Veena Hariharan has done her Ph.D in Cinema Studies from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. She wrote her dissertation “Private Modernities: The “I” in Contemporary Indian Documentary and Visual Culture” on the first-person documentary in India. Currently, Veena is visiting faculty at the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Bishakha Datta is a documentary filmmaker, a writer and the director of a non-profit organization called Point of view. Of her films, the first independent docu-feature that Bishakha made was ‘In the flesh: Three lives in Prostitution’ in 2002, The second film was ‘Hot of the press’, 2006. Her new film, ‘Zinda Laash’, was made in 2009. Some of the other films she has made are ‘Benaqab’, ‘Taking the pledge’ and ‘Out of the closet’.
About her books, the first book, called ‘And who will make the chapattis?’ (1998) is about all-women Gram Panchyats and the kind of decisions those women make. Her most recent book is ‘Unzipped: Men and Women in Prostitution Speak Out’ (2002) and it’s a collection of interviews with sex workers. The non-profit that Bishakha runs, ‘Point of view’ tries to represent all these invisible points of view through art, culture and media.
The following conversation took place at Persistence Resistance, Delhi in 2010.
Veena Hariharan: How did you come to documentary filmmaking and why did you choose documentary? Is it because you had a belief, like all documentarians do, that you would change the world somehow?
Bishakha Datta: This question takes me back a long way. I was studying in the US in the late 80’s and I had gone there to do my Masters in Communication, but the course turned out to be more of a print Journalism one. I was at a University that had one of the best Documentary Programs in the world and it was just across the hallway from us. I was very tempted to do that as well while doing my Masters because it just seemed very interesting.
Two things that really influenced me, was that at that point (1986) I hadn’t seen the kind of vibrant documentaries in India that you see now. So my early memories of documentary was much like that of many people of my generation in this room, where you go to a cinema hall to watch a feature film in a theatre and you see a Films Division documentary before that, which was very tedious and I didn’t want any part of that at all.
While in was the US, there were two screenings that really interested me. One of these films was the Life and times of Harvey Milk based on the career and assassination of San Francisco’s first elected gay councilor, also on whom the feature Milk is now out. At this point I also have to say, having watched both, the documentary is actually stronger than the feature. It blew me away because it took a real life story, but told it in a way that was very different from what I was used to seeing in a Films Division documentary. It took an ordinary life and made all the little nuances that actually made this life come out in an extraordinary fashion.
When I came back to India, I was determined to work on documentaries. These were pre-satellite days in India, so we didn’t have any cable television and you had crews coming down from international channels like the BBC, Channel 4, and the German Television channel zdf. They wanted somebody who were local who could help in the research, assistance in direction etc, so I started that way. I worked on this huge sixty-minute film called ‘Caste at birth’ which was about caste and gender issues in India, by a Polish filmmaker for Channel 4.
But I have to say- no; I didn’t want to change the world. What I was really interested in was form. I like writing and I like writing non-fiction and I really saw this as another form which was very allied because they are both non-fiction in a sense. But here I would have to think visually rather than textually, so what interested me was the craft and the form, not the content per se. It was the possibility of telling a story in a very interesting way without using fictional devices, but with real life that drew me to documentary.
Veena Hariharan: It’s very interesting that you say you didn’t have this whole utopian idea that you might change the world. When I started thinking of documentaries, at least initially, I always thought that this was a form that could be used politically to make some kind of change as opposed to fiction filmmaking. I’m not sure that the boundaries are so fine, because fiction can also change the world. In some way or form the general idea of the documentary filmmaker is probably that he or she would like to intervene in some kind of discourse or some kind of change and transformation. I know that you are being modest and saying that you don’t want to change the world, but at some level all documentary filmmakers do have an urge to change something around them.
Bishakha Datta: When I was a Journalist, one of the things that always troubled me is that I would go to a lot of protest marches by the women’s movement and I would want to contribute but I always faced this conflict – can I contribute through my writing or do I need to be in the protest march to contribute? Is writing enough?
So in that sense, yes I agree; it was important for me to change things- but from where I was standing and using the skills that I had. Once I got into both filmmaking and writing what really occupied me were all the things that occupy many practitioners, which is the craft of it. How do you actually tell a story that has impact?
One of the things I am personally allergic to is that I don’t like bad art and good politics. It really doesn’t do anything for me to watch a terrible film with the best politics in the world. They both matter; you need good art and activism.
