media, information, the contemporary

Media in Times of War in Independent India

Mallika Visvanathan

January 2019 - March 2021

I am an independent filmmaker and researcher and an early career documentary filmmaker. My practice is invested in themes such as language, belonging and personal histories. In terms of form, I am interested in the relationship between images and words. After completing my post-graduation in Arts and Aesthetics, JNU, I received training in filmmaking at the Creative Documentary Course of Sri Aurobindo Centre for Arts and Communication (SACAC). Following this, from 2019–2021, I worked at the Sarai Programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi. The project, titled “Media in Times of War in Independent India”, was funded by the M.S. Merian – R. Tagore International Centre of Advanced Studies ‘Metamorphoses of the Political’ (ICAS:MP). As a part of the project, I collected and annotated archival materials with reference to the representation of war in independent India, with a special focus on the documentary films produced by the Films Division of India.

Under the aegis of the ICAS:MP thematic module Media and the Constitution of the Political (TM7), my project focused on media in times of war in independent India. Through the course of my time at Sarai, I sought to create an annotated archive of media objects and materials in order to provide insight into the ways in which media technology and infrastructure as well as media memory operate in times of war. The material ranged from Press bulletins from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, to Government Files from various departments, to Newspaper advertisements, cartoons, songs and films. The period I have focused on is from 1947 to 1971, during which India participated in four wars.

The aim of the project was to open up lines of enquiry into this field of media history in India. Since these lines are often interrelated, some of the questions that I started out my research with included:What are the range or configurations of media technologies? How can one trace the transformation of media technologies—is there continuity from wartime to times of peace? What are the different media infrastructures at work? What are their functions? How does information and the control of flow of information function through these channels? How much do infrastructures move beyond the state? How can one analyse the intersection of the Public and Private in India with regard to such infrastructures? How can one think of ‘war’ through media memory? What is the life and ‘after-life’ of a media object? And finally, how has the experience of war come to be represented?

Guided by these questions, I visited various archives and libraries to source material that would help me arrive at an understanding of the nature of media memory, technology and infrastructure. Over the course of the two years, the focus of my work naturally shifted to the filmic representation of war and thinking through the idea of memory in this way.

My research draws from materials belonging to the Teen Murti Library, the National Archives of India, the Films Division, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the Sarai Archive, etc. I have also accessed various materials online including fiction films, memoirs and from online resources like the Times of India archive. However, I have to acknowledge a lacuna in the collection presented here as I was denied access to certain crucial archives like those of the Ministry of Defence and the Photo Division. Whereas earlier the Photo Division was available to the public (indeed many of its photographs were put online and were available for download), I was unable to access it because of routine bureaucratic red tape. I encountered similar problems with attempting to enter the Ministry of Defence. Just as I managed to get a foothold into the Archives of the Ministry of Defence and access their materials, the pandemic-necessitated lockdown was announced suddenly and entry to such government institutions was completely restricted. Even if access had been granted, the problem it posed was that photography and replication of materials was not permitted. While I was able to access some government sources online, the Defence Ministry archives remain unexplored.

As a filmmaker, my interest is in the visual and audiovisual and so my ability to think through form within the archive is largely influenced by my training and interests. As a result, I have tried to look for photographs and films that represented the war (or the memory/experience of it), in order to better understand the way the event of war has been represented. Here, the concept of the compilation film [1] and recombinatory process [2], became significant forms of addressing footage used to depict war across time. The repetition of certain documentary footage, whether embedded as representing a specific event or as general combat, blurred the lines between fiction and non-fiction. The use of reenactments in documentary films and the use of archival footage in fiction films further highlight the tenuous nature of a binary understanding of the two film forms. The use of the photograph with the film also emerged as a critical intervention to think through the idea of intermediality in the films.

Research Collections

This archive was built between February 2021 and August 2022 and supported by the collaboration between The Sarai Program at CSDS and ICAS: MP on thematic module 7 entitled, ‘Media and the Constitution of the Political’. This project details how truth-telling is transformed after widespread media proliferation with a focus on public commissions of inquiry into the Northeast Delhi Riots in 2020. The project seeks to understand the nature of political, humanitarian, and legal claims made in the presentation of witness speech and evidence; how to assess the temporality of the report in negotiating these often-competing claims; and what the handling of media evidence discloses about the politics of caution, care, and self-care. In detailing how investigations assemble evidence and articulate the evidentiary value of media, special attention is given to practices associated with open-source investigations, online publication and archiving, and the management of risk associated with such human rights media work. Research collections include fact-finding reports and books, documentary films, collections of film and photo documentation, news reports, web archives, and social media threads.