What's up, Doc?

A rather unfortunately named article.

BHARATH MURTHY was only one of thousands who watched Mysore Mallige, a home video made by a young couple, that mysteriously appeared in the public domain in Bangalore a couple of years ago and became a porn classic. Murthy, however, made a documentary about Mysore Mallige, probing the huge sensation it caused and discussing the obvious themes of voyeurism and exhibitionism. Not only does Murthy interview Ashish Rajadhyaksha, film studies scholar as he watches Mysore Mallige, he goes on to interview Mysore Mallige cultists. One young man reiterates fervently that every ‘young fellow’ should start watching porn early in life to acquire cultivated tastes in porn. The filmmaker, his girlfriend and the cultists enthusiastically enter into speculations about the good-looking couple who made the home video. The gossipy, obsessive air of Murthy’s documentary makes it remarkable viewing. Historian Mukul Kesavan once wrote that his generation assumed that documentaries were films you watched involuntarily, but something has changed: Indian documentaries are no longer uniformly insistent on improving your mind.

In Chennai, a film tears audiences into the outraged and the fascinated. Its subject: Nakulan, a well-known Tamil writer who died earlier this year. Arunmozhi’s film consists of a single meeting between the elderly Nakulan, the filmmaker and a common friend. Nakulan is puzzled at being asked questions that are the staple of celebrity interviews. He does not remember his stories or his fame. Arunmozhi’s film is as far from a hagiographic biopic as it is possible to be. In Avijit Mukul Kishore’s documentary Snapshots from a Family Album, ostensibly about his mother, details about her life are jettisoned. The focus is on the nature of her relationship with her filmmaker son while the camera is on. Mukul’s mother admonishes him: “Are you trying to make art cinema with shots that go on and on?”

Surabhi Sharma’s Jahaji Music traces the evolution of musical genres among Indians in dancehall queens and chutney soka dancers, with their ferociously sexual dancing and simple confidence, jolts any smugness about an immutable Indian culture. In one of the narrative strands, musician Remo Fernandes attempts to record songs with musicians in the Caribbean. The film allows Remo neither denouement nor enlightenment. He is last seen in a dispassionately shot scene exchanging tantrums with a local singer.

DOCUMENTARIES NO longer preach. Today, documentaries reflect philosophical enquiries, aesthetic considerations and political commitments. “There is a lot more personal filmmaking,” says filmmaker Paromita Vohra, director of Unlimited Girls.

“It is not just about giving the audience facts. Meetha bolo to samaj… saying that aesthetics will take you away from the content is disrespectful. Our ordinary lives are full of beauty and why shouldn’t our films reflect it? We are not firing arrows and the audience is not a sitting target…” says filmmaker Amar Kanwar. The question of aesthetics in documentaries has only recently gained legitimacy. Aspirations to artistry have been considered frivolous in India where documentaries emerged from the nation-building impulse. Both the Raj and the Independence movement were equally quick to screen footage of political events. Gandhi’s secretary Mahadev Desai may have said that India’s battle for freedom does not depend on cinema but the Mahatma himself understood the nature of the medium. A 1931 newsreel had an interviewer asking Gandhi, “Would you be prepared to die in the cause of India’s independence?” Gandhi smiled and responded, “It is a bad question.”

The Emergency made independent films the medium of choice for an outraged generation. However, undiluted outrage rarely translated into uplifting cinematic experience. In the early 90’s, audiences, newly riveted by cable TV, laughed at the idea of being preached at for a couple of hours. Government and non-government funding had dried up and in the pre-digital days filmmaking was still expensive and complicated.

Documentary filmmakers were once perhaps best represented by the position that Anand Patwardhan takes. Patwardhan, arguably India’s best-known documentary filmmaker, has made several films on the grand themes of war, peace, development and communalism — elegant, epic essays. He maintains that style is irrelevant. “I’m not particularly interested in the question of style and form. While making a political documentary you are aiming to get as many people as possible to see it. If you tell the story ina very indirect way, there is the danger of it being indecipherable.”

Vohra says, “In my early days as an assistant, an issue based documentary was not supposed to indulge itself with artistry. It’s not as if you see a film and say ‘chalo sathiyon let us change the world.’ I know documentaries are interventions but I also wanted my film to be fun, to expresses ambiguity.”

However, documentaries are enjoying a revival today and Vohra frequently gets calls from NGOs “to make a film like Unlimited Girls.” “Every norm is being turned upside down. The activist impetus of the independent filmmaking movement has been transformed into a many-headed monster,” says Surabhi Sharma. Almost anyone who has been following documentary films in India will tell you the first shift in style happened in 1997 with Kanwar’s The Season Outside. The film begins with the synchronised military ceremony at the Wagah–Attari border and talks quietly about violence in everyday lives. Audiences accustomed to haranguing documentaries were, at first, startled and then relieved by Kanwar’s quiet meditations.

