Narrating actuality

The language of documentary in India has moved from capturing “reality” to presenting “authenticity” and from being an instrument of propaganda at the hands of the British colonial state and subsequently the various governments of independent India to an empowering tool for individuals.

Published : Oct 02, 2013 12:30 IST

The Lumiere brothers.

The Lumiere brothers.

SINCE 2013 has been marked as the centenary year of Indian cinema, it has also been broadly accepted as the 100th year of Indian documentary. But that is far from true.

The 100 years, in this case, is measured by the introduction of editing in moving images, determined by the understanding that shifts in time and location facilitated by editing are pivotal to the structure of narrative films. But moving images on celluloid came into existence independent of editing technique. Those early moving images, without any cut and paste, were called “actuality films” and later also as “topicals”—direct recordings of real-life happenings, which were exhibited as one film, from camera on to camera off. The much-talked-about French pioneers Lumiere brothers shot and exhibited all over the world Train Arriving at Station , Workers Leaving the Factory , The Wall is being Demolished , and so on.

In 1896, there were theatre, ballets and operas in Paris—but the Lumiere brothers shot people performing chores and not actors performing roles. Georges Melies, an illusionist and one of the greatest film-makers of the silent era, who attended one of the Lumiere brothers’ public shows in Paris, noticed that the audience was more engaged with moving foliage or crushing waves or flying dust than the people moving in the frame. The audience had already seen human beings and their actions on stage; moreover, in silent films the enactments by people appeared less realistic. But the novelty of animated scenery was what caught their attention—made it an “actuality” show. These actuality shows then grew into many ways of dealing with realities and real-life happenings, and one of the avatars is documentary films.

The earliest unedited moving image that was shot in India or shot by an Indian is difficult to ascertain owing to the lack of proper record. Train Arriving at Bombay Station could be the first moving image shot on Indian soil. It was screened at the drama house Tivoli Theatre in Bombay in 1898. Not much is known about the film except that it was shot by a narcissist foreign entrepreneur/magician, who named the device of capturing moving images after himself—Andersonoscopegraph. In those uncertain years, moving images were called by various local and improvised names.

The first actuality/documentary film shot by an Indian is generally credited to Save Dada Bhatvadekar of Bombay. In 1899, he shot Wrestling Match & Monkey Dance in Hanging Garden .

Outdoor daylight sequences

Not only the Lumiere brothers or Save Dada, but most of the early film-makers exclusively shot outdoor daylight sequences of high-speed movement. The rudimentary facility of light control made it compulsory to shoot in outdoor daylight but the obsession with catching high-speed movements, like wrestling, monkey dance, running train, etc., obviously had something to do with the newly found device of moving image recording. Later, Save Dada shot some social events such as the arrival of Wrangler Paranjpe from Cambridge in 1901. Around the same time, in Calcutta, Hiralal Sen began his more consistent enterprise of recording moving images. But his works were mostly the recording of dramas and operas that were already running in the city and so may not strictly fit into this essay on documentary. However, in 1905, he shot the nationalists’ protest demonstration at the Town Hall against the partition of Bengal. This could be called the first newsreel footage shot by an Indian. Unfortunately, all of Hiralal Sen’s works got destroyed in a fire in 1917.

In the early years of the 20th century, the exhibitor/entrepreneur Jamshed Framji Madan was showing European (mainly productions of the French company Pathe Freres) actuality films in tent cinemas in Calcutta. In 1905, he turned producer with Jyotish Sarkar’s coverage of Great Bengal Partition Movement: Meeting and Procession . Then, he went on to produce Tilak’s Visit to Calcutta and Procession (1906), Goat Sacrifice at Kalighat (1906), Dancing of Indian Nautch Girls (1906), The Fugitive Dalai Lama’s Flight to Darjeeling (1910), Cotton Fire in Bombay (1912), and so on. The films of Save Dada, Hiralal Sen, J.F. Madan and a few less prolific producers were commercially exhibited in tent cinemas and were exported to other city centres in India, Burma (Myanmar) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

