Noted documentary filmmaker Madhusree Dutta received the Lifetime Achievement Award for documentaries at the 12th International Documentary and Short Film Festival (IDSFF), Kerala, in June. Her work spans across issues of students' movement, feminist movement, movement against communalism, and democratisation of art practices.
This is the video and text of her acceptance speech given at the 12th IDSFF, Kerala.
Thank you everybody!
Valare Nandi! Nińńalute Pintunaykk Valare Nandi!
Thank you honourable Minister Sir!
Thanks to Kerala State Chalachitra Academy, Kerala Film Festival, and Kerala's internationally famous and fiercely critical audience. Thanks, not only for this evening, but for being what you have been, in general and also in my personal journey. In another summer, 24 years back, the International Videofest took place here. That was the predecessor of this festival, even preceding the International Film Festival of Kerala. It also marked the debut of Bina Paul in this role that would eventually make her the most prolific artistic director of film festivals in the country. I came to show my first film – I live in Behrampada. And I remember sitting on the steps of Kairali on the last evening of the festival and weeping for half an hour. Why! Because I did not receive the award for the best film.
That was, of course, the precocious behaviour of the first time filmmaker.
But I remember that day, standing here, for more reasons than nostalgia. It was 1995, only two-and-a-half years after the Babri Masjid demolition, the Hindu ultra-nationalism had just begun to spread its wings, the world of satellite television yet to emerge as the industry to manufacture reality for populist consumption. But like some seasoned weatherman we had a sense of the storm to come. And we believed that by making documentaries, by writing, by publishing, by making art, we would be able to check mate the rising Hindu fundamentalism.
Technology, first video and then digital, helped. A whole generation, my generation and Bina’s generation — some were film graduates, some from other disciplines of art, some social scientists and others political activists — turned to documentary filmmaking. I think, if I was not at the beginning of my working life in the early ‘90s, I may not have become a documentary filmmaker. In India, documentary films were not yet considered as an independent art form. There was an urgency to evolve formal strategies, develop a discourse, and consolidate and sustain an audience. So we took turns to perform in different roles – made films, worked as technicians and producers for friends’ films, organised screening events and discussions, and taught in film and media schools. We were young – we had lot of energy, moreover, we were believers of art and politics. That time shaped our practice, that time shaped the vibrant documentary movement of this country. And that movement got consolidated through festivals like this. We all felt relevant, in one way or other.
It is June 2019 – a quarter of a century since then. The state-sponsored ultra-nationalists have branded a large number of documentarists, and other artists and intellectuals as "deshdrohi" – traitors. Today, reality — considered as the mainstay of documentary practice — is being hawked at the flea market aka television studios. Public access communication technology has turned into tools of surveillance and coercion. Academic and cultural institutions are being terrorised. A threat of being pushed into irrelevance is hanging over the heads of everyone who practices critical thinking.
Is it the time to consider Lifetime Achievement? Or is it time to begin all over again – in search of a more conducive form, another criticality, newer imagination, sharper politics and a more engaged audience…I hope that a "lifetime – already spent" will not disqualify me from joining the new beginning.
And where else to begin this…than in Kerala, today!
Madhusree Dutta is a filmmaker as well as a curator and pedagogue. She is the founder and executive director of Majlis, a centre for rights discourse and multi-disciplinary art initiatives in Mumbai.