But that certainly doesn't mean that the problems facing independent
documentary filmmakers have vanished altogether. One, equitable
availability of funds is still a major stumbling block and the medium
remains largely an elitist pursuit. Two, the exhibition network has yet
to acquire the requisite reach even as trusts and foundations in Delhi
and elsewhere do their bit to streamline the distribution of these
films. Three, the big city-small town divide continues to be yawning.
And last but not least, a myopic interpretation of archaic censorship
laws poses a huge challenge to documentary films, especially those that
seek to articulate uncomfortable, unspeakable truths about the Indian
Says Ranchi-based documentary filmmaker Shriprakash: “There is still
little financial support available for those working outside the metros.
The funding structure needs to change. The process of democratisation
has to be hastened in order to link the movement to the Internet and
other new modes of distribution.”
“Money isn't available,” he asserts, “for young filmmakers in small
towns and villages. Even if a boy here does manage to make a film,
marketing it is virtually impossible. This domain is still in the
control of big media players in the urban centres. So it's still a race
between a thoroughbred Arab horse and a donkey.” Shriprakash himself
belongs to a family of peasants and grew up in a village.
Shriprakash, whose films include a series of hard-hitting exposes on the
horrific impact of a lopsided development model on the indigenous
population of Jharkhand, is, however, quick to admit that he has been
able to do all his work out of Ranchi. “Thanks to the new filmmaking and
communication technologies that are now available, I do not have to go
to Delhi or Mumbai to make my films,” he adds.
One of Shriprakash's early films, Another Revolt, made in 1995,
dealt with the struggle of the tribals of Jharkhand against the Koel
Karo dam, the first such movement in India against dams and the
displacement caused by them. Since then, he has made films like Buddha
Weeps in Jadugoda on the effects on local communities of uranium
mining and the dumping of radioactive waste; The Fire Within about
how a century and half of coal mining has played out in the benighted
lives of Jharkhand's tribals; and Kiski Raksha (Whose Defence?),
which exposed how an army firing range in Netarhat could have destroyed
“I have never claimed that I am out to change the system,” he says. “But
I do use the medium to whatever extent I can to support people's
movements.” Two of these movements – the ones against the Koel Karo dam
and the aborted Netarhat army firing range – have yielded results,
illustrating as much the power of the people as the efficacy of
documentary films as a vehicle of protest.
Shriprakash's latest film, Eer – Stories in Stone, produced by
the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT), traces the oral history
traditions of various Adivasi communities of India – Mundas and Hos in
Jharkhand, Ramnamis in Chhattisgarh, Bhils in Madhya Pradesh, the Warli
tribals in Maharashtra and the Banjaras of the Gujarat-Rajasthan border.
Eer – the title is a Bhillari word loosely meaning gatha or
story – isn't, on the surface, an activist film of the kind that
Shriprakash is associated with. But it is certainly of a piece with the
critical work that he has done in documenting the lives, cultures and
memories of those whose voices are rarely heard in the mainstream media,
dominated as it is by urban filmmakers who have had a middle class
upbringing. “I've done enough activism in my time,” says Shriprakash.” Eer was
an opportunity for me to do something different.”
Paban Kumar, by his own admission, is not an activist filmmaker. But
like Shriprakash, several years his senior, he is today able to ply his
trade from his hometown in Manipur and reflect upon the political
situation there. But it took him several years to break into SRFTI.
Paban Kumar worked with veteran Manipuri filmmaker and cultural doyen
Aribam Syam Sharma for six years before he passed the admission test and
joined the Union government-run Kolkata institute.
In his second year there, in 2004, he was back in Imphal for a break
when 32-year-old activist Thangjam Manorama Devi, branded a member of
the separatist People's Liberation Army, was raped and killed by the
paramilitary Assam Rifles and the resultant outrage snowballed into a
full-fledged street civil disobedience movement demanding a repeal of
the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958.
“It was a watershed incident. Manorama Devi was the first woman ever to
be killed in custody by the armed forces. With the help of a journalist
friend (Sunzu Bachaspatimayum, also a filmmaker himself), I began to
record the events as they unfolded and the public anger that spilled
over on to the streets. It was like a video diary. I did not have a
full-fledged film in mind at that point,” recalls Paban Kumar.
