Documenting reality

Print edition : November 13, 2015

"Celluloid Man", a documentary on P.K. Nair.

A poster of "An American in Madras".

Anand Patwardhan filming the agitation organised by the Carbon Malineekarana Virudha Samithi on the day it completed 1,000 days at Karimugal in Kochi. A file picture. Photo: Johney Thomas

Reena Mohan. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Deepa Dhanraj. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

Rakesh Sharma deals with a wide range of themes. Photo: Anu Pushkarna

Satyajit Ray. His felicity with the motion picture extended to the documentary.

The book is perhaps the most comprehensive commentary yet on India’s independent documentary films and is a vital and timely document that brings to the limelight the chroniclers of untold stories.

THE story of the independent documentary film-maker is one of struggle at various levels. Working outside the mainstream, he/she has to contend with the problems of financial constraints, a limited audience, the language of communication, the fear of offending certain sections of society, and, in many significant cases, battling censorship and taking on the establishment. The odds are always stacked against the film-maker.

Despite these factors, or perhaps, in some ways, because of them, the independent documentary in India has emerged as one of the most important and powerful voices within the world of the moving image because it offers an alternative to commercial mainstream cinema and its fictional universes and narratives that are largely removed from realities. It is also one of the few channels, or possibly the only one, where the creator makes a conscious attempt to show the unseen, talk about the marginalised or remind society of forgotten or dying traditions.

In a society where signal is constantly being drowned out by noise, dominated as it is by the fantasy peddled by movies and television, promotional and propagandist elements masquerade as truth, and content and advertising have become interchangeable, the independent documentary serves the crucial function of dispelling the fog surrounding the reality.

Charting the evolution of the independent documentary movement in the country and piecing together its various icons and achievements, the book under review serves the equally important function of bringing to the limelight the chroniclers of untold stories and celebrating their achievements. It is also essential reading for anyone interested in exploring the world beyond commercial cinema in India.

The author, Shoma A. Chatterji, a freelance journalist and film scholar who has been writing on films since the 1980s, has drawn upon a wealth of experience of watching films and interviewing film-makers to put together this milestone in film writing.

As she correctly points out in a lengthy and thorough introduction, the independent documentary is “the most dynamic ongoing form of cinema” in the world and India in particular. And nowhere is this more evident than in the works of people like Anand Patwardhan, the torchbearer of the movement whose seminal work, Bombay: Our City (1985), was itself an inspiration that set the author off on a lifelong journey into the world of alternative cinema; Sanjay Kak; Joshy Joseph; Nilita Vachani and Jill Misquitta, to name just a few.

Patwardhan has since gone on to make several notable films, including Ram ke Naam (1992), War and Peace (2002) and Jai Bhim Comrade (2011). He is widely respected for inspiring a generation of film-makers who fearlessly make political statements through their work.

But the documentary movement itself has traversed a great distance since the 1970s and 1980s, when Patwardhan was making a mark in colleges and private screenings. Over the past 40 years, the annals of documentary cinema have been filled with a vast spectrum of works covering a breathtaking array of subject matters, challenging our perceptions of “entertainment”, while simultaneously providing insights into the unknown by touching upon hitherto unexplored themes.

No history of the Indian documentary would be complete without a reference to the legendary Satyajit Ray. The author, fully aware of the significance of Ray’s contributions to the format, devotes an entire chapter to him. The chapter also talks about films on him, such as Goutam Ghose’s Ray (1999) and Shyam Benegal’s Satyajit Ray (1982). The master’s felicity with the motion picture extended to the documentary, as is evident in his works on Benode Bihari Mukherjee, the painter, who was the subject of Ray’s The Inner Eye (1972); Rabindranath Tagore (1961), his tribute to the legendary Bengali poet; or Bala (1976), a glimpse into the world of Balasaraswati, the dancer (which the author does not fail to criticise for falling short in some areas).

