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Reframing participant and audience: a tactics of circulation in Indian documentary

Published onApr 08, 2022
Reframing participant and audience: a tactics of circulation in Indian documentary

I would like my films to make a difference in the real world. I'm not content to make a film and let it sit idle or let it go only to some film festival or museum and be appreciated by a tiny fraction of well-to-do people. I want the films to be in the mainstream and do as much as I can to get into that mainstream, so that they have an impact in the real world [Patwardhan 2010].

How might circulation regulate the visibility, perception and effectiveness of independent documentary film? Though possibly unusual, the question speaks to the constitutive role played by the structures and practices of circulation in the differentiation, classification and ordering of documentary film insofar as regulating its prominence and perception in the public domain is concerned. In this article, I discuss how as a community of cultural producers, independent filmmakers and the media initiatives Cinema of Resistance and Chalchitra Abhiyan, have in addition to frontal judicial responses, formed an inventive repertoire of “minor practices” to summon publics since 2006 [de Certeau 1984]. This requires filmmakers to formulate action which embodies transformative potential beyond representation and the text such that their artistic objectives become tied with social and political resistance. Recognition of their own existential continuity with society has motivated Indian filmmakers to engage deeply with social realities, in their films but also in the spaces and conditions where the films are received.  Testament to this is the fact are filmmaker run screening initiatives such as Marupakkam where media activist Amudhan not only makes films on issues of livelihood, caste discrimination and industrial negligence at great personal risk but screens them in everyday spaces and with communities of participants.[Datta, 2010]

Structures and practices of circulation play a constitutive role in the differentiation, classification and ordering of documentary film insofar as regulating its prominence and perception in the public domain is concerned. From a cultural point of view, the “specific social history” and “social relationships” of media forms, according to Raymond Williams [Williams 1977, 163], are critical to meaning making, suggesting a materialist mode of analysis beyond the radical possibilities offered by subject matter or authorship If cultural analysis and criticism are to take into account social history as constitutive of meaning, the dialectics of circulation become central to the discussions. Inasmuch as circulation itself is a product of ideology it also produces ideologies through its mode of presentation and the meanings that it imparts or suppresses in works of art.  In Contemporary Cultures of Display, Christoph Grueneberg [Grunenberg 1999] provides potent insights into the ways that the exhibition of art works and cultural forms is shaped through ideologies and also produces perceptual regimes and viewpoints that politicise the act of viewing. The dominant mode of art display for instance - the modernist white cube of the modern art museum, conceals its ideological construction, a surface designed for “the apparent exclusion of all reference to the wider world beyond the domain of pure form” writes Grunenberg [Grunenberg 1999, 31]. The subordination of the original context and content made possible by the white cube results in an “effacement” of the struggles and religious, political and personal features particular to artworks and their contexts of production. This neutralisation of history transforms functional objects into museum objects of “aesthetic appreciation” [Grunenberg 1999, 31]. Therefore, beyond the specific site of viewing and subject production, structures, practices and modes of documentary circulation acquire political significance as constituent factors in the production of particular types of meanings, and documentary publics. 

Independent Indian filmmakers like Anand Patwardhan, R.P. Amudhan, K.P. Sasi and others take a political view of circulation and have reiterated their commitment to an expanded documentary public by going beyond the limits of critical and aesthetic appreciation that materialise in spaces like film festivals and cultural institutions. The stories of Anand Patwardhan and Deepa Dhanraj travelling with a 16 mm projector to screen their films are legendary and speak of a practice that extends beyond the work of authorship or artistic expression.1

In the context of film and video, in addition to representation, these public ambitions sketch an interventionist agenda traversing new social and geographical territories as a response to political and institutional authority forms that shape circulation circuits and therefore the formation of publics. Hence by focusing upon practices of circulation and bringing into discussion wider sociological arrangements of infrastructure, labour, public policy, institutions and technology, I am concerned with how circulation may be repositioned as “mediator’ [Latour 2005, 39] that determines not only access but contains the possibilities for the transformation of social relations and perception of documentary itself.  Circulation forms that can survive the scrutiny of censorship but also other institutional factors that segregate the public domain into categories and classifications hope to bring a shift in relations between subject and society through a combination of representation but also in the form of concrete practices. 

