The success of two Indian documentaries at the international level—Kartiki Gonsalves’ The Elephant Whisperers and Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes—is noteworthy because, like fiction films, Indian documentaries have not generally made a mark outside the country. But if there is something different about these two films, as it does seem, it is necessary to understand what that is; the answer that suggests itself is that they are not made in the activist mode, which has long been the tendency in Indian documentary cinema.
The best-known documentary filmmakers in India would be those like Anand Patwardhan (Jai Bhim Comrade, 2011), who has openly declared that he is not into making films as much as expressing dissent and this has been the dominant tendency. These documentaries cannot be shown to the general public but only at select gatherings as in the Mumbai International Film Festival organised by Films Division or at special screenings organised by civil society where the audiences are predominantly sympathetic in their outlook. These activist documentary films tend to attack familiar targets like communalism, the ecological harm done by industrial interests or caste oppression. They do not add much to what is already known and do not produce analyses but they visit the actual scene and interview the people concerned. They are openly partisan although the causes they take up may justify that. Some of them, like Stalin Kurup’s India Untouched (2007), take on subjects that are too vast—like the entirety of caste as in that film—which means that they often cannot expect to make a difference.
Films Division was originally intended to produce documentaries, and filmmakers like Sukhdev made epoch-making films like Nine Months to Freedom: The Story of Bangladesh (1972). Other noteworthy films were the ethnographic Man in Search of Man (1974) by Prem Vaidya about the tribal population of the Andamans. These films were often shown only as the newsreel components of commercial screenings. Other interesting films seen alongside commercial film screenings include one about the fisheries of the Salt Lake in Kolkata, which I was not able to locate subsequently.
What is important is that documentaries were originally part of a state initiative and the anti-state rhetoric in the activist documentary was a later development, perhaps commencing in the 1970s, which was a radicalised period in which art cinema was also at its angriest. In the private space, filmmakers like Paromita Vohra (Where’s Sandra? 2005) make inventive films that are far from activist in their approach. Other notable voices are Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar (Saacha, 2001), and R.V. Ramani (Saa, 1991). Mani Kaul also made some visually stunning documentaries like Before My Eyes (1989) on Kashmir. But the general tendency is not to be rigorous but idiosyncratic, which perhaps is why they remain in the margins as “expression”. Amar Kanwar’s striking A Season Outside (1997) would be another typical example, with its commentary around Buddhist ideas against a backdrop of Indo-Pakistani military tension. But are we to take Buddhism as a legitimate solution to such a political problem?
Why the activist path?
Why Indian documentaries chose the activist mode is not a question that can be easily answered but the truisms they try to propagate have parallels in popular cinema’s traditional articulation of puranic truths. Cinema began with the documentary film (the Lumière brothers) and then went into producing illusion through Georges Méliès but illusion went on to become the imagined and represented subjective reality. Indian cinema (through Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, or Dadasaheb Phalke) began with the mythological film, which did not represent fantasy or illusion but a pre-existing truth. Phalke insisted that his films were only manifesting truths already known to audiences (i.e. from the epics and traditional belief). When Indian cinema moved out of the mythological, the social still purveyed time-honoured truths. Early films on women’s emancipation, like V. Shantaram’s Duniya Na Mane (1937), were already in the activist mode even while venerating tradition—and this was in tune with the reformist ideas of the 19th century.
Art cinema too quickly took on the burden of relaying truths like popular cinema although the truths were of a different kind—like the solidarity of the working class as in Marxist films instead of sanctity of the family dictate as in Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (1994). Art films often used the strategy of placing a witness to the action who learns the truth that the film propagates. An instance would be the boy in Shyam Benegal’s Ankur (1973), who is politicised by what he witnesses. The instruction is comparable to that of popular cinema even if the messages are different.
If one studies those documentaries in world cinema that represent the pinnacle of achievement, one might end up with a list like this: Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (1956), about Auschwitz; Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (1967), set in an institution for the criminally insane; Werner Herzog’s Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), which explores the world of those born blind, deaf and speech-impaired; Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds (1974), set in the Vietnam War; Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I (2000), about people living on the margins of consumer society in France and subsisting on discarded food and goods from supermarkets; and Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), a study of collaboration with the Nazis in occupied France during the Second World War.
