The true resilience of India’s documentary filmmakers

ByRintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh
Mar 11, 2023 07:18 PM IST

The Oscar nominations for All That Breathes and The Elephant Whisperers mark an epoch. Nominated in categories known to be among the most difficult, birthed in a country with a negligible ecosystem for non-fiction, this is nothing short of phenomenal

In the summer of 2016, both of us had a decision to make. We were going to shoot the first schedule of our feature documentary and the question was — how big should the crew be and what shooting gear should we carry to ensure an expansive, yet intimate film? Deciding to keep it lean, we packed two DSLRs and a portable sound recorder and took the train to Uttar Pradesh. Little did we know that we would be filming the first rushes of Writing With Fire, which, six years later, would go on to become India’s first Oscar-nominated feature documentary.

As filmmakers Kartiki Gonsalves (The Elecphant Whisperers) and Shaunak Sen (All That Breathes) walk the red carpet, they’ll be celebrated for everything that the indie documentary spirit has come to represent. And for all of us, they’ve already won (Reuters/AP) PREMIUM
As filmmakers Kartiki Gonsalves (The Elecphant Whisperers) and Shaunak Sen (All That Breathes) walk the red carpet, they’ll be celebrated for everything that the indie documentary spirit has come to represent. And for all of us, they’ve already won (Reuters/AP)

At the Academy Awards, filmmaker Steven Spielberg asked us, “What has been the most surprising thing about your film’s journey?” A film team of three that worked with equipment that fit into a backpack has been nominated for an Oscar, we said. “Unbelievable,” he exclaimed. In many ways, if there were three acts to our story with this film, they would be — disbelief, disbelief, disbelief.

The first Indian non-fiction to be nominated for an Oscar was An Encounter with Faces (1978), a short documentary directed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra. Forty-four years later, in 2022, Writing With Fire became India’s first feature documentary to be nominated for an Academy Award. The very next year, this number has delightfully doubled with Shaunak Sen’s feature documentary, All That Breathes, and Kartiki Gonsalves’ short documentary, The Elephant Whisperers.

Yet, it is a little miracle that any documentary film gets made in this country.

With a handful of resource-strapped institutions such as the Films Division (FD) and Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT), supporting independent non-fiction, filmmakers usually dip into their savings to finance their indie projects. Film grants are non-existent, artist fellowships are frugal and private funding remains a pipe dream. Unlike their western peers, mainstream film production houses have not leveraged their clout to create distribution networks for non-fiction. When both FD and PSBT had their already limited wingspan further stunted last year, it felt like a death rattle for the documentary community.

It is against this desultory landscape that a legion of Indian documentarians built their own form of creative resistance, found their audiences and doggedly protected their voice. A decade ago, we attended a screening of Anand Patwardhan’s Jai Bhim Comrade. The film, which took 14 years to make, was not playing in theatres or on TV. After the screening, we saw a bespectacled man with immaculately cut white hair standing quietly with a box of DVDs. This was Patwardhan, among India’s most important voices, distributing copies of his film.

This image of irony and tenacity underscores the story of documentaries in one of the largest film-producing countries on the planet. Filmmakers such as Patwardhan, Deepa Dhanraj, Sanjay Kak, Nishtha Jain, Amar Kanwar (to name only a handful) have given us an oeuvre of films that are a searing record of India’s modern history and are chronicles of our truth. In a post-Trumpian era, these films have a new resonance that probably makes them even more relevant. The global celebration we’re now witnessing for Indian documentaries blossoms from seeds of consistent negotiations that these filmmakers have made for decades. Their intentional resilience is what our generation of filmmakers inherited as our cultural DNA.

In 2017, two years after the #MeToo movement ignited social media, activist April Reign’s tweet #OscarsSoWhite, as a response to all Best Actor nominations that year going to White actors, lit the internet. These movements, born alongside #BlackLivesMatter and #TimesUp, spurred a reckoning in the global entertainment industry around diversity, equity and inclusion on both sides of the camera — necessitating more diverse leadership across film funds and festivals, who are opening doors for artists from underrepresented regions. For Indian filmmakers, this has created a sliver of access to the financial muscle needed to develop long-term narratives and embark on international co-productions and creative collaborations. While this has not meant producers or streamers queuing up to commission our films, it has given a fillip to a new cohort of films that articulate the voice of our generation of storytellers.

Supermen of Malegaon (Faiza Ahmad Khan), Katiyabaaz (Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa), Cinema Travelers (Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya), An Insignificant Man (Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla), Machines (Rahul Jain), A Night of Knowing Nothing (Payal Kapadia), Writing With Fire, All That Breathes (Shaunak Sen), While We Watched (Vinay Shukla) and Against The Tide (Sarvnik Kaur) — are films that have transformed the journey of the Indian documentary. In their storytelling — some crafted as thrillers, some as love letters, some breaking the strictures of the three-act structure — incisive and intimate, these films are stretching the very seams of the word “documentary”.

The Academy’s documentary branch now has six Indians as members. In three consecutive years, three Indian documentaries have opened and won at Sundance. Top awards at Cannes, Busan, the Toronto International Film Festival, the International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam; nominations at the BAFTA, the Producers Guild of America Awards and Gotham Awards have transformed the way Indian documentaries are claiming a place under the meridian sun, both at home and abroad. There is a temptation to celebrate this moment as the “golden age”, but the fact that a majority of these titles are not available to watch in India dents this hyperbole. This cohort of filmmakers, including us, also comes from contexts of privilege with resources that are not easily accessible to storytellers from marginalised backgrounds and gender-diverse identities. What the field needs is systemic shifts in both non-fiction production and distribution that go beyond this moment of pride.

While mainstream industry support leaves much to be desired, filmmakers and academics continue mentoring the next generation of filmmakers. For instance, filmmaker-scholar Nilotpal Majumdar has championed South Asia’s only film pitching forum, Docedge Kolkata, which in its incubator format has nurtured feature documentaries for over a decade. Celebrated wildlife filmmaker Rita Banerji is running Green Hub, a fellowship programme in Assam, to empower indigenous storytellers to take charge of their narratives. Recently launched, India Docs — co-created by a group of young filmmakers as a funding and mentorship platform to support non-fiction stories by Indians that are accessible to Indian audiences — holds promise.

Hosted in Hollywood’s belly, the Oscars are considered the gold standard of recognition in the world of cinema. With multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns arm-wrestling for certain big titles, whether they should be considered so, is another much-needed conversation. For us, with Writing With Fire, it was testing if we can push the boundaries of how far an indie Indian documentary can go. Riding up against impossible-to-imagine-dollar campaign budgets of titles from Netflix, Apple, HBO, Amazon and National Geographic, it felt that making the final five would be impossible — no independent film in recent memory had done it. Naturally, when Writing With Fire was nominated, we went wild with joy. For us, the nomination was the win.

Last year’s disbelief is this year’s promise. As Kartiki and Shaunak walk the red carpet on Sunday, they’ll be celebrated by the community for everything that the indie documentary spirit has come to represent. And for all of us, they’ve already won.

Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh are Academy Award-nominated filmmakers, co-founders of Black Ticket Films,

and members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences

The views expressed are personal

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