Documentary is a vibrant and potent genre – Geetika Narang Abbasi
“Why does a documentary necessarily need to be slow paced, why does it have to be preachy?”, questions Geetika Narang Abbasi who believes that a film should be entertaining. Her first short film Good Night (2008) was applauded across various national and international forums. Her latest venture titled Much Ado About Knotting (2012) is a documentary with a twist, unlike the customary serious subjects itching to send out a message. It is a light-hearted take on the matchmaking scenario in our society, which is but obsessed with marriages. The film chronicles the often funny and sometimes sad predicament of finding the ideal match that every individual faces in his or her life. The film has been appreciated at various renowned international forums including the Planete+ Doc Film Festival in Poland, New York Indian Film Festival, Byron Bay International Film Festival in Australia, and River To River Florence Indian Film Festival in Italy amongst others.
In a freewheeling chat with Pandolin, Geetika talks about the making of this unusual documentary, the challenges faced by independent filmmakers, the documentary scene in India and much more.
How did your journey into filmmaking happen? Tell us about your first film, Good Night.
Ah, how I wish I had a dramatic incident to narrate, but I am afraid, the origin of Good Night was most random. I was at a cafe with my cinematographer friend Yasir (now my husband), and I put across a hypothetical situation where a man can’t sleep because he is not able to remember the exact lyrics of a song. He saw a lot of potential in this idea and pushed me to develop a story based on it. Being admirers of Hindi film music, this was also a situation we often found ourselves in. Until we actually find out the missing lyrics, there’s nothing else we can concentrate on. So, I wrote the story and Yasir shot the film and co-produced it with me. It was our first independent project together.[pullquote_right]Nowadays people experiment a lot with the form but it’s important to know what you want to say through the film. Shooting without a vision and putting the film together on the edit table can be tricky.[/pullquote_right]
What inspired you to choose the subject of marriage for your second film?
This subject is very close to us as when we came up with this idea, both Anandana (Kapur), the co-director of the film, and I were going through the so-called ‘marriageable age’. There are certain age brackets that our society defines for getting married, i.e. 20 – 25 years for girls and 25 -30 years for men. There is an immense pressure to get married in this particular phase of one’s life. This was also happening with my friends who were looking for a match online. A friend of mine would keep sharing interesting stories and experiences when she met people for matrimonial purpose. While some were very funny, others would be very depressing as well, since nobody likes rejections. We thought that something on online matchmaking would be interesting. The story then shifted from just online to the different avenues that people explore to get married. Anandana had the same connect with the story too and we had a great time making this film because we could relate so well with the subject.
Since Much Ado About Knotting deals with such an expansive idea, what was your principle approach towards formulating this story?
We definitely wanted to have fun with the film and wanted to have humor, which was inherent in the subject itself. We didn’t do much to make it funny as the situation itself is such that people do all kind of things to get married, which is kind of funny. We actually had problems while editing as there was so much content and one didn’t know where to chop it! We overshot because there were so many stories – the matchmaking industry is constantly innovating and is a very dynamic industry. We also interviewed my grandmother and her sister about how it was at their time, but we couldn’t use that, as we wanted to focus on what is happening now. These days there are so many avenues to find the right partner but still people don’t. It is a very long process and we tried to dwell into it to find the answers as to why is it so difficult.
How was your experience finding the right people who would be willing to share their experience?
We did have problems finding characters for our film. Though it is a global and pan cultural phenomenon and everybody is willing to talk about it, but when it comes to talking in front of the camera, things get difficult. If you are looking for a match and haven’t found anyone for 2 – 3 yrs, people think that there must be some problem with you. There is a lot of stigma attached to it, especially for girls. At the same time, Rajeev, the prospective groom, one of the main characters in the film, had a lot of inhibitions initially to talk about it in front of the camera too. It’s not very easy to find love and not everybody is lucky to find love. That is one of the main reasons why people are willing to look for a match on their own rather than depending on their family members to do so.
