Megan Mylan’s journey started with the story of a child with a cleft lip. Her curiosity piqued by stories about Smile Train, an organization which helps treat children with cleft lips for free, the Emmy-nominated documentary maker decided to investigate further.
“I got to know about Smile Train, and I started exploring,” says Mylan, who arrived in India in March 2007 and visited a number of hospitals where the operations were taking place, before settling on the one in Varanasi. The result was Smile Pinki (2008), an Oscar-nominated documentary that tells the story of Pinki, and the quest to give a smile to the village girl with a cleft lip.
Miracle: Pinki before (below) and after surgery on her cleft lip. Smile Pinki
“The entire operation (to fix the cleft lip) was completely Indian-run and the fact that the operation took place in Varanasi added so much. I felt like it gave a window to the hospital and the culture,” explains Mylan, on her choice of subject and city. “It is the first time I had worked in India, but I am a storyteller, and the stories that draw me in are international.”
Mylan is representative of a new wave of foreign film-makers who are turning to the subcontinent for inspiration. Traditionally a haven for artists, musicians and writers, India is now attracting record numbers of documentary film-makers, drawn in by the depth and range of stories to be told, as well as innovations in technology and an easing of red-tape hurdles.
According to the ministry of external affairs, a total of 396 foreign nationals sought permission to shoot documentaries in India last year compared with 424 in 2007, when interest spiked due to India’s celebration of 60 years of independence.
“The number of foreigners making documentaries in India has increased, if only because there are more television channels around the world broadcasting content,” says Christopher Mitchell, who made Super 30 (2008), an award-winning documentary that charts the progress of 30 talented but poor students at the Ramanujan School of Mathematics in Patna, all of whom gained entry into the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) in 2008.
“It is also easier to work in India now than it used to be. I used to have to do everything officially. In the old days, equipment was large and impossible to hide but now cameras can be passed off as tourist cameras, which makes it easier,” adds Mitchell, whose documentary has been shown at the South Asian Film Festival in New York as well as the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Australian filmmaker Megan Doneman came to India to make Yes Madam, Sir (2008), which has won the best documentary award and the social justice award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, after hearing the story of Kiran Bedi, India’s first woman IPS officer, from her mother. She had intended to turn Bedi’s story into a feature film, but in the absence of funding, she bought a camera at the airport and took the documentary route instead.
“Kiran represents a David and Goliath story for me,” says Doneman, explaining her interest in the subject, “She is enigmatic and multilayered. I am interested in universal stories, and in lands that are foreign to me.”
On the downside, the obstacles for foreigners include language barriers, unknown cultural norms, the attention that a film crew generates, and in some cases, sexual harassment. A petite blonde who filmed Yes Madam, Sir in Delhi without a support crew, Doneman describes her experience as “a hard slog”. She says: “It was terribly difficult filming in India. I won’t say it was a picnic. Some men were very inappropriate in Delhi. I think the worst and best men I have met in my life have been in India.”
The surge in interest in Indian stories by foreign documentary makers accompanies a revitalization of the home-grown documentary scene, with film-makers such as Rajesh S. Jala, whose Children of the Pyre (2008) won the best documentary film award last year at the Montreal Film Festival, at the forefront of the revival.
To mark the change in modern India, organizers of the International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam last year picked 17 documentaries made by Indian nationals for screening at a special programme, including Punches n Ponytails (2008), a documentary on women boxers by Pankaj Rishi Kumar.
Industry observers credit the revival on technological innovation, a growing sense of self-confidence among an emergent generation of documentary makers, and commercial television, which beams images of a modern and multifaceted India to millions of viewers, helping to shake off reductive stereotypes.
The impact of Western documentaries such as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which was screened in cinemas across India, has also helped to bring home the capacity of documentaries to entertain while educating, according to Ashim Ahluwalia, the director of John & Jane (2005), a documentary about six call centre agents in India which was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Berlin International Film Festival.
“Documentaries used to be pedantic and heavy and boring,” says Ahluwalia. “They were treated like a lesson. Never in my opinion was it a space for exploration.”