I would agree that feminist filmmaking in the 1980s and 1990s redefined the language of documentary in India, bringing in an awareness of how gender is a significant marker of our identities, allowing for more women’s stories, and marking the presence of the filmmaker into the cinematic text in many different ways. This allowed for more interesting ways of exploring the realm of the political. It was feminism’s assertion of the personal as political, that allowed for a critical focus on the ways in which power, specifically gender relations of power, impinge on our everyday lives and this made for more plural ways of articulating the political.
A lot of documentary films involve memory work, revisiting the past, and understanding the present through reconstructions of the past. Moreover, even when they deal with the present, documentary films ultimately become a testimony of the past, of how some people in the past saw their lives and times. As Paula Rabinowitz affirms, “looking” is a “historical act”. Thus the act of looking and witnessing that documentary involves is shaped by history and in turn shapes how we reconstruct the past in the context of the present. The construction of history in the Indian context is fraught with contestations and contradictions, linked to the affirmation and erasure of identities and Indian documentary films, whether those produced by the state or independent, have played an important role in this process.
Documentary filmmakers such as Michael Moore in the USA for instance has been able to create a space for debate through his films that have been critical of the government. Do we have documentaries that have been as successful?
Documentaries in India unfortunately are not a part of mainstream cinema, screening regularly in cinema theatres and television. Despite this, I would not say that independent documentaries in India have not created a space for debate and critique. The films of people like Anand Patwardhan and Deepa Dhanraj, among others, have raised significant political questions and been disseminated widely through alternate forums. Particularly in the present juncture, with the availability of films on the Internet, the possibilities of wider circulation have increased dramatically.
We have over 800 television channels in India. None of them however commission documentaries. This situation is unlike what prevails in some other countries. What do you think is the reason for the indifference towards documentaries in the Indian context?
The notion that documentary film for a long period represented the (boring) voice of the state as a social educator, as opposed to (exciting) fiction cinema, which was regarded as pure entertainment, is perhaps at the root of this indifference. Television channels, which need to rake up TRPs [Television Rating Points] and make profit to survive, do not give space to documentary because they do not perceive that there is a large enough dedicated audience segment that would be interested in watching documentaries. Moreover, the state-owned channels too have abrogated their responsibility of being a public broadcaster and give little space to the voices and concerns of people. Popular cinema, game shows, reality TV and news as spectacle all reign supreme on our television channels.
What are the platforms and modes of distribution available for documentaries in India?
The modes of distribution and funding available for documentaries are woefully inadequate and it is indeed a wonder that so much interesting material has been made over the years by committed filmmakers on a wing and a prayer. Given the absence of space on Indian television (except for NDTV’s docu slot and another fitful space on Doordarshan), and the difficulties of theatrical release (there have been occasional films that have managed this), the main modes of distribution within India before the advent of the Internet were screenings for film clubs, groups and institutions, film festivals and DVD sales. There are very few institutions like PSBT [Public Service Broadcasting Trust] that support and distribute documentaries. At the present juncture, there are some filmmakers who get commissioned by international television or find international distributors and a few who are able to monetize their films on the Internet through platforms such as Netflix. Of course, filmmakers can distribute for free on the web and many are doing that too. But for those who need to recover their costs, it’s a difficult business.
Documentaries are subject to multiple modes of censorship that restrict their circulation: that of the state, which demands certification for any ‘public’ screening, then of the market, which has little space for documentary content and finally, vigilante disruption of screenings, which is unfortunately becoming a recurrent pattern for films seen as politically inconvenient. In fact, documentary filmmakers have as a collective been extremely pro-active resisting all modes of censorship, from the days of Vikalp (a loose coalition of independent documentary filmmakers formed to resist censorship) in 2003-4 and the creation of alternative screening spaces has been one of the strategies adopted.
Many argue that documentaries, like feature films, should be released commercially in our country. What would be the implications for the autonomy of film making in such a situation?
I don’t think it’s an either/or situation. Commercial release of documentaries will certainly have its implications for the language of documentary, just as pitching for international television begins to shape both the choice of stories and the modes of storytelling. But it will also provide an avenue of sustaining their work for filmmakers. And I feel there will always be those who will make what they want to and distribute it despite the market, or fund their difficult-to-market films through other work that they do for the market.
Very few media schools have documentary film making as part of their curriculum. Why do you think this is the case?
The dictates of the job market and the imperative for placement have their influence on media curricula. The hegemony of the fiction film industry, where the jobs lie does tend to shape both student expectations and curricula. While film schools tend to focus on fiction film, with a documentary project or two, there are schools of journalism that focus on news, where again there are jobs. Documentary falls between the two. Despite this there are a few institutions that have produced and continue to produce fine documentary filmmakers, as well as graduates from film schools who have chosen to work with the documentary form.
Some practitioners and critics have argued that there is a feminine gaze in the visual arts? What is your opinion?
It is true that gender tends to shape one’s ways of seeing and representing, just as it shapes one’s experience of the world. But I’m not sure that I agree with reifying or defining a singular and consistent feminine or masculine gaze, given that we have so many different ways of performing our gender. I believe there are multiplicities of feminist ways of seeing that are not biologically pre-determined.
Can you tell us about Shewrite and Herstory?
SheWrite is a film that we made in 2004-5, after we read a report in Tehelka about how a group of feminist poets in Tamilnadu were being attacked and threatened for writing “obscene” stuff. We found it really fascinating that these poets, from villages and small towns, writing in Tamil, had created a space for their own self-expression and decided to meet the poets. The film explores the poetry and lifeworlds of four poets, Salma, Kutti Revathi, Sugirtharani and Malathy Maitri, traversing their diverse modes of resistance, through images and sounds that seek to evoke the universal experiences of pain, anger, desire and transcendence.