So, by the time the first narrative film by D.G. Phalke, which we have enshrined as the birth of Indian cinema, got produced in 1913, non-narrative films were already a developed genre and a commercial enterprise in India. The form of narrative films, initiated by Raja Harishchandra , made use of the already developed conventions of recording dramas and operas and shooting actuality films, but got consolidated through the use of editing as a primary tool for storytelling in cinema. The editing technique brought in the temporal elements—shift in time and location—to build the narrative. It is interesting to note that before Raja Harishchandra , Phalke made a unique film by exposing one frame a day on a growing pea plant. This was his proposal to attract the elusive financiers to the possibility of a moving image enterprise.

For, against and along with

the British Raj

Despite the new interest in narrative films, which got further consolidated with the introduction of sound in 1931, topical films managed to hold on to their share in the market until the Second World War. In fact, all the tendencies of non-narrative films that we witness today developed in the three decades preceding the War.

Public spectacles: Popularly known as durbar films of 1903 and 1911, a number of films were shot by assorted companies and independent cameramen of the events of the coronation of King George V in Delhi. In the case of the 1911 durbar, mobile processing laboratories were set up to facilitate immediate making of the prints to put them in circulation for commercial exhibitions. This can be termed the predecessor of the current live coverage. Although it was mostly British, French and American companies that shot the durbar events, many Indian cameramen worked for these companies.

Commissioned films: J.F. Madan’s Elphinstone Bioscope Companies produced short films for the companies producing steel, jute, cotton, tobacco and tea, and also for the maharajas of the princely states from 1910 until the mid-1930s. This corresponds with the current-day convention of commissioned films by corporate houses.

Political documentary: In 1921, Great Bonfire of Foreign Clothes , a feature-length documentary, was made on M.K. Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu, Maulana Shaukat Ali and others leading a large number of protesters at Chowpatty and Rambaug Maidan near Elphinstone Mills in Bombay. The event was a follow-up to the Karachi Khilafat conference and was also marked to commemorate Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s death anniversary. The film ran in Bombay at West End Theatre and Globe Theatre for two weeks. This is a far cry from the contemporary state of exhibition of political documentaries.

In the decades of the 1920s and 1930s, despite a government crackdown, all the major film studios in Bombay and Calcutta made films on various events of the Independence movement. Besides the big studios, some individuals worked against all odds to make documentaries on the Nationalist movement, remarkable among them were P.V. Pathy of Bombay and A.K. Chettiar of Madras.

State censorship: The Cinematograph Act was passed in 1918, mainly on the basis of four principles: moral, racial, religious and political. The Police Commissioner of each city was given full autonomy to stop any screening under these principles.

In 1930, following the Dandi March of Gandhi, the city of Bombay saw a flurry of political activity that broadly came under Namak Satyagraha, or the Salt Civil Disobedience Movement. The activities of the movement ranged from political rallies to the burning of foreign-made clothes and other goods and, most importantly, to making salt out of seawater in defiance of a state-imposed ban. In order to control the public euphoria, the British Police Commissioner of Bombay banned and confiscated the footage of Gandhi’s march shot by the city’s leading film studios. But the banned films resurfaced again in 1937 after the Congress won the elections in eight out of 11 provinces. In 1942, during the Quit India Movement, the British government confiscated and destroyed all the prints and negatives of films on the Independence movement.

The only images of the Dandi March and the ensuing police crackdown, which included the large-scale arrest of satyagrahis in Bombay, that survived were those that some American newsreel companies managed to smuggle out of the country and released in theatres in the United States.

The Ancillaries of the Wars: By the mid-1930s, as editing and sound became widely accessible, the novelty of recording actuality or topical footage waned. Once the “flying dust” and the “crushing waves” settled down, the spectacle of documentary needed another kind of high-speed movement and wars supplied them in plenty. It is difficult to say whether the supply of war images created a market for the spectacle of confrontations or whether the market needed the adrenaline-driven images that wars provided. But how real the demand for such images was can be made out by an 1898 story in America.

