There have been countless documentaries on the issues of global poverty and hunger over the years, but their impact has been difficult to measure. They play well to self-selecting audiences who would rather spend a Sunday afternoon watching a depressing film at some festival for the socially-conscious than, say, having an ice cream in the park — but do they ever manage to connect with normal people?
Don’t get me wrong, at VICE News we’re obsessed with documentary filmmaking. Capturing real life as it unfolds before the camera and distilling it to its essence is our primary occupation. But narrative filmmaking can also be a powerful tool for getting ideas across — for getting people to think about things they wouldn’t normally think about, especially if you just came out and asked them to do so.
Case in point: The Masterchef. This short film by India-born filmmaker Ritesh Batra, which was made as part of the Sundance Short Film Challenge, tells the story of Akhil, a shoeshine boy in Mumbai (also known as Bombay) who becomes fixated on the country’s most popular culinary celebrity.
I chatted with Batra about The Masterchef, and how narrative cinema can sometimes transmit messages better than factual filmmaking.
VICE News: In your film, there’s a scene in which we see Akhil and his family eating a modest meal in the street. Is this a common scene in Mumbai? What’s an average dinner for a family like Akhil’s?
Ritesh Batra: The average dinner for a family that lives on the streets of Bombay is anything they can find. Or nothing. About 30 percent of the population lives on the streets according to some conservative estimates. While I was working on my feature film Lunchbox, I lost a director of photography because he could not handle seeing the poor children on the streets. There is also a lot of wealth here, a sushi meal for two costs 12,000 rupees, or $200.
Akhil’s mother responds to his sudden interest in the Masterchef by trying to dial down his expectations, reminding him that he already works hard and makes a living. She asks, or maybe suggests, “It’s enough, isn’t it?” That jumped out at me as the theme of the film: “What is enough?” Or am I reading too much into it?
Once the film is done it belongs to the audience, the theme is what you think it is. For me it was always about this character and his wants and needs. In movies needs become more important than wants, but I was intrigued by flipping that because most movies are not about the most disadvantaged among us.
Cooking shows have been around for decades, but in recent years food has become a bigger and bigger part of pop culture. What do you think the effect of “food porn” is on those who have so little of it?
I don’t know. I love cooking and food and appreciate a lot of the food porn, but of course being from a place of extreme disparity, I know I have to have a little bit of a tough heart to even walk out of a restaurant with leftovers and encounter little children begging along the way. But I think the real issue in this society and societies like this is not that the basic needs of the poor are not met, but that so much human potential is wasted because there is no trajectory offered to empower the poor to realize their potential.
What I like about The Masterchef is that it doesn’t hit you over the head with a message. Do you think that narrative or scripted film can have a positive impact on issues like global poverty?
Absolutely. I learned a valuable lesson when I was at the Sundance writers and directors labs many years ago, to try to always come from a place of character. Narrative scripted content can be a call to action or a call to think like nothing else can, because no matter who we are or where we come from, everyone sits up to listen when they hear the words, "Once upon a time…"