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Documentary in India Today

By K.N.T. Sastry

In a country producing more than 600 feature films a year, in an incredible array of 23 languages, the Indian documentary film has always been a poor relative to the narrative feature.

For 25 years after India's independence from Great Britain, the Films Division of the central government enjoyed a virtual monopoly in documentary production. Only in the last two decades has independent documentary been able to gain some foothold in India. While a few well-known Indian cineastes (Shyam Benegal, Mani Kaul, Satyajit Ray) dabbled in documentary for the Films Division early on, filmmakers traditionally avoided the nonfiction mode. A few, such as Anand Patwardhan, Suhasini Muley and Shaji N. Karun, entered documentary in the 1970s as protest to the social conditions caused by the National Emergency of 1975. Even today, few filmmakers have chosen documentary as their sole method of communicating. The major problems continue to be those that confront documentary film and video everywhere: tenuous funding, the threat of censorship, the chaos of distribution, and dependence on recognition from abroad for exposure and future funding. And of course, there are the developments in the expansion of television, seemingly inviting increased production of documentaries, but merely signaling the absence of social concerns in the films produced.

Despite this atmosphere, there have been efforts from both the government and individuals to project the Indian documentary into an international arena. The annual International Film Festival of India (IFFI) is now held every January. The Bombay International Film Festival, for documentary, short and animation films, is held in March of every alternate year, recently renamed the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF). Lesser known, the National Film Festival is celebrated in July or August each year, offering documentaries and features selected by the government as outstanding efforts from the preceding year. From the offerings at these festivals in 1998 and 1999, a significant sense of the challenges and accomplishments of contemporary Indian documentary can be gained.

But first, some history. For years, people outside of India have considered documentary in the country the exclusive province of the Films Division of the Central Government. Today, that view is a misconception. With its production center in Bombay (now known as Mumbai), the Films Division continues to produce more than 150 films per year, with documentaries of two kinds: the news-based shorts, recording political and cultural events of benefit to the ruling governments; and biographies of award-winning authors, artists and other cultural figures. Anything that might be called the independent documentary movement in India began its development slowly, with such filmmakers as the direct cinema proponent S. Sukhdev (India 67), also Bhimsain, Dr. P.Y. Pathy and Fali Bilimoria (The House that Anand Built), producing and occasionally exhibiting their works in international film festivals. Indian documentaries gained increased external visibility with such works as Kutty Japanin Kuzhandaiga (1989), the story of child labor in the southern Indian town of Sivakasi, where youngsters risked their lives in preparing fireworks for the mere merriment of others. And there has been cross-over to documentary from individuals involved in feature films. Girish Kamad, well-known in India for his popular features since the early 1970s, in the early '90s contributed a number of documentaries, including Lamp in the Niche, an insightful portrait of the life of a singer. B. Lenin, from Madras, produced a biography of a famous boxer, whose high standing during his active career is rudely "knocked" down during his waning years (the documentary appropriately titled Knock-Out). Lately, Lenin has returned to editing mainstream films, and Karnad has turned to acting in mainstream cinema.

More recently, visibility for Indian documentary abroad has been garnered chiefly by filmmakers Shaji N. Karun (My Own) and Anand Patwardhan (We Are Not Your Monkeys), who have been spotlighted at many festivals, such as the 1997 Human Rights Watch (ID, Sept. 1997) and Yamagata 1997 (ID, Jan.-Feb. 1998).

In March 1998, MIFF celebrated its 5th year, presenting a life-time achievement award to Fali Bilimoria. This award had the effect of joining the heritage of documentary (Bilimoria had been named the "future hope for Indian documentary" way back in the 1960s) with the current attempts in nonfiction by such figures as Karun and Patwardhan.

Also at the 1998 IFFI, as part of a Films Division news magazine, V. Packirisamy from Madras showed The Bhiwandi Tragedy (14 min.) in the commonplace reportage style to expose the poverty of migrant laborers in the Bombay satellite town of The Bhiwandi Tragedy Bhiwandi. Packirisamy said, "I think the best features of this film are its simplicity and its sincerity. Even though the piece was produced by a government agency, I allowed people to express their feelings and frustrations freely." The film played also at MIFF. Kol Kathayan / Kol Stories (32 min.) by Sehjo Singh seemingly explores the story-telling tradition of the Bengali "Kols" and their art of weaving stories into other stories, as recited by two singers. The real "story" of this film, however, is the filmmaker's portrait of the sad state of "bondage" to the "uppercaste" Hindus of India, and the tribe's efforts to preserve their art-form despite oppression. Also in the realm of folk arts, Kerala­ bom Malayalai director K.R . Subhas's Mizhavu / A Silent Drum Beat (35 min.) spotlights a huge percussion instrument, known to exist only in Kerala on the southern tip of the Indian peninsula. The drum is thought to be more than 2,000 years old, used for temple dances known as "koodiyattam." The film considers some possibilities for the drum's adaptation to modern usage.

