Interview Hindi

You can’t make good art by trying to keep people happy: Paromita Vohra on making documentary films 


The independent filmmaker speaks about her engagement with the documentary form, its avenues of exhibition and ways in which young filmmakers might think through some ideas about making a documentary film today.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Documentary filmmaker and writer Paromita Vohra’s work explores politics, feminism, desire, urban life and popular culture. Some of her acclaimed films include A Woman’s Place (1998), Un-limited Girls (2002), Where's Sandra? (2006), Morality TV And The Loving Jehad (2007), and Partners In Crime (2011). She has written the screenplay of the multi award-winning film Khamosh Pani (2003). Besides making films, she has worked on a multimedia project about love, sex and desire, Agents of Ishq (AOI).

At the PSBT Open Frame Film Festival 2018, Vohra conducted a workshop titled ‘The long and short of making a short documentary’, where she engaged with facets of making a documentary film, encouraging aspiring filmmakers to reflect on their methodology and intent while making their films. She also conducted a masterclass, 'You Talking to Me? The Documentary as a Form of Conversation', where she shared her journey as a filmmaker, tracing the thought processes behind some of her choices in creating and thinking through particular moments in her films. 

On the sidelines of the festival, we spoke to the filmmaker about her engagement with the documentary form, its avenues of exhibition and ways in which young filmmakers might think through some ideas about making a documentary film today. Excerpts.

Your grandfather, music composer Anil Biswas, is seen as the doyen of playback singing, so I’m curious whether you ever thought of making feature films in the popular space?

I feel that I make documentaries in the popular space. I have always been interested in the popular space and I don’t believe in the orthodoxy of form that if you make feature films they will be popular and if you make documentaries they will be marginal because there are many feature films that are completely marginal and there are many documentaries that are popular.

I do feel that I have been struggling for a language which is popular, it’s not some kind of school subject where a particular thing belongs in a particular place. So, even in the kind of documentaries that I have made, you may say from the outside that you are mixing fiction with non-fiction but that is by the way for me. I’m just really trying to create work that, I think, appeals to larger number of people than documentaries have traditionally appealed to. I do think that making these kinds of films has widened the awareness of documentary in certain spaces, so in some senses I think that it is in the popular space. 

As you know, I don’t only make documentaries, I write, I run AOI now, so for me making a feature film is not some kind of a goal. I don’t believe in that linearity of form. I feel there should be many, many forms. In that way of thinking, were there to be a thing that I wanted to make into a feature film, then I would try to do that. I don’t think of it as a place to go to. I think of it as a place to go to if there is something I want to do that can only be made as a feature film, so I don’t have a position about or against it. 

In an earlier interview, you described the documentary as being a more flexible form and this is something that you mentioned in your workshop as well. What are some of the things that a documentary especially allows?

I think that the documentary space is a peculiar space as it is so disconnected from the idea of a popular audience, it’s protected from that space and I do believe that that space should exist, a space where we may not make things that appeal to large numbers of people, where we can experiment with forms but I don’t think it should be limited to documentary. I think that there should be a place for experimental work, for trying out new things, for every single form, including fiction films.

When I started to make documentaries in the early, mid 1990s, it was the one space that allowed me to be me because it was not such a governed space. There was not much money, distribution…it’s very different now. At that time, I felt I could find my voice as an artist by doing this, as opposed to fiction films which were much more structured.

But the interesting thing that’s happened is that because of the work of documentarians who experimented with fiction and non-fiction mixing, who explored the idea of memory as history through making different films, who brought entirely new universes of experiences, language, texture, people, different worlds, somehow into a semi-mainstream space, I think they have impacted the fiction film.

Today, when you look at the fiction film, we see that it, too, is going through a kind of shift in whether it can be strongly called fiction or what kind of realism and documentary-like aspects fiction film likes to emulate today. In some senses that’s interesting because it shows that both documentary and fiction are in a contest for authenticity.

One of the more obvious examples of this could be the biopic, which has taken precedence in mainstream films of late.

But I don’t even mean just films that are rooted to an identifiably real event and I don’t know whether that is happening due to the influence of documentary. I think biopics come out of a certain consumer culture where you want to sell these stories of one person who makes it against all odds so these triumphant tales, take a kind of precedence when you are creating an individualistic consumer culture. So, people do like them at that time, which is not to take away from the genuine nobility of those lives and those struggles.

But I mean more that when you look at the forms of fiction films that are being made and the importance given to a texture of realism, or a certain less narrative, linear form, I do feel that these experiments have happened in documentary around the world 25 years ago, the fact that documentary filmmakers began to make fictional elements to make faux documentaries or have songs in their films…all kinds of things have happened and documentaries have created the laboratory of experimentation in form which has found its way to fiction films now.

So, I feel that as an artist, art is about finding a language, about creating a new language, so I’ll go wherever I can to create a new language. If I feel that I can’t be playful with my language in a fiction film, I won’t go there and if I feel if I will have some space then, I might do it. I have been making music videos in AOI for the last couple of years and I adore making music videos. I love songs, I love song picturisations and I think if I could make a hard core, honest-to-goodness musical about something polemical in feature film, I would do it.

