Manjira Datta has been an independent documentary filmmaker since 1986. Her award winning films have focused on environment, rural and industrial labour, labour in the entertainment sector, Iyengar yoga, politics, agrarian technology, and discrimination against women among others. She has also conceptualized and been a line producer for a twenty-six-part drama serial on Adult Education for UNICEF and Directorate of Adult Education. She has been a director and producer for BBC2, Channel 4 (UK), ARD Germany, One World Broadcasting Group, UNDP & TVE, Mayavision (London), MacArthur Foundation (Chicago), Commonwealth of Learning (Canada), UNIFEM, O&M and Tata Steel and other State Government Departments in India. Manjira Datta continues to make films as an independent filmmaker and lives in New Delhi.
Brinda Bose is Associate Professor of English at Delhi University, and has recently been a Fellow of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. She has published widely on post-colonialism, gender and cultural studies, with a focus on South Asia. She is the editor of ‘Translating Desire’ (2003), ‘Gender and Censorship’ (2006) and the co-editor of ‘The Phobic and the Erotic: The Politics of Sexualities in Contemporary India’ (2007).
The following conversation took place at Persistence Resistance, Delhi in 2010
Brinda Bose’s introduction to the session
It would be interesting to start off with the idea of the documentary and the question of form, because my training in is Literature and that’s what I teach and the question of form and narrative is the one that assails any kind of creative expression.
But the question that’s very often asked about film and about documentaries in particular is about the documentary form and how it is different? What makes it work? Is it expected to be different because it’s documentation? Is it expected to be linear and historical and objective? These are the kind of questions that keep coming up as far as documentaries are concerned. Immediately we (Manjira and I) started talking about literature and the influence literature has on a number of filmmakers and certainly on Manjira, because she realizes that even as she’s conceptualizing her films, there are certain works of Literature that make her think about ways of representation, and that’s when, to use the phrase that she used, “the penny drops!” and she knows how she’s going to go about telling the story she’s going to tell. So, it’s works like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller that are very inspirational in the ways in which they experiment with narratives and telling stories.
There is this poem, ‘The hawk in the Rain’ by Ted Hughes, where the first two lines of it, set her thinking of new ways of narrativization. And so came about the process of imagery, visualization, and how one works with visualizing an idea that one has in mind, which of course, has to be worked out through images.
– But how does that relate to ones’ prior conception and perception of what a documentary is supposed to be doing? Can you speak a bit about what you understand of documentary practice in terms of form and narrative?
Manjira Datta: You see, documentary is usually cluttered up with very static definitions of documentation of any kind or propaganda was seen as documentary. Now to come out of that became a very big challenge for people who entered this field of documentary.
I’ll come right to the film, Babulal Bhuiya ki Qurbani, where with each and every shot that we composed in the camera, I constantly thought, “What have I got to contribute to this amazing landscape of recycling coal”? So I have to think around it and think about where the heart of the story lies. Where is the force that pulls people to such an incredible landscape to actually try to find a livelihood? (They are freelancing the way I’m freelancing, with no money!)
So you try to find ways to raise the money and fend for yourself. And that’s what these workers are doing. They are the ones who’ve been thrown out of the mainstream process, who have been thrown out of part time jobs, and they are absolutely at the margins of society; that’s one way of looking at it.
The other way of looking at it is how there is this incredible, visual, exposition of what happened when the “dirty” industry came out. Think about Jawaharlal Nehru and land acquisition at its earliest. Villages were infiltrated and “developed” and nobody was given a job from these communities. And you see how everybody was left out of the process. So again, this community finds a way to get into that, at least hold on to a bit of that.
All this seemed alright; we kept on shooting, with no real understanding of what the central focus will be. But as a filmmaker you have to come to an understanding of that. It’s not enough to have great pictures; there should be perception, which should come out of that structure. And generally people ask that question, and the answer is very simple- it has to be organic.
So if you keep looking hard enough, if you get to know the community very well, then you try to find the heart of that community- what really holds this community together? And because one was going back and forth for a year and a half, one got the idea that there is a huge force behind this community, but what is the glue holding it together?
We became frantic n search of that glue till we found out that we were always sitting next to it – the baby. Which is the only place (the martyr’s baby) where there was a little bit of space for us to have lunch. So we used to stay there, but it just looked like some cemented platform we could sit on, we could rest on.
