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Docedge ’07: Lessons for Indian documentary filmmakers

Haobam Pabam Kumar’s AFSPA, 1958, which bagged three awards at the Toronto International Film Festival brought into sharp focus the paradox of the Indian Cinema landscape, ranging from the popular to those on the margins, the subaltern. The need for exposure at venues such as Toronto highlights the struggles of the Indian documentary filmmaker. But in a twist of irony, the screening of the Hindi popular film Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (Dir: Karan Johar) upstaged Haobam’s efforts. Needless to say, the Indian media played up Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna‘s appearance at the festival while Haobam’s film received a passing mention in a couple of insignificant newspapers. Here is the paradox — are both Kabhi… and AFSPA, 1958 different shades of the subaltern? Do both require exposure at such platforms? What are the motivations for seeking such exposure?

Haboam’s AFSPA, 1958, like so many other filmmakers before him, bravely face the onslaught of popular cinema and the apathy of the broadcasting sector – neither can give them any space or imbibe their values. It took a Canadian newspaper to state that AFSPA, 1958 was “guaranteed to spark debate” (Toronto Star, Sep 7, 2006). The Indian media completely missed the point. Thus, filmmakers such as Haobam have to look for support from outside the country, for on one hand awards won confers legitimacy in India, on the other they are also the source for funding. It is a reflection on India’s claim to greatness that Docedge ’07 should be supported by the European Documentary Network. Take a look at their tutor list. The workshop format is interesting, for it not only entails pedagogy, but also reflectionsim and knowledge-sharing amongst the participants. Specifically, the workshop rules specify: a) getting participants to record their styles/approaches in a booklet – to be shared by a wider community b) pitching sessions to take place in public It’s a shame they do not broadcast their participants’ work online… or have a blog. Once again we are faced with the problematic of content. The participants came up with a range of ideas:

  • themes with universal dimension and treating with elan subjects like:
  • migration
  • cross-border issues
  • minority communities like the Chinese, the Parsis or the Tibetans in India
  • displacement
  • alienation
  • clash of old and new value systems in a rapidly changing India
  • youth culture.

For instance, Pankaj Butalia, documented the bleakness in the lives of the women in worn-torn Jammu and Kashmir in his The textures of loss while Kanu Behl’s Mila Kya? portrayed the youth in today’s fluid society with paradoxical social values through the metaphor of search for a lost friend. Mahadev Shi’s Kather Baksho told the tale of a city and its work-culture through the fast disappearing tramcars of Kolkata, while recipient of the most promising project award, Bharat Murthy’s film on amateur pornography, You, me and a video camera highlighted the changing attitude to sex in India. Very different in approach was Balaka Ghosh’s A mother, folk-music and landmines. Balaka explored in a hilarious, satiric way Indian politics and womanhood through the story of the ex Bihar chief minister Rabri Devi. Sunanda Bhat received the ‘best-developed project’ award for her film on the migrant labourers of the hilly Wayanad region of Kerala. Haobam Paban Kumar’s Nupishabi depicted the present political situation and insurgency in Manipur through the nupishabis (male actors playing female roles) of the courtyard plays. Reflecting a touch of pragmatism, the focus of the training was on developing narratives designed for the wider world. Interstingly, Nokia sponsored the best project award! But the veneer of niceties was peeled off by Rada Sesic from the Netherlands: “It is not enough that filmmakers make these documentaries. It’s an arrogant attitude on part of the government or the Doordarshan that they do not have a regular slot for featuring docus. Why should we foreigners fund for Indian filmmakers if the public is not encouraged to watch? In Docedge, there isn’t a single broadcaster from India.” It has been argued by this author that new technologies afford opportunities that have the potential to make a signifant difference, even though it may be limited in its scope. If Nokia can spot the opportunity, what are the Indian media entrepreneurs doing?

The questions that arise here are:

a) to what extent is the limited opportunity in India shaping the practices, content, and style of documentary films

b) how can documentary filmmakers create opportunities for distribution and exhibition in India and what are the implications?