We’ve all been in that space where we had to be in marches to protest the right of terrible films to be shown and we would be there for the whole anti-censorship part of it, but we would think- what a rotten film!
One of the quotes I use a lot is of Tom Stoppard who said, “Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.” It’s not just simply about wanting to change the world with documentary films; it’s about how you can really use your craft powerfully so that that actually makes some kind of impact. Change happens in many ways and for me personally emotion is very important. What I am trying to say is that the more subtle part of it rather than the more obvious political part of it is what interests me.
Audience Question: I think it is also more about wanting to change the way we look at the world, rather than the activism side of it. And if one looks at your work, it has worlds that are not actually seen, worlds that are on the margins. By bringing them into the foreground you are changing the way they are looked at.
Bishakha Datta: Yes, but the reason I made a film is not because I wanted to change the world but because I thought it was an interesting story. So whether its Taaza Khabar or whether it’s the three people who are in In the flesh, if there was nothing in their personal stories that hooked me as a documentary filmmaker, then somebody else would have to bring them in the fore.
Audience Qurestion– I was going to ask this question a lot later, but I feel the need to bring it up now. If there are six degrees of separation, I am seven degrees separated from documentary films so I really am not comment on this, but what I observed was that it was not just the story but the telling of the story that made it so interesting. For instance, you brought in the Bengali lady’s husband at the last possible minute, and I loved that. My personal opinion was that the stories were not that interesting but your telling made them very interesting. So the craft is what really makes your work stand out.
Bishakha Datta– Absolutely, thank you for saying that. Why is it that I as a documentary filmmaker should have to want to do anything more than make a good film? Why is that not enough? It’s enough for feature filmmakers. It’s enough for poets. It’s enough for writers.
Veena Hariharan: That’s a good question. And somehow documentary filmmakers seem to carry a burden in terms of harboring political change. In my work, I am looking at first person documentaries about family and about the self and its always raised in that context where people say things like– “why is this documentary filmmaker saying things about her mom, I don’t want to know about her mom. Why isn’t she talking about the world and all of that?” So you see, there is always a burden on documentary filmmakers and I think you answer this question really well when you say– why should this burden be on you. Why indeed, when the burden should actually be on the Mass mediums like Bollywood or something where they actually make films that can change the world.
The thing I also want to say is that documentary with its small reach or small audience is again one of the challenges that filmmakers face. You don’t have a readymade audience, except maybe your friends or your well-wishers or perhaps a festival like this. At the outset there’s always this question of who’s going to watch this, who’s going to be affected by this and who is going to actually receive this message? So in that sense, what is your response to the lack of audience and also the changing nature of that?
That, as Gargi will tell you, is a huge problem. There was no distribution of documentaries at all. We all know of people like Anand Patwardhan who have put in as much time into distributing their films as they have in making them.
For me personally, In the flesh was the first time that someone had given me money to make the film that I wanted. So it was very important for me that I not just make the film for it to remain on some shelf somewhere but that people actually see it and engage with it. It was also quite a complicated film to make in 2002, because the world was different vis-à-vis the discourse on sexuality, gender, rights, sex work, prostitution, trafficking etc. I really felt this need to test audience reactions.
So I spent a year on the road doing screenings everywhere- Bombay, Calcutta, Lucknow, Delhi etc – in collaboration with women’s groups. I can’t see myself doing that with every film because as a filmmaker you don’t have that same kind of relationship with every film. In the flesh was a very special film because it was my first film and I was like, wow! Somebody is giving me all this money!
But also because of the kind of film it was and the kind of perspective it put out, I really enjoyed showing the film as much as making it. For instance in Lucknow, we had a very famous Women’s Studies professor who stormed out in the middle of the film with her students. We had very good reactions and some very tough questions. I think it showed me the power of opening up dialogues. But you should also be prepared to have that dialogue and take reactions, which are completely adverse to your film. Comments might say that you are glamorizing, legitimizing, justifying or even promoting prostitution and you have to be able to talk that through. I enjoyed it that one time thoroughly, but I can’t see myself going on the road to distribute every film I make.
But it’s a huge issue, without distribution, where are we?
