The documentary movement in India

Print edition : April 27, 2018

Documentary film-maker Deepa Dhanraj. Photo: K. MURALI KUMAR

Documentary film-maker K.P. Sasi. Photo: Anand Sankar

Documentary film-maker P. Baburaj. Photo: G. MOORTHY

Documentary film-maker R.P. Amudhan. Photo: C.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

Members of the Dongria Khond tribe watching a documentary film on their fight for land rights and protection of the Niyamgiri hills in Kalahandi district of Odisha. A file picture.

The narratives bring to the fore not only the history of documentary film-making in India, but also the various resistance struggles and movements for human rights, gender justice, ecology, right to land, and survival and identity.

AS far as literature on Indian cinema is concerned, the preferences and prejudices are pronounced: first comes Hindi cinema, which is considered “national cinema”; then comes the preoccupation with full-length feature films, followed by its major auteurs.

Although language films constitute the bulk of Indian cinema, only a few books have been written about them in English with a wider audience in mind. Only feature films and film-makers are considered worthy of attention; documentary films, film-makers and movements across the country rarely figure in historical and analytical narratives on films. Added to this lack of scholarly interest in documentaries and people’s cinema movements, which have a long and vibrant history in India, is the lack of documentary evidence. If at all they exist, they lie scattered in the form of brochures and booklets, pamphlets and “manifestos” written in different languages and produced in different parts of the country.

They have not been archived or documented in detail or studied in depth. This, despite the fact that they were and are very much part of various resistance movements and popular struggles in India in the last 50 years; and especially since the advent of digital technology, when the role of documentary films and film-makers became all the more crucial and instrumental in such movements.

Take any major social, political, gender or environmental movement in India, documentary films and film-makers have played a pivotal role in documenting them, and in the process, reached out to a wider audience and produced campaign material for the struggles. In fact, they have been a powerful political tool and documentary evidence that empowered civil society and activists to “talk back to power”.

Although a few scholarly works have come out on Indian documentary films recently, their focus has been more on charting the historical and thematic dimensions of documentary films in India in terms of major film-makers and their landmark films. In the process, many of the grass-roots attempts and diverse streams from the margins found only cursory mention in these writings.

Invaluable source of reference

The reasons for the same are not far to seek. Prominent among them is the lack of documentation and archiving—a gap that can be filled only by willingness to listen to and learn from the margins and the marginalised. This is what Towards a People’s Cinema: Independent Documentary and its Audience in India edited by Kasturi Basu and Dwaipayan Banerjee ventures to do. This book assumes great relevance as an invaluable and much-needed source of reference for film historians, scholars and students on the role of Indian documentaries in resistance movements in India.

The editors are also clear about the challenges before them and the significance of their intervention. According to them, the book is an attempt “to bring under one cover some of the diverse impulses and origins of mental conception, idealism, production motivation, circulation modality, and audience reception in the life of the independent documentary in India”.

This compilation has a threefold purpose in mind: to build a repository of journeys and experiences of collectives and individual practitioners who have created a body of political documentary; to place Indian documentary in historical and material context, and to map and explore spaces and platforms that are attempting to build a democratised practice where dialectical exchange is possible between film-makers, audiences and political-cultural activists.

The collection consists of four sections: Section I titled “History” attempts to delineate the historical and material context of the documentary genre in India from the colonial period to the present. It includes the historical and analytical accounts of Sanjay Kak and Biren Das Sharma, and an autobiographical account by Uma Chakravarthi.

Section II titled “Practice” consists of long conversations with some of the well-known documentary film-makers of the post-Independence era such as Tapan Bose, Anand Patwardhan, Ranjan Palit and Deepa Dhanraj about their life, work and vision.

Section III, “Collectives”, consists of first-person narratives of activist-film-makers and focusses on film movements and activist groups across the country.

The last section, “Legacy”, reproduces two important documents: Tapan Sen’s treatise on Chitra Chetana that elaborates on a radical film moment in the Indian documentary movement, where a collective of young film-makers used the Super-8 camera as a tool of political resistance in West Bengal immediately after the Emergency; and Anand Patwardhan’s thesis, “A Critique and a Case Study of ‘Waves of Revolution’”.

