Towards People’s Cinema: Independent Documentary and its Audience in India
Edited by: Kasturi Basu and Dwaipayan Banerjee
Three Essays Collective, January 2018
Documentary film has had a long and interesting career in India. It was mobilised, until Independence, as a vehicle for Imperial propaganda, and put in the service of the nation-building project in free India. To be sure, much of Films Division (FD) sponsored documentary work also did not rise much above the status of propaganda, but its ideals were self-avowedly loftier – to educate the ‘masses’ beholden to tradition, to create modern and scientific-minded citizens, national integration, etc. Work of several filmmakers, like S. Sukhdev and SNS Sastry, supported by FD in the 60s and 70s did betray an independent streak, evidenced by their efforts to tackle difficult subjects coupled with bold formal experiments, but their critical perspective seems to have dissipated by the time of the Emergency.
Despite the oppressive tendencies of the State emboldened by the Emergency, the widespread social ferment pulled several sharp and critical voices, including documentary filmmakers, into the political realm. This moment, in the estimation of several practitioners and observers of the form, marks the inception of the independent documentary film in the country with Anand Patwardhan’s iconic 1978 film Zameer ke Bandi (Prisoners of Conscience) – a film about thousands of political prisoners detained without charges or trials during the Emergency.
Independent documentary has since moved from strength to strength; from being a response to the perversion of democracy during the dark days of the Emergency to establishing itself as a generalized praxis of dissent and resistance. Though the broad contours of this journey are quite well known, limited work is available for those interested in a fuller and critical account. But with the recent publication of Towards a People’s Cinema: Independent Documentary and its Audience in India, an edited volume put together by Kasturi Basu and Dwaipayan Banerjee, this need is addressed in various significant ways.
First and foremost, because the majority of media researchers are partial to the study of the processes of production or interested in textual analysis, we know very little about the creative ways in which different audiences engage and negotiate with the texts. Therefore, the centring of the audience in the volume is refreshing and important because it allows us to go beyond the usual question of what the media do to the people and instead pose a counter – what do people do with the media? It is evidently a more important question to ask if we are to explore the political potential of independent documentary film in a meaningful way. A minor quibble that one has with the volume is that the reader does not get to encounter the audience directly, but mainly via the filmmakers, or as the editors like to address them, the film workers. The volume would have been a lot richer had the audiences been brought into the conversation on their own terms.
Two, it is no small achievement that the volume, in spite of accommodating a range of practitioners and practices, perspectives, and geographical and political contexts, manages to retain its focus more or less through its entire length. It is also to the credit of the editors that they were able to define the scope of the volume in such expansive terms that allowed them to bring together a rich diversity of contributions and open up a space for conversation between filmmakers, activists, and audiences. As is the case with any edited volume, there are several notable exclusions, particularly those engaged in the domain of Community Media, but it is fairly representative of the topic.
The volume is organized into four broad sections. In the first section, titled History, Delhi based filmmakers Sanjay Kak and Uma Chakravarti provide brief and insightful histories of the independent documentary in India; former through tracing moments of ruptures and transitions, and latter through a more personal narrative grounded in feminist documentary film practices. Biren Das Sharma’s essay, which should ideally have been the first in the section, is a deeper dive into the history of independent documentary.
The second segment, Practice, brings together reflexive writings and interviews of some of the leading practitioners of the form. Filmmaker Deepa Dhanraj’s interview is of particular importance for raising pertinent questions about ethical dimensions involved in the making of political documentaries. Another interesting aspect of the documentary film that emerges in the section is that of its interface with evolving technology. In the section on the prolific Pedestrian Pictures, Deepu mentions the collective’s foray into short videos, which they circulate primarily through WhatsApp. Jharkhand based Meghnath pushes this point further by observing that the while the “Right Wing forces are using the available new technology with utmost seriousness…our Progressive friends are lagging far behind; they must break out of this alienation with technology”.
Collectives, the third section is the most exciting of the four, where several groups involved in production and screening of films are profiled. Working within difficult circumstances, almost all the collectives make use of documentary film in a way different from others. If one were to identify a common refrain running through the section, it would be: It is not enough to make political films, films need to be made and shown politically. Though the focus of the larger volume and the section is the documentary film, the profiles of Ektara Collective, Bhopal, and Jan Cinema, Mathura, who often blur the boundaries of documentary and fiction, come across as the most interesting of the lot for trying to create an organic form rooted in their respective local milieus. Others, like Cinema of Resistance, greatly further our understanding of documentary film and its potential to facilitate socio-political engagements.
The fourth and the last section, Legacy, again provides a deeper historical context of the independent documentary film as a political tool and its vitality. It comprises an essay by Tapan Sen on the use of cinema in the Naxalbari movement, and a reproduction of Anand Patwardhan’s 1981 MA thesis on his own film Waves of Revolution. This section though useful is perhaps the weakest of the four. While Tapan Sen’s essay could have been made a part of the any of the other three sections, one is not quite sure if reprinting an entire MA thesis in an edited volume is such a good idea. Though, Kak in his essay is perhaps right in saying that Patwardhan’s filmography could be a “possible spine for a timeline” of independent political film, giving roughly one-fourth of the volume’s little over 400 pages to a single filmmaker seems excessive.
Edited volumes, since they usually bring together new and diverse perspectives, are often good occasions to forecast where things are likely to go from the present juncture. If there is a particular weakness of the volume it is its reluctance to make a substantive gesture towards the arc that independent documentary might bend towards. One productive strand to explore in this regard could have been the sharp and urgent interventions several individuals and groups, like Dalit Camera, are making using mobile and online technologies. They have not only invigorated the realm of politics but also further blurred the boundaries between filmmakers, ‘subjects’, and audiences.
A shorter version of this review was published by The Tribune