Thanks to Verghese Kurien, I was lucky to be part of the White Revolution. Not just with Manthan, but the documentaries I made with him as well. It was wonderful working with him; he was a man who knew how to delegate, make people responsible and accountable. But above all, he was a man of the highest integrity. I cannot help but speak in hyperbole about him.
We first met in the mid-1960s when I was making ad films for the ad agency ASP. Kurien, who wanted an ad film for Amul’s new milk powder for babies, went to the largest agency at the time — J. Walter Thompson. They laughed him away; his account was much too small for them. So he came to ASP, a small agency, run then by Sylvester da Cunha, and I made the ad film for Amul. Later, we also did ads for Amul butter.
The ‘Amul model’, as it was later called, so impressed Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri that he urged Kurien to set up the National Dairy Development Board and offered to fund it. “Fine, but I will not move to Delhi. I will not leave Anand,” Kurien told the PM.
It was when he was with the NDDB that Kurien launched Operation Flood, which helped India become the world’s largest milk-producing country. “Why don’t you make a documentary about Operation Flood?” he said to me one day. At the time, I was on my way out of ASP and getting out of ad films, so I jumped at the idea. Operation Flood was so successful that we made a second documentary, Operation Flood 2.
When I finished the second, I told Kurien, “This story needs to be told on a much larger scale. And the only way to do that is to make a feature film.”
“Go ahead,” he said. “How much money do you need?” “Ten lakh rupees,” I told him.
Obviously, they didn’t have that kind of money to spend on a film, so Kurien came up with an ingenious idea. “I have half-a-million farmer families in Gujarat who are members of the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Foundation (another organisation he set up). I will ask them to give just two rupees each for this film about their lives,” he declared. And that’s how he made Manthan possible.
I got some of our greatest talent to work on the film. Smita Patil did the lead role, Vijay Tendulkar wrote the script, Kaifi Azmi the dialogue, Vanraj Bhatia composed the music. The lyrics for the song, Mero gaam katha parey, were composed by Niti Sagar, sister of Preeti Sagar, who sang the song. Actually, we had some other lyrics to begin with, but Vanraj felt they simply did not work with the tune. And this little girl, Niti, sitting in the recording studio with her sister, said, “Let me try.” And that’s how we got those lyrics.
Kurien had the film shown all over Gujarat, he took it to Delhi, all over India and the world, helping others set up similar cooperatives. And I took it to the United Nations. I consider it my most influential film, and it is one that would never have got made if it weren’t for Kurien.
(As told to Shashi Baliga)