Gargi Sen: Veena, when you say the “I” in the documentary and the personal, to me a lot of the work that’s coming up is actually very personal. For instance in Bishakha’s film, I see Bishakha much more than those three characters. If it weren’t for those very contrived sequences where there is soliciting of sex, it would be like a European, observational film. So it is in such sequences that I see the artist. These are therefore not autobiographical per se, but nevertheless they are extremely personal. I find that very exciting, and that’s happening now, very much.
In terms of the audience and its numbers, this is something that I keep working on all the time. For films like Reena Mohan’s ‘Kamala Bai’ or Madhusree Datta’s ‘I live in Behrampada’ even now we often have to put up a houseful sign. These are eighteen-year-old films. We showed ‘Babulaal Bhuiya’, which is 24 years old, in two auditoriums yesterday and they both were houseful!
These filmmakers have also screened them across the country and so have different women’s groups, different organizations, and students. If there was some way of tabulating the notion of audience numbers outside of the box office, I think we do have an audience. It really is a question of how we are conceptualizing that audience and how we are trying to access and reach that audience. I also think that today is the best time for documentary, because for the first time the practice is being acknowledged.
Bishakha Datta: You know this is exactly what we did with In the flesh, when we took it out we made a whole list of our own so it was a very Cottage Industry style of distribution. We had the venue, the date and the number of people recorded so at the end of one year we were able to record how many people had seen it. But also along with distribution you have to take on a list of other affiliated duties like the PR and promotion and the marketing.
Veena Hariharan: I think that’s a good point that both of you raised. It’s the way we measure the audience that has to be done in a slightly different register because of its after life. Like you said, some of the issues come up in the discussions or in the universities. So there’s a whole life that the documentary lives after its been produced and screened.
I know it’s a probably a contrived category to say that this is a personal documentary where the filmmaker puts herself, or maybe her mother, or her family inside the documentary. So you are kind of exposing the concept of privacy.
Your film is very personal and there are also a lot of films where the subjective part of the filmmaker is very much a part of the documentary. Maybe these are some films that are coming out of a certain framework of development, where you keep watching dams and rivers and nothing is happening. Your film however is very cinematic in its sweep and its narrative form, so lets talk about that a little.
In ‘In the flesh’, which is about Uma, Shabana and Bhaskar the three sex workers that you follow, I found the ending to have a small problem. Here is this woman, a sex worker who has been working very actively towards acquiring certain rights, and then she settles for a sort of marriage where she is monogamous but he is not a one-woman man. He is however looking after her, and she sort of puts her arm on his shoulder and they walk off into the sunset. So this ending leaves me sort of ambivalent. Can we talk about that a little?
Bishakha Datta: Let me start by telling you a funny story. The music that Rajesh Parmar, who edited the film, wanted to put in that last shot was the song from Pakeeza– ‘Chalo dildar chalo…’ But I refused because had we done that, everybody would have read it in one particular way. I personally find that scene very enjoyable, just because there is so much going on. On the one hand he is talking about this relationship which doesn’t has a known name and at the same time it is this typical domestic scene where she’s like “Okay, stop talking rubbish and just sit there.”
There is also his view of prostitution. There are many things happening there. There’s the whole bit of her trying to say that she never wanted to be a madam, and he contradicts that and saying she did. What I actually always find hilarious is that the reason she didn’t want to become a madam was not because of some big noble reason; it was just become she didn’t want people dirtying up her room. Which is the stuff of life, those little things.
If I were not to put that scene of the two of them in the end, say if I were to put it in the beginning or in the middle, I would have to make an entirely different film. Because its one of the most important scenes and you would then want to know their story and we would have to follow that.
The end is kind of ambiguous. One of the first screenings was at a Sexuality and Rights institute, which was run by an NGO called Kriya. Some people read it as my attempt to somehow uphold marriage, which frankly is not my thing at all. There were other screenings where people did not read it as marriage, but read it is as companionship. So it does lend itself to various different interpretations.
That was the toughest scene to get as a filmmaker. I had been pestering Uma from day one because I knew her lover, Mohan, and I kept asking her if I could film him but she never allowed me till a day before we wrapped up the shoot. We had this huge party in her room, which was also filmed and then the shoot was officially over. I think it was only at this party that she actually felt that the distance between me as a filmmaker and her as a subject got erased because essentially we were both drunk. So that barrier did exist even though you are trying to build rapport and get comfortable with each other. At two in the morning she told me “Yes, you can film Mohan tomorrow.” So it was also very interesting for me to see what access she allows me at what time, and how she controls the terms of her own construction.
