A Life in the Shadows
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Cinéma Vérité

It's an exciting time to be a documentary filmmaker in India, in spite of all odds. A look at what is driving the change.

Written by Shubhra Gupta | Updated: May 4, 2014 4:37 pm
A still from Surabhi Sharma’s Bidesiya in Bambai. A still from American in Madras.

The backdrop of a serene lake ringed with mountains begs you to draw up a chair by the shore and contemplate the universe. It can also become a great venue for a film festival that gives you another way of seeing, and allows you to have unending conversations with the participants, to feast on fine films and animated debate. And if the films happen to be documentaries, the debates are as diverse and challenging and provocative as the reels that set them off.

A couple of weeks ago, at the Lake Resort in Naukuchiyatal for the second DOK Leipzig Lake Festival, I saw some truly outstanding documentaries. One of those was Forget Me Not, from Germany; it shows how a debilitating illness can impact a long-married couple. A wife has Alzheimer’s, and a husband takes care of her, negotiating the complex feelings and emotions of the permanent caregiver. It reminded me very strongly of the top Cannes winner, Amour, Michael Haneke’s harrowing feature film on the same subject.

There were several points in Forget Me Not where I forgot that I was watching a documentary, a form of cinema that so many of us think of as dry and boring; evangelical and preachy, or political and polemical and instructional. There were others as well — Documentarian, from Lativia, is an astutely observed connection between an old woman who is the subject, and the much younger filmmaker. When the film is over, you will go away, won’t you, she asks. The question haunts you. And the marvellous Bulgarian Tzventaka, which innovatively re-creates the life of a woman in a manner that will stay with its viewers long after the credit roll ceases.

A new sensibility has made its way to India where the documentaries now being made are breaking free of the old-style barriers of differentiating the “real” and “not-real”. Not just confined to dealing with “issues” or “problems”, these films look at people and personalities and subjects in wildly and satisfyingly varying genres, styles and form.

You can see the boundaries being pushed in the work of some Indian documentary filmmakers. Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam’s When Hari Got Married is quirky and insightful, and uses a Dharamsala taxi driver’s marriage to a girl he has never met to examine the intersection of tradition and modernity. Paromita Vohra’s Partners In Crime is a delightful exploration of the layers between copyright and creative “lifting”: which came first, Munni badnaam hui, or Launda badnaam hua? Shabnam Virmani’s Kabira Khada Bazaar Mein looks at the connections between Kabir’s dohas and the various cults that have sprung up around the mystic-poet. Q’s Love In India goes for broke looking for love and passion amongst Indians. Amalan Dutta’s BOM, One Day Of Democracy leads us into Malana, a forgotten village in the Himachal hills, and how it is coming to terms with the 21st century.

The five-day Naukuchiyatal festival is a good place to go looking for answers to several questions that have long plagued the documentary space. Dizzying advances in technology have allowed your average digital native to point and shoot and document. About 1,000 documentaries are made in India every year, and the numbers are growing, blurring the lines between what we’ve thought of as documentaries (real), and features (fiction). Nirnay, a lovely little film by Pushpa Rawat and Anupama Srinivasan, takes us into the constricted worlds of a bunch of women and makes us hear their voices. Sameera Jain’s My Own City is an exploration of how women use spaces within a city, and how they can own them. Cotton For My Shroud, by Nandan Saxena and Kavita Behl, is a stark look at how farmers in Vidarbha are ending their lives. Rajula Shah’s delicate Word Within The Word uses sounds and silences and Pandit Kumar Gandharva’s music to create the world of those who live by the music. Sourav Sarangi’s Bilal is a wrenching document of how a little boy lives with his parents, both blind. Bidesiya in Bambai by Surabhi Sharma uses snatches of Bhojpuri music to build bridges between the men who come to Mumbai to earn a living and their families whom they do not see for months: gyrating dancers spout earthy dialogue and salty songs, and the sounds transport them back home. Amar Kanwar’s works are a complex tapestry, straddling art and politics and personal histories: his latest is being shown in an art gallery in New Delhi.

