Film Education


Deepa Dhanraj started making films in 1980. Based in Bangalore, she worked and still does, very closely with women’s organisations, nationally as well as internationally. Together with Abha Bhaiya, Navroze Contractor and Meera Rao, she formed the film collective Yugantar.

Deepa Dhanraj as a filmmaker is interested in the participatory nature of the film practice. How one could maintain participation not control was one of her key concerns. Even though the filmmaker had the apparatus and information how could the subject influence the process was an interesting exploration in her films. She believes there has to be a very respectful relationship between the filmmaker and the subject. And on her part she might have made some decisions that aesthetically or politically were not the best ones but once she was committed to the participatory process she wanted to take it to its end.

Interview with Deepa Dhanraj

How would you define ‘documentary film making’

Apart from some of the formal definitions which seem to range from non fiction or filming reality I feel it is a process that includes connecting with people, a subject, and making creative decisions about appropriate cinematic practices.

As a filmmaker what are the different types of documentaries as a creative approach and what is your favourite choice and why

I seem to have worked in very few modes, either the observational style which is more cinema verite or a more didactic style of creating meaning through manipulating voice and image. I have always been fascinated by the quality of the human voice, people speaking, once people are relaxed, once you have some trust, something magical happens, that alchemy between listening and speaking.  I don’t mean “speaking” as giving information, more utilitarian way of communicating, but with the richness of everything about the way they speak, the silences, pauses, hesitations, all of it.  

I think its by paying attention to voice, that I taught myself so many languages, just by editing listening to people’s voices, editing it and then subtitling it. When you start doing that you are trans-creating. Then you have to go even deeper into what was said, what was meant, what was intended, half-said. You have to pay attention to inflection, emphasis, and context to convey the fullest meaning of what’s being said.

What motivated you to begin making documentaries

From 1979 I was part of the Indian women’s movement, it was an exciting time, and women were organizing around issues related to work, unionizing, violence, land rights and conservation of forests. A group of us formed a film collective called Yugantar to document these struggles, that is how it all began.

As an independent filmmaker when you are commissioned by a channel like BBC do you feel that restricts the freedom of your voice. Do they impose their editorial agenda.

As a filmmaker I think one should preserve the integrity of ones vision at all times. It shouldn’t matter who the commissioning agency is, I have always made the films I wanted to make on my terms.

What would be your advice to a young documentary filmmaker to raise finance for the project and how do they go about reaching out to the audience.

Be creative! It is difficult in India to raise money apart from PSBT, Films Division and some NGO funding there are no sources of funding. However there are initiatives like DOCEDGE which are held in SRFTI Kolkata where commissioning editors from TV stations all over the world come looking for projects. There are also foundations like the Jan Vrijman Foundation and the  Hubert Bals Foundation that offer grants.

Behind the scenes: Deepa Dhanraj’s film Tambaku Ki Aagali

After the Interview I would like to share with  you what Deepa says about her experiences of making of Tambaku Ki Aagali,on the struggle of women tobacco workers in to unionize in Nipani Karnataka and it beautifully shows the participatory collaborative filmmaking process and how valuable the contribution of the subjects themselves was in the making of the film.

Deepa says to start with it was a problem to get into the factory; nobody would let them shoot inside. But the women said, ‘we will find a way’. So they negotiated with one of their owners to let the crew in for a day .Once inside the factory they showed the film crew the kind of hard work they had to do. To sabotage the machines, they would put rocks to make it stop. They told them to take a shot of the ventilators; they said they keep them closed so that the tobacco dust doesn’t go out .Because it’s so toxic, they give women free tobacco to chew, when they join, so they get used to it. So right from pointing to what the film crew should shoot and then talking about what it should mean to the audience –The women were so present, they wanted to tell their stories. As a filmmaker Deepa says she wouldn’t even have known how to ask these questions if the women hadn’t shared the process of making the film.

There was another woman who said, if you come even five minutes late the gates are locked, so you can’t get in and so you lose work for that day. And sometimes if you have babies to breast feed – they hand the baby over the gate. So you can’t go out.

And then this woman said you know even dogs; she meant animals in general, even they are lucky enough to sit in one place and eat. But for us, we start running. So in the morning you make those rotis, tie it in a handkerchief and you start running and if you can eat while you run, to make it before the gate closes. Deepa hears all this in her discussions with them and feels that the film should start with that image – just a close up of the earth and this cloth and wrapping of the food and the running – it is a great sequence in reality, it’s beautiful, she says. But later when she had to go back and shot it, it seemed too constructed, but she still started the film with it.


10 Comments so far
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Wonderful interview…Thanks a lot for availing me this golden opportunity. I always read interviews on this blog,i think of posting comment , but somehow postpone it everytime. But, this time i could not stop myself. Because the topic was very interesting and crucial.Really, it’s very true.Documentary making is neglected subject. Nobody in filmmaking field gives any info about it.I m filmmaking student. I m more interested in this interview b’coz i myself is activist in women’s movement for more than 14 years and wish to make films on women’s issues. Except for documentary maker and senior activist Kunda Pramila Nilkanth , i hardly know anybody who could guide me in this regard. And i really get important information. My best wishes to Deepa Dhanraj madam for her future ventures. Thanks once again!

Comment by Deepali Donde

My Dear Deepali,
Lovely to hear from you and glad the interviews on the blog are useful to you. Its very satisfying to know that you benefited from Deepa’s interview. Thanks for the feedback and comment.

Comment by oorvazi

Truly wonderful experience…the last part was a story “live” before my eyes, hats off to Madam.

Comment by Agastya Kapoor

Thanks so much Agastya for the feedback and am so happy it was useful and alive to you.

Comment by oorvazi

thanks for the interview. The second part made me realise how these powerful documentaries are made. Thanks once again

Comment by satheesh mullakkal

It feels nice that my small efforts are useful and can bring light to important issues and practices in filmmaking. And yes Deepa is a very dedicated filmmaker and I am grateful that as a professional she shared her experiences with us its invaluable for a fellow filmmaker.

Comment by oorvazi

Thanks Oorvazi, its a very good interview. Deepa Dhanraj has described the process of documentary making so clearly.

Comment by Swati Vaidya

Thanks so much Swati for your valuable feedback and lovely to know that the interview was helpful

Comment by oorvazifilmeducation

Deepa, Navroze and Abha Bhaiyya was the collective behind making of Tambukala Aag Lagli film at Nipani. Since, I was there as a doctor of the women workers there and facilitator for the team, I realized that they had such a good rapport with the workers because of their empathy with them, that they could facilitate straightway. Making this kind of film, facilitating the ‘characters’ to express on their own and not directed by anyway made the film making itself so rich. I still remember the week they spend lucidly.

Comment by Dhruv Mankad

Hi Dhruv!
Lovely to hear from you and even though I do not know you personally I am happy that my Interview has made us connect in cyberspace. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and writing on this space, appreciate it.

Comment by oorvazifilmeducation

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