IN SEPTEMBER 2009, Ambarien Alqadar started filming, rather obsessively, her father’s descent into Alzheimer’s. His memory contained clues to her family history, a history she desperately intended to save. As he narrated the last fragments that remained, a recurring image stood out in her mind—of him sitting with her mother by a sea one afternoon, her mother wearing red bellbottom pants.
The Ghetto Girl (2011), Alqadar’s new documentary, opens with a shot of a woman in red bellbottoms, big sunglasses, a red rose in her hair and black high-heeled pumps. She traipses about a park, stopping only to pose for a camera, the outlines of those in the background blurring. The Ghetto Girl is a the story of an imaginary girl looking for a lost home movie, a search that takes her into a maze of lanes in Jamia Nagar, which the documentary calls India’s ‘Little Pakistan’, and which she calls home. The film, which Alqadar describes as an exploration into what it means to be a Muslim in India today, is funded by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT) and was screened as part of Open Frame 2011, PSBT’s 11th annual film festival that ran from 9-17 September.
For a decade, PSBT, a nongovernmental, not-for-profit trust, has worked to democratise the media and render mainstream the independent documentary. It supports the production of 100 documentary films a year that are independent of the state and of private enterprise. Every year, it delivers 52 of these films to the national broadcaster, Doordarshan, and, over the last decade, its annual festival has evolved into an invigorating platform for spotlighting sociopolitical concerns. To mark their 10th anniversary, 2011’s Open Frame focused on PSBT-funded films—both those produced over the past year, and a retrospective of those produced over the past decade.
The new films seek to interpret the complicated social realities of India and articulate them in engaging ways. They cover a promising sweep of subjects: the oral histories of tribal communities; the many-layered politics of religion; the sexuality of the disabled; the psychology of online India; newer forms of living in a globalised world; problems with the judicial system. However, it is uncertain whether the stories they reveal are as well told as their agendas are ambitious.
Alqadar, who studied filmmaking at Jamia Milia Islamia, the Central University based in Jamia Nagar in Delhi, used the PSBT grant to document how women negotiate their surroundings in the locality where she grew up. She is part of a focused pool of the university’s alumni and students who are trying to capture the essence of Jamia Nagar, a location that perfectly represents India’s conflicts of identity and exclusion. Operation Batla House of 2008, in which two boys, Atif Amin, 24, and Mohammed Sajid, 18, were shot dead by the police in the Batla House neighbourhood on suspicions of being members of the Indian Mujahideen, only intensified the students’ engagement with their surroundings.
The scenes of the encounter are a recurring presence in The Ghetto Girl, which meanders through the bustling lanes of Jamia Nagar, gathering stories on its way—of the girl who wouldn’t be served tea at a street stall because ‘it’s not meant for girls’, of the girl who was embarrassed of her uncool neighbourhood as a child, of the girls who must suffer the landlady’s glares when stepping out in western clothes, of the women who gather at a beauty parlour to discuss fashion trends, of the woman who refuses to be photographed because it is forbidden in Islam and of the girl who was nicknamed ‘ghetto girl’ in her exclusive South Delhi school.
The documentary moves smoothly across these stories, creating a rhythm both within the scenes and in the larger narrative. It manages to attain a certain harmony with the subject, getting inside its skin without being intrusive. While the film is visually imaginative, it sticks to old-school editing: each character and shot serves to move the narrative forward, the stories adding up to a cohesive whole instead of being simply ‘about’ something.
Because the film doesn’t pitch itself as a straightforward and impartial account, it wouldn’t be fair to judge it for accuracy and balance of perspective. It is certain, though, that indifference to the larger political context limits the film’s prospects—it’s a telling portrait of women in Jamia Nagar, but not quite a story about being Muslim in India.
That there are elements to the Indian Muslim experience far beyond The Ghetto Girl’s scope is clear from another film screened at the festival, Lalit Vachani’s Tales of Napa (2010), the story of a little village in Gujarat that resisted the tide of right-wing Hindu violence during the 2002 riots. The film examines how Napa’s individual Hindus and Muslims, and the village institutions, managed to keep their community calm amidst the encroaching brutality. While it is generally believed that the pogrom spread throughout central Gujarat and the district of Anand, in particular, with little diminution in its virulence, just 10 km south of Anand city, the Hindus and Muslims of Napa continued to live in mixed localities without the slightest tension. Villagers even took in a contingent of Muslims that was fleeing the riots in surrounding areas, housed them, fed them and helped them to start their lives afresh—going as far as to stand as guarantors in applications for farm credit, and employ them in local enterprises.
As the film moves along, a history in which Hindus and Muslims were economic partners, and developed a syncretic culture, is claimed as partial explanation. Lalit Vachani, who has done extensive documentary work in Gujarat, registers a sizable range of perspectives in the documentary, but the movie’s enquiry into the actual depth of the communal calm seems oddly perfunctory.
There is mention, for example, of a small section of the village that tries to undermine the harmony; one of the characters explains that the source of the occasional disturbance is the “young”, who go to cities to study and come back influenced by an atmosphere of communal mistrust and antagonism. In another apparent point of rupture, a poor Hindu woman says that the Muslims they helped during the riots have moved up economically, leaving them far behind. The film makes no attempt to investigate these potential faultlines in Napa.
