The Trouble with Making a Documentary Film in India

Indian documentaries are winning awards around the world, but why are they so hard to find for audiences in India?
The Trouble with Making a Documentary Film in India

If documentary filmmaker Deepti Gupta is to be believed, it was only after making Shut Up Sona (2019) that her real job began. The documentary on singer Sona Mohapatra marked her directorial debut and having her film's world premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival in 2019 was only the beginning of Gupta's learning curve. 

"How do you get into festivals? How does one meet the 'right' people at the 'right' festivals? What are the 'right' festivals? Who are sales agents? What are distribution agencies? What are the legalities involved with each of them? How does one negotiate all this?" – Gupta rattled these questions off in one breath. Shut Up Sona had its international premiere at the 2019 Rotterdam Film Festival, before going on to play at some of the most high-profile documentary festivals around the world, including Sheffield Doc Fest (in the United Kingdom) and Hot Docs (in Canada). On July 1, the film became available on the streaming platform Zee5. Gupta's film is a rare Indian documentary to become available to audiences in India. For most documentary filmmakers, this is not the norm, which is perplexing when you keep in mind that Indian non-fiction has received acclaim at some of the most prestigious film events, ranging from the Cannes film festival to the Oscars.

"I think we sold to the Oculus platform. We closed deals in Sweden, Korea… and I think India was the last to follow suit," Gupta said. Before ZEE5, the makers of Shut Up Sona were in talks with Amazon Prime Video, who turned them down saying they don't acquire non-fiction, while Netflix India said that the film didn't "fit their slate". "Such a line can be mysterious. No one knows what it means, it could be a smokescreen," Gupta said. 

Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla's An Insignificant Man marked a watershed moment for Indian non-fiction in the last decade, documenting the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi through their first state election campaign in 2013. It's a riveting front-row view of a churn in Indian democracy. The director duo organised a few screenings for the Hindi film industry and heard reactions like "I thought documentaries were a series of interviews." While the film was adored in these screenings, Ranka and Shukla maintain they got no help from the commercial film industry. "They told us we should release it widely like a Bollywood film. When we asked if they would help us, everyone flatly refused, citing it was a political film," said Ranka. 

A still from An Insignificant Man.
A still from An Insignificant Man.

An Insignificant Man eventually got a limited theatrical release through an app that allows one to create screenings in a city. Shukla said the film played "everywhere from Bhilai to the metros to several tier-2 and tier-3 cities." It was later acquired by Vice Media for international distribution, and eventually made available on YouTube for free.

This is what counts as a success story for a documentary film. It's also an exception. 

We might be witnessing the golden age of Indian documentary filmmaking. Payal Kapadia's In A Night of Knowing Nothing won the L'Œil d'or award for Best Documentary at the 2021 Cannes film festival. Shaunak Sen's All That Breathes won the Best Documentary at Sundance and the the L'Œil d'or award this year. Rintu Thomas & Sushmit Ghosh's Writing with Fire was nominated for Best Documentary feature at the 2022 Oscars.

Yet none of these films are currently available to stream in India. While Sen's All That Breathes is reported to have been acquired by HBO – Sen is excited about it being licensed to a platform in India – the other documentaries remain unavailable to general audiences. 

In theory, more producers and distribution platforms should be open to backing and acquiring documentaries because they cost significantly less than fiction feature films. "It's not like a failed documentary is going to put their business down the drain," said Gupta. Despite this, documentaries have struggled to find producers, platforms and audiences in India.

There is an overwhelming perception that Indian documentaries are considered challenging because they explore politically-sensitive material, which may explain a film like A Night of Knowing Nothing remaining unseen in India. (Indiewire described Kapadia's film as "a vivid portrait of revolt and oppression, love and pain, and philosophical thought threatened by nationalist agenda".) Nearly six months have passed since Writing with Fire — which follows the journey of an all-women, grassroot media outfit called Khabar Lahariya — was announced as an Oscar nominee and the critically-acclaimed film is available to American audiences via Apple and Amazon. However, there is no news of Writing With Fire being acquired by an Indian platform. 

Days before the 94th Academy Awards, a controversy erupted when Khabar Lahariya issued an open letter in which it rebuked Thomas and Ghosh for oversimplifying their work and suggesting their reportage has "a consuming focus of reporting on one party" (referring to the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has been in power in Uttar Pradesh since early 2017). The filmmakers vouched for their own editorial independence in response. Whether this exchange, which was widely reported in the media, spooked platforms from showcasing Writing with Fire – despite the film's many accolades — is not known, but it's unlikely that the coverage helped the film's Indian prospects.  

A still from Writing With Fire.
A still from Writing With Fire.

