How dynamic, manifold and fragmentary this city is. With its post-colonial disturbances, stillvery-colonial architecture, strange smells, vibrant colors and a film audience that is hectic and very lively. In Mumbai cinemas you don’t necessarily show up when the film starts but rather 10-15 minutes into the film. And in Mumbai you don’t necessarily shut up when the film starts but continue to chat away, check your cell phone and call your mom. Life is still carried on even though a film is screened in front of you. And so be it. Different cultures of course also have different cinema habits.
The Mumbai International Film Festival is almost as vibrant and manifold as the host city. With a film selection showcasing animation, short fiction and documentary it demands quite a lot of effort from the viewer. One has to go from sadness and tough realism in a documentary to silliness and infantile themes in an animation minutes later. Body, emotions and mind might get confused but most of the time you just sit there amazed by the wonders of cinema.
Indian documentary is seldom seen in the West. And actually it’s not so common in India either. Only 2-3 times has an Indian documentary had a theatrical release. And even though the country has more than 800 TV channels not a single one is devoted to showcasing documentary, and only once in a while will the major stations give airtime to a documentary.
“Most documentaries are shown at festivals, universities or privately arranged screenings. The interest of the audience is clearly increasing, but it has not infected the broadcasters’ programming yet,” says the Mumbai-based film critic Nandini Ramnath.
The lack of interest from broadcasters also makes financing documentaries difficult. Indian directors often work with a very small or nonexistent budget, but there are also a growing number of Indian documentary filmmakers who work in the realm of international coproductions. Even so, compared to the fictional escapades of the Bollywood industry, Indian documentary has had very little attention abroad which is quite a shame when you observe the variations of Indian documentary at the festival in Mumbai. Traditionally, Indian documentary has been closely linked to political activism but documentary was originally used in a different way. After independence in 1947, the documentary film was primarily something that the Indian state used as a propaganda tool in order to construct a national identity. The state film agency, Film Division, produced a wealth of films on folklore, traditional dancing and other identity-building topics. Later political activists – often in opposition to the government – started to use documentary films as way to direct focus onto issues such as the environment and minorities. This link between political activism and documentary is still very much alive today, and at the festival in Mumbai one could see critical films on for instance the close ties between the Indian media and the business world which often results in media companies selling news space to companies and industries. Newspaper coverage of a company or a politician will look like traditional, independent news coverage but is actually more or less an advertisement paid for by the company or politician. Umesh Aggarwal does a good job at illustrating this strange scheme in his film Brokering News – Media, Money & Middlemen and the film is a relevant perspective in a media world where newspapers are suffering and need to find new ways to make money, which sometimes means that morality suffers too as we have seen in the case of Murdoch and the News of the World.
That Indian documentary is more than political activist cinema was however quite clear at the Mumbai festival. It seems that a new generation of filmmakers is emerging. A generation that does not necessarily want to work in fiction and the dominant Bollywood industry but finds a vision and a mission in documentary, and consequently starts to enlarge and twist the genre in new ways. One of the newcomers is Paromita Vohra whose latest film Partners in Crime competed at the festival. The film deals with copyright issues in the digital age and how the internet has challenged our traditional ways of thinking about ownership and copyright. The cinematic language of the film is very vibrant, colorful and playful. Vohra mixes traditional documentary scenes such as interviews and reportage with songs and animation. The result is a bombastic, funny and lively film that could easily find an audience outside of India. The film plays a lot with audience expectations and tension build-up by using suspense devices traditionally used in thrillers and crime stories. And this mix is by no means an accident according to director, Paromita Vohra:
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