An Oscar Moment for Indian Documentaries

The country's factual filmmaking shines globally but still seeks an audience at home

An Oscar Moment for Indian Documentaries
Still from The Elephant Whisperers. (Netflix)

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On a December evening, two friends and I were among the six people watching the Indian documentary “All That Breathes” at a small theater in New York City’s West Village. The film had won several awards in 2022, including top honors at Sundance and Cannes and was nominated for the Oscars earlier in January. I had missed its screening at the New York Film Festival in October, where it was the only film from South Asia in the lineup. It is now screening on HBO Max — a first for an Indian documentary.

It was amusing and exciting to see a story from Delhi, my hometown, gain such traction on the international film circuits. Its filmmaker, Shaunak Sen, follows two brothers — Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad — living in Wazirabad, an urban village in northeast Delhi, in a middle- and working-class neighborhood. They run a bird hospital in the dingy basement of their home, where they treat injured black kites, which dot Delhi’s skyline but drop daily from its choked skies. The brothers started this venture in 1997 after being turned away by a prominent bird hospital. “We don’t treat non-veg birds,” they were told.

The film doesn’t spell it out but, for those who know India, it’s obvious that the food protocols followed by dominant-caste Hindus — the majority of whom are vegetarians — were applied to the birds too, making the carnivorous black kite “impure” or “untouchable.” However, for Muslims in Delhi, tossing meat up to these birds is something of a ritual. They believe that feeding them will dispel troubles.

The beauty of the film is precisely that it doesn’t make such things explicit: The themes are for the viewers to pick up by themselves. Nowhere do the characters sit in front of a camera to share their stories or theories. We follow them as they lead their daily lives, rescuing and treating the birds, even if it means getting into the polluted Yamuna river right before nightfall. Volunteers at the bird hospital, which they call Wildlife Rescue, travel with cartons containing the injured birds in auto rickshaws which they collect from bird hospitals across the city. As the number of injured kites increases each day, the reality of Delhi’s climate crisis dawns upon us.

Delhites were introduced to N-95 masks, the most secure level, in 2016, before most people, who only heard about them during the Covid-19 pandemic. The air pollution was so severe that levels of PM2.5 and PM10 — used to measure the toxicity of air — hit 999; the safe limits are 60 and 100, respectively. Our father instructed me and my brother to wear the masks whenever we went out, but I only used one in March 2020, when the pandemic hit. For the last few years, in Delhi, air pollution levels have consistently been in the red — it’s our new normal — barring a short period during the first lockdown, when both air and water quality improved for a few days. Moreover, record-breaking temperatures, reaching up to 50 C, or 122 F, don’t help either. Last year, between March and May, the city experienced five bouts of heat waves.

In the film, we also see cows, rats, monkeys, frogs and hogs jostle cheek-by-jowl with people in Delhi. Not all of them live in the cleanest of environments and would be found around waste dumps and sewage canals. From one point of view, it feels like a wildlife film in an urban setting. Sen showed the species with which we coexist in the city. But because they were so aesthetically shot, it was perplexing too. I wasn’t sure if I should appreciate them as they exposed the city’s environmental realities. The Ghazipur landfill, where hawks and other birds of prey hover around, along with stray cows, dogs and rats who wander at will, is India’s tallest garbage mountain towering over the city.

The shooting of the film started in January 2019. Later that year, civil unrest escalated in Delhi. Protests cropped up in different parts of the city, including Wazirabad, against the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which provided a pathway for persecuted religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan to apply for Indian citizenship. It included Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians, but excluded Muslims. It was the first time that religion was overtly used as a criterion for citizenship in India, which many felt was against the idea of India as a diverse country for all religions, sparking widespread protests across the country led by Muslim women and students. These escalated to riots in northeast Delhi, where the bird hospital is situated, killing 53 people, most of them Muslims. It also became an opportunity for the authorities to arrest the activists leading these protests.

