Screen Savour: When Reel is very real

In a country blooming with different cine award functions that grace television screens, each competing with the other in glitz and endorsements, resplendent with smiling faces of dashing stars in designer outfits and wisecracks of its presenters, an ongoing film festival like MIFF is mostly going unnoticed by the media and the public in general. 

To the uninitiated, MIFF stands for Mumbai International Film Festival, a biennial event that has been showcasing documentary, short and animation films since 1990. Organised by Films Division, a unit of the I&B Ministry, MIFF is the world’s largest and oldest international week-long festival. The 15th edition, held this year from January 28 to February 3, has a record 790 films from 32 countries in different categories. This is by all means a mean feat, given our country’s obsession with Hindi mainstream cinema and the ongoing hullabaloo surrounding a kitsch called Padmaavat. 

It is quite ironical that the same Films Division has been responsible for giving documentary films a bad name in our country. Time was, during the ’60s and ’70s, when a feature film was preceded by a tacky Films Division documentary which was called ‘newsreel’; it ran for a painful 20 minutes, mostly promoting the achievements of the government. People went out for smoke and timed their re-entry just at the point when the newsreel winded up with a sporting event, primarily hockey.  And then the stars took over for a duration of approximately three hours. 

Young and not-so-young filmmakers, unaffected by the seduction of feature filmmaking and motivated by a deep-seated desire to tell stories of a different kind, mostly about real people in real situations that could be critical of dominant mindset and practice, have been gravitating towards documentary filmmaking because of its flexible techniques that involve a motley crew. Cheap digital technology has made things easier. Without the pressure of commercial parameters, its practitioners could go to any length in matters of form and content.

The perennial problems of financing and distribution notwithstanding, the documentary film scenario in India has been sprouting some exciting films for the last more than 25 years and has spawned its own ‘star system’ when it comes to directors like Reena Mohan, Nishtha Jain, Sourav Sarangi, Pankaj Rishi Kumar, Kavita Joshi, to name just a few.  Gulabi Gang, which chronicles the struggles of women vigilantes from Bundelkhand who have been fighting for women’s empowerment, fetched Nishtha Jain the Best Director Award few years ago at MIFF. Sourav Sarangi’s Char… No Man’s Island, dealing with an adolescent smuggler across West Bengal-Bangladesh border, made its victory lap across all the important documentary film festivals of the world. Ad filmmaker Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s feature-length documentary Celluloid Man on PK Nair, the founder-director of the National Film Archive in Pune garnered critical acclaim worldwide, while Karan Bali’s An American in Madras which documents Ellis R Dungan, an obscure American filmmaker who made Tamil films in Chennai in the ’30s and ’40s, has been arousing a lot of curiosity. Ramchandra PN’s documentary on Rohith Vemula — The Unbearable Being of Lightness was denied permission at a few Indian festivals for obvious reasons.

Other filmmakers include Geetanjali Rao, Deepa Dhanraj, Dylan Mohan Gray, Deepti Kakkar, Fahad Mustafa, all of whom have been exploring myriad facets of the Indian social fabric with all its warts and conflicts, subjects which are inimical to mainstream fiction filmmakers. A veteran like Anand Patwardhan has been provoking establishment and right-wing forces with his political films for more than three decades, while Madhushree Dutta’s films have been exploring the intricacies of sexual politics.

Documentary filmmakers constitute a unique breed that have always been deprived of its due recognition, but thanks to efforts like MIFF by Films Division more and more filmmakers are getting an opportunity to showcase their work. And with organisations like Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT), along with Films Division and private funding agencies, mostly European, young filmmakers are getting inspired to venture into the territory. Corporate sponsorship could go a long way to promote such practice, but of course, such patronage comes with its risk of regulatory terms and conditions which could defeat the very purpose of an honest documentary film. 

(Ranjan Das is a Mumbai-based filmmaker, instructor and writer)


Ranjan Das