The random recordings eventually yielded a powerful feature-length
documentary, AFSPA 1958, which instantly catapulted the young
documentary maker and the cause he was espousing into the global
limelight. Not only did the 2006 film fetch Paban Kumar the highest
national recognition – Swarn Kamal for the best non-feature of the year
(making him the first Manipuri director ever to win the honour) – a
rough-cut version of the film, Cry in the Dark, made for a
foreign TV network, travelled to the Toronto International Film Festival
and many other events around the world.
The SRFTI grad's march has continued unabated since then, with another
National Award coming his way in 2010 for his next documentary, Mr
India. The film is the story of a remarkable man, Khundrakpam Pradip
Kumar Singh, who learnt a decade ago that he was HIV-positive but went
on against all odds to become a champion bodybuilder.
Paban Kumar is now working on a documentary about three generations of a
family of Nupshabis, the female impersonators of Shumang Lila, a form of
traditional Manipur courtyard theatre in which men don the guise of
women. “The shoot is over and the film is in post-production,” he says.
This film will mark a return for the young filmmaker, who is also
currently working on the screenplay of a feature film, to the cultural
documentary territory on which his mentor, Aribam Syam Sharma, stamped
his authority through a body of work made up of both critically
acclaimed fiction films and evocative documentaries about Manipur art
and dance forms.
Manipur, a small state whose cinematic output was minuscule until the
last decade, now produces 60 to 70 digital feature films every year,
besides a huge number of documentaries and short films. “Cultural
documentaries were once the norm in Manipur,” says Paban Kumar. “Today,
more and more young filmmakers are dealing with contemporary political
issues in their work.”
Of course, when Paban Kumar shot AFSPA 1958, it attracted no
attention worth the name from the security forces, working as he did
with an unobtrusive digital camera. “But now the armed forces personnel
are far more conscious of cameras,” he says.
Paban Kumar could well be talking about all of India. Independent
documentary films have proliferated all around the country, and not just
in the metropolises, where resources are still largely concentrated. The
themes of many of these films are driven by a spirit of activism
although not every filmmaker in this space is necessarily comfortable
carrying the ‘activist' tag.
“In the wake of the digital revolution,” says Kolkata-based Supriyo Sen,
who has seven internationally feted titles behind him, “the independent
documentary movement has acquired a new vitality and dynamism with films
being made in small towns and rural areas on a wide variety of
He points out that a new audience for documentary films is emerging in
the big cities in India although its size is still pretty small by
global standards. “We show our films only to a select group of people:
friends, cineastes and members of civil society. It's all over with 10
to 15 screenings in all,” he laments.
Sen, of course, hasn't so far had to depend too much on the domestic
circuit for survival. His latest film, Wagah, made as part of a
commission from the Berlin Film Festival to commemorate the 20th
anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, questions the relevance of
the border that separates India and Pakistan. The film views the daily
ritual of the closing of the border gates, seen through the eyes of
three children who sell DVDs to the visitors who stream in every day to
watch the extraordinary spectacle.
Sen, a journalism graduate from Kolkata University who is now preparing
to mount his first fiction film, began his professional life as a
freelance scribe before venturing into filmmaking in the mid-1990s. “A
border has a special resonance for me,” he says, “because I am from a
family of refugees.”
The subjective and the informative coalesce in Sen's films in subtle
ways. In Way Back Home (1999), he traces his parents' journey
back to Borishal, Bangladesh, where they grew up, and in Hope Dies Last
in War, he focuses on the story of Indian PoWs stranded in Pakistan
since the 1971 war and the struggle of their families to locate them in
the hope of bringing them back.
Interestingly, none of Sen's seven documentaries has been funded in
India, nor have any of them been telecast on Doordarshan. “I've made a
living entirely by making films and all my funding has come from
abroad,” he says, alluding perhaps to the apathy that documentary makers
still face in India. “Documentary films tend to be political in nature.
That is perhaps why state funding for such films is limited at best,” he
Over the years, Sen has received financial backing from the Sundance
Documentary Fund, Jan Vrijman Fund of the International Documentary Film
Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) and the Asian Cinema Fund of the Pusan
International Film Festival, among others.
