Bollywood, as India’s Mumbai-based movie industry is affectionately known, is one of the world’s most prolific filmmaking centers. But while India’s fiction film industry flourishes, its doc community flounders. ‘We [doc-makers] are an endangered species,’ says Mike Pandey, who founded New Delhi-based Riverbank Studios 27 years ago and is among India’s best known wildlife filmmakers.
One of the biggest problems plaguing India’s non-fiction producers is the one common to doc-makers all over the world – lack of funds. Notes Pandey, ‘My films on whale sharks, elephants and lions [Shores of Silence - Whale Sharks in India, The Last Migration - Wild Elephant Capture in Sarguja and Lions of the Gir Forest] were all self-sponsored. [But,] not everyone is in a position to finance their own movies. It is no wonder most filmmakers have moved over to making TV soaps.’ Each film was budgeted at about US$60,000 and took two to three years to make, because of the difficulty in securing funds.
Vinod Ganatra, head of the 47-year-old, 700-member Indian Documentary Producers Association, says some producers receive financing from the government for films about health, education and family planning. But, he adds, ‘Many of these are made for corporate houses [i.e., multinationals, banks],’ and are not widely seen. (They are often shown in rural areas by ngos.) Still, 1,200 to 1,300 of these docs are produced each year, financed by a state budget of 250 million rupees (US$5.4 million).
For those hoping to reach the television masses, finding a broadcaster, either at home or abroad, is no easy feat. Despite the explosion of over 100 TV channels in India, the only reliable outlet for docs is New Delhi-based pubcaster Doordarshan. Observes Rajesh Bedi of New Delhi-based wildlife prodco Bedi Films, ‘Private TV networks are surviving by doing studio-based programs for which they can shoot two to three episodes per day.’ Ganatra adds that Doordarshan funds about 100 docs annually.
On top of finance and broadcast issues, Indian doc-makers also face censorship. The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party has clamped down heavily on films critical of the government, restricting the programs Doordarshan greenlights and barring public screenings of such works.
India’s doc-making community, however, is fighting back. In terms of censorship, Mumbai-based filmmaker Anand Patwardhan has waged several battles against what he calls the ‘draconian policies’ of the ministry of information and broadcasting, and in several instances has eventually been successful.
In 2002, the filmmaker was ordered to make 21 cuts to his doc War and Peace – an antinuclear, antiwar film – before it could be shown to the public, but he refused. After a year-long battle, Patwardhan went to court and won the right to release the film as is. Since the late 1980s, he has repeatedly hauled Doordarshan to court for refusing to show his docs. His victories are significant. Notes Patwardhan, ‘Doordarshan is the biggest platform, as it reaches an audience of 600 million.’
Change is under way on the financial front as well. In 2001, filmmakers helped revive the doc industry by setting up the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT) – financed by Doordarshan and The Ford Foundation (who committed $600,000 and $1 million, respectively, over three years). Rajiv Mehrotra, PSBT’s managing trustee, notes that PSBT helps finance 52 indie-produced public-service docs annually. ‘PSBT and Doordarshan share the production costs,’ he says.
As India’s market evolves, survival-minded doc-makers work on gaining a foothold internationally by partnering with prodcos abroad. Ronnie Screwvala, CEO of Mumbai-based prodco United Television, says UTV recently completed Pan Asia – Journeys in Asian Cuisine, a 26-part series, with CCI Entertainment in Toronto. It’s airing on Travel UK, Prime and Knowledge Network in Canada. Says Screwvala, ‘Several other deals are close to being inked.’ But, UTV’s experience is still exceptional. Ganatra notes that fewer than 10 copros happen each year.
Rashme Sehgal is a journalist based in New Delhi, India.