The Other Cinema

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Despite audience ignorance and apathy, documentary films in India have slowly come of age

In a season blooming with a variety of cine award functions beaming constantly from a television screen near you, each competing with the other in glitz and ad blitz, star attendance and star performances, a recently concluded film festival like MIFF went unnoticed by the media and the public in general.

To the uninitiated, MIFF stands for Mumbai International Film Festival, a yearly event that has been showcasing documentary, short and animation films since 1990. Organised by Films Division, a unit of the ministry of information and broadcasting, MIFF is the world’s largest and oldest international week-long festival that showcased more than 400 films from 35 countries this year. This is by no means a mean feat, given our country’s obsession with glamour that Hindi mainstream cinema represents.

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 the 70s, when a feature film was preceded by a tacky black and white Films Division documentary which they called ‘Newsreel’, that ran for a painful 20 minutes, mostly promoting the achievements of the government. People went out to 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, followed by the national anthem! But thankfully, times have changed.

Young and not-so-young filmmakers, unaffected by the seduction of feature filmmaking and motivated by 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 past 25 years and has spawned its own ‘star system’ when it comes to directors like Reena Mohan, Nishtha Jain, Sourav Sarangi, Pankaj Rishi Kumar and Kavita Joshi, to name just a few. Gulabi Gang, which chronicles the struggles of women vigilantes from Bundelkhand fighting for women’s empowerment, fetched Nishtha Jain the best director award at the recently concluded 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 an obscure American filmmaker who made Tamil films in Chennai in the 30s and 40s, has been arousing a lot of curiosity. Incidentally, all the filmmakers mentioned above are FTII alumni.

Other filmmakers who have made a mark in recent times include Geetanjali Rao, Deepa Dhanraj, Dylan Mohan Gray, Deepti Kakkar and 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 at regular intervals 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 and the PVR’s Director’s Cut screenings, 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 independent filmmaker, film instructor and writer)

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