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Bold new cinema arrives with untold stories

Saibal Chatterjee, New Delhi

Published: Dec. 03, 2015
Updated: Jan. 25, 2016

A few years ago when Haobam Paban Kumar, then a student of the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI) in Kolkata, would return to Imphal for his holidays, the neighbourhood would be agog with excitement. He was the only one in the locality who had anything to do with making films. “Back then, I would get special treatment. Today every neighbour in Imphal seems to be a filmmaker,” he says.

What is true of Imphal is true of many other parts of the country. Independent documentary cinema in India has indeed received a dramatic shot in the arm in recent years thanks to the infusion of young blood. The ranks of aspiring filmmakers have swelled all over India as they find that access to the medium has become less cumbersome than ever before.

Easy-to-handle digital cameras, computers loaded with user-friendly editing software and an increasing number of funding agencies have empowered a new pool of talent to turn to documentary filmmaking as a means of narrating untold stories and exposing the myriad social and political ills that beset this land. India's indie documentaries, both in terms of substance and approach, have acquired a new vitality and sense of purpose.


But that certainly doesn't mean that the problems facing independent documentary filmmakers have vanished altogether. One, equitable availability of funds is still a major stumbling block and the medium remains largely an elitist pursuit. Two, the exhibition network has yet to acquire the requisite reach even as trusts and foundations in Delhi and elsewhere do their bit to streamline the distribution of these films. Three, the big city-small town divide continues to be yawning. And last but not least, a myopic interpretation of archaic censorship laws poses a huge challenge to documentary films, especially those that seek to articulate uncomfortable, unspeakable truths about the Indian reality.

Says Ranchi-based documentary filmmaker Shriprakash: “There is still little financial support available for those working outside the metros. The funding structure needs to change. The process of democratisation has to be hastened in order to link the movement to the Internet and other new modes of distribution.”

“Money isn't available,” he asserts, “for young filmmakers in small towns and villages. Even if a boy here does manage to make a film, marketing it is virtually impossible. This domain is still in the control of big media players in the urban centres. So it's still a race between a thoroughbred Arab horse and a donkey.” Shriprakash himself belongs to a family of peasants and grew up in a village.

Shriprakash, whose films include a series of hard-hitting exposes on the horrific impact of a lopsided development model on the indigenous population of Jharkhand, is, however, quick to admit that he has been able to do all his work out of Ranchi. “Thanks to the new filmmaking and communication technologies that are now available, I do not have to go to Delhi or Mumbai to make my films,” he adds.

One of Shriprakash's early films, Another Revolt, made in 1995, dealt with the struggle of the tribals of Jharkhand against the Koel Karo dam, the first such movement in India against dams and the displacement caused by them. Since then, he has made films like Buddha Weeps in Jadugoda on the effects on local communities of uranium mining and the dumping of radioactive waste; The Fire Within about how a century and half of coal mining has played out in the benighted lives of Jharkhand's tribals; and Kiski Raksha (Whose Defence?), which exposed how an army firing range in Netarhat could have destroyed Adivasi homes.

“I have never claimed that I am out to change the system,” he says. “But I do use the medium to whatever extent I can to support people's movements.” Two of these movements – the ones against the Koel Karo dam and the aborted Netarhat army firing range – have yielded results, illustrating as much the power of the people as the efficacy of documentary films as a vehicle of protest.

film, Eer – Stories in Stone, produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT), traces the oral history traditions of various Adivasi communities of India – Mundas and Hos in Jharkhand, Ramnamis in Chhattisgarh, Bhils in Madhya Pradesh, the Warli tribals in Maharashtra and the Banjaras of the Gujarat-Rajasthan border.

Eer – the title is a Bhillari word loosely meaning gatha or story – isn't, on the surface, an activist film of the kind that Shriprakash is associated with. But it is certainly of a piece with the critical work that he has done in documenting the lives, cultures and memories of those whose voices are rarely heard in the mainstream media, dominated as it is by urban filmmakers who have had a middle class upbringing. “I've done enough activism in my time,” says Shriprakash.” Eer was an opportunity for me to do something different.”

Paban Kumar, by his own admission, is not an activist filmmaker. But like Shriprakash, several years his senior, he is today able to ply his trade from his hometown in Manipur and reflect upon the political situation there. But it took him several years to break into SRFTI. Paban Kumar worked with veteran Manipuri filmmaker and cultural doyen Aribam Syam Sharma for six years before he passed the admission test and joined the Union government-run Kolkata institute.