[pullquote_right]With documentary filmmaking you are not really in a controlled situation, and you cannot say what kind of content you will get. While shooting a documentary, a lot of creative decisions are taken by the cinematographer. [/pullquote_right]
What was the making process of the film like?
We first made a research reel with a handy-cam and shot with random people on the streets. Earlier, we had thought that this would make a great story for a fiction film. However, the way the research reel shaped up made us realize that there is so much interesting content in real life and hence we decided to go ahead with the documentary format. It also gave us an idea of how we wanted to treat the film. Since people were seemingly willing to talk about it, we decided to structure the film around interviews. We thought that this is one subject that people would like to hear about and it would be good to have it straight from the horse’s mouth. We also thought of interesting sequences and contemplated on having wedding songs as part of the narrative style. Music is intrinsic to marriages and we incorporated a few songs within the narrative sung by the Mirasins – the traditional wedding singers.
What are the different ways of creating a good story for a documentary filmmaker?
For any film a lot of pre-production is very important. It is also very important to have a clear vision in mind of what the film is about. We were quite sure about what we wanted – we knew that we won’t have any voice-overs and will take the film forward through interviews and the overlapping life stories of our characters. Nowadays people experiment a lot with the form but it’s important to know what you want to say through the film. That is the key for any good film because you can’t just go and randomly shoot something. Shooting without a vision and putting the film together on the edit table can be tricky. Being an editor myself, I realize the pitfalls of that approach. It is always useful to have a script ready before you commence the shoot.
Does being a professional editor help to edit your own films?
Of course there are times when I wish there was someone else to edit the film, but undeniably it is a big boon to edit one’s own films. It is imperative that an editor is able to accurately translate the director’s vision. When editing one’s own film, that part is automatically taken care of! The crucial thing to do is to retain the objectivity. It is also very handy during a shoot because one knows exactly how the footage will be used, and hence shoot accordingly.
So what was your brief to your husband a.k.a the cinematographer of the film?
We had a funny time, as we were just married. Infact I got married during the making of this film. We were clear about what we wanted and it helped that both Anandana and I had worked with Yasir (DoP) previously as well. For this film, we were essentially looking for a look to complement the peppy narrative and we wanted bright colors and uncluttered frames. Within that brief, there were improvisations and a lot of stuff was shot impromptu. With documentary filmmaking you are not really in a controlled situation, and you cannot say what kind of content you will get. While shooting a documentary, a lot of creative decisions are taken by the cinematographer. Yasir always asked us how long each sequence was intended to be and shot accordingly. We deliberated on the correct format to shoot this and ultimately settled on HDV.
[pullquote_left]Funding remains a huge challenge that every documentary filmmaker faces. We still have a long way to go to make independent filmmaking in India financially viable.[/pullquote_left]
Were there any surprises during the film?
A lot of things happened during the shoot. Firstly, due to the intensely personal nature of the subject, we didn’t expect our talking leads to speak so openly and so genuinely with us. That was a very happy surprise. We shot at markets and randomly found great signage like Wedding Weaves etc. that worked with the context of our film. There were a lot of other surprises too, like the swayamvar wherein guys and girls gather with their families at a common place organized by an online matrimonial portal. People are called on stage and asked to list out their requirements. There were around 1000 people all for the same purpose and we really didn’t expect it to be this huge.
What was the duration of the shoot?
The conceptualization of the idea happened a year before we got the funds. Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT) – the producer, makes a lot of films every year and they have been excellent as producers. Once we got the funding it took us another year to complete the film.
Would you advice amateur documentary filmmakers to adopt this route of working on a subject that they are passionate about and then approaching PSBT?
