‘Cinema in India has brought people together,’ says activist filmmaker Amudhan RP, in the small Madurai studio where he is editing his latest documentary. With the cost of a cinema ticket averaging $0.20, the world’s largest film industry is accessible to much of the population. However, Indian cinema-goers’ appetite for documentaries challenging issues of caste, poverty and degrading work is a long way from equalling their dedication to glitzy Bollywood feature films.
But times are changing. The dry propaganda of early documentaries is fading as the urgent and ingenious work of imaginative directors like Amudhan RP, Biju Toppo, Megnath, Sonia Jabbar and Gargi Sen reaches new audiences.
With limited distribution and few cinemas willing to screen documentaries, it’s difficult to reach large audiences. India’s more than a billion citizens and 23 official languages add further complications and demand improvisation. Gargi Sen, a Delhi-based filmmaker and distributor, began screening activist films in the late 1980s in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, a primarily agricultural district. She made use of small-screen technology, showing films to audiences of up to 1,000 people on TVs fuelled by car batteries, the only source of electricity available.
Amudhan RP believes that filmgoers are still ‘pampered in the halls’. For this reason he has made a consistent effort to ‘take the films to the people’; screening his documentaries about Dalit undertakers, manual scavengers and cobblers on street corners, outside temples, in villages, and, with some controversy, on church steps. He claims that ‘people from the lower castes enjoy my films more than anyone; they laugh, cry and feel angry. One said: “Your films are like mirrors; they reflect the reality.”’
Television networks expanded rapidly in India in the mid-1990s, as did digital technology. In addition, there was a proliferation of documentary film festivals and new communication courses. As a result, the future looks brighter for socially conscious Indian filmmakers. An increasing number of independent media activists are bypassing Bollywood and cable TV – instead making films featuring real people in central roles rather than big-name stars. The Government continues to censor documentaries, recently reserving the right to ‘ban’ or ‘reject’ any film from the 2006 Mumbai International Film Festival. Filmmakers have responded by forming the group ‘Films for Freedom’ and organizing alternative festivals in protest.
The best activist films today cultivate a close conversational style, enabling subjects to enter into a dialogue with communities from which they had been excluded, as well as having their experiences shared with others. Activists engaged with women’s issues, conflict and human rights have screened Sonia Jabbar’s _Autumn’s Final Country_, the story of four displaced women in the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir. Amudhan RP’s award-winning film, _Shit_, shows the daily life of Mariammal, a work-worn scavenger who spends her life cleaning excrement from the streets of Madurai. The documentary is used by Adhi Tamilar Peravai, a people’s movement based in Tamil Nadu, in its campaign against this degrading work.
In the new spirit of intimacy and solidarity which marks Indian documentaries, Amudhan stresses that ‘you must differentiate between being a journalist and a filmmaker; become friends and bring out the human spirit.’