Before going further, I will outline some ways to conceptualise independent documentary in India and why its circulation offers a rich terrain to think through the construction of publics. Independent documentary in India refers to an assemblage of practices that lie officially outside what was once the dominance of state film board documentary. Today it refers to not so much as an industrial category but a mode of practice and signifying system that critiques the politics of social process, institutions and hegemonic organisation.  Based in alternative forms of rewards which may include artistic independence and expression, solidarity with social movements and, resistance against statist projects, amongst others, independent documentary offers a critique of industrial media models, their processes, methods and the kinds of subjectivities and effects they engender [Kishore 2018][Jayasankar and Monteiro 2015][Wolf 2013]

Returning to circulation, circulation and exhibition face numerous cultural and industrial constrains such as official and unofficial forms of regulation and censorship and media commodity relations which govern the formation of publics and the subject positions that are available to negotiate and occupy. I will briefly outline key constraints that filmmakers confront in India that have led to alternative ways of conceptualising circulation based in concrete practices which I will discuss with examples. 

Official cultural regulation: censorship 

Along with “tenuous” funding and “unorganized” distribution, the state authority to censor documentary content produces one of the three “challenges and obstacles” faced by independent Indian documentary [Pendakur 1995]. The public exhibition or theatrical release of films in India is subject to certification by the Central Bureau of Film Certification (CBFC) in accordance with the Cinematograph Act, 1952, the Cinematograph (certification) Rules, 1983, and the guidelines issued by the central government under section 5 (B) in 1991. In India, The CBFC can either grant an Adult only (A) certificate, subject to demand for cuts in order to render a film eligible for Unrestricted (U) public exhibition, a necessary condition for television broadcast, or ban it outright under Article 19 (2) based upon perceptions of threat to the public order. Filmmakers have a right to appeal through the Appellate Tribunal and frequently challenge or negotiate a solution that allows public exhibition. The CBFC’s evaluation of the criteria of public interest offers a case in point where restrictions to the free flow of cultural meanings seek to shield the general public from counter information and more importantly, alternative semiotic orders.2

In 2004, the CBFC refused to grant a censor clearance certificate (2004) under Section 5(b) 1 of the Cinematograph Act, 1952, to Rakesh Sharma’s The Final Solution (2003), an investigative account of state complicity in the sectarian violence against the Muslim community of Ahmedabad, Gujarat in 2002 that left many thousands dead. Denying the certificate for public exhibition, the Board noted that the film “attacks the basic concept of our Republic i.e. National Integrity and Unity” with the additional fear of endangering “public order” [Sharma 2004]. While the film won the Wolfgang Staudte award at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Humanitarian Award for Outstanding Documentary at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, domestically it was consigned to private circulation. This action follows several earlier instances of similar rulings aimed at invisibilising particular films and viewpoints from the public domain. With eight of his films subjected to the censor’s demands for cuts, Anand Patwardhan is the most visible and vocal opponent against censorship of independent documentary alongside others including Shubradeep Chakravarty and Meera Chaudhry, Pankaj Butalia, Tapan Bose and Suhasini Mulay (this is by no means a comprehensive list) who choose a constitutionally authorised frontal approach to confront the marginalisation of documentary to the periphery of the public arena. In a determined exercise of individual constitutional rights, filmmakers have judicially challenged the decisions of the CBFC and in many cases secured significant victories through the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal and the higher courts.3 Featuring an entire section on ‘censorship and litigation’, Anand Patwardhan’s personal website is a digital archive of the filmmaker’s epic struggle against the Censor Board since 1975. Featuring court documents, media reporting, interviews, features and scholarly articles on the topic, it could be argued that by publicly sharing this struggle and surrounding discourse, the filmmaker affords the materials and methods of resistance to other artists, filmmakers and citizens.