Kanwar describes the impulse behind that film, “Earlier one went out to look for images that fit preconceived notions. We would come back from a shoot and rehash the images harmoniously to fit the jigsaw and form a narrative. If it didn’t fit we would force it to fit. The more skilled you were in doing in this, the more acceptable it was. These were extremely boring films to make.

“I had begun to find the quest for the perfect sound byte intrusive. I felt compelled to make a film that was closer to what one feels and what one thinks.” The Season Outside was the frontrunner of films that were not message driven These films stopped pretending that the filmmaker was absent and a monosyllabic message was dropping out of the clear blue sky.

THE VOLUME of documentaries beingmade today is startling. Filmmaker Rakesh Sharma says, “In the early 90s there were 15 to 25 independent films being made every year. Today, there are 300 to 500. Anybody can make a film if they want.” To make Riding Solo to the Top of the World (2006 National Award winner) Gaurav Jani rode his motorbike from Delhi to the Changthang Plateau in Ladakh. Jani, the oneman crew on this film, loaded his 200 kg bike with over 100 kg of equipment and supplies and shot a film about his journey across some of the world's most difficult terrain. Jani’s otherwise unremarkable film is compelling evidence that today’s filmmaking technology allows idiosyncratic filmmaking on an extremely low budget.

Rakesh Sharma is more than happy to talk about changes in the business. “Earlier, it was enough that activists merely made a film. Everyone would say ‘issue ko uthaya’. Filmmakers could get away with blue murder, neither judged by filmmaking rhetoric, nor activists’ standards. What you got was very shoddy cinema.
Shoddy films are still being made but audiences are far more sophisticated.”

Sharma lists elements of old-style filmmaking. “The bookshelf background interview. You had a social expert in front of a bookshelf full of progressive titles who pontificated about why society is the way it is. You don’t see this anymore.” “Earlier when we didn’t know what to do with a subject we would make him walk
around in the film. People in documentary films used to walk a lot,” says Rahul Roy whose sensitive and witty film When Four Friends Meet draws audiences in unlikely places ten years after it was made. “There is a desire for the real image. In the nineties, if you did two screenings of your film in Delhi, you felt good about it. Now I am invited to three or four screenings every month. There are screenings in colleges, dozens of small film festivals and not just in the big cities,” says Roy. Kanwar’s films are now being screened in art galleries and museums.

Traditionally, filmmakers have been shockingly disinterested in creating audiences. In his film Jani invokes a Ladakhi saying, “The land is so barren and the passes so high that only our best friends and our fiercest enemies would want to visit us.” The line could well have described documentary filmmaking in the past. Funds came from the government and NGOs, films were made and there ended the filmmaker’s responsibility. Now Rakesh Sharma and a handful of others have begun marketing plans to stop preaching to the converted. The first sign of this has been the appearance of well-known documentaries on the shelves of stores like Planet M. Rajiv Mehrotra is one of the few dissenting voices in this excitement. This is odd since his NGO, Public Service Broadcasting Trust was a major force in the revival of the documentary film. “Our filmmakers are still merely skimming the surface powerfully. The drama is driven by the content rather than powerful storytelling. How will art flourish if we don’t experiment with form?”

Santana Issar’s Bare has taken a stab at that. Stilted phone conversations between family members about her father’s alcoholism accompany visuals spliced together from home videos that Issar’s parents shot as young people. In the final, poignant shot we see Issar’s five-year-old self wandering about a ship’s deck, responding to her father’s voice booming over the Tannoy.

Vipin Vijay often features in discussions about current experiments with form and particularly about the appearance of playfulness in Indian documentaries. Video Game in which we see the filmmaker trundle around Purulia in a black Ambassador, won the Tiger Award for short films at Rotterdam in 2007. It is a rough, yet intriguing version of a road movie, with its speculations about cinema and the automobile. Vijay has enough skill to make shots alternating between rusting cars in vineshrouded junkyards and Baul musicians singing of inevitable mortality not appear silly. Vijay’s films would probably enrage oldschool filmmakers, who remain severe about “post-modern” self-indulgence. Post-modern is a curious invective in activist circles. Even those who approve of Vijay’s films are not too sure why they do so. Vijay is comically alarmed at the idea of a noble documentary filmmaker with a message. “Simply recording what is around you is actually an insult to nature. Is the filmmaker just a recording machine? What is the point of images without imagination?” He carries a ragged Robert Bresson book everywhere and makes irrepressible films about everything from Master Madan to menstruation rituals. “We have not found an Indian style of filmmaking yet. It will come.”


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