In 1898, two cameramen of Vitagraph Company of America went to Cuba to shoot the Spanish-American war. When they came back, they realised that they had not shot the most important part of the war—the Battle of Santiago Bay. The whole city was waiting to see the footage, and admitting to not having shot it would have meant a huge loss of revenue. They bought pictures of the battleships from street vendors selling stills of that war, made them float in a tub of water, put some gunpowder on the top, attached some strings to activate them and made smoke out of cigars. The person who was smoking the cigar, the wife of one of the men, was not a smoker and could not provide a continuous flow of smoke. So the battlefield did not look as dense as it should have been. Still, they composed the battle scene, shot it and made it run in public screenings for months. That, most probably, was the first instance of special effect cinema. And, most probably, that was also the first instance of documentary’s uneasy relationship with “reality” .

In 1940, the Press Office of India under the Ministry of Information (MoI), London, produced in collaboration with the native studio Wadia Movietone He is in the Navy and Planes of Hindustan and, with Bombay Talkies, A Day with an Indian Soldier . These films were dubbed in all the major Indian languages and exhibited commercially all over India. Inspired by their success, the MoI got into full-fledged documentary production in India by forming the Film Advisory Board (FAB),with J.B.H. Wadia of Wadia Movietone studio at the helm of affairs. He was later joined by the British documentarist Alexander Shaw as chief producer. The FAB roped in all the leading film studios and distributors in Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and Lahore as members of the board and affiliated bodies. One of the remarkable films from this initiative was Here Comes a Letter (1941)—about a letter from home to the frontier.

Shaw was trained under the British pioneer John Grierson, the self-proclaimed modernist and pedagogue. Wadia was a follower of the radical humanist M.N. Roy. Although both of them were committed to the anti-fascist thrust of the War, they were not particularly geared towards war propaganda. As a result, the FAB made some subversive productions along with the standard war propaganda in the next three years, and the series was called India Today . Most of the India Today films were mainly anthropological and, ironically, asserted the prevalent notion that Indian society was primitive and in need of development through colonial rule. In 1942, the young Turk of Indian cinema, V. Shantaram, was appointed chief producer of the FAB. He had already made his acclaimed films for Prabhat Studio— Sairindhi , Manoos and Duniya na Mane . During his tenure, FAB productions acquired much finesse. Stalwarts such as Ezra Mir and K.A. Abbas worked for the FAB in this phase.

For the more direct task of training new recruits in the armed forces and to boost the morale of the force, documentaries were made by the Army Film Centre. This unit produced 170 films in 1943 and 290 in 1944. Most of the directors and technicians who would later serve in the Films Division of independent India were first trained in this outfit. Following the escalating popularity of the Independence movement and the strategic war alliance with the U.S., the British government disbanded the FAB and initiated Information Films of India for war interest and Indian News Parade for sociological and anthropological purposes. All the exhibitors in the country were made to screen films produced for Indian News Parade under the Defence of India Act. American newsreel companies had long been publicising the Independence struggle of India and in the process facing much hostility from the British authorities. After the U.S. joined the Allied forces, it became difficult to deny these newsreel companies access to events taking place on Indian soil. To counter this phenomenon, the British government accelerated its own newsreel productions and screened them forcefully.

In 1944, at Victoria Dock in Bombay, a spectacular accident took place. An anchored British-American cargo ship carrying cotton bales, ammunition and gold bars caught fire and exploded, destroying 27 ships, killing around 800 people, and raining gold into obscure households in distant areas. The military officers confiscated the footage shot by the independent cameraman Sudhish Ghatak (brother of Ritwik Ghatak), and the official coverage by Indian News Parade was widely distributed instead. Moreover, in order to safeguard their own newsreel production during the War years, the government imposed restrictions on the use of raw film stock by private productions. Facing a resource crisis, the number of private studio productions fell considerably and that made the studios stop production of newsreels and documentaries.

