Documentaries are meant to evoke reactions from hard-hitting reality filtered through the camera lens. The nature of our cities and the profusion of quirky subjects in India provide enough material for a documentary filmmaker to weave compelling stories.
While truth remains the pursuit of all such films, the Indian documentary space has undergone a quiet transformation and built its own, unique identity, effectively distancing itself from the jaded, linear stories usually associated with the genre around the 80s.
Here are 5 documentaries that tell stories of contemporary issues and triumphs in India’s various cities:
1. Katiyabaaz (Kanpur)
Also known as Powerless at international film circuits, Katiyabaaz tells the story of Loha Singh, an ingenious electrician with a knack for providing illegal electricity connections to the residents of Kanpur. Standing in confrontation with his profession is the upright Ritu Maheshwari, MD of Kanpur Electricity Supply Company, who wants to thwart theft of electricity. The play of power between these two characters is just an alibi to comment on a larger issue – Kanpur’s electricity crisis, where everyday power cuts up to 15 hours cripple small businesses, factories and families. Shot entirely in Kanpur, the documentary has several beautiful, candid scenes featuring the lead characters, music by Indian Ocean, and offers an interesting take on one of India’s many urban issues.
2. Behind The Tin Sheets (Bangalore)
Featuring three parts – In Transience, Presence and Distance – this documentary project offers a fresh narrative about the lives of migrant labourers involved in the construction of Bangalore’s Metro. The stories – categorised according to their own tales of love, longing and ghosts – feature personal experiences and urban legends to give the viewer an intimate view into the workers’ thoughts as they go about their jobs, transforming the city’s landscape. There’s almost an anti-documentary approach utilised here; doing away with seeking problems, offering solutions or pointing blame, while letting the characters speak for themselves and their lives. By constructing this fragmented narrative, the project succeeds in being a magical witness to a pivotal moment in the Garden City’s abrupt shift to an urban mess.
3. Cities Of Sleep (Delhi)
I remember seeing a comedian’s routine on YouTube who spoke about how poverty is almost invisible in Delhi and very apparent in Mumbai. While briefly living in Delhi I did agree with him. However, Shaunak Sen’s stunning documentary explores another angle of homelessness – the pursuit and lack of sleep. Sen’s camera follows the lead characters to the capital’s Meena Bazaar and Loha Pul areas, where innovative businessmen supply cots and open up makeshift cinema halls to the city’s homeless at night. It’s mostly men who dominate the narrative but they also philosophise about their sheer will to negotiate a night’s rest amid the urban harshness. Impressive research and an uncanny subject make this film a very interesting watch.
4. Amdavad Ma Famous (Ahmedabad)
Uttarayan, the city’s famous kite-flying festival comes to life in this light-hearted documentary about Zaid Khedawala, a 10-year-old boy who wants to win India’s biggest kite flying competition. Set against colourful Ahmedabad skies and rooftops full of enthusiastic flyers, this film combines the traditional and modern with the competitive energy of this unique festival. Brimming with simple joy and sheer cinematographic brilliance, the documentary has also won a National Film Award and offers great insight into this oft-unspoken city.
5. For The Love Of A Man (Chennai/Tamil Nadu)
For many film-goers in South India, an actor is not just a person who plays a character onscreen. Rinku Kalsy’s documentary explores the unusual love that fans have for Rajnikanth – one of Tamil Nadu’s biggest actors. Politics and cinema have been cosy bedfellows in the state since the 50s, and this film attempts to explain the historic and political context of idolising through the lives of 4 men who have dedicated their lives (and often their savings) to the superstar. The film’s greatest strength is the lack of irony or criticism of the adulation showered mostly by middle-aged men. Though not set entirely in Chennai and the actor only makes a scant appearance, this documentary offers enough to understand the phenomenon of “Thalaiva” through the eyes of his southern fans.
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