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Before Bollywood! The Long, Rich History of Documentary in India

By Bhuvan Lall

From Anand Patwardhan's 'War and Peace.' Courtesy of First Run/Icarus Films

On the historic midnight of August 14 and 15, 1947, India became independent from British rule. First Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's speech, "A Tryst with Destiny," was recorded by independent filmmaker Ambles J. Patel with two cameras and sound equipment. There were no official film units of the Government of India or other Indian filmmakers to film this historic moment and the subsequent nationwide celebrations.

That was 57 years ago, but today India boasts a vibrant independent documentary filmmaking community. Indian documentary filmmakers have today carved a niche for themselves in the nonfiction genre world with their creativity and hard-hitting works on subjects ranging from Indian arts and social concerns to natural history. Traditional Indian images of the Taj Mahal, droughts and poverty-stricken villagers have given way to films covering a spectrum of social, societal, environmental and human issues facing India. Films on issues such as human rights, censorship, gender roles, communal politics, individual liberty and sexual identity form the new Indian documentary filmmaking community.

But the Indian documentary filmmaking tradition dates back well before independence. In 1888 a short film of wrestlers Pundalik Dada and Krishna Navi at Bombay's Hanging Gardens was filmed by Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatwadekar. This was the first recorded documentary film in India. In the 1930s, filmmakers D.G. Tendulkar, who had studied motion pictures in Moscow and Germany, and K.S. Hirelekar, who had studied culture films in Germany, brought the latest concepts of documentary film and laid the foundation of the documentary movement in India.

In April 1948 the Indian Government formed the Films Division and described it as "the official organ of the Government of India for the production and distribution of information films and newsreels." Screenings of Films Division documentaries were made mandatory before feature films at all cinemas in India. From June 1949, the Films Division started regular distribution of newsreels and documentaries through its own distribution set-up. Films were dubbed in five languages—English, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and Telegu—and 97 films were produced in 1949-50. The Films Division soon became one of the most important sources of public information, and it tried to reach out to people in the remotest corners of India. Many exciting films emerged from the Films Division—S.N.S. Sastry's I Am 20, Fali Bilimoria's The House That Ananda Built, Sukhdev's India 1967 and M.F. Husain's Through the Eyes of a Painter. The Films Division today is Asia's biggest documentary and short film producer, having to its credit innumerable films that have won laurels at home and abroad during the last 56 years.

In the 1950s Burmah-Shell, a private company, invested in making training films and sales promotion films of outstanding merit. Canadian filmmaker James Beveridge, who had worked at National Film Board of Canada and was a protégé of John Grierson, produced and directed several Burmah-Shell Films in India.

In 1978, An Encounter with Faces, Vinod Chopra's documentary about Bombay street children, went all the way to Hollywood, where it was nominated for an Oscar. The film also earned nine out of 12 awards at the Oberhausen Film Festival, and won the top prizes at festivals in Milan, Leipzig and Finland. At the International Film Festival of India, it won the Golden Peacock. The technique of the film was singled out for special mention: direct, unwavering conversations with children, neither patronizing nor pitying.

The advent of digital video technology has further revolutionized the Indian documentary technique. Traditionally Indian documentary overwhelmingly favored the didactic social documentary, but now filmmakers have moved towards the internationally accepted direct cinema style, adopting its realist aesthetic and reliance on interviews, while continuing to retain Griersonian voiceover narration.

Until the advent of the satellite television boom in India in the early 1990s, state broadcaster Doordarshan's two national terrestrial channels were the only TV networks in India where documentary films could be screened. The launch of Discovery Channel in India in August 1995 and the subsequent entry of National Geographic Channel in 1998 created further avenues for Indian filmmakers to screen their work. Discovery Channel has also launched Animal Planet in India and will add a Lifestyle channel in October 2004. India's largest TV network, Zee TV, has announced plans to launch a documentary channel called Khoj in the next few months.

In addition to the broadcasters, the nonprofit Public Service Broadcasting Trust was formed to support the production of independent documentary films. The trust receives its funding from the Ford Foundation and Doordarshan. According to Rajiv Mehrotra, an internationally renowned filmmaker and the founder of PSBT, "We do not seek sensationalism or explicit confrontation—though that might bring in TV ratings—but to provide quiet, considered insights and, dare I add, wisdom to focus on contemporary predicaments and valuable elements of our heritage. We encourage filmmakers to work with the newer, less expensive digital technologies so that they could explore more innovative treatments and approaches to the documentary, afford more time on location and create truly in-depth, incisive films." PSBT has already produced over 50 films and has started work on a documentary miniseries: The Story of Indian Broadcasting, which will both evaluate and document the achievements of Public Service Broadcasting in India.

Documentary filmmaking training was pioneered by Anwar Jamal Kidwai, former secretary of the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, who founded the Mass Communication Research Center (MCRC) in 1983. MCRC was started with funding from the University Grants Commission and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), and with university cooperation between Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi and York University in Canada. Filmmaker Beveridge, along with his wife Margaret, also played a critical role in the founding of this center.

