Telling women's stories: Documentaries made by Indian women are winning awards at both national and international forums

On February 26 this year, the film Saving Face, directed by Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy about acid attacks in Pakistan won the Oscar for a short documentary.

The recognition was a proud moment, particularly for South Asians.

'I think it is extremely significant, because an award of the stature of the Oscars immediately draws the attention of the public to the issue of women survivors of acid attacks,' says Kolkata based documentary filmmaker, Ananya Chatterjee Chakrabarti.

While the documentary genre is at a nascent stage in Pakistan, it is thriving in India, especially films made by women directors.

Still from film On My Own about the trials of living alone for women in Delhi

Still from film On My Own about the trials of living alone for women in Delhi

So much so, on March 8, International Women's Day, the Asian chapter of the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT) organised the seventh edition of the annual Asian Women's Film Festival, in Delhi.

This year it showcased around 50 documentary films made by women of Asian origin.

The festival theme was 'Ways of Seeing: Rhetoric and Reality,' which explored the different sensibilities that women filmmakers bring to the medium.

'This was a way for women to showcase their work and make you sit up and look at their perspective to issues,' says Jai Chandiram, the festival's director.

Perspectives vary

Many women choose the subjects of their documentaries in what Chandiram calls 'the unrecorded participation of women'.

Over the last three decades, an increasing number of women in India are making documentaries and using them as a tool for raising consciousness and social change, says Dipti Gupta in her Master's thesis on Indian women documentary filmmakers.

Their work reflects an extensive variety of styles and genres, a comprehensive range of subjects and a broad spectrum of ideological perspectives that reflect India's diversity.

Saba Dewan's film The Other Song is an attempt to revive the life of singer Rasoolan Bai

Saba Dewan's film The Other Song is an attempt to revive the life of singer Rasoolan Bai

Many of them have been actively involved in the women's movement, which provided the inspiration of their topics for documentaries.

What separates feature films from documentaries is that the latter comprise of a broad category of nonfictional motion pictures which document some aspect of reality.

A 'documentary film' was originally shot on film stock but now includes video and digital productions that can be either direct-tovideo, made as a television programme or released for screening in cinemas.

So many issues

In 1980, Deepa Dhanraj founded 'Yugantar' a film collective and went on to direct three films on various aspects of women's struggles.

Since then she has gone on to direct many films of women's successes and struggles.

Documentary maker Reena Mohan's films include Deep Skin and Kamlabai

Documentary maker Reena Mohan's films include Deep Skin and Kamlabai

In 1981, Mira Nair, who moved onto commercial cinema, directed the documentary 'Children of Desired Sex', set in a Mumbai family planning clinic, focusing on the male child preference of Indians and the aborting of female foetuses.

Kolkata based Ananya Chatterjee- Chakraborty's most recent production about women and child trafficking, Understanding Trafficking, won the Ladli-United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in 2010.

She is currently working on a film on 'football therapy' for the survivors of trafficking.

Among Delhi based Sameera Jain's documentaries is one on Sagira Begum – an ancestral zari (golden thread) embroiderer and another on indigenous childbirth practices and practitioners.

Her latest production Dilli Mera Shahr (Delhi my City), is about women and urban space, and depicts how the prism of gen- der changes notions of spaces.

Social sciences researcher and filmmaker Anupama Srinivasan's films cover a range of topics such as women living alone in Delhi and child sexual abuse.

Reena Mohan's documentaries include a profile of a 33 year old businesswoman who renounces the material world for the austere life of a Jain nun and one featuring Maya Sorte, a 37 year old Dalit grassroots leader from Maharashtra.

The latter focuses on the incredible will and vision of the protagonist to overcome obstacles of illiteracy, poverty and gender and become an elected representative in the village council.

Many motives

Women make documentaries and focus on women for many reasons.

For Srinivasan, it is a fascinating way to understand and explore the world around her.

'Documentary offers the possibility of making a film in a smaller budget, with a smaller crew, and offers more creative freedom,' she says.

After working for years in various genres, Mohan found documentaries truly excited her.

'And within this, the stories of ordinary people and how they live their lives,' she says.

For Chatterjee- Chakraborty, who says all her work is around gender and human rights, documentaries come naturally.

Anupama Srivastava's film On My Own Again is about child sexual abuse

Anupama Srivastava's film On My Own Again is about child sexual abuse

'I can identify with women's issues completely, possibly because I am a woman, and someone who has experienced the rough edge of life,' she says.

The challenges for women who make documentaries are many.

For Srinivasan, the challenge is to be true to the people she has filmed and to herself. Mohan says being a woman sometimes hinders her work as a documentary filmmaker.

'It's hard to be invisible in a country where the female body is public property in public space; however gender is something that eventually fades into the background for me.'

For Dewan, the challenge is to avoid the temptation of spoon feeding the audience by masquerading information as a visual experience and by giving simplistic, preconceived answers rather than raising complex questions.

Besides making documentaries, these women teach, do workshops and train NGOs and women's organisations to use the camera to document their lives and experiences.

Their films have won many awards and paved the way for others keen on breaking into this medium.