Three visionaries and a media school

SHOHINI GHOSH

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IN 1984, I got admitted to the Mass Communications Research Centre (MCRC), Jamia Millia Islamia as part of its second batch of students. At the time I felt that the campus, overgrown with unkempt foliage, was located at the far end of the city. The MCRC was a deceptively plain, one-storey flat-roofed building. From the outside, it was hard to imagine that this space housed a fully equipped multi-camera studio and production control room where, over two decades, students would be trained in television production. It had video and 16 mm film editing suites, a photography darkroom, a sound-editing facility and a long window-less hall which was the classroom.

The studio building (now called the ‘old studio’) overlooked a well maintained green lawn where students did their preliminary camera exercises, discussed script ideas, rehearsed for street plays and generally hung out and had fun. What now stands as the MCRC building, designed by architect Raj Rewal around a distinctive and capacious quadrangle, was then a half-constructed giant heap of brick and mud that served as an interesting landscape against which we liked to shoot.

Today, the MCRC building that came up on the site, houses two multi-camera studios, editing and post-production suites, sound recording and editing facilities, photography, animation multi-media labs and the technical stores. While this building continues to be the nerve centre for teaching, production and administrative activities, MCRC’s expanding activities continue to spill over to adjacent buildings including the old studio. But in the1980s, there was just the studio building with a winding mud path leading to another one-storey guest house that had been renovated to accommodate administrative offices and a canteen. Among the unassuming cluster of rooms was the office of the founder of the institution, Anwar Jamal Kidwai (1917-1996) after whom the MCRC has now been named.

Anwar Jamal Kidwai was an intrepid and dynamic visionary who sought to build a media institute where students would ‘think with their heads and work with their hands’.1 The MCRC was the result of two collaborations. The first, between Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi and York University, Toronto, and the second, between the UGC (University Grants Commission) and the CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency). The CIDA provided the MCRC with a range of sophisticated production equipment while York University provided the first generation of teachers and technicians. The Indo-Canadian collaboration emerged from A.J. Kidwai’s friendship with Margaret Beveridge, a very talented and highly regarded editor of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB hereafter). Her husband, Professor James Alexander Beveridge (1917-1993) was a distinguished documentary filmmaker and a close associate of John Grierson (1898-1972) the founder of the NFB.

 

Over their long and rich career, the Beveridges had lived and worked in India for many years and had a vast network of friends and admirers in the film and media industry. The founding trio, temperamentally diverse, came together to build a media school that would provide an intensive and integrated media education enabling students to develop their individual expertise and skills within a multi-cultural, cosmopolitan and collaborative working environment. Today, the AJK MCRC is a leading media institute offering specialization in a number of media-related disciplines. What binds the different courses together is the vision of the founders.

 

Barring the early batches who had an opportunity to meet the founders, subsequent generations of students have had little occasion to learn about the three extraordinary individuals who gave the MCRC its professional orientation and intellectual direction. On the occasion of Jamia Millia Islamia’s centenary, this essay is a tribute to the Indo-Canadian founding trio and dedicated to the past, present and future generations of MCRC students.

AJK in a meeting with visitors to the MCRC in the early 1990s. (Photo: Author’s personal collection)

 

A.J. Kidwai was born in a well known feudal family of Barabanki near Lucknow. As a student at Lucknow University, he was deeply influenced by socialist thought and kept the company of people like Ali Sardar Jafri.2 He spoke from public platforms, joined political demonstrations and supported radical activism to fight for the rights of women, dalits and other minorities. When King George V died in1936, a big condolence meeting was called and attended by prominent Britishers. On the occasion, young Kidwai stood up to demand that a condolence meeting be first held for a young comrade who had died. For his audacity, he was expelled for some time. After completing his MA in English he joined The National Herald followed by a six month stint with the BBC after which he joined The Hindustan Times and served as a war correspondent during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia. Throughout this period, Kidwai used journalism as a formidable weapon to support the national movement. His radical and outspoken views often landed him in trouble as a result of which he ended up changing many jobs as a journalist.

 

In 1947 he was invited to join the Indian Foreign Service by Jawaharlal Nehru. He accepted an assignment as a press attaché in the office of Krishna Menon, then High Commissioner of India in London. His diplomatic stints took him to Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries but the job left him dissatisfied and after ten years he quit the Foreign Service. After a short stint as Chairperson of the Tea Board in Calcutta, he went to London as the Educational and Scientific Adviser to the High Commission. On his return he was made Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. It was from this position that Kidwai made some of his most significant interventions in the media. With the support of I.K. Gujral, Minister of I&B, Kidwai started special radio programmes for the youth; established district level radio stations where local issues could be discussed and initiated radio links with universities and agricultural colleges.