Saba Dewan: Well, I loved the ending. I’ve made a film where there is a similar ending (Delhi-Mumbai-Delhi) so I know where this is coming from. There again, people who had been working with sex workers had this discomfort with my character seeking marriage. But in ‘In the flesh’, this sequence takes the film to another level. Lives and people are full of contradictions, and that is what makes them real people. That is where I really have a problem when we as documentary filmmakers are burdened with being politically correct. We can perhaps be politically correct if we are sitting in a room like this, but it’s being grossly unfair to filmmaking as a craft to expect all the characters we work with to be politically correct and to fit into certain pre-determined agendas. So we have the rights group expecting all the sex workers to be completely sorted out so marriage is not there. But of course, you need companionship, everyone needs companionship! Everyone has certain cravings for certain kinds of relationships. Then they can maybe move on, we all do! But the fact is that it is all those greys in our lives make those lives interesting enough to want to even engage with them. Otherwise it would become a political pamphlet and we would be reducing lives to that. Unfortunately in much of our earlier work that we have done as women filmmakers, we have reduced our characters to that – to fit into pre-conceived notions of what a woman being empowered is like and such labels.
Audience Interjector: I am a storyteller and I also agree with you Saba, because sometimes we get too politically correct and everyone in the world becomes obsessed with being politically correct. Nobody can fall in love, no one can be regular, no one can have a husband, and how dare somebody get into matrimony and how dare somebody hold somebody’s hand! I mean I am sorry, just let her have a life!
Bishakha Datta: The way Parmar and I work together is that we do small sequences and once we have done enough sequences, we know where those are coming in the film. Are they coming in the first-third, second-third or the third-third and so on. When both of us watched the footage, we knew this was pretty powerful.
Once I was asked to speak at a panel on feminist filmmaking, and I had this dilemma. Yes I am a feminist and I make films, but if I think of myself as a feminist filmmaker, it sort of mentally puts me in a box. This dilemma between the contradictions in life and the political correctness come about.
For instance, in Taaza Khabar, there was some footage, which we didn’t use, but was very interesting. We went to some villages where some instances of Sati had taken place. And we interviewed the families of the lady who committed Sati. Now of course I am against Sati, that’s not the point. But when you go to that village which is a totally different milieu and is as far removed from your Delhi and Bombay as you can imagine – you see this man, the father, who is in his 70’s or 80’s and to be honest as a filmmaker, its hard for me to perceive him as the villain. I just see him as a sad old man. Those are some of the contradictions.
Often I think that if I were to make a film on domestic violence, which is a subject I really care about, what does that mean? Do I have to portray the man as a monster or can he just be a man with his own contradictions? So these are some of the dilemmas we fall into when we are thinking in terms of political correctness versus life, which ultimately produces more vibrant art.
Audience Question: In the same film, say we have an ending where after the shot of them walking away, we take it back to just a few seconds’ frame of Uma, and let the film ends there. Then it would have probably made me more comfortable to see her standing alone.
What I am trying to say is the in terms of the craft of filmmaking, where we see it begin with her telling us of how when she was fourteen or fifteen and was locked in the room when that man came to her, she was strong and tried to beat him up and he had to leave. Now we can have a huge topic of discussion on political correctness, but what I am saying is that it’s not about her walking away with a man, or that she cannot having a romantic relationship. It’s just that this character is so strong throughout the film and she sustains herself and this man can come right in the end because she has a story of herself to tell. But in the end, although I have nothing against it, my view of her being a strong character comes down a little.
Saba Dewan: If we are reading into the whole scene, I perceive it differently. For me the lover looks much younger than Uma, she’s ageing and now she’s sort of an older woman in prostitution. When you see her sitting and cooking, you see her back, which is an old woman’s back. He is relatively younger, he seems almost ten or twelve years younger to her. It speaks of a power of the woman, if you think of it in a certain normative ways.
Here is this ageing woman who has some sort of a control over a young man, he even says that she yoked him in. It’s not the first time I’ve come across a much older woman in the sex trade who also has a considerably younger man who is sort of her “dum challa”. But it speaks of the power of the woman, it adds to it. When she is walking away, what I am noticing is that crutch and the strength in her and ofcourse also the support he is giving her. She doesn’t look frail to me.