These films are not lacking in the political element but the treatment of subjects is always exploratory. Resnais’ Night and Fog, for instance, is not a revelation of the horrors of the Holocaust but about how human memory responds to trauma. Herzog is not even explicitly political and one of his more recent films, Grizzly Man (2005), is about a man who lived among grizzly bears and was killed by one of them. Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), an early classic of the genre, simply captures the sights and people of Berlin.
It is evident from these examples that whatever is shown in a documentary film needs to be a visual exploration, perhaps with a degree of analysis but essentially dependent on observation rather than purveying a prior truth. Just as great fiction films leave themselves open to interpretation, so do great documentaries. The world is too complex to be already known and interpretation is the opportunity given to us to make our own sense of it through the mediation of texts. Herzog’s Land of Silence and Darkness is not a humanistic film about disadvantaged people—since those born without the primary senses may not be aware of their loss. It is rather about the world inhabited by the characters who can only sense it through touch. To others, the world would largely be a visual stimulus since sight is the strongest sense. This freedom to interpret is not something usually afforded by Indian documentaries of the activist kind. The popular fiction film in India, we noted, is already interpreted and the meaning of a film like Mother India or Upkar is not left open to be debated about.
A strategy in the Indian activist documentary is the segregation of interviewees into good and bad people and the latter being made to look ridiculous—as are the Hindutva activists in Patwardhan’s War and Peace (2002) who distributed earth from around Pokhran, after the nuclear tests of 1998, as sacred prasad; or the head priest of the Kasi Viswanath temple in Stalin’s India Untouched, who justifies caste discrimination based on his reading of the Manusmriti. The use of interviews to bring out the truth is legitimate and an illustration would be the right-wing groupies in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act ofKilling (2012), which explores Indonesian leader General Suharto’s 1965-66 war on the communists. These members of right-wing groups openly admit to their involvement in the mass killings of the left-wing but the film is still an exploration of what actually happened in 1965-66, and these individuals are not treated superciliously. But the Indian activist documentaries are, in contrast, too preoccupied showing off the superiority of their kind of thinking. Religious practices are often contrary to democratic values but a contemptuous demonstration would hardly reveal much. In Jai Bhim Comrade, Patwardhan arbitrarily interviews an upper-class jogger in a Mumbai city park and demonstrates the man’s ignorance of B.R. Ambedkar’s hand in the drafting of the Indian Constitution. Virtually anyone can be made to look stupid on camera and one wonders at such a strategy.
- The success of Indian documentaries The Elephant Whisperers and All That Breathes is noteworthy because Indian documentaries have not generally made a mark outside the country.
- Documentaries were originally part of a state initiative and the anti-state rhetoric in the activist documentary was a later development, perhaps commencing in the 1970s.
- Whatever is shown in a documentary film needs to be a visual exploration, perhaps with a degree of analysis but essentially dependent on observation rather than purveying a prior truth.
- In international filmmaking, the age of the great documentary film seems to be over.
What about international documentaries?
In international filmmaking, the age of the great documentary film seems to be over—alongside that of film as high art. The reason is the wide access to filmmaking alongside the free airing of uninformed opinion in the blogging space. There is too much noise in the milieu and creativity of a high order makes demands—when the attention span of the audience is small and so much competing for his/her attention. Democratic opinion has also made way for partisanship, which implies that reflective political cinema is virtually impossible. One already has a political opinion before watching a film.
With the Indian state now acting against NGOs, activist filmmaking has also been in decline. It is at this moment that a new opportunity has arisen in the shape of the OTT platform, which promotes the documentary as entertainment. This did not begin in India; the most favoured documentaries on international viewing channels usually pertain to crime and espionage. Apprehending serial killers is a pet subject on the small screen and there is great public curiosity about what actual murderers looked like and where they operated. Delhi Crime (2019) was not a documentary series but an enacted one. However, it used the methods of documentary cinema to great effect through its emphasis on authenticity. The first season, dealing with the Nirbhaya case, was impeccably done and enacted.
