Two-time National award winning documentary filmmmaker Shilpi Gulati feels that in order to make things easier for documentary filmmakers in India, the government must activate the various State Film Boards to support production and distribution, besides reviving the Films Division and its various initiatives by consulting and engaging with filmmakers working in this format.
“I also feel that an ecosystem of support for documentary filmmakers needs to be developed, perhaps a platform where films under production can be mentored, concerns regarding funding, censorship and exhibition can be addressed, and various artistic practices of documentary practitioners can be shared,” says Gulati.
Recipient of the National awards for Best Anthropological/Ethnographic Film for her movie “Qissa-e-Parsi” (2014), a portrait of the diminishing Parsi community in India and “Lock and Key” (2018 ) for being the Best Film on Social issues, which features the life and struggle of five recovering drug addicts, who share their journey and talk about the significance of mental health, the filmmaker smiles that what attracts her most about the documentary format is the fact that it keeps slipping away, and as a director, there is hardly a moment when you are in complete control of the making of the film. “There is an inherent uncertainty to the process which one has to learn to embrace,” she says.
Currently working on a project tentatively titled “Astrologer Nani aur Pocket Book Nana”, based on her grandparents, Gulati, whose first film was “Dera tun Dilli” (2011), based on oral narratives of refugees from Dera Ismail Khan, elaborates, “My latest is about two ordinary individuals who lived rather unconventional lives. Through their worlds of astrology and pulp writing, I am trying to understand India in the 1960s and 70s.”
Also pursuing her PhD dissertation from JNU, where she is examining the national and international structures of funding and exhibition for documentary films, Gulati, a pass-out from TISS, who was recently in the US on a Fulbright scholarship as a visiting researcher at Columbia University, and has also made two feature documentaries, would like to work with short formats again. “I am looking to work across boundaries of theatre and film, the two fields I have been associated with for a long time now, but somehow kept separate. And yes, I also fancy the idea of working on a picture book.”
As the conversation veers towards funding, Gulati, who has also made “Naach Bhikhari Naach”(2018), a collaborative work with Jainendra Dost, based on the artist Bhikhari Thakur, says that finding that for any independent artistic practice is challenging and that all artists, singers, painters or dancers have to grapple with it .
“The same is true for independent films as well. In the history of documentary in India, there was a point when filmmakers were completely dependent on the Films Division for funding. Over the years, NGO networks started producing documentaries and at the turn of the century a new market of international film festival funding opened up for Indian filmmakers. Other sources of funding come from the art world as well as private commissions. So there are a few options, if not plenty. For me, it is important to ask – to what extent does the source of funding determine the kind of films we make? And what do we understand by ‘independent’ practice today?”
Pleased that the increasing number of film festivals across the country also boast of a dedicated space for documentary films, Gulati who has been engaged with theatre for more than 15 years now and considers it a backbone for her creative pursuit in the sphere of documentary making says, “I just love film festivals. They are temporary spaces which bring together documentary filmmakers, audiences, programmers etc. together for a collective experience of cinema away from the mainstream. Personally, I enjoy the post-screening discussions the most where processes and politics behind the films open up and filmmakers get a chance to interact with the audiences.”
Adding that in contemporary times, documentaries exist in many locations beyond the film festivals — in educational institutions, art galleries, international market of television broadcasters as well as online (free and video-on-demand platforms), she asserts, “There is more outreach of the documentary today than ever before and I hope in years to come we can substantially build on it.”