Though a powerful medium, documentary films face censorship, dearth of finance, and most of all, audience apathy, Puja Goyal reports on the state of Documentary Films in India.
Documentaries have been made in one form or another in nearly every country. Documentary film-makers have made bold and provocative statements through their films, describing their societies, cultures, etc through this relatively mordern medium. Defined as a film or television program, presenting political, social, or historical subject matter in a factual and informative manner and often consisting of actual news, films or interviews accompanied by narration has contributed significantly to the development of realism in films.
In the post- independence era, documentaries have been consistently following the progress and development of the country. In the fifties and sixties they were a medium to educate the masses with the aim of modernization and creation of a democratic culture.
The films were compulsorily featured as a secondary film before the main shows of commercial cinema…. But for the audience this was the time utilized by the audience to get their regular ration of popcorn or was an indicator to make their entry and exit before the main feature started. Filmmaker Sushma Veerappa says… ‘…In those times, the narration of documentary films were predictable and boring. The issues were not looked in black and white.’
The Films Division in India, which was established in the year 1948, by the government of India, commissioned most documentary films. Large sum of money was invested in the making of movies. Films Division of India presently holds more than 8000 titles on Documentaries, Short Films and Animation Films in its archives. These films range from events of Socio-cultural importance to Political events. It was not only done to encourage filmmaking in India but also aimed at the making of movies commensurate with aspects such as agriculture, family welfare and defence. The aim was to record all progress and happening events in the country.
Distribution of these movies would be done through the state governments, National Television (Doordarshan), Department of Family Welfare, educational institutions and voluntary organizations; for distribution. The films Division even holds MIFF every two years to recognize these filmmakers and directors.
Indian documentary had stressed on the collective and has overlooked personal perspectives. Filmmakers had expenses to be covered and spending money imposed on them the necessity to record all political data. The political views had to be rationally evaluated and it preceded the more realist aspects of filmmaking.
Some of the pioneers of documentary filmmaking were Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, who created a secular image that disallowed mythical overloads. Ray captured the rise of the Naxalites in the late sixties, in films like Pratidwandi (1970) and Seemabaddha (1971).
In the 1980’s, it was the invasion of the television and documentary films were used to fill up empty spaces on-air. Documentaries were mostly aired when the viewer ship was the least. Most documentaries were funded by the state, and independent filmmakers were held at its mercy.
The subject chosen by the filmmakers’ consisted of issues that the state thought showed a safer picture of the country. Subjects like culture, art and modernization were popular and the real subjects that were supposed to be documented were ignored. On the bright side there was a boom in independent filmmaking and these independent filmmakers became a medium to provide us with a reality check.
Rahul Roy, a filmmaker since 1987 said in a telephonic interview, that when he started off there were not many people who made documentary films. They had hoped then that with the advent of more television channels, documentary filmmakers would find more avenues to exhibit movies but sadly the opposite happened.
Globalization in the 1990’s resulted in documentary films being a medium that provided radical evidence to investigative reports. These documentaries were made in order to enhance the stories presented by the news channels.
Since most film documentaries were made under the guidance and support of the government, the filmmakers had to adhere to the norms and make films that would commensurate with the government’s image. While in the 1990’s a change was registered. More and more filmmakers started to work independently with the help of foreign funds or personal funds. This resulted in them making movies that spoke of self rather than state. The movies became more public sensitive and started to emphasize more on what is not done instead of what’s already done. There was a phenomenal change in the way a documentary film was perceived. The primary impulse, which was to contribute to political struggles, had now been converted to identifying the self along with the state. A marginal break with tradition had started.
The Scene Now..
The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in August 2003 wanted to make Censor Certificates a mandatory precondition for Indian Documentaries entering into the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF2004). The documentary filmmaking community saw through this and recognized it as an effort initiated by the ministry to exercise control. The right to free speech and creative expression were under threat; in a reaction to this, over 300 Indian documentary filmmakers initiated a ‘Campaign against Censorship’.
The attempt to ‘officially’ censor films entered into MIFF2004 was foiled and the organizers tried ‘unofficial’ techniques by means of manipulating the selection procedure. Films that covered issues like communalism, destructive ‘development’, globalization, women’s rights, and oppression of marginalized communities were rejected.
In February 2004, Mumbai was the seat where a six-day long festival of documentary films under Vikalp: Films for Freedom was held running parallel to MIFF 2004. The festival showed all films that were rejected by MIFF as well as films withdrawn from MIFF by filmmakers.
