Giulia Battaglia in conversation with Edward Simpson (Director of the SOAS South Asia Institute) about her book Documentary film in India: An anthropological history.

By Sunil Pun|May 9, 2018|History, India, Media, SSAI|0 comments

Documentary film in India: An anthropological history was published in 2018 by Routledge.

Documentary film in India: An anthropological history maps a hundred years of documentary film practices in India. It demonstrates that in order to study the development of a film practice, it is necessary to go beyond the classic analysis of films and filmmakers and focus on the discourses created around and about the practice in question. The book navigates different historical moments of the growth of documentary filmmaking in India from the colonial period to the present day. In the process, it touches upon questions concerning practices and discourses about colonial films, postcolonial institutions, independent films, filmmakers and filmmaking, the influence of feminism and the articulation of concepts of performance and performativity in various films practices. It also reflects on the centrality of technological change in different historical moments and that of film festivals and film screenings across time and space.

Grounded in anthropological fieldwork and archival research and adopting Foucault’s concept of ‘effective history’, this work searches for points of origin that creates ruptures and deviations taking distance from conventional ways of writing film histories. Rather than presenting a univocal set of arguments and conclusions about changes or new developments of film techniques, the originality of the book is in offering an open structure (or an open archive) to enable the reader to engage with mechanisms of creation, engagement and participation in film and art practices at large. In adopting this form, the book conceptualises ‘Anthropology’ as also an art practice, interested, through its theoretico-methodological approach, in creating an open archive of engagement rather than a representation of a distant ‘other’. Similarly, documentary filmmaking in India is seen as primarily a process of creation based on engagement and participation rather than a practice interested in representing an objective reality.


Ed: Giulia, you have written a book about documentary film practices in India over the last century. This is a rich and thoughtful study of a broad topic.

The popular film industry in India is of course very well known. It is also the case that the country has had a thriving and creative stream of documentary filmmaking, both private and state-sponsored. Many classics of the genre have been produced by Indian filmmakers. Some scholars have seen films as texts that can be read to make broader claims about the country; other scholars have seen documentary films as symbols of state propaganda or reflections of a tussle between different players during the Cold War period. The imagery and icons that we associate with India have been demonstrated to emerge through some forms of documentary practice. Documentary films run deep in the popular imagination the country, given that the state produced ‘public information films’ which were shown as preludes to feature films in cinema halls until relatively recently. Given the importance of films themselves, the reader of your book might be surprised to find little discussion about the lives, education or political ideas of filmmakers, nor, indeed, is there much analysis of films themselves within your text. Instead, you have chosen to focus on the discourse and institutions that make communities of documentary practitioners in India.

Could I start by asking you about the focus you have chosen on ‘discourse’ and the corresponding idea of ‘living anthropology’ that organises your text? Why are these ideas important? What do these ideas do to distinguish your analysis from conventional film history?

Giulia: Thank you very much Ed, for choosing this question to begin our conversation. Indeed, the main difference between this work and a more conventional approach to film history is the emphasis on ‘discourse’. By placing film and filmmakers to one side and paying attention to the way discourse has influenced the development of a practice, I take the risk to be criticised, as you rightly point out, not to do justice to the films themselves and filmmakers’ political ideas. Yet, it is important for me to say that through this approach, I do not want by any means to dismiss the importance of analysing films and filmmakers. I just want let others do this job!

Indeed, the reader can refer to K.P. Jayasankar and Anjali Monteiro’s A Fly in the Curry (2016), Peter Sutoris’ Visions of Development: Films Division of India and the Imagination of Progress, 1948-75 (2016), Aparna Sharma’s Documentary Films in India: Critical Aesthetics at Work (2015) and the very recent K. Basu and D. Banmerjee’s Towards a People’s Cinema (2018). As an anthropologist, instead, I have always felt that my contribution to a history of a practice, such as that of documentary film in India, was to shed a light on the often-obscure ‘discourses’ around and about this practice. And when I say ‘discourses’, I do not necessarily mean those created by filmmakers themselves, but also those created by scholars like us, in relation to films and filmmakers. If this may sound ‘pretentious’ in whatever form, I believe that the strength of this work is the fact that actually this choice has been for me a methodological response to the field that I have chosen to study in details, during my 2007-2009 fieldwork.

