On February 8th, 2022, Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh's Writing With Fire became the first Indian title ever to be nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary Feature category. The history-making nod validated what is now known as the Golden Era for Indian narrative nonfiction film-making. It has been a furious period of firsts. Approximately a week before the Oscar nominations were announced, Shaunak Sen's All That Breathes became the first Indian film to win the Grand Jury Prize at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, arguably the highest honour for a documentary on the modern-day festival circuit. Almost a year ago to that day, Writing With Fire won the Audience Award and the Special Jury Award: Impact for Change at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. In July 2021, FTII alumni Payal Kapadia's A Night of Knowing Nothing premiered in the Directors' Fortnight section of the 74th Cannes Film Festival and bagged the prestigious Oeil d'or (Golden Eye) award for the Best Documentary.
The unprecedented success of these documentaries is no small deal. For decades, the yardstick for global acclaim has been defined by the striving of India's narrative fiction features. The cycle repeats itself every year: How many Indian films were selected at Cannes, Berlin and Venice? What about Toronto, Busan and Rotterdam? Which title will be India's official entry into the International Feature Film category? Across this last year, though, the homegrown documentary has sped past its popular counterparts and revised the landscape of cultural representation. But there's more to this artistic revolution than meets the eye. These three titles share more than just an eye-catching sense of form and medium. The plaudits from the West are primarily rooted in their distinct political identity. In an age where speaking truth to power comes at a price, there's nothing like the decay of democracy to inspire the cinema of resistance.
Each of the documentaries chronicles a definitive moment in the reign of the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. One of the finest grassroots-journalism films of our time, Writing With Fire follows the Dalit reporters of India's only women-led newspaper, Khabar Lahariya, in the lead-up to the 2019 general elections in Uttar Pradesh. The sight of the female reporters readily embracing the digital transition to affect change in the face of overwhelming domestic and political pressure is rousing and raw – they break stories and stereotypes in the heart of fascist darkness. The visually resplendent All That Breathes follows two Muslim brothers who run a kite-rescuing clinic against a background of growing ecological and religious toxicity. The late 2019 protests against the Citizen Amendment Bill morph into the 2020 Delhi riots, even as the brothers focus on saving birds that are essentially an allegory for their own place in an atmosphere of rampant Islamophobia. The quasi-abstract A Night of Knowing Nothing uses a fictitious narrative device – the diary of a Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) student named L – to base itself firmly at the epicenter of student protests in the wake of Hindu nationalist Gajendra Chauhan's 2015 appointment as FTII chairman by the Modi government. The haunting documentary seamlessly switches from student-film surrealism to archival-footage realism and back in its pursuit of a more melancholic spirit of dissent.
These three celebrated titles share something else in common. Neither is easy to access. More notably, neither has screened in India yet. In light of the MIB's (Ministry of Information and Broadcasting) recent abolishment of the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal and its controversial amendment of the 1952 Cinematograph Act, a commercial release – streaming or otherwise – seems difficult. All That Breathes is relatively new to the festival circuit, but Writing With Fire and A Night of Knowing Nothing have been watched by virtually nobody except a handful of journalists who covered Sundance and Cannes last year. This is not entirely incidental. The three are natural descendents of the Anand Patwardhan legacy. India's foremost documentary maker has spent four decades fighting the establishment to have his films – which are embodiments of creative journalism – screened in the country they so relentlessly investigate. Several of Patwardhan's screenings over the years have been disrupted by right-wing outfits, and if not them, the Center directly intervenes.
His latest, Vivek (Reason), won the prestigious main prize at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), only to have its first public Indian screening at Kerala (temporarily) blocked by the I & B Ministry. For context, Vivek is a four-hour, eight-part epic that traces the rise of post-2014 majoritarianism and its sinister Hindutva anatomy. The documentary is now unofficially on Youtube, only a few years after he made his nuclear weapons test rhetoric, War and Peace (2002), available on the free video streaming site. As we speak, film-maker Rakesh Sharma has once again released The Final Solution – the definitive Godhra riots documentary and a searing indictment of then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's role – on his own Vimeo channel for the next three months. The Final Solution fought a brief CBFC ban back in 2004. Sharma released a dozen clips from the award-winning documentary in 2019 as well, two years after his Youtube channel was mysteriously blocked and reinstated.
All That Breathes, Writing with Fire and A Night of Knowing Nothing aren't as explicit as The Final Solution or Patwardhan's films in their defiant rumblings – with their foregrounds of individual form acting as a ruse for backgrounds of macro-fundamentalism. The messages may be subtle but the urgency is the same. Yet, their language might remain muted in the very land of their conception – bringing to mind the Russian bans imposed on the recent Sundance-winning anti-Putin documentary Navalny or the Oscar-winning Icarus, and the Chinese bans on all of Nanfu Wang's work. While Indians across the country are readying to laud the triumphs of these brave new voices, very few actually know what these voices entail. Very few realize the irony of patriotically rooting for films that are designed to dissect the perils of nationalistic fervour. And very few might have the privilege of reading these meticulously crafted portraits of reason and rationalism.
Writing With Fire found buyers in The Netherlands, U.K. and Ireland, Canada, Sweden, Belgium, France, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Israel, Singapore and several other international territories. Cinema Guild acquired U.S. distribution rights and the Vienna-based Square Eyes picked up the worldwide sales rights of Payal Kapadia's debut feature. On February 17th, 2022, the India Gold category of the postponed Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival featured A Night of Knowing Nothing in competition – but the name remains absent from the festival's Online Screenings schedule. Perhaps it's only a matter of time before All That Breathes – a hot favourite to get India's second consecutive Oscar nomination in 2023 – follows a similar distribution pattern. For all intents and purposes, the tragedy is far greater than the art that reveals it. While a brave new generation of film-makers writes with fire about all that breathes, their own country stays stranded in a long night of knowing nothing.