 

It was during this period that Kidwai overhauled the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune (where he met Jim Beveridge) and re-cast the Film Finance Corporation into the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). Both Gujral and Kidwai fought to give greater autonomy to the Film and Television Institute in order to invest it with greater credibility. Deeply committed to the promotion of independent and experimental films that would be free from the restrictions imposed by the state or commercially-driven producers, Kidwai advocated functional autonomy for institutions like the FTII, NFDC, the Directorate of Film Festivals and even the Censor Board.

 

The declaration of the Emergency in 1975 resulted in tumultuous changes. Both Gujral and Kidwai were strongly opposed to the Emergency and quit the Indira Gandhi government. In 1976, Kidwai became the Vice Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia where he worked tirelessly to expand, modernize and professionalize the university. He started the Engineering College, built the working women’s hostel, initiated the Polytechnic, raised funds for a large auditorium and fortified the boundary wall, reclaiming university land that had been illegally occupied. His most lasting contribution to Jamia, however, was the founding of the MCRC which stands as testimony to his extraordinary vision and foresight. When the media explosion of the 1990s accompanied the liberalization of the economy and the ‘opening of the skies’, MCRC was ready to make the best of that moment. This endeavour of Kidwai, however, may not have been shaped and realized without the passion, support and contribution of Margaret and James Beveridge.

AJK with close associate Prof. Habeeb Kidwai who served as Director MCRC after him (Photo: Author’s personal collection).

 

In her documentary titled The Idealist: James Beveridge, Film Guru (2005), Nina Beveridge says about her father that ‘no matter what direction he took, it always led him back to India.’ James Beveridge (or Jim as everyone called him) had earned his Bachelors Degree in Journalism from the University of British Columbia and had travelled to England on a bursary where he met the famous documentary pioneer John Grierson who hired him to help establish the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada. Grierson sent Jim off to London to train in documentary filmmaking with the GPO (General Post Office) film unit. In 1939 when the Second World War broke out, Grierson sent Jim to Ottawa to set-up the NFB whose official mandate was to make films that would ‘interpret Canada to Canadians and the world’. The intention however, was also to make war propaganda films.

Jim quickly became a prolific and important documentary filmmaker of the NFB and a well loved mentor to a new generation of Canadian filmmakers. He was deeply influenced by Grierson’s idea of making films that would play an active role in bringing about social change. When the war was won, NFB had played its part in it. Jim Beveridge seemed poised to succeed Grierson as Government Film Commissioner when Senator Joseph McCarthy launched his vitriolic campaign against those suspected of having communist leanings. Grierson was attacked as a Russian spy and Jim was tainted by association. Consequently, in 1951, Jim was sent off to London to take charge of the European office of the NFB.

During this time, Jim met Margaret Coventry, NFB’s editor-in-chief. She wrote him a letter telling him about a dream she had in which they were both travelling on a plane to India! By 1954, the dream had come true. Jim was hired by Burmah Shell Corporation to make documentaries and Margaret was to join him. Jim and Margaret got married and had two of their children, Nicholas and Nina, in Bombay. The Beveridges loved India. Jim wrote: ‘India is a palpitating mess of "becomingness" in which I am wallowing, floundering, gasping, surf-riding…’3 Thus began the continued adventures of the Beveridges with India.

 

At age 50, Jim took up a job in which he excelled and his daughter described it as his true calling: he became a teacher. In 1968, he was appointed professor of film at New York University’s newly established film department. Soon he was juggling three jobs and traveling across the US, Canada and India. He had been appointed Chief Consultant to India’s Films Division (that sought to model itself on the NFB) and was also consultant to UNESCO that was helping in the experiments with satellite educational television. In the 1970s, Margaret Beveridge had arrived in India to look for new work opportunities and had started collaborating with Kidwai in creating a blueprint for the future MCRC. By the end of the decade, she had helped initiate a 6-month field study that would serve as the basis for a fund-raising proposal to be submitted to CIDA. In1970, Jim became the founding Chairman of York University’s Department of Film. In the 1980s, the first generation of teachers to the MCRC came from York led by Professor James Beveridge.

 

In 1982, the Indo-Canadian collaboration was underway but the teaching and administrative buildings were yet to come up. To oversee the setting up of the technical facilities, a team from York arrived in Jamia. The campus at the time, in the words of Kidwai, was ‘not so posh as York’ or even its counterparts in the city.4 The first formal Indo-Canadian encounter was rocky, if not stormy, especially as the visiting team had come to India for the very first time. They were impatient and frustrated with the pace and procedures of the Indian bureaucracy and thought Jamia had been inefficient in putting systems into place for the timely construction of the building, delivery of equipment and so on.

