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Indian Documentaries: Fact Is Stronger Than Fiction

The story-tellers are finally weaving tales that promise to change the fabric, not just of the country, but of the world!

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'Sachin: A Billion Dreams' is releasing this week: a film on the most famous 'son of India'. Unlike films on other sports personalities like Mary Kom, Milkha Singh, Azhar- this is a docu-drama. Irrespective of the format, this movie might still make a huge box office success. But what about other documentaries from India? Who makes them and how do they make money? How is the international market for films closely associated with Indian docs?

After a career in films and international brands for over a decade, I took an entrepreneurial plunge in the world of non-fiction and documentaries. I travelled across continents to Europe, LatAm, North America to understand this business and also helped doc filmmakers at various stages of their filmmaking process.

Stories and Tellers:

India is considered to be a land of storytellers. If you walk down the streets of even small towns here, you will come back enriched with stories from the youngest kid on the block to the oldest grandmother who has lived through generations. Be it a roadside tea stall or a public toilet or a 'paan-shop' (betel leaves outlets), everyone has a story. No doubt, story-tellers from India and abroad have taken great pride in documenting their experiences in the country through prose, poetry, pictures and video. With a diverse culture, rich history and a strong base in all forms of Sciences, the nation is a perfect muse for documentary filmmakers.

Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal- from where most of the international cinema from India has emerged- are also the states that have sprouted documentary film-makers. These states have been strong on the socio-political map of India which has given birth to documentaries as a form of education and social awareness. Though almost all the renowned fiction film-makers have popular documentaries to their names, there was a strong breed of specialist Documentary filmmakers - Anand Patwardhan, Sukhdev, John Abraham to name a few- who are some of the earliest popular names known in this craft. They filmed for passion and to bring about a social change. Some of them travelled through villages with projectors and a collection of documentaries to educate and empower the less privileged. The word documentary was a pure social fabric then, not so much a business.

This was further accelerated with the Government of India stepping in with Films Division and an NGO - PSBT (Public Services Broadcasting Trust). While both of them have funds of about Rs. 1 Mn per doc on an average even now and have access to several film festivals, they largely lack in branding and giving quality docs to the world, mostly because of their low budgets, bureaucracy and distribution restrictions. Their stringent policies are yet to be updated to provide co-productions with other countries. Moreover, their lack of quality and compulsory screening of docs in cinema theatres in India during the 90s gave them a notorious equation: Documentaries = Boring Content.

There is also the Indian Documentary Producers' Association (IDPA) which has been a platform for filmmakers though they are largely limited in their scope for helping them monetize their content. Awards ceremony at the biennial Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) and a few forums and workshops are the limited scopes of this organisation.

Though these organisations are a good starting point for young and experimental doc filmmakers, most of the documentaries are largely classified as 'reportage' in the international format of documentaries. A 'documentary', in international parlance, needs to be narrated from a character/s point of view. A filmmaker would need a year or more at least to make such a film where he gets close enough to the subject and the character. Hence a significant investment of time and money for serious filmmakers acts as a deterrent for most others who want to take a shortcut to fame.

Global Doc Business:

Though many filmmakers start off with a social angle, quite a few of them have been taking the docs to international markets and monetizing them. Binding together this web of global documentary filmmakers are a maze of film festivals like IDFA (Amsterdam), Hot Docs (Toronto), Dok Leipzig (Germany), Yamagata (Japan) and several smaller but important festivals in countries like Iran, Bosnia to name a few. Moreover, almost all the big film festivals and markets have a documentary section making it the most popular form of story-telling. The size of the industry in sheer numbers of films is comparable with that of the fiction film industry though I would think the revenues are a different ball game altogether. They are well supported by a small but strong clique of sales agents who represent the films for the global market. The buyers and commissioning agents are from TV channels and NGOs and recently from OTT platforms. A significant but often overlooked market comprises educational institutions and a small percentage of these films get theatrical screenings.

