While We Filmed: Behind the Daring Spirit of Indian Documentaries

Challenges of financing, distribution, and censorship beset documentary filmmakers in India, yet bold movies continue to be made.
Poulomi Das

All That Breathes (Shaunak Sen, 2022).

When Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh decided to mount an Oscar campaign in October 2021 for their film Writing with Fire, they were attempting a historic first. Until then, no Indian documentary feature had ever been on the radar for the Academy Awards. The general assumption has always been that India had only one category to gun for: Best International Feature Film. Every year since 1957, the Film Federation of India (FFI), an apex body comprising Indian film producers, exhibitors, distributors, and studio owners, has appointed a committee to select the country’s official submission from the year’s releases. These selections have often proved to be arbitrary decisions, rarely standing a chance at even making the shortlist, primarily due to a vague selection process that lacks credibility. In the last six decades, only three Indian submissions—Mother India (1957), Salaam Bombay (1988), and Lagaan (2001)—actually ended up with a nomination.

In 2022, Writing with Fire didn’t just make the shortlist, it became the first Indian documentary feature ever to be in the running for the awards. Unlike their competitors, Thomas and Ghosh didn’t have a streamer or a powerful American producer attached to their feature debut, a stirring portrait of a Dalit-led rural news outfit run entirely by women and operating in the upper-caste environment of Indian journalism. But the filmmakers knew they had little to lose. “If we were to do this,” Ghosh said in an interview, speaking about their decision to take a stab at an Oscar campaign, “falling short of the finish line would only mean that [we] learned something.” Indeed, Writing with Fire did not win the award but its nomination expanded the possibilities for Indian nonfiction on a global stage. This year, the number of nominees doubled. Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes, a mesmeric plea for the dignity of Muslim life within its tale of two brothers who tend to injured kites, became the second successive Indian documentary feature to earn an Academy Award nomination. Kartiki Gonsalves’s The Elephant Whisperers, a Tamil documentary short about an orphaned elephant and his two Indigenous caretakers, won India its first Oscar.

These two nominations certainly throw a spotlight on the tenacity of Indian filmmakers but they are by no means an estimation of the excellent quality of work coming out of the country. The accomplishments of Indian nonfiction run beyond an Oscar presence. In 2018, Anand Patwardhan, arguably the country’s leading nonfiction filmmaker, won the top award at the International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam for Reason, an urgent examination of the historical roots of religious fundamentalism and caste-based violence. Two years ago, Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021), a searing chronicle of the student protests that gripped the country under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing government, won the L'Œil d'or award for best documentary at Cannes. Last year, Vinay Shukla’s While We Watched (2022), a melancholic elegy to journalistic independence in India, picked up awards at Toronto and Busan. And in January of this year, Sarvnik Kaur’s Against the Tide, an intimate, ethnographic portrait of an invisibilized Indian fishing caste, became the third successive Indian documentary to have its world premiere at Sundance and win an award at the festival.

In a sense, the critical acclaim of these documentaries, distinctive and essential in equal measure, has marked a renewed international interest in Indian nonfiction cinema, thrusting them into a long overdue spotlight. A commonality connecting these outings is the ambitious filmmaking ethos of a new generation of independent voices that accentuate narratives with formal innovation, thematic clarity, and a sharp political edge. If auteurs Rakesh Sharma, Kamal Swaroop, Lalit Vachani, Deepa Dhanraj, and Patwardhan tirelessly worked against odds to forge models for activist nonfiction cinema, then the work of their successors are liberated to make a case for the cinematic vitality of the medium.

Nearly all of them are concerned with recording the rising intolerance that has infiltrated the secular fabric of the country. It’s a poetic irony that these filmmakers studied in Jamia Millia Islamia, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), public institutions that have been routinely punished for staging anti-establishment protests. Like their predecessors, they employ nonfiction as a primary language of accountability. Caste hierarchies inform every frame of Writing with Fire. Kapadia’s film is set in the backdrop of India’s transmutation as a police state. In While We Watched, Shukla’s personal portrait of a conscientious journalist waging a lonely battle in the age of propaganda and misinformation transforms into an essential record of the systemic destabilization of democracy. And All That Breathes directly references Hindu extremist pogroms against Muslims that stemmed out of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, a draconian law meant to grant citizenship to persecuted minorities from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, but which openly discriminates against Muslims.

