Documentary Film in South Asia

Nepal, India, and Film South Asia

Deepak Thapa

Begun in 1994 as Film Himalaya ’94, Film South Asia is the first film festival devoted to documentaries about South Asia, a region which includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Tibet, among others. Organized by the South Asian magazine Himal, the first Film South Asia was held in 1997. Of 135 entries received, Film South Asia ’97 screened fifty-five documentaries about South Asia or South Asians in September 1997 in Kathmandu. Fifteen films from the festival were also screened in Travelling Film South Asia ’97, a selection of films which toured universities and film societies in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the US, UK, Germany, and the Netherlands in the spring and summer of 1998. Film South Asia ’97 also gave three juried awards, with the prize for best film going to The Spirit Doesn’t Come Anymore (scheduled to screen in New Asian Currents, YIDFF ’99) by Tsering Rhitar of Nepal. Film South Asia ’99, the festival’s second edition, screened forty documentaries as well as a number of archival and other films over four days this fall. The films shown, selected from 147 entries, hail from India, Tibet, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Trinidad, Bangladesh, and the USA (for more information, see the FSA homepage at http://www.himalmag.com/fsa/). Deepak Thapa, a journalist with Himal and one of the organizers of Film South Asia, reports on Film South Asia ’99 and the history and future of documentary filmmaking in the South Asian region.

The Editors

For four days from September 30, 1999, Film South Asia ’99, a documentary film festival held in Kathmandu, brought together films and filmmakers from all over South Asia and elsewhere. Organized by the South Asian magazine Himal, Film South Asia ’99 is the magazine’s third festival, and the second devoted to South Asian film. The magazine’s first film festival, Film Himalaya ’94, brought together documentary and feature films about the Himalayan region for the first time. In 1996, Himal expanded its scope to include all of South Asia, and Film South Asia was born.

Unlike East Asian newsmagazines like the Far East Economic Review and Asiaweek, Himal addresses and analyzes issues beneath the surface. Like documentary filmmakers, the magazine brings to the fore issues generally ignored by the mainstream media. Since documentaries are perhaps the strongest medium for forcing social change, organizing a documentary film festival was in some ways only an extension of what the magazine was already doing on its pages.

Ironically, while Nepal is home to both the magazine and the only festival for South Asian documentaries, the country does not have a tradition of making documentaries in the usual sense. Documentary filmmaking in Nepal can be traced back to propaganda newsreels made during the autocratic Panchayat regime, which ruled Nepal for thirty years until 1990. These films, which highlighted government “achievements” and hagiographized the then all-powerful monarchy, were made to be shown in cinemas before regular film screenings.

The arrival of television in 1985 brought new genres of films and filmmaking to Nepal. Taking advantage of the relatively cheap and flexible medium of television, numerous filmmakers entered the scene and began to mass-produce documentaries for airing on Nepal Television, the national network.

While early productions tried to use the visual medium to depict the natural splendor of Nepal, filmmakers were soon using the medium for “development films,” documentaries commissioned by development agencies to promote their own agendas. The national television station aired such development dramas to fill time in the beginning, but slowly phased out films of this kind. As the quality of these films was nothing to crow about, their removal was not particularly mourned. It was clear, however, that regardless of artistic aspects, they could raise uncomfortable questions about development in particular and governance in general.

A start had been made, however, and a generation of young filmmakers created to cater to the genre. Nepal Television began producing bland descriptive documentaries, but the majority of young talented filmmakers were already hooked on development films. Development films offer filmmakers free rein without the bureaucratic interference of Nepal Television. More importantly, they are lucrative. Never mind that the dictates of the client usually prove as troublesome as Nepal Television’s bureaucratic requirements, or that creations are viewed by perhaps a dozen people in a room in a far away Western city. Most development filmmakers candidly admit that they make these films for the profits they bring, and hope to break out of their genre and make “meaningful” films. So far, however, not one of them has been able to make the break, and not a single Nepalese entry selected for Film South Asia ’97 came from the development filmmakers.

This irony is all the more jarring given neighboring India’s advances in the documentary medium. The power of the documentary in South Asia and the raison d’être for Film South Asia are perhaps better illustrated through the Indian example. On July 7, 1896, one year after the Lumière brothers showed their films at Paris’s Salon Indien, Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatwadekar saw some of the brothers’ films at India’s first film screening at the Watson Hotel in Mumbai. Bhatwadekar, known also as Sawe Dada, went on to make India’s first documentaries, two films about a wrestling match and the training of performing monkeys. These screened in an open air theatre in Mumbai in 1898. Bhatwadekar’s films of the coronations and other ceremonies of India’s maharajas are known as India’s first newsreels.

In 1910, Dhundiraj Govind “Dadasaheb” Phalke saw The Life of Christ (“La vie et la passion de Jésus-Christ,” 1898) in a Mumbai theatre and decided to go into filmmaking. After the time-lapse technique of his first film, The Growth of a Pea Plant, shot over a six-week period, won him funding, Phalke went on to lay the foundations of the Indian film industry. He made a number of features, but continued making shorts and documentaries, including A Game of Matchsticks and How Films Are Made, an attempt to educate the public about the medium.

