For award-winning filmmaker Deepa Dhanraj, to tell a story on camera is not to speak on somebody else’s behalf nor is it facilitating them to speak for themselves. Rather, it is a combined project - “a way in which to stand together in a political alliance that both the filmmaker and the subject you’re working with are comfortable with.”
Dhanraj, known for her works on issues related to women’s status - their political participation, health and education - was with her editor Jabeen Merchant at the 6th International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (IDSFFK) on Tuesday. Being one of the two ‘Filmmakers in Focus’ - the other being nature filmmaker Mike Pandey - six of her films were screened over the course of the festival, including her well-known 1991 work ‘Something Like a War’ and her latest ‘Invoking Justice’. While the former is an examination of India’s coercive family planning programme from the point of view of women who are its targets, the latter is about a group of Muslim women in Tamil Nadu who form their own ‘Jama-at’, which are usually all-male bodies which apply Islamic Sharia law to settle family disputes without allowing women to be present.
The process of ‘participatory filmmaking’, Dhanraj said, is a technique “hardwired into her DNA”, having created and developed it during the four films made when she was part of the film collective Yugantar.
“I was part of the Indian women’s movement from 1979, when women were organising around issues like land rights, unionising and forest conservation,” said Dhanraj. “A group of us formed a film collective called Yugantar which made four films.” One of these films was on the women tobacco workers in Nipani, Karnataka. Here, they wanted to document the strike where over 3,000 women were participating.
“It was the women who got us access into a factory,” reminisced Dhanraj. “Moreover, we had to do it fast, we only had six hours. The women took over shoot - pointing to the machines which they sabotaged using rocks or to the closed ventilator covered with a layer of tobacco dust. That was a fascinating experience for me where the women told us “this is what life is like for us.”
During the course of the conversation, Jabeen mentioned seeing ‘Something Like A War’ years ago at the Bombay International Film Festival and how it was the only film that qualified to win the award for films on family planning. Here, Dhanraj recollected how the late Mani Kaul, veteran filmmaker, had been sure her film would win.
“But they withdrew the award because they wanted films promoting family planning and mine was so anti-government,” Dhanraj recalled. “Mani booed the place down.” Asked if she ever faced challenges as a woman filmmaker, she replied in the negative. “As a woman, no,” she said. “There is also a question of class. If you come from a position of privilege you’re not likely to face some kind of challenges. But challenges of working in the field were there. However, those were related to the volatile topics - like communal riots - we were dealing with.”
Speaking about watching her earlier works, some of which were screened at IDSFFK, Dhanraj said, “it is like looking at a younger version of myself.” It reminds you, she said, of where you were emotionally, politically at that point of time when you see how the edits have been made and frames have been taken.
“I have also evolved as a filmmaker,” Dhanraj said. “For example, there is a lot of anger in my earlier films. At the end of the one on Hyderabad riots, I quote a line from a poem ‘Never forgive a murderer’ but today I would never say something like that. Today, if I made a film on riots, it would be about healing, and not to incite more rage.”