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:
“Now a growing number of Indian filmmakers consider documentary film to be an art form. This was not case when the films absolutely should have political resonance. The artistic approach to documentary has meant that several Indian films now are more subjective and personal, and they often make use of hybrid forms such as songs, fake commercials and animation. Compared to Western documentaries Indian films are often characterized by more performance and chaos,” says Paromita Vohra, who in addition to the film about the copyright debate has made a number of documentaries, among these a film about toilets and public toilet issues in Mumbai. The changes in Indian documentary have come about for a number of reasons:
“In the past the political framework defined the way to make films. The framework is now more fragmented which has led to for instance more open-ended films. Also, the developments in technology with video and later digital cameras have made it much more accessible to create a film and thus have lead to a much larger amount of films being made each year,” says Paromita Vohra, who also believes this new approach could have an important political impact:
“When the personal and the political are mixed, it will open new doors and provide access to political discussion for people who have not previously taken part in the debate,” says Paromita Vohra.
Another experimental film at the festival was Indian Jayan Cherian’s Shape of the Shapeless. Cherian is actually based in New York City and in the film he portrays an artisan creating wooden frames in a studio, a yogi practicing and a burlesque performer who challenges traditional notions of body, gender and sexuality. The thing is that the artisan, the yogi and the performer is one and the same person, an American by the name of Jon Cory (or Premdas or Rose Wood depending on what time of day you bump into him/her).
Films about body and gender-bending are nothing new to cinema. Many of them have had a tendency towards sensationalistic focus; just think of Todd Browning’s Freaks from 1932. Films about bodies and especially films about bodies that are out of the ordinary can easily end up just aiming to provoke us by showing us some of the “freaks” in the world.
Shape of the Shapeless is by no means a freak show. It is a loving and reflexive portrait of a human being and most of all a thought- provoking essay on what body and embodiment can mean. It is also an activist film which has a starting point (among many other starting points) in ignorance. As the character says: “Ignorance is abundant and at all times”, which is exactly what calls for a film like Cherian’s. What matters most though is the body. The body is what connects the performer and the human. The body itself is an artwork while still being a being, a personality, a space which occupies the world and which gives and takes from this world. The body in the film is also an idea; a blank canvas on which thoughts and cognition can be lived out. The body is a structure as well as an elastic component which can take all shapes. We are not trapped inside our body, only to the extent that our culture and surroundings tell us to be. The body can also be an illusion, something we can wear or take off. And when the performer hides his penis and, using glue and a fake vagina, can suddenly take on a new bodily dimension, not that of a female, but of something unrecognizable to us, then that ‘something’ is perhaps something we cannot translate due to ignorance.
We still have much to learn about our bodies and the experience of being in a body. Only now are we beginning to understand how body and cognition is connected. To hell with Descartes and the distinction between body and spirit! It is more complicated. It is more alive and lived. Shape of the Shapeless is a step in the right direction and proof that Indian documentary is in good and interesting shape.