We don’t see footage from the protests or the riots in the film, but the tension is palpable as the brothers continue their work, or when the family watches the news. Nonetheless, the bond between the brothers and the neglected kites is so uplifting that it feels like a poetic chronicle of the city’s collapsing ecology and deepening social fault lines. A phrase used by the brothers in the film, “Hawa ki biradari” — which could be translated as a sense of brotherhood or community extended by air — describes the interconnection of species, serving as a reminder of how different species, or people, could coexist peacefully. The film becomes a comment not just on the pollution of the outer environment but also on the corruption of the social fabric in India.

What also made the documentary stand apart was it did not feel like a documentary. In interviews, the brothers recounted how Sen told them to think of the crew as “a fly on the wall.”

“We will start filming when you start yawning in front of the camera,” Sen had told them. In interviews, Sen said he wanted to employ the “vérité” form of documentary filmmaking, a more observational form, which highlights the subjects hidden behind the reality.

It was heartwarming to see the dedication the brothers have for these birds and the bond they share, despite the circumstances they work in. Wazirabad is a neighborhood not many Delhites even know about or want to travel to — it’s on the margins of the city. My family has a connection because my mother has been teaching at a college there for over three decades. However, the last time I traveled there was in 2017, to report on the alleged desecration of a mosque in a nearby village.

A second Indian film from the margins has now been nominated for the 2023 Oscars in the “Best Documentary Short Film” category. The 40-minute-long “The Elephant Whisperers,” streaming on Netflix, is another heartwarming story of human-animal relationships. Set in the forests of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, it follows Bomman and Bellie, an Indigenous couple, who have devoted their lives to caring for an orphaned baby elephant named Raghu, forging a unique family in the process.

The film’s debut director, Kartiki Gonsalves, has recounted in interviews how she first saw Raghu and Bomman in 2017 walking by the side of the road in the tiger reserve. She spent the next five years filming Raghu and his human “parents,” along with his “sister” Ammu, another orphaned elephant in their care. In the film, we see the great pains endured by the couple to ensure that the fragile, injured infants survive and grow to be healthy juveniles.

One review of the film said it felt like “ultimately a love-story about the power of community.” Another said it was “an experience that needs to be felt, rather than just seen.” I couldn’t agree more. I found myself on the verge of tearing up as the relationship between the elderly couple and the infant elephants unfolded. Scenes of them feeding, bathing, walking around or simply cuddling beside each other just tug at your heart.

While, at the outset, the film seems to be about this human-animal family, it subtly draws our attention to the impact of human development on the natural world and the man-animal conflict, common in these parts of India.

In interviews, Gonsalves has recounted how Raghu was orphaned when his mother wandered into a human settlement looking for food during a prolonged drought and was accidentally electrocuted. These are stories I myself have personally reported on in tribal villages around the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve in the neighboring state of Karnataka, as part of a college assignment in 2016. The film also highlights the interdependence of species and the knowledge systems and understanding of the ways of the forests that Indigenous communities draw from even today, though they are on the verge of being lost.

To understand what this recognition meant for Indian documentaries, I called up a former colleague of mine, Tanushree Ghosh, who covers independent cinema in India and South Asia at large. “The nominations at Oscars are definitely a big deal,” she said. “India has been making noise on all fronts — from ‘RRR’ to ‘All That Breathes’; it is a spectrum.”

In the last couple of years, Indian documentaries have won several accolades at international film festivals. In 2021, Payal Kapadia’s “The Night of Knowing Nothing,” an exploration of university student life in India, won an award at Cannes. The same year, the feature documentary “Writing with Fire,” which spotlighted Khabar Lahariya, a Dalit women-led newspaper published in rural dialects, became the first from India to receive an Oscar nomination. Earlier this year, Sarvnik Kaur’s “Against the Tide,” about two fishermen in Mumbai’s Indigenous Koli community, won an award at Sundance for vérité filmmaking.

Indian documentaries are shining globally. However, within India itself, there is decreasing institutional support for this form of filmmaking from governmental, corporate and other bodies. As a result, independent filmmakers have to put in their own money to make these films, said Ghosh.

“The recognition that these documentaries have got is a miracle in a sense because there is no space for them in India. There used to be governmental and nonprofit organizations which funded documentaries, but that space has shrunk. It’s very difficult to make films now and take them to audiences,” she said.