And suddenly the penny dropped! That is the heart of the community; that’s why it’s at the heart of the community, physically. This is the strength. There is a story behind this, from where the community gets its strength.
All this became supposition, you know. You get a sense of all this because you’re going there constantly. People kept referring to somebody called Babulal but a lot of people there are called Babulal; it’s a generic name. Mailagora is the name of the place, and Babulal is a common name there. So then we started trying to unearth this character called Babulal.
And of course you see from the film, that it is the force. Babulal is the force, which is the glue within that community. That came about organically. I didn’t create Babulal by going there and imposing my notion of a martyr who pulls in people every February! He was there. And so the story of Babulal emerged.
Remember that when you shoot a film you don’t shoot in sequence; nothing is ever shot in sequence, nor is the way you edit it. It is shot as you get ideas, or a great shot or somebody talking about the community and it’s like a puzzle, which builds up. So we had gone for three or four shoots, I can’t tell you exactly, one shoot was very brief, and we had to also battle reality. Reality is the Central Industrial Security Force that patrols that area. They are like our police here in Delhi, wanting bribes, but not only on behalf of themselves but for the entire mafia.
This particular place, Mailagora, is at the crossroads of the mafia territory which operates at night because that’s when the trucks go carrying the coal and coal waste etc, and I didn’t realize out of naivety, that its going to be so complex. But the more we found out, the more we realized that we have to be careful in uncovering the story. Repeated visits, and the fact that there was nothing to buy there at that time, there was not one thing that we could buy and eat and we were asking them to give us food and water. We shared what we got and this brought us closer to them.
The workers of the washery had one berth for three people on three shifts and we would go and sleep on the shifts whenever somebody would make it free for us. The two of us were going, and a friend of mine an English guy who was also the assistant director to the film came along. And he and I tried to support each other very cleverly. He had learnt Hindi and how to read palms; so when the mafia came to challenge us, he would tell them, “Come! I will read your palm” and suddenly all gates opened. So he drew away the sting of the mafia and the potential physical problems we might have faced in the future. And the fact that he was a novelty, being an English guy in a kurta pyjama, also helped us enormously.
It was great fun. We learnt how to survive in a threatened atmosphere. And yes, we did get some help from the local leaders. Initially they were very upset that A.K Roy had sent us to them but they didn’t want outsiders to come and ask all kinds of questions. But later on, we became a part of that community. Whenever we went, we would expect to be hosted by them. So all that helps in understanding and being part of the community. Staying up all night and listening to stories from them as you see the coal being baked, gave us a sense of bonding.
The money didn’t come easily for this film. Many people have asked me how I managed to get money for a film that doesn’t have any sort of censorship built into it. I tell them how a friend of mine lent me Rs. 20,000 that he borrowed from his mother. When I come back to England, we started shooting just slides and created a template of how the script will go etc.
Then I went to a film festival, and submitted my proposal. The German T.V bought the rights of my first film, and they also put in one-third of the budget. Then we went to London, showed the letter of commitment from one TV channel (Channel Four) came in, and it moved on like that. It’s persistence, really!
Soon I realized that this “unsafe place”, had become a very safe place for us to work in. And now, why did I talk of the baby? The baby was the central force. I realized that on a particular day of the year, everyone comes together. So we don’t have to cart people in trucks and buses and bring them, it happens organically.
So as a documentary filmmaker, you constantly go back to the point of focus that you have selected, and hope that it’s going to work. It may not work. It hasn’t worked for me in one or two films. This is the chance you take, much like a gambler; you’ve been given the money, and you’ve signed up with the international broadcast stations but you’re always uneasy because you don’t have much money in the bank and they can sue you if you don’t deliver the product and so on.
This is also very nice because it pushes you, and you complete the film. And once you go down that road, it’s always there at the back of your mind, because by that time, by the second or third shoot, you have already got a lot of footage which is very interesting, and exciting. With the suggestions form your team especially your cameraman one can see the shots that will create the mood of a possible story. You can see and hear a possible story emerging but nothing is put on the plate for you.
Brinda Bose: I was just going to ask, when you collect all your slides and you see a film emerging, does it still have a shape and a form in your mind or does the form itself emerges later?