Writing with Fire (Sushmit Ghosh, Rintu Thomas, 2021).

Even within the boundaries of politically alert filmmaking, there is a marked diversity in filmmaking language. Much like A Night of Knowing Nothing, Abhay Kumar’s Placebo (2014), a hybrid documentary that interrogates the debilitating academic standards that engendered mass student suicides at the country’s most prestigious medical school, offers an elegy for public education in India. Yet, they diverge in approach: Kumar’s examination is rooted in the personal trajectory of four medical students, bright sparks that slowly get extinguished under torturous academic standards. Kapadia’s film—also hybrid in form—is more pointed in its indictment of a government that has reduced educational institutions to bargaining chips. On the other hand, All That Breathes lyrically relays its plea for accountability of the government’s atrocities against Muslims without turning it into an explicit demand. It is steered primarily by its stylistically adventurous image-making—what gets left out of the frame is equally integral to the film’s subtext.

But while the form has evolved in the last decade, the conditions for nonfiction cinema continue to remain unfavorable for Indian filmmakers. An existence of risk—political, logistical, and financial—shrouds prospects of almost every independent filmmaker currently working in the country. Even worse, these challenges point to a filmmaking ecosystem ruptured by government apathy and censorship.

If there is something more arduous than making independent nonfiction documentaries in India, it’s getting them released in the country. A Night of Knowing Nothing and Writing with Fire still aren’t available to Indian audiences. Cities of Sleep (2015), Sen’s philosophical debut feature about the politics and economics of the night shelters for the homeless in Delhi, remains unseen in the country. Both Shukla and Kaur are committed to prioritizing a year-long international film festival run for their respective outings but they aren’t exactly hopeful about risking an eventual release in India. Like it or not, an international audience is the default target viewer for any nonfiction film coming out of the country at this point in time—at times, they are its only audience.

Much of the hindrance stems from the fact that India has no formal networks of distribution for nonfiction that do justice to the medium or serve its diverse practitioners. The country boasts no thriving repertory theaters, and theatrical releases—dictated purely by the star power of mainstream film industries—continue to be an expensive proposition for independent documentaries. It doesn’t help that legacy production houses are rarely enthused about leveraging their might to back nonfiction, their disinterest matched by the lack of audience appetite. Even the handful of documentaries that make it to the big screen have odds stacked against them. In 2013, filmmakers Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane spearheaded a theatrical release for Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa’s Katiyabaaz, a tragicomic look at India’s rampant energy crisis, under their now-defunct production company. The film made them no money. In an interview, Motwane admitted his disappointment at Katiyabaaz’s reception, unsure whether it was a failure of reaching out to “the kind of audiences who would watch a documentary in the theaters” or if the medium was not “entertaining enough” for them.

It feels redundant to argue over broken distribution channels and missing audiences without a complete overhaul of the country’s perception toward nonfiction. In recent years, figuring out the intricacies of a theatrical release on their own has swiftly turned into a form of punishment for nonfiction filmmakers. A commercial release in India is impossible without a certificate from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), a certification body tasked with regulating the public exhibition of films under the provisions of the Cinematograph Act 1952. Yet, time and again, the CBFC has gone beyond its jurisdiction to act like a film censoring authority so that it can crush any form of dissent against Prime Minister Modi’s conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A politically charged documentary in India is extremely vulnerable to being buried by government intervention or worse, banned indefinitely. It’s certainly an additional battle that independent filmmakers could do without. Unlike the US, there is no law similar to the First Amendment that protects films from potential threat. “Even if there is no contention [with a film], it’s very possible that there might be a contention,” said Koval Bhatia, co-producer of Against the Tide.

Against the Tide (Sarvnik Kaur, 2023).

