Indian Documentary Film and Filmmakers

Nadja-Christina Schneider

In the summer of 2019, when the central government in India denied permission for ‘veteran’ documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan’s latest film Vivek (Reason) (2018) to be screened at the renowned International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala, the organizers of the festival, together with Patwardhan, did what he often did when his earlier films faced state censorship. They took the battle to court, won the case, and finally got permission to screen the self-funded and searingly critical documentary at the festival in Thiruvananthapuram. Structured in eight parts, Vivek scrutinizes the mainstreaming of violent Hindutva ideology and majoritarian nationalism in India during the last decade. While the successful litigation in Kerala could be seen as a glimmer of hope for the continued possibility for audiences to engage with critical independent documentaries in India, the fact that Vivek, along with a number of other critically acclaimed films, was not screened at the 16th Mumbai International Film Festival in January this year (MIFF 2020) may not have come as a surprise for many.

MIFF was launched in 1990 as Bombay International Film Festival. It is the largest biennial film festival of non-feature films in South Asia, organized by the Films Division of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. In the aftermath of the 2002 violence in the west Indian state of Gujarat, a censor requirement for Indian films at MIFF was introduced which, in turn, led to the organization of the alternative Vikalp Film Festival in 2004 which ran parallel to it and where all the films rejected by the MIFF were screened (for a vivid account of the festival related politics, see Thomas Waugh’s article Miffed! or “Gasping for [polluted?] air”, BioScope 3(1), 2012: 87–93). Thereafter, the censorship requirement at MIFF was withdrawn; of late, however, some notice a new form of indirect censorship vis-à-vis critical independent documentaries that simply do not get selected.

Not one, but many forms and practices of independent documentary filmmaking

Instead of a universal understanding of the term ‘independent’, Shweta Kishore argues for a localized perspective that needs to be contextualized historically and spatially, and so her highly readable book starts with references to these two ‘icons’ of independent documentary filmmaking practices in India – Vikalp and Anand Patwardhan. It may be difficult to imagine another Vikalp Film Festival in the current situation, but it continues to exist as an important platform for “over 300 documentary filmmakers dispersed across India” (p.1) who communicate through the Vikalp Films for Freedom listserv. Yet, the coining of the term ‘independent documentary film’ dates back to the mid-1970s, when the Emergency declared by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi threatened the democratic political foundations of the country. By means of “guerilla filmmaking on a borrowed Super 8 camera, improvised editing and underground exhibition” (p.2), Patwardhan developed his unique form and practice of political filmmaking. His 1975 film Kraanti Ki Tarangein (Waves of revolution) is paradigmatic for the conscious positioning of filmmaking practices outside the Films Division of India, i.e. the “nationally dominant state-run documentary production and distribution agency” (p.2).

Subsequently, the term ‘independent’ was for a long time primarily associated with politically conscious (if not activist, see Arvind Rajagopal and Paromita Vohra, On the aesthetics and ideology of the Indian documentary film: A conversation, BioScope 3(1), 2012: 7–20) and privately produced documentary films that were distributed and screened outside the organized structures of the state or commercial film theatres. But, as Kishore convincingly argues, the distinction between independent and ‘mainstream’ or ‘commercial’ productions has become increasingly blurred (under which category would, for instance, NGO-sponsored films be classified?) during the last four decades, and the same holds true for the diversification and blurring of genre boundaries. Accordingly, Kishore selected filmmakers for her study who reflect the contemporary diversity of individuals, position(alities), artistic forms and aesthetic practices of independent contemporary filmmaking in India: Rahul Roy (New Delhi), Amudhan R.P. (Chennai), Paromita Vohra (Mumbai) and the filmmaking partners Anjali Monteiro and K. P. Jayasankar (Mumbai). Monteiro and Jayasankar also co-authored a major contribution to the increasingly vibrant study of independent documentary filmmaking in India (A Fly in the Curry: Independent Documentary Film in India, SAGE, 2015).

However, instead of focusing primarily on the textual level of their films, Kishore explores the specific practices, relationships, techniques, and evolving structures that form around the independent mode of filmmaking of the directors in focus. All these aspects contribute to a changing notion and meaning of cultural production and the relation between visual culture, cultural producer, and society. Throughout the five chapters of her book, the author draws on a wide range of cultural, sociological and media theory and thus offers new perspectives on a field of research that for a long time had been under-theorized. Luckily, a number of important books and academic articles have begun to fill this gap since the last 10 years or so. Students and scholars who are interested in Indian documentary film studies or who wish to deepen their understanding of the multiple ways in which individuals continue to resist through an array of aesthetic and sociocultural practices will find this book very insightful and interesting to read.