When it comes to contemporary Indian cinema, the documentary is where all the action is at. The sector is constituted by brief but significant bodies of work that establish their own peculiar engagements with the world at large, and yet, a similar spirit of inquiry, generosity and earnest subversion is coherent in all of them. The documentary sector is composed of cinephiles too; contemplative and insightful, these practitioners often work in close-knit groups, in solidarity with each other and with the grander cause, that of the act of seeing itself. Ishan Banerjee and Anuj Malhotra put forth four broad, rather general questions to various leading documentary filmmakers to further understand the field and understand it in its aesthetic, ethical as well as socio-economic realities.
One: Is the lack of widescale audience apathy to documentary film a corporate-house created myth to sustain their fiction (fantasy) worlds? If not, and if this apathy is true, do you think it is because Indians in a post-liberalised world are afraid of looking inwards?
PAROMITA VOHRA: I wish I could say that was entirely true. But unfortunately, it’s not. Despite the presence of more funding and exhibition for documentaries in some other parts of the world, on the whole, one cannot pretend that a documentary is a beloved form. No matter how simplified its content and entertaining its form, documentaries thus far have been a niche form and even when released, a limited commercial success. That said, the approach to commercial success does of course also, often, work in a circular fashion. Simply put it tends to promote what is already ‘working’ rather than find ways to make what is potentially exciting to audiences, ‘work’ commercially. If it were liberalization that was the issue, then documentaries would have been successful pre-liberalisation, and it is a documented fact that they were not precisely because they were strongly controlled by government rules and agendas. Distribution is the mediation of the relationship between audiences and (in the case of this discussion) films. Post the late 1930s this relationship has been regularly mediated, first by the government (through Films Division documentaries and the enforced screening model of distribution). Subsequently, it has been mediated by political organisations of various kinds who have used the documentary form for various purposes from propaganda to consciousness raising to discursive tools. Essentially this made it hard for audiences to form an independent relationship with documentaries as films. The idea of ‘usefulness’ and therefore ‘significance’ enjoined on the documentary film has made it a remote film object to audiences. This is most notable within the limited press coverage documentaries get, which is almost never by the film writer in a paper/ journal but often by a features writer. Film critics it feels have not got the tools to understand documentary as a film with a very few notable exceptions. So the idea of documentary as a film does not take root easily for audiences yet, although I believe it is changing. Are audiences today hesitant to look inwards? Perhaps no more or less than others. It certainly feels true that a large number of fiction films, often flatter a middle-class audience – and we are seeing a time when a reflective film has a harder journey. I would say this is true of fiction and non-fiction, for one can be non-reflective on any side of the political spectrum really.
SHYAMAL KARMAKAR: Actually the corporate world desires this apathy for their fictional world, and the audience, well, they suffer from the ‘entertainment in the evening’ syndrome. In the case of various documentary films, the story is not usual, the narratives do not offer much in terms of individual missions or goals worth fulfilling – this means these are not easy films to watch if a viewer is not prepared to abandon his comfort zone. Corporates who own and control distribution in cinema halls claim that the audience does not want to see the film, so it’s a vis-à-vis thing. In the post-liberalization world, it is getting increasingly difficult to reach out, to communicate. We thought of it as a dream, but the dream is over.
AMLAN DUTTA: It is indeed true that Indians have become apathetic to introspection. Post economic liberalization we have become apparently richer in our pockets but poorer in our minds. So we love to glorify mediocrity to hide our insecurities and ethical shifts. We look for a cheap immediate solution to meets our mental needs and avoid substance. But in a social evolution that’s what is expected of the populace. Why put the blame on the audience for lack of documentary culture? How many relevant, honest, compelling documentaries have we made in India where we can demand an audience loyalty!
AVIJIT MUKUL KISHORE: I don’t think there is an apathy towards documentary among the audience, which is always open and receptive. People may not be aware of the potential, the different genres and the power of the documentary, for lack of exposure. The perception of the documentary has been shaped by the dominant use it is put to. This could be state propaganda or political activism, both of which have signified the documentary film for the longest time in history. Of late people’s perceptions of the documentary are shaped by the television documentary. There are incredible films in all these genres. But there is also an enormous body of work which rests between many of these known genres. These could be the personal film, the experimental documentary and many other genre-bending films. It is interesting and important to study these movements historically. We are not afraid of looking inwards at all. In fact, there was a huge rise in the number of personal and self-reflexive documentaries post the arrival of independent news television in India in the late 1990s, as the onus of having a critical voice shifted from the activist filmmaker to the news people. That supposedly critical voice on television is now a babble. But meanwhile, the genre of independent personal narratives came to be respected. This was nothing new, these films always existed, but got a new visibility with a newfound global interest in the mundane, the domestic and the personal, which was also political.