Since 1983, about 500 students have graduated with master's degrees in mass communication, comprising an important media work force in the country today. The alumni have received national awards like the Chameli Devi Jain Award and international awards like the prestigious Golden Gate Award in San Francisco, as well as other film and television awards. Its alumni have also been awarded prestigious scholarships and grants like the Fulbright and Inlaks scholarships, the Cardiff and Commonwealth fellowships and the India Foundation for the Arts grants for media research.

The Indian documentary community has presented cinematic gems and has put Indian images on television screens across the planet. Mike Pandey is the only Asian filmmaker ever to have won the Green Oscar twice at the Wildscreen Festival in the UK, for his documentaries Rogue Elephants of India and Shore Whale Sharks in India. The latter film was shot under extreme conditions and took almost three years to complete. "Shore Whale Sharks in India aimed towards creating policies to support a ban on the killing and trade of whale sharks in India as well as finding sustainable alternatives for the fishermen," says Pandey. The Earth Matters Foundation set up by Pandey to create the preservation of wildlife in their natural habitat began an awareness campaign to save the whale shark. The campaign successfully got the hunting of this species banned worldwide.

Besides Pandey, several Indian filmmakers, including Anand Patwardhan, Sanjay Kak, Amar Kanwar and Rakesh Sharma, have already carved a niche for themselves on the international documentary stage. Award-winning Patwardhan's latest documentary, War and Peace (2002), documents activist movements in South Asia since the 1998 nuclear tests in India and Pakistan. Patwardhan has been making documentary films for the past 25 years about human rights issues in India, like street dwellers in Bombay, the rise of religious fundamentalism and the negative impact of globalization.

Kak has carved out a special niche in the echelon of experimental cinema,  and his films such as Land, My Land, England (1993), A House and a Home (1993), Geeli Mitti (1985), A Matter of Choice, Harvest of Rain and One Weapon have received awards as well as critical appreciation at film festivals in Paris, Fribourg, Hawaii and Dhaka. His documentary In the Forest Hangs a Bridge won the 1999 Margaret Mead Film Festival Documentary Film Award in the US.

Kanwar, a recipient of a 1998 MacArthur Fellowship, was awarded the Golden Conch-Best Film Award at the 1998 Mumbai International Documentary Film Festival for his film A Season Outside. His next film, A Night of Prophecy (2002), was filmed in several diverse regions of India and features music and poetry of tragedy and protest performed by regional artists.

Sharma's Final Solution (2003) graphically documents the changing face of right wing politics in India through a study of the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat. The film was banned by the Indian censors, even though the film has been acclaimed at international film festivals.

Other Indian films that have fared well on the international film festival circuit include Rahul Roy's When Our Friends Meet, a film on male sexuality; Barf Snow, a film by Saba Dewan, on trekking with slum girls; and Into the Abyss, Vandana Kohli's film on depression, for which he won the RAPA 2003 award in India for Best Director.

The Mumbai International Film Festival for Documentary, Short and Animation Films was launched in 1990 as a biennial competitive event and is organized by the Films Division, in close cooperation with the State Government of Maharashtra. In this festival, outstanding films in various categories are selected by an international jury for Golden and Silver Conches and hefty cash prizes. The festival aims to serve as a platform where the filmmakers of the world can meet and exchange ideas, explore the possibility of co-production and market their films.

In August 2003 over 300 Indian documentary filmmakers came together to protest the attempt by the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to make censor certificates a mandatory precondition for Indian documentaries entered into the 2004 Mumbai International Film Festival. The documentary filmmaking community saw through this apparently innocuous step, recognizing it as a part of a wider structure of control and repression, where the rights to free speech, dissent and even creative expression are increasingly coming under threat in India. In an unprecedented display of collective resistance, filmmakers from across the country organized around the Campaign Against Censorship, and were successful in forcing the ministry to drop its attempts to introduce censor certification for the festival. The filmmakers then set in motion Vikalp—Films for Freedom, an independent documentary film festival. After a stopover at Bangalore, the celluloid caravan traveled on to Trivandrum, Chennai, Delhi and Kolkata.

The Indian documentary community is now looking at expanding its horizons. Pandey has already been invited to be a jurist for the 2004 Wildscreen, where he is also a finalist for the esteemed Filmmaker for Conservation Award. Vanishing Giants, his film on the elephant crisis in India, is also a finalist for a Panda Award. Patwardhan was the keynote speaker at Silverdocs in the US in June, and Sharma picked up the Wolfgang Staudte award at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year.

In the near future it seems there will be a documentary film made by an Indian filmmaker screening at a theater near you....

Bhuvan Lall is president and CEO of Lall Entertainment, a company based in Los Angeles and New Delhi. He can be contacted at