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Using Video to Document Social Reality in India

Social Reality, Documentary Truth & Videotape By Sanjit Narwekar


No one really knows who made the first documentary on video but there is unanimous agreement that the first use of video for filming documentary material must have been sometime in the early 1980s. At first video was merely an adjunct to film and was primarily used simply as a different delivery mechanism – in that, existing feature films (made on 35 mm) were transferred onto low-end video (VHS) so as to facilitate their distribution to a larger viewing public – a majority of it in the home viewing segment – and if there were any loss in either visual clarity or viewing size it was to be “suffered” if only because of the larger viewership that it entailed. Much of the viewing on video was, therefore, of feature films, which have always been the priority among the hoi polloi. It was only when commercial television started in India that “low band” videography achieved a modicum of respectability. It was still looked down upon by the 35 mm filmmaker but there

was enough choice exercised for it to feed the idiot box. Filmmakers who had been unable to make it in the big bad world of feature films quickly adapted themselves to it as means of continuing to work in cinema. Thus, among the first filmmakers to convert to the medium of low band video, apart from the television serial producers, were undoubtedly the advertising filmmakers who needed to make advertising films only for “commercial” television without having to bother about theatrical releases. And it must not have been long before some local “visionary” saw in the medium the potential to service a client with short term needs – mainly the corporate client who needed a film for a one-time screening like the annual general meeting or a product launch. Video, it was soon discovered, was the ideal “disposable” medium for such occasions. The use of video for documenting social processes was first mooted by Lord Donald Snowden, who had developed a process whereby


community members were able to articulate their problems, ideas and vision on films that were later screened to community members at facilitated community discussion forums – later to be known as the Fogo Process because it was first used on the Fogo Islands. In 1983 Snowden was asked by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to explore the possibility of using small format video and the Fogo Process approach to bring together the physical engineering and social interests concerned with small-scale water control structures for improved agriculture in Bangladesh. It was while working on this project that Snowden died suddenly on April 4, 1984 in Hyderabad, India, where he was attending the first meeting of the National Council for Development Communications. Whatever dreams Lord Snowden may have had of using video technology for community work in the Third World quickly dissolved and it was left to another participatory video pioneer, Tony Williamson, to introduce the Fogo Process to

countless community development workers around the world. But that is another story! All through the 1980s video steadily gained ground in India – primarily in the realm of television programming – but it was only in the 1990s that it began to take dramatic strides. The first to latch on to it were the activist-filmmakers who saw in it a cheaper alternative with which to propagate their message. The fact that the equipment was lighter and easy to use was an added advantage. Thus video technology not only demystified the filmmaking process but also democratized it so that literally anyone with a few lessons in the use of the camera could now make films. Also, because the process did not require a sophisticated film laboratory to “process and print” the final product, the advent of video also decentralized the making of films. Earlier, the production centers in India had been confined to areas where film laboratory facilities were available – primarily in the metro cities of Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata. Now this was no


longer necessary and so, video production units came up even in the interiors. The video format also gained quick popularity in the documentary sector primarily because of its lightness, adaptability and maneuverability. Noted Indian filmmaker Anand Patwardhan who is a pioneer of sorts in the realm of the investigative documentary says, “When I started to make documentaries, video did not exist here. If it had, it would have been a natural option. I shot Waves of Revolution, my first film, on 8 mm! Now I have both choices – film and video – and I would choose video if I wanted to document something over a long time, to portray it very intimately.1” In spite of its advantages, many filmmakers had serious issues with the use of video: that of durability. They felt that since video did not have the permanence of celluloid it could only be used for short-term needs. Wrote Kolkata-based short filmmaker Jagannath Guha, “Understandably,

