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Cinema of dissent needs break

Will independent documentary filmmakers, a breed apart, ever get their due in India?, asks Saibal Chatterjee

india Updated: Aug 26, 2003 18:21 IST

The question is posed at every given opportunity. The answer, too, is probably too well known to bear repetition. Will independent documentary filmmakers, a breed apart, ever get their due in India? A way out of the morass is yet to be found.

Documentary filmmakers, who have congregated at India Habitat Centre in New Delhi for the Public Service Broadcasting Trust's ongoing "festival of reality films", Open Frame 2003, know that their struggle is unlikely to end anytime soon. But the warriors of truth fight on regardless from the trenches of undeserved oblivion.

The question refuses to go away: will independent documentary films, in other words the cinema of dissent, ever find their rightful space in India's chaotic and predominantly commercially-oriented cinematic universe? Will these remarkably free voices that capture the sheer diversity and awesome depth of the experience of life and democracy in a multi-cultural nation ever spill over from the screen into the public domain and impact our collective discourse and official policy decisions?

Like it has done in the case of Ochre and Water, a Namibian/South African documentary that traces the journey of the nomadic Himba tribe of northern Namibia as they resist the development of a dam that threatens to destroy their world forever. The film, its intrepid maker Joelle Chesselet reveals, resulted in the ill-advised dam project being jettisoned by the authorities. As she points out, the film succeeded in mobilising public opinion and creating awareness as it traveled to numerous countries and film festivals.

"Not all activist films can however hope to achieve their avowed ends," she says in the course of a forum discussion organized as part of Open Frame '03, "but what matters in the end is the spread of awareness. The emerging network of filmmakers and NGOs can ensure that problems facing marginalised people do not disappear into a dark hole but are made visible."

Sadly, activist films, despite their swelling numbers, remain largely invisible in India, given the hopelessly lopsided distribution-exhibition system that exists here. Profit-oriented assembly-line products that are designed to meet the basic entertainment needs of the masses dominate the commercial equations almost entirely. These films, owing to the market compulsions, promote a blinkered, comfortable, status-quoist view of the world, couched in escapist dreams and fantasies.

Not that they do not occasionally allude to the ills plaguing our society, but they do so only in the form of sugar-coated packages that seem to suggest that no problem that exists in this part of the world is beyond magical solutions. The mainstream media, driven as it is by the same motives as the makers of these films, chooses to dance to their homogenised tunes. The media does not have either the space or the foresight to recognise the worth of cinematic images and representations that run counter to the established lines of thinking.

The climate that is thus created enables a cartel of "commercial censors" and an apathetic officialdom to stall the spread of independent cinema that seeks to question established social and political structures. Officially sponsored documentary films - the ones funded by the Films Division - are instead often dumped upon viewers through official channels, but they present only half the picture. For the rest of the big picture, one has to rely on independent voices. Sadly, these voices are rarely, barely heard.

But India certainly has no dearth of activist filmmakers who make their varied points with as much force as their counterparts elsewhere in the world. "Films of dissent have no distribution network in this country," says documentary filmmaker Rakesh Sharma. "We have so many bodies and organizations of filmmakers. It is high time we did something about improving matters."

Sharma's Aftershocks: A Rough Guide to Democracy is among the fifty films on show in Open Frame '03. The film probes the functioning of democracy in the lowest unit by focusing on the plight of two earthquake-affected Gujarat villages that face the prospect of displacement to make way for lignite mining and power generation. "I realize that there is no space for activism here. So I just record a story that I feel strongly about and explore all the tendencies that I detect within its ambit," he says.

Doordarshan is the only real public service broadcasting platform that India currently has. Documentary films are periodically telecast on the national network, but they are banished to unearthly time slots that hardly encourage mass viewing. SY Quraishi, director-general, Doordarshan, on his part, blames public apathy for the lack of outlets for meaningful documentary films.

"Documentary films," he says, "are generally dismissed as dull and boring. That's a huge myth. National Geographic and Discovery are documentary channels but they are anything but drab. Efforts must be made to change the popular perception about non-fiction films."

That, obviously, is easier said than done. But the indomitable spirit of the activists of the independent documentary filmmaking fraternity in India keeps them going in the face of daunting odds. If the Public Service Broadcasting Trust is here to provide a much-needed thrust to the movement, can a real breakthrough be far behind?

First Published: Aug 25, 2003 12:44 IST