Cowboys in India
A film by Simon Chambers
English (subtitles), 76 min, 2009
17 June 2011, 6:30 p.m.
Smriti Nandan Auditorium
15/3 Palace Road, Bangalore 560052
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Investigative film-making can be hard at the best of times, but when you’re assisted by people who’ll say apparently anything to keep you happy — or nothing when they think it’ll make you unhappy — and when people you interview say exactly the opposite a short time later, how can you make a credible film? Remarkably, director Simon Chambers achieves the seemingly impossible by telling the story of his attempts to investigate a London-based corporation’s mining of tribal lands in a remote part of India. By turning the lens on his own investigation and its frustrations, he shows not just the deliberate obfuscations (and sometimes threats) of those he tries to investigate but also the problems of determining what’s reliable information even when he gets apparently straight answers. In doing so, he leaves one wondering to what extent similar weaknesses characterise all documentaries, suggesting this is a film not just about a particular controversy, but about documentary film-making.
But it’s the manner of telling that lifts Cowboys in India far above the ordinary. At times hilarious, sometimes tragic and often self-deprecating, it engages the viewer’s empathy, first with Chambers and his tribulations, then, subtly and eventually powerfully, with his Indian companions. Entertaining, deeply affecting and thoughtful, Cowboys in India is one of this year’s stand-out films.
After years of odd jobs as farm hand, ships' mate and plumber, Simon became a Youth and Community worker in a poor area of London for 14 years. He also worked on campaigns around AIDS and prostitution in the 1980s, and on multi-national corporations such as McDonalds, Shell and RioTinto. Simon trained as a documentary filmmaker at the National Film and Television School, and graduated in 2004, winning the Royal Television Society award for best European student documentary. He began his career with several "Three Minute Wonders" for Channel Four as well as charity videos in India. In 2006 he completed a fiction feature script, commissioned by Film Four and also shot and directed a one hour documentary ‘Every Good Marriage Begins With Tears’ which screened on BBC Storyville and was bought by TV channels around the globe, winning a clutch of awards at film festivals. His 2009 documentary ‘Cowboys in India’ has screened on Channel 4 True Stories strand, and his co-production ‘Mario and Nini’ on Sky Channel.
The real narrative in this funny and clever film leaks out in dribs and drabs and concerns Satya (the "organizer") and Doya (the driver) and their complicated relationship with Simon. Playing the very model of the modern British documentarian, Simon confounds all expectations and subtly questions the conventions of the documentary genre. In the end, the threats are more immediate, and more serious, than anyone would have guessed.