AMBARIEN ALQADAR: Well, the need of the hour for documentary filmmakers is to locate a contemporary, accessible language. If the documentary form is losing audiences and the other forms are gaining it, it may also be a reflection of the outdated idiom that we employ in our films. It’s not a circumstance created by corporate or by the general apathy of audiences – the onus of reviving interest in the documentary form lies solely upon those who practice it.
A.K.BIR: No! That is not true. Most of India is concerned – people here live very suppressed lives. Because of the staunchly feudal character of the Indian life, the sense of true independence in our thought, or say, even in the way we live our lives is still an alien concept. Therefore, there might exist a resistance to the openness, to the urge to question that the documentary form encourages. Any good documentary film is an opportunity to introspect and then react.
Two: What are the resources available for a documentary filmmaker to first conceive, then secure funding, and then exhibit his films? Is it possible for a documentary filmmaker in India to have a sustained professional career in this sector?
VOHRA: Resources vary – foundations, NGOs, sometimes small art funds, bodies like PSBT. There are international broadcasters and funders also. I think if you are not planning to be rich then possibly you can have a sustained career. For myself, I can say I’ve managed to sustain it through working on smaller budgets in order to make films the way I like – and more importantly, what I hope is in an Indian idiom, what I hope will help make an Indian audience relate to, full of references and local questions. There are several filmmakers in India who have had sustained documentary careers – although we do not see a culture where they become universally known in the way of Wiseman or Errol Morris. But I believe this can and will change – in fact, has been changing because in the 23 years of my work life I have seen the numbers of filmmakers grow, the approaches to filmmaking expand, audiences diversify and a greater openness. This much fertility and vibrancy are potential for change. However I think it is important at such moments to think of ways we can locally support these endeavours and not impose existing norms of commercial marketing, but be equally inventive in how we think of distributing these films to ever wider audiences as also, deepening the critical culture around the documentary film.
KARMAKAR: There are platforms and networks to assist the documentary filmmaker. Starting with DocAge at SRFTI, the documentary network with support of the EDN (European Documentary Network). So, there are a few documentary filmmakers in India who are actively attempting to tell their stories – and then, they come up against this massive monolithic taste that dictates the need for a ‘particular Indian story’ – they are told that their ideas aren’t important; many filmmakers have failed in this manner.
DUTTA: For the past 7 years I have tried to live as an independent documentary maker and I have no shame to admit that I’ve failed to sustain. Even with 4 international co-productions, 3 National awards, a national theatrical release of my last film Bom, I finally ended up neck-deep in debts. Yet, the fact that I’ve survived is because there is an audience who has supported me wholeheartedly. And to increase their number perhaps I have to give more focused efforts to reach out. I don’t expect a miracle to happen but I am hopeful…
MUKUL KISHORE: This is a very vibrant time for documentary filmmaking in India and there is an enormous and ever-growing group of independent filmmakers, who have very sustained careers! The hows and whys of it are another discourse altogether, but what needs to be done is to make this a more remunerative profession. This can only happen with better exhibition and distribution of documentaries. We want our films to be seen widely, but the mode of the exhibition has largely been through free screenings. While this should continue and films should be widely accessible to people, we also need to cultivate the culture of paying for the documentary, as we pay to watch feature films. This can happen through a set of small theatres dedicated to screening art-house and documentary films. At present, this model is not working well, as such films are getting limited releases in mainstream theatres that have very high operation costs.
ALQADAR: There is PSBT, which is the main funding body for documentary filmmakers in the country. They also have Open Frame, a festival where the films they produce are exhibited. The important idea behind PSBT’s selection procedure is that they are ready to consider films of all viewpoints and sensibilities – films that offer alternative perspectives are also welcome. The responsibility, therefore, is again with the filmmakers themselves to help documentary film evolve into a singular, unified, coherent profession that a youngster may take up.
BIR: The whole process of funding documentary films should be made simpler by nature rather than the complex series of procedures that it is now. I think the process could be perhaps made easier if there was an active network in the country of the intelligentsia. So the process of securing resources to produce films could be simplified – and the people who want to genuinely assist can contribute their services or money, whatever the need be.
Three: How is state-funding useful to documentary filmmakers? Are there cliques and groups as may appear to an outsider? If so, is their cohesiveness because of political, regional or economic factors?
