Images of Another India: Notes on Media Education Initiatives

By Margaret Dickinson

letters-and-learning-ajay-t-g.jpgLetters and Learning, 2003

India’s 60th anniversary in August was celebrated by stories of burgeoning prosperity qualified by an occasional, anxious reference to another India. India’s independent documentary filmmakers have given us some telling images of this ‘other India’ but even they are not themselves from it, or at least not those with an international reputation. This is a situation which several organisations are trying to address through access training. Sewa Video and Drishti Media, for example, train people with minimal formal education while Jandarshan, in Chhattisgarh State, trains graduates - but much poorer and less educated ones than those who normally get media jobs. Around half its students are from scheduled castes (former untouchables) and scheduled tribes.

Such access courses do not automatically turn out distinctive filmmakers but they certainly lead to work with a distinctive edge.  I have seen this in the context of Jandarshan which began as part of a project I co-ordinated but has continued to run courses since the project ended in 2001. The training is designed to provide access to jobs and many former students do now work in the media but this success has a downside in that the desire to please potential employers exercises a conservative influence. Nevertheless, some of the student films successfully assert a difference from commercial film and tv.

Difference is most visible in drama exercises since their plots unfold in a world refreshingly devoid of the marble interiors and almost white stars of tv soap operas. The characters look like people on the streets, live in mud houses or cramped flats and meet adventures precipitated by hazards like a broken down bus or a power cut.

The documentaries are not so obviously distinctive. This is the genre of conscience and an elite crew from Delhi or London might film in a Chhattisgarh slum. A Jandarshan crew’s advantage of local knowledge would only show clearly if they used it to contradict received wisdom. But for these students, learning to contradict authority is hard and I would not claim their films consciously argue with mainstream representation but that some subtly complement it by instinctively drawing on lived experience.

For instance, one takes as its subject mitans – same sex friends who make a lifelong commitment cemented by a ceremony and who, unlike marriage partners, may come from different castes. It is a practice common and popular in Chhattisgarh but declining among the emergent middle class. Another film revolves round a personality from the student’s small home town, a respected singer of the Hindu epic, the Ramayan, who is himself a Muslim. Often it is nuances which matter. In one autobiographical film, the woman filmmaker taxes her father with having mourned over her birth because she was a girl. The plight of daughters is a popular tv topic often reported with a tone of sanctimonious hysteria but here there is humour as well as pain and the exchange makes the father look more foolish than wicked.

Margaret Dickinson is a writer, filmmaker and independent film activist.