In the film magazine Cinema Quarterly, the pioneering Scottish documentary maker John Grierson stated that ‘documentary, or the creative treatment of actuality, is a new art with no such background in the story and the stage as the studio product so glibly possesses.’A In fact, his principles of documentary were that cinema’s potential for observing life could be exploited in a new art form; that the “original” actor and “original” scene are better guides than their fiction counterparts for interpreting the modern world; and that materials “thus taken from the raw” can be more real than the acted article.B While some scholars of documentary film address documentary practice in terms of formal codes, categories and conventions, and believe that they are used to create “non-fictional “representations of the historical world.C

British documentary film-maker and film historian Paul Rotha believes that ‘documentary left the confines of fiction for wider fields of actuality, where the spontaneity of natural behaviour has been recognized as a cinematic quality and sound is used creatively rather than reproductively. This attitude is, of course, the technical basis of the documentary film.’D

Theoretically, the notion of documentary making has got a tremendous transformation with times. Earlier , documentaries were nothing but the short newsreels, records of current events, or travelogues which were known as ‘actualities’. The Lumiere Brothers’ first attempts to shoot the actual event or activities e.g., a train entering a station, factory workers leaving a plant, etc. were such examples. But after almost two decades, Robert Flaherty made the first narrative documentary with an ethnographic look Nanook of the North (1922), portraying the harsh life of Canadian Inuit Eskimos living in the Arctic.  Later he made a landmark documentary film Moana (1926) about Samoan Pacific islanders.  This was the time when John Grierson coined the term ‘documentary’ while reviewing Flaherty’s Moana (1926).

During the World War II, documentary films were used as the tools to propagate the ideology of Nazi and one such propagandistic documentary was Triumph of the Will (1935) that records the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg. In response to this film, the US War Department commissioned the Italian American film director, Frank Russell Capra to direct documentaries to justify the US involvement in World War II. His Why We Fight (1943) was a series of seven newsreel-style films, and the first in the series was Prelude to War, a look at the events from 1931-1939.

Bill Nichols calls the  subjects  in documentary films “social actors.” In the observational, expository or interactive mode – as well as in the conventions of documentary television formats that blend these three modes – social actors are mainly presented as objects of observation, subordinate to commentary as examples, informants or witnesses. In the works of Rouch, Flaherty and contemporary directors such as Ulrich Seidl, Michael Winterbottom, Abbas Kiarostami, Nicholas Barker or Donigan Cumming, a different idea of being in a film has been employed. The unambiguous claim of an indexical link between image and reality, story and history, the character of the story and the subject of history, does not exist. These films do not submit to an either-or dichotomy. They are fictional as well as documentary, and the social actors are characters as well as agents of history.E

But a recent shift in cultural, technological, stylistic, and social aspect has been discerned in the documentary filmmaking. The documentary-filmmakers in India, who are a part of the new transformations, are keen to use the form as tools to speak of the unheard stories of the margins, crisis of identity and the lives of the common people. They address issues like politics, power, race, gender, and voice of the margins which are otherwise remain unanswered.

Supporting Bill Nichols’ arguments that the subjects in documentary films are ‘social actors’, and also Paul Rotha’s statement that ‘documentary left the confines of fiction for “wider fields of actuality, my own perception on the meaning of documentary filmmaking is that documentary films are not the photographic representation of the reality but it must go beyond the ‘reality’ to find out the ‘truth’.

When I speak of ‘truth’, I endorse Bertrand Russell’s argument for the correspondence theory of truth—‘The truth or falsehood of a belief (proposition, statement) depends on its relationship to something that lies outside the belief (propositions, statements) itself.’  I believe, while making documentary the “original” actor and “original” scene are better guides to interpret the world, and they must not be recreated to bring the authenticity. Once it is done, we lose its genuineness.

But interestingly, in Moana, the filmmaker Flaherty convinced his performers to wear traditional tapa cloth costumes so that it might look more authentic. At that time, the Samoans were wearing modern Western-style clothing. Later, it became a landmark documentary film.

