Throwing Light

Insights into the neglected history of Indian documentaries

01 October 2016
SNS Sastry’s I am Twenty, released by the Films Division 20 years after Independence, features interviews with a diverse group of Indians, all born in 1947.
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SNS Sastry’s I am Twenty, released by the Films Division 20 years after Independence, features interviews with a diverse group of Indians, all born in 1947.
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DURING THE LATE 1990s, as an undergraduate student in Delhi University, my fascination for the Indian documentaries I had seen led me to write my final-year dissertation on the form. I was taken with films such as Shabnam Virmani’s When Women Unite, which recreated the story of women in Andhra Pradesh’s Nellore district who rallied to stop the sale of arrack in their villages. There was work such as Amar Kanwar’s A Season Outside, a haunting meditation on militarism and borders, and Reena Mohan’s Skin Deep, which investigated the ideal of beauty through the personal narratives of urban middle-class women. In hindsight, it was the sense of widening possibilities and themes that I was drawn to.

What I recall most clearly from the days spent researching and writing my paper, in the libraries and personal collections of helpful souls across Delhi, are the difficulties I had in sourcing writing on the history and practice of Indian documentary filmmaking. I got plenty to think about from talking to people working in the field. But when I asked my interviewees to recommend texts, I ended up noting down the same thin list of names. There was a section on Indian films in Eric Barnouw’s Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, and scattered articles in different publications. Through the dial-up internet connection of a cyber cafe near my hostel, I discovered the wealth of writing on the documentary form internationally, including some work on Indian films. But there was little to be found closer at hand.

In the nearly two decades since, the production, consumption and distribution of Indian documentaries have increased manifold, but the writing on these films has failed to keep up. In 2000, the Public Service Broadcasting Trust produced Double Take: Looking at the Documentary, a collection of reflections on the form by practitioners and critics. The noted film historian BD Garga’s 2007 volume From Raj to Swaraj: The Non-Fiction Film in India, often cited as a milestone, traces the history of documentaries and newsreels from the early twentieth century to post-Independence India. Some shorter critical writing on the subject has also appeared in academic publications, and in special issues of journals such as Art India, in 2014, and Bioscope, in 2012.

Taran N Khan is a journalist based in Mumbai. Her work can be found at www.porterfolio.net/taran.

Keywords: film Anand Patwardhan documentaries Films Division Nilita Vachani
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