‘Living anthropology’ is for me a sensory moment of anthropological immersion in the field, which we often tend to obscure by already pre-conceived methodologies that we ‘must’ apply to the field. In my case, this would have meant conducting film analysis or historical analysis of the politics of filmmakers, or to do an anthropology of the contemporary rather than history. Instead, if we follow what I have called the moment of ‘living anthropology’, we might find ourselves to methodologically able to respond to the field encounters, such as sensations, accidents and fragments, which will lead us towards a more authentic study of the field in relation to ourselves in that field. This is why, in the end, my focus is on discourses and history. I have just responded to my field of study. And, this response has eventually helped me to organise the rest of the book in its open-form – that is, what I also call, an ‘open archive’ of ‘engagement with’ my field, as Tim Ingold would put it, rather than a ‘representation of’ the same field.

Indian Documentary 1955. Courtesy of the IDPA.

Ed: One of the achievements to me of your text is the successful combination of a wide range of research practices and sources. Clearly inspired by an ethnographic approach to understanding the political and cultural economy of documentary filmmaking practices, you also draw on a range of archives, interviews and other sorts of statements on films. Can explain how you managed to combine such a disparate range of sources so smoothly in the book? What were the major difficulties of doing so?

Giulia: Again, this choice was not at all planned but it was another response to my field. My research started in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, with the idea to study a specific community of filmmakers. However, since my first encounters with filmmakers, I have been pushed to travel across the country and across history too! In any of my attempts to talk about contemporary practices, the response of the people with whom I interacted with was to look back at history and understand a practice at a wide and often national scale.

When I responded to this input coming from the field I have of course started to find so many difficulties. The first was that before fieldwork I strongly prepared myself with several readings about the history and ethnographies of Tamil Nadu and not about ‘the whole India’, which later on made me feel ‘unprepared’ in the middle of my field. The second was the fact that there was neither a history of documentary written somehow somewhere nor a centralised place with some printed historical information about this history. This is why in the book I like to refer to Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge, by saying that in my field I found ‘monuments’ of a practice (that is, oral beliefs, understandings) but not written ‘documents’ (that could confute or corroborate the contemporary oral understanding of the past). I hence had to ‘jump’ from places to places, from more official archives and libraries (such as the NFAI or the FD and the IDPA library and later on the BFI in London) to filmmaker’s houses, asking them to bring out for me ‘their own personal archive’.

In this respect, I am very grateful to all those filmmakers who kept newspapers, pamphlets, catalogues, letters and official government mandates. With these materials I have been able to set up ‘my own archive’. A funny story in relation to this is that when I was about to publish the book, and had to get permission to use some images, some people responded to me with a question and with huge surprise by saying: ‘where did you find this? I did not even know about the existence of such publication!’

The third mayor difficulty in relation to the first two was the fact that when I started this research, the Internet was not as developed as today. Hence, it was impossible for me to ‘google’ a filmmaker, and find out information about him/herself. So, I had to go to find people who I wanted to talk to, by using telephone numbers, sometimes emails and physical addresses. Today, if I think about this, I really don’t know how I managed to do it.

To ‘compile’ all this material together in a smooth narrative in the book has been a real challenge. Yet, I should admit that it started directly from the field. I spent so many days reading the ‘found’ documents in India and trying to place them in connection to the conversations/interviews I was having with filmmakers. Every time there was some piece of history that was not clear to me (or often written in many completely different ways in these publications – precisely as it happens with oral histories told by different interlocutors), I would go back to the filmmaker who had talked about this history to try to confront his/her history with what was written in these documents.

The moment of ‘revelation’ happened when I met Professor Thomas Waugh in Lonavala, Maharashtra. He was the only scholar I knew of to have conducted a study of ‘independent filmmakers’ in the 1980s and who, completely by chance, was in India (just for a week) exactly at the moment when I emailed him for the first time. I tell this story in the book at some length, so, to keep it short, let’s say that when we met it was in the middle of the second part of my fieldwork (towards the end of my stay in India) and I had already collected a huge amount of oral and written information about this field. Yet, it was very difficult to find common themes and make sense of a history that was just full of continuous oral-written contradictory narratives.

When I met Tom, not only did I realise that we knew many of the same people and we could debate about this field, but I also realised that he collected some video-interviews in the 1980s with many of the filmmakers who I knew, and that he never used this material (now available on youtube). When he decided to donate this material to me (which happened a few months later, as he had to digitise his VHS cassettes and send the DVDs to me) I managed to find historical elements (or fragments as I like to say in this book) of connections that enabled me to make sense of the huge amount of collected historical work that was already with me. In short, I had finally been able to have material (oral, written and audio-visual) that covered up three historical moments of the twentieth century: the colonial/post-colonial moment (in written documents); the 1980s (in audio-visual documents) and the more contemporary (in oral documents/narratives).

