On the Aesthetics and Ideology of the Indian Documentary Film: A Conversation

Arvind Rajagopal, Paromita Vohra

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Understanding Indian documentary film as aesthetic practice and as a set of historical traditions has usually taken second place to political and ideological judgments about filmic significance. However these judgments usually refer to the Indian context exclusively, and ignore the wider global context. We can distinguish two broad trends in the history of documentary film, one that critiqued naïve realism and treated the cinema as a means of self-empowerment for the masses, and the other, that regarded the masses as the object of modernization practices. Both these trends have a shared history, of course, namely, the rise of the masses as a political force, which posed the problem of how the masses/"the people" should be represented, as subject or as object. Assumptions about realism flowed from the historical resolution of this issue in a given context, and changed quite slowly. In the Indian context, they provided the basis for a system where the funding and circulation of documentaries occurred within a complex web of identity and patronage. These assumptions are increasingly coming under scrutiny, due to the pressure of at least three developments: market forces that foreground popular appeal rather than verifiable fact; historical events such as the emergence of the Hindutva documentary that mobilize the presence of invisible worlds to political advantage; and the growing influence of global circuits of funding and exhibition, along with a proliferation of more diverse local spaces, that provide room for a greater range of artistic practice. This article, written as a conversation, discusses these developments and offers some arguments about the ideology and aesthetics of the documentary cinema.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7-20
Number of pages14
JournalBioScope: South Asian Screen Studies
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2012


  • Indian documentary
  • aesthetic practice
  • documentary form
  • postcolonial culture
  • secular realism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts


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