Bhatia could very well be talking about the unfortunate circumstances that engulfed An Insignificant Man (2016) during its release. Shukla and Khushboo Ranka’s blistering vérité feature debut captured democracy-in-action, tracing the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man’s Party) led by activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal in the wake of the 2011 anti-corruption protests in India. When the makers applied for a censor certificate in 2017, the CBFC refused to clear the film directing them to secure a No Objection Certificate (NOC)—a legal document obtained from an individual or organization that effectively grants their approval—from Prime Minister Modi, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, and former Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit. The filmmakers were also asked to remove all references to Congress and BJP, two of India's biggest political parties; such an erasure would take away from the film’s context.

“It is not in the purview of the CBFC to protect the feelings of politicians,” Ranka had famously responded at the time, a stance that she still maintains. Ultimately, the CBFC directive was quashed when the filmmakers appealed to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT)—the statutory body cleared An Insignificant Man for release without any cuts. Notably, in 2021 Modi’s government abolished the body which historically dispensed quick judgements to filmmakers aggrieved by CBFC decisions, protecting them from financial loss and release delays. With the FCAT gone, these filmmakers are now left at the mercy of the country’s overburdened courts.

An Insignificant Man ran in theaters for eight weeks, an achievement for a documentary at the time. The victory was bittersweet for Shukla and Ranka. Taking a public stance against the government invariably came at a cost. According to Ranka, An Insignificant Man was primed to win the National Film Award for Best Non-Fiction Feature in 2017 but the prize never reached the makers, owing to pressure on the jury members to not award the film. After An Insignificant Man was shut out, no nonfiction film won a National Film Award that year—a scandal for a democratic government, and a critical blow for two emerging filmmakers who enshrined a vital moment in time.

In a way, the health of political documentaries has always been under some degree of threat as ruling parties have attempted to exert control over the filmmaking narrative in the country. The 73-year-old Patwardhan, for instance, has spent his entire career battling government authorities and protracted court cases to release his films, facing censorship as recently as 2018 for Reason. In 2004, Rakesh Sharma similarly fought the CBFC's decision to ban his documentary Final Solution, about the massacre of Muslims during the 2002 Gujarat riots. But under the BJP rule, there’s certainly been an aggressive shift in the language of the government’s retaliations—they are no longer microaggressions, but rather full-blown threats. With limited recourse that could change things in their favor, independent filmmakers working in the margins face the worst brunt of the state’s overreaching control over an artistic medium.

Fear of criminal action has certainly diminished any freedom that the influx of streaming platforms had once promised Indian nonfiction. Big-budget fiction streaming projects have repeatedly courted trouble since India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting decided to bring streaming platforms under its ambit in 2020. The ripple effects of this system of self-censorship are being felt across the board. Recently, Netflix shelved at least one nonfiction project because of its political nature, years after greenlighting it. While We Watched was initially supposed to land on a streaming platform which pulled out of the project later. And All That Breathes—already accessible to US viewers—was only available to Indian audiences for a week before HBO ended its deal with Disney+ Hotstar on March 31.

While We Watched (Vinay Shukla, 2022).

Still, the country’s political climate can’t completely justify the distribution and promotion of documentaries historically being rendered as an afterthought. Even films that are not politically sensitive remain missing from streaming platforms. Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya's The Cinema Travellers (2016), a triumphant look at traveling cinemas in rural India, is nowhere to be found. Also missing is Faiza Ahmed Khan’s Supermen of Malegaon (2013), a crackling film about an eccentric group of no-budget filmmakers who make parodies of Bollywood blockbusters to counter the poverty and communal tension rife in a small town. At this point, filmmakers are more incentivized to put up their films on YouTube so it can be accessible to audiences than to approach fickle-minded streaming platforms.

The absence of independent documentaries on Indian streamers is contrasted by the irony that they are commissioning more nonfiction projects than ever. Just not ones with a political bent or made by fledgling independent filmmakers—Indian streamers prefer to instead hedge their bets on commercial fiction filmmakers willing to try their hand at high-profile nonfiction. The result is a clear demarcation in the kind of glossy nonfiction language that platforms are interested in showcasing: these narratives either serve a homogenized true-crime template (House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths, 2021) or tackle filmmaking and sporting subcultures (Cinema Marte Dum Tak, 2023 and Bandon Mein Tha Dum, 2021). Many independent filmmakers, on the other hand, can’t imagine making nonfiction films that are divorced from the sociopolitical reality of the country. A documentary on a jailed student activist is in the works, as is a project charting a contentious period in Indian politics—but neither is likely to land on a streaming platform.

