When the Indian government decided to set up the Films Division Corporation in 1948, a small budget was set aside for documentaries. Since then, an almost complete absence of branding and promotions and protocols involving mandatory exhibition of documentaries at film theatres during the early 90s, tarnished the reputation of this format in some ways. It’s also the reason why, till recently, Indian documentary filmmakers used to find it superlatively hard to push their wares into the global market.
This year, at the Cannes Film Festival, an Indian documentary called All that Breathes, directed by Shaunak Sen, won the top prize — the Golden Eye for Best Documentary Feature. The film revolves around the lives of two Delhi-based siblings who have made it their life mission to rescue injured birds, especially birds of prey like kites, that are dropping from the sky as a result of extreme pollution in India’s capital city. The film had won acclaim from critics across the world who hailed the documentary for its nuanced portrait of India’s socio-economic fault lines. Last year, a film called Writing with Fire, a documentary about a newspaper run by Dalit women journalists had been nominated for an Oscar. Similarly, Period. End of Sentence also won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short in 2019. Interestingly, that film, focussed on the subject of menstruation related taboos in India, featured a Coimbatore-based social activist who was instrumental in manufacturing low-cost sanitary pads for women.
These victories are undoubtedly a bolt of encouragement for creators associated with non-fiction formats of visual storytelling. That said, one must also recognise ground realities that documentary filmmakers in India face day in day out, in pursuit of making their work available to the masses. Pitching ideas and getting funding remain the biggest challenges. Thankfully, the arrival of OTT platforms has opened up a veritable treasure trove for documentary filmmakers in India, who can now push their wares out to the entire world via streaming.
Earlier this year, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting merged its four film media units– Films Division, Directorate of Film Festivals (DFF), National Film Archive of India (NFAI), Children’s Film Society of India (CFSI) – with National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). The Ministry has said that bringing all these activities under a single management will reduce the overlap of various activities and ensure better utilisation of public resources. The merger is set to give a strong impetus to the production of films of all genres including documentaries, promotion of films through participation in different international festivals and organising of various domestic festivals; and distribution and outreach activities.
While the government and private enterprises are doing their bit in promoting documentaries, it is also essential that we as audiences let go of our hesitation when it comes to non-fiction films. While commercial films could be compared as comfort food in our cultural diets, one must not forget that documentaries are essentially what qualify as generators of social awareness and nourishment for the soul.