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Non-fiction cinema at the crossroads

From retaining creative freedom to getting financial support—the many challenges faced by Indian documentary makers

A still from 'Lasya'
A still from 'Lasya'

In the last two years, Indian documentary films have enjoyed international acclaim, making waves at prestigious film festivals and even earning Oscar nominations and wins. However, the industry’s triumphs, exemplified by films like A Night Of Knowing Nothing and All That Breathes, have not completely dispelled the scepticism among film-makers. While recognition has poured in, the challenges persist, prompting a closer examination of the future prospects for documentary film-making in India.

This year, Film Bazaar, hosted by the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) in November in Goa, dedicated special segments to documentary films. These films, with a strong emphasis on sports, gender, and LGBTQ+ issues, offered a diverse array of narratives.

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Films like Lasya, directed by Shweta Bajaj, explore questions of gender identity, tracing the emotional journey of a 21-year-old undergoing sex reassignment surgery. Who Am I? by Sasi Kumar follows India’s first transgender postwoman, Parvathy, portraying themes of acceptance and breaking societal barriers. The selection also included powerful stories such as Iron Women Of Manipur, Ladakh 470, and The Village Girl Who Ran, shedding light on sports, endurance, and societal challenges. Haobam Paban Kumar’s Iron Women Of Manipur pays tribute to inspiring weightlifters Kunjarani Devi, Anita Chanu and Mirabi Chanu, while Supriyo Sen’s Waste Side Story captures the journey of a band creating music from waste materials in Kolkata. These films showcase the rich tapestry of narratives emerging from the Indian documentary scene.

Film Bazaar and similar platforms and labs, including Docedge Kolkata, play a pivotal role in offering opportunities for documentary film-makers in India. “They provide networking opportunities, mentorship, and industry exposure. By connecting film-makers with potential investors, distributors, and collaborators, these platforms contribute significantly to project funding and market access,” says Suresh Lakkoor, producer of Who Am I?.

The consensus is clear—self-motivation, non-institutional funding, international co-production, distribution hurdles, and home market rejection are persistent obstacles.

According to Samarth Mahajan, director of 2021’s Borderlands, a National Film Award winner, the journey from pitching to distribution is rife with challenges. Suggestions to commercialise his film by adding a celebrity host, turning it into a series, increasing its length and language clashed with Mahajan’s commitment to authenticity. Despite struggling with an OTT release in India, Borderlands eventually screened via film clubs around the country, found distribution on a South Korean television channel and recently released on YouTube.

“An OTT release in India didn’t work out and I really wanted the film to be seen. Through film club contacts and motivated by the National Award, over three months we had two-three screenings every week around the country, on a revenue-sharing basis. Then, afraid the film would wither away on my hard drive, we put it out on YouTube. It’s not ideal, but we really wanted audiences to watch it,” added Mahajan.

The challenges

Securing a release on international channels has become a common route for documentary film-makers, particularly those engaged in international co-productions. Nalini Elvino de Sousa’s jazz documentary Raga Rock—The Jazz Odyssey Of Braz Gonsalves is poised for release in Portugal. De Sousa remains optimistic, emphasising that passion for the story often outlasts monetary constraints. “I took five years to do my first documentary Special Envoy, because I couldn’t really get the funds, but I knew I would get there. I began documenting Raga Rock in 2019. Maybe it won’t be ready by the time Braz turns 90 next year and if I have to wait another two-three years, it’s okay. When you are really passionate about something, the funds will come,” she says.

Themes such as sustainability, gender, and LGBTQ+ issues are gaining prominence. Lasya director Shweta Bajaj acknowledges the curiosity around these topics but notes the difficulty in selling documentaries. Nevertheless, she remains optimistic, foreseeing growth as storytelling styles evolve.

“People are curious about queer issues and this brand new gender. That’s my advantage, but that does not mean that it is easy to sell,” says Bajaj. “I feel documentary film-makers will do better than they did two years back, because the style of telling the story is changing. As a film-maker you have to try and make your documentaries more entertaining, while keeping the crux of it solid. As a non-fiction storyteller, it’s a challenge to remain true to your stories while also entertaining people.”

The considerations are similar for Deyali Mukherjee who is exploring interest from international broadcasters for her film The Village Girl Who Ran but her aim is also to reach local audiences. “Film festivals are the best place to create some buzz but after that I would probably collaborate with some impact distributors who identify the core audience of your film—be it an institution, an athletic organisation, or screenings in small towns, sometimes for free. It’s a good avenue to reach eyeballs and set the ball rolling for a broader release. Film festivals reach cinema lovers, but a documentary needs to create a social impact and reach common people,” she says.

The long road to completion

National Award winner Supriyo Sen, who has dedicated over a decade to developing Waste Side Story, emphasises the importance of internal motivation and passion. “Those of us who make non-fiction films make them with love and passion for cinema and documentaries in particular,” he says, adding that telling the story truthfully, making the film commercially successful and profitable and reaching maximum—and the right—eyeballs are all equally important considerations. “Our films also require a lot of money. I put focussed professional excellence into my films. I want them to release in multiplexes. Films like All That Breathes and others that have won international awards, should get a cinema release, at least in urban cities. if you can push a film to the audience, they will watch it.”

Sen suggests that without commissions and funding, the documentary landscape in India won’t witness significant change. Paban Kumar agrees, “There is zero money for documentaries in this country. Almost all the documentaries made are foreign or self-funded. The biggest challenge for these self-funded documentaries is exhibition, sales and distribution. Except for the two or three documentary festivals, there is hardly any opportunity to showcase these films. In India there are thousands of channels and OTT platforms but not a single one dedicated to documentaries.” Film-makers rue that often after a robust film festival run of seven or eight screenings, the films languish, struggling for exhibition and revenue-generating avenues.

“Some documentaries are passion projects driven by a commitment to social justice or advocacy, where the emphasis is on the message rather than profitability. However, financial success can certainly enhance the film-maker’s ability to continue creating impactful content. Prioritising quality engagement over sheer numbers ensures that the documentary’s message resonates deeply with those who can effect change or contribute to the conversation,” says Lakkoor.

Bajaj identifies retaining creative control and remaining true to her story as the greatest challenge. “Nobody else will feel for your story the way you feel. When you stay with a story or a subject for three or more years, you basically end up watching someone very closely. Nobody else will feel for your story the way you feel. Nobody else is going to see it that way. You have to keep reminding yourself that rejection is okay and not to turn into a cynic. You need good directors like Vinay Shukla (While We Watched), Shaunak, Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh (Writing With Fire) to increase the market.”

Whether grappling with funding constraints or navigating censorship concerns, the documentary genre in India reflects a dynamic and resilient community that remains dedicated to authentic, diverse storytelling with social impact.

Udita Jhunjhunwala is a writer, film critic and festival programmer. She posts @Udita J.

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