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Batul Mukhtiar: Documenting India

Posted: May 25, 2011

An interview with filmmaker Batul Mukhtiar on her work and the rise of documentary filmmaking in India.

By Amrita Rajan

India is rich soil for documentary filmmaking of all kinds – food, travel, politics, culture – and going by the programming schedule of channels like TLC and Discovery, these features are enormously popular with Indians. Strangely though, very few of them are actually made by Indians for an Indian audience.

Batul Mukhtiar (150 Seconds Ago, Lilkee and the forthcoming Kaphal) is a filmmaker, writer and blogger who has worked on a number of such documentary movies in many roles. In this interview, she talks about her road to documentaries and the interesting experiences she has had, as well as on being a woman in the tough world of film-making.

Amrita Rajan (AR): What was your first filmmaking job?

Batul Mukhtiar (BM): I started as an assistant on a corporate film, with a local advertising agency. Nothing fancy, just a small film for a builder.

AR: Do you think going to film school helped you?

BM: Yes, definitely. In the days before DVDs and Internet, it exposed me for the first time to international cinema of all kinds. We also had good infrastructure at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), and did a lot of exercises throughout our course, so we had a lot of hands-on experience. FTII also gave us the time and space to produce work and make mistakes without the pressure of commercial considerations.

AR: My impression of filmmaking is that it’s a consuming process. We know from your excellent blog that you’re also a wife and mother. How difficult was it to juggle everything, especially when your daughter was younger?

BM: It was not difficult, but exhausting. I had my daughter while I was still at film school, and everybody helped to look after her to some extent – my hostel warden, our hostel cook, some of the staff’s wives and families, but even so I used to be working almost all day and night, managing the baby and my work. When I moved to Mumbai, I was always lucky to find help – not only employed, but from neighbors and friends.

Since my husband and I both work in films, we also try to juggle our assignments to the best of our abilities to make it so that one of us stays at home while the other is working.

AR: Have you ever experienced a gender divide in your work?

BM: On my first job in a music channel, I realized that I had a disadvantage as a woman, that too a mother, because I could not go out after work and drink with the guys, but had to head back home. I think for someone like me, who doesn’t drink much or frequent pubs, it is a definite disadvantage.

Being a woman does help me on the roads; cops are more reluctant to ask me what I am doing, people are more open to being interviewed, or giving me access into their homes.

Being a woman does help me on the roads; cops are more reluctant to ask me what I am doing, people are more open to being interviewed, or giving me access into their homes. 

AR: How difficult is it to find funding for indie projects?

BM: It’s difficult but not impossible to find money to produce an indie project. But it’s virtually impossible to distribute and exhibit it. With digital equipment, a lot of people can make their own films, but it’s still hard to figure out where and how to show these, outside festival circuits.

AR: You’ve worked for a number of foreign companies such as the CBC and the BBC on well-received documentaries like India Reborn. What was your experience with Indian production companies or news channels?

BM: I must say that I’ve never worked much for Indian production companies and not at all for news channels. I’ve just done some writing work early on for TV serials, some promo work for a music channel, etc. And of course my work with the Children’s Film Society, India (CFSI).

I got into line production for international crews almost right out of film school. Their way of work suits me, it is more straightforward. Once they get you on board, they almost always trust you, and there are no hassles about payments. Indian production work is usually about cutting deals and trying to make a commission on everything. Though I think that is changing now, with a lot more professional producers coming into the picture.

AR: Talking of the CFSI, you ran into some heavy weather with them.

BMI made a children’s feature film Lilkee for them in 2007. Lilkee is the story of a young girl from a village in Garhwal who is brought to work in an upper middle class apartment building in Mumbai. Contrary to expectation, the film is not sad or somber but a look at friendships across class boundaries, the ability to look at other people, and how even a little help can transform someone’s lives.

Though Lilkee got caught in bureaucratic quagmire which was very demoralizing for me, I continue to feel its reverberations until today as it is shown in schools, colleges, NGOs… I receive calls from strangers telling me they have seen the film, and what it means to them, and that has made the entire exercise worth it.

Lilkee is the story of a young girl from a village in Garhwal who is brought to work in an upper middle class apartment building in Mumbai. Contrary to expectation, the film is not sad or somber but a look at friendships across class boundaries...

AR: Why do you think India is such a difficult market for documentaries?

BM: There are no channels that broadcast documentaries apart from the government ones, and now NDTV (a little). So there is no market. There is also no real audience. Most people still think documentaries are boring. So I guess that doesn’t encourage TV channels to give them time slots.

AR: How do you react when Bollywood personalities sneer at films that portray the Indian reality?

BM: Not speaking of anyone in particular, but I think most people who work in Bollywood right now live in their own small bubbles. Their opinion on film making is so, so limited that it hardly counts.

AR: I know from your blog that one of your British documentaries affected you deeply on a personal level. (Watch a clip from The Slumdog Children of Mumbai)

BM: The Slumdog Children of Mumbai came in the wake of Slumdog Millionaire’s success. This film was special because the production company managed to raise a considerable amount of money for the children, and set up a trust for them. I work pro-bono to keep contact with the children, helping them stay off the streets. I am not wholly successful except in the case of one girl, who is supported by her grandmother.

AR: What would be your advice to all the young women out there who want to be filmmakers?

BM:This advice is not for women as such, I don’t think young women in particular need any advice from me. But I would tell any young filmmaker to try and go to film school. It’s an opportunity to hone your skills without worrying about how you are looking on the job. And I would advise every filmmaker to assist someone after film school. I didn’t do it, but I realize now that it is a disadvantage. Assisting allows you to ease yourself into the industry, and to get to know how it works, and to make valuable professional contacts.

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  1. Keep going Batul. I assure you if given proper choices Indian audience will like to watch documentaries. I am a big fan of NDTV, TLC channels but there the documentaries are mostly related to travel and food. I will love to see documentaries on several other things going on in India like river projects, urban planning, how the education system of India is changing? Documentaries can be made to trigger the interest of common middle class people. There are so many subjects like all over. I know many others who would like too! Indian audiences are always considered very immature by the film makers but I guess we do have fine eyes otherwise Satayajit Ray or Mrinal sen or Basu Chatterji or Gulzar would not have existed. I don’t understand the method of TRP but I think it is a hype on understanding people’s taste. TRP is not a real analysis of what audience want. I personally believe people’s likes and dislikes are manipulated by so many others involved with the commercial aspect of the industry.

    • Chandrima, there are so many documentaries that are made in India, lots of interesting work. Sadly, there are not enough places to show them. I completely agree with you about TRPs, etc. These are all marketing controls, and don’t really reflect the real tastes of the audience.

  2. Thank you for this interview, Amrita. It is so heartening to read of filmmakers like Batul who are following their passion and doing such worthwhile films; I only wish they were screened more widely.

  3. Lovely interview, Batul and Amrita. Brought a smile to my face somehow. 🙂

  4. Batul,

    I wasn’t aware of The Slumdog Children of Mumbai, till seeing this good interview. What can one say but Jai Ho!?

    all best,

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