In his second year there, in 2004, he was back in Imphal for a break when 32-year-old activist Thangjam Manorama Devi, branded a member of the separatist People's Liberation Army, was raped and killed by the paramilitary Assam Rifles and the resultant outrage snowballed into a full-fledged street civil disobedience movement demanding a repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958.

“It was a watershed incident. Manorama Devi was the first woman ever to be killed in custody by the armed forces. With the help of a journalist friend (Sunzu Bachaspatimayum, also a filmmaker himself), I began to record the events as they unfolded and the public anger that spilled over on to the streets. It was like a video diary. I did not have a full-fledged film in mind at that point,” recalls Paban Kumar.

The random recordings eventually yielded a powerful feature-length documentary, AFSPA 1958, which instantly catapulted the young documentary maker and the cause he was espousing into the global limelight. Not only did the 2006 film fetch Paban Kumar the highest national recognition – Swarn Kamal for the best non-feature of the year (making him the first Manipuri director ever to win the honour) – a rough-cut version of the film, Cry in the Dark, made for a foreign TV network, travelled to the Toronto International Film Festival and many other events around the world.

The SRFTI grad's march has continued unabated since then, with another National Award coming his way in 2010 for his next documentary, Mr India. The film is the story of a remarkable man, Khundrakpam Pradip Kumar Singh, who learnt a decade ago that he was HIV-positive but went on against all odds to become a champion bodybuilder.

Paban Kumar is now working on a documentary about three generations of a family of Nupshabis, the female impersonators of Shumang Lila, a form of traditional Manipur courtyard theatre in which men don the guise of women. “The shoot is over and the film is in post-production,” he says. This film will mark a return for the young filmmaker, who is also currently working on the screenplay of a feature film, to the cultural documentary territory on which his mentor, Aribam Syam Sharma, stamped his authority through a body of work made up of both critically acclaimed fiction films and evocative documentaries about Manipur art and dance forms.

whose cinematic output was minuscule until the last decade, now produces 60 to 70 digital feature films every year, besides a huge number of documentaries and short films. “Cultural documentaries were once the norm in Manipur,” says Paban Kumar. “Today, more and more young filmmakers are dealing with contemporary political issues in their work.”

Of course, when Paban Kumar shot AFSPA 1958, it attracted no attention worth the name from the security forces, working as he did with an unobtrusive digital camera. “But now the armed forces personnel are far more conscious of cameras,” he says.

Paban Kumar could well be talking about all of India. Independent documentary films have proliferated all around the country, and not just in the metropolises, where resources are still largely concentrated. The themes of many of these films are driven by a spirit of activism although not every filmmaker in this space is necessarily comfortable carrying the ‘activist' tag.


“In the wake of the digital revolution,” says Kolkata-based Supriyo Sen, who has seven internationally feted titles behind him, “the independent documentary movement has acquired a new vitality and dynamism with films being made in small towns and rural areas on a wide variety of subjects.”

He points out that a new audience for documentary films is emerging in the big cities in India although its size is still pretty small by global standards. “We show our films only to a select group of people: friends, cineastes and members of civil society. It's all over with 10 to 15 screenings in all,” he laments.

Sen, of course, hasn't so far had to depend too much on the domestic circuit for survival. His latest film, Wagah, made as part of a commission from the Berlin Film Festival to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, questions the relevance of the border that separates India and Pakistan. The film views the daily ritual of the closing of the border gates, seen through the eyes of three children who sell DVDs to the visitors who stream in every day to watch the extraordinary spectacle.

Sen, a journalism graduate from Kolkata University who is now preparing to mount his first fiction film, began his professional life as a freelance scribe before venturing into filmmaking in the mid-1990s. “A border has a special resonance for me,” he says, “because I am from a family of refugees.”

The subjective and the informative coalesce in Sen's films in subtle ways. In Way Back Home (1999), he traces his parents' journey back to Borishal, Bangladesh, where they grew up, and in Hope Dies Last in War, he focuses on the story of Indian PoWs stranded in Pakistan since the 1971 war and the struggle of their families to locate them in the hope of bringing them back.

Interestingly, none of Sen's seven documentaries has been funded in India, nor have any of them been telecast on Doordarshan. “I've made a living entirely by making films and all my funding has come from abroad,” he says, alluding perhaps to the apathy that documentary makers still face in India. “Documentary films tend to be political in nature. That is perhaps why state funding for such films is limited at best,” he says.

