Three years ago, 36-year-old graphic designer Nitesh Mohanty walked into Indo-French cultural centre Alliance Française to watch an Indian documentary — Anand Patwardhan’s Prisoners of Conscience.
The film, on the plight of political prisoners during the 1955-57 Emergency, caught Mohanty’s attention. “Until then, he had only seen popular international documentaries such as Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Inconvenient Truth,” he says.
That evening, Mohanty returned to his Borivli home, logged on to filmmaker Anand Patwardhan’s website and read the synopses of all of Patwardhan’s films.
Since then, he has watched several Indian documentaries and has a sizeable collection at home.
“I no longer buy tickets and unquestioningly watch mainstream Bollywood and Hollywood films,” he says. “In documentaries, I have discovered a more evolved method of storytelling, one that presents the facts and issues as they are and doesn’t take sides.”
Taking his new interest a step further, Mohanty launched Root Reel, a documentary screening platform, in January, to showcase documentaries from around the world.
He is organising his first screening at Alliance Française de Bombay later this month — a show of Spandan Banerjee’s black-and-white documentary You Don’t Belong, a story of migration told through folk music.
On the big screen
Mohanty is just one example of how mainstream audiences are beginning to turn to documentaries for infotainment on the big screen.
In April, for instance, PVR Cinemas will release The Rat Race, Mumbai-based filmmaker Miriam Chandy’s documentary on the city’s rat killers.
Starting end-March, Kolkata’s Nandan theatre will release documentaries twice a week.
And last December, Kerala State Chalachitra Academy and Indian Documentary Foundation — the latter founded by actor Jaaved Jaaferi — organised the first edition of Triggerpitch in Trivandrum, an event aimed at helping documentary filmmakers pitch their films to potential distributors and marketers.
It was at Triggerpitch, in fact, that Chandy of The Rat Race first met Prakhar Joshi, head of programming for PVR Cinemas.
“This is the first time we will release a documentary just like a movie,” says Joshi. “We will start with one evening show and, depending on the audience reaction, more shows will be added later.”
The reason PVR is willing to experiment now, Joshi adds, is because the audience is.
“The growing acceptance of slightly experimental movies in Bollywood is reflective of a subtle shift in what people want to see,” he says.
For Chandy, it was the response to her first public screening of The Rat Race, at the Mumbai International Film Festival in February, that encouraged her to consider a theatrical release.
“At MIFF, the auditorium was packed — and there was an equal number of people waiting outside,” says the 36-year-old.
It’s an increased level of interest that began to become apparent in early 2010, when Big Cinema released Leaving Home, a documentary on independent music band Indian Ocean, across six cities.
“In a documentary on musicians, the sound is obviously crucial, so a theatrical release was important,” says the Mumbai-based filmmaker Jaideep Varma. “But it was a Herculean task to get that theatrical release.”
Now, platforms such as Triggerpitch are making it easier for documentary filmmakers to secure tie-ups for marketing, promotion and distribution.
“We set up Triggerpitch because a lot of films die after doing the rounds of festivals. We wanted to address the issue of ‘What next after winning an award?’,” says Bina Paul, artistic director of Triggerpitch. Procuring funds for the actual making of a documentary film, however, is still very difficult.
“Usually, Indian documentary filmmakers are forced to pitch their documentaries abroad,” says Bishnu Dev Halder of Asian documentary forum DocedgeKolkata. “India is such a huge market. Even if 10% of the population started watching documentaries, we’d never have to go elsewhere to chase funders.” It’s not that people don’t like documentary films, he adds. “The real problem is that we have not been able to create a space for documentaries in the mainstream.”
Now, with that starting to change, Halder — and the rest of his fraternity — are finally seeing hope on the horizon.