When Anjali Monteiro’s niece first heard the title of the book she was writing, she asked Monteiro whether it would be a cookbook. “I don’t know whether anyone would buy recipes with the title A Fly in the Curry”, says Monteiro with a laugh. The book, co-authored by KP Jayasankar, is actually an exploration into the independent documentary film space in India. This year, it also received a special mention in the Best Book in Cinema category at the National Film Awards.
A Fly in the Curry is divided into a series of chapters focusing on different aspects of documentary filmmaking in India such as its colonial and post-colonial history and the equation between documentary films and state-market forces. The title is an attempt to question the idea of the filmmaker as a “fly on the wall”, or an unobtrusive, neutral observer of events. Says Monteiro, “After all, the particular wall a fly is sitting on affects what it can or cannot see. The metaphor shows that we filmmakers come with our own perspective, and by entering a situation, we’re changing its reality.” The fly, then, is an upfront recognition of the presence of the camera.
The recognition of the subject position of the filmmaker came about only with the feminist films in the 1970s, the authors argue in the book. Feminists were also the first to realise that the personal is political, says Monteiro. The narrator, for example, would put herself into the film, or explore the relationship between the subjects and herself, as in Deepa Dhanraj’s Idhi Katha Matramena (1983). “Feminists were the first filmmakers to acknowledge that they were speaking on their behalf rather than for another group of people. It was not someone else’s struggle that they were documenting, but rather all of ours,” says Jayasankar.
Most contemporary documentary filmmakers have embraced their role as active agents in any narration, Monteiro and Jayasankar say. In contrast, TV news tries to project its material as an objective account of events rather than an interpretation of reality. “TV news is situated in what’s topical, so it is easy to maintain an air of neutrality on a day-to-day basis,” says Monteiro. “Yet TV news anchors are not just ‘flies on the wall’— they’re creating political realities every day.” Documentary filmmakers, on the other hand, engage more deeply with a topic, makeing it harder to pretend objectivity. “Take the work of Deepa Dhanraj or Anand Patwardhan. They situated themselves as part of a struggle. Like most documentary filmmakers, they spoke truth to power,” Jayasankar says.
Because documentary filmmakers openly acknowledge their contested relationships with power, they have found little support from either the state or the market to make their films. “TV was state-sponsored for a long time, and wouldn’t show anything critical of the state. Private channels avoid controversial topics fearing backlash from vigilantes or the state,” says Jayasankar. It’s telling that, currently, there isn’t a single dedicated documentary channel in India. Like many other filmmakers, Monteiro and Jayasankar have relied on alternative distribution, often screening their films at NGOs, union meetings, and schools, and now, increasingly, the internet.
But this lack of patronage, either from the state or the market, has made the documentary film in India a unique thing. “If I were making a film for TV, I’d have to adjust my film to suit its requirements, it would have to follow a dramatic arc. Instead of carrying all that baggage, independent film in India has had the freedom to experiment with all sorts of styles, as seen in Mani Kaul’s poetic narratives to the highly political films of Patwardhan,” says Monteiro. She’s also quick to say that one shouldn’t glorify this lack of sponsorship, but simply try to understand what it’s made possible.
Censorship is another hurdle. But it can go either way: those in power have the potential to restrict what’s seen. However, the same technology also allows to get around the restrictions. “One of our students made a film about beef and people’s livelihood, which was to be shown at a Delhi festival,” says Jayasankar. “Unfortunately, the concerned ministry denied them permission. Our students uploaded the film online. While only 200 people would have seen the film at the festival, 70,000 people viewed it online. State censorship certainly does a great job of promoting a film.”
The duo are warily optimistic about the future of documentary films in India. “More films are being made now. But spaces to view them aren’t increasing at the same rate,” says Jayasankar.