some programmes are best made on videotape, yet there are some whose contextual permanence, or record value, can be kept best by photographic emulsion.2” It is for this reason that many a television programme shot in the early days of television was on 35 mm or, at the very least, on 16 mm. For example, the first dozen episodes of Shyam Benegal’s monumental television epic Discovery of India and all the episodes of Govind Nihalani’s Partition epic Tamas were shot on 35 mm. The first big fillip that the video movement received was when the Mumbai International Film Festival for Documentary and Short Films (better known by its acronym MIFF) introduced the Video Vista section in its third 1994 edition “bowing to the demands of short filmmakers in India”. Commenting on then films entered in the Video Vista section, its chairperson Pradeep Dixit wrote, “Comprehension of the video media is lacking in many cases. Video is used as just an alternative to celluloid and not handled as an


independent medium with its enormous possibilities. The same kind of ideas, treatments and concepts in presentation in script form seem to have been transferred to a video format.3” It was an admissible complaint because most filmmakers had switched over to the video format because they could not afford celluloid and not because there was a specific making or viewing politics to it. That would come much later! A perusal of the films unspooled at the Video Vista section of MIFF 1994 demolishes the popularly-held belief that the activist-filmmakers were the first to adapt to the video format because of its cheapness, adaptability and maneuverability. A majority of the MIFF entries were on subjects, which could be categorized as “Films Division” staples: biography, culture, history and tourism. Many of the films were hangovers from television cultural (the Surabhi episodes) and current affairs programmes. The notable socially relevant films to emerge from this selection were Madhushree Dutta’s I Live In

Behrampada, Dewakar Goswami’s The Killing Fields of Andhra Pradesh and Rama Jha’s Ladies Compartment to name but a few. There was a smattering of experimental films like painter Nalini Malini’s City of Desires and Sumana Kasturi’s Circle of Energy but that was about all. There were no startling discoveries. While MIFF 1994 was underway in Mumbai another important event was making waves in New Delhi. This was the International Symposium on New Technologies and the Democratisation of Audiovisual Communication, convened by Videazimut and CENDIT in New Delhi on February 12, 1994. The Conference was attended by media producers, users and distributors, communication researchers and teachers and representatives of many community-based and national organisations who have come from Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Canada, Denmark, France, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Korea, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mozambique, Palestine, the Philippines, Peru, Russia, Singapore,


Taiwan, the United Kingdom and the United States. The mastermind behind the conference was The Centre For Development of Instructional Technology (better known by its acronym CENDIT), which is a non profit society formed in 1972 to provide information and communication support to NGOs, activists, people's institutions and other agencies involved in development and social change. Over the years CENDIT had not only produced several hundred video films on developmental issues with and for grassroots groups, it had also conducted a large number of workshops and training programmes in participatory communication and video production in the South Asia region. It had also begun to provide equipment and facilities to activists, grassroot workers and independent filmmakers to make programmes on issues of public interest, thus equipping them with the means of documenting and interpreting their own reality.

The New Delhi conference articulated CENDIT’s work and provided a manifesto of sorts for the movement. The conference noted “information and communications was dominated by corporate and military interests and thus was a serious threat to democracy, cultural diversity, and the evolution of civil society. It also noted that “an increasing number of people have come to recognise the considerable potential social and political benefits of the new technologies and are opposing the corporate and state control of information and communications.4” At the conclusion of the conference the participants noted, “Individuals are not born consumers; information is not a commodity, but rather a utility to be shared” and concluded5: We believe in the pressing need for global democracy, rather than a global supermarket, and affirm our unity in support of the following:  All peoples and individuals shall have the right to communicate freely, to utilise the tools of


communication and to inform themselves and others. Airwaves and satellite paths are a global people's resource to be administered equitably, with a significant portion devoted to serving the public interest and for community use. We oppose the militarisation of space and the exploitation of space for corporate interests. Any exploitation of airwaves, transmission channels and earth orbits should be subject to a public levy to be used to support local community expression, to facilitate noncommercial information exchange, and to contribute to equitable distribution of information technologies. Communication and information technologies must be used to facilitate participatory democracy and the development of civil society, and not to limit democratic rights. Information systems exhibit great potential for real popular participation and should be organised according to the principles of

