Recently I was reading Shoma A. Chatterji’s book Filming Reality: The Independent Documentary Movement in India (Published by Sage) when I realized how little is known about the documentary movement in India which started three decades back and has proved to be a very strong alternative voice on celluloid.
However, if most Indians are asked to mention one documentary focusing on women’s issues that they watched in recent times, the unanimous answer would be India’s Daughter made by Leslee Udwin.
Thanks to the controversial content of the film, the ban on it by Indian Government in 2014 and the publicity it garnered, the film has found a space in the mind of the masses.
But as is well known, and as Chatterji also ratifies in her book, when it comes to indigenous documentaries on women made by women, there are plenty in India that are a must watch but are often plagued by a lack of awareness and publicity.
Chatterji, who is a National Award-winning author herself, writes: “Documentary cinema was almost exclusively a man’s world till around the 1970s. However, change in the direction of the wind brought in more and more women into the field. The documentary movement in India today has as many women film-makers as men, if not more since a demographic profile is not possible.”
Filming Reality contains in-depth analysis of the work of Indian women documentary film-makers and talks about how they have dealt with varied issues like sexual harassment in the workplace, trafficking and child marriage. They are also looking at other relevant issues like food, politics in India, socialization of violence and many more.
It has taken Chatterji painstaking research for five years to write the book but what she has written is the most comprehensive presentation of the documentary movement in India.
In this article, I list 10 commendable women filmmakers, about whom Shoma A. Chatterji has talked in her book. These are women who have challenged the perceptions of Indian society and continue to do so with their phenomenal work.
- Sherna Dastur
Her film Manjuben Truck Driver (2002) is about a woman who broke gender stereotypes. She has deliberately assumed a male identity, dresses up like a man, speaks like local goons, likes to be photographed in movie-star style, blends into the masculine world of truck drivers, and commands respect. But she believes that the man of the house should get special privileges like eating before the women and follows that diligently because of her so-called “male” profession and hence derived identity.
- Nidhi Tuli
From a background dancer to Bollywood’s best known choreographer, her rise has been phenomenal but apart from the professional ups and downs, the film takes a look at her personal life where she was dumped by her mentor when she got pregnant. She had to deal with her daughter’s illness and her eventual death.
- Mamta Murthy
Her film Colours Black made in 2011 is a beautifully structured documentary based on four children, now adults in different stages of life, recounting mainly off camera, their experience of child abuse and the silence they were coerced into which continued till they grew up.
- Nishtha Jain
She has made a number of documentaries and won prestigious awards too but two of her best works are Lakhsmi and Me and Gulabi Gang.
Lakshmi and Me delves into the life of a maid Lakshmi who works in Nishtha’s home and she shows through the film how little an employer knows about the life of a maid who has to constantly deal with the drudgery of working in different homes and the lack of love and security in her personal life.
Nishtha, in an interview in the book, says: “In one scene, I seem like such a nag about the teacups and my editor took it out because I didn’t sound nice. We finally put it back. Because I control the camera I cannot paint myself white.”
Gulabi Gang follows the Gulabi Gang, an unsual group of rural women in Bundelkand in central India dressed in dark pink sarees led by their leader Sampat Lal fighting for the rights of women and Dalits across several villages.
- Ananya Chakraborty Chatterjee
Her 2010 film Understanding Trafficking shows how trafficking is an organized crime involving a human chain starting with parents, who are willing to sell off their girls, and pimps some of whom even pose as social activists.
The film won a National Award.
Her other hard-hitting documentaries include Gandhari where she has shown how women have naturalized the silent process of subjugation, suffering and oppression.
Najaayaz is on the vulnerabilities of the children of sex workers. The School that Karmi Soren Built is about this tribal lady who gave all her land for the only school to be built on it in the area so that it could transform lives.
- Suhasini Mulay
A National Award-winning veteran actress, Suhasini Mulay has 60 documentaries to her credit four of which have won National Awards.
An Indian Story, based on the 1978 Bhagalpur blindings when a set of undertrials lost their vision when acid was forcibly poured in their eyes, and Bhopal-Beyond Genocide on the Bhopal gas tragedy, are two of the winners. Her first film made in 1977 on women’s literacy was picked up by UNICEF.
- Deepa Dhanraj
One of the best known documentary filmmakers, Deepa Dhanraj has a number of powerful documentaries to her credit.
For instance, Invoking Justice (2011) is a strikingly original film on how a group of women got together in 2004 to form their own Jamaats (gatherings) in southern India where so far Jamaats were all-men local bodies, who tried disputes according to Islamic Sharia Law and rarely gave a chance to women to defend themselves.
The network comprised 12,000 women and despite immense resistance from men, they have been able to settle 8,000 cases that range from wife beating to murder.
Her other film, Something Like a War delves into the forced vasectomies and sterilizations on Indian rural poor that were carried out during the Emergency to control the population.
- Madhushree Dutta
Her film I Live in Behrampada fetched a number of awards. It was a socio-political feedback on the people of Behrampada, a slum-like neighborhood near Mumbai’s Bandra station where Hindus and Muslims lived in peace and harmony, which was shattered by police atrocities on the minority community after the Mumbai riots of 1992.
Her film Memories of Fear, which shows how girls are socialized into a fear psychosis about just anything so that it is easier to control and suppress them, got her the National Award for the Best Film in 1996.
- Paromita Vohra
Her works are tinged with satire and humor and interestingly two of her most successful documentaries talk about society through food.
Annapurna: Goddess of Food is about a women’s co-operative started by 14 women in 1975, who cooked meals for the migrant workers. The co-operative now boasts of a membership of 150,000 and has its own credit co-operative bank, short-stay home and a catering centre.
Defeat of a Minor Goddess tries to delve into food politics as an understanding of intolerance and the meaning of public and private space. The idea struck her when she realized a whole area in Mumbai was vegetarian starting from restaurants to apartment buildings.
- Reena Mohan
Kamlabai, the first screen actress of India, was 88 when the documentary was shot. The film Kamlabaishot in 1992 remains a landmark documentary that traces the life of this old lady through the mundane daily chores and yet there are flashes of her past and a glimpse of her sense of humor.
Skin Deep is more contemporary and extremely relevant at a time when every Indian woman is grappling with body image. The filmmaker interviews six women in various ages and from different social backgrounds and shows how they constantly struggle to live up to the social expectations of beauty.
(This article, written by me, was recently published in the website Asia Times.)