Usually, a documentary takes 2-3 years on an average to produce. Hence the budget usually includes a nominal salary for the filmmaker and producer (about 10- 15% each). By the time the film is complete, most of the cost is recovered from co-production or pre-sales. At the end, the producer tends to make a healthy profit of 20-25% after screening it at various festivals, media platforms and institutions over a period of 2-3 years. The filmmakers start pitching new subjects overlapping with the distribution of the previous docs, thereby ensuring a constant revenue inflow.

The Pitch: 

The pitching forums are the most important part of the doc making process. Every important doc festival has it and there are some who are popular for pitching and networking with the commissioning agents. Most countries known for their doc industry have state and NGO funds that help the doc filmmakers. If your film is not interesting at the pitching stage then it is very rare that the Channels or other platforms would be interested in it once it's finished. Moreover, pitching happens at every stage of the filmmaking process: pre-production, production, post-production and distribution. Most new filmmakers and a few of the veterans too go through this process till they are well known in the industry and are pursued by the media platforms themselves. A 3-4 minute trailer followed by a 3-4 minute presentation followed by QnA constitutes a typical pitch. The interested organisations then have a 1-to-1 chat with the filmmakers after this. Docedge is a very well-known pitching forum in India for Asian docs and has been attracting doc lovers from across the world. It is popular for its full week of mentoring by experts and a small community that works closely with the makers. Typical the docs pitched here are in the range of Rs. 5- Rs. 10 Mn.

Film festivals: 

IDFA is one of the topmost festivals for documentaries in the world- equivalent to a Cannes festival for fiction films. Helmed by Ally Derks till recently, it has seen long queues in sub-zero temperatures for the theatrical screening of docs and also has the IDFA- Bertha fund that supports docs at various stages of completion. Quite a few Indian docs have had its support- Lyari Notes, Menstrual Man, My Name is Salt- to name a few. Some of the other important festivals for Indian docs have been- Dok Leipzig, Sheffield Docs, Hot Docs. More importantly, these festivals serve as a networking platform for all stakeholders to meet and discuss the doc business.

Sales Agents: 

Unlike the flamboyant sales agencies for fiction films, their docs counterparts are low-key boutique agencies owned by one or two people. They believe in personal interactions with their filmmakers and are very well organised and focused in building their slate. They are the conduit between the filmmakers and the screening platforms and have also backwards integrated into co-productions and pre-sales. Recently, they have also become very niche by focusing on one or two of the rights that can be majorly fragmented as- TV, Digital, Theatrical and Institutional. Cat n Doc, Cinephil, Widehouse, Visible Film are a few of the agents that Indian filmmakers have worked closely with. These agents have to have their ears close to the ground and know what the programming plans of the doc TV channels are. They normally charge up to 30% as commission on sales other than a fixed fee as the cost of sales.

Media Platforms: 

TV channels have been the primary producers and exhibitor of docs. Arte (France, Germany), BBC (UK), NHK (Japan), SBS (Australia), CBC (Canada), YLE (Finland), Rai TV (Italy) are some of the well-known documentary only channels in their respective countries. In India, besides Doordarshan, NDTV screens some of the global docs. Most of the channels have to commission and buying agents and are partly or fully state sponsored. While the commissioning agents are responsible for production (and co-production) of docs, the buyers ensure that their 'strands' and 'library' is kept full and diverse by constituting a healthy mix of individual docs and series. Co-producing channels usually retain the rights for the territories they beam in and might also have a revenue share.

The typical length of docs for TV are 26" and 52". Feature length docs are more than 90" and are good for theatrical. The popular feature-length docs also have 'television cuts' of less than an hour. OTT platforms like Amazon Prime and Netflix have pushed the envelope for docs while Vice has grown to a $5Bn + company in just about a decade screening only documentaries. In fact, Netflix has commissioned about 50 feature films globally and 65 documentaries for 2017!


Last but not least foundations like Sundance, ESODocs, European Documentary Network (EDN) have been instrumental in supporting and funding docs. Recently Yes Bank has started a fund for supporting Indian docs.

