8 October 2009

The World On A Reel

From the unsettlingly intimate portrait to the panoramic film essay, the new Indian documentary no longer bludgeons its way to viewership.

IT IS THE fourth of January in Lachen village, north Sikkim, 10,000 feet above sea level. Jigme waits for the storm. “Shortly everything will be covered in snow. You will hear the ant breathe,” he says.” And sure enough, as we continue to watch Arghya Basu’s Death, Life, etc, we are transported from the many-tongued babel of Losar (the Buddhist New Year) to the unimaginable stillness of a man walking through fields of snow. We hear the ant breathe.

The power of documentary has long been misunderstood to be something akin to that of a drumroll: beat the drum loud enough and your message will reach its audience. But, in fact, its power lies in the conjuring up of alternate worlds – worlds no less real for being put on screen. The real attraction of documentary films may be that they give the viewer access to images she may not otherwise see – or if she sees, may not ordinarily look at. Sometimes this may be true despite the drumroll. As Satyajit Ray said of Sukhdev’s India ’67 (one of several films commissioned by the Films Division to commemorate the 20th year of India’s independence), “I like it, but not for its broad and percussive contrasts of poverty and influence, beauty and squalor, modernity and primitivity – however well shot and cut they might be. I like it for its details – for the black beetle that crawls along the hot sand, for the street dog that pees on the parked bicycle, for the bead of perspiration that dangles on the nose tip of the begrimed musician.”

Documentary has always been at the cutting edge of cinema’s relationship with the real. But if an older generation of documentary filmmakers were certain that they had a handle on reality, the current crop is equally certain that they don’t. Director after director speaks of the need to put oneself in the frame, of “transparent filmmaking”. While there is an unswerving admission that the filmmaker’s presence alters the quality of interactions, both in life and on film, there’s also a keen sense that the personalised narrative has somehow acquired a greater claim to truth in a world full of faceless information. The “subjective documentary” can range from the meditative, free-ranging cinematic essay (aka Death, Life, etc) to scrutinising the filmmaker- subject relationship (like Shyamal Karmakar’s I’m the Very Beautiful, an unsettlingly intimate but transformative account of the filmmaker’s on- and offscreen relationship with a singer called Ranu). The cinema, Godard said, is not an art which films life: it is something between art and life. The filmmakers profiled here are all striving towards finding their particular place in the middle.


Still from Listener’s Tale : Mahakala smiles

"He who writes the story seldom knows the tale it spins. Everyone except him has a tale when finally it relents,” reads one of the inter-titles in Arghya Basu’s film, Listener’s Tale (2007). The film’s title, too, is meant to underline Basu’s belief that the author is not so much a creator as a transmitter – he or she is a listener more than a teller. But the 38-year-old filmmaker has no illusions about being able to represent ‘the truth’. (He quotes Mircea Eliade: a true story in one place can be a false tale in another.) All he wants is to use the cinematic apparatus to explore the world. “The camera opens up a different mode of enquiry,” he argues. “It’s a machine. Like a microscope or a telescope, the world seen through it is a different world.”
Certainly, the world as it appears through Basu’s lens is both starker and more lyrical than it might seem in everyday life. Lichens turn ghostly grey on rocks, smoky clouds cover the mountains, tales of a blood pact between the Lepchas and the Bhutias “at the junction of epochs” create a Sikkim haunted by history. But just as you’re settling in for a beautifully executed slice of exotica, the music becomes electronic. Wires stretch taut across a city shrouded in mist, and shots of Gangtok town are overlaid with the tinny engaged tone of telephones. A self-declared “anthropological filmmaker” with an interest in the relationship of art to history, myth and philosophy, Basu’s Listener’s Tale (2007) and Death, Life, etc (2008) create a stunning Sikkimese landscape in which the bare bones of trees are as crucial as the lines of television antennas. “Are those beliefs that have survived for centuries more true, or the modernity that threatens to efface everything? I don’t know. But I think it’s a problem to keep chronologising. Things co-exist.”