Controversial subjects have been a part of documentary films from ages, be it the Naxalites in Ray’s film or the rise of the RSS and its Hindutva ideologies (The Men in the tree directed by Lalit Vachani).
The issue of censorship is not new. Filmmakers like Anand Patwardhan, Rakesh Sharma and Rahul Roy have continuously battled this issue. Films like ‘War and Peace’ (directed by Anand Patwardhan) that portrays misplaced patriotism instigated by politicians and ‘The Final Solution’ (directed by Rakesh Sharma) which is a study of the politics of hate and examines the consequences of Hindu-Muslim polarization in the state, have been under constant bombardment even though they have won international acclaim.
Why were these filmmakers taken to task? Why is it that the government felt threatened and responded immediately to the exhibition of these movies with the help of censorship? Anand Patwardhan says, “we need to make a point and that’s what scares them (the government)”. Surabhi Sharma director of Aamakaar adds “maybe the government sees it as a threat”. Surabhi Sharma director of Aamakaar adds “maybe the government feels insecure about these films and sees it as a threat”. Sushma Veerappa reflected on the situation by saying, “There is a lot of policing happening in films and the government wants a singular identity”, Rahul Roy is quick to add, “Freedom of expression was hampered and stifled, the only thing that the board cared about was the films that were critical about the government and later on lots of other subjects were targeted.”
Censorship is not the only issue that filmmakers are facing. Rahul admits that documentary filmmaking is not profit oriented. It involves a lot of hard work and self-initiation. This does not apply to India only but throughout the world… Along with this there is this issue of funding/finance. Surabhi on the other hand does not see it as a problem and believes that through careful planning all the problems can be tackled effectively. The important thing is whether you are passionate about your job.
‘Documentary films do have an audience, but an invisible one’… says Rahul. They’re not staged exorbitantly but in a smaller scale and constitute reaching out to people through schools and colleges, private screening in rural and urban areas etc. Roy is positive about one thing though… filmmaking has now become cheaper and with the advent of new technologies, editing and initiating the process of making good documentaries have become more accessible.
More youngsters are making documentaries now. They want to have a voice; they want to form their own opinion instead of being fed with someone else’s and they want to explore the world on their own terms. The scene has shifted from making films depicting progress of the country under the prevailing government, to concentrating on issues that have not been addressed. The focus now, is not on unrealistic situations but an effort has been made to bring to the forefront real issues of the people.
Most filmmakers when enquired about what they want or expect of the viewers and public, have a simplistic desire. Surabhi said, “Come watch and appreciate our movies and efforts…” Sushma’s view is that it is important that people watch before forming an opinion.
Bangalore has periodically witnessed outbursts of civil rights consciousness, is going to witness this big festival of documentary films between 29th July and 1st August at the JSS Auditorium. Films for freedom is going to cover subjects like the politics, feminism, growth, and urban development issues etc. The festival will feature films which were either censored, or withdrawn from MIFF.
Some of the films in the festival include, ‘The City Beautiful’ by Director Rahul Roy; it is a story of two families in Sundar Nagri, a small working class colony in Delhi, struggling to make sense of a world which keeps pushing them to the margins. ‘Words on Water’ directed by Sanjay Kak speaks of people of the Narmada valley who have been resisting for the past 15 years, the making of dams on their river thereby exposing the deceptive heart of India’s developmental politics. ‘In the Flesh’ by Bishaka Dutta provides an intimate insider’s account of what it is like to be in prostitution.
Other films to be featured include, Laden is not my Friend (Bikramjit Gupta), Naga Story- The other side of Silence (Gopal Menon), Manjuben Truckdriver (Sherna Dastur) Man Dam (Abhivyakti), and many more.
Why is it that some people are allowed to show their movies and we are not? Why is it that there are biases in the treatment of the same subject? Why is it that people are not allowed to be witness to all angles of a story before forming an opinion? Most of all, why is it that an attempt is made to censor us every time we speak? Are some of the questions that filmmakers’ want answers to.
When Rabindranath Tagore wrote his famous poem, ‘Where the mind is without fear’ he was certainly referring to a country where its citizens are allowed to think without barriers and express their opinion, in other words allowed to ‘exist’.
It is an appalling situation when a person has to fight for his life because he has exercised his right to speech while scrupulous individuals want to hunt him down in the name of the state.
Are we free? Are we caught in a situation where reasoning and discretion is sacrificed in the name of the state?
Perhaps the last question is the most crucial and thought provoking… what is the essence of a state/ society/ individual that asks you to relinquish the state of your existence?
(Writer: Puja Goyal, Published 2004, Vijay Times)