The Turning Point: Spectacular success of India’s new-gen documentary movement

The Cinema Travellers had its world premiere in Cannes Classics at the 2016 Cannes film festival, where it won a Special Mention at the Golden Eye Awards presented on the sidelines.

entertainment, entertainment news
At a time when new practitioners of documentary filmmaking didn’t have the backing of state funds previously received from institutions like the Films Division for decades, an era in the last century considered the golden period of documentary filmmaking in the country, suddenly there were mentorship grants and co-production possibilities available both within and outside India.

It was well past midnight when Anand Patwardhan’s film, Vivek (Reason), ended its four-and-half-hour-long screening at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) four years ago. The audience lingered in the auditorium to pose questions to Patwardhan, whose documentary that begins with the assassination of activist Narendra Dabholkar in 2013 and ends with the killing of journalist Gauri Lankesh in 2017 examined the role of faith in the fragmentation of society into interest groups.

“It was an important film that people needed to see. It showed that documentary filmmaking is an act of courage,” TIFF’s then artistic director Cameron Bailey, who set aside tradition to watch Vivek on the editing table at Patwardhan’s home in Mumbai while he was scouting movies for his festival’s 2018 edition, told the audience. On the lineup of documentary films from around the world in Toronto were veteran documentary filmmakers Michael Moore, Werner Herzog and Rithy Panh, all handling hot political subjects. Two months later, Vivek won the Best Feature-Length Documentary Award at IDFA, the world’s biggest documentary film festival held in the Netherlands, the first-ever such honour for an Indian documentary film.

Half-a-decade later, another Indian documentary film is on the cusp of global triumph. At the March 12 Oscar awards in Los Angeles, All That Breathes by Delhi-based director Shaunak Sen and The Elephant Whisperers by Ooty-based Kartiki Gonsalves, both nominees in the documentary categories, could make history. All That Breathes is a nominee for the Best Documentary Feature award and The Elephant Whisperers for the Best Documentary Short, making it the first time two Indian films are vying for the top honours in both the documentary categories at the Academy awards in the same year.

Sen and Gonsalves, the two young filmmakers from the northern and southern regions of the country, symbolise a dream run by the Indian documentary genre on the international stage. Premieres and awards at top international film festivals in the past nearly a decade have made the documentary format from the country a hot commodity in world cinema. “This year has been especially good for Indian cinema at large and documentaries in particular. The appreciation of major international festivals for Indian non-fiction has been good,” says Sen, who has won international acclaim for his enigmatic interlace of pollution and politics in the heartrending story of two brothers caring for the predator black kites in the national capital.

This is the second consecutive year that the Indian documentary format has hogged the limelight at the Academy awards. Last year, another documentary from the country, Writing With Fire by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh about the Khabar Lahariya newspaper run by Dalit women in Uttar Pradesh changing the social and political landscape, lost out in the race for the Best Documentary Feature after winning the nomination, the first-ever for a full-length Indian documentary. The honours bagged by Indian documentaries in recent times come in the backdrop of a well-laid foundation and a documentary movement nurtured by such prominent names as Vijaya Mulay, Supriyo Sen, Faiza Ahmad Khan and Pan Nalin.

Also read: Anushka Sharma, Virat Kohli visit Mahakaleshwar Temple in Ujjain; Offer prayers. Watch

Turning point

“The track record speaks for itself with Indian documentaries recently claiming top prizes at Sundance, Cannes, TIFF —not to mention Oscar nominations in both feature and short categories this year,” says Thom Powers, artistic director of New York’s DOC-NYC and head of TIFF Docs. While earlier prizes for Indian documentaries have been won by foreign productions, the steady run of films made by Indian documentary directors in the past more than seven years has been remarkable. “For me, 2016 was a turning point when both The Cinema Travellers and An Insignificant Man played at TIFF and many other international festivals. What started as a trickle has grown into a steady flow,” says Powers, who occasionally covered film festivals for TimeOut, Mumbai, in the early 2000s.