Specifically, of concern are the official rationale offered, which would render a film ineligible for circulation. These include the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement of any offence (CBFC. in). At a semiotic level, censorship enshrines the state as the primary actor in the staging of public interest, where the interpretation of terminologies and categories by state appointed functionaries is selective and targeted. At a more philosophical level, Mazarella identifies a specifically paternalistic “pissing man” view of the masses founded on assumptions of an “underdeveloped political rationality” [Mazzarella 2013, 12]. Or in other words, extending from Colonial era beliefs of governance, colonised masses have been considered immature and irrational, ‘a volatile diversity perpetually on the brink of combustion’ and thus unable to act rationally in their own interest [Mazzarella 2013, 16].  The regulation of cultural meanings of obscenity, for instance, as a form governance, create a ‘performative dispensation’ that serves the interests of the censors [Mazzarella 2013, 191]. Censorship creates an appearance that the emergent potentials of mass-mediated image objects can in fact be effectively and centrally managed and moralized4.

Unofficial cultural regulation: Vigilante action 

Equally as restrictive as statutory tools are the unofficial forms of censorship in the form of vigilante groups emerging in the 1990s who sought to censor images of women’s sexuality and sexual freedom seen as “inimical to Indian culture” which later extended to artistic representations of religion, caste, language and other cultural symbols [Seshu 2016, 251]. In their analysis of this paradoxical threat to free expression wielded by citizens themselves Kaur and Mazzarella [Kaur and Mazzarella, 2009] interpret it as a consequence of the fragmentation of postcolonial notions of a national identity contiguous with the rise of consumerist desire and regional chauvinism.  Ideologically distinct from the nationhood frameworks of state censorship, the claims and counter claims are focused on issues of regional, linguistic, religious and caste based local self-interest. A paradoxical disregard for national institutions is indicated by the choice to bypass constitutional channels in a bid to directly check the circulation of counter or alternative narratives. “Such extra-legal censorship is the bane of our lives,” declares filmmaker Rakesh Sharma [qtd. in Joshi 2011]. The unauthorised primarily religious identity based groups restrict cultural performance and circulation through corporeal means and political intimidation directed towards producers, institutions and publics.5

Industrial forms of regulation: Commodity relations of media 

Arising from the historical and social positioning of media in commodity relations or market framework of consumption and operates by sectioning publics into categories based on qualitative criteria (e.g., opinions, tastes, education) and quantitatively (e.g. income, spending) and demographics (age, gender, language). As a case in point, the dominant Bollywood cinema model according to Tejaswini Ganti [Ganti 2004, 285] collapses social and cultural complexity by essentializing audiences in the taxonomy of “classes” and “masses”. These perspectives are grounded in a combination of personal “intuition, regional stereotypes and developmentalist perspectives” about the influence of education, occupation and geography upon subjectivities and thus taste cultures. Included in the “masses” and further downgraded as audiences from the dark “interiors”, are audiences from smaller regional towns and villages who are believed to be “poorly educated, culturally conservative, economically marginalized, and socially backward” [Ganti 2004, 291]. The binary arrangement places provincial and rural audiences fundamentally in opposition to the urban “classes” on scales such as intelligence and intellectual curiosity. The categorisation of audiences betrays a commodity view of cinema which is reflected in the screening structures; high end malls featuring multiplex theatres alongside fast food and retail outlets integrate cinema into leisure and entertainment consumption cultures targeting the urban affluent classes whilst single screen theatres with lower ticket prices cater to the masses in regional and smaller towns.