The impact of faultlines on areas with a history of togetherness is explored more fully in Apour Ti Yapour. Na Jang Na Aman. Yeti Chu Talukpeth (Between Border and the Fence. On Edge of a Map, 2011), by Ajay Raina. This is the story of life around the Line of Control, of how the border disrupts the everydayness of lives on both sides of the divide. The documentary traces individual stories along the border, along the borderlands and along the boundaries within Kashmir, in a place where the identity of a people remains suspended, broken by a war that happened more than 60 years ago and yet continues today. The camera lingers on the banks of the river Kishanganga that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, where fragmented families on either side look for their lost ones, sometimes through a telescope. This film is the third in a series by Raina on how the Kashmir dispute affects the daily lives of those who are most at risk in the region. Shot in the early months of 2010, just as the marriage season in Kashmir enables a small movement of people across the Kishanganga—most of them seeing their relatives for the first time—the film manages to document emotions that are so raw that they explode at the slightest nudge. Soon after the shoot wrapped up, the Valley erupted into a summer-long fireball of protest, sparked by a fake encounter in the borderlands that resulted in the death of three innocent boys.
The trailers of Apour Ti Yapour initiated a debate online, with some speculating that the film evades the urgent reality of Indian Army excesses and human rights violations. The ubiquity of this concern today may be related, at least partially, to the recent case of Ashwin Kumar’s documentary, Inshallah Football, which, according to Kumar, ran into trouble with India’s censor board for being critical of state policy in Kashmir. That film was about a young Kashmiri footballer who was not allowed to leave India, purportedly because his father was a militant in the 1990s. Contrary to any first impression, however, Apour Ti Yapour doesn’t dodge the larger issues raised by the military occupation of Kashmir. Rather, by documenting the pervasiveness of loss and longing along the border, it serves as a haunting affirmation of how the people of Kashmir have been denied even the smallest of freedoms.
The pain of forced separation also haunts the songs that run through So Heddan So Hoddan (Like Here Like There, 2011), an anthropological investigation by Anjali Monteiro and KP Jayasankar of the music and life of the Fakirani Jats, a community of pastoral Muslims also from the border between India and Pakistan—but, in this case, in the state of Gujarat, where they wander the margins of the salt marshes known as the Great Rann of Kutch.
Many of Kutch’s nomadic communities are traditionally musicians, and their songbook is Shah Jo Risalo, a collection of poems written by Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, a medieval Sindhi Sufi. Before Partition, the Fakirani Jats moved freely across the salt flats that separate Sindh (now in Pakistan) and Kutch. Today, that pastoral lifestyle is doomed—not just by borders, but also by economic development. As the Fakirani Jats turn away from their traditional occupations, some among the older generation struggle to at least preserve the syncretic tradition of the Shah Jo Risalo. In So Heddan So Hoddan, we meet three such: the cousins Umar Haji Suleiman, Mustafa Jatt and Usman Jatt.
So Heddan follows the three men, their families and their rituals persistently, creating a bond with its subjects that shows the ease with which they go about their daily routines, almost unmindful of the camera. Paradoxically, if unsurprisingly, it is this film in particular that highlights the old concern about the extent to which, due to the very nature of the craft, documentaries alter reality. You can drift into thinking that people forget you are there, that they forget the camera, the microphone—but they never do so completely. Some time into So Heddon, after the film has followed its subjects for a while, we are startled when Usman Jatt’s wife, who is cutting vegetables to make lunch, asks him in Kutchi: “Why do they keep filming us? Why are they wasting so much money? The camera itself must cost `500,000... I think they want to show our lives and tradition to the world outside.”
There are other documentaries in the festival that stand out for the originality of their ideas. My Bangalore: Portraits from Hakki Pikki Colony (2011), by Pankaj H Gupta, follows the odd journey of the Hakki Pikki, one of the last tribes from the jungles of the Western Ghats to abandon the hunter-gatherer lifestyle when, in the 1970s, they were resettled on the margins of Bangalore, where they live in slum-like conditions. A Drop of Sunshine (2011) by Aparna Sanyal traces the problems that schizophrenics face in India through the story of 30-year-old Reshma Valliappan, and stakes out a controversial position on how the disease can be dealt with.
Most of these PSBT films meet their quintessential objective: they do raise the stakes in ethical accountability. But, sadly, only a handful of them make for compelling viewing. If the Trust is committed to expanding the pool of Indian documentary filmmakers as well as to diversifying the subjects of documentary film, risk-taking must come with it.
But, at the end of the day, the right subject alone is not enough for a movie. Most documentaries at the festival paid little attention to developing their stories, to the economy of their shots, or to texturing their sections. Documentaries are not exceptions to the first rule of nonfiction: you might intend to record an idea as powerful as a war or a famine, but unless you tell the story well, it’s not a good work.
The new films shown at Open Frame 2011 will be distributed by Syncline films, a PSBT partner. To check their availability, visit http://www.synclinefilmstore.com