Any celebration of 100 years of Indian cinema is incomplete without documentary films. Though many have been screened at the Centenary Film Festival, drawing an interested audience, their presence has largely been eclipsed by feature films.
“Unfortunately, though cinema began with documentaries, fiction does a lot better. People want to escape reality, rather than be confronted with it,” said Rajiv Mehrotra, a documentary filmmaker and director, Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT).
For a documentary maker, however, drawing an audience is not the biggest hurdle — arranging funds is. PSBT is one of the few organisations in India which fund independent documentaries. In the future, will we see private production houses backing these hard-hitting films?
“Unlikely,” said veteran filmmaker Mike Pandey. “Corporates might give money via CSR, but only to their own NGOs or films which serve their own causes.” Mehrotra echoes this view. “Most documentaries are anti-establishment, anti-status quo. What corporation will back films which are critical of the culture of consumerism?” he asked.
Documentaries tackle issues which are contentious, uncomfortable or under-represented. This year’s list of National Award winners are an example of the variety of stories, treatment and even languages on offer. Of the two films on Kashmir, non-feature film winner Shepherds of Paradise is on the lives of the nomadic Gujjar-Bakerwal shepherds, while Inshallah, Kashmir explores the effect of militancy on ordinary people.
But no matter how engaging or diverse documentaries are, is the public willing to pay to watch them? “I think they might. In the early 1990s, we organised ticketed screenings of documentary films at Pragati Maidan’s Shakuntalam theatre. They ran to packed houses,” said filmmaker Pankaj Butalia, who has made films such as Moksha. But Mehrotra disagrees. “People pay not just for content, but for a cinematic experience. A documentary doesn’t fit that experience,” he argued.
Globally, documentary films such as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 have shown that non-feature films can pull in the crowds. Indian documentaries, too, are upping the ante, improving production values, exploring tricky subjects in unorthodox ways — it’s an exciting time. “People are making films on subjects they feel strongly about as opposed to what they think they should feel strongly about,” said Mehrotra.
What’s to celebrate?
Shonali Bose, director of critically acclaimed films such as Amu and Margarita with a Straw is upset with the way things work in the industry. “We are celebrating 100 years of cinema but there is just not enough funding for independent filmmakers. Only a few gutsy filmmakers such as Anurag Kashyap (who co-produced Chittagong with her) are willing to give a platform to talented people. We should have a Prithvi Theatre kind of model for smaller films, where they can be screened and shown to the public,” she says.
As told to Parul K. Tewari