Audience Interjector: That is true, but I guess I would be more comfortable with ending with that three-four second shot in the end. You know how films leave an impression on your mind and how the last thing I was thinking was that oh she needs a man in her life.
Saba Dewan: I suppose I am comfortable leaving people uncomfortable.
Veena Hariharan: Let me tie up the points being made here. First of all, I absolutely agree with you on how the feminist filmmakers very often reduce their subjects to objects. By the end of these films, these women become so removed from the viewer’s life that they become the “other”. There are many such moments in feminist history and we are beginning to address these questions. Also, I read in some interview of yours where you say that you did not make this film on sex workers as if they were others, or victims or even as exotic creatures who have glamorous sex lives; you in fact look at these women as real women with real lives and that’s what gives them these shades of grey, like any other person. The ending in some way then speaks to that. She may be a sex worker or a Rights worker but at the end of the day she is also a real woman who has desires that are outside the framework of a politically correct discourse. I think that is the beauty of your film, that you don’t reduce your subjects.
But now let me move away from the ending. You bring up Bhaskar in the film, and he was a very interesting character, but then he suddenly seems like he got left off somewhere. Maybe he wasn’t as interesting as he seems to be or maybe you found Uma to be a much more convincing character, but I just wanted to know what happened there?
Bishakha Datta: Bhaskar was never supposed to be in the film. When we started filming, Bhaskar would keep hanging around and popping up and it was quite obvious that he wanted to be in the film and yes, I liked him. So if you look at the tapes that I have, I have equal footage of all of them. But it was only on the editing table, when we sat down to make decisions of what to use, we realized that Uma was far more compelling. There was something about her. So it was a result of just some editing decisions we made, simply because she really appealed to us.
Veena Hariharan: Also the scene where Shabana actually invites a customer to her room and then she tries to force him to wear a condom and he refuses; there is this whole back and forth and she finally convinces him. I think this is probably staged and I was wondering why you chose to do that. This scene seems a little jarring and one wonders why is it being staged? Is that an artistic choice that you have made?
Bishakha Datta: It was a choice that I made because I do feel film is a visual medium and I do think that the interview is overused in documentary film. I think we need to start looking at other visual strategies. I also think the categories of non-fiction and fiction are blurring.
I have an interview with her saying the same thing, but I didn’t find it interesting enough. We did it in a way where a lot of those parts are fast-forwarded and it was very obvious that it was staged. Neither Parmar nor I felt that we were trying to do it in a way where you would think it was real.
I personally find it very amusing because it shows you the whole process of negotiation. A man is trying to leave but she doesn’t want to lose a customer, she runs after him and brings him back and drops hers pallu. It’s not the same if you don’t see it.
I have also been called utterly tasteless for including a scene like that by certain documentary filmmakers where I have gotten calls asking me to delete that scene altogether. It has also not been accepted at certain documentary film festivals because of that scene alone. The thing is I still liked it and I showed it to some of the sex workers and they really enjoyed it, they felt it was true to who they are and so I kept it.
Veena Hariharan: In that sense, is your primary audience, the sex workers themselves?
Bishakha Datta: Not really, the film was made for documentary film audiences. But as is the case with anybody who has made a film about real life characters, you at least want those three people to like the film.
So they were a secondary audience to me as a filmmaker. Also, sex workers come from a culture of Bollywood and documentaries are far removed from their world. So they did find it interesting but it is not the genre of film they watch.
Veena Hariharan: In that sense, who was that scene for? If it wasn’t for the sex workers and if it wasn’t for the uneducated (in film language) documentary audience, then why was it included? When you are preaching to the converted, or maybe an audience like this, they could probably see it as an artistic choice and a self-reflexive moment in the film. Who did you have in mind when you decided to include that segment?
Bishakha Datta: Me! It was interesting for me, so that was good enough. I found it engaging and left it in. There is self-reflexivity in the film, but that is definitely not the scene for that.
I also don’t think self reflexivity was a conscious choice, it was just that because a lot of the film was shot in Calcutta, and I am a Bengali, I speak the language and I could have these kinds of intimate conversations. It gave a very conversational feel to the film, rather than the interview format. So I would say the self-reflexivity comes from that conversational feel. It is also from those few moments that you see me, although seeing me is not important, the point of view comes across very clearly.
