Reel Life: Less traction at home than away for Indian documentaries

Indian documentaries are being noticed at international film festivals, but it is still not easy to watch them in India

Reel Life: Less traction at home than away for Indian documentaries

Namrata Joshi

The 2022 edition of TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) ended last Sunday, September 18, with a pleasant surprise for India.

Vinay Shukla’s While We Watched, a documentary on NDTV journalist Ravish Kumar and his efforts to stay relevant and independent in the rapidly changing landscape of TV news—hit by budget cuts, misinformation drives, propaganda peddling and sheer noise—won the Amplify Voices award with the jury hailing it as “a wake-up call to the fragile relationship between a free press and democracy everywhere”.

The Amplify Voices award for the Best Canadian Feature Film went to another documentary with an India connect—Nisha Pahuja’s To Kill A Tiger that the jury pointed out was not an easy film to love.

It’s about a family in a Jharkhand village fighting hard to get justice for their teenaged daughter sexually assaulted by three young men. “A father defends his daughter, and together they change a village, a country and, maybe, the world,” said the jury statement.

Pahuja was born in New Delhi and raised in Toronto and is best known for her 2012 documentary, The World Before Her, that looked at the parallel realities of two young Indian women, a Miss India aspirant and a member of the Hindu nationalist body, Durga Vahini.

The march of the Indian documentaries into North America doesn’t stop with TIFF alone. They have made major inroads on the international filmmaking map in recent years.

Vinay Shukla (Getty Images)
Vinay Shukla (Getty Images)

Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes had its world premiere in January 2022 at the Sundance Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize in World Cinema Documentary Competition. It went on to win the L’Œil d’or award at the Cannes Film Festival.

It has now been selected for the main slate of the New York Film Festival to be held from September 30 to October 16 before heading for 'Wide Angle–Documentary Showcase' section of the Busan International Film Festival, also in October.

Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing that won the L’Œil d’or award at the Cannes last year will be playing this month at New York’s The Museum of Modern Arts, MoMA’s Making Waves programme on independent Indian filmmakers.

Last year, Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s Writing With Fire on journalists Meera Devi, Suneeta Prajapati and Shyamkali Devi of Khabar Lahariya—the only Dalit women-led Indian newspaper—became the country’s first ever nominee in the Best Documentary Feature category at the Oscars.

There is a reason for the Indian documentaries gaining international spotlight. It’s not only because their subjects have a universal resonance but also because a lot of these films have either been made with foreign grants or as international co-productions.

Sen’s film is about the perils of development, progress and urbanisation and their impact on climate and environment, a worldwide concern. He gives these issues a human face—brothers Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad and their mission to rescue injured kites, birds of prey that are getting smothered by pollution in Delhi, like humans themselves.

International programmer Thom Powers in his note on While We Watched wrote, “It is essential viewing for anyone interested in how television journalism is under threat. Although the film is rooted in India, its depiction of misinformation eroding fact-based news could apply to any number of countries from Russia to the United States.”

Similarly, Thomas and Ghosh might deal with many Indian grassroots issues, including electoral, caste and gender politics in Writing With Fire, but it’s the unflinching view on media that rings a bell across the world with three ladies leading by example, talking of journalism as the “essence of democracy”, how it is the voice of people and that journalists need to use their power responsibly to ensure justice for the masses— the universal principles of journalism.

“There is much in To Kill A Tiger that speaks more broadly to rape culture and the silencing of women… when it comes to rape, shame is wielded like a blunt instrument. But the story of Ranjit and his fearless daughter, enduring so many voices clamouring for them to stand down, is one of remarkable strength and defiance,” wrote Ravi Srinivasan, associated with festival programming about the Pahuja film.

The documentaries have also been playing with newer modes of narration. Kapadia’s experimental film that is about a university student in India, writing letters to her estranged lover about the drastic changes taking place around her”, uses the “hybrid” form—documentary and fiction—that she has mixed to push the envelope of the narrative further. “Merging reality with fiction, dreams, memories, fantasies and anxieties, an amorphous narrative unfolds”, was how it was described.

Sen’s film is marked by persistence of a distinct visual texture of Delhi’s overwhelming greyness, inventive soundscape and a poetic, philosophical style that make it enriching and uplifting, beyond the urgency of the environmental problem it deals with.

Despite a lot going for them and the world becoming more receptive, censorship is still an issue that documentaries have to deal with more acutely than feature films based on fiction; and the lack of viable options for screening and exhibition is a major setback in reaching out to the audience in home country.

Shukla’s 2016 film on the growth of AAP and Arvind Kejriwal, An Insignificant Man, was a rare one to have got a limited commercial release and proved to be a surprise hit. Sen’s film is another rare one to have already been acquired by HBO Documentary Films for TV distribution. However, for most, even finding their way into the ubiquitous OTT platforms remains difficult. The streaming platforms are still not well-attuned to non-fiction films.

So, as the news for the award for While We Watched started pouring in, so did queries about how and where to view it. That for now is anybody’s guess. Indian documentaries are growing, so is the curiosity and audience for them. It is time now for a similar growth in avenues for viewing them.

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