Matter of fact: Indian documentaries are the flavour of the season

Documentary filmmaking in India has come of age, thanks to a growing interest among younger audiences for true-life stories, more viewing platforms and new funding avenues
A still from the documentary 'The Elephant Whisperers'
A still from the documentary 'The Elephant Whisperers'

Deep in the lush forests of Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, an unknown and unheralded photographer, Kartiki Gonsalves, followed her passion for five years, shooting over 450 hours of film on Bomman, Bellie and their wards, two abandoned elephants, Raghu and Ammu. The result: a 40-minute film that won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short this year. Entered in the same competition, in another category, was Shaunak Sen’s remarkable All That Breathes, where the filmmaker tracked brothers Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud for three years.

The two run a bird clinic in Wazirabad, Delhi, where they have nursed 20,000 kites back to life over the past 20 years. Sen lost the Best Documentary race, but not before winning hearts at the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals. Elsewhere, Vinay Shukla spent two years shadowing Ravish Kumar, the former NDTV journalist, for hours of footage he cannot even begin to count. The result was a 94-minute documentary that has been wowing audiences from the Busan International Film Festival to the Toronto Film Festival. It is a love letter to journalism, a document of a particularly paranoid time in popular media, a harrowing chronicle of the loneliness of a truth-teller.

Indian documentaries are the flavour of the season. Young filmmakers, some trained and others self-taught, are tapping into the vast reservoir of stories in the country and taking them to the world. The world seems gobsmacked, consuming these tales of orphaned baby elephants, of damaged kites falling out of the skies, and of a brilliant journalist broken by a system complicit in its own destruction. Thanks to better distribution networks, including OTT streaming services, better access to funding, and more opportunities across international film festivals, Indian documentaries are having more than a moment on the global stage.

And in India, after surviving on the fringes of mainstream fiction movies, the filmmakers are now basking in the glow of the hard-earned spotlight. Says Shukla, whose An Insignificant Man (2016) on the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party was released commercially in theatres: “I have had people walk up to me at airports across the world and speak about their personal connections with the films. Both An Insignificant Man and While We Watched premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. An Insignificant Man went on to release in theatres in India and ran for nine weeks before being distributed online.” Championing by the West has helped. He adds: “Most documentaries of note started their journey at film festivals in the West. They have benefited from collaborations across the globe. Indian documentary filmmakers are executing their films with originality and vision. We have risen from making victim/NGO documentaries to trailblazing films like All That Breathes.”

The new wave has benefited from mentorship and funding organisations like the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, Sundance, and DocSociety, a non-profit devoted to connecting audiences to non-fiction. A lot of work has been done behind the scenes over the last decade towards empowering Indian documentary filmmakers.

Even before that, the political documentary movement produced some internationally renowned filmmakers such as Anand Patwardhan, Sanjay Kak, Amar Kanwar and Deepa Dhanraj. But the field has become more expansive. Their tradition was different from European filmmakers who made documentaries on India that were less interested in the political question and more in discovering what we might call “the essence” of India, notes Vinay Lal, professor of history at UCLA. Louis Malle’s extraordinary Phantom India (in six parts) is part of that trend. “What you are seeing now, therefore, is a third trend, which refuses both essentialisation and also what might be called the documentary that trades in political realism,” he says.

In the past two decades, documentary filmmaking in the country has moved from being dominated by the Films Division of India to a time when political documentaries could not expect a commercial release. They were neither screened on Doordarshan nor on privately owned television channels because they were resistant to the political culture of India and the free-market agendas of its corporate and modernising elites, which, Lal notes, itself constitutes a form of censorship. Nevertheless, as he wrote in 2006, there is every reason to believe that a future awaits Indian documentary filmmakers.  

Today’s filmmakers are aware they are standing on the shoulders of the giants before them. Take Sushmit Ghosh, one-half of the duo nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2021 for Writing With Fire. He says, “For four decades, the Mass Communication Research Centre (MCRC) at Jamia Millia Islamia has been quietly doing the heavy lifting of encouraging critical thought in media-making. It’s a space that thinks about cinema from a point of view of its socio-cultural and political influence.

While each filmmaker from MCRC has charted their own course, the rigour of documentary training for many of us began there.” It’s no surprise that over the last three years, three Indian documentaries that have premiered and won at the Sundance Film Festival (Writing With Fire, All That Breathes and Against the Tide) have been authored by Jamia alumni (Thomas, Ghosh, Shaunak Sen and Sarvnik Kaur). The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ documentary branch has six Indians as members, of which five are Jamia alumni.