Each war displaces a whole lot of people but sometimes also replaces certain people in the most unexpected ways. Paul Zils, a young German film-maker, was arrested by the Allied army in Indonesia in 1940 while he was working on a commissioned project for the American studio Paramount. When the Japanese army came close to Indonesia, German prisoners of war were shipped to a prison camp in Bihar. Noticing Zils’ inherent artistic skills, the British government released him on the condition that he work for Information Films of India. After the War, Zils stayed back in India and went on to become a major figure for the non-state-sponsored documentary film-makers in independent India. He became the first president of the Indian Documentary Producers’ Association, in 1956.

Documentary of the Independent Nation

When India became independent, there was no state infrastructure to document the ceremony on film. In the weeks following August 15, 1947, three documentaries made from assorted footage of the Independence Day ceremony shot by private initiatives were released in Delhi, Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. The legendary “Tryst with Destiny” speech on film was later acquired by the state from private producers. This could happen because the Central Legislative Council, while taking charge in April 1946, demanded to close down Information Films of India and Indian News Parade, as they were mainly tools of British interests.

But soon after Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru realised that the newly formed country needed a mechanism to reach out to the vast population which was multilingual, multicultural, unaware of the notion of the nation and state, and mostly illiterate. He took a special interest in reviving the set-up of the former Indian News Parade. The Films Division started in 1948 with a mainstream film producer, Mohan Bhavnani, as chief producer. As if to compensate for the slip on Independence Day, all state functions, public announcements and social initiatives in the 1950s and 1960s were documented and circulated by the Films Division with missionary zeal. The most famous among them, of course, was Nehru inaugurating the Bhakra-Nangal dam in 1955.

The Films Division was set up with the mandate to produce one film a week, with its own battery of technicians, producers, equipment and laboratories. The majority of the films were formally a combination of erstwhile war films and colonial anthropological films.

Trained in Griersonian pedagogical film through Alexander Shaw, military footage shooting through the army initiatives under the MoI, London, and investigative journalism through private American and European newsreel companies, and armed with nationalist rhetoric, the new producers of documentaries in independent India began to travel to the remotest corners of the country to shoot the subjects—the other people—within the Indian state. The trajectory was fixed: the vast, top-angle shots of the land (made so popular by the war films),where human beings are part of one linear category, and the close shots of detailed picturisation of alien customs and people (an anthropological-ethnographical device) were held in alternative shots. The wide, top-angle shots are for the authenticity of locales that are not part of the mainland. The closer shots are for anthropological curiosity, presenting a few chosen details of the others who exist outside the normative practices. A god’s voice as commentary helped the audience read through the images: the Mizo drum, the Rajasthani colour, the Kathakali costume, the Kashmiri landscape, the Banjara attires, and the benevolent state. The first set of films was made in English, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and Telugu.

In 1949, the independent government too made exhibition of a minimum of 1,000 feet of “approved documentaries” compulsory under the Cinema Licensing Rule. In addition, censorship categories, “A” for Adults and “U” for Unrestricted, were introduced and censorship was brought under Central jurisdiction. In 1948-56, owing to a shortage of cement and other building materials, the Central government announced a freeze on the construction of movie theatres as part of a move to curtail the construction of “non-essential buildings”. However, unaccounted money accumulated in the port cities of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras got pumped into the feature film industry, prompting a collapse of the studio system. With the death of the large studios, non-state newsreel productions by independent film-makers came to an end. In 1957, film raw stock was declared an essential commodity and came under the control of the state. Through all these developments, the mainstream film industry and its audience (who were already fatigued by the war propaganda) got into an antagonistic relationship with the state. And documentary came to be thought of as being part of the state apparatus. In 1954–55, compulsory exhibition of approved documentaries was held unlawful by the Andhra Pradesh High Court and the Supreme Court. But the state did not withdraw the mandate.

