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Updated: November 2, 2011 17:17 IST

Dynamics of documentaries

Bhawani Cheerath
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Filmmaker Ramani. Photo: G.P.Sampath Kumar
The Hindu
Filmmaker Ramani. Photo: G.P.Sampath Kumar

Filmmaker R.V. Ramani talks about his fascination for documentary films and how it is a challenging creative project for a director

Memories of a Tsunami – how does one make a film on such an unpredictable phenomenon? Conjure images of a devastated landscape and scarred lives with a sleight of hand. That might sound a very commonplace approach to making a documentary. In the hands of filmmaker R.V. Ramani the memories are challenging and potent. Challenging, because, the camera was yet another victim of the tsunami. Potent, because he had to explore umpteen ways to communicate the myriad thoughts and images that he carried of the experience, as well as, ‘the loss of somebody very close, my camera.'

My Camera and Tsunami is a very personal experience, the outcome of an unplanned detour to a coastal area on the Kanyakumari–Nagercoil route. “At Sothavalai, the sea, I was told, was not its normal self. It looked very much like a low tide. When the huge wave started coming I was mesmerised. I got drenched, was thrown off balance, and the camera that I was clinging to was gone. Irretrievably damaged,” describes Ramani. He is in the city for the screening of the film.

Ramani as a person is quite ‘afraid of water,' but when this massive crest of a wave approached the shores, he just stood frozen in awe!

Just a memory

Describing the whole process of making the film he says: “I was grappling with a whole lot of issues. The tsunami was just a memory. I had no footage. How do I deal with the dichotomy between image and reality? A constant exploration and analysis of the image making process worked for the structure of the film. All the footages I had were not planned for this film, but fell into place. So many other films and experiences came in, all captured by the camera which was a relic now. The film works on many planes.”

As a documentary filmmaker, Ramani works strictly within the confines of a format but his films ‘offer an experience of fiction.' How does he achieve this?

“Experience rather than information is what I work on. A lot of planning goes into shot taking, and I work on the structure, energies and narratives. I do not work with actors in the literal sense,” is how he describes his style.

Speaking about the manner of choice of subject Ramani cites the example of Nee Yaar, a documentary on the Tamil writer, Sundara Ramaswamy: “I started on a very personal quest: Why do I like this man? The fascination, the deeply personal imagery, the struggle to express and negotiate…, I look for such people. Then it becomes an active course of engagement and from this dynamics emerge the film.”

Nee Yaar and Camera and Tsunami are two films which received support from the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT). But, Ramani is very sure that an independent filmmaker will have to fall in step with the parameters set. “PSBT has given me a lot of flexibility, but there is this dilemma on the issue of sharing distribution and control of copyright. While encouraging independent filmmaking, distribution rights must necessarily remain with the filmmaker,” is how he views it.

Coming with an FTII [Film and Television Institute of India] grooming how did he resist the temptation to go into commercial filmmaking? “Documentary filmmaking was a natural progression from the Film Institute experience where one is constantly exploring reality, experimenting with images, contextualising it, and gradually moving into the fascination for images. I like watching commercial films, (and have been inspired by films like Ritwik Ghatak's Ajantrik), but I was clear I did not ever want to make it.

“Every film is a form of activism,” says Ramani. There is a constant questioning, negation, challenging and engagement that counters the conformist stance. Nee Engey on the shadow puppeteers of South India is a take on their lives, as well as about puppetry's retreat from public memory, and puppetry as theatre, history, mythology, a work that raised many issues.

Ramani, whose documentaries have travelled to international festivals and has had Retrospectives of his films, the whole exercise of making a documentary is never done with deadlines in mind. The one on ‘koothupattarai,' which he has been working for the last 20 twenty years is one such example: the art and the film evolving over the years, a gestation that promises to gives a distinctive texture to the documentary. That, in a way sums up the energy that works for Ramani's documentaries.

Bhawani Cheerath


A list of R.V. Ramani's movies.


Through the Window

Face Like a Man

One Two Three Four

Blue Black Yellow

Language of War

Our Symbol

Last Family

The Voyeur

If I Die


Lines of Mahatma

Brahma Vishnu Shiva

Heaven on Earth

Nee Engey

City Stories

Katha Shala

Nee Yaar-Who Are You

Padharo Mhaare Des

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