MCRC, Ghosh says, is also led by media practitioners who bring into the institute a sense of experiment, which is important for young students of storytelling. And in that way, it’s a unique space. “For instance, our student film at Jamia, Flying Inside My Body (2008), tells the story of celebrated photographer Sunil Gupta, who uses the nude form of his body in his art to challenge ideas of shame around homosexuality and HIV, flipping notions of what an ageing body looks like. This was a radical theme for any film institute back then and we were encouraged to craft the story in our own visual language and found a safe-space at Jamia to work on this project,” says Ghosh, adding the film went on to do very well in the festival circuit in India and is still being used as an education tool by institutes in India and abroad.

The training at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), where Payal Kapadia graduated from, is also part of the changing canvas. Kapadia won the Golden Eye Award for best documentary film at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival for A Night of Knowing Nothing. The documentary is set in the FTII campus, and spans a five-year period beginning 2015 when TV actor Gajendra Chauhan was appointed director, sparking widespread student protests. The personal and the political collide in the film, which Kapadia has described as “hybrid”, with home video footage and staged scenes. Kapadia’s fiction debut, All We Imagine as Light, has attracted several production partners ahead of its eventual release.

The global acclaim for work done in isolation for long periods of time can be baffling, or to use Sen’s favourite word, discombobulating. The journey to the Oscars was heady, but as he says: “It was just a week, but an expansive, spread-out journey. In a way, it began quite a few months ago. It’s a long procession of awards, beginning with the Gotham Awards through all the documentary awards like International Documentary Association, Cinema Eye or once you’re nominated for the Oscars, there is the Producers’ Guild, Directors’ Guild, BAFTA and so on. Then this complex algorithm, a Venn diagram of who is voting for what, starts. Once you’re nominated, it feels like you’re running for office and it needs that kind of intricate working.

The documentary feature category is usually the most competitive.” And this year it was phenomenally so. Right till the end, there wasn’t a clear and obvious forerunner. “For the longest time, you are on the hamster wheel of flights, hotels, screenings and talking to people. Getting the film to the foreground was difficult. At the shortlist level itself, there were many big guns. You become close friends with a lot of contenders. Once it opens up to the academy—all 10,000 voters—it’s a bit of a popularity contest. You have to make your name recognisable. The documentary branch is the most diverse and also one of the most rigorous,” Sen adds.

What is occurring currently is unprecedented. For many filmmakers, Writing with Fire was a kind of towering achievement. As Thomas and Ghosh wrote recently, “Last year’s disbelief is this year’s promise.” It’s true, says Sen. “What they did was staggeringly unprecedented. But in a way, this began with Vinay Shukla’s An Insignificant Man, Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing and Archana Phadke’s About Love. The format was beginning to change,” he says. A large part of this has to do with mentorship, incubation and pitching labs like Docedge in Kolkata. Sen says he learnt the ropes of film grammar and got to raise funds and grants from different workshops at Docedge.

Non-fiction becomes more hospitable if you want to start on your own and don’t want to work in a big machine, he points out. Ayesha Sood, who directed The Indian Predator: The Butcher of Delhi for Netflix, says technology plays a part in this as does the evolved ecosystem locally and internationally that can be tapped into now. “Bollywood or commercial cinema is self-censored and toes the ‘correct’ political line. Film professionals of the top-most calibre are keen on it as a genre and expression, so the craft has gone up many notches,” she says.

The new wave of filmmakers realises the importance of the previous generation of documentary makers such as Patwardhan, Dhanraj and Supriya Sen. Yet it is not an unimpeachably happy moment because one can at best have a cautious sense of optimism. The documentary infrastructure in the country is fairly wanting; there’s not enough dissemination of support, grants and incubation labs. Official development grants or post-production funds have dried up. “Everyone who makes it work moves worlds. It is almost miraculous when films work,” says Sen.

The world is looking at India differently. But for it to not be a passing wave, for the ebullient moment of potential collaborations to take off, documentary filmmakers will need continuing support from 
a rebuilt infrastructure that enables unusual and unique, possibly uncomfortable, stories to be told.  
Says Supriya Sobti Gupta, a former journalist whose Netflix documentary Caught Out is a co-production between her own MOW Productions and the Academy Award-winning Passion Pictures Films (UK): “There is a crop of Indian filmmakers/journalists who have trained and gathered experience overseas and understand the likes and dislikes of an international audience.

Also, the emergence of global platforms has helped with distribution. We’ve demonstrated our filmmaking skills on the global stage and will only get better at the craft over time. Joining hands with homegrown filmmakers, the wave can be transformed into a revolution.” After all, the first documentary from India that was nominated for the Best Short Documentary Oscar, An Encounter with Faces, was in 1979. The filmmaker behind it, the FTII-trained Vidhu Vinod Chopra, had made it for the Films Division. As he tells the story in the book, Unscripted: Conversations on Life and Cinema, Chopra had to appeal to then information and broadcasting minister LK Advani. He got a passport made, booked Chopra an economy-class flight ticket, and gave him $60 as the expense for three days in the US. With a little more drama, Chopra finally got his visa, and landed in time for the 51st edition of the Academy Awards. The film, focusing on a group of children at an orphanage, didn’t win, but the same combination of grit, gumption and sheer guts, drives the new generation of documentary filmmakers as well.