Veena Hariharan: You seemed to have reached that kind of comfort level, where Uma lets you into her private life; she shares details of her intimate affair with this man and so on. So either you must have spent a lot of time on research or if not, how did you break that fourth wall, so to say?
Bishakha Datta: To be very honest, I did not spend too much time, I had a researcher who went to Calcutta and found Uma. I really approached the film on a very instinctive level.
By the time I had made this film I had already worked on fifteen International Television Documentaries where you are telling a very comprehensive documentary on an issue, and you feel like you need to have one type of this issue and one type of that issue and so on. I really wanted to move out from that kind of a documentary, this is my film and I was just going to make it in on what I found interesting.
Again because I think in Bengali and English and I would not have been able to have that kind of rapport in Hindi. So I met and I liked her, and we just hit it off. We then shot the film over ten days in Calcutta.
I think the critical thing there is that I had a camerawoman, Ranu Ghosh who is also from Calcutta and also speaks Bengali. She is very slight and very unobtrusive. Before Ranu started shooting I shot for two days awith Ross Kauffman who also went on to make Born into Brothels with Zana Briski, but it wasn’t going anywhere. Everybody was very uncomfortable in the brothels; they were all staring at him and all of that.
I also shot the film with a camera that was one of those handy cam sort of things. Here the whole ethics of technology comes into play because at one level those kinds of cameras are so small that they sort of gull people into thinking that this can’t be a real film, this is like toy stuff but that is what gives you that kind of intimacy.
Because there was no space in her room, I used to spend a lot of time hanging around the corridors, chatting with other people in the brothel. Also technically speaking, we shot the entire film on a wide-angle lens so we could get huge amounts of spaces covered.
Veena Hariharan: In a sense digital technology has made it possible to get so close to the subject and you built up this comfort level through a mix of technology and a rapport that you built on the basis of language.
Bishakha Datta: Sex workers look at the world through a worm’s eye view. One of the first questions they asked me was, if I was married and when I said no, immediately they were comforted. It’s not to say that she (Uma) would have been uncomfortable with a married woman but she could see just from the way that I looked that I was not your traditional Bengali woman and she was gauging me.
The other thing that Uma would do was that she tested me by using a combination of sexual slang. She would say things like “if you were in the market, this is how much you would get, and so on. She wanted to see what I was made of.
Veena Hariharan: The documentary filmmaker faces this additional burden of building this rapport that fiction filmmakers do not have. Although the director and actor need to have a connection, but that kind of relationship and intimacy, they do not need to engage with.
Out there, there is still a popular conscience of the documentary- from bitter memory of newsreels, coming down even today to what we watch on TV Channels. So this popular consensus is changing, but there is still some kind of leap to be made.
Bishakha Datta: I think we all know where the documentary stands as a genre within the whole world of film but what we are trying to say is that within that there are very interesting experiments, there is very interesting use of craft etc. The truth is still, that you have a My Name is Khan releasing and you have the most interesting documentary in India releasing at the same time but you still know what 30 million people are going to see. So as documentary filmmakers what we can do is keep working on our craft, that’s how you get new viewers as well.
Veena Hariharan: ‘Hot of the press’, is a really great film; it is very racy and also very different from ‘In the flesh’. I was wondering if it was sort of your answer to the hype surrounding media right now, the kind of 24/7 intrusions of media.
Bishakha Datta: I guess my interest in Khabar Lehariya, which is the subject of Taaza Khabar really grew out of the fact that I started life as a journalist. I just felt like we don’t have that strong a tradition of community journalism in India, and it was one of the rare examples that I saw where they were not only taking journalism seriously, as well as given that a lot of my work was with women, it was like those two streams meeting: women and media.
More than the film, I think Khabar Lehariya itself in an answer to the whole media hype and the kind of mainstream media that we see today. It really goes back to our long-standing value of journalism. So the paper itself is the answer and I was simply trying to document what they do. Also, the film was made for Nirantar, which seeded Khabar Lehariya and still does. I was conscious of the fact that this was Khabar Lehriya’s film so I didn’t want to comment to be very honest; I wanted to keep myself at a certain distance from the film. So very consciously I underplayed myself.
Audience Interjection: It’s about this fortnightly eight-page paper that is run by this group of women, which is propelled by Nirantar.
