Screening documentary films on developing countries has become an integral part of curriculum in mass media and social work colleges in Mumbai.

Shruti Shenoy had a number of points to jot down when a question — about reportage of the third world by developed nations — was asked in the Mumbai University Exam question paper. Shenoy, who is a student of journalism in Sophia College, recalls, “Watching documentary films such as ‘Dateline Bangladesh’, ‘Peace Propaganda’ and the ‘Promised Land’, which is based on the Israel Palestine issue, helped me understand a great deal about how media coverage filters are employed while reporting on developing countries.”

Shenoy is not the only one. Ruchi Nandu, another student of mass media could write at length about coverage of women’s issues by the media after deriving numerous pointers from documentaries such as ‘Pita’ and ‘Purush aur Dharmayuddha’, which were screened during classroom lectures.

Documentary film screenings have become an integral part of the three-year intensive mass media degree programmes in Mumbai colleges. “Documentaries help us get a complete picture of the issue. Contrary to general belief, they also expose the underdog’s story. Other than writing answers, watching documentary films by Anand Patwardhan, Michael Moore and others have made me aware about issues which may be absent from the mainstream media discourse,” says Shenoy.

Sudhakar Solomon Raj, Head of Political Science and Mass Media Department at Wilson College, opines that documentary screenings help students get a wider perspective and are important for students enrolled for courses in Political Science, Life Sciences, History, and not just mass media. Among other colleges in Mumbai, Wilson College has been using documentary screenings as an important teaching aid for making students understand issues of relevance. Films such as ‘Nero’s Guests’ and documentaries by Anand Patwardhan are screened every year for new batches.

Different perspectives

Several colleges such as Sophia Polytechnic and Xavier Institute of Communications offer post-graduate diploma courses in media and communication of which film-making and documentary film screening are an integral part. Anubhuti Matta, a student of postgraduate diploma in Mass Communication from SCM, says, “Documentaries are alternatives to mainstream cinema, rich in content but made on low budgets. In a course like Social Communications Media, screenings become essential as we are taught film appreciation and how to make short films.”

Other than Mass Media, colleges offering degrees in Social Work also make screening of documentary films as an important part of the course curriculum. At Nirmala Niketan College of Social Work, more than 12 documentary films are screened for undergraduate students of social work in every academic session. Devshri Bidaye, a student enrolled in B.A. in social work believes that documentary screenings have helped her address sociological problems more effectively. “Social work is one of the fields where we deal directly with human beings and real-life challenges. There is no standard solution for problems.

Thus, documentaries help us see some of the problems and their uniqueness. Screening sessions have helped us grasp the tactics and assess the magnitude of the problem.” she says.

Institutes such as the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) screen more than 50 documentary films for post-graduate courses in media and cultural studies. Pratik Bhakta, who is pursuing M.A. in media and cultural studies from TISS, says “Documentary film screenings enhance our interest and understanding of the subject matter.” Recently, Bhakta wrote a paper on queer identities in mainstream cinema in Mumbai after gathering multiple viewpoints from a documentary he had watched titled “The Celluloid Closet”.

Harini Calamur, a Mumbai-based media entrepreneur, filmmaker, columnist and a visiting faculty in colleges of Mass Media and Journalism, highlights the importance of documentary films in showing the other side of the story which may be absent from the mainstream media discourse. “One may not subscribe to these views but as mass media and journalism students, it is important to be aware of alternatives.” She further emphasises that documentary films help students gain a historical perspective in a short time span.