Ed: There are numerous interventions in conventional debates within the text, one of the most eye-catching was the idea that the colonial period of documentary filmmaking was not simply about the reproduction imperial control; instead, you claim this period is better characterised as a moment of creativity. Could you explain what you mean by this argument, and how it intersects with other understandings of colonial filmmaking in India?

Giulia: This is a complicated question to answer in an interview as the chapter you mention has many layers of complication. I will try my best.

To make such claims, I use the idea of ‘fragments’ of history that we always encounter when we try to make sense of history, but precisely because we constantly ‘try to make sense’ we often tend to leave aside fragments that are a bit uncomfortable in relation to the story we want to tell. As the historian Stephen Bottomore says, they then become ‘points of amnesia’ that we quite like to forget. As an anthropologist making an historiographical intervention (and hence not as an historian), I felt that my job in relation to the colonial period was to shed a light on these fragments and try to pose questions about the colonial/postcolonial relationship based on this fragments. The colonial chapter is indeed a clearer example of what I mean by doing anthropology as an ‘open-archive’ of engagement with the field: it means to pose questions of past and present and to present other possibilities of interpretations of a ‘given’ fact or history. To be specific, in the first chapter, I seek to rehabilitate the colonial moment as the one in which the idea of ‘documentary’ as a ‘creative treatment of reality’, as Grierson would put it, was in the air even in colonial India. Indeed, it set up the ground for the further, post-colonial, development of the practice of documentary film. To do this, I make use of different ‘fragments’ coming from different sources. The first is the concept of ‘cultural performance’ in early film experimentations – that is, the idea that from the early twentieth century (hence during the colonial period), a film was never conceived just as a film-text on the screen, but as a ‘performance’ in relation to its audience (what well-known artist-filmmaker Mani Kaul would call ‘a screening’ vs. ‘a screen’, that is a ‘performance’ with spatial-temporal dimension). This is something that, as I explain, has strongly marked the development of the documentary genre in India and we can still see its implication in the contemporary day (I return indeed to this concept in Chapter 7 when I make a description of film screenings in the contemporary day). The second fragment is to give importance to ‘Gandhi’s film’. This was the trickiest fragment. Indeed, here we are not just talking about ‘historical fragments’ but also about ‘film-fragments’ as in fact, Gandhi’s films today exist in a discursive-written form but no longer in their material form, as they have been all destroyed by the British during the Quit India movement in 1942. When we take the Gandhi’s film into account and we place them in the grounded narrative of colonial time as only representations of imperial control, as you rightly point out, it is very difficult for me to make sense of all the independent, political, creative attempts of the colonial time to resist the imperial control. Giving justice and more centrality to these films (although no longer existent in their material form) means also to make justice to some of the contemporary filmmakers who continuously try to make sense of their existence. Indeed, it was Meghnath (a well-known filmmaker and activist from Jharkhand) who first showed to me the existence of these films when we met in his house and then he added, ‘This list proves that the political/independent documentary was in existence in India long before any Anand or Tapan!’ (-that is, Anand Patwardhan and Tapan Bose; both often considered as pioneers of the political documentary in India).

Among other things (and I would push my reader to look at the details of this chapter, as there are many!) I also mention as a fragment the visit of Robert Flaherty in India during the shooting of Elephant Boy and the fact that, as some letters written by his wife proves, he has collaborating with several filmmakers and film-operators during his shooting which somehow pushed me to speculate on how many connections between ‘artists/filmmakers’ of that time might have existed and that we are yet to take seriously into account for our analyses and interpretations.

I finally mention the ‘educational’ films produced by filmmakers during the period of war/film institutions and how they have been excluded from the history written in postcolonial India about its colonial past in favour of the narrative about the ‘reproduction of imperial control’. In this respect, the fantastic documentation available in the Report and Evidence of the 1927-28 Indian Cinematograph Committee (ICC) is illuminating.

Cartoon in Docu-Scene India. Source: Chanana 1987. Courtesy of the IDPA and the FD.




Ed: Chapter 2 is an account of the role of the famous Films Division. This was a branch of government established shortly after independence. It became me largest producer of documentary films in the world. Other scholars have written about the role of this institution in producing knowledge and particular kinds of audiences for documentary films. Your understanding of the role of this institution takes us in a different direction. Where and what do you see the influence and legacy of this institution to have been?

Giulia: This chapter functions like a bridge. It is a direct continuation of the argument made in the chapter before, about colonial India, and it is a way to open-up ways to understand the question of ‘independent practices’ that I develop in Chapter 3. When we accept the idea that colonial India was not just a moment of ‘reproduction of imperial control’ and that instead it was also a moment in which creative ideas and practices started to be formed in India, we will better frame the birth and function of the Films Division in relation to an audience  – hence, not as a direct continuation of film-institutions, set up by the British during the wars, to brainwash audiences but as the product of debates concerning ‘educational films’ existent before WWII and debated during the Indian Motion Picture Congress that was held in Bombay in May 1939 – a few months before the outbreak of the Second World War.

