart, we see that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting focused on making movies promoting agricultural techniques, reproductive health, and disease control.
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We can map top Subclasses based on decade of production. The visualization suggests that Films Division prioritized Foreign Relations in the 1960s, Farming improvement in the 1970s, and Sterilization/Contraception propaganda in the 1980s. This corresponds to major historical and political events during those years.
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This figure captures a comprehensive timeline of when Films Division movies were created by Class. For example, a significant portion of Natural Disaster Films were produced in the 1960s, whereas films about women are fairly evenly spread across the decades.

The visualizations above help us see that cinema beyond Bollywood was crucial in shaping national identity and public views about a range of subjects from animal husbandry to personal hygiene, and from artistic traditions to India’s foreign relations. These charts represent initial forays into analyzing the Films Division archive as a whole. We invite readers to download the entire data set to further explore trends in government sponsored film production. Additional visualizations are available on our public Tableau site.

With inputs from University of Pennsylvania undergraduates Nitin Rao and Rachel Hong.

Written by

Historian, musician, author, & teacher @Penn , @Wharton Lecturer @LauderInstitute , @PennHistory Past Fellow @HarvardHBS Relative perspectivism, past & present

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