Indian documentaries continued to develop with newsreels, for example one on the mid-1930s earthquake in Quetta (now in Pakistan) which had a running commentary and was used to raise relief funds. However, it took the outbreak of the Second World War to shift the industry into top gear. The British colonial government understood the propaganda value of film, and set up the Film Advisory Board [FAB] to make use of the medium when it became desperate for men and materials. J. B. H. Wadia, chair of the FAB, also realized film’s potential for education, and made a series of documentaries unrelated to the war.

The British government also created mandatory screenings of government-approved films before each show at cinemas. This law remained in place after Indian independence, directly benefiting the official government Films Division. Theatres not only had to show Films Division films but also pay for the privilege. Given this appropriation of film space by the Films Division, independent filmmakers felt the need to organize and consolidate their position. Paul Zils, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany and one of India’s leading documentary filmmakers after independence, was instrumental in this move. Zils directed the formation of the Short Film Guild and tried to arrange collaborations between the Films Division and independent filmmakers. He also organized documentary film festivals in Mumbai and Delhi, and set up the Indian Documentary Producers Association.

The Films Division also produced some impressive documentaries, but only truly flowered in the 1960s with new management. Not only newsreels but many important films were made during this period, and a host of new filmmakers, including Zils’s former assistant S. Sukhdev, arrived on the scene. Sukhdev, who made his debut in 1958 with The Saint and the Peasant, a film on the land reform movement led by Acharya Vinoba Bhave, introduced the concept of filmmaker as activist and made numerous political films.

After Sukhdev’s untimely death at forty-three, protegé Tapan Bose continued his work with films of an equally political nature. Most of Bose’s films have been banned, however, a sad commentary on how the Indian political establishment views such statements. An Indian Story, about the blindings of people in police custody awaiting trial in a district of Bihar, received a National Award, given by the Indian government for excellence in filmmaking, yet required court action to be shown.

Around the same time, Anand Patwardhan’s films were turning documentary film into a movement and engendering an environment in which such films were considered respectable. Nonetheless, Patwardhan’s films like Waves of Revolution and Prisoners of Conscience, made during the Indian Emergency, were outlawed. Filmmakers like Utpalendu Chakravorty and Gautam Ghose were also experimenting along similar lines.

Indian documentary film has been defined by the trials of fire undergone by these innovators, and it is almost impossible to conceive of a non-activist Indian documentary. The occasional film may shy away from probing statements, but by and large the documentary has found its niche in social commentary.

India’s many documentary filmmakers have been recognized at home and abroad for their work. However, audience remains a question. Filmmaking is expensive in an economy like India’s and there is no government support for the genre. In addition, filmmakers must contend with problems of censorship and distribution. Government-run electronic media will not screen documentaries, especially those with an anti-establishment message, and several filmmakers have needed court orders before the government television station would air their works. This situation is all the more dire with the many satellite television stations, which have no mandate for public service, as activist documentaries which take a stand against big government also tend to staunchly oppose big business.

Nonetheless, filmmakers continue to make documentaries, and use various means to get films seen. Some filmmakers travel with their films and show them wherever facilities exist, others route them through the country’s large film society circuit. Even so, however, documentaries continue to have a limited reach. And if this is true for India, home to South Asia’s most advanced cinematic excellence, film appreciation, and infrastructure, the situation in other countries in the region can well be imagined.

Hence the need for events like Film South Asia. Some film festivals held in individual countries provide an outlet for documentaries domestically, but only Film South Asia gathers filmmakers from the whole region to view each others’ work and share ideas. The festival is also intended as a platform for filmmakers to exhibit their work to potential buyers, primarily television stations from South Asia and elsewhere. 1997’s festival was not particularly successful in this regard, but did succeed in making people think of South Asia as a region in documentary filmmaking, and in giving filmmakers exposure to the greater public. Travelling Film South Asia, fifteen outstanding films from Film South Asia ’97 selected by the festival jury, toured nearly fifty venues in South Asia and the West.

Another selection will travel after the 1999 festival, but the effort to put documentaries on the map of South Asia will begin during the festival itself. A workshop on “Public Service Broadcasting in South Asia” brought together media specialists and regional trade leaders. The organizers hope the workshop’s exchange of ideas will catalyze greater airtime for documentaries on satellite television as well. Now that a commonality of experiences and situations cutting across national borders in South Asia makes documentary the most powerful medium yet, this is a viable proposition. As filmmakers’ experiences have shown, the audience is not necessarily limited to the region’s elite; rather, the masses are equally receptive to the idea. Documentaries have come a long way from the boring newsreels shown before main features in cinemas. With changes in technology amplifying the potential for production and broadcasting, the day of the documentary may finally dawn.