But within the state mandate, certain subversive voices started arising in the late 1960s. As the disillusionment following Independence settled in, some Films Division film-makers, such as S.N.S. Sastri, S. Sukhdev and Pramod Pati, overshot the overtly nation-making mandate and produced some critical films. The various tendencies that would develop in later decades in independent documentaries can be traced in their works. It can also be said that they finally took the Films Division gharana out of the newsreel mode and into the documentary format. However, this burst of independent energy within the Films Division came to an end in the face of the declaration of Emergency in 1975 when the entire organisation kowtowed to the fascist regime. After that phase, the Films Division fell into insignificance, both within the state and in the public mindset.

Besides the in-house films, there was a scheme of producing works of independent film-makers under the banner of the Films Division. Within this scheme, eminent film-makers such as Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, Satyajit Ray, G. Aravindan and Shyam Benegal; the film historian Chidanand Dasgupta; and visual artists such as Tyeb Mehta and M.F. Husain made films for the Films Division in the late 1960s to the late 1980s. These films are broadly regarded as the phase of avant-garde in Indian documentaries. But documentary was not the primary interest for these film-makers and thus their contributions to the field remained sporadic. Similar films were also produced by the Ministry of External Affairs and later by Doordarshan. Most of these films were either biographical or on visual and performance art forms. Although the participation of these eminent film-makers brought the Films Division some credibility, it could not help bring down the rising political opposition to the element of blatant state propaganda. But, these films entered the emerging arena of the curriculum of film institutes and film societies and induced a greater awareness among the next generation of film-makers of the politics of forms and aesthetics choice.

Documentary and the Language of Politics

Along with the political upheaval of the 1970s, another phenomenon helped in building the repertoire of political documentary in India—the access to film technology. Smaller models of the 16 mm camera and the possibility of smuggling in raw stock made it possible for film-makers to venture into non-institutionalised film-making. Soon after the notion of nation-state was significantly challenged by the naxalite movement and other organised political formations of Left and left-of-centre ideologies, independent political documentaries of the region were born. Famine was shot, so was homelessness. State atrocities, migration, women victims of domestic and sexual violence, issues of land ownership, etc., became pivotal themes. Goutam Ghose, Utpalendu Chakrabarty, Anand Patwardhan, Mira Nair, Suhasini Mulay and Tapan Bose were some of the significant names of that era. They all came from a certain political background. They knew their subjects, their terrains. They wanted to make films to prove and disseminate what they already knew as truth. In the process, they laid out facts in front of the audience in order to build public opinion. They had the kind of confidence in their arguments to hold a mid-shot of the interviewees for minutes. These films were mainly edited on the dialogue tracks, polemics being supreme.

The myth of the benevolent state was duly shattered. But these films did something interesting to the aesthetics of documentaries and also the way that people viewed them. They revisited the issue of authenticity. In a way, it was a war of authenticities. As against the classical anthropology of the Films Division, a genre of political anthropology began. But the format and the aesthetics remained broadly the same. In some sense this genre depended heavily on the aesthetics of the very ideology that it had set out to oppose. Framed differently, this genre of film-making made a new practice of anthropological subjects: away from the alien people of the exotic land, it was the victim of the nation-state who came under the lens. The Griersonian model of factual and pedagogical cinema, where an individual is only a prototype of his class and the audience is only a passive pupil, still prevailed. There was always a triangle: of the film-maker who collates and presents the facts, the protagonist who is the fact, and the audience who receives the fact.

There was another problem. As far as private screening was concerned, the opportunities were few and far between. Besides, ordinary people, after being exposed to compulsory viewing of inane documentaries of the Films Division, had become allergic to the word documentary. Hence, only a privileged/elite/politicised audience viewed the documentaries of the 1970s and 1980s. Some film-makers, though, travelled around the country with a film projector and cans of films on their shoulders. But every film-maker could not be that militant and thus got lost in the oblivion. By the 1980s, the film society movement became very popular in India. But even their members strongly resented documentary films for being low on aesthetics and for being didactic.

