Cinema of Resistance

Recent Trends in Indian Documentary Film

Manjunath Pendakur

Documentary film production in India has been a virtual monopoly of the government and only in the last twenty years have we seen films made outside that institutional control. The Films Division was established in 1948 to serve the informational and propaganda needs of various ministries of the Central Government. Considered to be the largest documentary producing organization in the world, the Films Division makes 160 films a year of which a third are documentaries and the rest are shorts and animated films. Only about ten percent of their films are made by freelancers from outside the organization. It releases some 700 prints of one documentary and one newsreel every week to approximately 10,000 motion picture theaters in the country. The exhibitors in turn are required by law to pay one percent of the gross box office.1 Some documentary productions are also sponsored by various state governments through their own information ministries to be circulated either through regional cinemas or special screenings in rural areas. This system of production and distribution is heavily bureaucratized and creative expression or innovation is rare. In fact the audience generally responds to the Films Division documentaries by waiting outside the theaters until the main feature begins. This article focuses on documentary films which are outside of this system of production and distribution, hence called independent documentary cinema. This movement has its origins in national politics and continues to respond to major upheavals in Indian society in interesting ways.

The watershed event in India's post-independence political history was the "National Emergency" declared by Indira Gandhi in June 1975, the then Prime Minister. It was in effect for two dark years but left an everlasting mark on the national psyche. All the civil and individual liberties guaranteed in the Constitution were withdrawn and thousands of innocent citizens were held in jails without trial as threat to the security of the state.2 Some were killed in what were called "police encounters." A young student by the name of Anand Patwardhan made a short film called Waves of Revolution (1976) which captured some of the massive student protests and the popular resistance preceding the Emergency. The raw footage was smuggled out of the country and edited.

While some leading cinéastes of Indian cinema had made films for the Films Division, notably Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, and Mani Kaul, the genuinely independent documentary movement has its origins in this historic event of the National Emergency. Another film to help the movement to take its roots was An Indian Story (1981) directed by Tapan K. Bose. He tells the heart-wrenching story of the blinding of some 37 peasants who were in jail on trumped up charges by the Bihar state police. Bose relates the horror inflicted on the peasants in the context of the oppressive class rule of landlords in rural India where some 16% of households control more than 60 percent of the assets and landless peasants are treated as vassals. The film, which was released after a protracted struggle with the courts and the Central Board of Film Censors, was instrumental in spreading the message of how fragile civil and individual liberties had become. The national civil and democratic rights movement, which has its origins in 1975, had a great deal of work cut out for itself in the aftermath of the Bhagalpur blindings. Since Waves of Revolution and An Indian Story, many more artists from all over the country are struggling to make films which tackle the pressing problems of Indian society, thereby strengthening the independent documentary film movement.

Aesthetic Issues

"You have come to take our pictures. What will you do for us? We don't have a place to stay tonight. Will you be able to get our houses back?"

If a number of documentaries made since the eighties are testimony, Indian filmmakers tend to develop more complex sound tracks to their films. Sound, narration, and/or background score are complicated in a heterogenous culture like India. With its many languages and dialects, narration aimed at one linguistic community may not translate well with others. Interviews done in English often present the same problem: while the elites speak English, the majority of Indians speak their own local languages. Even when the documentaries are telecast, understanding what is being said in the interviews can be a problem. Subtitles are a reasonable solution to the problem, but if they are in English they cannot be understood by a great majority of Indians. Consequently, filmmakers are left with hard choices. As their resources are limited, they often choose English for subtitling and when that film is screened at a union hall or a community center, they have to translate the sound into whatever language that audience speaks.

