Edited by Oishiki Ganguly
Documentaries have the power to bring forward stories that often don’t make it to the larger public discussion. Stories about places, people and communities that are often overlooked in a world hooked onto the typical spice of the mainstream ones. With cameras and mics, documentary makers have the opportunity to capture and present unconventional ideas and opinions and start discussions about them. In a co-curricular course, I took at college, taught by the famous documentary filmmaker Nakul Singh Sawhney himself, I finally realized the power and influence that such documentaries can have on our idea of India.
However, students usually find it difficult to start and sit through a documentary in a world of less-brainpower-using options of sci-fi, action and historical movies. If you’re someone looking to start watching Indian documentaries in order to understand the historical and political scenario of India, especially from a newer perspective, then this list is for you, my friend!
10. Savitri’s Sisters at Azaadi Kooch by Nakul Singh Sawhney
This wonderfully made documentary by our own Ashoka faculty member revolves around an Azaadi Kooch that took place in Gujarat which was led by two Dalit women Laxmiben and Madhuben. The Kooch was organized to demand land which had been allocated to Dalit communities on paper but had been occupied by other dominant upper-caste families. The documentary pays close attention to the women’s efforts and contributions to making the Kooch a success.
The documentary addresses a very important aspect of marginalization in a multilayered culture of India – intersectionality. It makes the audience think of how women among the Dalit communities live under the burden of being a doubly oppressed section of the society. It also shows how powerful and impactful it can be to hear these voices and how hard it is to suppress them once they find this voice.
9. Gaon Chhodab Nahi by AKHRA
A rather short documentary which could qualify as a music video, Gaon Chhodab Nahi (We will not leave our village) is a beautifully made piece by the tribal film collective AKHRA consisting of two renowned documentary makers – Biju Topo and Meghnath. It’s a song that protests against the destruction of tribal land and resources in the name of development.
This short yet powerful portrayal shows the tribal way of life in many villages of Orissa and Jharkhand. It brings to light how these communities live in a symbiotic relationship with the natural resources that they utilize. The so-called ‘development’ of these places and the destruction of this land isn’t just uprooting their entire lives and cultures but is also simultaneously destroying the natural resources. This short but impactful song makes one question their notions of development and how differently it is experienced by different communities.
8. A Suitable Girl by Sarita Khurrana and Smriti Mundra
This Documentary gained its due recognition after the infamous Indian Matchmaking aired this summer on Netflix. However, this documentary wasn’t just the first official public appearance by Sima Taparia from Mumbai but one that raised some very important points when it comes to the women in arranged marriages in India. The story revolves around three different women in different cities in India, all at different phases of their arranged marriage’s journeys.
It is a powerful piece because of the way it has managed to capture the undertones of deep-rooted patriarchal systems by only displaying the mundane, everyday things in these women’s lives. All the women in the documentary come from different walks of life, having distinct lifestyles when it comes to careers, families and class statuses, however, the documentary portrays that they all face similar struggles of leaving home, finding a suitable boy and coming to terms with such a huge transition in their lives.
7. Pee by Amudhan
Pee is one of the most powerful documentaries when it comes to understanding the caste-based discrimination in India. The renowned activist and documentary maker Amudhan R.P. captures the entire film in a single frame. He follows Mariyammal, who is a sanitary worker in Madurai, as she begins her day by manually picking up faeces from a street which is used by upper-caste families as a toilet. She talks about the sheer lack of humanity and insensitivity due to which she doesn’t even have proper tools to work with.
This impactfully shot documentary taps into the consciousness of all privileged Indians who believe caste-based discrimination to be a thing of the past. Watching Pee is a dreadful experience but is truly an eye-opener towards the realities of marginalization and its extent, even in this modern world.
6. Period. End of Sentence. by Rayka Zehtabchi
This Academy Award-winning piece by Zehtabchi deals with the lives of women in Hapur village trying to break away from the taboos surrounding menstruation. These women, under the mentorship of Shabana Khan, learn to operate a machine to manufacture sanitary napkins and then sell them from door-to-door. By doing this, they start conversations around periods and help women live more sanitary lives. These women provided hygienic sanitary napkins at a minimal rate to other women of the village and also generated income for themselves to be able to support their own dreams.