Crime Stories: India Detectives (2021) on Netflix follows the police in investigating actual murders in Bengaluru and while the business of crime reporting as depicted in the series may seem too sordid and sensationalist, it still opens our eyes to aspects of urban life not usually publicised. The episodes bring out certain aspects of police investigations that deserve attention but one is not sure if the directors themselves are aware of it. One aspect is the readiness of the police to threaten suspects with torture, even if the beatings are not actually shown. It implies that the police routinely get by using their (well-earned) reputation for brutality and even a casual threat is enough to loosen tongues. Then there is the sense that both the victims and the suspects are from the poorer classes; they do not plan out their crimes and are therefore easily apprehended, although the police themselves are hardly adept at investigation. The main tools at their service are CCTV cameras and the crimes might remain unsolved without them. Fingerprinting is too complex a notion, it appears. One does not hear of upper-class criminals tortured or liquidated in encounters, which leads one to question whether police methods are not inherently protective of certain class interests.
The first two episodes in Crime Stories: India Detectives involve murders while the third is about the kidnapping of a beggar’s child from her parents who live under a flyover. The missing child is never found although a friend of the father—another beggar—is suspected of having sold her. What is truly chilling is the possibility that the child was abducted for a human sacrifice. There is also an unspoken sense among the police that the missing girl is a low priority since her mother is pregnant with another child. The new crime documentaries on India’s small screen are not art but they are often more valuable for what they reveal unwittingly about the milieus they are set in than self-conscious art might be.
Appeal of recent acclaimed documentaries
All That Breathes and The Elephant Whisperers have all the attractions of OTT entertainment without being about crime because they deal with another subject that has the propensity to keep viewers engaged—wildlife and nature. Both use their milieus well although there is an emphasis on spectacle—of different kinds. The former film is about two Muslim brothers engaged in rescuing injured black kites and is set in a squalid corner of Delhi, apparently a couple of kilometres from where the CAA protests took place (see interview with the director on page 24). The title draws from the pronouncement of one of the brothers that humankind has no special place on the planet but that all living beings have as much of a right to live. The film uses this as a cue to commence—with rats scurrying about a vacant lot and mosquitoes resting on stagnant sludge. The brothers minister to the predatory birds with no support from any public agency. The film celebrates people’s struggle against the odds in a milieu where hope is hard to come by. All That Breathes is visually comparable to Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) in treating the most squalid urban landscapes as spectacle since it contains little social detail or analysis. The fact that the protagonists are Muslim is certainly significant but the film does not belabour the point of their minority status.
The Elephant Whisperers is, in contrast, a feel-good film set in Mudumalai National Park (in Tamil Nadu) and uses the attractions of the milieu shamelessly, including shots of tigers and leopards that are hardly easy to sight. A langur monkey and its baby are also used as witnesses to the action and they often register emotions. Much of this is evidently put together in the editing room but the film makes it seem that it is only registering the milieu. It has too many tricks up its sleeve for us not to become wary. The abandoned baby elephant and the simple tribal couple that cares for it draw our emotions and the film relies on that. One is therefore not surprised that it won an Oscar and enchanted the Prime Minister in his recent ecological sojourn. The environment is an area where activism is still welcome since there cannot be a serious division of political opinion on the subject. But The Elephant Whisperers has no activist yearnings although it is dealing with a fast-degrading milieu. Its agreeability makes it suspect but it is that same quality that makes it well-loved by everyone.
To conclude, the documentary as entertainment seems the best option available to practitioners in the immediate future. It is not even necessary that the ultimate purpose of a documentary should be what it is purported to be doing as an intelligent filmmaker could suggest many things covertly. I found all kinds of revealing social details in the crime documentaries on OTT platforms that are not found in All That Breathes or The Elephant Whisperers and those same details could be sharpened to make arguments. No investigation of police methods can be openly undertaken but information could be slipped in even when the documentary is seeming to be doing something else. It would still offer the intelligent spectator enough room for thought, without needlessly ruffling the feathers of the establishment. There is censorship operating but as Jorge Luis Borges noted, “Censorship is the origin of metaphor.”
M.K. Raghavendra is a writer on cinema, culture and politics. He won the Swarna Kamal for Best Film Critic in 1997 and received a Homi Bhabha Fellowship in 2000 to research popular cinema. He has published five academic books on cinema through Oxford University Press, Bloomsbury, and Routledge.