“Freedom of expression is dear to the documentary fraternity”

This evening Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar will talk about their book, A Fly in the Curry, an exhaustive history of independent documentaries from India

Published - May 04, 2017 08:45 pm IST

For years, a popular dichotomy has existed in the documentary filmmaking world – direct cinema versus cinéma-vérité. According to Bill Nichols, the first is the “fly on the wall” approach, where the filmmaker is merely a dispassionate, neutral observer to the reality that unfolds before the camera. The latter, according to Henry Breitrose, implicates the filmmaker as an active participant in the filmmaking process, and who is hence a “fly in the soup” – an actor whose presence precipitates action.

In a book on independent documentary filmmaking in India, Professors Dr Anjali Monteiro and Dr K.P. Jayasankar and extend the metaphor of the “fly in the soup”. They contend that the fly/soup dichotomy is outdated and inept in understanding the documentary today. Careful to eschew any orientalist connotations, they write that, “the curry is more than an Indianised soup, and represents the complex mixture of political intercession, aesthetic upheavals, and regimes of control and resistance, within which critical documentary practice in India finds itself embedded”. In addition, the book also attempts to “flag the difficulty in constructing documentary as a coherent, unified field”.

Spotlighting a movement

The book is arguably the first of its kind. Its scope is extensive and ground-breaking, traversing an unprecedented breadth of field on a subject rarely touched upon in popular or academic writing. “While there are hundreds of books written on mainstream cinema, there’s barely anything written about documentary in India – except perhaps a PhD thesis or two,” says Jayasankar. “The documentary format has barely received the recognition it deserves.” Embarrassingly enough, this is true despite the fact that for many decades now, independent documentaries in India have been a critical element of political resistance.

It is heartening, therefore, that the book has recently received a Special Mention in the best book on cinema category at the President’s National Film Awards, 2017 – underlining the importance and necessity of writing about the subject at hand. “Documentaries are the poor cousins of fiction films in India. Very little serious writing exists about them despite a blossoming and explosion of independent documentary filmmaking”, says Monteiro. “This book was born out of necessity. As filmmakers as well as teachers, we found very little material to fall back on. There is a pressing need to document the terrain.”

Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar are doyens of the documentary world in India. Their documentaries – of which there are over 40 – have won 32 national and international awards. As professors at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, they are well-known for helping to set up the School of Media and Cultural Studies, where they also teach. In its purest sense, their book is an attempt to document and understand in words, the landscape through which they have tried to document and understand the world audio-visually.

A medium of protest

Through analysis of films and conversations with filmmakers, the book attempts to address the question of a documentary as an exercise in self-expression – and protest – rather than a recording of reality. “The audience expects that a documentary is a reconstruction of actuality. But actuality is always mediated through the lens and ideology”, says Jayasankar. “The camera is not merely a recording instrument – it changes reality. Monteiro adds that there’s no neutral vantage point available to a documentary filmmaker, since a filmmaker presents only her own version of what’s important. Hence, it’s best to make one’s position more apparent rather than conceal that intervention. “Critically interrogating where you come from gives the audience a space to interrogate you as well. After all, claiming not to have an ideology is an ideology itself,” Monteiro.

One of the main arguments of the book is that feminist documentaries in India have opened up new possibilities of expression compared to earlier political documentaries. Instead of having an invisible male narrator presenting a certain point of view, feminist films brings in the persona of the filmmaker herself. Given that gender is a primordial identity marker, these documentaries begin to question the relationship of power and gender. Moreover, where previously the notion of nationalism appeared to be intrinsically tied to the body of a woman, many of these films question that notion.

Seeking change

Although India produces a vibrant body of work, the professors lament that the opportunity to showcase one’s work exists only abroad. “In India, television has abandoned documentaries. Moreover, because they largely engage with politics and speak truth to power, documentaries are usually on the radar of the state, and aren’t very popular,” says Jayasankar. He adds that censorship arrives in many forms – the certification of the state, the humour of the market, hundreds of disinterested television channels, as well as vigilantes.

Technology could potentially be the saviour of documentary films by offering new means of distributing and showcasing work – YouTube and Netflix, for instance. “The Internet has opened up a range of possibilities – right from commercial opportunities such as crowdfunding, to ease of distribution and merely sharing one’s work. There are a number of interesting possibilities but to what extent is still to be seen”, says Monteiro. Crucially, the Internet provides a means of circumventing censorship. A number of films that would have gone unnoticed otherwise, have gone viral on the Internet precisely because they were banned or faced heavy censorship.

Speaking of censorship, the professors suggest that the only way to deal with today’s scenario – where propaganda spreads insidiously through WhatsApp forwards, for instance – is to circulate more speech. “That’s the only way to challenge the kind of narratives that are emerging. Freedom of expression is dear to the documentary fraternity, and essential for the movement to go forward”, says Monteiro.

Jayasankar offers the last word: “While the Internet offers these possibilities, on the ground there are renewed attacks on the freedom of expression. We hope it’s just a moment, and not a long-lasting phenomenon.”

Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar will talk about their bookA Fly in the Curry: Independent Documentary Film in IndiaSardesai, Editor today at Godrej India Culture Lab at 5 p.m.; RSVP at indiaculturelab@ g

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.