The author does not elevate Ray onto a pedestal simply because he was a groundbreaking motion picture director but enunciates why his ventures into the documentary terrain, which form an important part of his oeuvre, are significant, with an insight that informs her assessment of all films through the length of the book. It is this insight that present-day readers and newcomers to the world of documentaries need in a world inundated with information but sorely lacking in curation.

Perhaps the two most important chapters in the book are the ones that deal with milestone makers and the one devoted to women in this niche space. The former lists the most important individuals who have made a lasting impact with their path-breaking milestones. However, it goes far beyond being a listing exercise; rather, it provides an in-depth study of each film-maker and their body of work and the role they have played in shaping the movement. Not surprisingly, it kicks off with an account of Patwardhan and his films, the most recent of which is Jai Bhim Comrade (2011), a powerful commentary on the oppression that Dalits face and their songs of resistance. The chapter extensively explores the work of luminaries such as Rakesh Sharma, Sanjay Kak, Amar Kanwar, Ranjan Palit, Ajay Raina, and Supriyo Sene, and how they dealt with a wide range of themes—be it the struggle in Kashmir, Dalit oppression, the terrible conditions of powerloom workers in Bhiwandi, or the extinction threat to the tiger. It is a testimony to the causes and concerns that film-makers espouse and the issues that they want to create awareness about.

Women film-makers

For a long time women had remained outside the world of documentary cinema, but the arrival of film-makers such as Madhusree Dutta, Reena Mohan, Nilita Vachani, Deepa Dhanraj and Manjira Datta in the 1990s and after changed the scene for ever. Their presence has certainly infused the movement with a much-needed diversity and enriched it through a number of films on a host of issues relating to gender, democracy and human rights.

Film-makers such as Paromita Vohra, whose chief focus is on gender, urban life and popular media, and Reena Mohan, who made the delightful Kamalabai (1992) and is a renowned editor, widened the scope of counter-cinema through their choice of theme and approach, tinged as it is with humour and satire. Even as she painstakingly documents their contributions, the author does not fail to mention a host of women who made impressive debuts but could not make a second film because of financial issues. As in other walks of life, many women film-makers do not get a second chance, and the documentary movement is much the worse for it.

Documentaries have played a significant role in shedding light on the issue of sustainable development. An entire chapter is devoted to works that delve into the issues surrounding equitable distribution of resources, protection of rural livelihoods and improving the quality of life for everyone, and so on.

The films it touches on take us across the length and breadth of the country, from women’s initiatives in Kashmir to the paddy fields of Bihar, from a reserve forest in Odisha to relief camps in Gujarat. One of the most powerful films in this genre is Sunanda Bhatt’s widely-acclaimed Have You Seen the Arana? (2014), which traces the lives and livelihoods of the indigenous people of Kerala’s Wayanad district.

There are various intriguing, influential and politically significant films that are discussed in the author’s lucid narration. Two documentaries bear special mention, for they stand out amid a sea of great stories. The first is on a very important man — Celluloid Man (2012), a homage to the life and times of P.K. Nair, who founded the National Film Archive in 1964, the largest cinema archive in the country. Nair made invaluable contributions to the preservation of Indian film. The story of his travels across the nation to collect and archive footage is as riveting as any celluloid yarn ( Frontline, May 31, 2013).

The other is An American in Madras (2013), a voyage back in time to the earliest days of the Tamil talkie, when Ellis R. Dungan, an American, made some of the biggest blockbusters of Tamil cinema. He introduced to Tamil cinema the legendary M.G. Ramachandran, who would later rule the silver screen and also become Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, and pioneered various directing and cinematographic techniques ( Frontline, January 10, 2014). Both these films are testimony to the power of the documentary and how they can illuminate the lives of forgotten people and their untold stories that will resonate with generations to come. The book is an integral part of the movement. Although the author claims it is not exhaustive, it is easily the most comprehensive collection yet of articles on India’s independent documentaries.

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