Jim and AJK celebrating Holi with one of the early batches of students. (Photo Courtesy: Sabeena Gadihoke)

A particularly unpleasant altercation took place during the farewell dinner when the visiting team rudely rebuffed Margaret’s plea for more patience and understanding, almost driving her to tears. An infuriated Kidwai was diplomatic but firm in his response. The building would have been ready, he said, had they not asked for so many changes. Kidwai’s disappointment was evident in a long letter he wrote to Jim Beveridge. He wrote:

‘Finally the party ended on a friendly note. But I am afraid these exchanges have left some scars on Margaret and filled me with disquiet. I am afraid at the root of the attitude which [the visitors] displayed, is a feeling of superiority and a certain amount of contempt for the conditions in which we live and work here. If these [visitors] do not shut themselves up as elite benefactors but give some affection and understanding, they will get plenty of fulfilment in return.’

 

Kidwai ends the six page letter as follows:

‘I cannot advise who York should choose as its representative here but it is important that you should be here at this formative stage of the project and spread your warmth, friendship, understanding and large-heartedness round [sic] this scene. Otherwise, the Indians and Canadians will remain separate groups and the twain will not meet. It is important that you should restore the joyful communion.’5

Notwithstanding the uncertain start, the teachers and engineers from York were much loved and appreciated by the early batches of students. The professionalizing of the studio work culture was largely due to the training imparted by the Canadian engineers.

 

When Jim arrived in India, he took the responsibility of putting together a faculty, a curriculum and a time-table for the first batch of students. The curriculum introduced the students to a range of subjects which included radio, still photography, 16mm film, video and television production, media appreciation as well as street theatre and puppetry. York had hired Fuad Choudhury, filmmaker from Bangladesh, to teach video and television production. At a time when media and film studies had not quite emerged as disciplines of serious study in India, the founding trio was faced with the challenge of identifying film and media professionals who could serve as guset faculty and share their knowledge and skills in the classroom.

AJK, his daughter Nina, Margaret Beveridge and Habeeb Kidwai in the late 1980s (L to R). (Photo: Author’s personal collection)

This is where their vast network of friends and allies helped. Rajiv Mehrotra, documentary filmmaker and a popular TV commentator who would later found the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT), was entrusted with the task of teaching script writing. Photography was taught by Sanjay Acharya, a quiet man with a deep passion for his craft. The well read and erudite P.C. Chatterji, who had joined the AIR news services in 1943 and retired as Director General of AIR, taught communication studies. Ranjana Pandey, a talented and innovative puppeteer, introduced students to the innovative and creative potential of puppet theatre.

 

Safdar Hashmi was a frequent visitor to the campus and often took classes in street theatre. Documentary filmmaker and photographer Manjira Datta, who had studied media in Canada, was a rare and thoughtful practitioner. She challenged our received notions about the documentary and showed us that the ‘telling’ was as important as the ‘story’. For many of us in the early batches, her path-breaking documentary The Sacrifice of Babulal Bhuiya (1987) was profoundly transformative. Inspired by Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the film was an assault on documentary certitude and the idea of a knowable, singular truth.

Access to films in the 1980s was extremely difficult so students would most often have to learn about films without actually watching them. The challenge of teaching in such trying circumstances fell primarily on film writer and critic Aruna Vasudev, who would go onto become founder-editor of Cinemaya, a magazine dedicated to Asian Cinema. Vasudev was also the Founder-Director of the Osian Film Festival that introduced Indian audiences to the best of Asian cinema. Along with the founding trio, Vasudev ensured that MCRC was frequently visited by filmmakers of different persuasions.

 

Filmmakers in transit would often be brought to meet the students at the MCRC. Consequently, we met a range of practitioners from B.R. Chopra and Dev Anand to Mira Nair and Ishu Patel. One visiting filmmaker who changed our lives was documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan. The screening and discussion of his new film, Bombay, Hamara Shaher (Bombay, Our City, 1985), was tremendously inspiring and left a deep impact on many, particularly those of us who later went on to form the Mediastorm Collective, arguably India’s first all-women documentary production group. With the active mentorship of Kidwai, Mediastorm Collective produced three documentaries on religious extremism and won the Chameli Devi Jain Award in 1991 for outstanding work among women media professionals.