The focus of my paper will be on how the Indian documentary filmmakers have taken the diverged local subjects and how they have gone beyond the reality in quest of the untold stories of the human world. Documentary filmmakers like Pankaj Butalia, Anand Patwardhan have addressed these local/marginal issues to represent their universal or global relevance.

I have taken five documentaries – Anand Patwardhan’s War and Peace (2002), Pankaj Butalia’s  An Island of Hope (2010), Assam- A Landscape of Neglect (2015) and Parthajit Baruah’s The Dhemaji Tragedy (2015) and Laxmi Orang-Rising from the Grave, to show how they speak of local issues that carry global significance.

Anand Patwardhan, a distinguished Indian documentary maker, has dealt with the political and social issues in his documentary War and Peace (2002), but he goes beyond the reality to narrate a story of rural people who reside in remote village like Khetolai, the site of nuclear tests. A recent news came in national daily The Times of India that  villagers of Khetolai in Jaisalmer still believe that radiation of nuclear test conducted almost two decades ago, still exists in the village and continues to affect them as cases of cancer, heart, skin disease are on the rise and milch cattle are unable to produce milk.F

Following the Pokhran-II tests, India became the sixth country to join the nuclear club.G Newspapers, its editorials, television channels and its citizens admired the BJP led government for its brave decision. The then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said in a press meet just after the test:

“Today, at 15:45 hours, India conducted three underground nuclear tests in the Pokhran range. The tests conducted today were with a fission device, a low yield device and a thermonuclear device. The measured yields are in line with expected values. Measurements have also confirmed that there was no release of radioactivity into the atmosphere. These were contained explosions like the experiment conducted in May 1974. I warmly congratulate the scientists and engineers who have carried out this successful tests.H

When the whole country was celebrating following the Pokhran-II tests, villagers of Khetolai and Pokhran were fighting with lives due to the dire impact of the Pokhran-II tests. Patwardhan  zooms in the complications that the villagers encountered after the Pokhran-II tests. He says in the booklet of the film: ‘From the plight of the residents living near the nuclear test site to the unspeakable effects of uranium mining on local indigenous populations, it becomes clear that contrary to ‘myth’, there is no such thing as the ‘Peaceful Atom’ This documentary also showcases how the USA is now role model, its doctrine of ‘Might is right’.

His interview of a resident of the village Bhera Ram Bhismoi reveals a harsh truth of the so-called ‘success story’.  The villager said that when the firing range was made in 1960s, they protested . When the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited the site, the local people of Khetolai demonstrated a protest with banners like  “We want permanent hospitals in Khetolai”.  Villagers of that site believe that money invested for the test, could have been for the development of the poor.

But people of the Pokhran town havea different narrative. Tribhuvan Purohit, a resident of the town, is proud of the nuclear test in Pokhran who believes that Pokhran town has now got a global status due to the nuclear test in Pokhran. While another person from the town says that the claim of the villagers that they are affected by the nuclear test, is in fact ‘a lie’. He also says that some died but not because of the nuclear test.

In this documentary, the filmmaker also refers the names of similar sites like Lop Nur, used as a nuclear testing site in China, Nevada (USA).  At the Lop Nur site in Xinjiang, almost 40 nuclear explosions had been carried out between 1964 and 1996. The resident of the site believe that they have been badly affected by radioactive fallout.This documentary is a scathing attack on those who wish to bring peace through war.

Another renowned Indian documentary filmmaker Pankaj Butaliya has taken the identity crisis of the indigenous people and their constant struggle for their identity as the themes in his documentaries An Island of Hope (2010) and Assam: A Landscape of Neglect. He poses questions in his documentary “Who is indigenous or ‘Who is Outsider’ in this earth ?

