Documentary filmmaking is sometimes dated back to Robert Paul’s 1895 film about the Chicago World’s Fair. But, of course, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, the very first motion film, shot by the Lumière brothers and screened in March 1895, is nothing but a documentary if we define it as a genre that shows real-life footage of some sort of real-life happening.
India’s own history goes back to the 1940s and 1950s when the medium was used to support the colonial war efforts first and then to disseminate the fledgling Indian government’s idealistic hopes and works for the future. As the years went by, Films Division, even while shackled by governmental controls, played an invaluable role. As the film director Goutam Ghose tells Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay, the works that Films Division produced down the years are a “priceless audiovisual documentation of our history”. And indeed the genre is closest in its heart to this role—that of historian and chronicler.
Beginning sometime in the 1980s, the documentary began to occupy quite another space in the Indian film lexicon. Just as the feature film forged ahead on a wave of angry, anti-establishment sentiment from the 1970s onward, the documentary discovered an urgent voice of activism and dissent that would culminate in the cinema of Anand Patwardhan. Lawrence Liang uses the works of Patwardhan and others to examine how documentary filmmakers have majorly shaped the free speech discourse in India.
Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar in their piece point to the extraordinary contribution of women filmmakers to this genre. Feminist directors such as Deepa Dhanraj, Meera Rao, Madhusree Dutta, Shohini Ghosh et al., pluralised and dramatically altered the “political” documentary filmscape.
We, of course, planned this issue primarily because of the excitement generated by two films—All That Breathes and The Elephant Whisperers—that recently made waves across the world, but with neither being overtly political. Ismat Ara and Jinoy Jose P interview the directors who both speak of the slow change pulsing in the heart of documentary filmmaking in India, of the rise in funding and screening opportunities, of new audiences, of the growth in digital technologies and democratisation.
Is the Great Indian Documentary on the cusp of another kind of great? Write in and tell us.
Elsewhere, this issue brings you an excellent selection of political analyses from Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Telangana. Don’t miss former ambassador Talmiz Ahmad’s superb essay on the slow demise of political Islam or the Tamil writer Jeyamohan’s tour de force that questions the legitimacy of the sceptre in a democracy.
Readers often write in to say that Frontline’s books section is easily the best in the country, and this issue certainly bears them out. The reviews by Saba Naqvi, Shiv Visvanathan, Harish S. Wankhede, Amitabha Bagchi, and Latha Anantharaman are master classes.
As always, an issue worth keeping.
Until next time.
You can read the issue here.