The book, India Retold: Dialogues with Independent Documentary Filmmakers in India, edited by Rajesh James and Sathyaraj Venkatesan, is an important and timely intervention.
Uttaran Das Gupta, Associate Professor of Practice, Jindal School of Journalism and Communication, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana, India.
During the 2022 Academy Awards season, now overshadowed by the infamous slap, an Indian film became the first documentary from the country to get a nomination. Directed by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, Writing with Fire (2021) focuses on Khabar Lahariya, a rural media outlet run by Dalit women.
Dalits are at the bottom of the country’s brutal caste system, one of the oldest social hierarchies in the world. The film, which took five years to make, won several international awards, including an Audience Award and a Special Jury Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Shortly before the Oscar ceremony, the news outlet it documented issued a statement, disputing some of the film’s narrative preoccupations.
Recognizing Writing with Fire as “a moving and powerful document,” the statement claimed that “its presentation of Khabar Lahariya as an organization with a particular and consuming focus of reporting on one party and the mobilization around this, is inaccurate.” The political party it refers to is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been in power at the national level and in several states since 2014.
Independent global organizations have claimed that BJP’s tenure has resulted in a backsliding of democracy in the country, diminished freedom of the press, and increasing violence against religious and caste minorities such as Muslims and Dalits. The dispute over Writing with Fire demonstrates, yet again, the fraught landscape in which journalists and documentary filmmakers operate in India.
In this landscape, India Retold: Dialogues with Independent Documentary Filmmakers in India, edited by Rajesh James and Sathyaraj Venkatesan, is an important and timely intervention.
The book compiles interviews with 30 contemporary documentary filmmakers, decoding the multiple ways in which they are responding to India’s fraught and ever-changing society. Its contents page reads like a roll call of some of India’s best-known documentary filmmakers—Anand Patwardhan (whom the editors describe as “the father of independent documentary films in India”), Saba Dewan, Sanjay Kak, Paromita Vohra, Sridhar Rangayan, Nakul Singh Sawhney, and others.
Published in: International Documentary Association
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