decentralisation in order to nurture and sustain cultural diversity and humanitarian values. Writing in the Video Vista booklet in 1996 filmmaker Paromita Vohra observed, “CENDIT’s activities are now greatly reduced and perhaps some of their videos were stronger on sincerity than style but there’s no question that it created a vital base for the growth of documentary filmmaking, demystifying the process, seizing it to serve a purpose. CENDIT favoured the unorthodox approach and relied on interactive methods, using even the VHS format to produce several films on civil liberties issues, trade union movements and environmental action – the most successful among these were K.P.Sasi’s A Valley Refuses To Die and Avinash Deshpande’s Yateem Lahu.6” Yet another organization which propagated the use of participatory video was the Ahmedabadbased Self Employed Women’s Association (or


SEWA) a trade union formed in 1972 by activist Ela Bhatt in the city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat. The organisation’s first brush with video came about in 1984 when the late Martha Stuart, an international video communications expert from New York, held a three-week video production workshop at SEWA in Gujarat. Twenty women, most of them illiterate, took the workshop and began to make videos but for three years they had no editing equipment or expertise, so they shot their video productions in sequence. It was only in 1987 that they acquired editing equipment and training in its use. In 1994, 15 more women were trained in the use of video at the grassroots level and by 1999 the Video SEWA had acquired a full time staff of four women. The films are used for different things. Some are used for raising consciousness and advocacy. Some are training films, such as the films about oral rehydration therapy and building smokeless stoves. The women film significant events at SEWA as well as outside, and their new clips have

been used nationally and internationally. The women discovered that “the instant playback feature of video is one of its most empowering qualities; it enables continuous participation and immediate feedback. This aspect allows those who are the subject and those who run the technology to collaborate as equals.7” Today SEWA uses video to motivate, mobilise and train their existing members, to organise new trade groups and new members in the existing trade groups. Their productions are used for teaching, informing and orienting. Video SEWA members lead and facilitate group discussions when their programmes are used. In the last decade this remarkable filmmaking collective has produced over one hundred films, thirty-nine of them complete and available to the public. In a rare case of continuity Martha Stuart's son and daughter still come to India once a year to bring the group up-to-date on the latest technical innovations.


Another collective of women’s filmmakers was the Delhi-based Mediastorm which comprised some of the early graduates of the Jamia Millia Mass Communications Institute, New Delhi. Writes Paromita Vohra, “Their films dealt intensely and incisively with women’s issues and matters of ethnic conflict. From The Burning Embers (on the Deorala Sati) and In Secular India (on the Muslim Women’s Bill) represent the energy and tenacity and also idealism, that suffused early efforts in video documentary making and gave impetus – a sense of possibility – to a renewed culture of documentary.8” Along with this, there was a proliferation of video made as educational tools. The Government of India initiated a project known as the Countrywide Classroom (CWCR), the objective of which was to take the facilities of the cities in the field of undergraduate education to the villages and suburban areas of India. CWCR tries to update, upgrade and enrich education at large. In order to make these programmes the University Grants

Commission set up 17 production units: 10 Audio Visual Research Centres (AVRCs) and 7 Educational Media Research Centres (EMRCs) all over the country. These Centres were expected to bring in not only an academic flavour to different subjects but also different cultural nuances. By the time the fourth edition of the festival, MIFF 1996, was held video technology had also made tremendous strides in the marketplace. Low band U-matic had yielded to High Band Umatic, which in its turn had yielded to Betacam. Along with it had come non-linear editing suites and a whole range of 3D computer graphics, which could do things to the image which had not been hitherto imagined. The technology of cinema had not altered much in the last one hundred years but video was proving to be a technology straight out of Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock. No longer did the filmmaker have to fear last-minute changes in editing which, in analog, would have required redoing the whole edit. The real fear was that video would some day


outdo celluloid itself though durability was still miles away! All these changes – social and technological – were reflected in the form and content of the films shown at MIFF 1996. A competition section, with cash awards and trophies, had also been introduced thus providing a further fillip to video filmmaking, which was now at least recognized as a legitimate and professional format. The 35 mm filmmaker still looked down on the video-maker but at least he could no longer call his country cousin an amateur in the world of filmmaking. By MIFF 1998 an international video section had also been added to the festival thus bringing video filmmaking on par with celluloid documentary cinema. The proliferation of 24-hour news channels in India inspired by the super success of CNN during and after the Gulf War and the resulting competition amongst them for larger number of eyeballs has resulted in the production of quasi-

