Abstract of a dissertation
This dissertation is an ethnographic study of the socio-political and economic contexts, ideologies, and activism of documentary filmmaking in post Nehruvian India. Focusing on documentary filmmakers' rejection of state-sponsored documentary canons, their critiques of state, cultural, and economic institutions, and their battles against censorship, this ethnography links documentary's legacy of political activism to the far-reaching social and political transformations of post-liberalization India. In doing so, it asks: in what ways does the social world of documentary film open up new possibilities for political engagement and social transformation? And, how do documentary filmmakers reimagine and reinterpret discourses about the national public sphere and citizenship in India in a time of "globalization?"
The dissertation engages documentary filmmakers' battles against censorship amidst the vast expansion of documentary film festivals and screening spaces in the early twenty first century. Focusing on the Campaign against Censorship, in which filmmakers directly confronted the state over the censorship of their films, it explores the ways in which the "censorship debates" among filmmakers foregrounded questions of activist ideologies, form, and the aesthetics of political filmmaking. These questions were inextricably linked with histories in which documentary filmmaking has been deployed within "nation-building" projects and as activist tools in social movements in postcolonial India. I show how this legacy continues to define documentary film, even as filmmakers attempt to rearticulate and question these histories in the context of shifts in markets, audiences, and technologies that redefined the terrain of political activism in post-liberalization India.
Even as collective action on censorship stalled amidst internal dissensions, these critical debates took vital, material form within the rapid proliferation of documentary film festivals in the country. The new festival spaces marked the emergence of "documentary publics, " critical counterpublics that, I argue, represented a distinctly alternative political formation in the context of the forces of religious nationalism and globalizing consumerism that have defined India's post Nehruvian public sphere. Converging through multiple, divergent screening histories, these publics embodied a social imagination based on ideals of collectivity, inclusiveness, and an abiding ethical commitment, and marked the unpredictable borders of political possibility in contemporary India.