In its quest for commercial success, Bollywood, for long, has given the depiction of real-life stories in its reel world a wide berth. Blaming it on "absence of takers" and "lack of a market" that will yield financial dividends, Indian movie makers have preferred not to venture into a territory considered both endearing and rewarding by Hollywood.
Winds of change may, however, be blowing across the Indian cinematic landscape, and bringing along with them a gaggle of documentary features; industry heavyweights and National Film Award-winning producers and directors have taken up projects to make films in the format Bollywood has till date reckoned to be unattractive to narrate real life stories.
From recent political events to raising constitutional issues of 'Right to Privacy' to the changes India underwent under entrepreneurial leadership, Hindi filmmakers are taking up what they describe as "meaningful" stories. The shift is significant. For, till now both Indian producers and directors used to make documentary features — which normally do not last beyond 60-90 minutes — with an eye mainly on international audiences.
Now, however, filmmakers feel that there is an "abundant" market and a "curious" audience in India for documentaries and features that have gripping stories to capture. As 2013's National award-winning director Hansal Mehta contends, "There is nothing amiss with our audience. It is just our (movie makers') laziness."
Mehta, who bagged the National Film Award for Best Direction for Shahid, told ET Magazine: "We have a wealth of stories in Indian history that need to be chronicled." Shahid, made in 2013, is based on the life of lawyer and human rights activist Shahid Azmi who was assassinated in 2010 in Mumbai. When asked why has the industry remained elusive to creation of documentaries and features, Mehta explained: "The truth is we (filmmakers) do not have the courage to present the truth. It is just that we do not want to take a political stand". Mehta's next biopic Aligarh, which got a standing ovation in the 20th Busan International Film Festival earlier this month, is based on the life of a professor who was suspended for being gay, and who after successfully appealing his suspension died in suspicious circumstances. Mehta told ET Magazine that the film highlights the "right to privacy", which has become a matter of debate after the government recently told the Supreme Court that the right to privacy is not a fundamental right. Mehta said that the documentary will raise constitutional and fundamental issues covered under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, which provides for Protection of Life and Personal Liberty. Aligarh also focuses on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which pertains to "unnatural" offences.
Courage of Conviction
Vinod Kapri, who won this year's National Film Award for Best Film on Social Issues for Can't Take This Shit Anymore, is realistic about the prospects of biopics. "Why would one spend Rs 300 on watching a documentary feature — perceived to be slow and drab — when for the same amount one can watch commercial blockbusters like Bahubali and Bajrangi Bhaijaan?" That of course didn't stop Kapri from making the documentary based on the real-life incident of six women having to leave their marital homes because of the absence of toilets there.
Sunil Bohra, producer of Gangs of Wasseypur, makes the point that the big money spent on commercial films also makes them a high-risk proposition. That's not the case for documentaries.
"The making of a commercial movie is an expensive affair and the risks involved are high. Marketing spends are also very high, whereas there is hardly any expenditure in the marketing of a documentary. Also, expectations of people are far lower when it comes to a documentary as compared to a commercial masala movie." Bohra will be making a documentary feature on the book The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh written by Sanjaya Baru, media adviser to former prime minister Manmohan Singh.
To encourage movie makers to make meaningful cinema, Kapri says, "B town's bigwigs need to pitch in by pushing a case for documentaries and screening them tax free or at cheaper prices". Crediting Youtube for bringing about a "revolution", Kapri adds that "now anyone can become a director with a camera in his hand and upload his work on the Youtube if he does not find immediate takers".
Shailesh Singh, producer of Tanu Weds Manu who is coproducing movies with New York-based filmmaker Mira Nair, says he is "fascinated" with the idea of making documentaries. Singh who will be making a feature on "belief in Gods" and faith of people in self-styled gurus says he is researching on the project. Holding that Indian cinema has a bright future for documentaries, Singh told ET Magazine: "In the coming years you will soon see a spate of documentaries, docu-features and biopics."