Merajur Rahman Baruah speaks about the making of “Shifting Prophecy”, which documents Muslim Women's Movement in Tamil Nadu

Say ‘cinema', and people think of the full-length feature film. But, documentaries have had as long a history, and have been more powerfully exploited for socio-political and reformist causes. Apart from recording reality, the genre can be a splendid tool for off-beat experiments. Some documentaries remain unequalled in sheer aesthetic beauty. Many filmmakers admit that the documentary offers greater scope for freedom and creativity — and, on a smaller budget.

With the opening up of alternative channels on the Net and television, and affordable digital-video equipment, documentaries and short films have had a new lease of life. Moreover, old borderlines are blurred as features adopt documentary methods, while documentarists use the crafts of fiction.

“I don't want to make a feature, ever,” declares Delhi-based Assamese Merajur Rahman Baruah, (Commonwealth Vision Award, 2006; National Award Rajat Kamal, 2007, Best Director, Hyderabad International Film Festival, 2008). “With many actors, and more at stake, there is less control in features, and many more interventions. With my small documentary crew, I know what I am doing; well, most of the time!” he laughs.

In Chennai to present his “Shifting Prophecy” at Samsung-Inko Centre's Women's International Film Festival, Baruah said that to make a film about the emergence of a Muslim Women's Movement in Tamil Nadu was to realise how complicated their struggle in resisting feudal norms and gender violence was.

“Assam has a 30 per cent Muslim population, but never had I seen a woman swathed in a hijab or burqa till I came to Delhi 10 years ago. I started thinking about socio-ethno-cultural compulsions in a patriarchal society. I saw that the mainstream media slotted women into stereotypes. Muslim women are discussed only against problems — fatwa against Sania Mirza, or about not being allowed to contest elections.” Individual identities are lost in vague, distorted generalities.

Baruah noted that the women in Tamil Nadu who built the world's first all-women mosque, and formed the first all-women jamat, to fight gender discrimination and bias, were not feminists in the modern sense. Nor did their amazing leader Sharifa Khanum incite them to break laws.

They remain within their creed while questioning misinterpretations.

Baruah explains: “Women have equal rights within Islam; in fact, they have more advantages. What has happened is that ‘Woman's right and man's duty' has been turned into ‘Man's right and woman's duty'.”

What did “Shifting Prophecy” teach him? “These women are ill-educated and illiterate; to them, one day's protest means one day's loss of earnings. But, they joined the movement because they care for their identity and dignity.”

Is it easier to make documentaries than features? “No! They demand extensive research. Things never go according to plan. Everyone is willing to pour her heart out until the camera is switched on. Then, it is a different story!”

Baruah came up against this problem when he shot Holi revelry in a village in Rajasthan, where the community has celebrated every Hindu festival for 700 years while following three Islamic rituals — circumcision, burial and consuming halal meat.

“Vociferous they were about Hindu and Muslim right-wing forces pulling them in different directions, but became tongue-tied before the camera.” Persistence was the only way to get any results.

But, there must be occasions when subjects break down and say too much? “Yes,” admits Baruah. “But, I have my ethics. I edit them. What is great for my film could affect their livelihood, and life.” ”

Short is in

Among the debut films at WIFF 2010, Priyanka Chhabra's “Taana Baana” caught the eye. This short film has been chosen for the Seoul International Film Festival.

Chhabra's diploma film (National Institute of Design), inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky's short story, deals with a strange bonding between an older man and a young girl. Without romance or passion, their mutual need to overcome loneliness forges the relationship. “The story's letter-writing format attracted me,” says Priyanka. “I focussed on the grey areas between what the characters say and do.”

Many directors graduate from shorts to full-length features, but Priyanka says: “With multiple TV channels, the Internet, youtube, culture unplugged… the possibilities for shorts are increasing day-by-day. I'm really interested in video art and experimental work.”