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Filming with fire: Behind Indian documentary's biggest year

In the past year, Indian documentaries have recorded historic firsts. Their success shines a light on a scene brimming with fresh ideas but hampered by censorship and a lack of support 

(clockwise from top left) Stills from ‘All That Breathes’, ‘Writing With Fire’ and 'A Night of Knowing Nothing' 
(clockwise from top left) Stills from ‘All That Breathes’, ‘Writing With Fire’ and 'A Night of Knowing Nothing' 

Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh were inside the plane, on the tarmac at Delhi airport. The makers of Writing With Fire knew the Academy would be announcing the shortlist of 15 for the Documentary Feature Oscar anytime. Their expectations were tempered—no Indian film had gotten this far. Thomas opened her phone and checked WhatsApp. She let out a shriek: “We made it!” Some six weeks later, Thomas and Ghosh were on solid ground—and on camera—when they became Oscar nominees: the fourth Indian feature ever, the first documentary.

This isn’t the only Indian non-fiction film in the past nine months to record a historic first. In February, Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize , the top award for a non-American documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. And last July, Payal Kapadia’s A Night Of Knowing Nothing won the L’Oeil d’Or, awarded to the best documentary across categories at the Cannes Film Festival.

Also read: ‘All That Breathes’: Let's go save a kite

The critical success of these three films has propelled Indian non-fiction into a rare international spotlight. There have, of course, been several acclaimed documentary film-makers before them. Anand Patwardhan, the most well-known director currently working, won the top award at the International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA), arguably the world’s biggest documentary showcase, for Vivek (Reason) (2018). Experimental film-maker Amit Dutta continues to churn out beautiful, idiosyncratic works of art. Still, over the last decade, something seemed to shift. Non-fiction cinema had always been the province of young, independent directors in India but increasingly, there was a willingness to experiment and push the boundaries of the form.

A still from ‘Writing With Fire’
A still from ‘Writing With Fire’

It started with small commercial releases—a rarity, then and now—for Jaideep Varma’s Leaving Home (2010), Faiza Ahmad Khan’s winsome Supermen Of Malegaon (2012), Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa’s sly Katiyabaaz (2013), and Nishtha Jain’s Gulabi Gang (2014). In 2016, Abhay Kumar’s Placebo, a hybrid documentary about the intense pressure on students at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, streamed on Netflix. Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla’s An Insignificant Man (2016), a fly-on-the-wall look at the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party, battled the censors before releasing in theatres. The Cinema Travellers, Amit Madheshiya and Shirley Abraham’s film about mobile cinemas in rural India, premiered at Cannes in 2016 and was awarded a L’Oeil d’Or special mention. Rahul Jain’s Machines won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for cinematography at Sundance in 2017. “I really think better work has happened in India in non-fiction than in fiction (in recent years),” says Shaunak Sen. Certainly there’s more of a sense of individual vision, from the spooky animation in Placebo to the joyful musicality of Anushka Meenakshi and Iswar Srikumar’s Up Down & Sideways (2017) to the jangly verité of An Insignificant Man.

And yet, the scene is far from ideal. For starters, you have to go to great lengths to see these films in India. Because there are barely any repertory theatres here, festivals are usually the only way documentaries make it to big screens. Even that isn’t possible a lot of the time—despite multiple festival showings and small commercial releases abroad, A Night of Knowing Nothing, Writing With Fire and All That Breathes have not screened in India yet. OTT platforms have shown little interest in showcasing creative documentaries. A good many of the Indian fiction films that have won international prizes in the last decade are streaming somewhere. But it’s as if Indian non-fiction doesn’t exist.

It’s tough to get an independent film made in India. It’s even tougher to make independent documentaries. Creative-minded independent documentaries with a political edge… really, it’s a miracle they exist. State funding in India is negligible; studio backing is non-existent. This means a good many of these films are being made with foreign grants or funds or as co-productions. The pool of talented personnel is small; a great fiction cinematographer or editor need not be as adept at documentary work. And, very often, there are political hurdles to cross. All this adds up to a complex, exciting moment for Indian non-fiction film.