Dislocation of people is a universal phenomenon. In the opening of the documentary, Butaliya mentions that  forty years after they were expelled from their land, a group of young ‘Chakmas’ started ‘Sneha’ School in Changland  in an attempt to pick up the pieces of their lives once again.” This documentary raises numerous pertinent questions. History says that in 1964 owing to communal violence, they were forced to migrate from Bangladesh to Arunachal Pradesh. The setting up of the Kaptai hydroelectric dam displaced more than 35,000I Chakmas from their traditional homelands. The government offered them valid migration certificates, but still they constantly faced severe social discrimination.

In 1994, an anti-Chakma wave was popped up in Arunachal, and then they  were harassed. In the rural place called Diyun, the part that the Sneha school is now situated, a secondary school constructed by the Chakma community that was built on a self-help basis, was burnt in 1994. The doors of the schools in Arunachal Pradesh was closed for the Chakma communities for four years to come. At such a critical juncture, the Sneha school was started by Sushant Chakma whose  parents too migrated from Bangladesh.J

In the documentary, Butalia interviews Arindam Chakua, Headmaster of Sneha School. He feels that  even after living as refugees for almost fifty years, they had achieved nothing. But through the school they can see the hope coming alive once again.”

In “Assam: A Landscape of Neglect”, Pankaj Butalia’s states that there are two dominant narratives that characterize in Assam , one is a deep sense of resentment at being neglected and second is a fear of engulfment. Butalia raises questions on the identity crisis or the question of ‘Who is indigenous  or ‘Outsider’. The filmmaker refers in the documentary that the British took large tracts of lands to establish tea- plantation and brought labourers from all over the country. These labourers have been working since the British rule, but today none knows who is outsider, and apparently, it seems, all are all outsiders.

The filmmaker interviews Hridayananda Agarwala, one of the legends of Assamese culture, who actually belongs to a Marwary family. His forefather migrated from Rajasthan two hundred years ago. His whole family have completely assimilated to the Assamese culture. Agarwala says :  People tend to ask where a person come from rather than what he does. This is the habit of nature”.

Then, Butalia refers to the immigrant Muslims of the Char Chapori residing  by the Brahmaputra river and its tributaries of Assam. They are fighting against  numerous problems like soil erosion, over flooding, illiteracy, high population growth and so on. Historically speaking, a huge number of Muslim origin was brought in from the East Pakistan as labourers and later, after the Independence of India, Hindu Bengali refugees from East Pakistan came into Assam and its neighboring states. But during the Bangladesh Liberation War, thousands of refugees came to North-East India. They are known as ‘outsiders’, in the new states who came in search of a living.

The filmmaker visits a place called Tengagiri ‘Char’. It was a village long ago about twenty five years ago. But the Brahmaputra river caused its erosion, and now it has re-emerged as a ‘land of Sand’, and also known as ‘Char’. People have come and settled on it.  Butalia interviews one Md Hamid, in the char area. He says “ In 1983, when the island crumbled, we moved out of here. But again this village was formed back in 1996 and that’s when we moved back here. We struggled to survive. Once the erosion happens, we have to leave.  This shifting from one char to another has now become “ Our cycle of life”

Again, Butalia refers to the Karbis,  one of the major ethnic tribes,who  are living in the hill areas of Assam. The threat that the indigenous people of Assam are facing on the question of identity, is precisely surfaced through Elwin Teron, a Karbi man who is interviewed in his documentary. Teron says :

‘The Assamese indigenous community wanted to preserve their identity. The indigenous people of Assam thought that liberation is necessary and so, supported All Assam Students Union. But when the Assam Accord was signed, there was nothing in favour of the tribal people. People of hills and plains have conflicts of interest – socially, politically and economically.  This is the reason why Assam has so many changes. There is something in the minds of the indigenous people, that is the silent resentment.”

In my two documentaries The Dhemaji Tragedy (2014) and Laxmi Orang: Rising from the Grave (2013), I have made an attempt to go beyond the ‘reality’ to understand the feelings and emotions of the victims of two different circumstances shown in these two documentaries.

