Diploma films are a glimpse into the raw creativity of well-known directors.
Every film you make is a shadow of the film you’d wanted to make,” writer-director Kundan Shah told me a couple of weeks ago, pointing out that the movie-making process is so full of compromises that the final product might — for better or for worse — have little to do with the original vision.
I was thinking about this while watching Bonga, the 20-minute “diploma film” Shah made at the end of his three-year stint at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in 1976. Like many of the other FTII diploma films (Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Murder at Monkey Hill and Sriram Raghavan’s The Eight-Column Affair among them), Bonga is now available on DVD — on a collection titled “Master Strokes”, or, alternatively, in the “Indie Corner” section of Palador’s World Cinema titles. It’s hard to coherently describe this manic little film, so here instead are nuggets of information. It’s a tribute to the silent-screen comedies of Keaton and Chaplin as well as the American gangster film, with a nod to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Bande à part. It has no dialogue but is powered along by a superb, whimsical music score by B Chandravarkar and outstanding performances of pantomime and physical comedy by a cast that includes a clean-shaven and relatively lithe Satish Shah, Rakesh Bedi (who later played Raju in the TV comedy Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, also directed by Kundan Shah), the young Suresh Oberoi and Om Puri. The story, such as it is, involves five people attempting a bank robbery, but plot descriptions are almost immaterial; what matters is the film’s rhythm and exuberance, which has to be experienced first-hand.
Such movies provide a template for what is to come. Bonga was made seven years before Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, and in the period between the two movies he did very little film work (in fact, he spent a couple of years after FTII working as a typist in England), but there’s a strong synergistic connection between them — the use of slapstick and absurdity to heighten the reality of a situation; goofiness interspersed with moments of stark emotional truth; scenes that play like a visual representation of the most inspired nonsense verse.
So too for Sriram Raghavan and The Eight-Column Affair. Twenty years before he made the brilliant heist film Johnny Gaddaar, Raghavan showed his visual inventiveness with this short film about a romance set within a newspaper’s pages: a marathon runner featured on the front page falls in love with a pretty tennis star on the last page, which means that he has to travel through the length of the paper to meet her before midnight strikes and it’s time for the next edition. Along the way, he must negotiate the Obituaries section, the Matrimonials, the crime pages and the crossword, and he nearly gets run over by a motorbike in an advertisement for tyres.
What strikes you about these early movies is that they are shorn of any kind of baggage. They were made collaboratively by young students who loved films and who had enormous fun pushing the limits of their creativity, bouncing ideas off each other, improvising and multi-tasking. No squabbling with producers about financing; no ego hassles involving big stars; no fretting about whether this or that scene will be accepted by the mass audience. Poorly preserved as they are, these diploma films are valuable relics — they have much to tell us not just about the roots and early struggles of many of today’s leading filmmakers but also about the idealism of youth; about a stage in an artist’s development when it was possible to work purely on adrenaline without being trammeled by non-creative considerations.