Putting life on the record with the Mitra Tantra Archive
Documentary filmmaker Ranjan Kamath, 58, has always been an archivist. When he was a kid, one of his favourite activities was to make scrapbooks of newspaper clippings. As an adult, his films have recorded the life and work of Jesuit missionaries (Fishers of Men,1997), jazz pianist Madhav Chari (Tam Bram in a Jazz Jam, 2006) and theatre great Habib Tanvir (Tanvir Ka Safarnama, 2007).
Kamath’s latest project is the Mitra Tantra Archive of Personal Narratives, videos that record the histories of luminaries and lay people. Long, free-flowing interviews are uploaded on to his YouTube channel in short, serialized clips, between 30 seconds and three minutes long. He’s published 20 histories so far, and they range from Bharat Ratna scientist CNR Rao, to Chandrashekar, a 91-year-old taxi driver who used to chauffeur the late actor Raj Kapoor when he would visit Mysore
“The idea was not to interview just celebrities, but anyone from any walk of life who has a story to tell or an experience to share,” he says. “I am seeking out the trials and errors that came before the success. I want viewers who are experiencing a similar learning curve to know that they are not alone in their struggles.”
The videos are telling documents about humanity’s common journey. The ones with Chandrashekhar reveal a life of poverty – his mother, for a part of her life, owned only one sari – and overcoming adversity.
With some stories, there’s plenty to pick. Celebrated Kannada filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli spoke for seven hours. CNR Rao gave him only 90 minutes, but “it is a spectacular display of how his mind works, his love for chemistry and his frustrations in the world,” says Kamath. “I understood why he is who he is . I had never experienced such clarity of thought.”
The archive has had some heartrending uses. All India Radio personality Indu Ramesh’s interviews include wonderful behind-the-scenes stories about AIR’s history and life on the job. When she died from Covid-19 last year, her children used the video as an obituary.
Kamath prefers to see the clips as biographies, which is why he started the archive in 2018, a year after his father died. “When you hear all these amazing stories from people, you say to yourself, one day I will sit and record them saying all of it, except I never got around to doing it,” Kamath says.
The people with genuine wisdom, he has found, are always in the shadows. They are reclusive -- but Kamath is determined to seek them out to record their own personal narratives, honestly and insightfully, in an attempt to ensure that no story is left untold.