A Story of 1,000 Untold Tales

‘Veteran film director Bharatbala, who shot to fame with AR Rahman’s iconic song Vande Mataram, talks to Shrabasti Mallik about his new ambitious project to document unique stories from India’

Filmmaker Bharatbala, the man behind several of AR Rahman’s videos, is working on a monumental five-year-long project Virtual Bharat, through which, the documentary director aims to produce 1,000 short films that will explore India. The first three have been released on YouTube and the director says he doesn’t want to stop, not even at 1,000!

Virtual Bharat is a very ambitious project. Tell us a little more about it.

We have planned Virtual Bharat to be a repository of 1,000 short films documenting India’s culture, heritage, history, traditions, folklore, music, art…. In a few years, it will be a virtual museum, the largest collection of high-quality stories about India in the online cloud space. It will be like a library about India that will provide information and entertain. These short films will also bring together artistes – celebrated and emerging ones.

The first movie of Virtual Bharat, Thaalam, is about the snake boat races of Kerala and is narrated by AR Rahman. How did this collaboration come about?

Rahman (AR Rahman) and I were schoolmates and working with him is a very natural process. Whenever I feel I need him to be a part of an idea or that he would be the best creative mind to collaborate with on a project, I seek him, and viceversa. Other than Thaalam, he will be a part of a few more films in Virtual Bharat.

You have worked towards promoting India earlier as well. How did the journey begin?

The idea about travelling through India and documenting the journey using my creativity as a filmmaker was inspired by my father, who was a part of India’s freedom movement. He was the one who suggested that I create ideas, which can inspire and renew patriotic fervour in the youth. That is how AR Rahman’s Vande Mataram and Jana Gana Mana videos came about. With these, my passion for showcasing India grew and I criss-crossed the country searching for unique stories to tell.

Over the last 20 years I have collected several such stories but it was three years ago that I decided to do something long-term with them. That was also the time that web-based content streaming platforms were becoming popular. I realised it was an opportune time to start working on a project to create a web series of short films, not exceeding 10 minutes each. These smartly edited films will have compelling narratives, stunning visuals and melodious soundtracks – every prerequisite needed to give an audience an immersive experience.

“The first milestone is to make 1,000 films on India. The idea is to never stop. My plan is to make Virtual Bharat a virtual museum of stories about India for the world to see”

In India, there is a story every 100 km. What kind of stories are you looking for?

Mostly undiscovered or unheard of stories that are just awaiting to be brought to light. Take, for example, the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. It’s a popular tourist site. But there, I met 92-year-old Sarla behen, who has lived at the ashram since the age of six and has even worked with Mahatma Gandhi. So I filmed her at the ashram, recalling her early days there. Another example of a unique story is that of a quaint village in Punjab called Bhaini Sahib, where every child is said to have been trained in Indian classical music. This film will be introduced by Bollywood playback singer Shreya Ghoshal.

In one of your earlier interviews you had mentioned that short films are the perfect medium to keep India’s stories alive. Why do you feel so?

I still feel the same because, by and large, India does not watch documentaries. I feel the best way to introduce such informative films to the current generation and have them take an interest is through short non-fictional stories. These can be easily watched on a mobile phone or any other device. You have to give the audience crisp films, which they will enjoy and wait for the next one.

What kind of impetus do you feel film festivals (both national and international) give to short films?

I think they are important because sometimes short films serve two purposes. For some, it’s like a calling card to make a feature film. But for many, like me, short films are inspirational. Think of a child from a remote village, who has never travelled outside his neighbourhood. Imagine him seeing these vibrant films from across the country and getting to know about cultures and traditions that are so different from the ones he is familiar with. That, for me, is creatively satisfying. And I do not intend to stop because these stories are connecting India.

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