Over the years, Sen has received financial backing from the Sundance Documentary Fund, Jan Vrijman Fund of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) and the Asian Cinema Fund of the Pusan International Film Festival, among others.


For Pune's Suparna Gangal, too, the urge to make films sprang from purely personal impulses. The management graduate-turned-filmmaker, who assisted Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni during the making of the successful Marathi feature film, Valu, trains her camera on the inequities that surround her in a city that is in the midst of an economic boom and fuelling rapid urban expansion.

Gangal, a former HR professional, has been making films for eight years but without depending on external agencies for funding. “I do corporate films and documentaries for clients and use part of the earnings to fund my own films,” says the filmmaker, who has obviously benefitted from her MBA degree. It's a self-sustaining model that allows her to create documentary content through small films as a launch pad to bigger projects.

Urali Devachi – A Living Hell, a six-minute film about a village 25 km from Pune that has been turned into a dumping ground for the mountains of solid waste that the burgeoning city generates, has brought her into the spotlight. A UN agency now wants her to make a longer version of the film but she is still in two minds on whether she wants to go down that path or explore other options that lie ahead.

Urali Devachi village was once a very fertile area known for its onion produce. Today, due to its proximity to the overflowing dumping ground, it is a toxic wasteland where malaria and dengue are a constant threat. “While Pune prospers, its surrounding areas suffer,” the film asserts, capturing the essential dichotomy of the development model that urban, middle class India seems to favour.

Yet another short film made by Gangal, Life Goes On..., homes in on an ageing ragpicker couple who collect trash from outside an upmarket Pune hospital and expose themselves on a daily basis to life-threatening health hazards. They are aware of the danger but are too poor to forgo the `100 they make every day.

Gangal is now researching for a documentary on the situation in Kashmir. “It will obviously contain political elements but will essentially document the situation in the Valley from the point of view of the common people of Kashmir,” she reveals.

For Gangal, the explosion of activity in the independent documentary space is a godsend. “It is wonderful to see the dramatic increase in the number of young people making documentary films: the more, the merrier. It is like when you want to produce a sporting champion, your chances of getting one improves if you have a pool of talent that is large and constantly replenished.”

That is certainly happening in India's independent documentary cinema. Filmmakers are increasingly tackling themes and issues that rarely find space in the mainstream media. And in doing so, they are coming into conflict with the censors, who continue to place major hurdles in the way of getting these films out into the public domain. It is a battle that old hands like Anand Patwardhan and Rakesh Sharma, both of whom have dealt with the rise of rightwing politics and communalism, have fought for years for the filmmaker's freedom of expression.

As the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), the government-mandated body that sits in judgment on the suitability of films for public viewing, continues to apply antiquated laws that have been overtaken by the constant evolution of technology, film makers like Patwardhan and Sharma have had running battles with the establishment. Governments come and go, but the control mechanism stays firmly in place.

During the reign of the NDA at the Centre, CBFC had ordered nearly 20 cuts on Patwardhan's anti-war, anti-nuclear documentary Jung aur Aman (War and Peace). He appealed to the Mumbai High Court. He won the right to screen his film without a single deletion. During the same period, Sharma's film, The Final Solution, an exploration of the politics of hate in the light of the Gujarat riots of 2002, was banned. It saw the light of day only after the NDA went out of power.

Nothing has changed several years down the line. Ashvin Kumar, nominated for an Oscar in 2005 for his short fiction film, Little Terrorist, is currently fighting to rid his new feature-length documentary, Inshallah, Football, of the ‘A' certificate slapped on it by CBFC, headed by veteran actress Sharmila Tagore. The argument put forth by her is that the film contains “graphic description of torture” and is, therefore, suitable only for mature viewers. She has, however, said that “it's a beautiful film and I want everyone to see it.”

Inshallah, Football narrates the true story of an 18-year-old Kashmiri footballer, Basharat Baba, who struggles to acquire a passport when he is selected by a FIFA-certified Argentine coach to train at Santos Football Club in Brazil and then play professional soccer. It tracks his dreams and frustrations in the face of attempts by the authorities to stymie his promising career only because his father is an ex-militant. Basharat's plight is no different from that of many other Kashmiri youngsters grappling with overwhelming prejudice and lack of opportunities.