Curtailing creative-minded filmmakers is also the fact that state funding is negligible, as is any infrastructural training needed for developing a long-term narrative. The space for documentary funding has been similarly stunted—the cash-strapped Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT), a not-for-profit organization established in partnership with the country’s national public broadcaster to produce documentaries, is not currently commissioning. Last year, the government announced that it would merge four film bodies with the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). One of those bodies is the Films Division of India, a state production and distribution unit that backed documentaries. With its future now uncertain after the merger, hopes of documentaries finding any state support have been erased. In the last decade, the legion of emerging independent filmmakers have largely resorted to dipping into their own savings to get nonfiction projects off the ground. Some have embraced crowdfunding routes while others have secured funding through private equity.

At the moment, looking westward for foreign grants, co-productions, and distribution makes the most sense for nonfiction filmmakers eager to safeguard their voice and vision. “If you’re in the nonfiction space, you cut your teeth into producing by default,” Ghosh explained, outlining the reasoning behind most filmmakers investing their own money during the development stage, and subsequently relying on international funding to recoup production expenses at every stage of filming. Still, pitching a film, funding it, making it, and then breaking into an A-list festival remains an uphill task for filmmakers who are already stretched too thin. Abhay Kumar believes that the lack of creative producers—individuals who can assist filmmakers in structuring, pruning, and budgeting a documentary—is one of the biggest obstacles in Indian nonfiction, “That’s where Indian documentaries tend to dream small. They have become habituated to incorporate limitations even before a film has begun,” Kumar noted.

According to Documentary Advocates' 2022 data collected from 100 filmmakers with documentary premieres at Sundance, SXSW, and Tribeca, 57 percent of the accepted films had a producer or director who previously showed a film at the same festival. That puts Indian nonfiction at a disadvantage considering that a large number of documentaries coming out of the country are, in fact, feature debuts. More often than not, Indian filmmakers also end up competing with each other to land that coveted spot in a film festival lineup—there appears to be very little room for more than one Indian nonfiction title in any festival. Distribution deals seem to be flatlining, too. “There was a time when you went to Sundance and your film was invariably sold. But this year, very few films have gotten distribution deals,” Bhatia said of her experience with Against the Tide. The film played as part of Sundance’s world cinema documentary program—only one documentary from that category has landed a distribution deal so far.

A Night of Knowing Nothing (Payal Kapadia, 2021).

At times, depending completely on international support necessitates a crucial dilution of aesthetic and narrative aspects in order to fit certain criteria. Kumar offers an example about Archana Phadke’s About Love (2019), the documentary he co-produced and edited after Placebo. A European producer was ready to come on board, but had one request: could the film—a darkly comic and exacting interrogation of the filmmaker’s own family—simplify its themes and open with a voiceover that explicitly said “My crazy Indian family?” Kumar and Phadke flatly refused that suggestion, deciding to let go of the funding opportunity. Similarly, foreign funding becomes nearly impossible to access for newcomers with no proven track record. Kumar remembers facing rejection from every major international grant when he was making Placebo. He mounted a failed crowdfunding campaign and eventually ended up funding the film entirely on his own—as well as co-producing and editing it. Even though Placebo was one of Netflix’s earliest nonfiction acquisitions in India, he made no money from it. “At the time, it was important that we own our films. Now at this juncture in time, I think what’s the point of it? If a big producer was coming with a lot of money and resources, would I say I want to own my film? I don’t know the answer now.” He hasn’t directed a nonfiction film since Placebo.