Hastir Kanya / Daughter of Elephant (53 min.) by Prabin Hazarika is a portrait of Pratima Barua Pandey, a folk singer from Assam, who at a very young age adopted the folk songs of the Goalpara region of northeast India. Unlike so many documentaries offering biographies of Daugluer leading artistes, Hastir Kanya of Elephant bows to its subject in determining its style; it was the first directorial effort by Hazarika. Another film which yields to its subject is M.T. Kadhayum Kalvum (25 min.), a Malayalam film directed by Harikumar, who observed: "Documentary is a dynamic art-form, which can epitomize the finest traits of the human mind and intellect. An ideal documentary should inspire man to do good to others." Vaanavil / The Rainbow (18 min., Tamil), a debut film directed by K.S. Ramkumar, characterizes the crisis for a terrorist when he encounters a 7-year-old in a hospital, convalescing from an encounter with the local police. Part-fiction, in Ramkumar's words, "This documentary asserts that we tend to lose ourselves in some ideologies that we really don't need and wind up living a false life—we engage in what Sartre calls 'living in bad faith.'"

In India, the social documentary has for years been concerned with the "fragile lives" of women, the "weaker sex." In this genre, Debanand Sengupta produced the 1998 Bengali Matir Bhanr / Earthen Pot (37 min.), bringing to the screen a cross­ section of women subjected to domestic violence. Said Sengupta: "My documentary offers a salute to these girls and women—they have resisted defeat and fought injustice relentlessly." It took a woman director, Vasudha Joshi, to trace the generation-gap existing between and among three (perhaps four) generations. Joshi 's For Maya (38 min.) is a model for the genre: it defines the awesome power of family to socialize women into what society considers "good girls." Joshi won a MIFF Golden Conch in 1990 for her film Voices from Bahipal. She produced the 1998 For Maya in four Indian languages: Hindi, Kumoni, Sanskrit and IndoEnglish!

(An aside here should mention that the plurality of languages and dialects in India accounts for a complexity in sound tracks, both for features and in the documentary. While elites speak and under­stand English, narration in that language will deny access to the film by the majority of viewers; often, the solution is to subtitle in English and to use a dialect for the narration. Beyond this issue, however, is the usage of music and song, the performance of which can speak volumes to a culture not reading the subtitles or listening to interviews. The challenge of language usage in Indian film is often overlooked by international viewers and critics.)

Suhasini Muley began in film as an actress in such New Cinema productions as Mrinal Sen's Bhuvan Shome (1969, Bengali). She has directed such scathing documentaries as The Bhopal Genocide (1987, 28 min.), assessing the tragic lives in that Central Indian city where Union Carbide's poisonous gasses leaked into the atmosphere. Her film concentrated more on governmental apathy as aftermath to the tragedy. Her latest film again evi­dences governmental criticism, this time in analyzing The Official Art Form (27 min., English), where she traces the history of colonial art in India vis-à-vis native art.

Shaji N. Karun, whose films have been favorites in Cannes, Locarno and London (such as the already-mentioned My Own), in 1998 made Shams' Vision (27 min.), portraying the life of embroiderer Sheikh Shamsuddin; the film is already making the rounds of the international film festival circuit. M.F. Hussain—maverick painter from Bombay, well-known for his self-professed obsession with mainstream Indian actress Madhuri Dixit—exhibited a 12 min. documentary Gajagaamini where he concedes that his films use women as a metaphor for "the essence of lndianness." A controversial personality, and one time winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for his debut Through the Eyes of a Painter (1967), Hussain is now trying to turn his recent 12 min. documen tary into a full-length feature: no surprise that he has signed Madhuri Dixit as the heroine of the feature!

The "information " (non-competitive) section of the 1998 MIFF included some very well-made documentaries, many of them either biographies or docudramas. These included works representing the artistry of such masters as Pankaj Butalia (Cats' Concert), also Yash Cahudhury (Choosing the Future).

The IFFI premiere of Hypnothesis (35 min., English), directed by Rajat Kapoor, won the Indian Government's Best Documentary Film Award. Said Kapoor: "A film should make us see things that we had always looked at but never saw, things that we did not know existed... and my documentary is an attempt to do just that."

The 1999 IFFI, held in the southern city of Hyderabad, showcased the best Indian documentaries from the previous year within the shorts section of IFFI's "Indian Panorama." These included 20 films, many of them from first-time filmmakers, and some of which will no doubt show up on the film festival circuit throughout the world.