There are several academic studies that question the association of the word ‘education’ with ‘propaganda’ (as something strictly connected to the period of the world wars but not necessarily straightforward before and after the wars). The role of the Films Division over the history lays, in my opinion, in this precarious line between ‘education’ and ‘propaganda’. If on the one hand a state-institution is always ‘controlled’ by its government, I argue, on the other hand is always made by ‘individuals’ who may not be in line with the politics of the government in power. While individuals keeps working in the institution. Governments do change, hence the politics of the institution change. But to what extent we can say or prove that individual agencies also change in relation to government politics? This chapter plays around these notions posing questions concerning the role of the Films Division in relation to audiences and those individuals working for or with the Films Division. What I try to show is that, on the one hand it is true that for long the Films Division has produced and compulsory screened ‘instructional’ films in cinema halls (and I prefer the term ‘instructional’ to ‘educational’ or ‘documentary’ in this context). Yet, on the other hand there has also been a huge production of so-called ‘educational’, ‘experimental’ films and even films ‘of social interest’ (as I explain in more details in Chapter 3), produced by the Films Division but much longer than the compulsory 15-20 min slots provided in cinema halls for documentaries, and hence never screened to an Indian audience (or rarely, if not for small districts areas through mobile film units – a topic that for sure needs to be discover more). Rather, these films were sent to international film festivals to increase the ‘fame’ of the film-institution. In this respect, I would say that it is the creative and independent part of the Films Division – that is, those free ‘spirits’, ‘souls’ existent among the individuals that made this institution that, I feel, continue existing even in the present day. And as I point out, this is proved by the fact that when a few years ago the Films Division has finally opened up its door, its resources and archive to a larger public, the perception of the Films Division for many filmmakers, who for long has dismissed its activities, productions and screenings, has radically changed. The Films Division has experience an historical ‘re-activation’.

Ed: Given that you have a strong anthropological approach to understanding the discourses surrounding a particular filmmaking practice, I wondered if there was not some analytic potential in giving more thought to asking: what kind of Indian is a filmmaker? What does who they are say about the position of documentary practice in India today? Are there lessons of to be taken from an analysis of social class and positionality to help define an anthropological contemporary (rather than an anthropological historical)?

Giulia: Of course, this is a question that I have asked myself from the very beginning and this was also my original idea before conducting fieldwork in 2007-2009. Hence, as I explained before, going back to history rather than stick to the present was for me a response to the field and the first reactions that I got from the field while trying to study a ‘community of practice’. Every time I have begun a conversation about the social class and the positionality of the filmmaker in his/her own film-field, the answer that I got was often very ‘aggressive’ against me which sounded like: ‘who are you, a white, young women sitting in a British University coming to study and thus make a critique of us with your economic/cultural/anthropological ‘capital’ (à la Bourdieu) that can only reinforce a distant colonial look at others and an everlasting unbalanced power-relations between the West and the Rest?’ These sorts of responses made me develop a lot my reflections in relation to me in the field, my own self, my own positionality in the field, my being ‘Italian’ rather than ‘Westerner’ for example. And these reflections have made me wondering more and more on how to better contribute to this field without reinforcing more ‘classic’ distant regards on others. Interestingly, these questions were also questions that many filmmakers in India asked to themselves as of course, the point here is that most of the filmmakers do come from a well-off, English speakers, Hindu (often Brahmin) middle-upper social class and yet they often work with people (film-subjects) not quite coming from the same background and social class. Yet, these observations brought me somehow nowhere as I could not get out from its counter question: ‘So what?’ What was instead interesting for me was to notice, in my anthropology of the present made of twenty-month fieldwork, how it was precisely because filmmakers in India do take this question seriously in their practice that new ‘reflexive’ and ‘performative’ forms of films have over the years emerged (as I explain in details in chapter 5). On the contrary, I felt that in the discipline of anthropology, there is not much reflexivity about these questions or at least not in the practice of the field and rather only at a discursive level. Thus, my reaction was eventually to get rid of my original idea to make a study of the ‘anthropological contemporary’ for instead an ‘anthropological history’ but, nevertheless, to engage with that contemporary moment is a very close way so as to give more justice and validation to the history that I tried to put together. In this way, I feel today that I have still done an anthropology ‘with the contemporary’ (rather than ‘of the contemporary’) that all together also makes an intervention into history.