Yes ,the commissioning of films at PSBT is a very genuine process. They call for applications from all over the country and do a careful selection of a few films. The best part is that they give you complete creative liberty, which is great. You are chosen according to your merit, research and the vision that you really have. They also promote a lot of new filmmakers. This was my first time with them and it is definitely one great route. I also believe that conviction and compassion for a project is very important. Those are pre-requisites before looking for any kind of funding. With our film, we were also lucky to have the support of Triggerpitch, a fabulous enterprise of the Indian Documentary Foundation.
Tell us about the Triggerpitch experience.
Triggerpitch is a unique and much-needed platform for documentary filmmakers. We got a very positive response from the panel of distributors and film promoters who we pitched our film to. It all happened in a very friendly and interactive environment and it was really encouraging to see such keen interest in the film. It was primarily due to Triggerpitch that the film really came into the spotlight vis-a-vis the visibility in mainstream media. It’s a brilliant initiative and I hope it achieves greater success.
[pullquote_right]We should have more festivals that recognize the potential and capabilities of filmmakers. There is an audience but you have to reach out to them, the audience won’t come to you.[/pullquote_right]
What is the documentary scene in India currently like?
Documentary, by its very essence, is a vibrant and potent genre. Unlike not very long ago, things are changing in India, as there are a lot of good documentaries that are being made. There is a lot of fresh talent, the attitude of people is changing and they are working on many interesting topics. When people saw our film, a lot of them said it’s so funny and unlike a documentary – it’s not serious. Why does a documentary necessarily need to be slow paced, why does it have to be preachy? Fortunately, a lot of people are experimenting with this form of filmmaking. For me, it doesn’t really matter what genre one is catering to – a film is a film at the end of the day. It may or may not have a social message, but it should definitely invoke that interest among the audience. You are making it for them after all.
And how easy or difficult is it to get funding for such projects?
Funding remains a huge challenge that every documentary filmmaker faces. With technology becoming easily accessible, it is relatively easy to make a film nowadays. The challenging part is the funding for promotion and distribution that is needed to reach out to the audience. This is actually true for all kinds of independent films, and not necessarily documentaries alone. You’ll face the same problem while making an independent feature film, unless you have a good production house backing you.
At the same time, there are a lot of foreign funding agencies that are there and with a little help from the Internet there is a good possibility that you will be able to find one. Globally too people are looking at Indian subjects very keenly. The reason why Much Ado About Knotting has worked with the global audience is because it shows how a universal situation pans out in an Indian set-up. There are a lot of festivals abroad that are dedicated to Indian films. My first short fiction film Good Night was entirely self-funded. Initially, there were no buyers who would take us seriously. Subsequently, it went to festivals, won awards, and was recognized all over the world. So we do have a global audience nowadays and that’s what is changing. With a good film in hand, there are avenues to tap into the market. Having said that, we still have a long way to go to make independent filmmaking in India financially viable.
Any changes that you want to see in independent filmmaking?
Not really. With the growing acceptance for it, I just hope it sustains itself as a voice and becomes more accessible to the audience in due course of time.
How do you bring about this change?
That’s something that will gradually happen over a period of time. Our country should have more funding agencies and we should recognize the efforts that a filmmaker puts into making a film. There should be more communities that come together, have more festivals that recognize the potential and capabilities of filmmakers. There is an audience but you have to reach out to them, the audience won’t come to you. We have been watching National Geographic and Discovery Channel for so long but there is hardly any content by Indians. A lot of their content is about India but it is put together by a foreign crew. To their credit, they do a brilliant job at it, sometimes better than us. Once we start producing quality stuff on a regular basis, change is inevitable. Slowly but steadily, we are getting there.[box_info]
A quick guide to documentary filmmaking
- Believe in your subject. Recognize the potential.
- Befriend your character. Trust them and let them trust you as much.
- You cannot be intimidating. You cannot go with preconceived notions about the story and the character.
- A good team is vital – a perceptive Cinematographer and Sound Recordist can work wonders on a documentary.
- Be aware all the time, as you can miss out on exciting moments.
- Just go on. Don’t quit.
– As told to Shweta Wadhwa