What to watch on OTT
Five documentaries that will take you into the hearts and minds of Indians of all kinds 

Cinema Marte Dum Tak, 2023, Prime Video

Adult cinema used to provide joy, however sullied and sleazy, to a large mass of men before the advent of smartphones. Featuring four directors of such films from the 80s, and directed by Vasan Bala, this is a tribute to cinema, good, bad and ugly.

House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths, 2021, Netflix

Directed by Leena Yadav who made Parched (2015), about four women experimenting with their sexual and physical freedom in a Gujarat village, this is a three-part investigation into what happened 
one night in 2018 when 11 members of a perfectly well-adjusted family in Delhi ended their lives.  

Supermen of Malegaon, 2008, YouTube
Much before TikTok and InstaReels, a group of amateurs led by Sheikh Nasir made spoofs of big Bollywood and Hollywood blockbusters with no actors, no props and hardly any money. The joy in their enterprise makes us believe in the magic of cinema again and again.

Period. End of Sentence, 2018, Netflix

Filmed by a young Iranian woman, Rayka Zehtabchi, it follows a group of women as they learn how to operate a machine that makes low-cost, biodegradable sanitary pads in a small village in Uttar Pradesh. Guided by Douglas Blush and Guneet Monga, who also mentored Kartiki Gonsalves, it won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short, setting off a welcome trend.

Wild Wild Country, 2018, Netflix

The documentary brought Osho back into popular culture, and made Ma Anand Sheela, his closest aide, a rock star. Shot by the Duplass brothers, it is a study in showmanship, racism, and how a cult cannot always survive its charismatic, if controversial, founder. 

On the shoulders of giants

They are pioneers who batted an indifferent corporate world and a discriminatory government, and still managed to tell stories that got under the skin of the establishment

Anand Patwardhan: From In the Name of God (1992), to Father, Son, and Holy War (1995) to Reason (2018), no one has done more to study the rise of Hindutva and its transformation of Indian society than the 73-year-old Patwardhan. Watching his films is like reading the history of post-Independence India.

Nishtha Jain: She is always where the action is, whether it is in Bundelkhand where Sampat Pal and the Gulabi Gang (2012) are taking on discrimination on the basis of gender and caste, or the crisis in the jute industry in The Golden Thread (2020), this 57-year-old Jamia alumnus is also a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Deepa Dhanraj: Something Like a War was made in 1991, but still seems an urgent call for women to exercise their own reproductive rights. The 69-year-old’s ability to voice women’s rage remains unparalleled. 

Kartiki Gonsalves
The Elephant Whisperers
Winner of Oscar for Best Documentary Short

“From its inception to spending time with Raghu, Bomman and Bellie to the moment I started seeing this come alive, I had no idea if it would ever happen. With an uncertainty that comes with ventures into the unknown, I found myself feeling the weight of realising this idea to its true potential on a large scale. I spent days researching story arcs to understand a deeper level of storytelling during the process.”

Rintu Thomas, Sushmit Ghosh
Writing With Fire
Winner of Audience Award and a Special Jury Award in the World Cinema Documentary category at Sundance Film Festival, nominated for Oscar in Best Documentary category 2021

“For four decades, the Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia Millia Islamia has been quietly doing the heavy-lifting of encouraging critical thought in media-making. It’s a space that thinks about cinema from a point of view of its socio-cultural and political influence. While each filmmaker from MCRC has charted their own course, the rigour of documentary training for many of us began there.”

Shaunak SEN
All That Breathes,
Winner of The Golden Eye at Cannes, Grand Jury Prize in World Cinema Documentary at Sundance Film festival, nominated for Oscar in the Best Documentary category

“A large part of the rise of Indian documentaries has to do with mentorship, incubation and 
pitching labs like Docedge in Kolkata where I learnt the ropes of film grammar and got to know 
how to raise funds and grants in different workshops.”

While We Watched,
Winner of the Amplify Voices award at the Toronto International Film Festival

"The new documentary wave has benefited from mentorship and funding organisations like International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, Sundance Film Festival, DocSociety (an international social entrepreneurship organisation created in 2005). A lot of work has been done over the last decade behind the scenes towards empowering Indian documentary filmmakers. If we are to continue this tradition, we need to build more long-term institutions.”

Related Stories

No stories found.