Circulation as tactical – theory and concepts

Insofar as these dividing categories and idealised modes of spectatorship organise media publics, the question is how documentary steps beyond its text based modes to produce an alternative relation between culture and subject positions. Or in other words, can circulation practices produce an alternative relation between culture and subject positions and prominently can documentary step beyond its institutionally approved functions of knowledge transmission to perform an organising function?  Documentary filmmakers have responded to this significant question by modifying work practices and concepts of ethics, which offer different relations between artist or cultural producer and audience. Importantly, by expanding this discussion to take into account broader structural and ideological questions that form around documentary, circulation can be conceptualised as occurring in a “shadow zone” located within and in the interstices of formal and regulated cultural circulation and exhibition. Drawing upon ideas sketched by Ramon Lobato [Lobato 2012, 4] about “shadow economies of cinema” or alternate economies of informal film circulation that lie beyond the reach of, “regulated, measured” forms of state and corporate governance, permits the circulation of radical content through alternative means.  In relation to documentary, I will argue, chief amongst these, is the development of “tactical circulation” across a virtual and historical terrain. Extending Michael de Certeau’s “tactics of practice” or operations or practices of everyday life in radical and contemporary directions, tactical circulation, I suggest, focuses on the pivotal attention to public performance of media by independent filmmakers [de Certeau 1984]. By tactics, Certeau refers to practices or conscious acts within the dominant cultural or social economy undertaken by people to transform and adapt rules for their own interests. Tactics are not official, frontal acts of power and authority utilising legal or economic rationalities but fragmentary, adapted, re-worked, manoeuvres that open up spaces and opportunities. This helps us to understand the idea of tactical media proposed by Garcia and Lovink who have suggested that tactical media are media production and circulation practices that are a distinctly political response by groups and individuals who “feel aggrieved by or excluded” from the mainstream culture [Garcia and Lovink 1997]. Seeking to address the “crisis” of the dominant system, tactical media are based on a principal of flexible response of working with different coalitions.  

I identify tactical circulation as a subversion of the regulatory logic of gatekeeping that draws in ordinary people into significant relationships with documentary film cultures through adaptive usage of available resources and technology.  Against the near absence of industrial distribution and marginalisation of documentary, alternative rationalities like exchange, participation, community building and solidarity come to light as products of tactical circulation. From this premise, I draw the two key principles of tactical circulation; the construction of not merely informed but “embodied publics” and the redefinition of the economic norms “copyright” and “piracy” that together attempt symbolic as well as structural reorganisation.[Kishore, 2018]

An embodied Publics

A material concern for building embodied or involved publics is embedded within an overall artistic goal for filmmakers who are not content merely with representing politics but seek to transform audiences into social participants. This requires the redefinition of circulation as a unique, political and radical intervention in the public domain beyond merely a stage in the cultural process. An optimistic conceptualisation of viewers is critical to a re-evaluation of circulation in a political framework that views the audience not simply as consumers but as evaluative subjects of agency and therefore capable of action. Therefore, circulation opens out as a site of meaningful exchange and encounter which may trouble the horizon between a ‘sender’ or cultural producer and ‘receiver’ or spectator. An embodied public involves a shift in subject position through forms of ‘being in the world’ or the experience of participating in small but tangible ways in the construction of culture. To embody something is to express, personify, and give concrete and perceptible form to a concept that may exist only as an abstraction [Sen and Silverman 2014, 4].  According to Silverman and Sen, amongst other social and existential factors, the interaction with and response to environments produces particular sense of self and community identification that can help situate people in larger social contexts.  In contrast to the subject produced primarily through processes of cognitive spectatorship or media consumption, the body, senses and bodily practices become a seat of subjectivity in response to the actions and processes that are part of the organisation of a film festival.

The mode of film circulation conducted by Cinema of Resistance (COR) is illustrative of an approach that combines specific relation to place with cultural participation to produce embodied publics. Founded in 2006, the free-to-attend Cinema of Resistance film festival series has constructed an ingenuously simple organisational model of temporary, event-specific coalitions between geographically dispersed cultural groups and a core festival organising committee. Initiating tactical solutions to “participate” in events “rather than report them” as a form of tactical media, COR emphasizes the standpoint of locality that takes into consideration specific cultural histories, infrastructure and forms of social organisation.  

