Running throughout the weekend of 16-17 September, BFI India on Film: This Land is Ours will showcase screenings and events at BFI Southbank marking the work of celebrated documentary filmmaker Sanjay Kak. Kak will speak at events there throughout the two days.
Urgent and uncompromising, Sanjay Kak has been making documentaries since the mid-1980s. He is from a generation of independent Indian film auteurs who have challenged dominant narratives and who have sought alternative distribution for their work. Kak’s films have reached audiences in villages and small towns across India. The films are distributed and screened through the country’s vast network of activist groups.
Three decades after South Asians first came to Britain in the 1960s, Kak’s study of the Asian community in the UK, This Land, My Land, Eng-Land! (1990), follows a new generation of young creatives, examining the rehearsals that go into the construction of identity. Though made nearly thirty years ago, it speaks to present day Brexit Britain. The screening on Saturday 16 September will be followed by a Q&A with Sanjay Kak. Also screening on Saturday will be Jashn-E-Azadi (2007), which Kak will introduce. Concerning an ongoing conflict in Kashmir, the film centres on the lives of Kashmiri people living in an overwhelmingly militarised society. Screening on Sunday 17 September will be Red Ant Dream (2013), which Kak will also introduce. In this state-of-the-nation film, the director uses found footage and the rich tradition of poetry and protest songs in an urgent critique of Indian democracy. Completing the weekend will be Sanjay Kak in Conversation, an illustrated conversation with Kak when he will talk about his work as an activist and filmmaker. He will offer audiences the chance to ask their own questions.
Ahead of this weekend, Sanjay Kak talked exclusively to us.
Sanjay’s father was an officer in the Indian Army, so although the family is Kashmiri, Sanjay was born in Pune, Maharashtra. “My mother was a homemaker, and a great one at that!” He exclaims.
Sanjay remembers that he was always interested in reading. “Literature, newspapers, magazines, anything. That was encouraged at home, and we were never forced to do anything. No one ever insisted that I become a doctor or an engineer, the usual middle-class thing. Perhaps it was the freedom to choose that allowed me to find my way into documentary film.”
Comparing Documentary-making in India with the UK.
Sanjay says that the difference lies is in the role of television. “In Britain the contemporary documentary has been shaped by the support that the television industry has offered. Great things have been made possible by this. But perhaps this has also in some ways promoted a sort of homogeneity in the form itself... Documentary in India has been relatively unsupported by any sort of state or broadcast infrastructure, so filmmakers have had to be nimble and inventive, working hard at finding their own audience: it was never served to them on the telly! It has also allowed many more people to make films in the ways they wanted them to be. Without a commissioning editor telling them what to do.”
Differences between the market re Indian broadcasters and British broadcasters
“In the absence of television there is no documentary ‘market’ as such in India. What we do have is a documentary audience, but that is rarely one that pays. So it’s all a bit crazy and idealistic and unviable: but it exists,” says Sanjay Kak.
Making a living out of being an activist documentary filmmaker
Sanjay comments that being a documentary filmmaker, in India or elsewhere, is a precarious living, especially if you work independently outside the mainstream. “If your work carries the ‘activist’ tag, which means it is political, even more so. It’s an obsession, what we call a junoon. It is certainly not a profession! All of us do other things to keep afloat.”
Sanjay says the technique he uses varies. “It’s not one technique, but since we are mostly screening to audiences who have gathered to see a film that they are interested in, and not something brought into their homes by television, we can push their tastes to a considerable extent. Our films can be longer, formally more adventurous, and they need not hold the attention in one particular. In a nutshell, we have a little more room in which