Abhimanyu Kukreja’s comprehensive, nostalgic and enjoyable documentary traces the evolution of Indian rock from the ’30s to today.
The sixth edition of the Brahmaputra Valley Film Festival saw the India premiere of former music journalist and filmmaker Abhimanyu Kukreja’s Rockumentary: The Evolution of Indian Rock.
An exercise in the real production of new knowledge, it courses through the uncharted territories of the birth and growth of India’s rock scene, tracing its evolution from the Anglo-led jazz and blues bands in the clubs of British-era Calcutta in the ’30s, to the influence of Elvis Presley on rock ‘n’ roll in India and the world, the psychedelic rock scene of the ’70s in Bombay, the role the entry of TV channels, and the plethora of different forms of rock mushrooming in India today.
The documentary begins in an unexpectedly meta way, with Kukreja telling the audience how he had once set out to tell this story as a 24 minute segment for a TV station, but realised that 24 minutes and the constraints of TV were too tight to trace the evolution of Indian rock through the ages.
In the rockumentary, he meets and speaks with a variety of musicians, from the “godfather of Indian jazz”, Louis Banks (whose father George Banks was a trumpeter in the Calcutta club scene in the ’40s) to the psychedelic Bombay rockers Atomic Forest, Savage Encounter, Velvette Fogg and several hitherto-unknown others, Lou Majaw of The Great Society, Gary Lawyer (of Nights on Fire fame), The Mustangs, a Chennai rock band, Bengaluru-based Millenium (India’s first heavy metal band), Parikrama, Peter Cat Recording Co., Malayalam rock band Avial and more.
It also has artists ruminating on the progress of Indian rock, and what the current music scene, dominated by Hindi and regional language bands, speaks of and owes its reality to. A child of the ’80s who confesses that rock music hit him quite late, having been raised in boarding school in Indore, much of what Kukreja discovered about the ’60s and ’70s came through his research for this project, which took a total of seven years to complete.
Given the lack of information available at the time—Kukreja says that when he embarked on the project in 2005, there wasn’t even a Wikipedia page on Indian rock—a lot of what he presents as a chronologically coherent and geographically categorised linear progression of events, was actually a story he had to piece together from his research.
When we asked him how he had thematically arranged the documentary, and chosen which seminal events—like the the Simla Beats rock festival, or the hilarious recounting of The Police being invited to Mumbai because the organisers thought they were a police marching band— to include in his documentary, he says, “When we started doing these interviews, even I didn’t know what the story of Indian rock would be. I was initially really shocked when I heard these stories, and I got to know there are these bands like The Mustangs, from Madras, The Savages, the Savage Encounter, Velvet Fogg, The People, The Great Society…all of these were names I had no idea about it. But then I realised that after interviewing more people, who started speaking similar stories, all of the people I was speaking to from those times were all telling the same stories, about how it expanded. Whichever band I interviewed, from the ’60s and the ’70s, they were all talking about the same things: about the Simla festival, Jesus Christ Superstar being Alyque Padamsee’s show where 150 rock ‘n’ roll musicians from Bombay came together to perform in a huge musical theatre event, about Rang Bhavan as an iconic performance venue in the ’80s. When you interview 5 or 6 people, and they’re all speaking the same story, then you know, these are the milestones, the things you have to include. I had to watch the interviews again and again to pick out those moments and milestones.”
In a nicely personal and emotional touch to a subject matter that demands it, the documentary intersperses Kukreja’s own journey and process of discovery of the history of Indian rock, with actual footage of old bands, clubs, performance venues, music videos and interviews with bands that had been active back in the day.
We see shots of Kukreja travelling to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram (or the “Beatles ashram”) in Rishikesh, exploring the iconic, now decrepit ashram, and asking local people about petrol requirements, and being warned about violent wild elephants along the way.
When we asked Kukreja why he had chosen to shoot his documentary this way, featuring himself as a character in the story, he said, “Initially, I thought I’ll do a flat documentary, you know, the flat Doordarshan style, voice-over, byte, voice-over, byte. When I was in the middle of it, I realised that the biggest challenge was that there’s a lot of old footage in this, a lot of archival material, and when I was making it in the proper flat news channel way, I realised it’s becoming very boring. I thought I need to introduce a character into it, who could take the story somewhere so the audience could connect with it. Also, I feel the format of documentary filmmaking is changing. So my inspiration while I was making the film in terms of production quality was this documentary film called Exit Through the Gift Shop, which is on graffiti artists, where there’s a character going around and hunting different graffiti artists. Banksy directed that movie. That documentary was really hard-hitting, but fun at the same time. That’s when I said look, a lot of my visuals are old visuals, and the only way was to become a character myself, and shoot myself, and put those visuals in so that the film doesn’t look timed out, it looks new, and at the same time you have old archival material mixed with it. It was a last minute decision.”
When we asked him what musicians of the ’60s and ’70s thought of the rock scene in India today, he laughed, saying, “If you ask people from the ’60s and ’70s, they say that was the time which will never come back. I haven’t lived that time, but what comes across to me is that you know the whole thing of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. That was the era. It doesn’t happen anymore. There’s lots of rules, regulations, after 10 pm you cannot play, those things weren’t there that time. It used to be like a big community in India, who was even now, not just the bands, even if I meet people who have seen those gigs in the ’60s and ’70s, who were part of the circuit, they really get nostalgic about it.”
He also says that some of the musicians he wanted to speak to were difficult to get in touch with, for age and health related reasons, or logistics (given that a Mumbai-based band from the ’70s would likely be dispersed all over the world by now). However, he says that once they got the idea of what he was trying to do with his project, many went out of their way to help him. He mentions how now-US-based Madhukar Chandradas of Atomic Forest actually spent his own money to record himself answering the questions Kukreja sent him on email, given that Kukreja couldn’t travel to the USA to interview one man due to production cost restraints.
He also says that he wanted his documentary to pay homage to these great musicians, voices and orchestrators of India’s rock movement, like the late Nandu Bhende and Rock Street Music founder Amit Saigal, which explains the deliberately respectful positioning of these figures in his documentary. In addition to being immensely informative, Rockumetary is also full of delightfully unexpected bits and comments from people outside, but connected to, the music fraternity, like when he speaks to a street food vendor outside the iconic Rang Bhavan to ask him about its heyday, to which the vendor responds recounting how college students would be lining up in droves outside the venue, and dancing in the streets well before they were anywhere near the gates. Kukreja said he introduced these snippets because he didn’t want his documentary to feature only upper class folks talking about rock music, but also show how the masses related to it.
As an undertaking in uncovering India’s rock music history, Kukreja’s project is comprehensive, enjoyable and while upbeat and cheery, somehow still heavy with nostalgia, even for viewers who may not have even been alive in the times he discusses. It also features a variety of icons in India’s rock music scene, including some unexpected ones who have contributed to its evolution and status in their own unique way, like VJ Luke Kenny of the erstwhile late night rock music show The Luke Kenny Show, and Imtiaz Ali, whose movie Rockstar brought English rock music a little closer to the masses, in addition to the many iconic musicians it interviews and pays homage to. It’s particularly enjoyable for its introspection and interviews of Indian musicians from the ’60s and ’70s, and worth a watch for anyone with even a passing interest in rock music, anywhere in the world.