Increasingly, we find music and song playing important roles in storytelling in the documentary mode. There are two ways in which one encounters music and song. A film might capture the performances that are put on by the community on which the film is centered, as in Voices from Baliapal (1988), Safdar (1992), We Make History (1993), or Bombay, Our City (Patwardhan, 1985). These are street plays with plenty of music and dance, written for the pleasure of the community either by the organizers in the community or those who have come from outside to organize them. In We Make History, a film about how the workers of TVS Industries are attempting to organize a union of their own (as opposed to the company sponsored union), Philip Padachira captures several of the street plays they perform. Such performances draw huge crowds and unite the community around a set of shared issues. Safdar is an investigation into the political murder of Safdar Hashmi, a nationally known street theater activist who was beaten to death by hired killers while performing a play in January 1989. Sashi Kumar creates a moving portrait of Hashmi, his passion for a democratic India, and how he built a national movement to resist fascist tendencies by way of his music and theater.

The second way in which we find music and song in Indian documentary films is when the filmmaker chooses a particular song to accentuate the message that he or she wishes to convey. Tapan Bose's An Indian Story opens with the red sky on the bank of Ganga where people are bathing and praying. A classical raga plays in the background. The film ends with an agit/prop song from the communist movement which calls on the viewer to break all chains of injustice. While the opening invokes the cliché-ridden image of India as a land of spiritualism and tradition, the ending calls for dramatic change by way of song and a demonstration with red flags everywhere. Vasudha Joshi and Ranjan Palit also open their film Voices from Baliapal with song used in an imaginative way. The film captures the grass roots opposition by the people of Baliapal, a village on the east coast in Orissa, to a government plan to build a nuclear missile testing range in their area. The film begins with the waves rolling into a white sandy beach and, as the camera pans to a fishing boat at a distance in the water, a fisherman begins to sing a highly ironic song as to why God has closed His eyes and turned to stone in the temple. After the song, the basic story is established by way of interviews and there is another interlude with a song. The visuals to the song testify to how rich and beautiful the land around Baliapal is, explaining why people in this region would call it a paradise and why they would fight so hard to keep the government at bay.

In Patwardhan's In the Name of God (1992 [presented at YIDFF '93]), a film about the resurgence of Hindu fundamentalism, songs in the background locate a set of values that are meant to draw viewers' attention to an earlier period in Indian history when harmonious relations existed between Hindus and Muslims. Patwardhan uses songs for different purposes in his feature length documentary, Father, Son and Holy War (1994 [to be featured at YIDFF '95]): they become musical interludes, social commentaries, satirical observations, and even unity building events. They work best to emphasize the irony of the situation. For instance, when the filmmaker uses a popular Hindi film song about men, he shows a montage of cinema posters and advertisements which exemplify male identity with weapons and violence. As a large gathering of women and men in Bombay march to build unity among different religious groups, they sing the virtue of tolerance and humanism. In the bleak socio-political drama that Patwardhan sketches in the film, such scenes shine through with hope by representing progressive forces at work.

Although music and song are critical tools of communication which have a great deal of appeal to Indian audiences, they may not work well with European or other Western audiences. If these films are intended to play a role in raising political awareness and strengthening humanist and progressive elements in Indian society, it is better for these filmmakers to work with such devices that have mass appeal than worry about whether or not the film is going to be well-received at Karlovy Vary or Yamagata.

Oral testimony by way of on-camera interviews is heavily used in many of these independent documentary films. Unlike in the West, the filmmakers are not always able to isolate the speaker to present his or her views. When one points a camera at a person in the outdoors, a crowd gathers around, as though to keep a check on the process. Everyone has something to say, to add to or challenge something that is being said. In Bombay, Our City, there are several scenes like this where the camera has to zoom out to include the community of hut dwellers who are being evicted by the city. They all testify to the tyranny of the police who carry away their meager belongings and destroy their "homes." In one such scene, where women have gathered outside the City Commissioner's mansion to protest these evictions, Patwardhan's camera captures an unusual moment. A poor woman asks the filmmaker a penetratingly troubling question about filmmaking: "You have come to take our pictures. What will you do for us? We don't have a place to stay tonight. Will you be able to get our houses back?" She wonders loudly about the filmmaker's limited role of social intervention. By keeping that scene, Patwardhan makes the film even richer. He not only provides a critique of the process of filmmaking but of the artist as an individual, however well intentioned he or she may be. In fact, Patwardhan is believed to have assisted the hut dwellers before and after the film was completed by getting some lawyers to donate their services and by also drawing the attention of the mass media in Bombay to the issue of lack of housing for the city's poor. The woman's question demands that filmmakers not walk away from the people they have filmed and challenges the role of the artist in representing people caught up in history.

