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The Age of Possibilities: The Indian Documentary

Anupama Srinivasan

One evening at a film school in India, a first-year student looked at the board announcing that evening’s film screening and sighed aloud in disappointment: It’s not a film today, it’s a documentary! The documentary or the non-fiction film 1 has remained in popular consciousness, especially in India, as merely didactic and boring, and at best a source of information or the provider of a useful social message. More than a hundred years had passed since the Lumiere Brothers’ marvellous invention, the mindset, generally speaking, still continues.   Even on the part of the filmmakers, for many years the tendency has been to view the documentary as what you make before you can get the funds for a ‘real’ film, that is, a feature-length fiction film. In fact in 1911, when Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, better known as Dadasaheb Phalke, was keen to make a fiction film on the life of Lord Krishna, he was asked to make a short film to prove that he was good enough. The film he made was called The Growth of a Pea Plant. Using time-lapse photography he captured the growth of a pea plant, frame by frame, and thus the first Indian documentary was made. While it is still not uncommon for aspiring filmmakers to use the documentary as a stepping-stone, there are hundreds of filmmakers in recent years who have taken up documentaries as a passion and/or as a career.   In 1922, Robert Flaherty made Nanook of the North revealing for the first time, the exciting potential in the documentary. It remains one of the most important and most loved films of all time. Made with warmth and compassion, this silent film is an eloquent portrayal of a family of Eskimos in the Canadian Arctic region, their struggles and their spirit. Shot with a hand-cranked camera, the images till date have retained their freshness and sense of the ‘real’, though many of the sequences had in fact been enacted. The inter- titles have also been used to great effect, their brevity and poetry matching the potency of the imagery.   At the start of World War II the British set up the Film Advisory Board in India, that was later replaced by the Information Films of India and the Indian News Parade, with the primary aim of using news reels and documentary films in war propaganda. These organizations became defunct with the coming of ...

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