The sections Practice and Collectives make scintillating and informative reading; if the first recounts the experiences of veterans in the field, the second consists of “reports from the field”. They are notes and first-person accounts of film-makers and activists such as Deepu, Meghnath, Sanjay Joshi, Manoj Kumar Singh, Subrat Kumar Sahu, Rinchin and Maheen of Ektara Collective, and Pulkit Phillip and Mohammed Ghani of Jan Cinema. They reminisce about cinema as a medium for political articulation, intervention and agitation, their evolution in both political and cinematic terms, their changing relationship with the audience, and the challenges they faced and are facing now.

As these narratives have not yet been systematically chronicled so far, they provide interesting insights into the points of intersection between documentary film-making and political action, and about the specific challenges—political and aesthetic, organisational and ideological—faced by different movements, and the evolution of personal styles and regional genres.

Interestingly, even while addressing “local” issues and fighting local battles, they all connect at a pan-Indian level as they share the same concerns and fight the same enemies, though in different guises. Together, all these documentaries and film-makers constitute a grand coalition of artists and movements across the country arguing and fighting for freedom, secularism, democracy and justice.

The story unfolds in the form of personal narratives that give a kind of insider’s account of documentary movements in remote regions, and despite severe limitations of financial resources, lack of public and media support, lack of access to technology and expertise, and, most importantly, in the face of brutal state oppression.

This is the story of how Indian documentaries, monopolised for ages by statist propaganda churned out by the Films Division of India in rigid formats, evolved into a vibrant people’s movement that voiced and imaged the protests, aspirations and demands of the oppressed, facilitating and empowering them to interrogate and critique institutions, programmes, “development” projects and policies of both the oppressive state and the rapacious corporate bodies.

For each film-maker, it is a personal journey of discovery, both about politics and about aesthetics. For instance, this is how Surya Shankar Dash from Odisha describes his experience of filming while standing with the people: “When you are surrounded by nothing less than thousands of policemen (Odisha Military Police, Greyhounds, COBRA, Central Reserve Police Force, India Reserve Battalion, Indo-Tibetan Border Force, Special Police Officers) armed to the teeth (bullet-proof vests, helmets, visors, fiber glass shields, riot gear, etc.) and aiming guns at you (soft guns, non-fatal pellet guns, real guns, .303s tear gas) and no sign of Indian democracy (district administration is cheering the police on loudspeaker), you are most unlikely to stand there and aim your video camera at them and start filming…. If you know that you have committed no wrong, you are standing on your own land, and the police will shoot you even if you run, you might actually do that, so somehow reality is not obfuscated by propaganda” (Repression Diary).

These film-maker-activists come from different social and economic backgrounds: many of them like Deepu (“politically-confused post-globalised youth” as his peers described him), Surabhi Sharma and Manojkumar Singh come from cities and towns, while many others are from remote villages and tribal communities.

While the cinema journeys of some of them began with film festivals and film society screenings, for others, it was an extension of their political activity, and a process of learning by doing, where their subject—people fighting injustice—became their guides and mentors.

Unlike “festival circuit film-makers”, the challenges here are in finance, production, aesthetics and technology, and in reaching out to people, who are the subject as well as the creators of the film. For many film-makers, it was a journey of self-realisation—that film-making was not merely about self-expression, but also, or more, about giving body and voice, evidence and tools, to people struggling for justice.

So, if some film-makers discovered the aesthetics of politics, others found in it a reinvention of the politics of aesthetics.

These narratives bring to the fore not only the history of documentary film-making in India, but also the various resistance struggles and movements for human rights, gender justice, ecology, the right to land, and survival and identity.

An ongoing project

The book covers only the documentary movements from northern India. Glaringly missing are documentary film-makers, movements and collectives from the south, especially initiatives such as the Odessa collective, and film-makers such as K.P. Sasi, C. Sarathchandran, P. Baburaj, Ramani, R.P. Amudhan and Chalam Bennurakar. The editors admit that this is an ongoing project that needs to be expanded and enriched to include similar experiences, experiments and initiatives from other parts of the country. In spite of these limitations, the book is a great achievement and a significant contribution to the documentary movement.

For, it not merely chronicles events but provides an inspiring account of a movement of national scale. By affirming the critical mass that Indian documentaries have achieved both in terms of numbers and in terms of political experience, this book can trigger informed debates and a search for common strategies for collective action.

As Anand Patwardhan articulates in the book: “[A] multiplier effect needs to happen. The films have to be used by community groups, movements and established parties that actually believe in democracy and the politics of reason. Unless they take up cultural resistance as a primary form of the expansion of progressive politics, it won’t happen.”

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