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Documentary films need to be given the push

 | February 11, 2014

Docu-makers must not allow their precious reels to rot in the cans.


The recently concluded Mumbai International Film Festival for Documentaries, Shorts and Animation drew poor crowds during the entire week it ran.

Of course there could have been any number of reasons for this lack of adequate patronage. Media never rose to the occasion: newspapers in Mumbai hardly carried anything on the Festival, and television too was mum.

Unfortunately, the Indian media is star driven. It is obsessed with the lives of actors, the saucier they are, the better it is. Non-fiction cinema presents no stars – or usually they do not. True it may talk about dancers and thinkers and sportsmen, but these men and women are usually not glamorous in the way a Salman Khan or a Hrithik Roshan or a Priyanka Chopra or an Aishwarya Rai is.

Girish Kasaravalli’s documentary on UR Ananthamurthy is a brilliant portrayal of the man and his philosophy. Adoor Gopalakrishnan has created great documents on classical dance artists. Anand Patwardhan has produced extremely provocative documentary films on the burning issues of the day. Nishtha Jain directed Gulabi Gang about the atrocities on women.

But who cares about these movies. For the cinema going masses, it is the antics of Rajnikanth or Shahrukh Khan or the coyness of a starlet or the sex appeal of Mallika Sherawat that appear magical.

But despite all this, non-fiction fare has a huge significance. This is undeniable. And there are many directors doing this form of film, and their contributions need to be publicised, highlighted and made appealing in a way that they would attract viewers.

The Festival organised a seminar on “audience development”. I was one of the speakers, and the others on the panel had many interesting suggestions to offer. But they seemed to overlook the fact that documentary viewing was an acquired taste, and this had to be cultivated and nurtured from an early age.

I remember my school days in Kolkata, where every month a movie would be screened. Often they were great classics, sometimes animation and at other times, they were documentaries. I have seen some gripping British documentaries made in black and white during World War II. These were powerful diaries of the some of the nation’s darkest days. I think it was at school that I developed a taste for non-fiction films as I did for sensitive, sensible and meaningful cinema.

Again, during one of my trips to the Montreal World Film Festival in the 1990s, I met a Canadian writer and movie director specialising in children’s books and cinema. He told me how he had helped this cinema grow. He and some others arranged for children’s movies to be screened in schools during weekends, and parents were also encouraged to come. Later, when these movies moved out of the schools and into regular theatres, parents too went along with their sons and daughters. This was a wonderful way of capturing and developing an audience

Indian documentary creators must think something like this to push their fare. Their works could be screened in schools and colleges – to start with, and what a wonderful starting point this would be. The young need to be tapped and taught to appreciate the cinema of relevance.

Equally important, the few documentaries that are being shown in cultural organisations like Alliance Francaise, British Council and Max Mueller Bhavan often pass without a murmur, and this is only because the filmmakers do not make enough effort to reach out to the media. Most newspapers will be only too happy to carry small pre-publicity information about the documentaries to be shown.

Also, academics teaching documentary cinema can always write in newspapers and magazines, and this will be an excellent way of disseminating information.

Above all, docu-makers must not allow their precious reels to rot in the cans.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is India Editor of FMT, and Chennai-based author, columnist and movie critic. He may be emailed at [email protected]


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