Why do we make documentaries? How do we make them? For whom do we make them? Where are our films shown and who sees them? What, if any, is the impact of our work? These are some of the compelling questions that are foregrounded and discussed in Towards A People’s Cinema edited by Kasturi Basu and Dwaipayan Banerjee. The duo takes up the crucial task of focusing our attention on the overtly political documentary*—films that do not shy away from taking sides, and that seek to bring about change in society and in the power structures therein. The editors thus articulate their understanding of the role of a filmmaker: ‘The documentary filmmaker then transcends her first role of a sensitive observer bearing witness to testimonies of injustice; she also consciously intervenes with her films, by opening up questions to the wider society and listening to questions asked of her. Thereby the filmmaker effectively joins hands in searching for alternatives for a better organization of society’ (p. 2). This extremely well-conceived collection of essays and interviews eschews generalities, and allows the reader to dive right into the heart of the matter. Not organized as a linear historical narrative, it opens out before us like an ever-widening field, filling up with a plethora of voices, expressing dissent, questioning the state, and demanding justice. The freshness and the sincerity of the first-person narratives of filmmakers and/or film activists shines through as they look at their own journeys in a clear-headed way, unafraid of introspection and self-critique.
Cameraperson and documentary filmmaker, Ranjan Palit says, ‘I am not an activist. I had been one, a long time back… For me it is too painful. I’ve tried, but it is too overwhelming to handle. I can’t go into a situation, empathise, become an activist temporarily, and then forget about them’ (p. 153). In another instance, filmmaker Deepa Dhanraj takes us through the participative approach that she tries to follow, accepting her own position as a privileged middle class filmmaker as she and her colleagues are engaged with working class women trying to bring forth their stories and concerns. Speaking about the experience of the Yugantar collective of which she was a part in the 1980s, she says, ‘…it was a documentary practice, as much as creating a theory about the politics of representation through praxis. How do we frame women as workers? How do we bring in the minority question or the caste question?’ (p. 163).