Herstory was made by a group of our students in 2013, as a part of a larger project, entitled Giran Mumbai, of documenting the life and times of the former millworkers who were rendered jobless, and in some cases homeless, after the great mill strike of 1982. It is an attempt to rewrite the exclusion of women from “history” by engaging with the narratives of three former women mill workers and their struggles after the strike, a collective struggle that is ongoing and that seeks to keep the legacy of the mills and the issues of the millworkers alive.
While the two films are very different in formal terms, they share a common desire and project of exploring the everyday resistance of women that gets left out of the grand narratives of history. They affirm that the personal is political and bear witness to how the subversion of gender relations of power is complex and multi-layered.
It is said that documentary film making is influenced by the socio-political position of the filmmaker. Can you talk about the influences on the films that you have made?
It is true that our personal histories and locations shape the concerns that we explore through our work. Both Jayasankar, my partner and fellow filmmaker, and I have been influenced by Marxism and feminism, that impelled social movements we were a part of in the 1970s and 80s, when we were growing up. In addition to this, we have also been a part of the struggles against intolerance and censorship from the late 1990s. In many ways these broad concerns frame our ongoing engagement with subaltern knowledge and issues of identity through our film work since the mid 1990s. Whether it is our work with prison poets (YCP 1997) or struggles for communal amity (Naata, 2003) or the Sufi traditions of pastoral communities in Kachchh (Do Din ka Mela, 2009, So Heddan So Hoddan, 2011 and A Delicate Weave, forthcoming 2017) all our films are a personal quest to understand what we could learn from these local affirmations of creativity and inclusive tolerance.
Much of your documentary filmmaking and your research has been in collaboration with your partner Prof. K.P. Jayasankar. What has this experience of collaboration been like?
It has been exhilarating and rewarding to work collaboratively with Jayasankar, since 1985. In many ways, we complement each other in terms of our perspectives, predilections and abilities. I certainly would not have been able to do, on my own, even a fraction of the work we’ve created collectively. Of course working together has its own challenges that we have been able to negotiate over the years.
One of your more recent concerns has been to archive the changes in the spaces we live in. Giran Mumbai and Divercity are a part of that archival work. Please elaborate.
The idea of creating an online archive of multi media materials first came to us when we made the series of films entitled Remembering 1992 with our students in 2012, as a part of the campaign Bombay ki Kahani Mumbai ki Zubani, which took place between December 2012 and January 2013, 20 years after the communal violence of 1992-93, in which over 900 people lost their lives in Mumbai. Given the erasure and popular rewriting of this history, we felt that it would be worthwhile to create an accessible resource that could contest these erasures and provide space to alternative histories and narratives about this cataclysmic event. After creating this website we realized that this was a wonderful way of sharing our student and faculty documentary work in the public domain, using it as a nucleus to create a resource that brings together a range of different material, from academic writing and newspaper cuttings, to photographs and poetry, around a theme that is related to erasures in the city, whether of time, space, marginalized communities or neglected issues. It also circumvents issues of censorship that haunt offline screenings of documentaries. DiverCity, which is the larger portal, seeks to affirm the city as a space of multiplicity and plurality. So far, we have completed four subsites: Remembering 1992, Giran Mumbai (on the mills and millworkers), Castemopolitan Mumbai (on caste in the city) and WasteLines (on how we deal with our waste and the communities that handle waste). We find it an exciting and productive way of connecting the university with the outside world and sharing the resources produced therein.
Your recent work A Fly in the Curry is a landmark book about documentaries in India. Can you tell us about the book?
As documentary filmmakers and teachers, we keenly felt the paucity of writing about Indian documentary, particularly in the period after the 1970s. This was a book that we carried in our heads for a long time, before we actually got down to working on it. The book tries to explore strands within documentary film practice in India that have challenged dominant definitions of the documentary: as what Nicols calls “a discourse of sobriety”, with the onus of providing evidence of the real in order to change less powerful others. It is interesting that the ruptures within documentary practice in India that question fixed notions of reality and evidence, that rethink the role of the filmmaker, and her relationship with subjects and audiences do not follow any linear historical trajectory. The book engages with Indian documentary as a site of contestation, bringing together a range of films, across periods of time. It draws on textual analysis and accounts of documentary filmmakers, to provide a practitioner’s understanding of the spaces of independent alternative documentary in India. The book also reflects on the little recognised contribution of independent documentary to the Indian public sphere.
When you make documentaries on women’s issues is there a particular way in which you engage with the questions around them?
I think the question of understanding the flows of power and resistance, the everyday ways in which gender power equations get normalized, as well as the playing out of resistance and ruptures becomes important to explore. In this, one also tries to look at one’s own space and the performance of gender within it. Even if the documentary is not specifically on “women’s issues”, gender is a very crucial site of identity construction that weaves its way into all that one makes.
You are an advocate of participatory documentary film making. How do you ensure it in your film?
It is something that one aspires for, through the relationships that we establish with our subjects, through eliciting and taking on board their ideas for the documentation process, sharing the rushes with them whenever possible, and taking the rough cut back to them for their feedback. There is undoubtedly a relationship of power between filmmakers and their subjects, which we need to be aware of and negotiate, with sensitivity, ethical concerns and self-reflection.
YouTube - So Heddan, So Hoddan (2011)
YouTube - Naata (2003)
A Fly in the Curry: Independent Documentary Film in India (Sage, 2016)