Documentaries have a life cycle of their own. A top-notch documentary with a timeless subject and good production values can travel the screening circuit for years after it has been completed. One such film is Nirnay, directed and edited by Pushpa Rawat in collaboration with Anupama Srinivasan and produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust in 2012. Two years later, the 56-minute observational documentary keeps resurfacing, sometimes to pick up awards (it won the Most Innovative Film trophy at the Mumbai International Film Festival earlier this year) and sometimes as part of the programming (it will be screened at the Dharamshala International Film Festival that will run from 30 October to 2 November).

Nirnay (Decision) explores choice, or the lack of it, that is available to women from a working-class colony in Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh. The documentary has been entirely filmed by Rawat, a first-time filmmaker. It establishes its narrative style and intent right from the outset by opening with a painful episode out of Rawat’s own life – her inability to marry the man of her choice, Sunil, because they belong to different castes. Nirnay begins with Rawat trying to have a conversation with her brother, who swats her away as if she were an insect. Next is her mother, who refuses to emerge from her nap to take Rawat’s questions. The last character is her father, who responds to her brave line of questioning with disturbing brusqueness.

Rawat goes to record interviews with Sunil, his family and her friends. She uses her access to ask uncomfortable questions about choice, personal freedom, happiness and compromise. One of her friends is a singer who wants to exploit her talent, another is a young mother. By focusing closely on the faces and expressions of her subjects, Rawat elicits raw, often painful confessions of dashed dreams and flickering hopes. Through the conversations, the 26-year-old filmmaker teases out a sobering account of what it means to be a young and voiceless person in a conservative and controlling society. “I shot the film for close to three years, and I would shoot whenever I felt like,” said Rawat, who is studying for a philosophy masters in Delhi. “We never reshot, and we didn’t have a script.”

Rawat made Nirnay in collaboration with Anupama Srinivasan, a documentary filmmaker and director of the IAWRT Asian Women’s Film Festival. The two met some years ago at a workshop Srinivasan was conducting. Nirnay emerged out of a conversation Rawat had with Srinivasan about her friends, who “were educated but ended up doing something else” other than what they had planned, Rawat said. “They wanted to fly, but didn’t know how to,” she added.

Srinivasan, who has co-director credit on Nirnay, worked closely with Rawat while she was filming her conversations and impressions.  They discussed the footage Rawat was capturing in her camera and decided which bits out of the 40 hours on tape to include in the final mix. Rawat’s editing needed to capture “a strong sense of her personal life and about the lives of the other people she was shooting”, Srinivasan said.

In the process, some conversations had to be discarded, such as interviews Rawat conducted with several men on the same issues she explored with the female characters. “As we moved closer to the editing, we discovered what is it we really wanted to say,” Srinivasan said. “The most basic tool of documentary – the interview – has been given a strange twist because of the nature of the person asking the questions and her own dynamic with the persons featured in the film.”

(Nirnay clip courtesy Public Service Broadcasting Trust)