‘Prepared to fight it out’: Documentary filmmakers on the political risks they face

Despite the many limitations, documentary filmmakers continue the work of speaking the truth about what is going on in the country, through the voices of people.
Still from 'Reason'
Still from 'Reason'
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Four years ago, just before the screening of veteran documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan’s Reason at a film festival in Kerala, the Union government tried to stop it. Within hours, the state’s Chalachithra Academy, which organised the festival, went to the High Court and won the order that allowed them to screen it on the last day. The 4-hour-long film, which chronicles the killing of rationalists and incidents of mob lynching in India of the time, ran to a full house.

This is a struggle that some documentary makers in the country go through over and over again. By the mid-70s, a few documentarians began to speak the truth about what was going on in the country, through the voices of its people. They were often banned from screening their work or made to go through multiple court cases, enough to tire an average person into quitting. But year after year, documentary filmmakers have continued the work of documenting reality, unafraid to be the voice of dissent, unafraid of what is thrown at them.

This is not the same with fiction filmmakers, especially in recent years. Some go out of their way to please those in power, literally sing their praises, and willingly make their films the propaganda vehicle for their ideology.

“The situation in our country is getting worse every minute. Citizens must react to that, and that is what documentary filmmakers are doing. Unlike most fiction filmmakers, who are promoting a brand of toxic Hindutva either directly or indirectly,” says Anand Patwardhan. His earlier film Ram Ke Naam too was denied public access until he successfully went to court to get it screened on Doordarshan. The film had famously narrated the events that eventually led to the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. It was a scary prediction that came true. The centuries-old mosque was demolished by Hindutva forces, which included an alarming number of radicalised youths, to build a Ram temple there. Despite being granted a U certificate, even today screenings of this film get disrupted by right-wing goons.

Anand Patwardhan / Facebook

Bans are not unknown in India. Earlier this year, the BBC documentary India: The Modi Question, about the Prime Minister’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots when he was Chief Minister of the state, was promptly ‘blocked’, since a complete ban was not allowed by the court. While We Watched, a documentary on journalist Ravish Kumar which followed him as he perilously took on the Union government day after day when most of his mainstream counterparts became government mouthpieces, is yet to have a screening in India. It has, however, enjoyed international attention, with critics calling it a wake-up call for the country.

Obviously, the bans or the blocks did not stop filmmakers like Anand from making more films that would undoubtedly bring them trouble. Anand made Father, Son and Holy War, three years after the Babri Masjid demolition, linking the violence of the Hindutva movement to that against women. It took another battle to get the film screened on television. He is not partial to any particular government. His Prisoners of Conscience is about the Emergency during Indira Gandhi’s reign. His Jai Bhim Comrade was about the police firing in which 10 Dalits were killed in Mumbai in 1997 when the Shiv Sena was in power.

Trailer of Jai Bhim Comrade

Anand says that as a low budget documentary filmmaker he does not have the same financial risks as a feature filmmaker, however, the political risks are high. “If you don’t get a censor certificate, you don’t have a legal stamp to screen the documentary. Some are discouraged by this, so the few who continue are those who are prepared to fight it out,” Anand says.

This year too the same film Kerala festival that featured Anand’s Reason screened several documentaries plainly revealing the truth of being a minority or a dissenting voice in the country. In Land of my Dream Nausheen Khan recorded – on phone and a borrowed camera – the voices of women at the Shaheen Bagh protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act, interspersed with her own story of growing up as a Muslim girl in India. “I had to edit in complete isolation because I was not sure how the people around me would react to this content. I was worried when I saw that Muslim women were being auctioned online simply for being visible and vocal. This fear did not demoralise me, but it transformed into motivation to complete my film, and to tell my story authentically,” Nausheen says.

A Shaheen Bagh protestor / Still from Land of my Dream

What did hurt her, more than possible censorship, was the isolation from friends. “I felt completely alone because I was swimming against the tide. My friends did not support my documentary work the same way they did my fiction work. They criticised and discouraged me. It was devastating. I think these personal experiences affected me more than the fear of censorship.”

