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Deepa Dhanraj started making documentaries in the 1980s, is still at it, and continues to feel sufficiently provoked by the burning issues of the day to use words like “stunned" or “blown away" while talking about how she chooses her subjects.

“I feel like a dinosaur," Dhanraj jokes about sticking around in a scene that has seen countless burnouts and fadeouts. The documentary scene has considerably expanded to include personal subjects, a pursuit of the quirky and the curious, and an emphasis on individual stories over ideological questions—which makes the 60-year-old film-maker’s dogged documentation of grassroots organizations working on social issues all the more relevant. Her most recent work, Invoking Justice, is a classic example of the personal-is-political approach that marked several fictional and non-fictional cinematic pursuits in the 1980s. The 86-minute film shared the award in the Best Documentary (above 40 minutes) category at the recently concluded Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF), apart from snagging a Best Editor award for its talented editor, Jabeen Merchant.

Invoking Justice brings together Dhanraj’s decades-old practice of drawing links between ideology and mobilization, political awareness and social change. It follows the decision-making process of the one-of-its-kind the Tamil Nadu Muslim Women Jamaat. Set up in 2004 by Daud Sharifa Khanum, the all-women organization emerged in response to allegations of chauvinism, corruption and abuse of power in the traditional, and all-male, Muslim jamaats. The female jamaat tackles cases involving women and their families—a possible dowry death, domestic abuse—within the framework of the Sharia code, using their knowledge of the Quran, moral superiority when taking on resistant male gatekeepers of religious law, and wiliness during negotiations with potential allies.

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‘Invoking Justice’

Apart from Invoking Justice, MIFF also screened a new version of Dhanraj’s 1986 documentary, Kya Hua Is Sheher Ko?, which captures with the immediacy of a breaking news story a communal riot in 1984 in Hyderabad. Restored on the suggestion of documentary historian Nicole Wolf by the Living Archive Project of the Arsenal—Institute for Film and Video Art in Berlin, Kya Hua Is Sheher Ko? was shown at the Berlin International Film Festival last year. The two titles span the history of one individual and the Indian documentary itself. The Dhanrajian strategy of using the documentary as a tool of political consciousness-raising is typical of the 1980s. While Kya Hua Is Sheher Ko? highlights the economic and social costs of the insidious communalization of Hyderabad, Dhanraj’s Something Like A War (1991) and The Legacy of Malthus (1994) lay bare the injustices resulting from a target-oriented family planning programme that denies women control over their bodies.

The Advocate, a biographical documentary of human rights activist and lawyer K.G. Kannabiran made three years before his death in 2010, provides a telling snapshot of the world of leftist ideas and ideals that continue to inspire Dhanraj. Born in Hyderabad, she studied English literature at the Women’s Christian College in Chennai before becoming an assistant in 1980 on films by Pattabhirami Reddy and M.S. Sathyu. The agitated 1980s, in which the Left battled the Indian state as well as the rising Right, saw, among other movements, an upsurge in Indian-style feminism. Several Left-oriented women’s groups sprouted across the country, taking up the causes of marginalized women and placing their problems within the framework of patriarchy and social and economic inequality. As a member of the film-making collective Yugantar, Dhanraj made four documentaries, including explorations of the conditions of beedi workers and domestic helpers.

“I consider myself part of a political community—I was never fed only by cinema," says Dhanraj. “I am big on research, and what one can distil out of theory. The Advocate, for instance, is trying to look at the discourses of justice—it is Kannabiran’s biography but it is also about the history of the human rights discourse in India, its origins, its engagement with a political education of people via their actions and writings, tracking how it moves from a praxis on the ground into the realm of common sense." Her peers, among them Manjira Dutta, Tapan Bose, Anand Patwardhan (who had started making films in the 1970s), and Suhasini Mulay, were similarly swayed by their political concerns. “We were all influenced by Latin American cinema, by films like The Hour of the Furnaces, as well as feminist cinema coming out of the States, like The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter," Dhanraj says.

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‘Kya Hua Is Shehar Ko?’

Conversations, interviews and speeches are an integral element of Dhanraj’s films. She regularly uses the spoken word to tease out the phenomenon being documented—The Advocate consists mainly of an extended conversation with the late lawyer. “More than the visual, what I respond to is the voice," Dhanraj says. “In all my work, what has fascinated me is people’s speech. I just like to sit in the mud somewhere and have someone tell me something. I have often been accused of being a talking head film-maker."

Yet, Dhanraj’s films have tremendous visual power that gathers, storm-like, through the narrative. Something Like A War has an unforgettable sequence of doctors shoving around a woman who has come to a government clinic for a surgical procedure—the result, Dhanraj argues, of a scheme that values targets and numbers over the health and dignity of women. Although Invoking Justice is careful to avoid arousing emotions, it is hard not to react to the grieving mother who weeps breathlessly as she asks why her daughter was burnt to death. The film was shot, as were the others, by Navroze Contractor, the veteran cinematographer whom Dhanraj met in 1980 and later married. Contractor’s sensitive eye and intimate and fluid camerawork have animated several social issue documentaries and films. He has closely collaborated with Dhanraj to the extent that she says that “my film-making would be nothing without it—he has such a tender eye".

Dhanraj’s self-confessed “rough and ready aesthetic" has resulted in accounts of social change that don’t reach for easily digestible resolutions, and which try to avoid audience-friendly but ethically questionable depictions of victimhood and sensationalism. She has, however, made a subtle aesthetic shift over the years, to create more room for an emotional impact.

“I don’t believe in giving people a voice and all—being a behalfist," Dhanraj says. “I don’t see myself as a facilitator and mediator and all that rot. From the very first documentary, I have tried to work on a process that creates political affiliations. You know, how do you stand with people? I think this was very important for us. Initially, I felt passionately that one had to appeal to reason, to political frameworks that would then be persuasive to bring people round to one’s point of view. I have not abandoned this approach completely, but I feel increasingly that you can’t work through an approach to intellect alone. I believe that something has to happen where people are moved at an intuitive level."

Dhanraj was determined to make Invoking Justice “a calm and still" documentary. “I didn’t want people to go down those alleys of horror and shock and miss the brilliance of what was going on," she says, pointing to the tremendously far-reaching actions of the women’s Jamaat. “Though we were dealing with painful stories, I wanted people to meet the characters in compassion, and that influenced the choice of footage—Jabeen was very much a part of the structure. I never went to film school and that leaves me handicapped—each film has always been a struggle, and I always wish I had better film-making smarts."

Yet, Dhanraj has soldiered on, adapting to the switch from 16mm film stock to digital technology and to new modes of financing and distribution, even submitting herself to a pitching session at the DocEdge documentary platform in Kolkata some years ago to raise funds for Invoking Justice. Pitching involves submitting a trailer or rushes to a fund allocation committee—a process that can go wrong even with the most experienced of film-makers if their presentation falters or their material isn’t deemed to be audience-friendly enough.

“It felt weird, I was surprised to get funding, it was a bit of a lucky dip for me," Dhanraj says. “Funding has always been a problem. It is exhausting, and it is not easy even when you get a little bit of money since you have to continue shooting. You have to be half-mad to make documentaries."

Invoking Justice will be screened at FD Zone in Mumbai on Saturday ( and at the Persistence Resistance Festival ( in Delhi on Monday. To order a DVD of the film, email

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