This documentary goes beyond looking at the challenges faced by women and explores how they can get together and revolutionize how they address menstruation and female sexuality. This short yet powerful documentation takes us through the journey of women with different hurdles in life and how they view their own bodies amidst all this chaos.
5. Ram ke Naam by Anand Patwardhan
An incident that had an ever-lasting impact on the secular fabric of our country’s politics was the demolition of the Babri Masjid. This documentary revolves around the Rath Yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya, which ended with the destruction of the Masjid. The documentary captures different people, in and out of the Yatra, and their opinions of the entire incident.
This incident caused massive changes in the political identities of many in the country and while some benefited from this change, others suffered. This documentary adequately explores these different communities and the impact that the destruction of the Babri Masjid had on them. It gives a voice to the unheard, such as those of lower caste Hindus, who barely ever get the space to speak on this matter, leaving the audience with a much deeper understanding of these ideologies.
4. Something like a War by Deepa Dhanraj
This documentary takes a very unconventional turn on the Population Control policy by the Indian government. These policies were aimed at massive sterilization drives for women who were lined up like objects and operated on, one after the other. Dhanraj very carefully exposes how the brunt of the policies was shouldered by the women of the family who went through these excruciating procedures and how that meant that they lost control over their own sexualities. It also documents women sitting around in smaller groups and discussing their bodies, first menstruations and other experiences that they, otherwise, never get to talk about.
It captures several appalling scenes of dreadful pain endured during the sterilization of women and juxtaposes them with women casually talking about what they think of their bodies and about pleasure. It also brings to one’s minds how certain policies impact people in ways that never make it to popular discussions. It is a powerful piece which makes one think about the differences between women and men’s experience of their own bodies in the political context.
3. Jai Bhim Comrade by Anand Patwardhan
This is another masterpiece by documentary maker Anand Patwardhan dealing with the issue of caste differences. The starts with, Vilas Ghoghre, a Dalit poet’s suicide as a reaction to the Ramabai killings in 1997 and goes on to show many aspects of caste discrimination by also bringing in some performances by the Kabir Kala Manch, a Dalit activist performance group.
The entire documentary shows shades of casteism that exist very subtly in our society that people often miss out on. With interviews from a number of victims of the Ramabai killings and tones of casteism when people supported the heirs of Nathuram Godse and their ideologies while bringing down Gandhi’s efforts at a caste egalitarian society. It brings into notice, violence and hatred against some castes that often gets overshadowed otherwise.
2. Nirnaya by Pushpa Rawat
This absolutely beautiful documentary is what happens when a woman takes control of the camera and goes on to document her own life. Pushpa Rawat, who was a recently trained filmmaker, started capturing her life when it turns upside down because she is denied permission for marrying her one true love due to the caste differences between their families. She then goes on to also record other women’s experiences as they navigate their experiences of marriage and bachelorhood.
This documentary is an empowering example of what happens when a community, which feels powerless otherwise, gets the proper tools for documenting their ideas and experiences. It makes the audience think about the subtle forms of gender-based violence that women quietly endure their whole lives. It debunks the illusion that women can make their own nirnayas (choices) when they are actually almost always left choiceless.
1. Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai by Nakul Singh Sawhney
Documenting the aftermath of the Muzaffarnagar communal riots, this piece attempts to bring into the picture the causes of the riots. It delves into the stereotypes that exist which led to an incident of eve-teasing turning into a citywide riot. There are also interviews of people explaining the aftermath and the worst affected communities from this destruction.
The documentary shapes up like a beautiful dish with many layers of ingredients in it. One look at the causes of the riots brings about the deeper issues, like patriarchy in the picture which contributed to the riots as well. This documentary is an attempt at understanding the various issues that lead to something so catastrophic and how it is less often one community against the other and mostly communalism and patriarchy against humanity.