There is another scene in the film Bombay, Our City that is worth considering here. There is a fine line between observing and interpreting social reality and turning into a voyeur. For documentary filmmakers, every human action can become "material" for their film; the temptation to get a peek at the life's drama can be intense. One of the poor families portrayed in the film has a baby which dies from high fever. Patwardhan shows the funeral of the child and the grief of the parents and neighbors. When I've shown the film to students in America, they are revulsed by this scene because to them it exploits the family's misery and raises questions about the ethics of the director. In an interview, the cinematographer Ranjan Palit described how that came to be in the film: "Anand called me one day and told me about the baby's death. He was reluctant to film it, but the parents requested it. They insisted it would be the only record of the baby if it is on film. In fact, the baby's fever worsened because the mother carried the child in pouring rain in a demonstration against the demolition of their huts. Anand felt that the death of the baby had an organic connection to the story being told as well."3

Patwardhan, Vasudha Joshi, Ranjan Palit, and Chalam Bennurakar (Children of Mini Japan (1990 [shown at YIDFF '91])) have mastered the skills of interviewing on film. They are soft spoken, non-imposing, and less direct in their approach to asking questions. The interviewees are willing to bear their souls to the camera and as a result provide convincing portrayals of their character, their feelings, and their anguish. They use minimal narration and let the interviews weave the web of facts and experiences.


The young, independent documentary movement in India has many challenges and obstacles to face. Its funding is tenuous, censorship daunting, and distribution in the country unorganized. It also depends on exposure and funding from abroad. Despite all these odds, there are many more filmmakers in the country now pursuing independent documentary filmmaking than ever before. Some films are being made by collectives such as the Media Storm in Delhi and Janamadyam Cieds Collective in Bombay. While 16mm technology is not easily available in the country, availability of video technology offers some hope. At an international symposium on "New Technologies and the Democratisation of Audiovisual Communication" held in New Delhi in February 1994, I was very encouraged by the presence of a number of documentary filmmakers as well as the variety of their concerns. There were young women graduates of the Jamia Milia University who were teaching video to women in urban neighborhoods as a tool of empowerment as well as many dedicated grass roots activists working with peasants on issues like illiteracy, untouchability, and gender inequities in rural India. They are collectively building a cinema of resistance in the country. This effort takes on an even bigger urgency given the fact that India's national television has rapidly become a tool of commerce and has virtually abandoned the mission of building an egalitarian society. The films in the independent documentary movement have the potential to intervene in determining the course of events and public policies of the day because these are the voices of sanity, tolerance, and resistance at a time when the shrill cacophony of fundamentalism, fascism, and greed are louder than ever before.



1. Keval J. Kumar, Mass Communication in India (New Delhi: Jaico Books, 1981): pp. 128-129.

2. For a detailed analysis of the effects of the Emergency on the media, see Manjunath Pendakur, "Mass Media During the 1975 National Emergency in India," Canadian Journal of Communication 13.4 (1988): pp. 32-48.

3. I'm grateful to Prof. Thomas Waugh, Concordia University, for sharing a tape of this film with me.

©1995, Manjunath Pendakur

Manjunath Pendakur

Professor of International Communication at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, USA. Chairs the Department of Radio-TV-Film and directs the Program on Communication and Development Studies, an interdisciplinary research program in the School of Speech. Studied cinematography in India and worked on feature films and documentaries before migrating to Canada. Author of Canadian Dreams and American Control: The Political Economy of the Canadian Film Industry (Wayne State University Press, 1990). Currently working on a book on India's popular cinema.