For Pune's Suparna Gangal, too, the urge to make films sprang from
purely personal impulses. The management graduate-turned-filmmaker, who
assisted Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni during the making of the successful
Marathi feature film, Valu, trains her camera on the inequities
that surround her in a city that is in the midst of an economic boom and
fuelling rapid urban expansion.
Gangal, a former HR professional, has been making films for eight years
but without depending on external agencies for funding. “I do corporate
films and documentaries for clients and use part of the earnings to fund
my own films,” says the filmmaker, who has obviously benefitted from her
MBA degree. It's a self-sustaining model that allows her to create
documentary content through small films as a launch pad to bigger
Urali Devachi – A Living Hell, a six-minute film about a
village 25 km from Pune that has been turned into a dumping ground for
the mountains of solid waste that the burgeoning city generates, has
brought her into the spotlight. A UN agency now wants her to make a
longer version of the film but she is still in two minds on whether she
wants to go down that path or explore other options that lie ahead.
Urali Devachi village was once a very fertile area known for its onion
produce. Today, due to its proximity to the overflowing dumping ground,
it is a toxic wasteland where malaria and dengue are a constant threat.
“While Pune prospers, its surrounding areas suffer,” the film asserts,
capturing the essential dichotomy of the development model that urban,
middle class India seems to favour.
Yet another short film made by Gangal, Life Goes On..., homes
in on an ageing ragpicker couple who collect trash from outside an
upmarket Pune hospital and expose themselves on a daily basis to
life-threatening health hazards. They are aware of the danger but are
too poor to forgo the `100 they make every day.
Gangal is now researching for a documentary on the situation in Kashmir.
“It will obviously contain political elements but will essentially
document the situation in the Valley from the point of view of the
common people of Kashmir,” she reveals.
For Gangal, the explosion of activity in the independent documentary
space is a godsend. “It is wonderful to see the dramatic increase in the
number of young people making documentary films: the more, the merrier.
It is like when you want to produce a sporting champion, your chances of
getting one improves if you have a pool of talent that is large and
That is certainly happening in India's independent documentary cinema.
Filmmakers are increasingly tackling themes and issues that rarely find
space in the mainstream media. And in doing so, they are coming into
conflict with the censors, who continue to place major hurdles in the
way of getting these films out into the public domain. It is a battle
that old hands like Anand Patwardhan and Rakesh Sharma, both of whom
have dealt with the rise of rightwing politics and communalism, have
fought for years for the filmmaker's freedom of expression.
As the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), the
government-mandated body that sits in judgment on the suitability of
films for public viewing, continues to apply antiquated laws that have
been overtaken by the constant evolution of technology, film makers like
Patwardhan and Sharma have had running battles with the establishment.
Governments come and go, but the control mechanism stays firmly in
During the reign of the NDA at the Centre, CBFC had ordered nearly 20
cuts on Patwardhan's anti-war, anti-nuclear documentary Jung aur
Aman (War and Peace). He appealed to the Mumbai High Court. He won
the right to screen his film without a single deletion. During the same
period, Sharma's film, The Final Solution, an exploration of the
politics of hate in the light of the Gujarat riots of 2002, was banned.
It saw the light of day only after the NDA went out of power.
Nothing has changed several years down the line. Ashvin Kumar, nominated
for an Oscar in 2005 for his short fiction film, Little Terrorist,
is currently fighting to rid his new feature-length documentary, Inshallah,
Football, of the ‘A' certificate slapped on it by CBFC, headed by
veteran actress Sharmila Tagore. The argument put forth by her is that
the film contains “graphic description of torture” and is, therefore,
suitable only for mature viewers. She has, however, said that “it's a
beautiful film and I want everyone to see it.”
Inshallah, Football narrates the true story of an 18-year-old
Kashmiri footballer, Basharat Baba, who struggles to acquire a passport
when he is selected by a FIFA-certified Argentine coach to train at
Santos Football Club in Brazil and then play professional soccer. It
tracks his dreams and frustrations in the face of attempts by the
authorities to stymie his promising career only because his father is an
ex-militant. Basharat's plight is no different from that of many other
Kashmiri youngsters grappling with overwhelming prejudice and lack of
So, Inshallah, Football isn't just one boy's story. It is also
the story of a man, Basharat's father, who believed in the cause of
azadi and was willing to go the whole hog to achieve his goal, even if
that meant joining a militant training camp on the other side of the
border and taking up arms. It is also the story of an incredible
football coach, Juan Marcos Troia, who lives and works in Srinagar with
the sole purpose of identifying and promoting talented Kashmiri
“An ‘adults only' certificate for Inshallah, Football defeats
its very purpose,” says Kumar, who was born in Kolkata, grew up in Delhi
and now lives in Goa. “It is only a genteel critique of what's going on
in the Valley. But it is also, importantly, targeted at children around
India so that they can see what children in Kashmir are thinking.”
