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A Virtual India: Veteran Filmmaker Bharatbala Uncovers 1,000 Stories of a Hidden India

‘Virtual Bharat’ exhibits a new way to experience cinematic non-fiction storytelling

Tanushi Bhatnagar Jun 25, 2021

A still from Bharatbala's 'Virtual Bharat' short film 'Kulasekarapattinam'

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From an outsider’s perspective, India may be a developing country moving toward modernity, carving its place in an international arena. But veteran filmmaker Bharatbala, straying away from the birds-eye-view, has a richer definition of India for the masses. Diving into the ocean of narratives the land offers, his most recent project, Virtual Bharat, is a 1,000-story expedition across the country’s length and breadth. 

The director behind the fervent music videos for “Maa Tujhe Salaam” (1997) and “Jana Gana Mana” (2000) brings his vision to the small screen to build “the largest repository of unique stories of India.” He aims to connect with audiences beyond an age bar and break language barriers through storytelling in its rawest form. 

“Every story in Virtual Bharat, the narrative is built in such a way that we don’t package it, we don’t romanticize it… Every story speaks for itself. It is interesting that the best talents are coming together for engaging with [these stories]. It is very organic,” the filmmaker says when asked about his storytelling process. He adds, “Any content we create, I want it to be timeless. You can view it today or 10 years from now… it still feels fresh. (In) each of these films that we make, the key ingredient is to make it cinematic… You won’t feel if it is fiction or non-fiction. It is simply engaging.” Several stories under Virtual Bharat collaborate with India’s best talents, including the illustrious music composer A.R Rahman, star singer Shreya Ghoshal and the quintessential writer and poet, Gulzar. 

A still from Shadab Aag di Khushboo, presented by Shreya Ghoshal

Bharatbala’s massive portfolio of cinematic greatness includes internationally-acclaimed films like Hari Om in 2004 and vastly recognized features like Incredible India short films and the “Vande Matram” music video in 1997. From medical sciences to advertising and now to non-fiction storytelling, his foray into the world of media was accidental, but soon there was no stopping him.“Every time I look at where I am, I think I am at ground zero. There is always an opportunity waiting for me… In the late Eighties, I was able to collaborate from my very first commercial onwards with talent from across the world… So the idea is always [to] find unique new talent to work with,” he says. 

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Bharatbala takes inspiration from legendary international filmmakers David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia) and David Lynch (Twin Peaks), whose cinema has inspired him since childhood. Elaborating on his current position in the Tamil film industry, he says, “I am actually on an island of my own. Even though I am from the Tamil film industry, language has never been an issue for me. But, there is some amazing work done by great Tamil filmmakers who have inspired me.” 

His eureka moment for Virtual Bharat is not new but a nascent process through his journey. He admits, “I had the urge to do something… like the famous Steve Jobs saying ‘Think Different.’” 

The project has now released more than 20 films on YouTube. Released in late August 2020, the short film Thaalam kicked off the series into full swing. Presented by A.R. Rahman, it captured the idea of “the rhythm of India” through the unison of backwater racers of Kerala and has clocked more than 5.5 million views. Each film thus far includes an original soundtrack. Bharatbala excitedly says, “We all are in a discovery. Once we make 1,000 original stories with the rich tapestry of music, sound and everything else coming together, it will be phenomenal! The film Kulasekarapattinam, it’s like Halloween ka baap… We took a very traditional and devotional idea and made it into a contemporary sound, but it was so organic fitting with the story of the film that it gives so much energy to the idea.” 

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Talking about the uncertainty of non-fiction filmmaking, Bharatbala says, “The idea of this nonfiction space is always to embrace surprises. What is the plan? Who decides the plan? You should be able to embrace all these surprises, and you should be perfectly fine!” He shares an anecdote, “While going to film Ramnami, I met [singer-composer] Kailash Kher at the airport, and I told him what we will be filming. Suddenly, I told him that ‘Your voice should be a part of this landscape’ and he was up for it!” 

A still from Ramnami

It’s typical for a Bharatbala production to be set in expansive landscapes, which sometimes even pose a challenge for the filmmaker himself. “When I was shooting ‘Jana Gana Mana’ in Siachen Glacier. We shot between 17,000 to 25,000 feet in -40℃. It was not easy! The extreme temperature froze the camera, and the film did not move and got jammed! Luckily we had a second camera and had to keep a stove under the camera body to keep the camera functional. These kinds of experiences you can never forget.” 

This Herculean project is just 2 percent of its way to reaching its bigger goal at the moment, and Bharatbala’s team has some exciting additions coming up. “I believe when we are at 100+ films, or 200+ films, [Virtual Bharat] will become a go-to destination for culture, art, creativity and that’s exciting… We are coming up with a new strategy in a couple of months to make it a much better experience for the audience.”

Follow the channel here. Watch the Virtual Bharat film ‘Attukal Pongala’ below.

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