Mailini Ghose: Actually a lot has happened since the film was made. There are twenty women who run Nirantar now and it has become weekly; we are registered as a newspaper, and circulate 3000 copies every week. At Nirantar we are trying to expand this idea and further seeding it in UP and Bihar.
We went to Bishakha because we wanted to make a film, but also we wanted a journalist to make it and we didn’t want it to be a film about Nirantar in a typical NGO film kind of way. What was interesting for us was this tension between the creative aspect of it and Bishakha coming in as a documentary filmmaker and our interest in showcasing the project. We would have a lot of heated debates and now in the end it has worked out really well because it does that without a very heavy-handed success kind of formula, which is again where a very large segment of documentary films fall.
Bishakha Datta: I was very nervous initially, thinking that I would suddenly be seen suspiciously within the documentary film community as someone who makes promotional kind of films. But the thing is that I was interested in treating it as a film. I wanted to film one whole cycle of production, which is a two-week cycle from the beginning to the end. I also wanted to film it in the monsoons because I felt that being a rural region where they have to cover a lot of ground on foot, I would get far more dramatic visuals if it were raining. This I thought would give a particular look for the film.
We shot during the monsoons and it didn’t rain even one drop during those two weeks. It also shows that sometimes you have your own preconceived idea, when actually I should have been paying attention to what was happening there at that time which was interesting. I hadn’t asked that question because I was too fixated on my idea of a rainy visual looking film. But what was happening there at that time was the local election, which was far more interesting and yielded me far more interesting footage than any monsoon visual could ever have.
This was an extremely difficult film to edit. I ended up working with one editor and doing a first cut which I was very unhappy with; it was one and half hours long. I then ended up sitting with a second editor doing a second cut with which I was still not satisfied, and finally I sat with a third editor where we did a much tighter film. His approach was different because he suggested that since it was on a newspaper, we break it into fragments of a newspaper. So it was a very pacey film with every segment being a fragment of news style although I often hear from viewers that it could have been a slightly longer film.
I still feel that this is one of those films, where some of the footage of the elections which is unedited and not there is the film, is almost as interesting or even more interesting than some of the edited footage.
Veena Hariharan: The funding often affects form in very significant ways, which gives us all these development documentaries that really bore you to tears. Who funded ‘In the flesh’ and how did that affect your creative expression?
Bishakha Datta: For In the flesh, I got funding from the Ford Foundation, and here is where Point of View intersects with me as a filmmaker. One of the reasons, I am able to raise money from sources that individual documentary makers are perhaps not able to access, is because I run a non profit called ‘Point of View’ where the work that we do is also around gender, sexuality and rights.
I had actually written a project proposal to the Ford Foundation on gender and HIV and I was supposed to make a film on HIV positive women. However, at that time (2000), in the Positive Women’s movement, a lot of the women thought of themselves as victims and I did not find that very interesting as a filmmaker. At the same time, the sex workers movement was starting out and I found a lot of these women far more fascinating, and so I changed the film. I did the same with the book that I’m writing on sex workers, for which I again got the funding from the Ford Foundation. It’s a book on world’s largest sex worker collective, which is in Kolkata- DMSC. I thought I’ll write a semi-academic kind of work and I thought of going to SAGE. After the research, I realized that writing that kind of a book would not be enough of a writing challenge for me. I wanted to lay down these complicated sex work debates and so I finally went to Penguin.
Veena Hariharan: That is very interesting. One always has a certain reference point. I think the idea that one sees the NGO documentaries and assume a definitive tone and structure is changing. It’s a huge leap for documentaries.
I now want to go back to the film again. The moment when we get a glimpse of the professional life is very interesting. Can you talk a bit about that?
Bishakha Datta: It brought out the combination of the same person in private space and in the public space. So when you see her at home, you are really getting a glimpse into her life, and then when you see her as a journalist, you see her actually looking for material. I think the reason why that worked was because you see that as a complete lack of women in that milieu. It also explored the fields of rural women, spaces, being a journalist in that kind of set up. The election was also very interesting from a milieu point of view, and even, for instance, when the woman won the election and when they ask her what do you feel she says, “I feel nothing” shows that it’s a place where they are not media savvy in that typical way where you have politicians that will rattle off some inane nonsense.
Again, it’s also an open question about whether the husband is actually being garlanded because he’s going to be the proxy power behind the throne or is he being garlanded because there is a certain discomfort with touching women.
