Deben Bhattacharya interviewed by Kevin - Part 5: Films

I started making films in 1962. I had thought for several years that when you are presenting ethnic music from another land, with another social background, the visual element is a very important factor in presenting it. It is most important that the social life of people should be brought out, otherwise the work is meaningless. I had already been taking hundreds of colour slides everywhere I went, and it seemed a logical step forward that the pictures should move, so that’s why I though of becoming involved with film. My Third Programme producer, Robert Leighton, very kindly introduced me to David Attenborough, who was then an executive at BBC Television. I told David that I had never made any films, but I would be going to India with an experienced cameraman, and of course I would record the sound myself. The sound would have to be un-synchronised as we could only afford a Bolex, but it did run at 24 frames per second, so the pictures wouldn’t be jerky. So David said, “I can offer you £1,000. If you are successful and we can use the film, you may get some more in royalties, but don’t break your neck for the money!” He really was very nice. Anyway, the film was used. I brought it back, and the BBC edited the material into two films: ‘Kathakali’, the classical dance drama of South India, and ‘Storytellers from Rajastan’. I don’t know if the BBC still have copies after all this time. I haven’t seen them myself since then. They were shot in black and white of course. I know the BBC sold the films to several countries, because I used to get dribbles of royalties for several years afterwards. They even sold them to Indian Television!

Following this, Swedish Television gave me money to make a film in Hungary. They hadn’t seen the BBC films, so it showed a good deal of faith in my work. As I said, Stockholm Radio had been taking regular programmes from me, so I guess they thought I could be trusted not to mess it up! I also made films for them in Romania. These were much more serious filming expeditions than the BBC ones, with more professional equipment and shot in colour. These I do have copies of!

Films are not cheap to make, so you have to plan and budget very carefully. I’ve been sponsored for some films, and for others I have found the money myself, borrowing in bits and pieces from here and there and paying the money back as the films are sold and shown. On other occasions, I’ve signed contracts which looked sensible, but foolishly without taking them to a lawyer, and have found myself working for months without anything at the end of it. Mind you, this experience had a positive side; the films I made in these circumstances were shown on television all over the world, and gave me a certain reputation. It was my name they remembered, and it led to other projects. The series I am working on now, ‘Asian Insights’ has had a very good response, artistically and professionally. Many countries have shown them on TV; quite by accident I saw one last year in Switzerland, and recently Thames Television in London have shown six of them.

In my films, I try to choose countries where the visual and sound images can be interpreted strongly and equally. My total interest in my work is selfish, becase I love my subjects. I make the films and do all this work primarily for myself, and then secondly to share with those who can enjoy with me. Thirdly, I make them to survive, doing work I like to do. It’s as simple as that. I can’t make films to order, I never have and I just can’t do it! I’m not capable of it, you need a certain particular type of training, and, as I taught myself, I can only do what I can do. In terms of a people, their music, their culture, their life and nature, all are related together. I don’t see music as a separate entity from people’s lives, because I’m not digging in museums, I’m just collecting what people are singing today, but coming from the past – their past tradition. 

Read Part 6: A place called home »

Text taken from Kevin Daly’s taped interviews with Deben Bhattacharya
Interviews recorded 23rd and 24th February 1982, Rue Lepic, Montmartre, Paris
Transcribed and edited by Michael Daly
© 2010 Michael Daly