It would be an odd young film-maker who wouldn’t be ecstatic about a review by Wim Wenders.
Kolkata-based film-maker Supriyo Sen’s short documentary Wagah was one of the five that the 2009 jury of the Talent Campus at the Berlin International Film Festival—chaired by Wenders—decided to fund. The German film-maker also made sure it was the closing film of the festival. The film has won close to 30 awards since.
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Now, in a double coup of sorts, Sen’s film is among the first set to be part of the newly announced Economist Film Project. Since 28 April, in a tie-up between the American broadcasting network PBS and The Economist magazine, PBS is showcasing clips from selected documentaries, which will also be the focus of special segments airing regularly on PBS as well as the project website (www.film.economist.com) through the year.
The winning shot: (clockwise from above) Supriyo Sen at Berlinale 2009; Sen at his studio in Kolkata; and a still from Wagah. Photos: ©Alexander Janetzko, Berlinale 2009; Indranil Bhoumik/Mint; and Detail Film.
Wagah, a film about the daily ritual closing of the border between India and Pakistan, looks through the eyes of three children who sell DVDs of the parade to onlookers. They remain unmoved by the “patriotic” frenzy around them. Wenders distils the film’s essence with his pithy comment that is now the film’s strap line: “Wagah is a manifesto against any wall that divides people”.
Another Indian documentary that has made headlines lately is activist and film-maker Ananya Chatterjee-Chakraborti’s Understanding Trafficking, an 89-minute documentary on women and child trafficking, which won the Humanitarian Award at the Tiburon International Film Festival 2011 in California, US, in April.
While the two films are very different, their global success illustrates signs of a marked change in the way documentary films from India are navigating cinematic landscapes.
A new reel
Right down to the new Wong Kar Wai-inspired lights in the loo, the office of Overdose Joint, “Q” or film-maker Qaushiq Mukherjee’s production company in Kolkata, has to be seen as a burst of fresh energy. The meetings are impromptu, visitors stream in incessantly and there is constant brainstorming on future projects. Q wears an uncharacteristically hassled expression. This is what he had foretold a few years ago, he says; “when there’s so much work, but so few people.”
With Gandu (2010), a provocative Bengali feature film which assumed cultish dimensions, and his documentary Love in India (2009) having catapulted him into the league of newsmaking film-makers, Q has been working on Sari, a work-in-progress documentary, for over 18 months. It is the first film to be co-produced by the non-profit media and human rights group Magic Lantern Foundation, he says, lighting up at the thought that this might begin to reverse the begging-bowl syndrome perpetually facing Indian documentary film-makers.
When Ranjan De set up the Magic Lantern Foundation in Delhi in 1989, it was to give a semblance of form and order to the documentary circuit. De and his team had struggled with making their own documentaries for years, with no funding or support. “Independent documentary films were made, screened at a festival or two and then lost. It was all a shot in the dark,” says De. The “formalization”, brought about by a grant from the US non-profit Ford Foundation, meant helping independent documentary film-makers produce their films and coordinating with funding agencies.
Getting high: Q at the office of his production house, Overdose Joint. Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
While the initial focus was on production, the foundation moved on to distribution with Under Construction Films (www.ucfilms.in) in 2005, and later, organizing an annual documentary film festival, Persistence Resistance, in 2008.
But initiatives such as De’s are small steps in an uphill trek. “In India, there is no substantial space on television—a major avenue in other parts of the world—for documentaries,” says De.
Sen, who has been a pioneer in more ways than one in his 16-year career as a documentary film-maker, agrees —his 2003 feature-length Way Back Home was one of the first Indian documentaries to have a theatrical release. While Wagah won a National Award, the film has never been screened on Doordarshan. “Earlier, it was mandatory for Doordarshan to screen National Award-winning films but that rule seems to have lapsed now,” says Sen.
Sen observes that access to international funding has been the primary factor in changing the status quo for documentary film-makers based in India. The few organized avenues that do exist are the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT), which produces a slew of 52 films annually. And there’s the Films Division and the ministry of external affairs—both of which are mired in bureaucracy.
Over the years, Sen has received funding from bodies such as the US’ Sundance Documentary Fund, the Jan Vrijman Fund of the Netherlands’ International Documentary Film Festival and the Asian Cinema Fund of South Korea’s Busan International Film Festival. Wagah was made on a budget of €30,000 (around Rs 19.86 lakh).
Q’s Sari, which is expected to be complete in 2012, is being made with a budget of approximately Rs 1.5 crore, an unimaginable figure so far for Indian documentary film-makers. The film studies the passing of the sari from everyday attire to ceremonial wear. “My mother’s is the last generation that wore the sari daily, unlike my girlfriend. Yet we see that the typical Indian look is in the sari state and even Savita Bhabhi, the current Indian sex icon, is sari-clad,” says Q.
Apart from Magic Lantern, he has television networks such as YLE, Finland, and Knowledge Network, Canada, as co-producers. He has come a long way since he made his first quirky piece of documentary film, Le Pocha, in 2004, with a self-generated budget of Rs 50,000. The film on Bengali alternative music, life and style was indicative enough of his talent for Shyamal Karmakar, a member of the faculty at Kolkata’s Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI), to invite the film-maker to Docedge, the documentary film training and pitching workshop held annually at SRFTI. His pitch for Love In India immediately bagged funds from the commissioning editors of YLE, Finland.
“What is happening is that newer narrative styles and more engaging forms are being explored by Indian documentary film-makers, who are also objective when treating content,” says Pranav Ashar, founder of the Mumbai-based Enlighten Media Group.
Established in 2006 with the objective of disseminating world cinema in India, its newly formed arm, Enlighten Documentaries, is set to commercially release seven Indian documentaries by 15 May but the films will be available across India only around 25 May, keeping in mind logistics and other distribution processes. In 2009, they had released Anand Patwardhan’s War and Peace and a two-DVD pack of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) documentaries. This new set of films which comprise John & Jane by Ashim Ahluwalia, Q’s Love in India, Lokapriya and Rasikapriya by Arun Khopkar, Bishar Blues by Amitabh Chakraborty, 7 Islands and a Metro by Madhushree Dutta, Children of the Pyre by Rajesh Jala and Unlimited Girls by Paromita Vohra—will be available across 500 retail outlets in India, including Oxford, Crossword, Landmark, Odyssey, Music World and Planet M. This is a first of a kind initiative, according to Ashar. “We plan to add five of the best Indian documentaries every month. Our effort will be to create a market for them. Earlier, we tested the market with War and Peace and everybody made a small profit. We want to use the distribution network that we already have for our world cinema titles,” he adds.
In tandem with direct sale ventures such as these, an increase in screening venues is helping raise overall awareness of the genre in India. The programmers of Shamiana—the short-film club which spans seven cities—include both Indian and international documentaries in its mix of short films for monthly screenings in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Ahmedabad. Important documentaries from around the world are routinely screened at initiatives such as that of the magazine Time Out Delhi, which screened the Oscar-nominated Exit through the Gift Shop by Banksy and Bomb It by Jon Reiss multiple times over the last week as part of a workshop to increase the public’s understanding of graffiti.
As Q puts it, the Indian documentary film has gone beyond the PSBT circuit. The film-makers have transcended boundaries too. A producer from Overdose Joint has travelled to Cannes to market Q’s work and connect with indie-minded producers and distributors