Last year, the Indian government announced that all government-backed film bodies would merge into one, the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), a government-owned company. One of them was the Film Division of India, a state production and distribution unit which produced documentaries and news magazines. Many in the film industry opposed the move, stating that the bodies served different functions, creating space for different kinds of films and the merger would lead to more government control over filmmaking.

It was also argued that it made no sense for a for-profit company like NFDC to undertake projects of a nonprofit nature, like the preservation of film archives. With the merger, hopes that government-backed documentaries would be made have also decreased, said Ghosh, as no one knows whether funds will be dedicated to documentaries, especially since fictional cinema is more popular in India and more likely to receive attention.

Other than that, there are a handful of avenues that support incubation of documentaries in the country. One is DocedgeKolkata, where the recent award-winning documentaries “Writing By Fire,” “All That Breathes” and “Against The Tide” were incubated, said Ghosh, and filmmakers were provided training, skill development workshops and pitching forums.

The Public Service Broadcasting Trust nonprofit organization, established in 2000 in partnership with Prasar Bharati, India’s public broadcaster and the Ford Foundation, has been working to create a space for independent documentary films, and commissions a healthy number of documentaries every year. However, its Open Frame Film Festival has been inactive since 2019. Recently, it also launched a mentorship program.

Hope had emerged with the rise of streaming services that they might make space and support independent and documentary films, but even that has been taken up by the commercial and mainstream. “Streaming services don’t see them as revenue-generating and they pay minimal rates, which is not profitable for filmmakers,” Ghosh said.

In such a scenario, documentary filmmakers in India have been looking at resources and film markets overseas. “Sen and his team went all-out pitching for filmmaking grants all over the world. Kaur’s production also went the same route. Sen is her senior from Jamia Millia Islamia university [which has one of the best film schools in India]. So it is on the filmmaker who has to find producers and distributors elsewhere,” she said.

“Look at the irony,” Ghosh adds, citing the example of Sen’s first film “Cities of Sleep” to further explain the situation. A film about the insurgent sleeper’s communities in Delhi and its infamous “sleep mafia,” which makes securing a safe sleeping spot on the pavements a question of life and death, Sen’s first film is “nowhere to be seen.”

“There was no buyer for it. No one has seen that film [after the festival run], there is just a short trailer on YouTube,” she said. “You need distributors and producers which are found in the film markets overseas.” In India, there is only one film market, the Film Bazaar organized by the NFDC.

HBO Documentary Films acquired “All That Breathes” at the Sundance Film Festival in 2022, where it had won the Grand Jury Prize in World Cinema Documentary Competition. “Film markets are important where small-time filmmakers can pitch their films to buyers. So it’s a huge thing because international streaming platforms don’t usually pick up small films from India,” said Ghosh. “It’s been winning awards wherever it has gone, and has been making the right noises.” However, the film has not been released in India.

Otherwise, small films need large producers in India, said Ghosh. “Kartiki alone may or may not have been able to come all this way just on her own.” “The Elephant Whisperers” was released on Netflix before it was nominated for the Oscars. Its producer, Guneet Monga, is a prominent name in the film industry, so it helped Gonsalves to have her backing. In 2018, Monga was inducted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

In 2019, Monga served as an executive producer for the Oscar-winning film “Period. End of Sentence,” a short documentary made by the Iranian-American filmmaker Rayka Zehtabchi on a menstrual hygiene initiative in small-town India. “Monga is among those trying to change the scene in India. Apart from commercials, she is making an attempt to support independent filmmakers as well,” said Ghosh.

Often, when looking at brilliant cinema from elsewhere, Indians tend to complain that such films are not made in their country. To that, the noted filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, known for his offbeat cinema, has pointed out in several interviews that films are being made, but no one wants to watch them.

“Awareness and sensitization about this kind of cinema is less. For many in India, documentaries are thought to be preachy and boring. Sen’s film shows there is no one kind of documentary. Documentaries can be emotional films too, like fiction,” said Ghosh. “And both these films are good examples of that.”

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