The Cinema Travellers had its world premiere in Cannes Classics at the 2016 Cannes film festival, where it won a Special Mention at the Golden Eye Awards presented on the sidelines. “The Cinema Travellers was a real and intense revelation to us—Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya being really talented as documentarists,” says Gerald Duchaussoy, who heads the Cannes Classics programme that promotes conservation of world cinematic heritage. “Beyond the theme of the evolution from celluloid to digital and its effects on the screenings of films, the experience of being together and share the common experience of on-screen visual storytelling, we were blown away by the burning colours of the film which captured so well the density of the land of India,” adds Duchaussoy.

The year 2016 also saw Delhi-born documentary director Rahul Jain’s debut film, Machines, scorching the international festival circuit. Five years later, Jain would go on to premiere his sophomore movie, Invisible Demons, about the air pollution in Delhi, at the Cannes festival. Machines, which went to IDFA and Sundance festivals, examined the stifling conditions of factory workers in a textile plant in Gujarat. In Invisible Demons, Jain, a master’s degree holder in aesthetics and politics from the California Institute of the Arts in the US, turned his eye on the current geological age marked by the negative influence of human activity on the planet.

“I wanted to explore how artists in the last 100 years of filmmaking have been able to communicate our species’ relationship to the natural world because the most drastic changes came about in the 20th century, which was also the century of cinema,” says Jain, who focused on the disastrous consequences of air pollution on the poorest sections of the society.

New language

At a time when new practitioners of documentary filmmaking didn’t have the backing of state funds previously received from institutions like the Films Division for decades, an era in the last century considered the golden period of documentary filmmaking in the country, suddenly there were mentorship grants and co-production possibilities available both within and outside India. Abraham and Madheshiya, who studied filmmaking at the Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, were beneficiaries of the Documentary Edit and Story Lab of the Sundance festival (Sen received mentorship grants from Sundance and IDFA) in 2014, something which had a major contribution to the development of a new cinematic language for The Cinema Travellers. The directors turned heads at major festivals for their artistic and aesthetic interventions in still photography, which lit up the screen in the story of a travelling cinema in the hinterlands of the country.

If Abraham and Madheshiya took five years to make The Cinema Travellers, Ranka and Shukla trailed Arvind Kejriwal for months with their camera during the anti-corruption movement in the beginning of last decade for An Insignificant Man, the story of the founding of Aam Aadmi Party and the change of course of history for politics in the country. India’s young documentary filmmakers were now ready to match the patience and perseverance of a Patwardhan (the Mumbai-born director took 14 years to make his documentary, Jai Bhim Comrade, based on the 1997 mass killing of Dalit residents of Mumbai’s Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar colony). Sen and his production crew took positions in the basement of the Wildlife Rescue hospital for birds in Wazirabad, Delhi, for three years for the making of All That Breathes while Gonsalves befriended baby elephants and their caregivers in the Mudumalai forest in Tamil Nadu, for her debut documentary The Elephant Whisperers, which took five years to make.

An avalanche of audio-visual material available on social media, especially during the protests by students of Jamia Millia Islamia and JNU and the Delhi riots in 2019 provided a new filmmaking method for documentary practitioners like Pallavi Paul and Sen, both then doctoral students at JNU. Paul’s 2021 short documentary, The Blind Rabbit, which premiered at the Rotterdam festival in 2021, used ‘found footage’, as such material available on social media were called, to examine police violence and the inner workings of power. Editing became the most important aspect of filmmaking, not the actual shooting. “A lot of material was getting generated (on social media) on the ongoing violence. All I had to do was (wait) for them to find a way to speak to each other,” says Paul.