By far the largest producer of short films in India—perhaps in the world—the government's Films Division had five films in the 1999 Panorama. The first, Jataner Jami / Jatan's Land (57 min., Bengali), received the Best Documentary Award at the National Film Festival held in August 1998. In this film, peasants who have been promised land by the government discover that the land is useless, long submerged under water. Director Raja Mitra expressed his appreciation for sponsorship from the Films Division, especially since the film criticized government matters. Charu Kamal Hazarika's Jyo ti Prasad, The Versatile Genius (72 min., English) is a biography of the Assamese stalwart whose contributions, including those in cinema, are felt throughout the northeastern region of India. Hazarika lamented that, "It 's a pity that when the country celebrated 100 years of cinema, Prasad was overlooked."

Other product from the Films Division included Sarang, Symphony in Cacophony (17 min., English), by Josy Joseph, about a couple dedicated to bettering the environment. This film and Shalini Shah's Uchalia Tribe (19 min., Hindi) are from the Division's regularly produced news magazines. A 4-min. animated film, She Should Do You Proud by Arun S. Sarang, Gongade, also from Symphony in Cacophony the Films Division, encouraged increased respect for women in Indian society.

Beyond these governmental efforts were some good films from the private sector. Duphang-N i-Solo / An Autumn Fable (45 min., in the Bodo language), directed by Pinky Brahma Chodhary, is a scathing indictment of the economic and political discrimination meted out to the Bodo tribe in Assam. Offered the director: "My film is not a chronicle, nor analysis of a political crisis-instead, I use vignettes from the Bodo folk theatre to document the conditions the people face." Vivek Mahan set out In Search of Malana (73 min., English), and found the tribe in the Himalayas. Before the Greeks created the word "democracy ," the Malana s were practicing that form of government. The Saga of Darkness (38 min., Bengali) by Gautam Sen delved into the practice of witchcraft, concluding that often family rivalries are behind these so-called magical crafts with the aim of inflicting harm on their enemies.

Film critic Altaf Mazid's camera looked at the conditions for a child suffering from Duchenne's Muscular Dystrophy, a rare disease that paralyzes its victims; his film is titled Jibon / Life (56 min., Assamese). Cherian Joseph's Kalo Harin / Black Stag (29 min., Malayalam) is a biography of the football player Vijayan; the film traces Vijayan's life from his agrarian roots. And Light on Water (29 mi n., Malayalam) explores the snake-boats built by Malayali men in preparation for the snake-boat races in the backwaters of Kerala.

Perhaps the most scathing attack on customs and mores occurs in Oru Kann Oru Paarvai / Through an Eye Darkly (30 min., Tamil), recounting the tale of a poor untouchable girl, blinded by her teacher after the girl touched water used only by the upper caste. Director of this well-made film is Gnana Rajasekharan, an officer with the Central Board of Film Certification in Madras. Similar in impact was The Silent Scream (12 min., English), directed by Vikram K. Kumar, which probes the psyche of those prone to suicide, throwing light on what happens when a man changes his mind after swallowing an overdose of pills.

Two more interesting biographies document two different kind of artistes. Strings for Freedom (133 min., English), directed by Gautam Halder, looks at the artistry of Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, internationally acclaimed player of the lute-like musical instrument the sarod. But it was Buddhadeb Das Gupta's The Painter of Eloquent Silence (24 min ., English) that was a clear stand-out among biographical documentaries. Buddhadeb is no stranger to the international film festival circuit, not only with his feature films but also the short films he has done, most of these biographical does. His cinematic approach, he says, can be reduced to one line: "How many shots can you do without?"

A recent film fare, held January 11-17 in Hyderabad, was organized by the India Trade Promotion Organization, attracting participants from some 15 countries. This second event of its kind—the first, a low key offering, was held last year in Pragati, New Delhi-included a market with as many as 40 institutions representing film, television, audio and software companies, also broadcasters. A particularly popular part of the fair was the display of recent equipment.

Today's documentary scene in India significantly decreases the "poor cousin" status suffered by nonfiction film and video. While some of the videos offered at the 1998 MIFF were singular in purpose and obviously realized quickly and on a limited budget, there exists the challenge to young filmmakers to join such efforts as those made a few years ago by graduates of Jamia Milia University, who brought video skills to inhabitants of urban and rural neighborhoods, empowering them to express themselves on such grass roots issues as illiteracy, "untouchability " and women's inequality. As national television becomes more and more a medium for commerce and devoid of controversy, the challenge for independent documentary in India becomes more pronounced and clearer in mission.


K.N.T. Sastry is a film critic, columnist and scriptwriter, recipient of the Silver Lotus for Best Film Critic, an award given by the Indian government. He has produced docu­mentaries, is currently making a feature film, and was a member of the jury that selected films for the Indian Panorama at the 1999 IFFI; he also edited the program book for the festival.