For a majority of us in the early batches, the teacher extraordinaire was James Beveridge. A man of sharp intelligence, wit and imagination, Jim was a dreamer. In his conviction that films could bring about social change, he was an idealist. While he was Greirsonian in this regard, his idea of the documentary was different from that of his early mentor. For Jim the documentary was first and foremost an art form. He was deeply moved by poetic and lyrical documentaries like Song of Ceylon (Basil Wright, 1934) and Nightmail (Basil Wright & Harry Watt, 1936). He explained in class how the Nightmail sought to replicate the rhythm of the train, he would recite W.H. Auden’s verse commentary for the film: ‘This is the night mail crossing the border/Bringing the cheque and postal order…’ Jim’s mind and body were keenly attuned to the documentary’s affective potential.

The author in the MCRC studios. (Photo: Kavita Dikshit)

 

When I was making my graduation film on ‘Moochwala’, a comic-strip character created by the very talented cartoonist Ajit Ninan Matthew, I was fortunate to have been mentored by Jim who taught me to pay attention to the smallest sensory detail – the sound of paper crumpling or water dripping from a tap or notice the lines and texture of someone’s hand. Jim was also a careful reader of written assignments with an equal interest in fiction and the documentary. It would always surprise me that Margaret would know about the assignments I had written for Jim and share her observations. The founding trio kept a close watch on every student.

 

Margaret, who never took formal classes but oversaw practically everything, was the force that bound it all together. She taught us the finer points of editing by giving us feedback on our films. Even after we graduated, Margaret never ceased to be our teacher and counsellor. In 1989, after a gruelling semester at Cornell University where I was studying for another Masters, I went to Toronto for the Christmas break hoping to rest up. Margaret, however, made sure I had something to do every day. This included visits to major television studios to see how live shows were conducted. She personally worked out an itinerary for me and made arrangements for the studios to pick me up and drop me back.

MCRC bids farewell to the Beveridges in 1987. (Photo courtesy Sabeena Gadihoke)

 

What seemed like fun trips at the time turned out to be a tremendous learning experience. Later, when I returned to start teaching at the MCRC, I drew on my memories of the live shows to structure the teaching sessions in the studio. My life as an educator had begun accidentally but it is possible that Jim and Margaret had planted, in my subconscious, a love of teaching. My Masters’s dissertation, about the teaching of film and television was dedicated to the founding trio of the MCRC.

AJK waves goodbye after his last day in office. (Photo: Author’s personal collection)

As students, we had no idea that Margaret was as responsible for the authorship of Jim’s documentaries as he himself. In the making of a documentary, the scripting ends only when the film is finished. Consequently, the editor is an equally important author. Therefore, Margaret was not just an editor but the co-creator of Jim’s documentaries. While Jim’s work has found a place in documentary history, Margaret’s contribution to that oeuvre has been largely overlooked. Nor has Margaret’s contribution to the creation of MCRC been adequately acknowledged. Neither Kidwai nor Jim, while relying on her heavily, gave her the credit that she really deserved. After her passing in 1996, my batch mate and long time colleague Sabeena Gadihoke and I made a short film on Margaret where we used an interview excerpt from a student film on A.J. Kidwai. Margaret’s frustration finds expression in that excerpt when she says:

‘Jim and I have been married for 34 years and we’ve had a wonderful life together…but there’s one thing I must say and that is, the old cliché saying that – "behind every great man is a woman" – is something that upsets me because in fact, it places women (of my generation in any case) firmly in second place, permanently, professionally. And I feel that professionally I have suffered from this… I feel I have always been in the wings…’

 

Today the Media Resource Centre (MRC) at the AJK MCRC, a multipurpose space for the hosting of seminars, workshops, teaching and presentations, is named after James Beveridge but Margaret still awaits an institutional memorialization.

In 1987 the Indo-Canadian collaboration officially came to an end. The Beveridges returned to Toronto. On his return Jim was diagnosed with dementia that was caused by a series of mini-strokes. His forgetfulness was more than the absent-mindedness commonly attributed to professors. In 1989 Margaret came to Delhi and confided in Sabeena and I that she had pancreatic cancer. She said she had to get well because she had Jim to look after. Her body, as often happens, could not live up to her spirit. Her health continued to deteriorate and she passed away in November 1990. She had wanted to die in India and was ready to travel to Delhi with her daughter but her health was precarious and the airlines refused to fly her.6 After her death their daughter Nina, a chronicler of the lives of her parents, looked after Jim until his death in 1993. The deaths, especially that of Margaret and his wife, left Kidwai quite bereft. Yet he continued to put all his energies into the MCRC. He was not only establishing a professional media school but also consolidating its democratic foundations.