“The documentary movement has always been strong in post-independent India. What has changed is the manner in which the new generation of documentary directors is making artistically inclined movies, which are not only delivering information, but also trying to capture the nuances of realities,” says National Award-winning film critic Saibal Chatterjee. “That is why these new documentaries are doing well internationally. The younger Indian documentary filmmakers have a style which is intimate and personal,” adds Chatterjee, who has covered international film festivals like Cannes and Toronto in the past two decades. “Indian cinema is consistently on the world map more because of the country’s documentary films.”

Awards galore

After the success of The Cinema Travellers at major international festivals half-a-decade ago, the past two years have witnessed remarkable recognition for Indian films at the high table of global documentary cinema. In 2021 alone, three Indian documentary films—A Night of Knowing Nothing by Payal Kapadia, Invisible Demons by Rahul Jain and Writing With Fire by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh— wowed audiences across the world for their incisive style and aesthetic elegance.

A Night of Knowing Nothing by Kapadia, an alumnus of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, beat stiff competition from such heavy weights as American directors Oliver Stone (JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass) and Todd Haynes (The Velvet Underground), British director Andrea Arnold (Cow) and Italian Marco Bellocchio (Marx Can Wait) to win the Best Documentary prize at the Golden Eye Awards in Cannes 2021. A Night of Knowing Nothing, which premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight parallel programme in Cannes, also bagged the Amplify Voices Award at TIFF in the same year. Writing With Fire won the World Cinema Documentary-Audience Award and Special Jury Award in the World Cinema Documentary —Impact and Change category at the Sundance festival in 2021 before lapping up the Audience Award at IDFA and the Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature in the same year. Invisible Demons was the only Indian film in the official selection of the Cannes festival in 2021.

Also read: Sharmila Tagore returns to movies with accolades; reveals she cried after watching Gulmohar

In the following year, Sen’s All That Breathes began its awards-winning-spree at the Sundance festival, bagging the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema— Documentary category, before winning the Best Documentary prize of the Gold Eye Awards in Cannes in May. Three months later, While We Watched by Vinay Shukla won the Amplify Voices Award at TIFF, again the second successive award for an Indian documentary film in Toronto, after Kapadia’s success with A Night of Knowing Nothing, which picked up the same Amplify Voices Award in 2021. The Elephant Whisperers by Gonsalves, the story of a tribal couple caring for orphaned elephant calves, premiered at New York’s DOC NYC festival in November last year, capturing the attention of Oscar voters in America. “We were enchanted by the way director Kartiki Gonsalves captured the relationship between elephants and humans in a way that inspires audiences to reflect more deeply on their connections to animals,” says DOC NYC’s Powers, who is convinced that each project that breaks through builds a network of contacts for the next documentary maker to see how it’s done and raises expectations among international festival programmers.

It appears the Indian documentary is ready to cap its spectacular showing internationally in recent times with a historic Oscar victory on Sunday night at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. Two films shot in India—Smile Pinki (2008) by American filmmaker Meghan Mylan and Period. End of Sentence (2018) by Iranian-American Rayka Zehtabchi—have previously won the Best Documentary Short awards at the Oscars, but both were by foreign filmmakers who chose an Indian story and setting. With its minefield of stories, for long India has been a land that filmmakers from Europe and America looked up to for making documentary films. Italian documentary great Gianfranco Rosi, the winner of the Golden Lion in Venice and the Golden Bear in Berlin, made his first documentary film in Varanasi. Boatman (1993), incidentally started its journey at Sundance before going to festivals like IDFA, just like All That Breathes. “Instead of ‘parachute filmmaking’ that has been happening in India over many years when people from outside have been coming to the country to tell stories from here, with Shaunak’s and my film, it provides a beautiful path ahead to encourage and empower filmmakers from any background to come out with beautiful diversity,” says Gonsalves, the debut director of The Elephant Whisperers. “India is so diverse, we have a gold box of stories and it is time to open that and take it out into the world,” she adds.

Faizal Khan is a freelancer

Get live Share Market updates and latest India News and business news on Financial Express. Download Financial Express App for latest business news.

First published on: 05-03-2023 at 01:30 IST
Exit mobile version