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`Digital video is liberating'

With the explosion in technology and media, two iconic filmmakers, Govind Nihalani and Rakesh Sharma, discuss how to get the message past the general dumbing down

There's a greater curiosity for factual films worldwide RAKESH SHARMA

FORMIDABLE TALENTS BOTH The fire still burns within Rakesh Sharma and Govind Nihalani Photo: R. RAGU

Prakriti Foundation's first annual documentary festival brought together filmmakers Rakesh Sharma and Govind Nihalani as jury member and chief guest. Sharma's Final Solution, a stunning overview of the Gujarat riots, continues to win awards across the globe, while Nihalani's smashing debut, Aakrosh and Ardh Satya's fire burns as fiercely despite a changed world. Known for their outspokenness and commitment, Sharma and Nihalani exchange views with the ease of a sawal-jawab on the sitar and the tabla.

GOWRI RAMNARAYAN listens in...

Govind Nihalani: Both my Dev and your Final Solution deal with the Gujarat riots.

Rakesh Sharma: I had to use the documentary format to go beyond an account of grief and tragedy, to look at how the common people participated in the event. Even initially, hostile viewers admitted, "We didn't know the pattern you showed us."

Nihalani: That's because people relate a documentary with reality, with eyewitness reports of what happened. A feature film creates characters and events right in front of you. So people can say, no, this is not what happened.

Sharma: I use the same elements as you do, narrate a story with sub-stories, inter-cut with political drama.

Nihalani: I noticed!

Sharma: Your Tamas provoked the first co-ordinated nationwide extra-legal protest against a feature film.

Nihalani: A gang came to my house. I managed to escape.

Sharma: Your Dev and Tamas deal with the same theme. With 15 years between them, any difference in the reaction?

Nihalani: The censors cleared Tamas without a single cut. In Dev, I was asked to delete words like Gujarat and Ayodhya. Shows how intolerance has grown.

Sharma: Why?

Nihalani: Religion has emerged as a major rallying point. No party is going to let censorship go; it's a powerful weapon of control. Precisely why the fight must also continue. Won't be a straight confrontation. Remember how Eastern Europe developed guerrilla creativity under the Soviet regime? Attacks on the system were camouflaged as comedy.

Sharma: Yiri Menzel! In Poland the subtext of Kieslowski's film showing men blinded in the war was not anti-war, but about ideological hardening. Do you think we don't have that kind of approach in India because there's no overt suppression?

Nihalani: Our '70s-'80s government-funded parallel cinema movement critiqued certain institutions. Didn't agitate for a change in the system of governance. Then TV came, markets opened up. Today the filmmaker thinks he has a choice. He will do a popular film and move on to a significant one. Never happens. But the documentarist doesn't feel that India shines. Since it is a less expensive medium he can speak his mind.

Sharma: Digital video has liberated us. Documentaries have begun to get theatrical releases. There's a greater curiosity for factual films worldwide.

Nihalani: Audiences have become fragmented as never before. The multiplex film is a new genre, where experiment means telling a Romeo-Juliet story in a different format.

Sharma: Anand Patwardhan's War and Peace got gate collections higher than Paheli and Bunty Aur Babli.

Nihalani: Can't blame the filmmakers alone. Our '70s movement was supported by government funds and the media. Now the media is totally seduced by glitz.

Sharma: Newspapers have reinvented themselves as marketing magazines.

Nihalani: We'd better find a way to reach this audience, and reach it well. Maybe a new cinema will emerge again.

Sharma: In Bobby the lovers run away. In Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge the boy refuses to elope. Rebellion is no longer chic or cool — Shah Rukh Khan and Anil Ambani are youth icons now. Liberalisation removed polarities from politics, and from art too, it seems.

Nihalani: Have you seen any recent film showing a goonda or dakoo as a victim of socio-political injustice?

Sharma: Rebels are projected as synthetic criminals without any organic background.

Nihalani: The source of funding decides the kind of film. The huge NRI territory derives cultural identity from a regressive nostalgia. Why is the NRI guy going backwards?

Sharma: Our society is full of turmoil. Why aren't they reflected in our creative work?

Nihalani: The search goes on, something clicks and you go for it.

Sharma: But distribution! We had a market slogan "Pirate and Circulate" — a free copy if you make five copies and circulate them. I went to every TV channel and offered the film free of cost. (Laughs) No one took it.

Nihalani: There's a parallel market in home entertainment. Documentaries and shorts will soon acquire the status of a short story, essay or poem.

Sharma: New models are being developed. I can say pay Rs. 5 per viewing or Internet viewing, and generate resources to make more films.

Nihalani: Go to spaces not controlled by the state; don't look for state sponsorship.

Sharma: With Internet, and all the exploding technologies, state censorship is fighting a losing battle. Transponders too are becoming affordable for private broadcasting. These challenges are more exciting than just making a film.

Nihalani: Extra legal censorship is getting stronger. It's a recognition of the power of art. So fight on. Go for guerrilla creativity.

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