In The Dhemaji Tragedy, I have depicted how the bomb blast in Dhemaji left the millions of people in India, particularly in Assam  shocked. On 15 August, 2004, people of Dhemaji, (a small district of Assam, India) who were mostly school children (aged between 12 to 14) and their mothers, gathered at Dhemaji College ground for Independence Day parade. But at around 8:45 am. a powerful bomb that was planted near the college gate, triggered by a remote-controlled device, went off killing 10 school children and 3 elders and injuring many.

This tragedy became the darkest chapter in the history of Assam. As time passed by, this horrible tragic incident became a story of the past, forgetting the pains that have been carried by the victims’ parents.  The distressed parents are, however, not yet ready to forget the explosion and forgive them what they did. I wanted to go beyond the actuality to understand their responses to that tragedy through my documentary.

Well-known film critic Shoma A. Chatterji  writes about this documentary: ‘The film ‘The Dhemaji Tragedy’  interpolates the narrative with a couple of beautiful poems and a painting being executed in front of the camera. The film is socially relevant, historically significant and aesthetically good. It ends on a note of hope.’K

Again in my second documentary, Laxmi Orang : Rising from the Grave, I have foregrounded the unrealized  aspect  of the victim i.e Laxmi Orang who was stripped in broad day light in Guwahati, Assam. Laxmi Orang, an Adivasi girl of Japowari Orang Basti, Sonitpur district, Assam, joined in the protest rally, which was organized by All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam to demand Schedule Tribe Status. She  was devastated when she was stripped by some miscreants. She ran naked looking desperately for help in the midst of all the bedlam. The entire nation was shocked to have seen this brutal and inhuman act on 24th Nov. 2007, known as ‘the Beltola Incident’. It is imprinted in the history of Assam as the darkest day.

This documentary focusses on how she survived after such an incident. Since the moment of the incident, I was following  her to know how the society and her family reacted to the incident.  I found that she fought back with her strong will power, determination and unyielding spirit to serve her community. She has resurrected herself as a strong voice emerging from the voiceless women. She has now become  an  influential  leader, a selfless social worker and a carrier of Adivasi culture and tradition.

I believe that only the documentary films, unlike fictionala films, can go beyond the reality to find out what is truth.  I would like to conclude with legendary Indian filmmaker Shyam Benegal  ‘The sense of reality comes only when you can actually smell the soil. I believer that the more local it is the more universal. The local has to be the true or real.’




A. Grierson, J. (1933), ‘The Documentary Producer,’ Cinema Quarterly, 2:1, pp. 7–9
B. “History/Film”. Archived from the original on 26 March 2018. Retrieved 25 April 2018
C. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Bill Nichols, Indiana University Press, 1991:
D. Paul Rotha, Documentary Film: The Use of the Film Medium to Interpret Creatively and in Social Terms the Life of the People as It Exists in Reality (London, 1935), p.79
F. E1. The Times of India, May 11, 2017
G. BBC Report (13 May 1998). “Asia’s nuclear challenge: Third World joins the nuclear club”. BBC India 1998. Retrieved 17 January 2013.
H. “Prime Minister’s announcement of India’s three underground nuclear tests”. Retrieved 31 January 2013
I. How a Chakma School in Diyun is Changing Lives, August 7th, 2015, Narrative by Kandala Singh, Independent Researcher
J. ibid
K. (…/The-Dhemaji-Tragedy-2004-Ulfa-Attack-on-Independence-Day…)

Parthajit Baruah

Parthajit Baruah is an award winning film critic and docu filmmaker who has done his M. Phil on the subject ‘Film Adaptation: Shakespeare in Celluloid’. He’s a recipient of the Prag Channel – Film Critic Award for his book ‘Chalachitror’ Taranga. His book ‘Face-to-Face: The Cinema of Adoor Goplakrishnan’, published by Harper Collins, is now being translated into French. Additionally, he has contributed to Routledge Publications, lectured at universities, and presented papers at international conferences. Presently, he’s a researcher at the National Film Archive of India, working on the narratives of Assamese Cinema.

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