However, India's political climate doesn't explain the fate of many other documentaries. In the past, Netflix India has acquired a few, like Abhay Kumar's Placebo (2014) in 2016, and Shivendra Singh Dungarpur's Celluloid Man (2012) in 2017. However, for the most part, even acclaimed documentaries on non-political subjects have failed to find platforms. For instance, Shirley Abraham and Amit Madhesiya's Cinema Travellers, about cinema lorries that take films to faraway villages, also won the L'Œil d'or award in 2016. The film has all but disappeared from public memory.  

A film similar to Dungapur's, Hemant Chaturvedi's Chhayaankan, about 14 veteran Indian cinematographers, has been trying for a release on over the top (OTT) platforms for the past few months, but to no avail. "Netflix rejected my film in three days, claiming to have seen it. Amazon rejected it in less than 10 minutes of sending them the proposal and link," Chaturvedi said in a text message. When asked if he was thinking of approaching Mubi, which is a showcase for artisanal films, Chaturvedi responded with,"I've heard Mubi pays less than loose change."  Shukla pointed out the discrepancy between the budgets for fiction and non-fiction film projects. "Seeing how streaming platforms are pissing away money on fiction, even if they give a 1/10th or 1/50th budget to a documentary toh kraanti aa jaayegi (there will be a revolution!)!" said Shukla.  

"I don't think it's my place to paint an overtly sanguine or a picture of doom, but I think it's a misdiagnosis to say that nothing has changed," Sen said over a phone call. "And I can tell you this based on my experience with my first and second film." He said has been approached by all major production houses in the last few months with tentative queries for non-fiction projects, which was not the case five years ago. "I know of at least four films in the process of being made, and at least two of those are produced by studios in Bombay, so one can't say kuch nahi badla (nothing has changed)," he said. 

Govind Nihalani in a still from Chhayaankan.
Govind Nihalani in a still from Chhayaankan.

A filmmaker, who does not wish to be unnamed, said they were approached by a production house in Mumbai after the success of a popular documentary series. Asked to name their price, they were surprised at first. Then came the catch. "We had six months. They had identified characters and plot-lines, and they wanted us to churn it out in six months," says the filmmaker. 

It's not like non-fiction doesn't exist on streaming platforms in India, but there is an obvious and overwhelming preference for crime. Netflix stoked a conversation with Leena Yadav's House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths (2021) and hopes to do the same with the Indian Predator series, which will begin with The Butcher of Delhi (2022) later this month. In a statement to Film Companion, Netflix India mentioned Kapil Sharma's comedy special, Indian Matchmaking, Bad Boy Billionaries and Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives as some of their "front runners" in non-fiction. 

Gupta noted that for non-fiction to get an OTT platform's attention, it helps to have a touch of Bollywood glamour. "Even Maa Anand Sheela had Karan Johar in it," Gupta pointed out. Some documentary filmmakers pointed to a recent trend of turning to feature filmmakers to make high-profile, non-fiction projects. For instance, the recent Bandon Mein Tha Dum on Voot Select – based on the historic 2020-21 Test series between India and Australia – was made by Neeraj Pandey (A Wednesday, M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story). A documentary filmmaker requesting anonymity explained, "I'm obviously not saying fiction filmmakers shouldn't try their hand at non-fiction. But the problem is when you don't do it well, it ends up giving non-fiction a bad name and becomes an excuse for audiences to not watch documentaries." The preference given to fiction filmmakers feels particularly frustrating because so few documentaries get much by way of either budgets or exposure. "You have guerilla crews undertaking projects independently that are representing India on the world stage. At least acknowledge and enable it further," said the filmmaker. 

Sen, Gupta and Ranka are of the opinion that the onus should not be on OTT platforms to play the 'saviour' of non-fiction in India. Part of the larger challenge is to change the popular perception of documentaries. Gupta pointed out that documentaries are not considered "entertaining" which, aside from being inaccurate, clashes with the prevailing belief that Indian audiences are only looking for entertainment.  

Gupta said part of the problem was with the belief that "Indians only want to be entertained" and that somehow "… documentaries are not entertaining". She is hopeful that after the exhilarating 12 months that Indian non-fiction has had since 2021, streaming platforms will be more open to exploring and backing 'risky' non-fiction projects. Of course, there is a more worrying question on the flip side. "If this year's acclaimed films don't have their interest," wondered Gupta, "what chance do the rest of the films have?" 

A filmmaker requesting anonymity observed how some 'legacy documentaries' gave the genre a bad name by being dry and academic. "For a country with a phenomenal appetite for stories, documentaries have found audiences lacking. While a lot of it has to do with the stereotypes attached to it, it's also because of poor choices in subjects and skill on part of documentary filmmakers themselves," they added.  However, a lot of these films also laid the foundation for a culture of documentary filmmaking that has evolved to nurture talent that's winning international acclaim today. Also, there's a silver lining tucked into this tale of neglect. Filmmakers like Anand Patwardhan, Sanjay Kak, Lalit and Nilita Vachani emerged from a severely undernourished system to take India's non-fiction to greater heights. As Ranka observed, "Independent filmmakers find a way. Non-fiction isn't going anywhere."

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