PAROMITA VOHRA: We can surely ask this question, or rather, make this statement about almost anything, no?
SHYAMAL KARMAKAR: State should fund documentary filmmakers since cinema is still an evolving, new language. But there is another important question. What about films that are not really favourable towards the state? Think of Haobam Paban Kumar’s AFSPA:1958, which depicted the conditions under the draconian AFSPA 1958 law; and was not allowed to be shown publicly.
AMLAN DUTTA: State is ideally the best patron for any art, not just documentary. But in reality, mobilizing state funding means manipulation and sycophancy, which is detrimental if your purpose is honest and critical. There are cliques or associations based on mutual political, regional and economic interests but rarely for artistic collaboration. We all have too much to say and very little to hear, so we need a little more time to revive our self-esteem to build a collaborative platform.
AVIJIT MUKUL KISHORE: The good thing about state funding is that it is a grant that they do not expect to recover or profit from after the film is made. But, this is also the bad thing, as there might be less answerability because of that very reason. However, it is still a boon that state funding, however small it may be, exists.
AMBARIEN ALQADAR: ‘Clique’ may not be the correct word to describe it – instead, you could call it a community. And as all communities go, this too is bound by the internal logic(s) of regional, political and social preferences. But I do not see this as a disadvantage at all – in fact, it’s a good thing. A filmmaker needs to be able to find ways around a system, around these hurdles. I trust individuals to be smart enough to locate and identify their own audiences and consequently, their own methods of engaging with them.
A.K.BIR: Well, it is true. Whenever a state organ allocates resources to a filmmaker, they want to first be able to confirm their own dividends in the process. At the same time, if any filmmaker wants to make a film which features a point that is political or against the state, the onus is on him to present it in a manner that is mature and reasoned.
Four: Are these interesting times where anyone and everyone can pick up a prosumer camera and film the images of his life? Document them, essentially, for a museum of personal narratives?
PAROMITA VOHRA: Yes of course it is and it is what people around us are doing all the time. We have never lived in a time when the meaning of documentary has been challenged, widened, deepened and democratized in the most unexpected times, as much. The desire that a documentary is a form of and for the people may perhaps have come true in a way no one anticipated. Sure, these narratives may not come in politically correct forms but they contain an expressiveness that is perhaps quite important for us to reclaim as a society before we move back towards the reflectiveness that we feel has been lost. Different types of people creating narratives for audiences of one or many like themselves or entirely unknown audiences render the world itself into a museum of narratives. In fact, every documentary filmmaker should try it – just to see how it feels to have one’s life on film, from time to time and so, to be closer and constantly reassessing the meanings we wish to generate which is the closest we can get to the truth.
SHYAMAL KARMAKAR: Does the medium influence quality? Not everyone who has a pen or paper can write. There is documentation and then there are personal narratives, but that does not mean that anything recorded on a prosumer camera is a film.
AMLAN DUTTA: Random recording is not documentation. People had still cameras even a century back but how many museums have you seen even of personal narratives? We are in the realm of virtual garbage of audio-visual material. But I’m sure it’ll be interesting to turn some of these into potential fertilizer for future growth.
AVIJIT MUKUL KISHORE: These are indeed very interesting times, as anyone and everyone can pick up a device that has a camera attached to it and record images of his or her life. We carry cameras in our pockets in the form of cellphones; in our bags in the form of I-Pads; or on our belt in the form of the point and shoot camera. We might even have a full-fledged camera and accessories with us to make images. It is an interesting time and also a challenging one, to be original in the wake of the images all around us. Instant images that are made, processed and shared effortlessly on the web for people to consume. There is innate visual literacy among people, due to access to these image-making devices, where you can see the exact image that you record as you shoot it, unlike earlier, when there was a waiting period between filming and viewing. There is also a glut of images all around which inform our visual culture and people’s sense of composition and scene construction. So, we have a huge repertoire of reasonably watchable imitations of mainstream images and narratives available to us online. To be original in this context is a challenge.
AMBARIEN ALQADAR: I definitely think that the personal story is also a kind of documentation. But in regards to this, even before the era of the digital, people would always document their own life, and for sure, this is a manner of a filmmaker as valid as any other. But then the question arises: why should I be the spectator to someone else’s life?
A.K.BIR: I believe that when your sensibility is cultured and your mind is educated, your perception of different realities has a different character – then, you aren’t merely recording an event, but imbuing it with your own ideas and with a value. Regardless, a film is a democratic medium and anyone should be able to contribute to it.