Mud on the lens

Years before the elation on the tarmac, Thomas was on a dirt road in Uttar Pradesh. She was tracking Suneeta as she reported on illegal mining, a damaged road and a dharna in progress (Ghosh was filming at another location). Their shoes were caked with mud, they were tired from walking. Bigger problems presented themselves when an all-male crowd threatened to turn hostile. In the film, we see Suneeta gather herself several times before soldiering on, explaining that it’s to their benefit if she gets to talk about their issues. Finally, the crowd relents.

Meera reporting in ‘Writing With Fire’
Meera reporting in ‘Writing With Fire’

Suneeta is a journalist with Khabar Lahariya, a Dalit-led news agency run entirely by women. Thomas and Ghosh, who are married and have worked together for over a decade, approached them in 2016 to explore the possibility of a film. It helped that the women had seen their work and “knew our political lens”, Ghosh tells me when we meet in south Delhi. It was a fortuitous time, with Khabar Lahariya about to pivot away from print (it’s primarily digital now, with 555,000 subscribers on YouTube). One of the early scenes has Meera—one of three characters the film follows—explaining the basic functions of a mobile phone to the gathered reporters, several of whom have never owned one. In another scene, Meera teaches the English alphabet so they can identify the phone buttons.

Writing With Fire begins in 2016 and continues up till the 2019 general election. “We had a conversation with them, saying this is going to take time,” Thomas tells me. “Initially they would ask us, aren’t you finished yet? Then, after the first year, they just got bored.” We see Meera, Shyamkali and Suneeta at work, reporting on strikes, rapes, murders and the elections. In one tense sequence, a Hindu Yuva Vahini member Meera is interviewing pulls out a sword. We also see the women at home, with their sceptical families. On more than one occasion, they return from a long day’s reporting to immediately start cooking dinner at home.

The inequities of the caste system hang over the film from the first frame. The women being Dalit informs everything from their living conditions to the access they get to the stories they report (there’s one on the government’s failure to build free toilets). “In our region, if you are a journalist, it meant you were upper-caste,” Meera says (the film-makers too are forward caste). An old man tells Meera his house is out of the way because the whole village considers him untouchable. He ends by saying he can’t name anyone because they might kill him. (In a statement on their website on 21 March—a little over a week after the 2022 UP elections, won by the Bharatiya Janata Party—Khabar Lahariya said the film incorrectly showed them as “an organisation with a particular and consuming focus of reporting on one party”, indicating the BJP and its affiliates. The directors responded over email that their engagement had been “long and sustained”, and they believe the film “fairly represents their journalistic practices and the range of work that they do”.)

Writing With Fire looks like a layman’s idea of a documentary: skilful, unadorned handheld images. The makers split up to follow the women as they reported, Ghosh shooting on his own, Thomas with cameraperson Karan Thapliyal. They used Canon DSLRs and relied on natural light and the rugged backdrops to do their work for them. “It looked really cinematic,” says Ghosh, “like something out of Sholay. You are really going back to that Panavision landscape.”

“We are very different as people and as directors, so every time we collaborate there are lots of fireworks,” Thomas laughs. Ghosh edited as they went along, both to get a handle on the material and to be able to pitch for funding, while she worked on “bread-and-butter” commissions for Black Ticket Films, the company they started. “That saved our life,” Ghosh says. “If you are looking at something you shot in 2017 two years later, you won’t have the context of the day unless it’s edited.” In 2019, they stopped shooting, and the film started to shape up. The first lockdown of 2020 helped, with Ghosh and Thomas decamping to a house in Himachal Pradesh to work on the edit. “Editing can be a brutal process, so being in a healing space really helps,” Ghosh says. The film came together in time for a Sundance 2021 premiere, where it won the Audience Award and the Special Jury Award: Impact for Change.

