New age patrons

A NORTHEAST TAPESTRY: SIX DOCUMENTARIES ON THE NORTHEAST BY INDEPENDENT FILMMAKERS. Produced by Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU). India International Centre, New Delhi. July 3-4, 2002
Where The Tallest Grass Grows: Bamboo Culture of Assam, Mauleenath Senapati • Woven Art of Assam, Ranjit Das • Weaving hands Alexander, Leo Pau • Monpas of Arunachal Pradesh, Gokul Krishna Borkakoti • Kok Borok Language of Tripura, Debashish Saha • Binding Threads, Metevinuo Sakhrie

Patrons of art are not going to have it easy in the postmodernist era. The Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) should learn this lesson soon. The six documentaries screened on July 3 and July 4 at the India International Centre (IIC) were from a bunch of 20, funded under the Northeast Media Focus Initiative of the university. All 20 documentaries are scheduled to be screened in August at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi.

The IGNOU'S Electronic Media Production Centre chose 20 independent filmmakers from the Northeast to make documentaries on issues facing this region. It set up a two-step clearinghouse for ideas and empanelled a host of experts on various topics, including documentary production, to 'screen' the ideas before budgets were sanctioned. Experts scanned through scripts and draft documentaries submitted by filmmakers. They laid down norms, basically deciding the circumference within which filmmakers must fix the loci of their productions. With some of the productions almost complete, IGNOU decided to test the waters of public perception and screened six out of the 20 documentaries at IIC.

It is a valiant venture by the university. One, to give space to independent filmmakers from a neglected region booming with potential and two, to try and find an audience beyond its usual Doordarshan afternoon slot. Valiant but half hearted, to put it mildly.
With strings attached Besides depicting specific themes, the six documentaries silently screamed out two points to ponder. One, when will documentaries stop being mere efforts to document? Two, when will funding agencies, especially the government, learn that documentaries are products of two primary inputs - ideas and money? Both are indispensable. But shortage of the earlier input, can kill the documentary even before production begins.

All six documentaries kick-started with the advantage that they dealt with domains, exotic to Delhi tastes. Sample this - the Naga art of shawl weaving, the weaving tradition of Assam and the political history of Kok-borok language of Tripura - assorted rarities, for an urban Delhi audience. Even the 'eclectic' assembly at IIC was mesmerised by the displayed pulchritude of northeast. But, what of a refreshing perspective?

Well, the idea was there but lost in a belaboured execution. The laboriousness quite evidently came from ensuring that the production adhered to IGNOU guidelines. At least three of the six documentaries had distinct sparks of creativity. But these sparks died out before igniting any flame of argument.

Take the case of 'Where the Tallest Grass Grows: the Bamboo Culture of Assam', directed by Mauleenath Senapati, an alumni of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. Mauleenath could not have found a theme more central to life in the northeast. But focussing the initial 10 minutes on only the botanical description of the species, he lost precious time and the wavering attention of a restless audience. Latin names of plants are for scientists and academics. They mean little to people. Did Mauleenath fall prey to the demands of an academically bent IGNOU, which despite its posturing, was unable to shed the responsibility of 'educating' the masses?

Could they have done better without the excessive tutoring of experts?

Instead of playing the strict and rigid mother, IGNOU could have acted the part of a helpful aunt. By forcing a didactic regime, it half-killed the novelty of the idea. Today, when the semantics of conveyance and communication too are under scrutiny, documentaries must go beyond being a mere presentation of data and documentation. Once the filmmakers had been chosen, the university could have simply disbursed monies and let the filmmakers handle the idea independently. The final crop, surely, would have been to everybody's greater liking. Dispensing patronage, IGNOU should realise, is an onerous task - only worth it, if borne lightly.