Manjira Datta: Well, the form emerged much later with this one. As I said, we were nearing the place where I had to actually write the script on paper and that’s much before the editing starts. It had to be done before the last few shoots, in this case the last two shoots, and these shoots were brief because it was very difficult for people to protect us. So when it came to writing the script, I didn’t have a clue and went away to Bangalore, away from the familiar environment. And what emerged? The baby!
The penny dropped when I happened to walk into Midland, which is a little bookshop in Aurobindo Market, and I bought Chronicle of a Death Foretold. It’s a story about going back to a moment through different versions, and I said “Ah! This is it!”
So this is how it emerges, if you have enough interest in literature, or in any kind of discipline, you will start looking back as a reference point. So all these things come together, not in fiction but in a documentary, which is surprising.
Often people have asked me this question, “Where did you get this form?” I tell them that form is not something separate from the content; it is only the evolvement of the content after reaching certain maturity. The search has to come from you. I was asking Brinda a while back- what do you do when a student comes to you and says, I want to write a PhD thesis, but what should the subject be?
I have heard such stories from many of my academic friends. It’s as simple as this- just write on something that you are interested in. You are in search of something to understand society in a different way, so you have to find an original way; nobody can help you at this point.
Especially in a documentary film, on 16mm nothing can be re-shot over and over again. Every mm counts, and its expensive. One has to be very clear on what you are going to shoot. And clear doesn’t mean you have to deny yourself anything. Thinking is free; creativity is free if you know how to work at it. I think that was why it exerts a great deal of discipline in the way you think. You do it on paper and then you go back and forth.
This is something interdisciplinary.
The centre of it is that baby; but of course, what the baby represents is an absence. So it’s the shadow that you are working with, which in itself is very fascinating and that’s what I think links it to Literature. You work with a subject that is not an object that you can focus on with your camera.
Often documentaries are like that, or they are expected to be. They are seldom recreated or re-dramatized as it goes into another territory.
Gargi Sen: In a documentary, you can’t really enact but nevertheless there is no reality, because what you are seeing would not be seen by anybody else. If I were in the same circumstances, I would see something completely different, maybe. So there is a sense of being sure but not being certain with your form. You know, but you don’t actually know and I think that’s the fun of the documentary practice. You’re there, you have something in your head but you don’t know that for certain.
Brinda Bose: That’s also the creative element in the documentary. If you were wielding the camera, and Manjira was wielding the camera, you both will choose to film different things.
The story in itself was like that, it was about each one’s perception. The way they viewed the killing or the way they narrate it is very different.
Audience Question: What happens when you think of something, but it doesn’t turn out that way? Does it really shock you, if you didn’t want your film in the manner in which it was coming? I mean, would it be difficult to deal with the fact that it’s emerging in a form that you didn’t want?
Manjira Datta: Actually what happens in a documentary is that the hundred percent burden rests on the shoulder of the director. If you didn’t know what you wanted, too bad, you are a failure!
So the challenge is to also be constantly able to foresee. If you can foresee it’s because you have worked at it and you have tried to understand this society. If you haven’t understood it, it will reflect in your film. I mean, I see it like that. It’s my failure in not being able to absorb what I’m supposed to absorb because I have no other job except to go to that society and understand it.
But if something doesn’t work, you just have to find another thing that works. Sometimes a juxtaposition of certain things work differently and I think that’s the most challenging thing. The landscape itself is a very challenging thing because it gives you everything. You’re overwhelmed. I’m just going to do documentation, is that all I came for? No! I have to do something more. What is the element I can contribute beyond what is so stunning? And that makes it a different film?
I know at least four filmmakers after me who went and shot exactly the same place. Somebody has shot on mafia; somebody has shot on other things. I have never asked them but they keep coming to me and ask me to lend my film to them.
Sometimes you can’t replicate anything. You might love it, but you can’t. If you send me back there, I might not be able to repeat it because I myself am no longer that naive, untutored person who was there earlier. I have already been exposed to that!
Brinda Bose: Isn’t it also a process of discovery for yourself? You might go with certain ideas, but once you go there and start shooting, it might change.
Manjira Datta: Absolutely! And it’s so personal. You’re not going to dictate anything. As you see, when the meeting starts, I have no control over it. I don’t even know what’s going to happen and who’s going in which direction. That’s the credit of the cameraman and the editor.
