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Reality... out of the closet

Documentaries have come a long way in India. MANJULAA NEGI gives an insight into the genre now ready to rub shoulders with the Bollywood potboilers.

LOOKS LIKE the documentaries will finally find their space under the sun in a country, which has studiously ignored their presence hitherto in the commercial market. In what will seriously benefit this niche segment of films is the initiative taken by the Mumbai-based Rudraa Home Video, which has introduced the Thinking Man series. And it is under this umbrella that award-winning and well-known documentaries are being marketed for the common man. The "exclusive series" intends to make available to the interested audience experimental and controversial films.

Welcome move

The first title released was the National award-winner Arun Khopkar's "Narayan Gangaram Surve." Rudraa has since brought out its second, and more provocative title - Anand Patwardhan's contentious "Ram Ke Naam" (made in 1991), released a week ago on the VCD. For one like Patwardhan whose documentaries have invariably given sleepless nights to authorities and who has had to fight legal battles for the screening of each of his controversial films on Doordarshan - the national broadcaster, the move must surely come as a welcome relief. "Well, more people get to see my films now," is his straightforward reaction.

Ironically enough, in a country that boasts of being the largest filmmaker in the world, the documentary has at best been treated as a stepchild over the years. The genre has often found itself at the deep end because of various reasons, not the least of which has been the successive Governments' attitude. The Films Division newsreel which was mandatory before the screening of any feature film across the country in the `50s and `60s, helped in developing common perception that a documentary film is not only boring but also a mouthpiece of the Government. A perception that independent and award-winning filmmakers like Patwardhan, Arvind Sinha, Mike Pandey and more recently Rakesh Sharma among several others have valiantly sought to remove.

Beyond mouthpiece

The making and screenings of documentary films has gained ground over the last few years what with quasi-governmental organisations like Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT) funding small-time filmmakers and subsequently promoting their films during their annual festivals. Says Mike Pandey welcoming the initiative: "The move is a much needed outlet for these films which have the power to educate and inform. Documentaries are a fund of knowledge and need to be widely seen. But unfortunately those in the seats of power in the mainstream film industry have never given it respectability. There is a tremendous market for these films especially since Michael Moore's `9/11' showed the way. A lot of reflection has gone into this genre and `9/11' is a classic example of how a well-made documentary can make it to the $100-million mark."

But despite the cause for cheer, the decision needs to be viewed with a pinch of salt. In a politically charged scenario - post Babri Masjid and Gujarat pogrom, would not a film like "Raam Ke Naam" (and others of its ilk) serve as fuel to fire? While Chheda insists that the film is being projected in only a positive light, he admits that it would help if the audience too were a bit more evolved. "But our aim is to educate and not provoke." A point that Pandey emphasises too: "We have to be very careful about what we release in the market. This could be a perfect tool in the hands of wrong politicians who are likely to misuse it. The masses need to be educated and perhaps a regulatory body would help. I personally feel India still needs a censor. As a maker of films on conservation, I cannot make outright radical films. I too have a responsibility. I have to take care that my films aren't judgmental and that a middle path is followed."

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