In India, documentary films have played a crucial role in exposing injustices and mobilizing resistance movements. But they have struggled to gain traction in the country’s current political climate.
Writing with Fire is an exception, having premiered at a globally revered festival and winning a L’OEil d’or award in 2021.
Documentary Films in India
India’s fractious political climate can make it difficult for documentary filmmakers to find audiences, producers and platforms. Streaming services are unwilling to risk a politically charged film that could be subject to government intervention, and filmmakers are often left with no budget for post-production or promotional materials.
India has long been an alluring subject for Western documentary filmmakers, from pioneering James Beveridge’s 1957 Himalayan Tapestry to the acclaimed 2007 series The Story of India. But more recently, Indian documentaries have gained momentum with the rise of homegrown narratives crafted by indigenous filmmakers.
Formal invention and ambition coalesce in the 2021 L’Oreal d’Or-winning A Night of Knowing Nothing, Payal Kapadia’s lyrical study of India’s rising intolerance that layers archival footage with student protest videos. The film’s amorphous structure and insistence on authenticity speak to the legacy of Indian masters Satyajit Ray, Bimal Roy, Ritwik Ghatak, and Mrinal Sen, who employed the camera as an instrument for recording the world around them.
Documentary Films in Hindi
Documentary cinema in India is a hybrid genre: conceived by the British and nurtured in Indian hands. The first generation of documentary filmmakers strained against the invisible shackles of propaganda, and strived for greater creative liberty and honesty.
Directors like Kanwar and Sharma used the medium to chronicle political turbulence in diverse parts of the country. Their films showcased the poetry of tragedy and protest performed by regional artists.
The second generation of filmmakers took documentary to new heights with innovative narratives and aesthetics. Filmmakers like Ranka and Shukla made political-minded documentaries that strayed from the conventions of mainstream filmmaking to chart new frontiers. For instance, Ranka’s An Insignificant Man captured the birth and rise of Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi, constructing the film like a nerve-wracking heist thriller. Similarly, Shukla’s Writing with Fire followed the editorial team of the Dalit newspaper Khabar Lahariya in Bundelkhand.
Documentary Films in Tamil
Using the camera as their weapon, Indian documentary filmmakers have long struggled against invisible shackles that encircle political activism. FD documentaries like Sukhdev’s AnIndian Day (1967) and Sastry’s The Capture of Haji Pir Pass (1968) portrayed the realities of India’s independence struggle that the government preferred to gloss over, while directors such as Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, and Mrinal Sen pushed for greater creative liberty in exploring ethnographic modes of documentary filmmaking.
In recent years, a new generation of nonfiction filmmakers has emerged, spurred by the rise of intolerance in the country. Shukla and Ranka are among them, with films like Writing With Fire and An Insignificant Man capturing India’s nascent police state. Nevertheless, these filmmakers face challenges when seeking funding for their work. Often, depending completely on foreign support necessitates a dilution of aesthetic and narrative aspects to fit certain criteria. In such cases, the filmmakers have opted to forgo funding entirely and go it alone.
Documentary Films in Telugu
Filmmakers like Vishnu Manchu are moving away from the blockbuster mould to create a series of documentaries. The Manchu scion is said to be taking up the project as a fulfilment of his father Mohan Babu’s wish.
In the past, documentary filmmakers in India have had to fight censorship and political pressure to make their films. Manoj Patwardhan, for example, spent his career battling the CBFC for films such as Reason and Final Solution.
Even when documentary makers are able to complete their films, it is often difficult for them to find a platform. For example, Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s Cinema Travellers, a riveting look at travelling cinemas in rural India, and Faiza Ahmed Khan’s Supermen of Malegaon cannot be found on any streaming site. Similarly, Abhay Kumar’s A Night of Knowing Nothing and Dibya Kapadia’s Placebo both explore the debilitating academic standards that have spawned mass student suicides in India. Both films, however, take a different approach to the issue.