Editors really are ruthless people. They only know what they see. They are not interested in your emotions, they just do what they have to do to edit it and make it work. Reena Mohan, my editor would clearly tell me, “It’s not working!” For some sequences, she would come back after two days and see what I have done. Then, she would ask me, “Is this what you are aspiring for?” And, it sometimes works when you let it go.
I would like to emphasize that it’s takes teamwork to reach that point. The process is all about maturity; everything has to mature by itself. The more you see it, the more you think of it, and the more other’s criticize and critique it, the more it develops!
Gargi Sen: In terms of what Manjira just said, I think there’s a huge difference between copy and copy pasting. I mean if you look at art, paining had long gone ahead by copying other paintings. So you copy and you learn. But copy-paste is something completely different, which also has its place.
I wonder why in the field of documentary, the homage to a film like ‘Babulal Bhuiya ki Qurbani’, or the copying of Babulal Bhuiya… has come much later. I don’t think it’s a film shot in Dhanbaad necessarily, which is so-called copied, within that art framework. Think of films of Sanjay Kak, or others that have been influenced by it. I think it is a seminal work of art because they start to impact many people on how to compose, how to tell, how to create, how to break the narrative.
Manjira Datta: I’ll just say one word about what I am asked by many young filmmakers when they are just entering the field. They use the word “formula”. Yes, they ask me- What was your formula to make a film? And I think- Good luck to you! If you figure out my formula, let me know what it is.
Brinda Bose: Some of the persistent images that work through ‘Babulal Bhuiya’ are that of fire, smoke and coal and the industrial production that’s goes on in the background, which has its own reverberations of meanings. Do these images figure in your envisionment of the story of Babulal Bhuiya in some way?
Manjira Datta: Yes, I think the location was also a hero in someway. In that scheme, the central character was the white building at the back, which is a very powerful symbol of the “other” side. That is, the people with power emerging out of that blackness; it’ certainly a very domineering symbol. In the shadow of that symbol is the “blackness” of the people right at the bottom who are really getting just the crumbs of society’s resources.
For some reason, certain things do work when you think of that formula. Violence; this film has violence and there was a structure built around that violence. It seems that people are biologically attracted to smoke and fire, and I don’t know why but after making this film and seeing the kind of impact it had on audience from around the world, I was taken aback, frankly.
It’s such a foreign location that it’s strange, even to the locals of the region. After completing the film one of the first things I did was to go back to the location, to the market place, and set up a screen at night and show it to them. We had three screenings through the night and their perception was also as if they hadn’t looked at themselves ever.
It was as if they were looking into a mirror, and what looked like a very attractive mirror when in fact, it couldn’t be a ghastlier and more horrendous mirror, but it was something of their own. This was the first lesson for me that I learnt from that screening.
It’s quite frightening when you see the last sequences of fire. For that entire night, I saw just that. And I thought, for a moment, that they would be horrified to see themselves like that but they in fact were very proud. This was their film after all. They were proud of being able to speak without any hesitation in front of the camera. Also, cinema has that fascination, that larger than life hypnotic effect.
I thought two things worked, if we look for a “formula” for what made this a successful transition from one kind of a documentary to another kind of a documentary, apart from having a central thread along with a non-linear kind of a storyline. One was the violence, perhaps. At a subtext, it put a focus on the film. I’m not talking about the illness or the terrible environment, but about showing environment at the same time. I was conscious of it even then because I had done a lot of work on environmental studies. So what is being shown, as climate change crisis today, was then known as Environmental studies. The other thing was that just then I personally was starting to become aware of gender issues, and accepting that there are some serious gender issues. And you will see how the women spoke, very openly. For the first time somebody allowed them to talk and later on they expand on it while all the male leaders sit there and they agreed that they have to keep quiet while these women spoke. So, this was a democratic process that took place during the making of the film.
Brinda Bose: There is a crucial gender issue at the heart of Babulal Bhuiya’s story itself, right? It emerges again, as we were saying, that gender violations and violence and repression and suppression seems to be endemic to our society in some ways.
Manjira Datta: All these things coincided, rather than being scripted, you see. Each shared what their perception was and sometimes it differed, in fact very often it differed. Savitri, the sister, tried to hide the fact of her molestation because for a woman, it’s a shame to be molested; its her shame to be raped; its her shame to be attacked and women carry this burden, constantly! I often say that we live in a culture of silence and oppression.