Veena Hariharan: But I really wonder if the power that she has of weaving through the crowd is also because of the camera. You are there, of course; there is also the Nirantar crew. Is the movement as fluid without the camera as well?
Bishakha Datta: I feel, yes! But Malini is, perhaps, better qualified to comment on it.
Malini Ghose: The juxtapositions between Kavita and some of the other women are quite telling and they could easily lead to an empowered versus underpowered kind of debate, where people will say why should women be in Panchayats because of the proxy situation. But if you look at the rest of the story, there has been a lot of investment in women like Kavita and so empowered women don’t get created overnight.
Interestingly we recently showed this film to students from DU and they said our mothers cannot read and write and had they been able to look at the possibilities they could explore, their life would be very different. The point being that the film gets made for a completely different purpose and gets taken in different contexts and different ways. So I think if you look at this story there are a lot of dimensions that can unfold.
Bishakha Datta: There is this scene where another journalist, Meera, is seen in her house from five to eight in the morning where she’s doing every single thing that the woman does – she’s brushing her children’s hair, giving them breakfast and so on. The reason I wanted that is because I didn’t want people who see the film to think that these people from Khabar Lehriya are from a different milieu. They have come from a same background as all the other women in the village but have gone through this long process where they have gotten the confidence, so it was important to show them as regular women.
Veena Hariharan: At the end of the film we see them all swimming and it was a very interesting shot to be left with.
Bishakha Datta: That was taken one day when the shoot was over, and they all jumped into the talab and people were swimming. It could have been put in the film as an interlude but I couldn’t really place it, although I still wanted to show it so I put that with the credits.
Audience Question: I love what you talked about instinctive engagement when you were talking about your rapport with Uma, and I think that is something we don’t get to hear much of in the research discourse. When one engages in research, a lot happens over a period of time, but yet nothing happens. If you talk about conversation as a trope of enquiry in trying to unravel any context then lot of instinct and the way conversations are directed is important.
So I think that’s a very big point you made about instinctive engagement and the documentary allowing this kind of engagement through the technique. A camera, be it big or small, does lead to some sort of animation of the subject who is in front of the camera at that time.
My question is how do you research and plan a film on a particular subject. When you said that you planned a two-week shoot keeping the monsoon motif in mind, I would never think of something like that while doing this research. So in the craft of doing this documentary, this is not a question of time at all, but things like deciding to show the woman in her private realm while being in the public like in the tea stall for example. So how do you plan shoots and what informs the decision you make?
Bishakha Datta: From a filmmaker’s perspective, firstly you have a budget, so that limits you immediately. Secondly, since I had been a journalist, I knew I had to cover all the steps from a journalistic perspective: one was the editorial meetings, the reporting part, the content development and the physical production of the paper and then eventually the distribution. So from my urban lens, things like the old offset press in Allahabad and the fact that the women themselves deliver the papers from village to village stood out. I know this is not how mainstream journalism functions. So from the first to last moment, in the two week cycle, intervening as less as possible, you film everything that happens.
And then you remain sort of alert so when I find Mira, Kavita and Shanti emerging as the three main protagonist of the paper, but as a filmmaker if I don’t want to present them as a larger than life heroes and I want to show where they are coming from. I need some more footage to show that. So for instance I asked Mira, what time she gets up and went to her house at five in the morning where I was even asked her not to get out of bed till I come.
Also because I have worked on a lot of made for television international documentaries in the past, I do less paper work.
When I’m doing documentary research, very often I tell myself that it’s not a radio show. I might get an interesting interview but then I need to ask, where’s the visual; because it’s a visual medium.
Veena Hariharan: Actually that is the most interesting part of your craft -that there is no dead space in your film. The visuals work on in its’ own steam. I’m also thinking of Zinda Laash at this time.
Bishakha Datta: This was a project that was an attempt to research media representation, but to present it visually. So we researched all the films through a certain period where the courtesan or sex worker was a significant enough character. Then we didn’t have a research agenda per se but we pulled out clips from the films and began seeing what patterns were emerging. Practically every film showed the woman smoking so we knew that was a representational norm, and we found that there were thirteen norms that cut across various films.
So it was an attempt to present research on media, but when I’m thinking visually, even though there will be 25 shots of women smoking, I will think of the best shot from a visual perspective.
Veena Hariharan: That is very interesting. Thank you for your time and for the wonderful film.