Audience at the Cinema of Resistance Film Festival, Salempur 2013. The venue is a high school hall.

Organising between seven to ten festivals a year in districts, towns, blocks and villages, each COR event is undergirded by principles of site specificity, decapitalisation and participatory production. Persons participate through numerous entry points which invite different levels of bodily and cognitive inputs. For example, each curation is site specific and accomplished jointly by a local organizing committee and the core festival committee, drawing local artistic expression, social concerns and cultural producers into a positive relation with a representative public domain.  At the Salempur Film Festival 2013, for example, the curation includes filmmaker Biju Toppo’s Gadi Lohadarga Mail (2006), a film about the final journey of a popular passenger train in Assam, which leads to audience expressing concerns around the future of the local Salempur-Barhaj train in the current market economy.

Organisers use a laptop and video projector to screen films at the Salempur edition of the Cinema of Resistance Film Festival

Next, publicity is carried out by local community volunteers, who draw on available infrastructure that may vary from a blend of social media, local small-media to rickshaw-mounted public address systems, handbills and word-of-mouth methods. Local participants co-construct the material infrastructure in the low-cost decentralised model of screening that mobilises on-site available technologies; for example, DVD donations from filmmakers, laptops for DVD playback, generator sets for powering of equipment and the repurposing of infrastructures such as high school halls, factory buildings and auditoriums into screening spaces [Kishore 2016].

Beyond addressing the problems associated with uneven distribution of technology or the digital divide in India, these embodied forms of participation mobilise ways to bring about a shift in the ideologies that have organised media publics in India around categories of urban–regional, educated–illiterate, centre–periphery, cultured–vernacular and digital–analogue.6 We can identify the movements in subject positions in tangible ways, for example the way in which audience members have undertaken their own film production, the revival of film clubs and societies by festival participants, the formation and expansion of new festivals in different regions pointing towards the construction of a culture embedded within localised histories, practices and discourses of power, cultural flows and the circulation of meanings.

The tactical re-conceptualisation of circulation rests on foundations that dispute the “creative economy” view of cultural production where an economic logic confers the status of enterprise upon cultural production and entrepreneur or “wealth creator” upon the producer [McGuigan 2016, 22]. At the level of selfhood, McGuigan argues that the symbolic meanings produced through neoliberal practices such as those of copyright and intellectual property laws contribute to a neoliberal structure of feeling which is inscribed by means of routine practices governing everyday life and experiences in semiconscious ways. Cultural production when governed by the rationality of copyright, reinforces an entrepreneurial self formation insofar as culture is no longer primarily about a mode of self expression or disinterested social contribution but tied to notions of investment, career and self-maximisation. 

Conversely, the ideologies embedded in institutionalised cultural property rights are destabilised when filmmakers or authors place value not only upon economic ownership or enterprise but on the social potential released from the free flow, exchange and performance of art works. The subordination of a copyright and property discourse is reflected in a developing ethic and practice of cooperative relations between filmmakers, ordinary citizens and netizens, such as the historical culture of free to attend screenings and hand to hand circulation. Anand Patwardhan’s 16-part four-hour epic Reason (2018) released online is a recent example. In 2004, following the CBFC ban on the release of The Final Solution (2004), Rakesh Sharma formulated an innovative distribution strategy, displacing the discourse of economic valuation to the periphery of his artistic concerns. Sharma commenced a “Pirate-and-Circulate Campaign” wherein he distributed free-of-cost video CDs to members of the public on the proviso that they pirate and circulate forward at least five copies of the film. By February 2007, the Hindustan Times estimates that 14,000 video CDs and 4,000 DVDs were in circulation [Zachariah 2007]. In addition, Sharma reports, “I allowed people to hold screenings without my permission” [qtd in Nagpaul 2015]. By October 2015, the film had been freely uploaded to YouTube by user Irshaad86 and had attracted nearly 80,000 views. In June 2017, following the official non-certification of three documentaries at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival Kerala, the filmmakers responded by sharing the films online and enlisting the support of citizens, news sites and commentators to expand the circuits of circulation.7 The “free spaces in the media” that continuously appear due to the speed of technological change are the sites from where filmmakers create a radical circulation praxis of independent documentary that contests the ascribed meaning of cultural circulation and consumption [Garcia and Lovink 1997]. Additionally, free web based film streaming addresses some of the criticisms associated with the “black box of the theatre” and the “white cube of the gallery” that determine the conditions under which films are viewed to institutionally and ideologically fix subjects in particular viewing positions [Uroskie 2014, 8]. The critical evaluation of copyright legislation opens up new possibilities for “expanded” sites of spectatorship with fewer constraints of time and space and possibilities for the re-unification of films and social context.

