When documentary films get the cinematic treatment

Underlying this is a change in form: many documentaries are having protagonists assume the cinematic hero’s role in substance and performance.

Published : Nov 16, 2023 11:00 IST - 5 MINS READ

A still from While We Watched

A still from While We Watched | Photo Credit: YouTube screen grab

In Clara Kraft Isono’s quiet, searching documentary on the Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, Bawa’s Garden, shown at the recently concluded Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF), Isono observes about one of Bawa’s lakeside hotels—that despite what its imposing structure might suggest, this was not a place meant to be looked at, but one from which to look.

This observation could be extended to the film’s form itself, the documentary, long considered the truth-telling machine, which, under the thumb of Films Division in post-Independent India, with around 8,000 films and news reels in its archives, was largely tied to the state and its priorities, but sometimes produced bursts of aesthetic conviction like Mani Kaul’s Siddheshwari (1989). Largely, however, the idea of a documentary was tied to the stalwart silhouettes of Anand Patwardhan, Rakesh Sharma, Deepa Dhanraj, and Somnath Waghmare,  who were showing ways of viewing a rupturing world as opposed to looking at gleaming objects. 

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Even in intensely personal documentaries like Patwardhan’s latest The World is Family (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam), a moving elegy of his late parents and the Gandhian-Nehruvian world view they reproduced by merely being, the gaze is towards the world, producing a history from which we can draw our sense of self and country; that despite his parents passing away a decade ago, he insists on bringing the timeline forward to the CAA-NRC protests because he is tying the story of his parents to a larger ideological thread that connects them to the lakhs who swarmed the streets in anger, with hope. 

A fragile line between fiction and non fiction

But this is increasingly feeling like a naive, fragile partition, this line drawn between fiction and nonfiction in cinema. The documentary format is undergoing the treatment of cinema, the large, polished perfection of it. Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes, which catapulted Indian documentary filmmaking to the Oscar centre stage, is a prime example of that polish, that glistening surface which had to be scrubbed to be arrived at. It was not the mere act of placing a camera in a space, it was also about producing a space for the camera; there would be re-takes, careful compositions, discussions with his protagonists, lines that were thought of, and poetry that went well with pathos. It produced a film that unsteadied some basic convictions people had about the genre, about the idea of truth, giving us instead a gleaming example of stellar cinema.

Sen is no stranger to these debates. In his debut documentary film, Cities of Sleep, a haunting portrait of sleep shelters in Delhi, he was always honest about the fact that he paid his footloose, unreliable protagonist to participate in his film, something other documentarians consider anathema. 

Another documentary, stellar in composition, ambition, thematic brilliance, and aesthetic rigour, is Sarvnik Kaur’s Against the Tide, on Koli fisherpeople and how some choose to stick to traditional fishing while others fiercely grasp at modern possibilities. Part of the film’s awe is in its staging, its scope, and part in its intimacy, allowing the camera into domestic discussions of debt, marital strife, drunken disagreements. At one point, we see three different perspectives of a conversation inside a car, and there is no trace of either camera, camera person, wires or mics. 

Some filmmakers are uneasy with this polish even as they employ it in their movies. Nishtha Jain, for example, the director of Gulabi Gang and now, The Golden Thread, which also showed at DIFF, insists on breaking this cleanness in her movies. In The Golden Thread, which captures the material lives and dreams of jute workers in fading colonial mills, the camera follows the workers in a snaking movement, from behind, through the jute mill. The workers keep looking back, eyes darting to the camera, unsteadying us, making us feel not like viewers but voyeurs, a discomfort which she as a filmmaker feels but also bestows upon us, the spectators. In her previous film, At My Doorstep (2009), the character who is being followed, walking ahead, looks back at the camera and asks innocently, “Will you go ahead or shall I?”

But this does not mean Jain is averse to polish. The sound design of her film, an exquisite symphony that makes jute scree being swept up feel like cotton brushing against skin, that makes jute dust suspended in air sound like gift paper being crinkled, was produced in a foley studio. 

Underlying this change in style is a change in form—many of these documentaries are interested in pinning down the protagonists through which to view the world, these protagonists taking the form of the filmic hero in both substance and performance. The Ravish Kumar documentary, Vinay Shukla’s While We Watched, a sobering, melancholic portrait of a moral spine in a collapsing world, took the chance of reducing Kumar’s surrounding world to antagonists, whitening out the widespread support in his favour, because the lone hero is a more compelling trope, more compelling cinema.  

Many critique these films, wondering if this stylisation is a West-facing phenomenon, with subtitles converting rupees to dollars in films like the fierce Writing with Fire and Against the Tide. When Waghmare says, “I do not follow any elite or Western ideas of film aesthetics—our life struggle is aesthetics,” this is the critique he is tapping into.

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These films are often funded, mentored, and premiere “out there”, in Amsterdam or Toronto or Utah. But the critique fails to recognise that people swarm to spaces that incubate their passions. The passion can be about archiving a moment’s struggles, or it could be about spinning a moment’s struggles into something else, into cinema. 

The discomfort many have with a documentary’s waxy surface is actually a discomfort of and suspicion with cinema, an aversion to enamelled subjectivity. It is also the fear that the domain of “truth” is fast receding, that cinema’s behemoth glitter will bulldoze whatever is left of the conviction that the camera can be not just an instrument, but a weapon too. 

Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online.

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