Cartoon in Docu-Scene India. Source: Chanana 1987. Courtesy of the IDPA and the FD.


Ed: One of the questions filmmakers in India and elsewhere have asked themselves repeatedly is: how should I engage an audience? When writing your book, who was the audience you imagined? And, did you draw on documentary convention in order to engage them?

Giulia: I believe I have already answered this question, or perhaps indirectly. To make it more explicit, my primary audience is twofold. My first audience is the world of anthropology as I try to demonstrate, as I said, that a study of filmmaking can become a ‘study with’ the chosen field and hence close to many studies in anthropology of contemporary art practices for example. My other audiences are all those interested in documentary practices (in India and beyond) as this work does not draw on a history of ‘discourses’ in an abstract way but on discourses that enable the development of ‘techniques’, ‘modes’, ‘forms’ of documentary as debated in the literature of documentary film studies as much as in the practice of documentary film in India. These two primary audiences, however, should also draw the attention to the field of ‘cinema studies’ and more specifically ‘Indian cinema’ which for way too long has left behind a possible debate about documentary film within the noteworthy history of Indian cinema(s). And they should attract those interested in cultural studies, cultural industries and media studies, due to the strong emphasis in this book on the development of technology along with techniques and the articulation of documentary film as a ‘media/art practice’ rather than a simple ‘film-text’.

Ed: Finally, I would like to ask how you see the book sitting within the existing literature on documentary film practice in India. How might the authors of those books react to your writing as an audience?

Guilia: As said, the literature on documentary film practices in India is very much emerging at the present. When I began this study in 2006, there was hardly any literature to speak of.

I am pleased to hear you use the word ‘literature’! One of my aims has been to ensure that there is ‘a literature’ on documentary in India! Many of the recent books have been published after I completed my manuscript. I had to stop somewhere! Most of the contributions come from filmmakers who I know very well. Some of them, who I have known more closely throughout my fieldwork, have also told me how they felt inspired by my research at a moment that nobody was yet writing about this field, so as to feel the need to write more themselves about such practice. Others, that did not let me become closer to them, directly or indirectly told me to feel ‘annoyed’ by the idea that another ‘westerner’ should have written something about India.

If I get you right, I personally never felt like an ‘audience’ of this field and/or an audience of documentary films made in India. This is due perhaps to the fact that I have always positioned myself as a young scholar, a curious person, for some a friend for others a collaborator etc., that was never interested in the film itself but about the stories, the narratives of everything that happens in and around a film practice. In this respect, I rather feel that I have written this book from the position of being with a community rather than being an audience of the same community or the films produced by this community.

Before, you asked me about this idea of ‘living fieldwork’. I actually also talk about the moment of ‘doing’ and ‘thinking’ fieldwork, and hence anthropology, in the field as much as outside the field. In relation to my positionality, I feel that my way of ‘doing’ and ‘thinking’ this research has always been to be ‘with’ the people (even if not literally as a co-writing practice but at least as a co-thinking practice with ‘peers’). It is thanks to this co-thinking while doing fieldwork and in relation to history that I have been able, eventually, to concretise this in a book.

Of course, this approach will not please everyone but I hope that through my technique to tell stories about myself (sometimes even by ridiculing my naiveté in the field) as much as stories about others, as well as my belief that when we make ‘claims’, they are never universal claims but contextual, historical claims (like the one that I am making in this interview now), which can always change in another context, I have been eventually able to make an anthropology with filmmakers and about a history of a growing film practice which can sit well with other scholarly and less scholarly contributions. Because written with no pretentiousness to be ‘the history’ but rather an ‘open-archive’ of engagement, I also hope this work will enable a dialogue with the authors that have also written about this field as well as other histories to come against and/or along the one that I have chosen to tell.


The author: Giulia Battaglia

Giulia Battaglia is a researcher in anthropology of visual/art/media practices specialised in documentary film in India. Her work is interdisciplinary and draws from a range of academic fields, including visual/media anthropology, documentary studies, visual and material cultures, art and anthropology, Indian cinema, cultural studies and film history. After receiving a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, she has worked as a lecturer and researcher in various departments of anthropology, media, arts and social science as well as in cultural institutions in England and in France. At present, she lives and works in Paris in the field of anthropology, arts and media, being part of the laboratoire de recherche IRMECCEN, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris 3) and the laboratoire de recherche LAIOS/IIAC, at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS). For the latter, she is also responsible for a funded international project between art and social science, called ‘L’invention des formes de représentation à l’ère de la mondialisation’.


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