Right-wing groups in India use WhatsApp Messenger as a key platform to sustain an ecosystem of hate. Along with photographs and text messages, video clips play an important role in the circulatory networks of these groups. Independent documentary practitioners in India have a history of opposing right-wing narratives. Despite the restrictions posed by censorship regulations, filmmakers have made many single-screen-works that challenge the assertions of right-wing groups. These works have gained significant non-theatrical circulation through community screenings and other modes of dissemination. My paper will use the context of such documentary practice to examine the possibility of using transmedia documentary work to respond to right-wing WhatsApp circulations. This will be done by exploring the insights which emerged from my practice-based research project Bura na milya koi (I didn’t find anyone evil) which relies on the work of the fifteenth century South Asian weaver poet Kabir who refused to identify as either Hindu or Muslim. Since the idea of an essentialist division between Hindus and Muslims is integral to the right-wing ecosystem of hate, the project experiments with ways of transmedia production and circulation that can work against such essentialist notions. The paper will examine the role of this project and similar transmedia work within the larger history of independent documentary practice in India.
Fathima Nizaruddin is an academic and documentary filmmaker. She is an Assistant Professor at AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Currently she is a postdoctoral fellow at the International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-strategies of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung. Her film Nuclear Hallucinations (2016), which emerged out of her practice-based PhD at the University of Westminster, has been screened at various festivals and academic spaces.
Whereas Public Service Broadcasting Trust of India remains one of the primary funders of documentaries, producing films that largely adhere to the conventional TV broadcast format and aesthetic, Indians increasingly consume media via their mobile phones, turning to interactive platforms Youtube, Facebook, TikTok. Building on my experience of having produced three documentaries on gender in India for PSBT, and recently filmed a VR-360 documentary series, I reflect on promises and limitations of the two different mediums for storytelling. Whereas multimodal platforms allow documentary filmmakers to circumvent the limitations placed upon them by the state censorship apparatus, these mediums severely limit the film’s prospects for circulation at film festivals, on television and within public forums. This paper also considers the subversive possibilities of multimodality, particularly against the backdrop of increasingly authoritarian and vindictive government, while acknowledging the inherent technocratic hierarchies imbedded within multimodal content creation and circulation, especially when considering questions of access. Drawing on postcolonial theories of hybrid cultural forms in response to authoritarianism, I consider the heteroglossic and multivocal possibilities that can be found in multimodal storytelling such as VR 360. Over the last decades, it has become harder and harder for organizations such as PSBT to sustain the kind of critical storytelling and honest journalistic engagement as they are subjected to increase scrutiny by the nation state. I end by reflecting on the value of these endangered institutions in maintaining a healthy democratic discourse, and ways in which the international documentary community can offer its support.
Harjant Gill is an Associate Professor of anthropology at Towson University. His research examines the intersections of masculinity, modernity, transnational migration and popular culture in India. Gill is also an award-winning filmmaker and has made several ethnographic films that have screened at international film festivals and on television channels worldwide including BBC, Doordarshan (Indian National TV) and PBS. He co-directed the SVA Film & Media Festival (2012-2014), and currently serves on the board of directors of Society for Visual Anthropology (SVA) and co-edits the Multimodal Anthropologies section of the journal American Anthropologist. His website is HarjantGill.com
In the last decade, especially with Modi’s assent, the growth of social media has been fast and furious. Old childhood friendships have broken over Whatsapp posts. New solidarities have been formed on the basis of social media reporting from the frontlines of resistance. We are witnessing, and are participants in events unfolding simultaneously across distances. The ability to live broadcast and record an event as it is happening, and thus influence its outcome has radicalized a form of storytelling capable of this sense of history. I see parallels here to the narratives of Partition; to the sense of being in the grip of a historical sweep in which individual acts of heroism and betrayal were very real, but somehow small, everyday occurrences against the larger movement of time. Such a colossal unfolding of lives could not be adequately presented in the form of a tragedy with an individual protagonist. The form that came close to describing this reality was the epic. I take this term both from Bertolt Brecht and the Indian epic tradition of storytelling, and suggest that this narrative device is being claimed by antagonistic sides in the current political conjecture. On the Hindutva side, it calls upon the individual to sublimate oneself a quest for revenge. Against it is the narrative of individual subject acting as a historical subject doing her part in making history. The dividing line is the distinction between myth and history. My evidence will be WhatApp messages, Facebook, and other social media reports.
Jyotsna Kapur is a Professor of Cinema and Media Studies, who is cross-appointed with Sociology at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Her research and teaching interests include: Marxist-feminist theory of media arts and culture; the politics of labor, class, race, and sexuality in neoliberalism; History and theory of the documentary idea; Third Cinema; and Global children’s media culture. She is the author of The Politics of Time and Youth in Brand India: Bargaining with Capital (2013); Coining for Capital: Movies, Marketing, and the Transformation of Childhood (2005); and with Keith Wagner, Neoliberalism and Global Cinema: Capital, Culture and Marxist Critique (2012)
Shohini Ghosh is the Sajjad Zaheer Professor of media at the AJK Mass Communication Research Center, Jamia Millia Islamia. She is an essayist on popular culture and a documentary filmmaker.