Experiments with truth

“Intervention is a good word,” says Payal Kapadia. I'd actually said 'invention', but agree that 'intervention' has a nice ring to it—of formal practice, and also a tension between material and creator. I'm speaking to Kapadia, writer-director of A Night Of Knowing Nothing, and Ranabir Das, the film’s producer, editor and cinematographer, over Zoom. It has been eight months since the film premiered at Cannes, enough time for it to sink in that they beat directors like Todd Haynes, Andrea Arnold, Marco Bellocchio and Sergei Loznitsa to the L’Oeil d’Or.

A Night Of Knowing Nothing had its genesis in their time as students at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). In late 2016, Kapadia and Das started shooting on campus and interviewing their friends. They had no plan for what they wanted to do with the footage. “We would shoot now and then, when something came up,” Kapadia says. “It was going on, like a parallel life.” It was only in 2019 that things began to coalesce. A French producer Kapadia was working with suggested she make this while they awaited funding for a fiction project. “If you are making films independently,” she says, “you have to do two-three things at once, otherwise it’s very difficult.”

Around this time, Kapadia and Das found the connecting thread. At regular intervals in the film, a woman identified only as L reads her own letters to a lover who has stopped replying. We learn later that he belongs to a forward caste, while hers is an oppressed one, and that his parents oppose the relationship. L is the invention (or intervention) I was referring to: The letters were written by Kapadia and fellow FTII student and film-maker Himanshu Prajapati. The interviews Kapadia and Das had amassed over the years, and their own experiences, informed the letters, which are bruisingly intimate and politically charged. Beautifully read by Bhumisuta Das, they reminded me of the ghostly narrators in Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) and Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), films that blend documentary into their fictional narratives.

A still from ‘A Night of Knowing Nothing’
A still from ‘A Night of Knowing Nothing’

Kapadia, who mentions Marker as a favourite, says they didn’t want to make a film that was “simply factual or chronological”. “I was very interested in this kind of hybrid, which can very seamlessly use fiction and non-fiction to complement each other,” she says. L’s words are overlaid on everyday scenes from the FTII campus, shot in ghostly black and white by Das (on digital, but treated to look like 16mm film), and images of student protests that marked the appointment of former actor Gajendra Chauhan as FTII chairman. Film-maker friends shared their footage of protests on other campuses. From various archives, they sourced vintage 8mm colour film of weddings and parties. The mix is hallucinatory and unsettling, underscoring L’s apprehensions about her relationship and the state of the nation.

At times, A Night of Knowing Nothing is right at the border of experimental cinema. In this it aligns itself with a long tradition of documentarists who use the techniques of experimental film. Kapadia herself pushed these boundaries with her student film And What Is the Summer Saying (2018), where hand-drawn images are superimposed on the landscape (that film’s dream imagery and voice-over seem to anticipate her first feature). Yet, A Night Of Knowing Nothing’s formal innovations accentuate, rather than obscure, its concern for embattled public institutions, religious minorities and critics of all stripes.

The sky is falling

In 2018, Shaunak Sen was in Cambridge on a fellowship. It had been three years since his first film, Cities Of Sleep, had released and he was eager to “pour (himself) into something”. That something turned out to be The Peregrine, a 1967 memoir by J.A. Baker. Sen had nothing more than a minor interest in ornithology but the author’s obsession with falcons spoke to him in a profound way. He also read Helen Macdonald’s H Is For Hawk, a dazzling 2014 memoir about loss and recovery. These texts attached themselves to an image he had been living with for years. “Before I have characters or a theme, I have some sense of vague texture at the back of my head—a sensorium,” he tells me over coffee. “For me, it was the grey hazy monotone skies you see in Delhi.”

When Sen returned to Delhi, he began to look for people who had a deep relationship with the skies or birds. He chanced upon two brothers in west Delhi, Nadeem and Saud, who tended to injured black kites. Sen and a small crew followed the brothers and their associate, Salik, for two years. While that might seem excessive, Sen says this level of immersion is necessary to get a sense of the rhythm of a place. It also took time to get the brothers to stop noticing the camera. “The idea is to recede completely,” he tells me. “I would say to them, go about your work, aaj hum deewar hain (pretend we're a wall).”

