I’m neither an ‘activist-filmmaker’ nor a ‘woman-filmmaker': Nishtha Jain

> Till we don't have funding and distribution avenues in India, documentary will continue to suffer says "Gulabi Gang" director Nishtha Jain
By Nandita Dutta • Published on December 21, 2012

Nishtha Jain’s Gulabi Gang was recently named the Best Film in Muhr Asia-Africa documentary section at Dubai International film festival. The film, documenting the Gulabi Gang in Bundelkhand, had its international premiere at IDFA, Amsterdam. Jain talks about the film and the documentary scene in India today:


What prompted you to do a documentary on the Gulabi Gang?

Gulabi Gang is dealing with very important issues facing our society today. They are fighting against gender violence and for the rights of poor and Dalits and against corruption. However they are a fairly new organization and most of the members are still very much entrenched in the value systems that they are trying to uproot. So I find them at a very interesting crossroad. Which direction will they take? Will their ideas of social reforms win over the age-old orthodoxy and fatalistic approach to life? Their work is not at all easy because they encounter resistance at all levels of society – family, village, police and bureaucracy. I found this an interesting story to tell.

How did you secure funds for the project? Tell us about how it became an India/Norway/Denmark co-production?

I first met Sampat Pal (leader of Gulabi Gang) in January 2009. At the time there was no documentary on her so I decided to make one. I secured a development grant from IDFA, Amsterdam with which I developed a trailer and a script. Then it took me a few more months to raise the first part of the production money. I was about to leave for my shoot when I was informed that UK-based filmmaker Kim Longinotto is also planning to make a film on Sampat Pal. I had no choice but to pause because Kim’s production company had secured an exclusivity contract with Sampat Pal. A few months later I was contacted by Torstein Grude from Piraya Films. They were also interested in making a film about the Gulabi Gang and had independently developed a trailer to raise funds. We decided to merge our projects.

I’m not an ‘activist-filmmaker’. Nor am I ‘woman-filmmaker’. I don’t like all these labels. I’m a filmmaker, a feminist and when the need arises, an activist. My films grow out of my world view and interests.

Longinotto’s Pink Saris was made before Gulabi Gang and traveled extensively. Did you have any apprehensions? How did you think you were going to treat the film differently?

Of course, the existence of Pink Saris and other films on Gulabi Gang make it a little difficult for us, but till now it’s more so in India than abroad. It’s because people here have very limited idea about documentaries. For them documentary is equal to the subject. But the subject of any film/documentary is only a starting point. What matters is how the directors treat the subject, where they take it and what they say through the film. In that sense it’s possible to have several documentaries on the same theme just as you can have several fiction films based on the same story. My film ‘Gulabi Gang’ is different from ‘Pink Saris’ in it’s content, style and scope. The difference also lies in the fact that my film is seen through the eyes of a person(s) who understand the language and cultural nuances.

We were successful in raising funds for the film. We have several prestigious funders on board like the Sundance Documentary Fund, IDFA Fund, Norwegian Film Institute, Danish Film Institute, Nordic TV and Films Fund to mention a few.

We premiered our film in the biggest and most prestigious documentary film festival – IDFA, Amsterdam. We are only 3 festivals old but have already won two major awards – the Best Documentary in Grimstad, Norway and the award for the Best Documentary at the prestigious Dubai International Film Festival. The film’s festival journey has only just begun. We are about to have a cinema release in Norway in January and subsequently in India.

How was the experience of making this film? 

It was an absolutely amazing experience – disturbing for most part but also extremely enlightening. It also showed up much of the rural-urban disconnect we have in India. I had great rapport with the members of Gulabi Gang and they cooperated with us in all respects. More importantly, I had the best team that I could ask for, from the shooting stage to the post-production stage. This film would have been impossible without the support and participation of my Norwegian Producer, Torstein Grude.

Pink Saris was made by Kim Longinotto in 2010 and a feature film Gulab Gang is coming up on the same subject in 2013. What do you think is the reason for several filmmakers picking this subject now?

Nishtha Jain

Nishtha Jain

I think the reasons for each filmmaker would vary. I have explained mine earlier. I don’t think a commercial movie can capture the color, nuance, immediacy, and the raw and edgy quality of the ‘real’ which you’ll see in my film.

What subjects appeal to you as a documentary filmmaker?

I like to tell stories. Each time I use different form and genre to narrate them.

Making a film is like setting on a new journey and discovering new people and ways of thinking and living. I don’t like to see or make films where I already know the filmmaker’s position from the start. I like films that are experiential, not descriptive or informative.

In India, most documentary filmmakers are also activists in their own right. How do you see yourself in that light?

I’m not an ‘activist-filmmaker’. Nor am I ‘woman-filmmaker’. I don’t like all these labels. I’m a filmmaker, a feminist and when the need arises, an activist. My films grow out of my world view and interests.

So how easy or difficult is it in India to secure funds for making a documentary? 

The biggest problem for documentary filmmakers in India is the lack of funds. There’s PSBT but it funds only short documentaries and they give paltry funds. IFA supports documentaries related to art but every year only a few get this fund.

It’s the ministries which have a lot of funds marked for documentaries but unfortunately these funds rarely go to the deserving filmmakers. There are no private or TV funds in India and the few feature-length documentaries being made today are thanks to international support. Till we don’t have funding and distribution avenues in India, documentary will continue to suffer. The good news is that the Films Division, the nodal body set up to support Indian documentary, is trying to reinvent itself and we are hoping that it will give the necessary fillip to the Indian documentary.

Also Read:

Film Review: Nishtha Jain’s Gulabi Gang

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