Media practice at Chalchitra Abhiyan (CCA, cinema campaign, my translation), a community media collective based in regional North India offers an insight into the transformative potential of media production located beyond the norms of property ownership. In 2016, Chalchitra Abhiyan made a modest beginning in Kandhla in Uttar Pradesh, India, 20 kilometres from the epicentre of a 2013 riot between Hindus and Muslims.8 With an agenda to “counter” local right-wing propaganda, the organisation enables agency in particular to socially discriminated Dalit and Muslim producers to engage in media planning, production and circulation. Each group has experienced discrimination centred in caste and religious identity and social inequalities. The productions focus on topics of caste and religious discrimination, gender, rural distress and working class struggles arises from lived experience of the producers themselves.

In recognition of local topographies of infrastructure and access, media circulation at CCA tactically mobilises a mix of traditional and digital tools. Taking advantage of access to the internet to build varied audiences across class and geography, ChalChitra Abhiyan’s YouTube channel is publicly accessible without a demand to subscribe. Here ‘spreadable’ digital circulation travels in de-territorialised circuits in far more ‘participatory (and messier) ways’ with the advantage of reaching new and unpredictable audiences [Jenkins et al. 2013, 1]. CCA’s growing collection of 250 videos are categorised under five themes, branching into 36 dynamic playlists picking up on major and minor themes that illustrate the vast and overlapping scope of their portrayed issues. CCA’s primary online circulation strategy involves 3-4 weekly video uploads, amplified by WhatsApp broadcast groups managed by the locally based producers. Social media hashtags are a popular means of referencing ideas and forging and contesting new social bonds [Zappavigna, 2018, 10]. Hashtags propel CCA’s videos into wider but more challenging YouTube user communities, where the videos frequently feature alongside commercial and right wing media messages to bring unexposed information and counter perspectives into the online public domain. For instance, viewership figures reveal a distinct interest in alternative information about violence against Muslims in Uttar Pradesh [28 Houses belonging to Muslim demolished in Kairana with over 1 million views and 200 Muslim Houses Burnt Down in Meerut with half a million views] together with trends that suggest a popular stake in the electoral process with people seeking information about left wing 2019 general election candidate Kanhaiya Kumar  [Yadavs and Muslims say they will vote for Kanhaiya viewed nearly 300,000 times and The people of Begusarai will ensure Kanhaiya's victory with 215,000 views].


The public circulation of independent films in India must contend with official and unwritten institutional and political rationalities that regulate the gathering of documentary publics.  What I have tried to illustrate here through the examination of a variety of contemporary circulation practices of documentary cinema is the development of context specific, reflexive media practices whose tactical nature is marked by the historical awareness of the structuring functions of ideology and capital in media systems. Documentary circulation practices signify localised elements of tactical media whose participatory, socially embedded circulation methods present new arguments for considerations of the importance of place and coalition-building to cultural circulation.


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