So, Inshallah, Football isn't just one boy's story. It is also the story of a man, Basharat's father, who believed in the cause of azadi and was willing to go the whole hog to achieve his goal, even if that meant joining a militant training camp on the other side of the border and taking up arms. It is also the story of an incredible football coach, Juan Marcos Troia, who lives and works in Srinagar with the sole purpose of identifying and promoting talented Kashmiri footballers.

“An ‘adults only' certificate for Inshallah, Football defeats its very purpose,” says Kumar, who was born in Kolkata, grew up in Delhi and now lives in Goa. “It is only a genteel critique of what's going on in the Valley. But it is also, importantly, targeted at children around India so that they can see what children in Kashmir are thinking.”

Officially, the CBFC has informed Kumar that Inshallah, Football has “characters talking about graphic details of physical and mental torture they had to undergo” and that “the theme of the film is mature and some dialogues can be psychologically damaging for non-adult audiences.” On his part, Kumar, in a blog addressed to Ms Tagore, has asserted that the real purpose of this censorship is to avoid causing embarrassment to the Indian government with regard to the conduct of the Indian armed forces in Kashmir.

In his open letter to the CBFC chief, Kumar has accused her of appropriating powers that far exceed her mandate. “This is why you find yourself defending conservatism and championing regression and devolution. This is illustrated by your pronouncement that the ‘censor board will work in the same manner as it has been working and it's not going to back',” the filmmaker has written.

“If this is to be taken seriously,” Kumar goes on, “it would appear that your organisation has no qualms in openly declaring that its philosophy, purpose and mandate is to remain stagnant while the society to which you are ultimately responsible becomes increasingly dynamic...”

 “I have appealed against the certification. I have received an acknowledgment from the Delhi censor board, but am still awaiting a final decision,” he says. Questioning the very logic behind the CBFC decision to restrict the film's viewership to adults, he asserts that Inshallah, Football is simply a fervent appeal for humanity to prevail in the Valley.

Interestingly, another of Kumar's films, Dazed in Doon, set in Doon School, is facing similar suppression from the school authorities who commissioned the film in the first place but are now determined to prevent its distribution because it is not in line with what they consider appropriate. “It is sad that the Doon School authorities, who should be leading the way in the fight for artistic freedom, are themselves as intolerant as Sharmila Tagore and her band of censor board members,” says Kumar, himself an old boy of the Dehradun-based school.

Encouragingly, in early March, Bangalore-based documentary film maker Shabnam Virmani won a landmark legal battle when the Delhi High Court ruled that her 100-minute film, Had Anhad, about the relevance of the living traditions of Kabir in today's fractious world, be given appropriate certification. The court also directed the Union government to pay Rs 10,000 to the filmmaker to cover her litigation costs.

Lauding the maker of Had Anhad for her creative diligence, Justice S. Muralidhar said: “The impugned orders dated 28 May, 2010 of the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) and the order of 5 November, 2009 of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) are hereby set aside.”

In June last year, another documentary film, Flames of the Snow, a 125-minute cinematic account of the Maoist movement in Nepal, was denied a certificate by CBFC. The makers appealed against the order and a month later the film was cleared by a CBFC Revising Committee without deletions but with the imposition of a rider that Flames of the Snow would carry a disclaimer that the substance of the film was collated from various media publications.

“That was ridiculous,” says the film's director Ashish Srivastav. “ Flames of the Snow isn't just a collation of what has appeared in the newspapers nor is it only a mere reflection of the makers' point of view. It is a documentary and we could not have put words in people's mouths. The film records what actually happened in Nepal. It was shot in the heart of Maoist camps and contains the views of top political leaders, including the then Nepalese Prime Minister Prachanda.”

Srivastav asserts that his film does not glorify guerrilla violence. “Our aim is to understand the whys and wherefores of a people's movement provoked by over two centuries of monarchy and feudal exploitation,” he adds.

The film, produced and scripted by veteran journalist Anand Swaroop Verma, who has been covering the pro-democracy movement in Nepal since the early 1990s, was released across 42 theatres in the Himalayan country. “For India, we have received enquiries for distribution, but not yet for the theatrical circuit,” says Srivastav.

The independent documentary movement in India is alive and kicking. But multiple obstacles still dog its progress. Many battles have been won. But the war is still on. The happy augury is that those battling for the right to provoke thought and question received wisdom are fighting fit.