CHENNAI: For Nilita Vachani, an award-winning filmmaker, writer, and teacher, a film does not simply begin and end on screen. It makes its rounds, triggers conversations, and sometimes, successfully leaves the audience unsettled. When a friend asked Nilita to organise a screening at The Shelter for Homeless Women with Disability, Nungambakkam, she decided to bring Safina Uberoi’s film The Good Man to them.
The film, set in Australia, is about a struggling farmer and his quadriplegic wife, who have two children. To make ends meet, they open a brothel. During the screening, Nilita paused the film several times to explain what was happening.
The subject of the film caused Nilita a lot of anxiety. “I decided it was okay only because of disability rights activist Aishwarya Rao, who runs the shelter. She told me they do a lot of work here with sexuality matters. We couldn’t have thought of a film better than this one which shows someone with a disability having an active sexual life,” says Nilita.
Affiliated with the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University (NYU), Nilita came to Chennai three weeks back to teach a course on ‘Documentary and the Investigation of Reality’ at Asian College of Journalism. When one of her students introduced her to women with disabilities at the shelter, Nilita took a keen interest in their stories.
During her visits, she tried to get the residents to record each other’s activities on cell phones. “I’ve looked at some of the aspects they’ve filmed, and it’s moving. A young girl here, whose mother is disabled and can’t speak, beautifully shot her while she was going about her cleaning and cooking,” she shares.
Nilita gained media attention in 2016 with her long-form journalistic piece Inside Job published in The Caravan. It was about a housekeeper, Manju Das from West Bengal, who was exploited by a wealthy South Asian family embroiled in the largest insider trading trial in the US. Her story won ACJ’s inaugural prize for investigative journalism.
“People started writing to me, asking how they could help. So I started a campaign to raise money for her. We went to her village and gave it to her. It was activism and change at the grassroots level,” she says.
Nilita is also keen on putting a film together so she can start a campaign and raise money for the shelter. “I’m just giving the idea of making a film to the women at the shelter. They’re going to be recording it, and that will make the stories that much more powerful.”
Talking about giving a voice to those who suffer silently, she says, “People write about me like that, and it makes me uncomfortable. My work might be about the unrecognised, but they are very much through my voice — an outsider in that world.”
From reel to pen
Even though her film Eyes of Stone won the National Film Award for Best Film on Social Issues in 1991, and her films Diamonds in a Vegetable Market a nd When Mother Comes Home for Christmas (in photo) are based on social issues, Nilita never thought of herself as an activist. It was only in 2016, after Inside Job was published that she turned into an activist by default.