The Documentary scene in India.

{ Posted on May 18 2014 by aditya seth }
Categories : Documentary

A paper I will be presenting at The Indian Film Week Documentary & Experimental Film Center (DEFC) in August at Tehran, Iran .

A three-day documentary filmmakers’ conference was held in the first week of April in Mumbai which was hosted by the Films Division of India. The conference, primarily exploratory in nature, was a comprehensive attempt to address the issues commonly faced by Independent Documentary Film makers in India. It is interesting to note that the Films Division of India was formed Sixty Four years ago in April 1948 & was then described as ‘the official organ of the Government of India for the production and distribution of information films and newsreels’. And ironically the very same organization was hosting a conference to address the issues & concerns of Independent Documentary Film makers who have all along been making films which have been questioning the very status quo which the Films Division was formed to perpetuate! Some of the Filmmakers from across the length & breadth of India found this hard to digest & were vociferous in their protest.
Historically Independent Documentary Film making in India existed even before the Films Division was conceived. On the historic midnight of Indian Independence, August 14/ 15 1947, there was no official film unit of the Government of India to record the midnight ceremonies and the subsequent nationwide celebrations. It was left mostly to newsreel camera men of London, New York, Paris etc. to converge on New Delhi to record the events. Dr. P.V. Pathy managed to coax Ambalal J. Patel, a multi-purpose film unit with two cameras and sound equipment. Thus it was left to ‘Independents’ to film Nehru’s ‘tryst with destiny’ speech along with international newsreel cameramen!
Most of us practitioners of the documentary genre today were brought up on The “Films Division documentary” which always celebrated the promise of modernization. There was little or no space for voices of dissent and peoples narratives. The primary format was that of the all- encompassing, Voice of God, male narration, guiding the audience through a pre meditated course, thus disallowing them to engage with or believe in the scenario that was unfolding in front of them on the screens. These films were mandatorily shown in cinema theatres all over the country, a time used by most to go out for a smoke or to eat popcorn!
This rather obvious disconnect between what was being projected & what was being perceived fuelled the imagination of a few who for the first time expressed an Independent vision & voice in the Indian Documentary, a definite departure from the existing format, which went beyond mere dissemination of information & became representative of the marginalized & the downtrodden…
The issues discussed at the conference were funding, production, distribution (or the lack of it) & accreditation for the Independent Documentary Film maker. The need for a level playing field, a healthier environment which is less competitive and hostile and which allows for greater sharing of information and resources was expressed vehemently. The concerns are still the same as they were when I began making documentaries, nearly 25 years ago, some seem naïve, some realistic. And needless to say that if the Films Division of India is finally recognizing the needs of a burgeoning vibrant community & is reaching out to partner with it to create a common platform for the Independent Documentary Filmmaker, then is it necessarily anathema to the “cause”?! And for all you know we may yet reinvent our own version of a PBS & finally have paid public exhibition of documentaries!
Let’s face it we are up against a market driven film industry & as I’ve always said nobody wants food for thought or to hurt their sensibilities, echoing T.S. Eliot: “humankind cannot bear very much reality”. Therefore documentaries really have little or no return on investment in India. How long are we going to be dependent on the fledgling foreign markets consisting of International Film Festivals & International TV Networks to try & eke out a living? There too things are not as conducive as they used to be. The European Networks & Grant Funds including the Jan Vrijman Fund from Holland, which has funded many an Indian documentary, are facing recession & have put a near stop to funding this year. As for the International Film Festivals, they have their own expected formats nowadays of what a documentary should be like & select films accordingly. To quote Charlie Phllips of Sheffield Doc “We do not accept documentaries with Voice Overs”!
Conversely International Pitching Sessions have been set up & institutionalized in India purportedly to create a viable & accessible platform for the Independent Documentary Film Maker, which although looks very promising on the face of it but does raise some concern especially when Senior Commissioning Editors representing prominent International networks repeatedly tell participants at a pitching workshop in Mumbai, “you have to follow a character who embodies the phenomena you wish to document” then I wonder whether we are still in the realm of the documentary or is documentary slowly becoming a euphemism for fiction, becoming more verite` beset with recreation & are we being pressurized to suit the needs of the International Television market? I know that the documentary has the luxury to be eclectic as per the requirement of the subject & the vision of the Film maker. But then shouldn’t content dictate form & shouldn’t it be the other way around, otherwise whose film are we making? Whatever happened to the Filmmakers vision & Independent Expression? Since Independent documentaries are a realistic representation of life in our society is this an attempt by the West to colonize us culturally, since we are perceived to be the last bastion resisting the “market” in more ways than one? It is now high time that we create an environment to ensure an affectionate disposition towards our needs & livelihoods before our very own identity gets engulfed by mass globalization & homogenization. We must recognize & realize that as many Film makers exist so do different approaches to filmmaking, funding and distribution. It is therefore now imperative that the Indian Documentary Community ushers in a new era even if it means engaging & actively collaborating with the establishment to ensure our own survival & independence.
( Information source, )

6 Responses to “The Documentary scene in India.”

  1. Good piece, good clarity, Aditya. Congratulations.

  2. An interesting article, covering both flashbacks and present day concerns. The argument of honest, independent content vs market demands is a seemingly vicious cycle; and perhaps one that wouldn’t close unless the audience matures.
    here’s hoping that your fraternity and talents will move it in that direction! Wishing you all the very best for your presentation!
    #documentary #film

  3. Excellent write up
    wish you best of success

  4. pl accept MY hearty greetings and Congratulations with bright and brilliant success to your entire efforts
    best regards
    Dinesh k jani
    c e o
    India/Asia office

  5. A learning experience! The ground reality explained most succinctly . Hope it leads to positive change…..

  6. This is a very thought-provoking piece of writing. But not one that I would necessarily wholly agree with. Aditya, you seem to suggest that international documentary commissioners have a ‘a particular view’ of what a documentary should be and that they make us all conform to it. . I would beg to differ – and the idea that the ‘voice of God’ or a documentary with voice over is not appropriate is ludicrous – you would not have Attenborough films if that were so! So no matter what the organisers of Sheffield Doc Fest say, that is not what is being commissioned. This may just be something that one particular festival wants… I would, of course, beg to differ from the organisers of Sheffield Doc Fest and challenge them. I have seen many a documentary at the festival over the years which do have voice overs!

    You also say – ‘Since Independent documentaries are a realistic representation of life in our society is this an attempt by the West to colonize us culturally, since we are perceived to be the last bastion resisting the “market” in more ways than one? It is now high time that we create an environment to ensure an affectionate disposition towards our needs & livelihoods before our very own identity gets engulfed by mass globalization & homogenization.’

    As a film-maker who lives in the West, I can assure you that the same concerns plague us – why do commissioners ask for the same thing, even though they espouse the rhetoric of wanting to find the new, the bold, the experimental? Sadly, this has nothing to do with colonisation; rather to do with the fear that commissioners have that what they are commissioning will not do well in the market place.

    And unfortunately, it is the market place that drives so much of what is being produced. It is rather hard for documentary film-makers to follow a story for several years when no-one is putting the money into longitudinal research. Although, in the same breath, most of these commissioners will admit that some of the best documentaries come out of such an exploration.

    You are absolutely right in saying that independent film-makers need to work with commissioners and others in establishment, but I also think that it is our duty to educate them to think differently – not radically differently (because I do not believe most of them have the courage to be radical but even slightly differently would help…)

    The good thing about your article, Aditya, is that it opens up debate and this is something that we should all embrace. Thank you for that,


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