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Real on Reel

Despite documentary films being highly stimulating in content and visuals, they hardly attract a mass audience. Will Gulabi Gang with its first-of-its-kind distribution change the status quo?

Written by Geety Sahgal | Mumbai | Published: February 21, 2014 1:00:37 am
Bollywood version of the women crusaders led by Madhuri Dixit in Gulaab Gang Bollywood version of the women crusaders led by Madhuri Dixit in Gulaab Gang

When Anand Gandhi, of the much acclaimed Ship Of Theseus fame, decided to present Gulabi Gang, a documentary film on gender violence in Bundelkhand, he was appalled at the awareness level about docu dramas. “Which Bollywood actor is acting in the film?” was one of the question directed to him by a reporter during a promotional round for the film. Understandably, Gandhi’s prime intention now is to create an awareness about documentary films.
“I want to initiate a dialogue on how a documentary is a profound piece of cinema. That it presents reality as it is — it’s about real people and not stars. That documentary films have original stories, an unusual vocabulary, unconventional grammar and a different function. And how its emotions are not only engaging to a viewer, but can help change mindsets,” said Gandhi, who is presenting Gulabi Gang with actor/producer Sohum Shah under their banner Recyclewala Films; it will be distributed by PVR’s Director’s Rare.
Gulabi Gang is the first documentary film in India, according to Gandhi, to be given such an extensive distribution back-up. Its predecessors like Supermen Of Malegaon, The Rat Race and Fire In The Blood have also had a theatrical release, but Gulabi Gang will be released in 15 screens across India. “Documentary films that are released theatrically are generally displayed in only three-four screens, so it is a big thing that we are getting a such a wide release,” said the film-maker, who is now producing two more documentary films under his banner —Proposition For A Revolution and Newborns, which will create an awareness about the heartrending cases of acid-throwing on humans, especially women, on screen.
Anyone will tell you that it’s not easy being a documentary film-maker. Not only does the film-maker have to produce his documentary, but also at times direct, turn cinematographer, become a salesman, editor, distributor, all in one. Nishta Jain director of Gulabi Gang, feels that the ignorance surrounding documentary films starts at the Censor Board itself. Recounting an amusing incident, the film-maker, who’s made six documentaries, narrates, “I applied for a documentary certification for Gulabi Gang, the Censor Board who really liked my film inquired about who the ‘actors’ in the film were. They even asked me if I wanted a feature film certificate for my documentary.”
What Gandhi and Jain had to say was reflected by all the members of the Indian Documentary Producers Association (IDPA) at the recently concluded Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF). The ignorance is indeed surprising and unfortunate, considering documentaries on social issues and real life heroes were a staple fare before the screening of every commercial film at one time!
According to Sanskar Desai, General Secretary of IDPA, the Supreme Court still states that it is compulsory to show a two-reeler documentary (about 20 minutes) before a film. “Unfortunately that is not happening. In fact, our association has taken up the issue and are fighting for it. There are about 7,000 – 8,000 documentaries with the Films Division itself, beside hundreds made by independent film-makers, which can be screened. More than 60 per cent of the people are uneducated, and documentaries are treasures of information which should reach people pan India. We are also negotiating with DD (Doordarshan), and hopefully we should have a slot this month to screen docus with social issues,” reveals Desai, adding that the IDPA was working in close collaboration with organisations like P.L. Deshpande Kala Academy and the Films Division who screen documentaries every weekend in Mumbai.
Ask a documentary film-maker, what attracts him to making a documentary and he’ll atrribute it to the passion of telling real stories. Though money is secondary, a maker at least expects to cover his cost. Capt. Purush Baokar, former IDPA General Secretary and a documentary film-maker, who has 200 documentaries to his credit, laments that popular channels are not open to the idea of airing documentaries. “It is only Bollywood and fictional stuff for them. If they do agree to air a documentary, they want the film to be aired free! Our request to them is that they should at least cover the cost incurred by an independent film-maker. There are documentaries that are sanctioned by the Films Division, where a film-maker gets about seven lakhs for for a 20 minute odd film and about Rs.14 lakhs for a 50-minute one. They keep all the rights of the film,” informed Baokar.
Interestingly, there is a growing interest in documentaries and short films among Bollywood film-makers. Film-maker Onir, who started a petition over a year ago to the Information & Broadcasting Ministry to created exhibition space supporting independent cinema, says that though small, he can see a change. “We cannot expect a change overnight. I&B Minister, Manish Tiwari has shown an interest in creating such a theatrical space in Delhi, as has Akhilesh Yadav the CM of UP. It is also encouraging when mainstream film-makers associate themselves with a documentary. Anurag (Kashyap) and Zoya Akhtar were associated with The Rat Race, the documentary film on the rat hunters, which was released in theatres in Mumbai, Bengaluru and Delhi,” he informs.
Not many know that film-maker Shoojit Sircar was closely associated with ace documentary film-maker Deepak Roy and worked with him on almost 50 documentaries, including Storm In A Teacup and Bicycle Man. The director of out-of-box films like Vicky Donor and Madras Cafe says that it will take time before documentaries draw a mass audience into the theatres, despite a Bollywood celeb being associated himself with it. “A celeb’s presence only helps a bit. Amitabh Bachchan gave a voice-over for the documentary film Penguin. The film got noticed, but I doubt it drew a mass audience,” he said.
Many film-makers second Sircar’s views, saying that a Bollywood celeb’s association with a film does not necessarily mean an audience. Fahad Mustafa, whose documentary, Powerless, on the energy crisis in Kanpur won the Best Film award at MAMI, feels that the change (to watching non-fiction) will happen slowly. “All documentary film-makers are working towards that. More than anything else, it is the right distribution system which matters, and we are working towards that,” he said.
Jain, on the other hand, found that her film was more keenly watched by rural audience than the urban. She said that if she had to get Bollywood personalities involved with her film, she would ask only those inclined to real and off beat cinema. “Like Kiran Rao is supporting Gulabi Gang. She is a film-maker who stands up for good cinema. Such people bring their values to the film,” she said.
Intriguingly, there are several film personalities who are loyal fans of documentary films. Priyanka Chopra, who has given the voice-over for Girl Rising, a film which highlights nine stories of young women overcoming adversity from around the world, confesses that she rarely steps into a theatre to watch films, but is always keen to watch documentary films . “I think India is ready for different types of entertainment and information. I think it’s a great idea to bring documentary to the big screen. Whether it is books or films, I prefer non-fiction to fiction. I find reality more engaging,” said the actress.
In fact the Indian story in Girl Rising (directed by Academy nominated Richard E. Robbins) has been written by Sooni Taraporewala, the award-winning screenwriter of films like Mississipi Masala and Salaam Bombay; she is an avid documentary film watcher. “These films are more exciting. They are real and gripping. Besides a compelling inspirational idea, a good docu drama is made on the editing table after the filming is done. It’s a form that has to pick up sooner or later,” she adds.
Film director, Abhishek Chaubey, who helmed the recently released Dedh Ishqiya, also confesses to being a hardcore documentary film fan. “I have a collection of about 50-60 documentary films. What makes these films compelling is the passion of the film-maker. The marketing of Gulabi Gang is definitely a beginning. With awareness will come curiousity and these films will get bigger,” says Chaubey, who names Children Of The Pious as one of his favorites.
With the renewed interest in the genre of documentaries on the rise, the attempt to distribute these films to a large number of screens will only ensure that this time the genre will be here to stay for long!


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