Why can’t Indian filmmakers make documentaries?

In February, Writing With Fire, a feature-length documentary directed by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh about a diary run entirely by Dalit women, was nominated for an Oscar. Previously, in February 2021, it won the Audience and Special Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival.

In January at Sundance, another Indian entry, All That Breathes, directed by Shaunak Sen, won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema category. At the 2022 Cannes Film Festival which ends today, the film which documents two brothers in Delhi and their love for kites – the bird, that is – was screened on Tuesday.

These seem to be glory days for Indian documentarians. But truth be told, these are unfortunately lightning bolts in the pan. Documentary films remain a secondary spectacle, for the public as well as for the producers, even if the genre has gained audience via streaming platforms and documentaries made in other countries.

And yet, documentaries in this country have a great history. The Lumière Brothers, the first presenters of films shown in Paris on March 22, 1895 (nine months before presenting the world’s first commercial film screening), visited India in 1896 and, on July 7, presented six of their short films on four shows at Hotel Watson in Bombay. All the films were documentaries.

Among the audience was a photographer, Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatavdekar, aka Save Dada. Inspired by Enlightenment images, Bhatavdekar commissioned a camera and projector from London. Like the French duo who recorded real events, the Indian, too, decided to film local scenes. The result – years later, Bhatavdekar’s The Wrestlers, a short documentary depicting a wrestling match between two local wrestlers at the Hanging Gardens in Bombay.

After independence, the Film Division of India (FD) was established in 1948 and dealt with nation building through its documentaries. FD has become the largest state-supported documentary producer in Asia.

Ironically, FD merged with three other government-run media units into the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) in March. Apart from being a producer, FD had also made it their mission to create an extensive visual archive of all things India, which remained essential for documentary research until its dying day.

But over the decades, documentary filmmaking in India has found itself moving away from ‘simple’ documentation to recording and presenting only the nation’s achievements. Independent documentary filmmakers found it extremely difficult in the late 1960s to come up with a distinct cinematic language addressing various aspects, nuances and stories of life in India. Without realizing it, the Indian documentary has increasingly become an esoteric genre.

This was the beginning of a phase of making documentary films that required long shooting, substantial funding and better distribution. FD was neither prepared nor aligned to make documentaries that required complex storytelling. For the filmmakers, one recourse was to fall back on private financing, on someone who had the taste and the means to “try their luck” with documentary films.

This avenue of private funding came into play when Satyajit Ray was commissioned by the chogyal (king) of the then independent Kingdom of Sikkim to do a kind of publicity campaign for the nation. The result was the 1971 60-minute documentary Sikkim. The film was banned after Sikkim merged with India in 1975, and was only lifted in 2010 to be banned again after screening at a film festival.

At the end of the 1980s, Indian filmmakers were in crisis. There was no organized state-based support system unlike other countries, nor were there enough individual producers willing to support documentaries. Those who could access international funds began their search. With many terms and conditions set by these organizations, only partial funding was usually obtained.

In 2000, the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT) was established, creating a platform from a joint venture between PSBT, the Ford Foundation and GoI’s Prasar Bharati. Its mission: to support at least 52 Indian documentarians in 52 independent projects per year.

Even today, the challenges faced by documentary filmmakers in this country are enormous. Many people who, rightly, while watching captivating documentary films or series from other countries or on a streaming platform, wonder: why can’t Indian filmmakers make such documentary films? The short answer pretty much lies in the subject of this article.

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