The next phase began in the late 1980s. In a deliberate attempt to move away from the polemics of the state, a genre of documentary evolved which prioritised the chronicle of a protagonist over the testimony of a victim. There have been distinct attempts to place the ordinariness of an ordinary individual at the centre of the argument. The protagonists of these films are not the Films Division models—subjects of the benevolent state—nor are they simple victims of state oppression. Instead, they are portrayed as citizens of the nation around myriad issues—violence, identity, shelter, sexuality, creativity, rights, migration, development, hunger and fringe existence.

One prominent trend in this genre has been to give a lot of space to the protagonist and not try to capture her/him in some fleeting moments of absolute truth. In this genre, there is a candid recognition that what we are seeing is also a kind of performance on the part of the protagonist. The text to read is not what the protagonist is, but how she/he desires us to conceive her/him. The validity of the protagonist and the authenticity of the films do not come from the proven actuality but from the artistic blending of these people’s memories and desires. In some senses it displaces the “fact” for the sake of the “truth”, which emerges through a person’s performance of her/his “self” in front of the camera. Allowing the protagonist to do that and allowing the audience to see through that are part of the formal development in this phase. So there is a distinct shift from the “victim” narrative to a proactive role in constituting the “citizen”—the citizen who is constantly being made in interaction between the memory of the past and the desire for the future. The audience is invited to participate along with the film-maker to constitute the “citizen” out of these dense and playful interfaces between document and performance.

Many of these film-makers are women; an overwhelming number of the protagonists are also women. But it has quite smoothly and non-aggressively surpassed the confines of the domestic space while portraying the female protagonists. Once out of the need to prove the validity of the choice by establishing the victim status of the protagonists (a common phenomenon in the 1980s and before), the film-makers could place the gender issue at the centre of the map of the nation/state and citizenship.

As we talk…

Since the advent of the video in the 1990s and then digital technology, the number of documentary film-makers has been rising by the day. The films, in general, display all of the above-mentioned tendencies and ideologies. The finance for these films comes from foreign television channels; the Doordarshan-Public Service Broadcasting Trust; development agencies; dedicated documentary funding from developed countries, universities and other academic institutions, museums and art establishments; or they are self-financed.

In 1992, the Films Division surfaced again, not as a producer in any significant way but as the organiser of the Mumbai International Film Festival for Documentary, Short and Animation Films (MIFF). The festival, barring a serious protest against state control during the Bharatiya Janata Party regime in 2004, has managed to gain the trust of independent film-makers. For the first time, a sense of community has developed among the disparate set of film-makers through watching each other’s films and also through exposure to other international trends. This was followed by Film Southasia in Nepal, beginning in 1997, and the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala in Thiruvananthapuram in 2007. In 2004, in response to the insidious state intervention in the selection of films for the MIFF, independent film-makers got together to initiate a platform called Vikalp—Films for Freedom. Currently, Vikalp editions in many cities hold regular public screenings at borrowed venues.

With the digital facility, the MIFF could be replicated in various sizes and forms all over the country without much institutional support. And suddenly, by the middle of the next decade, there could be documentary festivals in Gorakhpur, Srinagar, Kozhikode, Patna, Madurai, Udaipur, Shantiniketan, Pune, Chandigarh… and we are counting. These festivals will replace the former film societies in community life.

A common question that every documentary film-maker is asked during the post-screening QnA is: Who watches your film? Over the years I have learnt to reply: As many people as that who read a good book.

Madhusree Dutta is a film-maker and curator of Project Cinema City, an interdisciplinary show to commemorate 100 years of Indian cinema. The shows ran at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. She is the executive director of Majlis, a centre for rights discourse and multidisciplinary art initiatives.


1. Smith, Albert E. (1998): “Taking the Camera to the War” in Kevin Macdonald and Mark Cousins (ed.), Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary (Faber and Faber, London).

2. Information on the Film Advisory Board (FAB), Army Film Centre, Indian News Parade and Information Films of India is sourced from Garga, B.D. (2007): From Raj to Swaraj: The Non-fiction Film of India (Penguin-Viking, India).

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