Basu, who teaches at Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), is inspired by cinematic giants like Godard and Cocteau. He is driven not by a desire for documentation but by the poetry of the image. “I don’t want to be part of this myth of the real that documentary perpetuates. I want a cinema that will create memory.” Amid the excitement about fresh work in documentary in India, Basu sounds a note of caution – or several. He accepts that more documentaries are being made – even being watched – but worries about where we’re headed. “Finance doesn’t only encourage, it is also an auto-censor. The foreign funders coming to India want only “current affairs”. There’s not enough critical interest in life itself.” Other funders promote what he disparagingly calls “keyhole cinema”, demanding a certain intimacy with the subject. “When you’re paid for telling ‘the truth’, what kind of truth will you tell?”


Rajula Shah’s journey has been what she calls a “reverse” one. Her immersion in the world of cinema at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), where “everything is geared towards making features”, led to a diploma film about a small town couple called Do Hafte Guzarte Do Hafte Nahi Lagte (2000). “But even while working with fiction, I had the experience of non-fiction – working with actors, thinking about what they bring to the film, or even myself, my role.” And now, as she works in nonfiction she is constantly assailed by its fictional elements. “People perform for the camera.”

Not that the 35-year-old from Bhopal is uncomfortable with the blurring of boundaries between fact and fiction. She is completely aware of herself as threading together the film narratives she creates, sometimes as sutradhar and sometimes as a character. But she’d rather think of it as a dialogue with her artistic subjects. “It’s interesting to see where I come in [for the people I’m filming], and where I go out.” Often, she gets people talking to her by acting the idiot. Like during Sabad Nirantar (2008), which takes a cinema verité approach to the popular living tradition of Kabir poetry in Madhya Pradesh, “I would often ask stupid questions, like ‘If God is inside you, then why light this joss-stick?’”

In her first film, Beyond the Wheel (2005), Shah explored the worlds of three women potters – one in Kutch, one in Manipur and one in Bhopal. “I was interested in the prohibition that exists on women handling the potter’s wheel, and I found that all three had evolved their own embodied responses.” If Sara Ibrahim had devised a complicated arrangement of bowls in place of the wheel, Nilmani Devi substituted the wheel with her body, running around the object she’s making.

Shah’s persistence led her, in Sabad Nirantar, to work backwards from established folk performers like Prahlad Singh Tippaniya to agricultural labourers whose relationship to the music went deeper than the aesthetic. She’s now exploring the possibility of future fictions. “I’m interested in how a story develops over time. So why not?”


Nishtha Jain likes looking at people. But more than that, she likes to look at herself looking at people. From exploring the photographic fantasy portraits people create for themselves in her first film, City of Photos (2005), to viewing the city through the eyes of security guards and ragpickers in her recent At My Doorstep (2009), her work has been about questions of image-making and agency. “I’m interested in people sidelined by the mainstream media,” says Jain, “But I’m not giving people agency by filming them, only recognising the agency they already have.”

The Mumbai-based director’s much-talked-about Lakshmi and Me (2008) has been her most challenging work on these lines, telling the story of her relationship with 29-year-old Lakshmi, who works part-time as a maid in her house. “I started filming Lakshmi because I was attracted to the strong sense of self of this girl who’s been working since she was 10,” says Jain, “Later I began to feel that the film’s true subject was not Lakshmi, but her relationship with me. I wanted to tell her story but I also wanted to think about taken-for-granted hierarchies, between employer and domestic help. I could not honestly exclude myself from the frame.” Jain insists, however, that the film was “subjective, not personal”. She acknowledges that a single-person narrative draws audiences in more easily. “It’s more dramatic. Viewers remarked on how good an ‘actress’ Lakshmi was!” But Jain doesn’t want a repeat yet. In At My Doorstep, she ‘zooms out’ on a similar question, of people who seem invisible to the elite. “But it’s less intense, more poetic, more impressionistic.” In the end, it’s the kind of story you feel you want to tell. “You must feel passionate to stay with it for a long time.”