So she was trying to hide that and we knew that she would try to do that. But later on we noticed that she is also evolving through the process of the film. Ours was a crew of men shooting the film; I don’t know what the result would have been if we had a woman cameraman, but I was the only woman from outside that they had ever seen in their lives. I looked totally different to them and I did what I liked; they were very envious but they couldn’t understand how I had worked myself towards that point.
It was that the strangeness of me as a person, going there with five characters that were being paid. They found that out and I told them that this is a professional thing, so they were all like, “Achha achha, this is a professional thing”, and they got even more impressed; a woman commandeering five men, was strange and yet impressive for them.
So they allowed us to speak to them. I assured them that I would see that there is no repercussion on them and that if they didn’t want to come to the film’s shooting and if it offends their sensibilities, then they should not come,.
Brinda Bose: Was there any reaction from the authorities?
Manjira Datta: No! I think this was a way to throw people into a deep end, the men in this case. I did go back and show the film. Nothing was hidden; there were no hidden screenings anywhere. And there were meetings after that the screenings, which I didn’t have money to shoot but I did manage to take stills of even the central leaders who said that they had not understood the women and they did not give a special place to them because they were losing their jobs with expansion of cuts at that time.
Even in ’88, they were trying to throw out anybody who worked, even a part time in favour of the men. These women were loaders; they were in fulltime employment and then they lost their jobs, and they were converted to part time employees under the contractor as you see in the end of the film.
So I told them that it was up to them as to how much they wanted to say. I was not going to force anybody to say anything. But you see, the story emerges constantly and that is because of the directorial focus that has to be always there.
Brinda Bose: Did you get any reaction from CISI at all?
Manjira Datta: Well they were trying to create mischief while we were shooting, but I think when they realised that there was nothing that we were doing was overtly against them, they didn’t interfere. And you do have to go and meet the big bosses on the other side and make them responsible. Ask them for rooms during the research, invite their participation, but not beyond that. I didn’t go and shoot with them.
There was a screening in Paris and this film was short-listed for an award. Later when I met her again in London, she told me that, she was in the jury and voted against the film. And on being asked why, she said that it’s not an objective film because I didn’t show the other side. So I asked her how was I unfair when it’s okay to have the other side on TV all the time, but it’s not objective to not have them for sixty-four minutes?
There is also this expectation that the documentary has to be objective. Now, this is a very problematic assumption. I wasn’t conscious of going against this expectation, but I was also sure that I was not going to give them camera space, because there was this huge community that was struggling to survive under the worst condition and they had a lot to say.
Later on, in ‘93, very ironically, OBM, the advertising agency in Kolkata called me to make a management film on Kotur Tata Steel. I asked them why they called me for this. They told me that they had asked the big guns to write the scripts and the workers said that it didn’t work for them because it was going to be an ISO 9000 participation of workers. And they chose me. They said we don’t want to stand in front of the camera that dresses us up for such ads anymore.
Tata asked me how I would like to do it, and I said I only wanted a camera, a pass and a car. I don’t want anybody with me from Tata to follow me around. They abided by everything in the end, and I made that film. So words do travel. These are the things that happen.
Brinda Bose: Babulal Bhuiya… was one of your earliest films; back in ’88, what led you to think about filmmaking and that too documentary filmmaking?
Majira Datta: Well this was my second film; the first was co-directed project and I shot with another filmmaker. This was quite by accident; I had lent my still camera to a journalist to shoot some stills for his articles and he gave me the half roll of film that was left. I processed it and I looked at the pictures that he had taken and told him how stunning they were. And he said it was quite filthy and that A.K Roy had sent him to see how the poor live in coalmines. I took directions and revisited that place, and this is where it all started.
And it was hypnotic, like I said. I was a photographer with a still camera and when I came back everybody said – God! Where did you go? But, something gets into you. You want to know the society you live in. I came back after eight years of living in England and so this is one way of getting to know the society you live in.
Audience Question: When we see documentary filmmakers and their work, there seems to be a prolonged engagement with the subject, which seems to be very important in documentary. Do you think this is something that comes spontaneously from within, as an artist, so to say? Or does it come to you simply as a responsible person with the camera? Or, is it actually like a “formula” that this is what is required of a documentary and so you follow it? Because in fiction this is very clear, but in documentary there is no such structured training that has been created.
