Are all documentaries political? Somnath Waghmare – the filmmaker behind documentaries such as I am Not a Witch, which took up the issue of witch-hunting in Nandurbar district, and Battle of Bhima Koregaon, which presents a historical narrative of Mahar soldiers (untouchables) defeating the Brahminical rule of the Peshwas – believes no form of art can be separated from politics.
Documentaries are a significant medium of understanding and engaging with society. Currently pursuing his PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Waghmare utilises the form to understand a specific historical narrative or present a factual narrative. Waghmare believes that the medium of a documentary must be understood like a book – it presents to the audience a certain narrative with a political stance.
In an interview, Waghmare discusses his approach to the process of making a documentary and how he approaches sensitive issues.
When did you realise you wanted to pursue documentary filmmaking?
My journey began in 2014-2015 when I made my first film. While doing my Master’s in Media and Communication, I watched a lot of films and realised that there were very few films that were addressing the issues I was concerned with. And if they were delving into those topics, they were doing it in a way that I found inadequate. That is when I thought of giving filmmaking a shot.
In your film, I Am Not A Witch, you engage with a very sensitive issue. How do you approach people for such conversations?
I was a part of the Ambedkarite movement during my college years and Andhashraddha Nirmolan Samiti was a part of college. Engaging with sensitive issues in an empathetic manner was something I learned through this experience. Initially, I could not understand the language of the woman I interviewed for my first film. But I never looked at those I work with as ‘subjects’ – it is important to understand them as humans, as individuals. I was an outsider in the Adivasi community, and when I was shooting the film, I let people say whatever they wanted to without bringing in my thoughts, views or opinions.
I do not interfere – I only play the role of the narrator.
What do you think of the kinds of films that are being made currently?
Film is an expensive medium and in Maharashtra, Dalit literature is quite popular now. In theatres, there are plays around these issues too but somehow there weren’t many Ambedkarite films. Some people have economic control over the medium of film. The films made in India belong to particular people. In Mumbai, the film industry, all of the narratives that are told through films are of the elite class. Whatever films are made, they are not resonant with the reality of the majority of people. Any artist or filmmaker can only use what they see around them for their films.
What role do you think a documentary plays in challenging these narratives?
We must look at a documentary like a book. Just like we approach academic research and academic books, my films have been referred to by academics. A documentary is not like fiction, it deals with facts, so we should look at it as a book in a visual form. The issue is that we do not have a platform for documentaries in India – documentaries do not release in movie halls, so they end up being circulated in specific circles, such as university campuses and so on. There is no specific website where people can engage with them, thus they do not reach the masses – and not even those communities whose stories are being told.
Do you think that art or documentaries can be apolitical?
I don’t think any form of art can be separated from politics. Every choice that is made is political. For instance, if you go to a restaurant and you’re a vegetarian, you will order vegetarian food – which is a political choice. Every act is political. The idea that arts and politics are separate is not true. Choices begin right from the topic that one decides to work on.
Whichever community and society a filmmaker is born in would impact and shape them as an individual. I think that, especially in India, one’s political ideology is largely determined by their caste and location.
Do you think of the audience while making your documentaries?
No, I don’t think of the audience. I don’t wonder as to who would watch the documentaries once they are made. Whoever wants to watch it, will watch it. I don’t have a particular set audience in my mind while making films – anyone can watch them.
Could you speak about your filming process?
I don’t have a team as such. I have a friend circle and I meet people, be they academicians, or professors and I don’t script anything. I start recording and I record for a year or two until it is good enough. After that, I begin the process of post-production.
Do you plan to take a historical approach in your documentaries or does it happen in the process of making the film?
The thing about documentaries is that a lot of things are undecided. The one thing which is decided is which side of politics you are trying to portray, whether or not it is conscious to the documentary filmmaker is different, but each documentary has a certain political stance. You can follow an informant to understand a subject but how the conversation or events will unfold during the process of shooting is something that one cannot predict.
How has the pandemic impacted your work?
I am also working on a PhD, so I do not pursue filmmaking full-time. The biggest impact has been on those who moved to Mumbai for work and had to go back to their respective villages. Not everyone is from the city, a lot of students come to the city for education, but the pandemic forced a lot of people to go back. In a village, it is difficult because you do not have people to discuss your work with or who acknowledge your work. I think that has been the biggest impact of the pandemic.
What is your upcoming film Chaityabhoomi about?
The film is about a place called Chaityabhoomi, which is located in Dadar. It is about its history. It talks about a certain kind of politics – for instance, take the BSP’s statues, and how some people criticise them while being okay with certain other statues of leaders.
My film is not about statues, but it is broadly about public spaces and public funding and the politics of these decisions and debates.
What role do you think documentaries play in an educational space?
I think that it is extremely important to show documentaries in the classroom. Just like we are expected to read books, it is important to show documentaries and expose students to this form.
Would you recommend any documentary filmmakers to watch?
There are many good documentary filmmakers, but when it comes to Indian documentary fil-makers, most of them are residents of the city, and they make films on Dalit, and Adivasi communities and bag awards for the same, get recognized for the same and benefit from it, without having much concern about the issues that they work with.
I don’t think they acknowledge their privilege, because film is an expensive medium, and unless an individual has enough resources, it is not possible to work on a film for years at a stretch. I can look at a film and understand what community the filmmaker comes from – it is evident in the gaze of the filmmaker.
In academia too, I think there is a lack of addressing the central question of caste, a lot of academic work is theoretical and does not address a lot of significant questions because by doing so, it would question one’s privilege. There are a lot of academic works which are full of philosophical jargon and beat around the bush.
Interviewed by Shivani Chunekar, Jr. Research Assistant at Monk Prayogshala
Featured image: Somnath Waghmare (Documentary film director in India). Photo: Wikimedia Commons