The Lost Art of Storytelling

IDEASFACTORY UK caught up with Endboard Productions recently as they were completing a groundbreaking documentary. Now in the can, Birmingham-based brothers Yugesh and Sunandan Walia reveal to Nick Carson why it may never reach our TV screens.

Commissioned by Channel 4, Days and Nights in an Indian Jail was a pioneering venture, chronicling a year in the lives of prisoners at Tihar Central Jail in Delhi. While most institutions in the UK have already been closely scrutinised by programmes such as Cutting Edge, their equivalents in other cultures have remained somewhat of a mystery.

“We approached Tihar expecting to reveal a third-world prison with bad management and bad conditions,” Yugesh recalls, “but it went the other way.” As it progressed, the project became less of a shocking exposé and more of a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

This, the brothers argue, is what documentaries should be about: good, old-fashioned yarns. “Storytelling is all about the journeys characters go on,” Yugesh explains, “and documentaries are essentially stories about characters.” Unfortunately, the market for this is shrinking rapidly and, they argue, some filmmakers could be forced to reinvent the documentary genre to survive.

Plunging in at the deep end

Days and Nights in an Indian Jail was filmed, produced and directed entirely by the two-man team, using only handheld camcorders to minimise invasiveness. “Normally we would work with a crew, but we’re multi-talented,” they explain. Once permission was granted, the pair had carte blanche: “There were no hidden cameras but it’s a huge prison, and once inside the gate the wardens often had no idea we were there.”

Having chosen the prison beforehand and armed with no prior research, Yugesh and Sunandan literally plunged straight in with the camera, hoping that stories would emerge over the course of the year. The film reveals a very different culture to the UK prison system: overcrowded barracks force inmates to live as a community in a judicial system where you’re guilty until proven innocent. “Our research formed part of the filming,” Sunandan continues: “We gradually whittled down the stories – we wanted resolution at the end of the year.”

Leaving the best till last

The main focus of the film became a family thrown into jail as part of India’s unique dowry laws, which permit a bride’s parents to implicate anyone they choose if she dies in suspicious circumstances within seven years of marriage. Bhabhuti and his wife Prempatta were imprisoned after their daughter-in-law committed suicide, and the film charts the growing tension as their four-year-old daughter Pushpa, also imprisoned, approaches school age and prepares to leave her family behind.

Programmes based around this kind of linear structure, rewarding viewers at the end, could however be part of a dying breed. Part of the problem with a dedicated entertainment culture, the Walias suggest, is that modern viewers have grown to expect a constant stream of stimuli and often aren’t prepared to spend an hour seeing a story through to its conclusion. “There’s a captive audience at screenings, and you can afford to make programmes more theatrical,” they elaborate, “but TV is more committed and you have to keep people interested.”

Fenced in by schedules

Over the last decade, they propose, UK television has become increasingly formulaic to shape itself to the American mould. “There’s a drive for peak daytime lifestyle and leisure programmes: news, current affairs and factual programming is pushed out to the perimeters,” Yugesh points out. “Commercialism is the driving force behind it: with the proliferation of channels you need adverts to fund them, and the advertisers dictate what programmes to show rather than the viewing public.”

“But you can’t judge it as inherently bad,” Sunandan concedes. “TV needs funding, and the old model only worked with four channels. They had no choice: it’s just about how far they should go, and whether they’ll become entirely tabloid.” One solution could be to lean even further towards our American counterparts and show feature documentaries in cinemas, to ensure a captive audience while dedicating TV entirely to lifestyle and leisure programming. “We need to think hard,” they conclude. “Not enough thought has gone into the balancing act: you need to mix and match.”

Something to say

“At entertainment level, you can either have thought-provoking or pure pulp,” observes Yugesh. “Shows that give house-cleaning tips fundamentally offer you nothing: the house will be messy again in a couple of weeks. We live in a culture based on voyeurism.” But the UK isn’t alone: India, they reveal, has no interest in factual information, dedicating every one of their sixty channels to entertainment and soaps. “There’s a factory in Bombay just producing soaps, often with the same actors running between sets,” Sunandan laughs.

Many travel, adventure and anthropology series are entertaining, they acknowledge, but very presenter-led. “They don’t allow cultures to speak for themselves, but tell it from a very British perspective.” Documentaries, they propose, should be well made and tell a story. “But the industry is narrowing,” Yugesh admits. “Some argue they have to take a different form: it’s no longer about straightforward fly-on-the-wall. Filmmaking has to reinvent itself to fit people’s lifestyle.”

© Nick Carson 2003. First published on Channel 4’s IDEASFACTORY West Midlands

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