THE new sunday express MAGAZINE Voices Pushpesh Pant Ravi Shankar S Vaidhyasubramaniam Anirban Bhattacharyya Anu Aggarwal Swami Sukhabodhananda Buffet People Wellness Books Food Art & Culture Entertainment march 26 2023 SUNDAY PAGES 12 Kartiki Gonsalves The Elephant Whisperers Winner of Oscar for Best Documentary Short “From its inception to spending time with Raghu, Bomman and Bellie to the moment I started seeing this come alive, I had no idea if it would ever happen. With an uncertainty that comes with ventures into the unknown, I found myself feeling the weight of realising this idea to its true potential on a large scale. I spent days researching story arcs to understand a deeper level of storytelling during the process.” Matter of Fact Documentary filmmaking in India has come of age, thanks to a growing interest among the younger audiences for true-life stories, more viewing platforms and new funding avenues D By Kaveree Bamzai eep in the lush forests of Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, an unknown and unheralded photographer, Kartiki Gonsalves, followed her passion for five years, shooting over 450 hours of film on Bomman, Bellie and their wards, two abandoned elephants Raghu and Ammu. The result: a 40-minute film that won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short this year. Entered in the same competition, in another category was Shaunak Sen’s remarkable All That , Breathes, where the filmmaker tracked brothers Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud for three years. The two run a bird clinic in Wazirabad, Delhi, where they have nursed 20,000 kites back to life over the past 20 years. Sen lost the Best Documentary race, but not before winning hearts at the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals. Elsewhere, Vinay Shukla spent two years shadowing Ravish Kumar, the former NDTV journalist, for hours of footage he cannot even begin to count. The result was a 94-minute documentary that has been wowing audiences from the Busan International Film Festival to the Toronto Film Festival. It is a love letter to journalism, a document of a particularly paranoid time in popular media, a harrowing chronicle of the loneliness of a truth-teller. Indian documentaries are the flavour of the season. Young filmmakers, some trained and others self-taught, are tapping into the vast reservoir of stories in the country and taking them to the world. The world seems gobsmacked, consuming these tales of orphaned baby elephants, of damaged kites falling out of the skies, and of a brilliant journalist broken by a system complicit in its own destruction. Thanks to better distribution networks, including OTT streaming services, better access to funding, and more opportunities across international film festivals, Indian documentaries are having more than a moment on the global stage. And in India, after surviving on the fringes of mainstream fiction movies, the filmmakers are now basking in the glow of hard-earned spotlight. Says Shukla, whose An Insignificant Man (2016) on the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party was released commercially in theatres: “I have had people walk up to me at airports across the world and speak about their personal connections with the films. Both An Insignificant Man and While We Watched premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. An Insignificant Man went on to release in theatres in India and ran for nine weeks before being distributed online.” Championing by the West has helped. He adds: “Most documentaries of note started their journey at film festivals in the West. They have benefited from collaborations across the globe. Indian documentary filmmakers are executing their films with originality and vision. We have risen from making victim/NGO documentaries to trailblazing films like All That Breathes.” The new wave has benefited from mentorship and funding organisations like the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, Sundance, and DocSociety a non-profit , devoted to connecting audiences to non-fiction. A lot of work has been done behind the scenes over the last decade towards empowering Indian documentary filmmakers. Even before that, the political documentary movement produced some internationally renowned filmmakers such as Anand Patwardhan, Sanjay Kak, Amar Kanwar and Deepa Dhanraj. But the field has become more expansive. Their tradition was different from European filmmakers who made documentaries on India that were less interested in the political question and more in discovering what we might call “the essence” of India, notes Vinay Lal, professor of history at UCLA. Louis Malle’s extraordinary Phantom India (in six parts) is part of that trend. “What you are seeing now, therefore, is a third trend, which refuses both essentialisation and also what might be called the documentary that trades in political realism,” he says. In the past two decades, documentary filmmaking in the country has moved from being dominated by the Films Division of India to a time when political documentaries could not expect a commercial release. They were neither screened on Doordarshan nor on privately owned television channels because they were resistant to the political culture of India and free-market agendas of its corporate and modernising elites, which, Lal notes, itself constitutes a form of censorship. Nevertheless, as he wrote in 2006, there is every reason to believe that Rintu Thomas, Sushmit Ghosh Writing With Fire Winner of Audience Award and a Special Jury Award in the World Cinema Documentary category at Sundance Film Festival, nominated for Oscar in Best Documentary category 2021 a future awaits Indian documentary filmmakers. Today’s filmmakers are aware they are standing on the shoulders of the giants before them. Take Sushmit Ghosh, one half of the duo nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2021 for Writing With Fire. He says, “For four decades, the Mass Communication Research Centre (MCRC) at Jamia Millia Islamia has been quietly doing the heavy-lifting of encouraging critical thought in media-making. It’s a space that thinks about cinema from a point of view of its socio-cultural and political influence. While each filmmaker from MCRC has charted their own course, the rigour of documentary training for many of us began there.” It’s no surprise that over the last three years, three Indian documentaries that have premiered and won at the Sundance Film Festival (Writing With Fire, All That Breathes and Against the Tide) have been authored by Jamia alumni (Thomas, Ghosh, Shaunak Sen and Sarvnik Kaur). The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ documentary branch has six Indians as members, of which five are Jamia alumni. MCRC, Ghosh says, is also led by media practitioners who bring into the institute a sense of experiment, which is important for young students of storytelling. And in that way , “For four decades, the Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia Millia Islamia has been quietly doing the heavy-lifting of encouraging critical thought in media-making. It’s a space that thinks about cinema from a point of view of its socio-cultural and political influence. While each filmmaker from MCRC has charted their own course, the rigour of documentary training for many of us began there.” it’s a unique space. “For instance, our student film at Jamia, Flying Inside My Body (2008), tells the story of celebrated photographer Sunil Gupta, who uses the nude form of his body in his art to challenge ideas of shame around homosexuality and HIV , flipping notions of what an ageing body looks like. This was a radical theme for any film institute back then and we were encouraged to craft the story in our own visual language and found a safe-space at Jamia to work on this project,” says Ghosh, adding the film went on to do very well in the festival circuit in India and is still being used as an Turn to page 2
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