The first job I got was with Indian Space Research Organization, in the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment. India had the use of a satellite from NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, United States of America) for one year from 1975 to 1976. A whole bunch of us who had emerged from Film and Television Institute of India got to work as part of this ‘experiment’. We were part of a merry crew. For the first time we had access to portable cameras, which made us feel like great revolutionaries. Our immediate supervisors in ISRO were open and liberal, and this included Professor Satish Dhawan (the then director of ISRO) and Prof. Yashpal (Head of the Space Applications project and SITE). Others who helped us and were part of the management of ISRO were Kiran Karnik and P.S. Bhatia, who were influenced by Vikram Sarabhai’s vision who had been their teacher. Surprisingly we had a free and open hand to do what we wanted which was not normal with government organizations of the time, considering the Emergency was on in 1975.
SITE was the beginning of Bharat ki Chaap and this was 10 years before BKC was commissioned by ISRO. Doing SITE was exciting because we were fresh graduates from FTII working with senior scientists who had nurtured this idea of using satellite technology for education. Vikram Sarabhai had actually persuaded the Government (particularly Indira Gandhi) that literacy would be disseminated very quickly if satellite technology were used to network the country. Many scientists close to the making of BKC believed that culture and education were important movers of change.
Even before the SITE program, I first met Professor Yashpal when I was still a student in FTII. The students were on strike for a reason that seems inconsequential now but seemed important then, regarding whether students could work with professional actors for their films or should be made to work with other students who were studying acting at FTII. Professor Yashpal was a member of the governing council of FTII while I was studying there, and he had been nominated by the governing council to resolve the crisis.
A few years after graduating, I got assigned to the Children Science programming in Mumbai. There were six of us in the group - Kamal Swaroop, Arun Khokar, Janu Baruah, Meenakshi Muhoori, Pradeep Dixit and me. Our boss was K. Vishvanath. We had a wonderful studio and Vishvanath really challenged us. We had been trained in the film institute but had only made one or two films of 20 minutes duration, but this was for television so quantity was required. We were given time to research but we had to deliver very quickly. It was a challenging period. They encouraged us to travel. Professor Yashpal was the captain of that ship, and all of us were involved in different projects. At the end of one year, some people opted to stay on, but I wanted to work independently.
Ten years after this, in 1984, some friends and I were thinking about Haley’s Comet, which would be coming close to the earth in 1985-86. The Haley’s comet’s orbital period takes 75 years and the previous time it was close to the earth would have been 1910. If you look at all the newspapers of the period around 1910, you would see ads for comet pills and gas masks and helmets, and all sorts of babas (godmen) offering protection against the comet. There was a lot of superstition and ‘fraud’ selling of protection and guards, and we felt that this would repeat. Instead, this could be a good opportunity for some science education.
Another reason for the thrall of superstition was that a couple of years before, in 1981-82, the NASA satellite Skylab had broken apart and its debris had fallen back to Earth. There was a lot of scare mongering about that in the Indian newspapers – again Babas were offering protection and quoting mythological stories of apocalypse.
This was in a time when communication was not the digital blitz we see today all over the postmillennial mediatized city. So we were thinking about what we should do. People in the people’s science movement were already engaged in working on eradicating superstition, like exposing Sai Baba and other fake miracle workers. I had taken part in several of these campaigns. I remember once we had taken a stall at a mela near Sion, the Ashadi Ekadashi Yatra. In that stall we had an actor dressed as a Miracle Baba who was revealing some of the tricks of the miracle workers. People were really moved by his performance and even asking for his blessings. But when he would reveal that everything was just a gimmick and that there were no such things are babas and miracles, people would be really upset, and women would cry in disbelief. We started to realise that this not the way to go about science education. We started wondering how could we use knowledge to counteract irrational beliefs.
At this point, I had been living in Bombay since 1975. I was working for the children’s science programming with ISRO, and often met scientists for my films. One such scientist whom I met at TIFR was Vivek Montiero, and through him I met other left-minded scientists. They were talking about ways to connect science with the people’s movements – how science education could come together with political activity. We started meeting in a group called the Science Education Group (SEG). People were working in localities like Dombiwili, Thane or Dadar or in colleges, so it was all very scattered. All this coalesced with the People’s Science Movement and the first big meeting for that was in 1978-79 in Trivandrum, where Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP) took the lead with M.P. Parmeswaram at the fore.
At that meeting, twenty other groups from all around India had also gathered – many agreed with leftist philosophy but not everyone was part of a party. M.P. Parmeswaran had kept it fairly open and anyone could come. I was there at the meet. And interestingly, the keynote speaker at that first gathering was P.M. Haksar (Nandita Haksar’s father) who was a important government official. He spoke very well about a united India, how all of us must stick together and believe in democracy. There were also people like Amba Sanyal, Rita Kapur, people from Silent Valley movement and environmentalists. The meeting was significant because it had people from varied backgrounds.
At this point we (I, Vivek Monteiro and some other friends) were wondering what do to. We also liked television series such as Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man. Why couldn’t something like that be done in India? The orbiting of Haley’s comet looked like an excuse to do a history of science in India. This was also the time when agitation for the Ram Mandir was beginning in the early 1980s. The Hindutva brigade were giving a very colored view of the history of science in India - saying things like “Haven’t you heard of the Pushpak Viman (as antecedents to the modern airplane) and the Brahmasastra in Mahabharata (antecedent to the atomic bomb)?” They also said that Islamic rule (or the Mughal/Turk invasion) was the reason for the downfall of sciences in this region.
But the other extreme was also people who were saying that there never had been any science in India at all, and all our scientific knowledge is learnt from the achievements of the West. Medicines in books such as Ayurveda were a product of trial and error, and there were no laws, principles or derivations in this kind of science.
In the midst of all that we felt that there is another story, but there were no complete history or records of it. We wanted to have an overall encyclopedia of the history of science in India. So what we devised was “Haley’s Comet as the clock of the centuries” - the Haley’s Comet becomes a character and narrates the story of India. We drafted this idea in November, 1984.
I took the idea to Professor Yashpal at the Department of Science and Technology in Delhi. At the same time N.V.K Murthy, the director of Nehru Science Centre, had also come to meet him, and Professor Yashpal pulled both projects together, and got Nehru Centre to help us handle finances and office space.
That is how it all started.
We had been optimistic, thinking it will all be done in two years time. We assumed all the research material would be available and we could just start shooting. But it was quite difficult – even getting a team together was a problem. My associates in the beginning were Smriti Nevatia, Suhas Paranjpe, Sameera Jain, Bina Paul. Gradually we built up a team. There were three main editors - Renu Saluja, Reena Mohan and Deepti Bhalla. Sameera Jain also did one episode. Indrajit Neogi and Ajay Munjal did the sound throughout the films.
Suhas Paranjpe was part of the People’s Science Movement and on the content team. Others from the movement contributed to the content just on a case-to-case basis. There were many who helped us with places they knew about, that had not been written about in books. These were times when even the basic documentation we find now on the internet was not available.
The serendipitous coming together of so many people was something that one was fortunate and really blessed to be part of.
Following is a list of scenes from Bharat Ki Chaap along with annotations that are worth exploring