A still from ‘All That Breathes’
A still from ‘All That Breathes’

Sen knew he wanted to make a film about non-human life in an urban setting, what he called “life writ large”. His team started by listing visual ideas—a snail crawling across a garbage dump, for instance—on a large board. “The footage we have of animals in the city can make three other films,” Sen says. He was clear they weren’t making a nature documentary, though—everything would be as the naked eye sees it. “None of us has any training in wildlife shooting, which is actually a good thing,” he says. “But it took forever.”

The majority of documentaries, even very good ones, are built around testimony and narrative. All That Breathes is unique in being driven by the visual. Sen uses slow pans and changes of perspective to construct scenes that reward the patient viewer. One gradually unfolding shot shows a spider web in the foreground, then reveals a night watchman and two dogs in the background, then shifts focus again to catch two lizards in the foreground. When we met, Sen spoke admiringly of the films of Viktor Kossakovsky and Gianfranco Rosi, masters of the languid, slowly revealed frame. He was able to get Ben Bernhard, cinematographer on several Kossakovsky films, to shoot part of All That Breathes; after the German left, the film was shot by Riju Das (Saumyananda Sahi, a cinematographer who straddles fiction and non-fiction, also worked on it for a while).

Sen knew the film he wanted to put together was tricky: staccato scenes of the brothers interspersed with three- or four-minute takes of natural life. He felt unhappy and adrift until he watched The Truffle Hunters (2020)—a documentary about old men and their dogs in Piedmont, Italy—and recognised its editing was the key to unlock his film. Fortuitously, he was able to hire Charlotte Munch Bengtsen, the Danish editor of The Truffle Hunters and The Act Of Killing (2012), arguably the most famous documentary of the last decade. Bengtsen encouraged Sen to go with his gut. “What is the stomach saying?” she would ask when he deliberated too long. Her process involved taking prints of the scenes and arranging them on a big board. Every day, Sen would turn up to find the scenes had moved position.

The stormy present

In All That Breathes, Nadeem, Saud and Salik have a brush with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protests and the subsequent riots in the Capital. The toxicity of the skies and the air finds an echo in the ugliness of political polarisation. Indeed, these three very different films are linked, first and foremost, by their politics. The murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh is noted in A Night Of Knowing Nothing and Writing With Fire. The CAA protests are an important part of All That Breathes and Kapadia’s film. These film-makers studied at FTII, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Millia Islamia—universities that have been the site of frequent student protests against the present Union government and have consequently had to endure vilification and physical intimidation.

Anyone who embarks on a politically charged documentary in India knows they will have to deal with government censorship. Patwardhan’s Vivek, about sectarian and caste violence, was denied a censor exemption—standard procedure so films can play at festivals—by the Union ministry of information and broadcasting. It was only when Patwardhan appealed in the Kerala high court that it was allowed to play at the 2019 International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (IDSFFK). In 2017, in the run-up to the same festival, the ministry had refused censor exemptions for three documentary shorts—March March March, The Unbearable Being Of Lightness and In The Shade Of Fallen Chinar, all on politically sensitive subjects. That year, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) had asked the makers of An Insignificant Man to get a no-objection certificate (NOC) from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and his predecessor, Sheila Dikshit, a bizarre condition that was finally quashed by the now defunct Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT). Kamal Swaroop’s The Battle Of Banaras (2015), shot during campaigning for the 2014 Lok Sabha election (by then Gujarat chief minster Narendra Modi, among others), was rejected by the CBFC and the FCAT before the Delhi high court ordered its release (it remains mostly unseen). Director Ashvin Kumar battled the censors on Inshallah, Football (2010) and Inshallah, Kashmir (2012), even though both won National Awards. More recently, veteran documentarists Rahul Roy and Saba Dewan were named in a chargesheet by the Delhi police as co-conspirators in the 2020 riots for being part of a WhatsApp group.

A still from ‘An Insignificant Man’
A still from ‘An Insignificant Man’

In a worrying new development, several documentary makers told me, on condition of anonymity, that money due to them from foreign grants and funds was being withheld, for no clear reason. “It’s happening to particular kinds of films and particular kinds of film-makers,” one of them said. This, in turn, is raising concerns among funders in the West involved with politically sensitive Indian non-fiction projects.

