Tête-à-Tête with Documentarian Surabhi Sharma

Be it conservation of a natural species leaping towards extinction or a journey of the amalgamation of Caribbean Reggae music in Indian taste of melodies the realist documentary maker, Surabhi Sharma has made the audience visualise factuality with utmost creativity in her documentaries. Catch the exclusive interview of the social reformist visualiser conversing about her over the edge works, stirring life experiences and core inspirations

It was during the screening of her debut documentary Jari Mari: Of Cloth and Other Stories organised by Bodhivruksha and CN Kalaniketan at CEPT in Ahmedabad – a city that she remembers through childhood memories –when I procured an opportunity to connect with filmmaker Surabhi Sharma. The film portrays the slums adjacent to Mumbai’s international airport, narrating the struggles of the Jari Mari dwellers who each morning, wandering search of a new task so as to earn a day’s chapatti for their family.

Having graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, Sharma became intimately attached to the city of Mumbai after completing her BA in Anthropology and Psychology from St Xavier’s College there. But it wasn’t the stardom of the city of dreams that captured her creativity; in her words, “Mumbai was an industrial hub during the post-independence era. It housed hundred-thousands of labourers and workers, and most of them fled after the Metropolitan was hit by the Great Bombay Textile Strike and the Bubonic Plague Epidemic, leaving the textile industry in an adversely devastating state. In the following scenario, the rest of the workers who decided to stay in the city soon became jobless. The situation of poverty amplified after the city of seven islands converted into the financial capital of India, boasting towering skyscrapers and competing geographies like Shanghai and Singapore. I wanted to showcase Mumbai through the eyesight of Jari Mari’s residents, especially women, who run an unnoticed textile industry.”

Sharma’s documentary has been showcased in various international film festivals so far, honouring her with numerous international accolades like Best Documentary Film, Kara International Film Festival, Karachi and Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, Japan. This has accelerated her courage to direct more such films that touch issues at the grassroots, including Above the Din of Sewing Machines: a movie showcasing the garment industry of Bangalore lost amidst the technological boom, Pregnancy, Prescriptions and Protocol: The story of a tribal community health programme in South Gujarat that is coping up with women health crisis, and the Asia Pacific Screen Awards 2014 nominee Bidesai in Bambai. her current project Music in a Village Named 1 PB, where she talks about an age-old musical form that is headed towards oblivion is also one of a kind.

Parallel Cinema and Documentaries for the Mainstream Audience 

My questions to the sensitive and insightful filmmaker, were quite direct – “Why do we not see documentaries and art films releasing in our nearest talkies? Why do audiences still consume the same old ‘entertainment’ content, which may be visually appealing but are not thought-provoking or enriching?” Sharma must have frequently faced these sorts of queries during her visits to discourses at the National Institute of Design, Centre for Media and Cultural Studies and Tata Institute of Social Science. But to my astonishment, she smilingly replied, “I had been in the mainstream industry in the early days of my career. I had originally been trained for fiction; I have even contributed scripts for small screen matinee prime-time shows. But, being an independent filmmaker, I eventually realised that offbeat filmmakers don’t make cinema to please audiences. The financial budget for a mainstream movie is colossally more than for a documentary. And multiplexes only release potboilers which will give the box-office populous figures. Parallel cinema is certainly picking up its pace, but it will take aeons for it to procure an equal number of shows in comparison to the conventional cinema. Hardik Mehta’s documentary Amadavad Ma Famous, which focuses on the life of a kite-runner, was one such stirring piece of art. But it too, eventually, did not gain financial rewards.”

Who Inspired the Inspirational Storyteller?

When asked this, Sharma responded, “My college days were full of multidimensional films. We explored ethnicities and culture of cinema through Kannada, Bengali and even Gujarati movies. Hun Hunshi Hunshilal directed by Sanjiv Shah is one of the crystallising Gujarati experiences for me. Even directors like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen’s magnum opus creations played a major part in developing my aesthetics as a moviemaker.”

Surabhi Sharma is also uniquely gifted with the skill of literature, having co-authored the book Study of Salt Wash Water Toxicity on Wastewater Treatment. She also happens to be a film critic and reviewer, where she has commented on off-beat celluloid like, Sarpat which describes the urban blindness towards the village catastrophes, RV Ramani’s Nee Engey a movie on the art of traditional south Indian puppetry and some other serious cinemas. It’s heartening to see filmmakers like her showcase the proletarian problems on screen, helping to foment massive solutions off-screen.

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