documentary material. News itself has become more visual but the channels have been compelled to produce more current affairs material so as to create an USP (Unique Selling Proposition) for their channel – and in doing so they have also created several mini documentaries which have a life and relevance beyond the normal news day. These news channels have also created the concept of the hidden camera, thanks to the digitalization and miniaturization of cameras. But the use of hidden spy cameras was not pioneered by the news channels. The pioneering spirit came from another media, one of the emerging technologies: the Internet. In the first year of the new century, in March 2001, two young reporters, Aniruddha Bahl and Mathew Samuels, of a news portal named tehelka.com created a sensation when they carried out a stunning expose using Hi8 spycam to record secret video footage of senior politicians, bureaucrats and army officers apparently taking


money in connection with a fake defence deal. The rights to the edited four-and-a-half long footage was secured by a local television channel Zee News and telecast on prime time logging a viewership of near 100 per cent. A year before that the portal, headed by the feisty Tarun Tejpal, had carried out a similar sting operation with cricket players proving that there was large-scale betting involved in the game but this expose was not as sensational as the one carried out in the case of the fake defence deal (codenamed Operation West End). However, not everyone was convinced that the tapes were genuine and there were many like freelance filmmaker Milin Kapoor, who took up the study of the tapes “as an academic exercise�, who openly claimed that the tapes had been tampered. Even as the case is still before the Justice Venkataswami Commission there has, in the fading months of the current year, emerged one more spycam scandal in which a regional politician has sought to get even with his poltical

adversary. This case has also excited enough curiousity and brought the humble spycam to the fore. By the turn of the century even the lower formats like Hi8 and DV Mini were being used by documentary filmmakers and, more important, were being accepted in international film festivals as professionally-made films. For a few years it seemed that Hi8 would emerge as the format for the documentary filmmaker but by the turn of the century the DV Mini and its corresponding DV Procam formats seemed to have gained wider acceptance – thanks to the advent of easy-tohandle and yet, professional cameras like the Sony PD-150 and Cannon XL-1 which have found favour with Indian documentary filmmakers like R.V.Ramani, who has shot many of his later films on the Sony PD-150. In fact, at the IDPA Awards of 2002 and 2003 a large number of the films entered were on the DV format and it was amazing to note the kind of


subjects that were being tackled on this format. Just one example of such a film will suffice: Bleached Buds of Tomorrow, directed by Ravindra Choubey and Pranav Shrivasta, deals with the trials and tribulations of the “tribals” of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai, who have had to face the problems of rapid urbanization. The film is so acutely of local interest that it would not have been viable on any other format. More than that, the film has been made under great opposition from the authorities (the forest officials who regularly harass the tribals) and hence, could only have been made with easy-to-maneuver equipment like the DV Mini. And because it is so cheap and easy to use and yet, gives acceptable professional results that DV Mini is now becoming the format of choice for the innumerable students of cinema scattered all over the country except probably the Film and Television Institute of India, the premier film institute where 35 mm is still the norm – just as it

is at the Films Division. In a sense video filmmaking – whether analogue or digital – has long overtaken the 35 mm format, which is now used only by the “government” filmmaker because only the Government now has the resources to make films in that format. This switch has still not been recognized by India’s National Awards, which only recognize entries in 35 mm or 16 mm thus creating a false situation where Films Division documentaries go on winning heaps of awards on sheer proxy. I believe that the best is yet to come. Indian documentary filmmakers have, time and again, demonstrated that they have the investigative spirit and an active social conscience. Given the availability of the right mix of audio visual technology the day is not far when the investigative social documentary from India will find its rightful place in the documentaries of the world. Reprint permission: sanjitnarwekar@gmail.com


Using Video to Document Social Reality