Officially, the CBFC has informed Kumar that Inshallah, Football has
“characters talking about graphic details of physical and mental torture
they had to undergo” and that “the theme of the film is mature and some
dialogues can be psychologically damaging for non-adult audiences.” On
his part, Kumar, in a blog addressed to Ms Tagore, has asserted that the
real purpose of this censorship is to avoid causing embarrassment to the
Indian government with regard to the conduct of the Indian armed forces
In his open letter to the CBFC chief, Kumar has accused her of
appropriating powers that far exceed her mandate. “This is why you find
yourself defending conservatism and championing regression and
devolution. This is illustrated by your pronouncement that the ‘censor
board will work in the same manner as it has been working and it's not
going to back',” the filmmaker has written.
“If this is to be taken seriously,” Kumar goes on, “it would appear that
your organisation has no qualms in openly declaring that its philosophy,
purpose and mandate is to remain stagnant while the society to which you
are ultimately responsible becomes increasingly dynamic...”
Kumar's battle with the censors is still on. “I have appealed against
the certification. I have received an acknowledgment from the Delhi
censor board, but am still awaiting a final decision,” he says.
Questioning the very logic behind the CBFC decision to restrict the
film's viewership to adults, he asserts that Inshallah, Football is
simply a fervent appeal for humanity to prevail in the Valley.
Interestingly, another of Kumar's films, Dazed in Doon, set in Doon
School, is facing similar suppression from the school authorities who
commissioned the film in the first place but are now determined to
prevent its distribution because it is not in line with what they
consider appropriate. “It is sad that the Doon School authorities, who
should be leading the way in the fight for artistic freedom, are
themselves as intolerant as Sharmila Tagore and her band of censor board
members,” says Kumar, himself an old boy of the Dehradun-based school.
Encouragingly, in early March, Bangalore-based documentary film maker
Shabnam Virmani won a landmark legal battle when the Delhi High Court
ruled that her 100-minute film, Had Anhad, about the relevance
of the living traditions of Kabir in today's fractious world, be given
appropriate certification. The court also directed the Union government
to pay Rs 10,000 to the filmmaker to cover her litigation costs.
Lauding the maker of Had Anhad for her creative diligence,
Justice S. Muralidhar said: “The impugned orders dated 28 May, 2010 of
the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) and the order of 5
November, 2009 of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) are
hereby set aside.”
In June last year, another documentary film, Flames of the Snow,
a 125-minute cinematic account of the Maoist movement in Nepal, was
denied a certificate by CBFC. The makers appealed against the order and
a month later the film was cleared by a CBFC Revising Committee without
deletions but with the imposition of a rider that Flames of the Snow would
carry a disclaimer that the substance of the film was collated from
various media publications.
“That was ridiculous,” says the film's director Ashish Srivastav. “ Flames
of the Snow isn't just a collation of what has appeared in the
newspapers nor is it only a mere reflection of the makers' point of
view. It is a documentary and we could not have put words in people's
mouths. The film records what actually happened in Nepal. It was shot in
the heart of Maoist camps and contains the views of top political
leaders, including the then Nepalese Prime Minister Prachanda.”
Srivastav asserts that his film does not glorify guerrilla violence.
“Our aim is to understand the whys and wherefores of a people's movement
provoked by over two centuries of monarchy and feudal exploitation,” he
The film, produced and scripted by veteran journalist Anand Swaroop
Verma, who has been covering the pro-democracy movement in Nepal since
the early 1990s, was released across 42 theatres in the Himalayan
country. “For India, we have received enquiries for distribution, but
not yet for the theatrical circuit,” says Srivastav.
The independent documentary movement in India is alive and kicking. But
multiple obstacles still dog its progress. Many battles have been won.
But the war is still on. The happy augury is that those battling for the
right to provoke thought and question received wisdom are fighting fit.