A précis on Dr. S. Krishnaswamy, the quintessential Indian documentary filmmaker

A man devoted to digging out the glory of India and showing it to the world on film, the founder of Krishnaswamy Associates boasts an oeuvre whose scope and depth can educate as well as boggle the inquisitive mind.

In 1931, K. Subramaniam, albeit trained professionally as a lawyer, took to the immensely powerful medium cinema to experiment with and used it as a tool to spread social awareness. Seva Sadanam , a picture produced by him as soon he entered the field, was to be the vehicle to carry the message about the state of women and their dismal position in society. Based on a novel by Munshi Premchand, it highlighted the plight of a young girl married to an gentleman old enough to be her father. Scenes and dialogues unprecedented in this medium were posited in the film, and it propelled Subramaniam into the arena as a champion of social causes. When the freedom movement started by Gandhiji gained momentum, Subramaniam jumped into the fray and released his much-lauded movie Thyaga Bhoomi , which after a considerable run, was banned by the British government for containing objectionable messages against the state.

It was little wonder that, born to such a tycoon of Tamil Cinema and having been educated in communication skills at the best known University in the United States., Dr. S. Krishnaswamy set for himself the goal of introducing purposeful themes in his productions, though he could have become a commercially successful filmmaker by turning out films that would fetch the best financial returns — the base was readily available as his father was well-known in the film industry and had an established company. He founded his firm Krishnaswamy Associates in 1963, with documentary films as its staple fare and a motto that read, “We film to build bridges of brotherhood; we shoot to destroy walls of prejudice”.

In 1960, as a 22-year-old, Krishnaswamy joined the Columbia University in the U.S., and studied Mass Communications with special reference to documentary films. It was 60 years later in 2020, that the Government of India honoured him with the coveted Dr. V.Shantaram Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to documentary films at the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF). Through tedious decades of his life, he stood firm in his belief and eventually received many awards; the Honor Summus Award of the Watumull Foundation, Hawaii, the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005 at the U.S. International Film & Video Festival, Los Angeles, in 1987, the Padma Shri in 2009, and several other awards including National awards for his documentaries.

He reportedly showed his grit and national spirit even as a student in the U.S. When, during an open film screening at the university, a movie from the March of Time series about India happened to portray the country in poor light, Krishnaswamy is said to have angrily strode to the podium, picked up the microphone and declared, “This is stupid. The film is nonsense!” And when a professor attempted to pacify the young Krishnaswamy and advised him to make a film that would depict the real India, he is said to have asserted: “Indeed, I will,” That was the turning point in his life. It changed the perspective, and later he kept the promise in its very spirit.

When he was writing the book Indian Film in collaboration with Professor Erik Barnouw, they had camped in Darjeeling for a few weeks where Satyajit Ray was filming his Kanchenjunga . Thus, early in his life he not only developed a great regard for the icon but also a lasting friendship with him despite the age difference and this would prove to be a great aid in the pursuit of his chosen ideology.

He shot into the limelight with his four-hour-long docu-film, Indus Valley to Indira Gandhi , which traversed 5,000 years of subcontinental history, and received high International acclaim even as Warner Brothers acquired the rights for its distribution.

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