There is enough to show that there is some wonderful work being done. The question is: does this work travel? Do we tell stories that are universal? Does it have global legs? Are we making world-class documentaries in India? Most practitioners are unanimous that this is the most exciting time to be a documentary filmmaker in the country, but almost all of them also spoke of how hard it still is to get funds, and the crucial importance of growing viewing spaces and audiences.

The idea behind the DOK Leipzig Lake festival, supported and facilitated by the Goethe Institut, is just that: to provide a platform for a package of the best documentaries, curated from the oldest documentary film festival in Leipzig, along with some others carefully chosen from India. “Commissioning editors from the West (the all-powerful entities which control TV gateways and access to funds) have little understanding of how we Indians make our films, and tell our stories. This kind of initiative will bring them to the filmmakers who want to show their work to the world,” says Neelima Mathur, the brains behind the festival, and a veteran documentary filmmaker.

Why do we need these commissioning editors from the so-called northern hemisphere? Doesn’t it amount to being ratified by the West?

Mathur, who along with husband Pramod, is well-known in the Indian and international documentary circuit, dismisses these as jaded questions. The time is ripe for such cross-cultural platforms, she feels. “It is about retaining our identities and narratives and still being able to be recognised globally, and about being heard at par with everyone else. It is simply a question of a guerilla-like strategy of infiltrating into ‘their’ territory, and smashing ‘their’ control of the perception of reality in the southern hemisphere,” she says.

Swiss filmmaker Fernand Melgar, who was at the festival with his eye-opening film Special Flight, which deals with the problematic immigration policies of his country, is familiar with what he calls the “tyranny of the commissioning editor and broadcast TV”. To move away from that route, he talks about how the work of the documentary filmmaker really starts when the film is over. “I take the film to schools, and to communities, and to festivals all the over the world, because that is the only way to grow the audience,” he says.

That, right there, is the real sticking point. You make your film with hard-to-get funds, and unswerving passion. And then what? Where do you show your film?

One of the most awaited non-feature films which is due to release shortly is born-in-India, based-in-Canada Nisha Pahuja’s engrossing The World Before Her. It tracks two girls in very different worlds: one wants to be a beauty queen and graduate to modelling endorsements and Bollywood, the other seeks a path to self-hood through the Durga Vahini camps, which teach young girls about Hindutva and preserving “their” culture. Pahuja’s film tries not to judge or take sides, and leaves you thinking. The film has been screened in the US and Canada, and she acknowledges that an India release is most important to her because she wants to start a discussion on women and the thorny questions of identity. She is trying to raise funds to do that, a small portion of which will go towards the release. “Trying to release it has been almost as tough, if not tougher, than making the film. We raised money through a Kickstarter campaign, and a portion of that will go towards the release. The rest will help fund the grassroots screenings we are planning through the country,” says Pahuja.

Traditionally, the spaces committed to showing documentary films have been the festivals. Among the best known are the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF), the Kerala International Documentary and Short Film Festival in Thiruvananthpuram, VIBGYOR in Thrissur, Jeevika Asia Livelihood festival, and Persistence Resistance Festival, in Delhi. Gorakhpur has a festival that screens films of “resistance”. The Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT), which commissions and mentors filmmakers and turns out a slew of award-winning films, runs the annual Open Frame Film Festival, also in Delhi. There are sections in other film festivals, like the India International Film Festival (IFFI), which include documentaries and non-features. There are now, in addition, a growing number of film clubs that program documentaries, in addition to the screenings that take place in colleges and other educational institutions.

Opportunities to pitch ideas to commissioning editors is a growing area. There’s the bustling DocEdge in Kolkata, spearheaded by Nilotpal Majumdar. There’s also Trigger Pitch at the Kerala Festival, and more recently, Good Pitch, run by the Mumbai-based Sophy Sivaraman, who believes in supporting filmmakers whose vision runs to more than just making the films, to acting as change agents.

