In documentary filmmaker Madhusree Dutta’s world, truth and fiction both prove to be equally strange. Exploring diverse subjects, ranging from contemporary Indian visual culture to a 12th-century female saint-poet, Dutta’s work finds ways to use fictitious narratives to highlight the relevance of real-life incidents.

Four of Dutta’s documentaries will be screened at the Mumbai International Film Festival, which began on January 28 and ends on February 3. The retrospective begins on January 31 with Dutta’s Made in India (2003), which is based on India’s contemporary visual cultures. I Live in Behrampada (1993), Scribbles on Akka (2000) and 7 Islands and a Metro (2006) will also be screened.

Dutta’s first documentary, I Live in Behrampada, is perhaps her best known. The 45-minute film was shot after the first phase of the 1992-’93 riots that took place in Mumbai in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by Hindu mobs. I Live in Behrampada examines the internal dynamics of people living in the slum in Mumbai’s Bandra suburb and their relationship with the people living around the neighbourhood.

I Live in Behrampada.

I Live in Behrampada was a very direct response to what was happening around me,” Dutta said. “Then, while I was working on communal violence, I got interested in religion, because that is what is being used for political mileage.”

This paved the way for Dutta’s 2000 documentary Scribbles on Akka. “There is a role of religion in people’s lives that maybe we are not aware of, and that’s why communal violence happens,” she said. “I hoped to explore that in Scribbles on Akka.”

The 60-minute documentary depicts the relevance of the Kannada poems of Mahadevi Akka, an important figure in the Bhakti Movement. Mahadevi is still revered in Karnataka, and her vachanas continue to influence devotees as well as contemporary Kannada female poets.

By contrast, the seed for Made in India was sown miles away, in a Manchester museum, which asked Dutta to produce a film that could accompany an exhibition based on contemporary Indian art. The director summarised the difficulty of depicting the range of Indian visual art in a single film: “It’s like asking someone to make a film on life.” Made in India uses montages to highlight the many incarnations of visual culture in India.

Scribbles on Akka.

Dutta’s documentaries do not pretend to be exhaustive accounts of their subjects. Instead, each film hints at the nuances and complexities inherent to the issue it tackles. For instance, 7 Islands and a Metro, which puts the lens back on Mumbai, is not meant to be a complete primer of the highly vaunted spirit of the city. Instead, the 100-minute documentary uses the works of poets and writers such as Namdeo Dhasal, Narayan Surve and Faiz Ahmed Faiz to touch upon the many parts that make up the whole. Presented in seven chapters, the film weaves together stories of different communities – construction workers, bar dancers, Kolis and migrants – to depict the intricate nature of Mumbai’s multi-hued cultural fabric.

Dutta says 7 Islands and a Metro is meant to be a sequel to her first, capturing her evolving relationship with the city. “I was new in the city when I made I Live in Behrampada, so I didn’t understand the city,” she said. “Any city is like a person, it has its own rhythm, texture. You need to know the breathing of it. By the time I made 7 Islands, I knew that actually this city is very melancholic. The city has been represented forever in cinema as a colourful, vibrant, large-hearted, resilient city. But I always used to feel, as a migrant, that there is a melancholy hidden it.”

7 Islands and a Metro.

The most poignant scenes of 7 Islands and a Metro feature fictionalised versions of Sadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai declaiming their own work. Scribbles on Akka also juxtaposes a fictional narrative of a young woman who chooses to become a nun with Mahadevi’s journey into asceticism.

“The argument that we are trying to make is supreme, and not the purity of the image with questions about whether an image is documentary or fictional,” Dutta said. “Because television is full of such pure documentary images and it is adding rubbish to public discourse.”

The form of her later documentaries is starkly different from I Live in Behrampada, which is a fairly straightforward profile of the titular slum. Dutta’s changing aesthetic is motivated by the changes in the media landscape and the evolution of her agenda for making a film.

“When I was making that film [I Live in Behrampada], it was so that people could see the footage of what was happening,” she said. “That’s not relevant anymore now. Now, anyone can shoot things on their cellphone and upload them on Twitter, or put their clip on YouTube. That agenda was important at the time: don’t go by official propaganda, see what is happening. Within five to seven years, there was a complete media boom, so that is no more my agenda. It cannot be.”

Now, the director says, she aims to carve out new arguments that are not a part of public conversations. Co-founder of the women’s right organisation Majlis (which she left in 2016), Dutta makes her personal politics clear in the way she tackles class, caste and gender conflicts in her films. “Nothing is too sacred to be touched, because ultimately, we [documentary filmmakers] are bringing forth a moment,” she said.

Madhusree Dutta on 7 Islands and a Metro.

However, all the four films being screened at the MIFF retrospective share a gentle relationship with the facts, hinting at them with muted stories instead of ferreting them out with dramatic fervour. Dutta said that her approach surprised a lot of her colleagues. “The phrases associated with documentary film making are extremely military: exposure of truth, targeting truth, sting operations,” she said. “Documentary is a war device. And because I am also a political activist, people thought that I would make the most violent, hard-hitting, truth revealing films, especially after my first film.”

The director hopes that her work makes people receptive to the many ways in which politics pervades their everyday lives. “Everyone crosses one Behrampada or the other in their daily lives, I’m sure,” she said. “There is always a voice of transmission like Akka’s in any popular culture or popular religion. I just want people to be able to recognise that it is there in their own lives.”