Paromita Vohra is not just a maker of documentaries, she’s a fan. “I’d rather watch an Indian documentary than an Indian fiction film any day,” she pronounces. “The skill and the ideation levels are so high. And in India, there is very little ‘formatting’ of the kind that has taken place in Western documentary.” It wasn’t always like this. Mumbai- based and self-taught, Vohra remembers starting out when the primary received idea of the documentary was the social issue film. “I struggled to find a different language, to make the kind of film I wanted to see.”

Preaching, Vohra was clear, wouldn’t help her in her desire to get fence-sitting audiences to reevaluate their stock ideas. So she set out to create films that would. Her now-classic Unlimited Girls (2002), which takes viewers on a hilarious but often scathing journey through feminist organisations, marital homes and college fests, has been shown at many festivals but more importantly to Vohra, now gets used as a teaching aid. “I met this woman from a [Hindi-medium] college in Lucknow, and she said they use it to trigger discussion. I said, but it’s in English! And she said, oh, we just pause and translate. It works beautifully.”

Now eight films old, Vohra takes both pride and pleasure in subverting documentary’s “tendency to be high-minded”. She believes films work primarily in a sensory way. “If I make you feel a certain way for a while, I might get you to think differently. I make performance pieces. I refuse people the comfort of their preconceptions.” Vohra’s eye for the absurd surprises those who enter documentary screenings with their most serious faces on. People find themselves giggling at the bizarre explanations men in Q2P (2006) give for why there are less women’s toilets, or laughing out loud in Unlimited Girls when girls in a college choreography insist they’re equal to the boys “but it’s the pompoms that are most important”. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t also thinking. That keeps Vohra happy.


Documentary is about reality,” says Sourav Sarangi. “Not a reality show.” There is a sudden sharp undertow to Sarangi’s otherwise mild manner as he says this. One immediately wonders if it stems from a reluctant intimacy with the rehearsed realities of television, a medium in which he has worked intermittently since 1988 – as an editor, as a director of tele-films and as head of the popular Bengali channel Aakash Bangla. For the 1964-born FTII graduate whose film Bilal (2008) has been shown at over 40 film festivals worldwide and won eight awards, his television self has always been the shadowy doppelganger, the life choice that wasn’t quite a choice. “We could dream of cinema, but after leaving campus we had to first ensure survival,” he says wryly.

Later, some of these dreamers formed a cooperative, with whose support Sarangi embarked on his first film, Tusu Katha (1996). Tusu is a festival in the tribal-dominated areas of West Bengal and Jharkhand. Determined not to simply recreate “local colour”, he attended the ritual four times in four different places. “The women sing and dance, but it’s not a performance,” says Sarangi. While he set out to “explore the rapture of life among people who don’t have the luxury of celebration”, Sarangi knew Tusu wasn’t characteristic of everyday life, so he kept going back through the year.

This unhurried pace, this loving embrace of the ordinary, characterises Sarangi’s second film Bhangon (Erosion) (2006) as well. With each film, he tries to understand something unfamiliar. Bhangon is about people who live along the Padma river, while Bilal is the result of his year-long relationship with a three-year-old and his blind parents Shamim and Jharna. “When I first saw Bilal, he was eight months old. I watched him communicate with me visually and with his mother through touch. I was amazed. He was living simultaneously in two worlds: the sighted and the non-visual.”

That sense of wonder makes Bilal very different in tone from the sob-fest you might expect. The dingy room in which the family lives, the high level of noise, the shockingly normalised violence: none of these are papered over. There are moments when the helplessness seems palpable, and others full of quiet irony, such as when Shamim, having been forced to shut down his phone booth, contemplates other livelihoods, says, “A damp room is all you need to grow mushrooms”. But like in life, desperation co-exists with joy. The film is a layered portrait of a child, a family and a neighbourhood. “It’s not a guided tour I’m taking the audience on,” says Sarangi. “A film isn’t complete till it’s seen by another person.”

Published in Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 40, Dated October 10, 2009

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