Which adds up to shockingly little. In a country with over a billion people, this amounts to less than point zero zero one percent. Why has the documentary been looked at with such derision? Mostly it is down to history, and the kind of turgid, dull documentaries (barring a few innovative ones), that the Films Division, over time, churned out and stuffed down our throats.

Under the watch of its current pro-active director-general VS Kundu, the much-maligned Films Division is also now undergoing a radical makeover. A group of independent filmmakers has created an FD Zone which shows curated films to audiences, with the filmmaker present.

Last weekend, Mumbai’s FD Zone showed Karan Bali’s enjoyable An American In Madras, based on the life of Ellis R Dungan who made a significant and lasting contribution to early Tamil cinema, and who, among other things, directed MGR in his very first film role. “I realise the interest in my film will be limited, to those who enjoy cinema history particularly,” says Bali.

Kundu wants to put behind Film Division’s dismal legacy as a government mouthpiece which managed to hide the fraction of good work that it produced. He knows that the state can be one of the biggest drivers in creating audiences. “It has happened in the West, where people pay 20 euros to watch a good documentary,” he says. “Among my wish-list is to expand outreach. If I can show these films in 200 centres, and even if 50 people come, that’s 10,000 people. Which commercial exhibitor will not want this audience? I also want to tap CSR funds to create a corpus,” Kundu adds.

The FD zones have been growing exponentially, and that is a big positive, feels filmmaker Pankaj Rishi Kumar, one of the four co-curators.

“The audience has always been there, but it had been driven away. Now it is coming back,” he says. Kumar talks enthusiastically of the curation process around a chosen theme, the “90 straight weeks that the FD Zone has run”, and the impact that is now being felt in smaller cities, where documentaries are now being shown regularly to a newly-minted, newly-interested audience.

The difficulty in releasing non-fiction features and shorts in theatres won’t disappear any time soon. In the last couple of years, PVR has screened, among others, such non-feature films as Supermen of Malegaon, Celluloid Man, Fire In The Blood, and the latest, Gulabi Gang.

“The problem is that the buzz on social media doesn’t translate into footfalls,” says Shiladitya Bora, who programs PVR’s Directors Rare.

“Where are all these people who sound so excited about the film when it comes to buying tickets? We try to keep the film in theatres after the first week, but when the numbers don’t add up, what can we do?” he says.

Bina Paul, who runs the Kerala Doc Fest, as well as the Kerala International Film Festival, believes that the time has come to junk this feeling of the documentary space being a poor cottage industry. “We have to see documentaries and non-features routinely in theatres. Till a few years ago, South Korea had none. Now look at them, at any given time, they have at least one good documentary in their multiplexes,” says Paul.

The alternative is to go the DVD route, and find other ways to be seen. Independent documentary filmmaker Rakesh Sharma, whose award-winning

Final Solution was based on the events in Gujarat 2002, says, “I look forward to a time of increased bandwidth, 5-7 years in the future, where video-on-demand, or download/burn-own-dvd, or limited term digital viewing licenses become feasible”. Utpal Borpujari, a fellow film critic turned documentary filmmaker has got his first film Mayong: Myth/Reality out on DVD, which, he says, has received encouraging response. Pay-per-view is also a segment that he has hopes from.

Gargi Sen, who started a distribution network under the Magic Lantern label in 2005, managed to sell 5,000 DVDs through tie-ups with retail stores. Though the effort stalled in between because of bad store practices and piracy threats, she is planning to get back into the market. “It is clear that there is a market for our films. It’s just that we need to learn the market better,” she says.

Sen, who also runs the popular Persistence Resistance festival, and has set up Doc Wok, a year-long mentoring programme for under-production documentaries, is optimistic about the future. She’s not alone, there are other stakeholders, who know that there are obstacles, but they are not insurmountable. They are looking for support from such bodies as the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), and other interested agencies. They are looking for increased viewing spaces. They are looking for paying audiences.

But more than anything else, they are looking for people who want to see that one image that can change the world.

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