Somewhere around the halfway mark of Nisha Pahuja’s documentary The World Before Her, 24-year-old Prachi Trivedi, one of the two protagonists of the film, opens up about her father. “Do you get angry if he hits you?” asks Pahuja of Trivedi. We’ve been told that he’s occasionally hit her in the past; “hitting”, in fact, would not be wholly accurate. Twelve years ago, she lied to him for the first time; he found out, and burnt her feet with a scalding iron rod. But she doesn’t hold that against him. “He’s given me birth; he has all the right,” she says. “Knowing that I am a girl child, he let me live. In a traditional family, people don’t let a girl child live. (…) So when this thing comes in my mind na, I feel like crying many times.” In less than a minute, this scene says more about Indians’ eternal confusion over the definition of traditional and modern than some narrative features have managed to say in their entire runtime. You can dismiss disturbing fictional films by shrugging, “Oh, it’s just a… ‘film’.” Documentaries, on the other hand, don’t allow an escape. They corner and confront us, and say, this really happened. You can’t reason with or resent life. It is what it is. It’s also precisely the reason that documentaries, at their finest, often trump most narrative features.
Besides The World Before Her, three other stellar documentaries hit the screens earlier this year — Nishtha Jain’s Gulabi Gang was based on Uttar Pradesh’s rural women activists rallying for women’s rights; Fahad Mustafa and Deepti Kakkar’s Katiyabaaz explored Kanpur’s power crisis, and Beyond All Boundaries, by Sushrut Jain, was centered on India’s victory in the 2011 Cricket World Cup. These documentaries, for the most part, eschewed talking heads, needless exposition and title cards to propel their stories and, as a result, resembled fictional films. Equally notable is the fact that all the four documentaries, to varying degrees, are about Indian women negotiating their place in “New India”. Both Gulabi Gang, through a hot-headed vigilante, and The World Before Her, with its Miss India aspirant and Hindu nationalist, directly dealt with the identities of Indian women, but even Katiyabaaz, a film on wilful bureaucracy, included a subplot detailing the challenges of the state’s first women IAS officer, and Beyond All Boundaries, for almost one-third of its runtime, told the story of an impoverished teenage girl preparing for the trials of the Mumbai under-19 women’s team. With the exception of Gulabi Gang, the stories of these Indians aren’t typically “newsworthy”, but their emergence in well-made documentaries suggests that some Indian filmmakers are willing to take the extra step to bring India and Indians, without embellishments, to theatres.
Moreover, three out of the four documentaries released in the year have been made by women filmmakers — a refreshing departure from Bollywood, which still remains male-dominated (only five current mainstream female directors come to mind: Zoya Akhtar, Anusha Rizvi, Gauri Shinde, Reema Kagti and Farah Khan). In the last couple of years, discourses on women’s rights and feminism have intensified in the country, as they should, and these documentaries adeptly encapsulated the national mood. This change, quite sadly, has come about because of a horrific crime — the Delhi gangrape incident on 16 December 2012 — and its ramifications helped bring The World Before Her to theatres. In late 2012, Pahuja’s documentary had toured around the world, and she thought the film’s journey was over. But after the infamous rape case, Pahuja said that she “realised [her] responsibility as a filmmaker, and that the film needed to reach a lot more people”.
Pahuja, born in India, bred in Canada, returned to her country of birth to make The World Before Her. Her observational filmmaking (in many scenes, the camera plainly watches young dismayed faces of Hindu nationalists-to-be and Miss India hopefuls with a lot of empathy) and penetrating journalism are poignant reminders of the effectiveness of a director making a film on her country. It is difficult — if not completely impossible — to truly understand India, and this exercise can become unwieldy if you are not Indian or, rather, don’t belong to India. In the past, some foreign writers and filmmakers have, with mixed results, tried to capture and understand the beast that is India — ranging from Katherine Boo’s meticulously researched and beautifully written non-fiction book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers (a rare feat), to Danny Boyle’s widely celebrated but mediocre attempt in Slumdog Millionaire. And that has been the norm. We don’t really document our stories, which is why our narratives, for the most part, have been at the mercy of foreign correspondents, who have often missed the point. And one can’t blame them entirely; the larger question is — what are we doing with our stories?
Indian documentaries don’t scream commercial viability, which makes their marketing prospects poor and, consequently, don’t really inspire confidence in aspiring filmmakers. But, thankfully, the unrelenting odds haven’t deterred this filmmaking community. The year also saw some yet-to-be-released but nevertheless fine documentaries. I Am Not Offended took a close look at the burgeoning culture of stand-up comics in the country, placed within the context of growing cultural intolerance. Goonga Pehelwan brought to fore the plight of aurally challenged champion wrestler Virender Singh, who had been denied a fair chance to compete at the Olympics for more than a decade. Placebo, a hybrid documentary that examined the lives of four Indian college students trying to understand the notion of success, competed at The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in November. It remains to be seen whether these documentaries will eventually make it to the big screen, but the fact that they exist is reassuring, because these films signify that there are people out there who care about their stories — our stories — and they obsess enough about them despite the crippling odds.
We like stories; it’s difficult to remain indifferent to them but, think about it, not many storytellers can back their riveting accounts by the footnote, “You know, this really happened.” Documentary filmmakers can. Take your victories as they come.
This piece was originally published at The Sunday Guardian