Ajay Noronha wanted to know his father. He had barely had the chance since Joseph Noronha died in 1975, when the film-maker was 6. Noronha could have satisfied himself by rummaging through photographs and letters or talking with family members. He did that—but he also made a documentary.
The results of Noronha’s decade-long inquiry will be revealed on 12 October, when A Picture of You will be premiered in Mumbai. The heartfelt documentary folds together interviews with Noronha’s mother and siblings, visits to the family homes in Nagpur and Goa, and ruminations by the film-maker on his quest.
A Picture of You is the latest addition to an ever-expanding archive of private images, moments and memories that are being made public by film-makers in India and abroad. These documentaries are about other people’s families, but many of them are inclusive enough to remind us of our own. The details of what happened to who are specific but the experiences—loss and laughter, departure and return, illness and recovery, birth and death—are not.
The couple in I for India that migrated to the UK in the 1960s are film-maker Sandhya Suri’s parents, but they could be people we know. Any one of us could have grown up on the ancestral property being demolished in Ramchandra P.N.’s Miyar House (2011).
Noronha’s experience is distinctive—what makes it universal? “I had seen similar films but I hadn’t seen any about a middle-class Goan Roman Catholic family,” he says. “While it remained rooted in the community, the quest remained universal—the search for a missing loved one.”
The family documentary—a well-established genre in other countries and increasingly popular among Indian film-makers—can represent many things to its creators. Sometimes, it becomes a device to put the spotlight on a community or a subculture. In the Mumbai-set film Marine Drive (2012), Krishna Bagadiya trains his lens on his sprawling Marwari family that lives in a building in the neighbourhood by the Arabian Sea, focusing on an uncle who has swapped commerce for spirituality. “Think of Bombay and Bollywood will show you Marine Drive,” Bagadiya says. “It is such an iconic destination, yet there is no insight into who are these people who live here.”
More often, however, the family documentary is an occasion for a confessional, catharsis, therapy, closure. “Film is what I know, what I trained in, what I feel passionate about,” Noronha says. “Film seemed to be the best way to tell a story about forgetting and remembering.” A Picture of You has served its purpose, he feels. “The void I had felt about not really knowing my dad has, to some extent, been filled,” Noronha says. “It helped me understand myself better.”
Sound recordist Pritam Das dealt with his mother’s mysterious and possibly misdiagnosed ailment by picking up a camera. The Pursuit of Answers (2012) attempts to expose the failures of the medical system in Kolkata, where his family lives. The documentary works less as an exposé and more as an act of exposing the self. It contains Das’ feelings of guilt about living away from his folks in Mumbai and his occasional inability to deal with his mother’s ill health, which leads to heated exchanges between the two. “When mom’s first episode happened, I thought I wasn’t going to see her again,” Das says. “I started recording on my Sony Ericsson phone. Later, I used a digital video camera.”
The film was “definitely cathartic”, he adds. “When I watched the film, I know what my faults are. I never knew I could be so harsh. I have since changed myself.”
Ramchandra’s Miyar House is a far less harrowing but equally personal record of a way of life that has disappeared. When he learnt that his ancestral home in rural Karnataka was going to be razed, Ramchandra decided to document the process. His family members were reluctant to be filmed, but eventually came around. “When we landed at the house, they opened up,” Ramchandra says. “When they saw the demolition, they forgot about the camera.” The documentary captures “the place, the memories and the feudal system that existed then”, he adds. “The film is about the loss of a lifestyle and the inevitability of change.”
Personal films can project all kinds of social concerns over the shoulders of family members—and it helps if the family members have some kind of tryst with history.
Safina Uberoi turns her camera on her eminent sociologist parents, J.P.S. and Patricia Uberoi, in My Mother India (2001), highlighting inter-faith marriage and religious identity in the process. A marriage between two faiths also forms the backbone of Samina Mishra’s The House on Gulmohar Avenue (2004). Mishra, who is the great-granddaughter of former president Zakir Hussain, interviews her family members to understand the contemporary issues facing Muslims. The film is personal and political.
“My generation of film-makers inherited this idea that documentaries were going to change the world,” Mishra says. “It was important for personal stories to be connected to a larger idea. To make a film about myself would have been self-indulgent. I may not feel like that now.”
Technology has aided the spread of the family documentary: Small and light hand-held cameras can easily capture candidness and intimacy in the present, while home movies shot on 8mm and super 8mm stock enable the return of the past. I for India (2005) extensively uses super 8mm films shot by Suri’s father to capture his new life in England, his visits to India and a failed attempt to return. The documentary would not have been possible if Suri’s father hadn’t locked up his memories on film, she says.
“I most certainly could not and would not have made this film without my father’s home movies,” Suri says. Her family’s particular experience tells a larger story of immigration and relocation, she adds. “This question was present throughout the edit—how to make this personal story resonate beyond the limits not only of this family, but of Indians, to all immigrants, to anyone who has left their home.”
Archival footage validates the past—and its fragile beauty makes memories come alive. Pankaj Rishi Kumar’s Kumar Talkies (1998), about his family’s movie theatre in the town Kalpi in Uttar Pradesh, includes sequences of the cinema’s inauguration that were shot by his aunt. “That’s when the film happened for me,” says Kumar, who made the film three years after his father died. “The documentary became a means of trying to understand what my father was all about as well as what cinema in a small town was all about,” he says.
Kumar had to navigate the ethical minefield that confronts all film-makers who point cameras at their kin: how to deal with revelations that show loved ones in an unfavourable light. “There is so much that happens behind the camera,” Kumar says. “But you don’t use everything. You think twice about what you want to bring in, will it help the film? If it’s a strictly personal film, it can be tricky—you are laying yourself bare.”
Bare is, in fact, the title of Santana Issar’s short film, made in 2006 and exploring the film-maker’s relationship with her alcoholic father. Ghostly images of family holidays shot during Issar’s childhood are contrasted with a phone conversation in which she confronts her father about his alcoholism. Noronha faced similar conflicts while shooting A Picture of You—how best to explore his father’s drinking habit, for instance. “The uncomfortable bits were the reopening of old wounds, things people would rather forget, family disputes, things that you blocked out of your consciousness,” he says.
Family documentaries help film-makers work out their relationships with their parents—and not all of it has to be painful. Avijit Mukul Kishore’s Snapshots From a Family Album (2004) is a love note to his parents, whose jobs forced them to live apart for a few years. “I was interested in looking at growing up with people and watching my parents grow older at that moment,” Kishore says.
The act of using the camera as a third-party negotiator can be especially loaded if a film-maker is queer. Nishit Saran’s Summer in My Veins (1999) captures his coming out to his mother. The revelation proves to be painfully direct.
“What is it you want, tell mamma,” Minna Saran says.
“I’m gay,” he replies.
“You’re joking, you like to shock people,” she says. “You can’t say this to me on camera.”
The documentary ends with the words, “Now I just need to figure out how I am going to show this movie to my mother.” Nishit Saran died in a car accident in Delhi four years after making the film.
Sonali Gulati’s I Am (2011) takes another route. Gulati, a film-maker who teaches at the Virginia Commonwealth University, US, never came out to her mother. After her mother died, Gulati used the family documentary to meet the parents of gays and lesbians.
“While I use my personal story as the backbone for the narrative structure, I address larger social justice issues and weave in the stories of others with whom I share some connection,” says Gulati. “I am drawn to personal work because growing up, I didn’t see any images of people like myself. I didn’t know another Indian lesbian. There was absolutely no representation of queerness anywhere. So for me, it is a personal and political act to make work that is in some ways self-representational.”