By fiction, she means the short stint she had as a camerawoman and later as an assistant to a director of photography in a feature film. The Bollywood experience was an unpleasant one for Nausheen. “I was good at the assistant’s job and was learning quickly, but I was penalised for asking questions, and dodging male advances became the theme of my life at this film shoot. I was constantly chastised by my boss, who said he was attracted to me and later fired me for being a distraction to him on the set.”

But it led her to do her own projects and eventually drew her into the world of documentaries. Despite the many limitations – lack of funds and resources among them – Nausheen found it impossible to ignore the various “repressive systems within which we have to survive.” For her, this included patriarchy, Islamophobia, and subsequent injustices that she felt the need to talk about.

Interestingly, another documentary at the Kerala fest, Insides and Outsides, also looks at what it is like being a Muslim in India, but this time through the journey of a man. Arbab Ahmad, the director, says that the film was a way of processing what was happening around him. He takes the camera around the house, looks at his mother with her plants and his father driving, and then adds their short histories through faded photographs. His own thoughts come across as journals he reads aloud. This was the time that the Citizenship Amendment Act, criticised for being discriminatory towards Muslims, came into being, and protests had broken out across the country against it.

Arbab and his parents in a still from Insides and Outsides

“I was inadvertently shooting whatever I saw initially, with no clear plan as to how it would all come together. It was as if the camera was an interface to all the first-hand trauma of the protests, the fear about my parents’ safety, and the existential question of being a Muslim in India. Only after six months of the footage lying on my hard drive could I even look at it and make sense of it. So making the film was a way for me to personally process whatever I was feeling and witnessing with my own eyes,” Arbab says.

At the International Short Film and Documentary Festival of Kerala (IDSFFK) this year, there were also films about the farmers’ protest in India that lasted between August 2020 and December 2021, against three problematic farm laws that the Union government had passed. Prateek Shekhar’s documentary Chardi Kala carried vivid details of how the farmers took care of their needs through the months, bringing grains and goods from their homes, creating makeshift bathrooms and salons, and went on camping uncomplainingly. The visuals went against some of the national media’s narrative that the farmers seemed rich and funded to be able to carry on with the protest. Prateek’s film merely had to shift the camera to where it happened and reveal the truth.

Still from Chardi Kala

Bollywood, on the other hand, appeared to reaffirm prejudices. Nausheen says, “After watching the representation of a Muslim boy who was brainwashed into becoming a kidnapper and terrorist in Family Man 2 (Hindi web series), it became completely clear to me why people don’t rent their house to me in Mumbai or Delhi. It disturbs me to watch directors I admired and looked up to making films that simply conform to and even magnify problematic mainstream ideas of religion, caste, gender, masculinity, and performative patriotism. It is appalling how less they care about the repercussions of their grossly inappropriate representations.”

Anand notes how such films openly promote hatred, particularly against the Muslim community, or promote an idea of ‘ultra nationalism’. He says, “The same forces that now use nationalism to attack voices of dissent by pretending to be patriots had actually opposed the tricolour at the time of India’s independence. They openly supported the British at critical times, such as during the 1942 Quit India Movement. But their films don’t reflect this history at all. These not only promote a fake nationalism conflated with Hindutva, but also promote a new kind of machismo marking India’s male dominant society. That doesn’t mean they don’t use women heroes. They promote women as mothers and goddesses, or as strong women who oppose Muslims, or as victims for whose honour Hindutva must fight.”

In 2019, Kangana Ranaut, an actor who is quite vocal about her pro-Hindutva views, played the lead in Manikarnika, as the Rani of Jhansi who had valiantly fought against the British in the 1857 rebellion. Kangana, also one of the directors of the film, won the National Award for Best Female Actor. The film, notes Rajeev Masand in his review on CNN-IBN, “was an old fashioned patriotic saga, told in the broadest of strokes, and with full nationalist fervour.”

