New Tides in Indian Documentary Filmmaking: The Art of Non-Fiction Narratives


The landscape of Indian documentary cinema is witnessing a compelling resurgence with films like Sarvnik Kaur’s ‘Against the Tide’ that blend non-fiction narratives with the dramatic flair of feature films. Sarvnik Kaur’s work offers a poignant glimpse into the lives of a Koli fishing community in Mumbai, set against the tumultuous backdrop of the Arabian Sea. Cinematographer Ashok Meena’s lens captures the intimate details of their existence with a visual poetry that resonates beyond the screen.

‘Against the Tide’ stands out for its meticulous storytelling, which unfolds organically, allowing the complex themes of climate change, tradition, modernity, and urban decay to surface naturally. Viewers are immersed into a world where every ritual, every wave, and every conversation is depicted with an unobtrusive gaze that respects its subjects. The film has been lauded internationally, receiving the Golden Gateway Award at the 2023 MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, alongside accolades from Sundance, the Sydney Film Festival, and various screenings across the globe. Yet, it struggles to find a distributor in its own nation, a striking commentary on the Indian market.

This surge in narrative documentary filmmaking is further exemplified by Nisha Pahuja’s ‘To Kill a Tiger’, a compelling Oscar contender that follows a father’s fight for justice in the aftermath of his daughter’s rape. Pahuja’s eight-year dedication to the film illustrates a common thread among these documentaries: they are a product of immersive storytelling that spans years, often supported by international funding, allowing for a deep dive into the subjects’ worlds without compromising the filmmaker’s vision.

International interest has grown in Indian documentaries, with celebrated examples such as ‘All That Breathes’ by Shaunak Sen, which was acquired by HBO, and ‘Until I Fly’ by Kanishka Sonthalia and Siddesh Shetty, which secured a distributor prior to its festival premiere. Even popular figures like Priyanka Chopra Jonas have turned their attention to the genre, acknowledging its potential to resonate globally.

The investment in narrative documentaries is a careful embrace by Indian OTTs, as evidenced by Amazon Prime Video’s ‘First Act’, a series exploring the lives of child actors. Here, director-editor Deepa Bhatia demonstrates the transformative power of narrative documentaries, delving into the complexities behind the screen while maintaining an unobtrusive presence in the lives of her subjects.

Still, narrative documentaries defy the traditional binaries that once typified documentary filmmaking in India, famously seen in the Doordarshan era. The contemporary iteration of this genre doesn’t preach from a moral high ground but explores the multitude of realities with a nuanced lens. The Oscars’ nod to ‘To Kill a Tiger’ is a testament to the growing clout and creativity in Indian narrative documentaries—a force drawing international acclaim and urging national platforms to recognize and support the art form.

The enthusiasm for documentaries signals a shift in the cinematic landscape, as these non-fiction narratives are no longer a niche interest but an essential element of a more complex and diverse storytelling fabric emerging from India. Whether through the gusty frames of ‘Against the Tide’ or the hard-hitting themes of ‘To Kill A Tiger’, each film contributes to expanding both the audience’s horizons and the possibilities of the filmmakers’ craft in documenting the untold stories of India.

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