Social awareness against escape
When the Indian government decided to create the Films Division Corporation in 1948, a small budget was reserved for documentaries. Since then, an almost total absence of branding and promotions and protocols involving the mandatory showing of documentaries in cinemas in the early 90s, has tarnished the reputation of this format in some respects. This is also the reason why, until recently, Indian documentary filmmakers had a hard time pushing their products to the global market.
This year, at the Cannes Film Festival, an Indian documentary called All that Breathes, directed by Shaunak Sen, won the top prize — the Golden Eye for Best Documentary Feature. The film revolves around the lives of two Delhi-based siblings who have made it their mission to save injured birds, especially birds of prey like kites, which are falling from the sky due to extreme pollution in the Indian capital. The film was acclaimed by critics around the world who hailed the documentary for its nuanced portrayal of India’s socio-economic flaws. Last year, a film called Writing with Fire, a documentary about a newspaper run by female Dalit journalists, was nominated for an Oscar. Similarly, Period. End of Sentence also won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Film in 2019. Interestingly, this film, which focused on the subject of menstruation-related taboos in India, featured a Coimbatore-based social activist who was instrumental in the manufacture of low-cost sanitary napkins for women.
These wins are undoubtedly a boost for creators associated with non-fiction formats of visual storytelling. That said, there is also a need to recognize the ground realities that Indian documentary filmmakers face day in and day out, in an effort to make their work accessible to the masses. Presenting ideas and securing funding remain the biggest challenges. Fortunately, the arrival of OTT platforms has opened up a real treasure trove for documentary filmmakers in India, who can now take their products to the world via streaming.
Earlier this year, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting merged its four film media units – Film Division, Directorate of Film Festivals (DFF), National Film Archive of India (NFAI), Children’s Film Society of India (CFSI) – with National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). The ministry said bringing all these activities together under a single directorate will reduce duplication of various activities and ensure better use of public resources. The merger should give a strong impetus to the production of films of all genres, including documentaries, the promotion of films through participation in various international festivals and the organization of various national festivals; and distribution and outreach activities.
While government and private companies do their part in promoting documentaries, it is also essential that we as viewers drop our hesitations when it comes to non-fiction films. While commercial films might be compared to comfort food in our cultural diets, it should not be forgotten that documentaries are essentially what qualify as generators of social awareness and food for the soul.