The International Documentary & Short Film Festival of Kerala kicked off in Thiruvananthapuram on Friday. The annual event is one of the most important forums for Indian independent filmmakers to showcase their films, win awards, and participate in conversations about the present and future of the documentary form.
This year’s edition has awarded its Lifetime Achievement Award to Reena Mohan, the director of Kamlabai and Skin Deep and the editor of several acclaimed documentaries, including Majma, Guru Maa and Moti Bagh.
The festival runs until August 31. Here is a preview of the 13 documentaries selected for the Indian competition (long documentary section).
A Night of Knowing Nothing
Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing won the Oeil d’or (Golden Eye) award for best documentary at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021. The film follows a series of student protests, beginning at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune (where Kapadia earned a degree in direction) and moving to agitations in Delhi.
The hybrid narrative combines documentary footage, observational sequences and constructed scenes revolving around correspondence between an FTII student and her boyfriend.
“We were thinking about the juxtaposition of this youthful life, personal problems and suddenly, amongst all this, the idea and necessity of resistance,” Kapadia told Scroll.in in a previous interview. “They seemed to be two very different streams of thought but we felt that juxtaposing them together would perhaps lead to another way of thinking about this time. But as time progressed and we began to think more about what was going on, it made us realise that the root of the malaise that is growing in our society today was not in political discourse but was somewhere in the privacy of our homes and the intimacy of our relationships. Were these two spaces that seemed to be different, actually not closely linked?”
In a Dissent Manner
A second film about student protests, this time at Aligarh Muslim University, is showing at the event. Ehraz A Zaman’s In A Dissent Manner features students involved in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act at the prestigious college in December 2019. The first-person accounts reveal the partisan manner in which the students have been treated for asserting their fundamental right to express their political views.
“Political documentaries have always been at the forefront of the intersection between cinema and politics,” Zaman observed. “They have been used by many filmmakers to influence the masses. Considering the political environment in our country, there is a greater need for more powerful documentary films that challenge the authorities and ask difficult questions. That’s pretty much the job of a documentary filmmaker.”
A Home for My Heart
Sankhajit Biswas’s A Home For My Heart follows from his debut documentary In-Between Days, about the transgender community in Kolkata. A Home For My Heart narrows in on Suvana Sudeb, who has undergone gender affirmative surgery.
The film reveals the challenges encountered by Suvana in her relationships as well as the fortitude with which she faces them. Suvana deals with the anxiety of her parents, her brother’s upcoming wedding, and the churn in her personal life. We see Suvana at her workplace and at home, engaged in quotidian tasks such as cooking, chatting with her parents or partners, or simply taking a nap.
“Indian audience do not watch documentaries since they feel they are boring. I always try to make something that they find engaging,” Biswas told Scrol.in. “So I tried to adopt certain tropes of fiction films, such as flashbacks, not relying on interviews to take the story forward, and music. I also wanted to show her life in a normal way, and not to set anything up, so that it remains believable.”
The documentary was made over five years, during which time Suvana allowed Biswas to film her ups and downs without interference. “I have been (and still is) fascinated by the way she deals with people and day to day situations,” Biswas said. “It is always a challenge for every transperson to deal with the reality which quite often shows the hostile side of it. But she takes problems head on and tries to resolve things with great confidence.”
The Casteless Collective – Prologue
Apart from making well-regarded films that examine caste and other systemic inequities, Tamil director Pa Ranjith is the co-founder of The Casteless Collective. The band, formed by Ranjith and composer Tenma in 2017, comprises musicians, singers and lyricists who perform in the gaana musical style.
The roots of gaana are traced to the working-class neighbourhoods and slums of North Chennai. The spectrum of gaana covers dirges sung at funerals, protest songs and political commentary.
B Monesh Kumar’s The Casteless Collective – Prologue provides the context for the band’s formation. The documentary features interviews with Ranjith, Tenma and the band members, each of whom have different backgrounds but a united vision to make music that is free of commercial restraints and censorship. The conversations are interspersed with energetic stage performances of the blue-suited musicians in Chennai in 2018 and 2019.
“I consider art itself as a political movement and hence I believe that it is important to speak about the oppressed, especially when our voices are not heard,” Monesh Kumar said. “It is most important to make more noise. The Casteless Collective has done it in a rhythmic way.”
Like the band members, Kumar said that he had been turning into gaana since his childhood. “Gaana is not something you learn, it is the life we live,” he said. “Most of the singers and the people in the [Casteless Collective] team face discrimination. We want to fight for social justice and for that we all struggle. The Casteless Collective can act as a catalyst to achieve social justice.”
Sourabh Kanti Dutta’s Fatima is a profile of a former sex worker who has dedicated herself to preventing the trafficking of girls and women. The film is set in Forbesganj in Bihar, which is a hub for trafficking because of its proximity to Nepal.
