Documentary, English, Film, Review

The Outside In

Hansa Thapliyal’s The Outside In is a 30-minute documentary which explores a fundamental question – the role of art in our lives – through the work of two dollmakers.  While the artists have very different approaches to their craft, both their works gently prises open the possibility of looking at harsh realities with hope and empathy. The documentary not only explores their techniques, how they work with the human form and employ the material at hand, but also how they use dollmaking, not as a decorative craft but as a means to express their deepest emotions and innermost thoughts.  It is precisely this ambition and quality that elevates it to an art.

Francoise Bosteels, a trained nurse from Belgium, has spent most of her life in India.  She has recorded her impressions of the country through her dolls, images of everyday life seen with a fresh and sympathetic eye.  She meticulously creates  tableaus, worlds for her dolls to inhabit, which are mostly rural and pastoral scapes.  And in these little worlds her dolls – men, women and children – harvest fields, weave baskets, hug trees, play, go about their simple lives. Her dolls tell the stories that she witnessed and that had an emotional impact on her.  It could be a funny incident like when a group of 30 people sat on a prickly cactus at a fair and pandemonium ensued, or a disturbing instance where a little girl went to graze goats and was brutally molested.  Sometimes the tableau is a three-dimensional illustration for a poem she has penned as in the case of Ravi the ragpicker, who competes with a crow to rummage through a garbage heap.  Francoise’s dolls are made with much care and detailing.  However, they do not have any features as she prefers to leave the emotion ambiguous, so that the audience is forced to think and engage.

Milan Khanolkar is trained as an artist.  She has chosen to work, not towards ‘high art’, but to share the joy she gets from working with everyday material. Her dolls, which come in all shapes and sizes, are crafted from ‘kachra’, waste material.  Her creations come to life as she works on them, the material interacts with her and dictates the final form and outcome.  To her, waste signifies those bits of ourselves that we want to hide, our dreams and fears that hang outside us and when prompted, take a life of their own.  So her dolls are an extension of her dreamscape and thoughtscape and she suggests that there is an organic connection between us and even the inanimate things that surround us.  As her real cat sits amongst paper-cut toys, she seems a part of a world that has come to life with the touch of the maker and her imagination.

The filmmaker herself seeks to collaborate with the dollmakers and the dolls, listening to them and participating in loosening the boundaries between what lies outside and inside us.  What is it about making and sharing dolls that has meant so much to each? What new paths have the dolls made and cleared? It is as if she were trying to understand her own fascination with dollmaking, a hobby she has developed in recent years. She films the dolls like they are characters in a fictional piece, bringing them to life time and again, animating them to illustrate the ideas expressed by the dollmaker.  Sometimes they appear like characters in the real world, a group of dolls stroll in the park, while the maker takes a walk in the background; a picture frame that she has created hangs casually on a tree branch as if framing a piece of real life.

There is a playfulness, a joie de vivre with which the film maker looks at the dolls and this process of making them.  The film is interspersed with joyous bits where inanimate objects spring to life, demonstrating a thought or become just abstract sequences of animated energy.  Paper-cut ducks with rolling eyes swim across the frame; paper boxes with faces jump around and dance, transforming themselves into various shapes; a shirt hung on a chair becomes an elephant, its sleeve rises like a trunk and trumpets.  It gives us a sense that a doll, as a plaything and as a part of ourselves, exists in everything and anything. It is fun this business of dolls and by extension life itself, from this perspective, becomes a little brighter and more lighthearted.

So where does life end and art begin when there are no boundaries between them? Is art not a process of remembering, transforming and merging? It is this constant interaction and connection between the real and the imaginary that the film emphasizes and it is precisely this message that makes this film so precious.

You can watch the complete film here –


English, Documentary, Color

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