Two disclaimers here – some of these documentaries are not easily available online. If that hasn’t already stopped you from reading further, let me say that in my experience, the directors of these films are mostly quite accessible and kind. So if you write to them or look in the right places, you should be able to source the titles. I think they are worth searching for, and will earn you some bonus bragging rights as well. Secondly, when I say ‘Indian’, I am cheating a little bit. Some of them are set in India but not directed by Indian filmmakers.
I have always found documentaries to be more fascinating and convincing than fiction. Over the years, this feeling has grown even stronger. Somehow, it’s easier for me to see through the manipulation of a fiction film, but documentaries present me with a truth outside of the intent and control of the filmmaker. I am under no delusion about the scope of manipulation in a documentary. In fact, there is an increasing demand for documentaries to be structured and presented like fiction films (I can tell you from some strange meetings I have had myself). Even some of those grossly manipulative ones I often find tolerable, if for nothing else but just plain, cold documentation. This is all to say I am heavily biased and infinitely more forgiving when it comes to documentaries.
The 8 titles I have chosen to include in this list are films that dive into worlds and histories that I was unfamiliar with and was only happy to know more about. Coincidentally, they mostly belong either to the 90s or early 2000s. I look at them as portals of time-travel – windows into cultures, spaces, and people from a period I find endlessly fascinating, and the visual documentation of which I find of great value. Like I mentioned earlier, some of these films are not easily accessible or well-known, and therefore over time, they have become little secrets I have cherished. I hope if you ever come across these gems, you will feel similarly.
1. The Boy in the Branch by Lalit Vachani (1993)
This 27 minute documentary short is more relevant today than ever before. Set in the RSS headquarters of Nagpur, the film quietly observes the playground set for young boys in the ‘shakhas’, where they listen to stories and play games. The film excels in every department, be it the editing, the evocative sound design or the gorgeous cinematography by Ranjan Palit on 16mm film. This deceptively simple short is one of the finest films I have seen from India.
2. Kamlabai by Reena Mohan (1992)
Another documentary short, once again beautifully shot on film by Ranjan Palit, and this time directed by Reena Mohan, who also went on to edit ‘The Boy in the Branch’. ‘Kamlabai’ is a moody, unusual portrait of Kamlabai Gokhale, one of the first actresses of Indian cinema, who proves to be a truly endearing, progressive, and fascinating subject on screen. I had heard good things about the film for many years and finally managed to watch it last year in the lockdown. Boy, did it brighten my day!
3. Doon School Chronicles by David MacDougall (2000)
This one is part of a series called ‘The Doon School Quintet’ by American visual anthropologist, David MacDougall. Shot in the late 90’s, and what feels like a largely one-man project, this is a gentle but not always flattering visual study of the school, its rituals, and inhabitants. I have always been fascinated with worlds that are off-limits for mere mortals, and Doon School is one such all-boys boarding school that I had never seen documented so extensively on camera. The film features some very bright and articulate young students who are trying to navigate their formative years in an elite, authoritarian setup. This meandering portrait of an insular world with extreme privilege is more of a voyeur’s delight than a cinephile’s dream.
Watch the trailer of the film here
4. Sabzi Mandi Ke Heere/Diamonds in a Vegetable Market by Nilita Vachani (1993)
Magicians, qawwals, and snake oil sellers on inter-state buses, need I say more? What starts out as a quirky portrait of various sellers peddling cheap wares on bus terminals, soon evolves into a hypnotic, existential character study as the film starts delving deeper into the inner world of one of its subjects. I had mixed feelings when I first saw the film. The film makes a certain promise and then takes an unexpected turn, leaving the promise by the wayside. But the film refused to leave me. The visuals, the characters kept coming back to me, and it all became much richer, an almost trippy experience on a second viewing after having realigned my expectations. This one’s a real gem!
P.S. I am told Nilita’s film ‘When Mother Comes Home for Christmas’ is even better.
Click here to watch the film
5. Dr. Nagesh by Vincent Detours & Dominique Henry (2004)
If there is one film from the list that you must make an effort to source and watch, it has to be this one. It’s a beautiful mood piece observing a doctor in Mumbai giving free consultations to HIV patients, who often belong to the poor and neglected sections of society. I instantly fell in love with Dr. Nagesh, his staff, and the sensitive gaze of the filmmakers who capture some very uncomfortable moments with a poetic form. I must have seen this film at least four times by now, and it has never failed to move me.
6. Boatman by Gianfranco Rosi (1993)
‘Boatman’ is the master filmmaker’s debut film that he shot in Benares in the mid 90s, and you can sense right away that we are in solid hands. The Ganga, the ghats, a foreigner with a camera in India, it’s an all too familiar setup for a clichéd Indian exotica film. But instead, Rosi comes up with a heartfelt and haunting account of his boat trip with a wise and amusing boatman, Gopal. The film comes alive with various colourful characters, incidents, and unexpected moments of humour peppered throughout its 55 minutes’ runtime. The rich imagery in black & white and the soundscape of the bustling ghats all build to an atmosphere that’s worth soaking in. And yes, don’t blame me if you find yourself involuntarily repeating “Meera Ka Mohan” after watching the film.
Click here to watch the film
7. Shot in Bombay by Liz Mermin (2008)
This one is an outlier in the list and is nothing but a total guilty pleasure. I love watching films about films, and some of my favourite films belong to the making-of genre. This one is unusual and hilarious because it’s a tongue-in-cheek look at the making of ‘Shootout at Lokhandwala’ by an outsider. It’s one of those voyeuristic treats that lets you in on the vanity of stars and the surreal madness involved in the making of a Bollywood blockbuster film. I remember laughing out loud quite a few times in shock and awe.
Click here to watch the film
8. Something Like A War by Deepa Dhanraj (1991)
If I have ever seen anything close to a horror documentary from India, it’s this one. ‘Something Like A War’ documents the family planning program carried out in India from the perspective of women who were at its receiving end. The film is undoubtedly an important resource in terms of the documentation and the voices it represents, but it also operates on a sensory and visceral level, with some spine-chilling sequences depicting coerced sterilization. If you like the film, do also check out ‘Kya Hua Is Shahar Ko?’ by the same filmmaker.
You can watch the trailer here