If foreign grants become harder to access, it would greatly affect the means of funding for Indian non-fiction makers. There are only a few home-grown options for documentary funding: India Foundation for the Arts, Public Service Broadcasting Trust (currently not commissioning) and Films Division (whose fate is unclear given the announcement by the government to “merge” it with the National Film Development Corporation). As a result, Indian documentary-makers pitch for a variety of foreign grants and funds or enter into co-productions, which entails making a part of the film in the country offering the financial support. A Night Of Knowing Nothing was funded by a Sundance grant, the IDFA-Bertha fund, and regional and national funds from France. Writing With Fire also tapped multiple international funding agencies. All That Breathes was private equity funded, a process in which the funder recoups a prefixed amount once the film is sold and then enters into profit-sharing. The Cinema Travellers got money from six different grants, which Madheshiya and Abraham assured me is quite normal for an independent documentary.

A creative documentary is by its nature a long-term project. The films by Sen, Kapadia, and Thomas and Ghosh took four-six years to make. “Film-making is quite lonely if it’s not a big production,” Kapadia admits. After fighting to pitch a film, fund and make it and get it into leading festivals, it’s no wonder directors might feel that pushing for distribution in India—a country that watches little independent cinema—is one battle too many. Since physical media is all but extinct in India and documentaries hardly ever make it to theatres, I looked at some of the OTT platforms to see the options available if a viewer were inclined to watch a good Indian documentary. Disney+ Hotstar and Amazon Prime Video had almost no Indian non-fiction films. Netflix, which once hosted films like Fireflies In The Abyss (2015) and Celluloid Man (2012), has just a handful now. Only MUBI, with 24 titles in its library, offers some choice. The best option is still YouTube, where one can access the extensive archives of PSBT and Films Division, the works of directors like Patwardhan and Lalit Vachani, and recent milestones like Placebo and An Insignificant Man.

A still from ‘The Cinema Travellers’
A still from ‘The Cinema Travellers’

“There is no ecosystem,” Nilotpal Majumdar, head of the non-fiction incubator DocedgeKolkata, gently insists over the phone—no funding, no government support, no audience. Over the last two decades, Docedge has been trying to build one. This yearly event brings together in-progress documentary projects and various stakeholders (broadcasters, producers, distributors). The film-makers are mentored in intensive workshops, working with experts who help hone the pitches, before they present to potential collaborators. Docedge was the first incubator of its kind in Asia, and remains the only one in India, Majumdar says. Every film-maker I spoke to mentioned it as a game-changer.

Non-fiction film in India today is a tight-knit scene, with directors mentioning each other in conversation and being thanked in the credits of each other’s films. Some are trying to give back to the community. Directors Khushboo Ranka, Shaunak Sen and Archana Phadke (About Love) are planning an initiative called India Docs. “Other countries have funding for global projects; here we don’t have funding even for Indian projects,” Ranka tells me. “Development funding is the most difficult to get but it is the most critical. It becomes a magnet for additional funding.” India Docs will offer a development fund of 5 lakh for non-fiction films to get off the ground.

Despite all the hurdles, there’s every reason to be cautiously optimistic. “The outside world was always curious about Indian documentary but now they believe in it,” Majumdar says. Sen thinks that in 10 years’ time, we will look back on the past year or two as a moment of major change. Recent Indian fiction films like Prateek Vats’ Eeb Allay Ooo! (2019), Achal Mishra’s Gamak Ghar (2019) and Arun Karthick’s Nasir (2020) have used the grammar of non-fiction in fascinating ways. Hopefully, the current will flow the other way as well, and documentaries will start using more of the techniques and visual strategies of fiction. In Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990), an exquisite work of metafiction, the film-maker tells the cinephile conman he’s following, “This camera is here so you can explain things that people might find hard to understand or accept.” At a time when understanding and acceptance are in short supply, we can only hope cameras will be there to explain.

Also read: Devendra Jhajharia on what the Padma Bhushan means to him

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