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India’s documentary wave | ‘To Kill a Tiger’, ‘Against the Tide, ‘Until I Fly’ — non-fiction storytelling is gaining a following


Sarvnik Kaur’s documentary Against the Tide, a deep dive into the stormy, resilient ebbs of a Koli fishing community in Mumbai, has the cinematic heft of a visually wilful feature film. Cinematographer Ashok Meena captures the minutiae of the lives of two fishermen with remarkable perspectival beauty. Nothing is an accident; nothing is staged.

The community it captures thrives by the unpredictable Arabian Sea. The camera looks up when a matriarch performs the community’s neo-natal rituals; it tilts gently down when boats venture into ferocious high tides; becomes invisible inside homes of the film’s two lead characters; and zooms in on difficult conversations. The camera is unintrusive. It scans the sea’s various moods, underwater plastic and flotsam. The larger issues Kaur is tackling — climate change, tradition impinging on modernity, technology, commerce, urban decay — emerge organically from the narrative.

Against the Tide

Against the Tide, made with European collaboration, is representative of a genre that has been peaking in the visual non-fiction narrative universe. We have been seeing it emerging from the West for about a decade now, and in India, in the past few years, with films such as Writing with Fire (2021), A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021), All That Breathes (2022), and now Nisha Pahuja’s To Kill a Tiger, which is competing tomorrow for the Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Oscars.

Pahuja is Canadian Indian, but like her earlier films To Kill a Tiger is an India story, harrowing and uplifting at the same time. She spent eight years on the film, which follows a farmer in a Jharkhand village who is up against entrenched patriarchal systems to get justice for his daughter who was raped when she was 13.

Nisha Pahuja attends a special screening of To Kill A Tiger

Nisha Pahuja attends a special screening of To Kill A Tiger
| Photo Credit:
Getty Images

Winning international support

These documentaries have a few things in common: they are immersive, they co-opt their subjects into participating in world-building, and they are filmed over several years. They are also almost always made with funds from Europe or the U.S. Crafted with the luxury of telling a story inside out, without losing sight of a writer-director’s personal vision of the subject, they are about details and small incidents, moments building up to a larger reality. In other words, the new long-form journalism.

Kaur says it took her many months of hanging out with her two protagonists Rajesh and Ganpat — childhood friends who have contrary views about success, happiness and traditions — drinking whiskey with them and becoming a part of their lives, until the camera became just a prop and not a meddling recorder. “When I started out, I had a story but I didn’t know how it was going to pan out. The few years that I worked on it required me to have faith in the process, and remain attentive to moments and gestures,” she says. “I wanted to show climate change, financial and corporate greed, the exclusion of many traditional systems of life. These are big ideas, and the way I could get there without sounding preachy was to let the details bring them out.”

Sarvnik Kaur attends Against the Tide’s Sundance Film Festival premiere

Sarvnik Kaur attends Against the Tide’s Sundance Film Festival premiere
| Photo Credit:
Getty Images

Against the Tide received the Golden Gateway Award at the 2023 MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, won awards at several fests, including Sundance and the Sydney Film Festival, and has had theatrical releases in the U.K., Australia, Japan and other countries. “I still don’t have an Indian OTT or distributor interested in acquiring it. It is an absolute tragedy that in India films like mine have not got proper releases.”

This could be slowly changing, though. HBO bought Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes after its Oscar run. Pahuja’s To Kill a Tiger now has Dev Patel, Mindy Kaling and Priyanka Chopra Jonas as executive producers, and Netflix has acquired its global OTT rights. London-based Taskovski Films Sales has acquired the sales rights to Until I Fly, a coming-of-age story by directors Kanishka Sonthalia and Siddesh Shetty, ahead of its March 10 world premiere at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival in Egypt. The film tells the story of Veeru, a resilient boy of Indo-Nepalese lineage, who has to face the daily challenge of cultural rejection in a Himalayan village.

“This hard-hitting piece of art really hits home on so many levels. I was born in the state of Jharkhand [where the survivor and her father are from], and as the daughter of a father that was my forever champion… I was moved to pieces. I cannot wait for audiences around the world to discover this moving story”Priyanka Chopraon Instagram after she joined the To Kill a Tiger team

Priyanka Chopra Jonas

Priyanka Chopra Jonas

Meenakshi Shedde, independent curator with film festivals such as Berlin and Toronto, who watched To Kill a Tiger, says, “The film’s strength is its everyday heroic feminism. Its male protagonist, Ranjit, is not a savvy, educated city man, but a quiet Jharkhand farmer, who determinedly pursues justice for his daughter, who was gang-raped in 2017. India has deep-rooted misogyny at every level, and not many Indian men would publicly fight for justice.”

While Shedde says its chances are hard to predict, she is convinced that Oscar-tipped documentaries from the country are pulling more and more weight, with celeb endorsements and related strategies. Pahuja’s documentary has already won the Amplify Voices Award for Best Canadian Feature Film at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2022, and best documentary at Palm Springs International Film Festival 2023. It was also re-released in theatres in North America this February. “That’s a lot in its favour,” Shedde adds.

Still from To Kill a Tiger

Still from To Kill a Tiger

OTTs embrace non-fiction

Today, the Indian narrative documentary is getting more foreign funding, festival appearances and awards. Director Vinay Shukla, who made An Insignificant Man (2017) on politician-activist Arvind Kejriwal, and While We Watched (2022) on the attempts to silence Hindi journalist Ravish Kumar, likens the moment to another one in the 1990s. “Remember when Aishwarya Rai, Sushmita Sen, Priyanka Chopra and others became Miss World and Miss Universe? The pageants had become an annual fixture; we watched them, talked about them.”