The documentary does not flinch from the struggles faced by Fatima Khatun and the non-governmental organisation Apne Aap. It’s an uphill battle for Fatima, a divorcee with six children, to prevent crimes even as she tries to pursue a new relationship.
Dutta was one of the three directors of the award-winning documentary I Am Bonnie (2016), about footballer Bandana Paul and her momentous decision to opt for gender affirmative surgery. Fatima was sparked off by a chance encounter with a non-profit group working on trafficking in Delhi, Dutta said. The filmmaker was unable to get the trafficked women to speak on camera. He was pointed to Fatima Khatun in Bihar.
“From the very moment of meeting her, we struck a bond of friendship and trust,” Dutta said. “She wanted to tell her story to the world and felt that I have the intentions and the ability to do so for her.”
The documentary was filmed between 2017 and 2021. Dutta has thanked Fatima Khatun and other Apne Aap activists for helping him shoot in often life-threatening conditions. “There is always bodily risk when you work in the field among human traffickers,” Dutta observed.
The film follows the beats of a fiction film, with layers of drama and tragedy. “In real life, there are heroes, but they do not get success often,” Dutta said. “In a tragedy, even when the hero fails, the audiences makes her/him a winner in their hearts. And that is a form or treatment I love.”
From the Shadows #Missingirls
While Fatima tackles trafficking, Miriam Chandy Menacherry’s From the Shadows #Missingirls investigates the rampant disappearance of girls, some of them as young as 12. The film uses as a framing device a mural campaign featuring a silhouette of a missing girl by artist-activist Leena Kejriwal.
“I was struck by this shadow of a girl on the wall that I felt was following me because I saw it in different parts of Kolkata and then in Bangalore and Mumbai,” explained Menacherry, whose previous documentaries include The Rat Race and Lyari Notes. “The #missing made it eerie and I felt it concealed a bigger story. I felt compelled to meet the artist Leena Kejriwal who was clearly using public spaces as her canvas to draw us into a narrative of missing girls.”
The documentary includes interviews with both rescued girls and activists who are trying to prosecute traffickers and abductors. Kejriwal’s support for one such rescued girls form is one of the narrative strands in the film. The girl’s long drawn-out legal battle is among the reasons From the Shadows #Missingirls took six years to complete.
“Her courage and determination really moved me and I felt our camera was merely a witness to what the system put her through, a second ordeal maybe even worse than being trafficked,” Menacherry said.
Among her takeaways during the film’s long development was that “survivors are the key”.
“Trafficking cases are difficult to convict because it is a well-oiled nexus that has infiltrated all our civil institutions and has a trail right up to very powerful people in society who protect the middlemen,” Menacherry said. “The paperwork at every stage right from the moment of filing an FIR is prone to manipulations and errors, so ultimately middlemen roam free while girls continue to disappear.”
P Se Pyaaz, P Se Paisa, P Se Paani
The competition section has two documentaries produced by SPS Community Media, the filmmaking unit of Samaj Pragati Sahayog, a grassroots organisation that works in the fields of agriculture, water conservation and health and nutrition in Madhya Pradesh.
Laxminarayan Devda’s P Se Pyaaz, P Se Paisa, P Se Paani examines the water crisis in Malwa that has resulted from a shift to the cultivation of irrigation-intensive crops such as onion.
Farmers already facing the vagaries of the weather and a dwindling water table are switching to cash-rich crops. This has increased the pressure on cultivators, who have to spend heavily on ensuring that their fields are adequately irrigated.
Conversations with farmers and strong visuals lay bare a micro-crisis that is no doubt being echoed in other parts of the country. In one of the most striking shots, a camera tilts from the bottom of a bone-dry well all the way up to its mouth, revealing both the depth of the hole and the scale of the problem.
Laxminarayan Devda has been working with SPS Community Media since 2005. He has directed several documentaries and short films. The SPS films are screened through mobile cinemas to encourage debates about sustainable cultivation, said Devda, who is himself from a farming family. “Our farmers can express and share their thoughts and debate issues through the medium of cinema,” Devda told Scroll.in.
The Bird, the Priest and the Sixteen Millet Thieves
Samaj Pragati Sahayog’s team includes trained filmmakers, such as Film and Television Institute of graduates Pinky Brahma Choudhury and Shobhit Jain, which explains the quality of their documentaries. The second SPS Community Media production at IDSFFK is Milind Chhabra’s The Bird, the Priest and the Sixteen Millet Thieves.