 

As first among the thoughtful dissenters of the MCRC, Kidwai took political stances – whether in the Shah Bano case or the Satanic Verses agitation on campus – that inevitably made him unpopular with the higher offices of the university. He bore the opposition with grace and determination, winning the grudging admiration of even his detractors. In 1992, Professor Mushirul Hasan’s comments about Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses (1988) and the right to free speech were deliberately twisted by vested interests to claim that he had hurt the sentiments of the Muslims.

A student-led agitation raged through the campus and the university had to be shut down sine dine. When some of us at the MCRC started a signature campaign in support of Professor Hasan, an unruly mob of some 300 slogan-shouting male students stormed the MCRC. As they moved through the corridors around the quadrangle of the new MCRC building, they kicked the doors open and roughed up a senior professor who tried to stop them. As most of the staff ran for cover, an unruffled Kidwai, pipe in hand, stepped out of his room and stood looking at the rampaging students. As the mobs approached him, a student leader raised his hand and stopped the others from shouting slogans in front of him. ‘He has done a lot for Jamia,’ he said. In 1995 an embattled Kidwai resigned as Honorary Director of the MCRC.

 

When Kidwai passed away in January 1996, the MCRC held a memorial service. The large number of students who attended and the tributes paid by a line-up of eminent people including I.K. Gujral, Kiran Karnik and Amita Malik, surprised even the then vice chancellor. He confessed that there was much about Kidwai he had not known. In a heartfelt obituary, Professor Hasan wrote:

‘Anwar Jamal Kidwai will be fondly remembered by his students, colleagues and old friends who congregated in large numbers at Jamia’s graveyard to give him a tearful farewell. They were there to pay their final tribute to a man imbued with the zeal to reform, change and modernize an educational centre. They were there to acknowledge debt to a man who did so much to enrich their academic and intellectual life. Even his detractors were there to say "Thank you". Perhaps no public funeral in Jamia’s post-independence history has been attended by so much private sorrow.’7

Large numbers of women – teachers, staff and students – accompanied him to his last resting place. Many of his colleagues commented that this was perhaps the first time that the Jamia graveyard had seen such a sizeable participation of women.

 

Over the years, the MCRC has evolved into one of India’s premier media institutes. Apart from the Masters in Mass Communication, that still remains its most sought after course, the centre offers Masters in Convergent Journalism, Visual Effects and Animation and Development Communication. In order to nurture a growing community of scholar-practioners, the MCRC was one of the first institutions in India to offer practice-based PhDs. In collaboration with Delhi University, the MCRC offers a dual Masters Degree in Mathematics (with a strong media component) as part of the innovative META university project. Additionally, it offers PG Diploma courses on Still Photography and Visual Communication, Broadcast Technology and Acting. In its long collaboration with UGC, the MCRC remains a producer of educational programmes. Currently, it produces educational content for UGC-CEC’s Swayam Prabha Channel 4 (Prabandhan).

When the James Beveridge Media Resource Centre was set up, collaborations with Canadian universities, especially York, were initiated once again. Today, the AJK MCRC maintains close links with the Department of Cinema and Media Arts at York University. Over the years, the students of the MCRC have been encouraged to become committed media practitioners with the courage to speak truth to power. Perhaps the MCRC can legitimately take pride in the fact that generations of its students have remained committed to this idea. As Jamia Millia Islamia celebrates a centenary, we hope that future graduates of the MCRC, while excelling in whatever they wish to do, will continue to tether their aspirations to the extraordinary vision of its founders.

 

* I would like to express my deep gratitude to Professor Sabiha Anjum Zaidi, Director and Dr Snigdha Roy, Archivist, for granting me generous access to the Jamia Premchand Archives & Literary Centre, JMI.

Footnotes:

1. This was a phrase frequently used by A.J. Kidwai to describe MCRC.

2. Ali Sardar Jafri (1913-2000) was an eminent Urdu writer, poet, lyricist and critic. His communist leanings and anti-establishment political activities as a student often landed him in trouble with colonial authorities.

3. Nina Beveridge, The Idealist: James Beveridge, Film Guru, 2005. [A documentary]

4. A.J. Kidwai’s undated letter written to Jim Beveridge in 1982. On file with Premchand Archives & Literary Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.

5. Ibid.

6. Interview with A.J. Kidwai in Margaret. Sabeena Gadihoke & Shohini Ghosh, 1991.

7. Mushirul Hasan, ‘Thandi thi Jiski Chaon Woh Deewar Gir Gai: A Tribute to Anwar Jamal Kidwai, Mainstream, 13 January 1996, pp. 5-6.

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