Kumar dedicated over five years to Placebo; the average life cycle of a nonfiction project is anywhere between five to six years. The medium can be lonely and demanding, often leading to burnout among filmmakers. The financial expenses that accompany mounting such an undertaking don’t make it feasible for filmmakers to pour all their energies into only one nonfiction project at a time. Most lose money while making a film. Several like Bhatia, Thomas, and Ghosh run their own production houses and continue working on commissioned projects on the side to sustain themselves. “A large part of the early funding for Writing with Fire actually came from these other projects that we took up. You’re constantly working to fund your dream project,” Ghosh said. Effectively, a nonfiction film is impossible to create without a resourceful multitasker at the helm.

Given the abject neglect of nonfiction in the country, the continued persistence of independent filmmakers feels nothing less than a miracle. The only sliver of hope often comes from the close-knit, supportive community of nonfiction filmmakers who rarely hesitate to champion the work of their peers. Placebo got the Finnish Film Foundation on board as a postproduction partner after filmmaker-editor Deepa Bhatia sent across a physical DVD of the film’s rough cut to someone she knew in Finland. Motwane loaned money to the team of an in-progress documentary to cut a trailer as part of their application for a foreign grant. Filmmaker Prateek Vats, Kapadia’s senior at FTII, supplied her footage he shot at various universities when she was putting together A Night of Knowing Nothing.

There are also a handful of filmmakers, academics, and programmers working behind the scenes to offer mentorship to the next generation of voices. Film editor and professor Nilotpal Majumdar heads DocedgeKolkata, India’s only nonfiction incubator and the first of its kind in Asia. It has been a crucial resource for famished filmmakers—every Indian nonfiction film that has gained any international prestige in the last decade began its journey at this annual event which connects independent filmmakers with industry stakeholders and commissioning editors. For a month, filmmakers with in-progress projects are put through intensive workshops in which they work with industry experts who help them polish their pitches before they present them to possible collaborators.

This year, Docedge was forced to pivot to a virtual model due to the lack of resources. “It’s an absolute no-brainer for streamers and producers who’re vying for the next feature film to create a mechanism where they’re partnering with Docedge as well as creating bursaries or a fund for projects that might be of interest to them. But strangely, no one has moved,” said Ghosh, whose film Writing with Fire was incubated at Docedge. “This [scenario] subliminally underscores the irony of the documentary market in India.” On his part, Majumdar rues the absence of a documentary ecosystem in the country. “It’s not just the lack of resources that pose a challenge for emerging nonfiction filmmakers,” he commented. “But rather, it’s the lack of a mindset. There is no critical dialogue that is happening on behalf of Indian nonfiction here.” Indeed, the state continues to see nonfiction cinema as an individual burden for its practitioners rather than its own responsibility.

That’s not halting independent filmmakers from being on the ground with their cameras. Ghosh and Thomas are already developing their next project; Abraham is in the middle of a shoot and Bhatia is embarking on directing her first nonfiction film. Some are even taking it upon themselves to build mechanisms for nonfiction in India. Last year, Ranka, Sen, and Phadke joined forces to launch India Docs, a development fund for nonfiction projects, hoping to bring in their collective expertise in nurturing filmmakers to navigate the overwhelming cycle of international film grants, markets, and festivals. The aim is to grant selected filmmakers an initial fund of five lakhs to produce documentaries that speak to an Indian audience without any need for stylistic or thematic over-exposition. Ten months since its inception, Ranka admits that the team is rethinking the structure of such an institution in the country after facing numerous challenges with operating it as a not-for-profit organization. But she remains optimistic that they will find a way ahead. After all, Indian nonfiction filmmakers always do.

In that sense, the Oscar nominations and ensuing international attention for Indian nonfiction embody a kind of victory lap for homegrown artistic and political resistance. They also point to the crucial juncture that Indian nonfiction currently finds itself in—a moment characterized by an emergence of documentaries that draw from the tools of traditional drama and dissent to witness the state of the nation rather than glorify it. That the flames of BJP’s tyrannical regime are barely equipped to silence these voices is at once a small step and a giant leap.

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


Long ReadsRintu ThomasSushmit GhoshShaunak SenKartiki GonsalvesAnand PatwardhanPayal KapadiaVinay ShuklaSarvnik KaurAbhay KumarDeepti KakkarFahad MustafaKhushboo RankaFaiza Ahmed KhanShirley AbrahamAmit Madheshiya
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.