4 comments

1 Nishtha Jain { 01.27.08 at 10:53 pm }

Another film ‘Lakshmi and Me’ that was pitched and evolved during docedge 2005 and which also won the best pitch is finally ready and will be screened in Mumbai on 3rd Feb, 4 30 pm at Ravindra Natya Mandir(details below).
In ‘Lakshmi and Me’ the filmmaker (that’s me) explores her relationship with her 21-year old maid, Lakshmi. This film is part of the ongoing Steps India initiative—the brainchild of Iikka Vehkalahti, Commissioning Editor at YLE, Finland, who has beenvisiting India frequently over the years. The aim is to encourage independent documentary filmmaking in India by putting filmmakers with interesting projects (and lack of funding at home) in touch with international producers and commissioning editors to whom we do not otherwise have much access. The idea is working: in 2006, six Indian films—reflecting a range of subjects and styles—found co-producers from different countries. Lakshmi and Me is the first of these to be ready. For more details on the film visit

All are invited to the Mumbai premiere of LAKSHMI AND ME,
a film by Nishtha Jain,
to be followed by tea and a discussion,
at the P L Deshpande mini-theatre,
Ravindra Natya Mandir complex, Prabhadevi,
at 4.30 pm on Sunday 3rd February 2008.

LAKSHMI AND ME

Dir: Nishtha Jain
India / USA / Denmark / Finland
59 min

“What sin did I commit to be born a woman?” Lakshmi wonders aloud. A 21-year-old housemaid in Mumbai, she works ten hours a day, seven days a week. One of her employers is Nishtha, a filmmaker, who begins to make a documentary with her. As Nishtha is drawn deeper into Lakshmi’s life, she is forced to question many of the things she takes for granted. During a year and a half of dramatic changes, the process of filming has its own impact on unfolding events and on the relationship between the two women.

The film was nominated for the Silver Wolf Award at International Documentary Film festival (IDFA), Amsterdam 2007 and will be screened in festivals worldwide.

See trailer at
http://link.brightcove.com/services/link/bcpid1214149067/bclid1278020596/bctid1312931679

Director’s Note
‘Servants’ are around us all the time and yet, in a sense, invisible. In Lakshmi and Me, I’m trying to look at my own equation with my part-time maid, Lakshmi. Though our relationship was friendly, even warm, there was no denying its inherently exploitative nature. Yet she seemed to be accepting of her lot. She was completely without bitterness, though she had to work for almost 10 hours daily, in seven to eight households. If this was her life at 20, what would her future be like? I began to feel I would like to make a film about Lakshmi and, in the process, explore our relationship with each other and reflect on the whole gamut of attitudes and issues between domestic workers and employers.

Credits
Written & Directed by: Nishtha Jain
Editing: Rikke Selin Lorentzen
Cinematography: Deepti Gupta, Rakesh Haridas, Nishtha Jain
Sound: Subhashis Roy, Indrajit Neogi
Sound Design: Niraj Gera
Music: Mads Nordheim, Mangesh Dhakde
Executive Producer, Steps India: Iikka Vehkalahti
Producer, Raintree Films: Smriti Nevatia
Executive Producer, ITVS: Sally Jo Fifer
Co-Producers: Karoline Leth, Kristiina Pervilä
Presented by Steps India
Produced by Raintree Films

Reviews:

‘Lakshmi and Me’ is a remarkably honest documentary about 21-year-old Lakshmi and the filmmaker, Nishtha… Films like ‘Lakshmi and Me’ ought to be shown on prime time television, in housing societies in a city like Mumbai, in schools and colleges. As a society, we are becoming increasingly blind and indifferent to the existence of people who hold up our homes, our lives, our cities. Such films should help open our eyes and our minds.

—Kalpana Sharma in The Hindu http://www.hinduonnet.com/mag/2007/12/30/stories/2007123050110300.htm

About the director:
Nishtha Jain is an independent documentary filmmaker based in Mumbai, India. She graduated in 1998 from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, where she specialized in film direction. Her recent films include City of Photos (2005), Call It Slut (2006) and 6 Yards to Democracy (2007).

More information available on
http://www.raintreefilms.net
http://www.lakshmiandme.com

2 Nishtha Jain { 01.27.08 at 10:55 pm }

Hi kishore, I posted a comment that went into spam. could you retrieve it because I’m unable to post it again.

3 Nishtha Jain { 01.27.08 at 10:56 pm }

Hi kishore, I posted a comment but it went into spam. Could you retrieve it because I’m unable to post it again.

4 indira ram { 02.26.08 at 6:23 am }

ur idea is very nice. u vil ditect more n more that type films.

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