Sunday, April 24, 2005

Indian reality gets a new face on the screen

You may have not noticed it, but something big is happening on the small screen across the country. Alternative Indian documentary is booming. There's a whole lot of creative output coming out of a wide range of film-makers, who have the skills and courage to tell the truth bluntly, just as it is. Dhananjoy Mondal (37) of West Bengal, who made a film on an unusual tribe of crow-eaters, said in an interview: "I have seen the 'Kakmaras' ever since my childhood days. Clad in their peculiar dress, pulling up their manners and gestures, they would attract me. But they are as much the citizens of this country as we are; they are as much human beings as we are! The urge to know and explore the 'other' world of the marginal men (and women) has led to the formulation of this film." Vinayan Kodoth directed a "nearly non-verbal" film that "builds up a surreal picture of Bombay". For instance, what does it feel to be part of a desperate crowd of seven million commuters who use the sub-urban trains to travel to work each day? This film won awards at Madrid, Chicao, Uruguay, Ann arbor, and Seoul. As Anand Patwardhan, noted documentary-maker and old enough to be the father of many younger film-makers, says: "Audiences in India are ripe for good documentary films. I've had full houses just with word-of-mouth publicity at almost every screening done." Mumbai-based Sidharth Meer put together his film 'Right Here, Right Now' over a couple of days. It went on to get notice in the film circuit in the West. In Orissa, the Bring Your Own Film Festival at Puri offers five days of films at a fee of as little as Rs 50 for students (four times that amount for non-students). The idea is simply: you bring your own film, and screen it. This is no coincidence. Technology has become more affordable. Today, you don't need costly and bulky equipment to create a film -- and digital technology is really driving down the price. Computers allow you to edit your movie on your desktop. That's not all. Today, an alternate film can be shared via a CD. You can make the copies at home, and circulate it to your audience at a few rupees per CD. Often less than Rs 10. At last year-end's International Film Festival of India held in Goa, the wealth of alternative cinema made its presence felt. From the nuclearisation of South Asia to the human price of war, films on artists and folk musicians, about ethnic tribal clashes in the North East, and even a film about a film -- these themes showed up among the 20 'non-feature films' in Indian Panorama section. Films screened ranged from 'The Green Warriors - Apatanis' (on the unusual tribal sustainable agricultural practices in Arunachal), to 'I Couldn't Be Your Son, Mom' (about a gender crisis), 'Invisible Parsis: The Poor of a Prosperous Community' by Kaevan Umrigar, and Sanjivan Lal's 'Is God Deaf?' (on religion-linked noise pollution). Lawyer Satyajit Bhatkal's 'Chale Chalo... The Lunacy of Film Making' is a feature-length documentary that tells the story of the making of the Bollywood blockbuster film 'Lagaan'. Hindi-Punjabi film 'Chaurus Chaand' is about revolutionary and poet Avtaar Singh Sandhu, gunned down in 1988 by Khalistani militants, directed by Film and TV Institute of India student Vibhu Puri. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Out there, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of enthusiastic people behind the camera making their own films. Take the case of the Kriti Film Club of Alaknanda in New Delhi. They've been running their Kriti Film Club to take "thought-provoking cinema" and use it to "deepen understandings on social and development issues amongst film makers and viewers". But, more importantly, they hope to create a space where students, activists, academician, development professionals, media and friends can come together and interact through meaningful cinema. By keeping these films on sale, they hope to encourage the film-makers' work. Most of these young and terribly-talented people are doing a great job too. They're telling the story in a way which simply doesn't surface in the media otherwise. They're speaking out in favour of the weak and powerless, who are left without a voice. Of course, there are still thousands of stories waiting to be told, in a country the diversity of India. In more ways than one, it's as if the genie has got out of the bottle. There is no putting it back either. Films are becoming easier to shoot, the technology is reaching the hands of those who can use it, and suddenly you don't anymore need costly hard-to-access equipment to make or view a film or even to easily share one. But there's one crucial part of this jigsaw that's missing. There's simply no distribution channel for alternate film in India. India's still state-controlled -- claims of autonomy notwithstanding -- long-dominant television network Doordarshan has little space in which to portray the reality of the vast majority of this country. Likewise, the growth of literally dozens of cable television channels hasn't opened up any more options for the 'other India'. In such a situation, a whole lot of Indian documentary is getting noticed at festivals and viewings across the globe... but not in India itself. Take the case of the Unit for Media and Communications, working out of Mumbai's Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Just this single organisation itself has put out a rich collection of video productions -- most of which are obviously still inadequately known about in the development, alternate and campaign networks in India. Let aside the mainstream. From 1991 till now, Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar say the UMC's output tackled almost two dozen themes ranging from mental disability, to water cooperatives, 'criminalised' tribes, communal amity, and prison life. Monteiro says the advent of digital technology had led to an "explosion of creativity" on the production front. "Films are being made by all kinds of people with something to say, and not just professional filmmakers. This has led to a lot of experimentation in terms of form, themes, modes of distribution and more," she added. Some Indian film-makers set up an electronic-based mailing list called Docuwallahs2 on the Internet site Yahoogroups.com, aimed at networking alternative film-makers. Today, other networks in India such as Vikalp and CAC-Delhi, focussed on combatting the problem of censorship in films. Young lawyer Lawrence Liang of Bangalore, an alumni of the prestigious National Law School, argues that Indian documentary and alternate film makers could do well to think of starting to license their works under an 'open content' license. Our current model of copyrights hardly helps the small player in the alternative space. While it brings wealth and control to big players in the corporate world, the copyright model is yet to make a single alternate film popular or earn anything significant for an alternate film-maker. Lawrence Liang argues: "Most documentary film makers do not live off royalty in any case. Their films are either commissioned or they earn some money from various prizes, invitations and the like. So, the fear of the loss of revenue cannot be a very serious one." Adds Monteiro: "The possibilities for public broadcast are very limited, given the censorship (of alt films ) by the state and of the market. While there are attempts to reach out through local, travelling festivals and screenings by activist groups and educational networks, these are sporadic and pitifully few for a country the size of India." Indian alternative film simply deserves a wider impact and a greater audience? -- Frederick Noronha, April 2005

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