Amaan Shaikh, Vinay Shukla (centre) and Luke W. Moody of While We Watched

Amaan Shaikh, Vinay Shukla (centre) and Luke W. Moody of While We Watched
| Photo Credit:
Getty Images

And if Big Bollywood is not interested in the narrative documentary, Indian OTTs are embracing non-fiction projects cautiously. Aparna Purohit, head of originals, India and Southeast Asia, Amazon Prime Video, says, “In 2023, we released a series of impactful docu-series on diverse and relevant subjects, all of which have connected deeply with our viewers. First Act has received widespread acclaim for its gripping narrative and thought-provoking subject.” Purohit says they are now committed equally to scripted and unscripted content.

First Act, a rigorous documentation of the pressures that child actors and their families face in Mumbai’s entertainment industry, is director-editor Deepa Bhatia’s first docu-series. As with all good narrative documentaries, she took years to shoot it. “It became obvious as we went along that this was a story not just about exploitation. The parents are victims, too. My challenge was to attempt a helicopter view of children in entertainment,” Bhatia says. Like Kaur, the job required her to be present with her camera in the lives of her subjects so often and with such sensitivity that the subjects forgot the filmmaker was around with a camera.

Deepa Bhatia interviewing a child actor for First Act

Deepa Bhatia interviewing a child actor for First Act

Indian OTTs are not vastly different from traditional TV networks. Reality shows that revolve around weddings or Bollywood tend to get green-lit easily (Indian MatchmakingThe Big DayThe Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives). But, as Tanya Bami, series head, Netflix India, says, they’ve also made bets on shows, specials and documentaries for a wide-ranging local and global audience. “This has paid off with big wins for our non-fiction slate. We’ve seen this with the 2023 Academy Award winner The Elephant Whisperers and most recently, the International Emmy for Comedy for Vir Das: Landing.”

Netflix has also been bullish about true crime documentaries, such as Curry & Cyanide: The Jolly Joseph Case and The Hunt for Veerappan. Their latest is The Indrani Mukerjea Story: Buried Truth, one of its most stylishly produced true crime shows — with enough scepticism about the “truth”, and a structure that makes this absurd and shocking case cogent.

Incubating stories

There’s a global shift towards non-fiction storytelling, states Girish Dwibhashyam, COO of DocuBay, a relatively recent streamer and production company of documentaries. Millions of viewers across the world have signed up with it, and last year, it premiered three productions: Plastic FantasticWater Mafia, and Going Poly. “Not all OTT platforms prioritise documentaries, as this genre operates within its own unique economic dynamics. Amid fierce competition, most OTTs remain focused on retaining a mass audience. Therefore, platforms specialising in documentary films enjoy a competitive advantage,” he says.

Last year, Anita Horam, a seasoned unscripted TV executive and former executive producer for Netflix, launched The Mighty Muse, a development and curation hub for non-fiction films and series. She is bullish on stories about emerging India. “Despite incredible source material, one of the key impediments for creators is a distinct lack of meaningful evangelists to help them find their audience without getting bogged down for want of resources, information or know-how. My venture is a concrete way to address this and fill the considerable gaps. Great content has no borders and hyperlocal can deeply impact the global zeitgeist if produced well and promoted strategically,” she says.

Girish Dwibhashyam of DocuBay

Girish Dwibhashyam of DocuBay

Complicating the gaze

A filmmaker who has been a witness to the genre’s evolution is Nishtha Jain, a pioneer in narrative documentary storytelling in India. She made Gulabi Gang in 2012 — on the lives of a Bundelkhand women’s group that fights oppression, violence and caste dominance. Jain shares how she and her producers couldn’t get Netflix to buy Gulabi Gang. “At best, OTTs want a modified reality that everyone can consume. In their defence, however, it’s not easy to show bold content in India.”

Nishtha Jain

Nishtha Jain
| Photo Credit:
Getty Images

Narrative documentaries “complicate the gaze and celebrate the plurality and complexity of our existence”. Her last film, The Golden Thread (2022), was set outside of Kolkata, and looks at the lives of jute workers. It is still doing the rounds of international film festivals. Her forthcoming film is on the farmer protests of 2020-2021.

Tanuja Chandra’s docu-series Wedding.con, which dropped on Amazon Prime Video this year, borders on docu-fiction but stays unflinchingly with the voices and emotions of her subjects: Indian women who have undergone extreme distress because of matrimonial frauds. A director of feature films, BBC Studios approached Chandra to direct the series. “I feel funding should be much more generous. So many documentary producers work on abysmally low budgets. Having said that, I do know that OTT has made audiences at least become aware of the beauty of documentary films,” she says. The responses to her first non-fiction project have been overwhelming. “Documentary is a thing of slow-burn, though. It’ll be many months before we know the extent to which our show has touched people. And deep down, I know it’ll be extensive.”

Tanuja Chandra

Tanuja Chandra

A still from Wedding.con

A still from Wedding.con

An older generation would remember Doordarshan documentaries about social issues that ran like message films. There was something noble, and deathly boring, about them. Today, the best documentaries don’t run on binaries. The nomination of To Kill a Tiger is another propeller to Indian narrative storytellers to “complicate the gaze”.

Recent international nods

* Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing won Best Documentary at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

* Sarnik Kaur’s Against The Tide won the 2023 Sundance Vérité Prize.

* Writing with Fire by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Bose was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2022 Oscars.

* Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes won top prizes at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and Sundance Film Festival, and was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2023 Oscars.

* In 2023, Karthiki Gonsalves’ The Elephant Whisperers won the Best Documentary Short at the Oscars.

* This January, Nocturnes by Anirban Dutta and Anupama Srinivasan won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Craft at Sundance.

The writer and critic is based in Mumbai.



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