Chhabra’s documentary examines the reasons for the decline in the cultivation of foxtail millet cultivation and other traditional crops among the Pithora community in Madhya Pradesh. Birds, which feast heavily on the foxtail millet, are a part of the origin myths revolving around the folk goddess propitiated at the beginning of the harvest season. A bigger problem is the increasing reliance on commercial seeds, which are prone to pests and therefore necessitate the use of pesticides.
“While researching for the film, we came across many people in different communities who had earlier grown the crop but weren’t doing that anymore,” Chhabra said. “We had also got to know that foxtail millet seeds play an important part in the Pithora community ritual present there, and when one day, when one of the characters told us that the same festival is happening in his village, we just leapt at the opportunity to shoot it. Since we had found only a few farmers ready to grow foxtail millet, a lot of time was spent in conversations with them, taking interviews, shooting their lives and just spending time with them. I think that’s how a sort of intimacy grew between us, which translated into the film as well.”
The intimate camerawork gives a vivid sense of how the farmers live, work and think about their habitat. The documentary relies on static shots, with minimal camera movements, to establish the rhythms of life in these parts, Chhabra added. “Shooting everything in a visually appealing, cinematic way was always a priority, but the fact that it has an effect on the audience is because of the intimacy we achieved and the combined team effort,” he said.
“You can’t eat money,” a woman points out in Pravin Selvam’s investigative documentary about the damage caused by stone quarrying to wetlands in Tamil Nadu. Changing Landscape reveals how farmlands have been gradually swallowed up over the years by quarries. This has resulted in the soil being poisoned, pollution rising and the water table dropping. If stone mining is not absolutely necessary, why allow it, an activist asks in the film.
Rebana Liz John’s black-and-white documentary Ladies Only meets some of the commuters of the coaches reserved for women on Mumbai’s suburban railway train network. Through portraits of carefully chosen characters, John attempts to understand how women define their relationship with social structures.
The spectrum includes unhappily married women to power lifters. A diverse range of responses greets John when she hands out printouts of feminist Kamla Bhasin’s poems Azaadi and Ladkiyan.
“The ladies compartment makes you feel safe and gives you this in-between, suspended space,” John said in a previous interview with Scroll.in. “It has helped a lot of women to feel independent. Having the ladies’ compartment has allowed women to imagine a working life for themselves.”
Yet They Have No Space
Prince Pangadan’s Yet They Have No Space examines the plight of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka who have fled the country’s civil war at various points in time. The refugees were both Sri Lankan Tamils, comprising early settlers, and Indian Tamils, who were taken from India to Sri Lanka in later years by British colonisers.
Pangadan finds the refugees doubly threatened by war back home and instability in India. Lacking the necessary documentation to fully rebuild their lives in India, some of them have been forced to return to a country riven by military conflict.
Geetika Narang Abbasi’s documentary Urf provides a sideways view of the Hindi film industry. Narang Abbasi tracks down actors who work as lookalikes of movie stars such as Dev Anand, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Amitabh Bachchan. While these performers have built their careers on mimicry, they are keen on being taken seriously as actors, Urf reveals.
In a previous interview with Scroll.in, the first-time filmmaker spoke about her subjects: “Most of the lookalikes also love cinema and the stars they impersonate. They survive on the hopes and dreams that Bollywood instils in all of us.”
Into the Sea
Ashish Kumar Nayak’s Into the Sea is a deep dive into the working conditions of fishermen in Odisha. Hardship and hardiness go hand in hand as the fishermen and their families toil round the clock for often meagre earnings.
There are very real dangers on the seas. Apart from the threat of accidents, the fishermen have to steer clear of turtle habitats for fear of being arrested and having their vessels impounded for months on end. The work is highly unpredictable – despite no shortage of fish in the ocean, there is no predicting what the waves hold, one fisherman says.
By focusing on individuals rather than companies, Nayak reveals the sheer labour that goes into fishing. Sequence after sequence reveals the superhuman effort involved in hauling a catch out of the sea and preparing it for the marketplace. Constant work keeps us alive, we can’t imagine life without it, one doughty soul says.
Nayak filmed Into the Sea over five years. In a director’s note, he reflected on the challenges he faced during the lengthy production: “… It took us a year alone to get the necessary permissions for shooting. When we finally went into the sea with the fishermen to shoot, the Sea-God welcomed us with a cyclone. I wonder if there is anything scarier than facing a storm in the middle of the sea. There were many instances when our lives flashed before our eyes. Our bodies grew weak to the extent that we couldn’t stand straight. The sea constantly tossed our boat around; I remember how I could feel the food in my stomach juggling from one corner to another. Looking back, I feel it was all worth it.”
About his subjects, Nayak said, “Of the many lessons this film has taught me, the most valuable one is hope. Failing to have their ends meet even after working endlessly and risking their lives daily, these fishermen continue to smile in the face of adversity with the hopes of securing the future of the next generation.”