The Early Birds:

One of my first stops during my entrepreneurship was at Docedge Kolkata where the soft-spoken Nilotpal (aka Shantida) was running it for about a decade then in 2010. He has been successfully getting Foreign and Indian- Investors, Media platforms, Film Fund, Distributors and Film-makers- to further his passion for documentaries and almost single-handedly changed the horizon of the documentaries in India. Another significant personality in the industry is the organisation - Magic Lantern- helmed by Gargi Sen for monetizing docs largely through the intricate network of Universities globally. Of late there have been organisations like Indian Documentary Foundation (IDF) initiated by a popular Bollywood VJ-Actor Javed Jaffrey, but I haven't heard anything consistent from them beyond a pitching forum for finished docs that they organised for a couple of years- The Good Pitch.

India Gets Real:

The earliest known days of reality TV getting popular on Private TV in India was when KBC ( India's version of 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire') was screened on Star TV. It was around the same time that 'song and dance' shows and other scripted reality shows slowly gathered momentum. With the advent of the internet and Youtube becoming a household name, 'Big Boss' let you eavesdrop in the bedrooms of celebrities. Format companies like Endemol and Fremantle thrived and brought a boom in scripted shows while channels like Discovery, NGC and History ensured that Indians thrived on 'intellectual' global shows. More Indians travelled beyond the traditional destinations in the US and Europe and the latent demand increased for stories of countries which were earlier just a speck on the Atlas. There was also a proliferation of media schools and young Indians chose respectable careers beyond being 'doctors and engineers'. The most basic form of filmmaking is the documentary and this led to young filmmakers resorting to shooting what they thought was important for them.This awareness also led to many going beyond the geographical boundaries and making docs for the global audience. Miriam Chandy Menacherry (Rat Race, Lyari Notes), Paban Haobam (Mr. India), Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya (Cinema Travellers), Faiza Sheikh (Supermen of Malegaon), Supriyo Sen (Wagah), Nishta Jain (Gulabi gang) are some of the popular filmmakers who got international attention at esteemed festivals like Cannes, Berlin and Busan. Some of them even managed to get the magical 'theatrical screening' in India. Foreign mentors like Aly Dirks (ex IDFA), Iikka Vehkalahti (ex YLE) and Rada Sesic (International Programmer for Docs) have regularly visited India and have been instrumental in guiding these filmmakers in achieving their goals. Besides, there have been many foreign filmmakers like Seong Gyou Lee (My Barefoot Friend) and Kim Longinotto (Pink Saris)who have fascinated global audiences with Indian subjects.

Future Looks Bright:

Infotainment in India is a growing industry with more channels added each year and generating an ad revenue of about Rs.3 billion. Discovery has rejigged its team and planning a new programming strategy. Epic is repositioning itself and becoming more 'infotainment'. Vice is launching on multi-platforms with a tie-up with Times of India group. News channels are making more noise and every year more are getting added with niche subjects and regional languages. Indian docs and doc-makers are going big and global with their local stories. Biopics are consistently clocking in profits and now we have one on Sachin Tendulkar releasing this week after several on sports persons from different disciplines. There are more platforms who are buying and investing in real stories as ideas for fiction dry up. The YouTube generation is producing and consuming more content in all forms and platforms. Indians used to only watch movies to forget life. now they want to see different lives on the screen. This augurs well for the documentary industry.

Last week Alexandro Gonzalez Inarritu unveiled a VR version of his immersive film 'Carne y Arena' on refugees fleeing their country and is the first such movie to be ever screened at the Cannes festival. Indians have always been leaders in technology globally and it won't be long before we have our own VR films rooted in realism.

The story-tellers are finally weaving tales that promise to change the fabric, not just of the country, but of the world!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Yogesh Karikurve

The author is an avid blogger ( on films and travel experiences. Also, he has worked in the Media and Entertainment industry globally.

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