Kangana Ranaut in Manikarnika

The same year, there were two pro-government films: Uri, which received rave reviews, and PM Narendra Modi, which was called out for its obvious bias. Another Bollywood film, The Accidental Prime Minister based on a book by Sanjaya Baru, criticised Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh and the Congress to such an extent that a review by the Indian Express called it an out and out propaganda film.

Anand says that a commercial audience space has been created for this brand of Hindutva politics. He cites the example of RRR, a superhit film that won all kinds of awards including an Oscar, as another straightforward Hindutva propaganda film. Cinema, he says, is yet another means to spread propaganda, apart from social media and mass messaging. “And then there is the marketing. This was done even before [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi came to power. They’ve been marketing Hindutva through cinema and television. I mean, even when I was making Ram Ke Naam in 1990, before the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Doordarshan was serialising Ramayana (Hindu epic) and everybody was watching that. The frenzy that followed is already history.”

Still from Ram Ke Naam

The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story are two recent Hindi feature films criticised as anti-Muslim propaganda works made to please the pro-Hindutva parties in power. Sanu Kummil, a journalist and documentary filmmaker from Kerala, quickly made a film called The Unknown Kerala Stories in reaction to The Kerala Story, which showed both Muslims and Kerala in very poor light. Sanu travelled across the state, documenting stories of communal harmony as a testament to what the ‘real Kerala story’ is.

“My political work is my documentary-making. What I have to say, I say through this medium. Those who don’t make films for gain, and those who believe that democracy should exist, will speak openly. Others who don’t wish to displease anyone may not be able to criticise or point out the faults of those in power,” Sanu says.

Still from The Unknown Kerala Stories

Arbab echoes Sanu’s sentiment when he says he had a desire to at least express exactly how he felt. “I am not sure if this is a form of dissent, but it definitely seems like a right I should have in this country – to tell my own story,” he adds.

Telling one’s story, especially as a Muslim and not one who praises the powers that be, is more often than not an unpleasant experience. It does not help that the creators choose to tell it through documentaries, a medium neither popular nor meant for entertainment. “I feel that our threshold for listening is very low. My own friends have refused to watch my documentary on the CAA on account of it being ‘too serious’ and ‘about violence’. My friends’ families have chastised them for being associated with me after knowing that I have made a film on Shaheen Bagh. This is the culture that we are surviving right now, but I have to remind myself that the purpose of art is not to please anybody, let alone the government,” Nausheen says.

The commitment and passion of documentary makers who persistently move against the tide is unparalleled, says H Shaji, deputy director of the Kerala Chalachithra Academy. “There has always been an element of activism in documentaries. But these days, you find individuals who are not part of any political movement or organisation making documentaries on critical issues, with the same kind of passion and without compromises. Many of these works take two to three years to complete and are made with limited or zero funds. Not only is there no commercial aspect, but even the screening opportunities are very limited,” Shaji says.

Deepa Dhanraj

They are clearly worlds apart, documentaries and fiction films even if both fall loosely in the category of films. It’d seem the more limited they are, the more committed the documentary makers become, coming back year after year with newer, braver works. Deepa Dhanraj, who has been making documentaries since the 80s, continues to throw light on the things that go wrong with the country through her diligently made films. If in 1986 she made a film about the 1984 Hyderabad communal riots, her 2018 film was about the student movement that arose after the death of Rohith Vemula.

Deepa said in an earlier interview that when she made What happened to this city, the film on the Hyderabad communal riots, she didn’t imagine the kind of riots that would follow in the years afterward, across the country. Anand, in another interview to TNM, said that compared to now, Emergency was paradise.

Even veterans like Deepa and Anand had not foreseen what awaited the country when they began revealing the reality of India by putting their camera in the right spot and letting it record everything that went on. But that is what they and the generations that follow in their footsteps will continue to do.

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