Otherwise, I am not interested in making a linear, three-act structure… I don’t mind working on it, like I worked on Khamosh Pani which is a conventional narrative film in many ways and I enjoyed it thoroughly because I love form…So, for me, it’s very much about being able to have that place to play and express things artistically as I want to. But I don’t have any goal posts.

We have been seeing a relative increase in accessibility to documentaries where they are finding a theatrical release, as opposed to traditionally being available in very limited spaces. What are your comments on that?

I think that the screening of documentary films in theatres is not very meaningful at this moment and it’s not because you shouldn’t screen in theatres, it’s about the imagination of how you’re doing it…the imagination of newness is the thing that creates new spaces. If you don’t imagine marketing in a new way…if you’re going to market a documentary like you market a feature film, you’re 150% going to destroy the market.

And I think that has happened a bit to documentary. It saw it flowering, as an independent form and as soon as it flowered, people wanted to straitjacket it into a commercial space and I think that it’s good that documentary filmmakers tried to release films but in some senses, I think they should have strengthened the alternative space and thought of other forms of films release…other kind of theatre spaces than the multiplex space. 

So, I am saying that the imagination of market, the imagination of forms, these need to happen in tandem, so to my mind, the internet is a very interesting space because it’s challenging what is a documentary. If every single day, millions of selfies and self-shot videos are put up and hundreds go viral in a year, what does that tell you about what a documentary is? It is raising a question — what is a documentary?

All of these are exciting questions about what can the documentary be and I think that the exciting thing about independent artists is they look at the new things, which have never been seen before, and they say what is this thing and maybe I want to be a part of it…If you don’t do that, I think it’s a very feudal approach to filmmaking that your caste is documentary filmmaker and you will always make films in this way and that’s not interesting to me.

I feel that today, again, we stand at a place where we can reconceptualize, we can reimagine the meaning of a documentary, we can reimagine a new market for it, a new platform for it, and it’s a good question why people aren’t doing it.

Taking a cue from the films that you screened at your workshop, what are the documentaries that made you think and reflect on the form? For example, you showed SNS Sastry’s I am 20 (1967)…

I have shown I Am 20 maybe 50 times in the last few years and whenever people watch it, they wake up. You can see their bodies waking up from top to toe. Why? Because of the contemporaneity…There should be a contemporary form. Things should feel contemporary. But the majority of the documentaries do not feel contemporary, they feel colonial or post-colonial and they are still using the definitions of post-coloniality, so you are always referring to yourself in relationship to the past. You are never defining yourself in relationship to the present. So, you are always putting people into categories and it’s all so academic.

I think that there should be all forms, all approaches but this is a primary approach and I think it impedes the search for a contemporary form, which is meaningful to people’s lives and meaningfully depicts people’s lives. There are some things that you see now and then, but it’s not something that’s gathering steam because the older modes of funding are withering away as well so those who want to make things will have to find new modes and new audiences.

I certainly didn’t think at 25, when I made my first film that I would ever be able to fill a room but it’s happening because you look for a contemporary form because you think of yourself as part of the contemporary, not outside the contemporary. I feel like a lot of the documentaries suffer from the thinking that you are outside the contemporary somehow and that you have a bird’s eye view on reality but you don’t, you are also part of reality. I think that that kind of work, in India, also in feature film, is hard to get, modern work in that way.

Your workshop offered ways of thinking about the form for young filmmakers, so what advice would you have for those setting out to make their first film?

A really important thing in independent work of the artistic kind is to build a community and to see other people’s work, to become part of a ‘scene’ in that sense… but having an independent artistic community is very sustaining. That’s how most independent forms have grown into full-fledged big firms.

Today, there are many avenues where you apply for money compared to 20 years ago, when there was no internet. Now, you can be a bit more structured but the structures are insufficient and to make new structures for yourself, it’s like a long distance business and you need good hamsafars [companions], so you must make those hamsafars who also want to explore and people whom you trust, you can show your films to, people who will critique but not demolish your whole being in their critique so make an artistic community…a community that you trust and feed off of and feed into. I think this is very important.

The other thing is that today we live in a world where people are much more pressurized to think about success and are already imagining the success or failure rather than the process of making the film. It’s very difficult for any human being to disconnect from that but it’s doubly difficult for younger people as that’s the culture that they have grown up in completely.

On a day to day basis, you are gauging your social media success and social media is encouraging you to say that this week my best followers were…so every single day, this is the culture you live in. You can’t make good art by trying to keep people happy and I always refuse to answer questions about marketing because I feel that you have not come into this workshop to discuss marketing, we’ve come here to talk about making a film.

You haven’t even made the film yet. Once you make the film, you figure out the best way to market it. First make your film, then trust yourself that you’ll persist till you get people to see your film. I think that wanting a guarantee of success before you’ve made the film is a sure-fire way of making a bad film.

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Open Frame Film Festival