Manjira Datta: You have to be intensely interested and committed to it. It should draw you, for whatever reason. Because you see, at the end, it’s a personal thing. I have always liked documentary because its challenges are very different. I have also done line producing for a drama series on education in villages. I set up everything, including scripts and I hadn’t done fiction before, but it was fiction. But this is the ultimate challenge for a filmmaker because unlike writing a book even a non-fiction, which is absolutely just your brains and your pen, here all your sensibilities have to start working.
So it involves moving pictures, what binds it together, the sound, the effects you use, the juxtaposition of the shots- that is the challenge. To be honest, that challenge also, in the end does not hold me to be very frank. What holds me to a subject is that I get interested in it; something somewhere draws me out to it. It makes an impact and you want to know more about that aspect of society, which you also inhibit. So this is part of that commitment. It will come by itself. I don’t need money to commit myself to anything and I have realized that.
Most of my films have been like this. Just after this one, believe it or not, I made a film on circus artists, for a year and a half for BBC, fully funded. In fact, incidentally the husband of the director who had voted my film out funded it. So it is that feeling, if somebody gets it, which ever subject you are picking up, you have something committed to it, some part of you, it becomes a documentary. If you have a perspective, that matters.
Audience question: A documentary is a document of a present, past or of today. In that sense, it is very important. Is there a bank that holds all the documentaries? Is there a federation of some sorts where you can get access to these documentaries?
Manjira Datta: I think that is what Magic Lantern is trying to do and it’s a start. In poorer countries like ours it has not happened. Films division has its own archive as you know, but that’s totally government funded. Different countries that are much richer have their own archives. This question came up on the 50th anniversary of documentary in Canada, and National Film Board of Canada invited 2000 filmmakers to attend it. I was on one of the panels and they asked who had the best documentary and documentation of the world. I said it’s very simple- the answer is CIA!
That threw open quite a debate! We don’t think of it, they have the money and you need the money. So hopefully, with the Internet opening up, with YouTube opening up, and with people being energized because of the cheapness or ready availability of the digital medium, hopefully this is all going to lead towards it.
Audience question: A lot of times there is a sense of dryness in documentaries, what one might call a lack of peppiness, that may not be able to buy it a market in some sense. What I sense happens as a result of this, is that there is kind of aware and interested audience that has an access to documentaries. Hence forth, the revelation and the awareness and consciousness that is created goes to a certain aware and interested sect. I come from Agra, and the culture there is very different. For a whole year, I tried to screen documentaries for school children, spending my own money but by the end of it, I had no one coming in to watch it. I was booking auditoriums, I was running for sponsorship, getting films, screening them for kids and be it teachers, parents, or students, they would watch a little and leave, or fall asleep. The documentary filmmaker does have a purpose, and that is to send the message across, not just to create the work. So I don’t want to create an objectification here and I don’t even know how much I agree with the idea of making the documentary for a peppier viewing that caters to market business. But this is a problem that someone like me carries, considering the kind of experience I had.
Manjira Datta: Well, my experience has been that North India is difficult. There used to be an organization, set up by John Abraham who passed away a while back and we used to actually travel, in buses, because we had no money. And we would host two-three screenings, with discussion afterwards. They would pay a certain amount of money for the hall and for the organization to carry on. I remember a screening in Calicut. There, the Town Hall was chosen for the screening and people were actually climbing the pelmets on top of the windows just to see this film, I couldn’t believe it; there was no standing space for me! This is because they had a chosen a place like that. They had marketed the film, gone from schools to colleges to make sure that there will be an audience. So alone, you can’t do it!
The audience was there to begin with; they were present. But as the movie progressed, you realised that they would rather play a computer game, or watch something that is more interesting in their opinion.
We all admit that documentary has a niche audience. Practically everything now has a niche audience, except Bollywood, and that is the reality. But if you go to the villages and if the film is about them, they are willing to stay up till two or three o clock in the morning. I used to fall asleep from answering questions and engaging in debates at times.
Another Interjector: I just feel that what you said is something we all know, that people don’t watch documentaries. But if its children, and if one were to introduce them to documentaries as a habit; if, for instance, there was a film on computer games, that might have kept them glued. Because at certain times, drawing from PSBT’s Open Frame, certain films might not be aesthetically pleasing or very exciting to me, but the students yield thunderous claps for it because it deals with their lives, like teenage problems or so on.
Manjira Datta: Identification, engages people. Like, in case of the people in the villages. It works wonders in film festivals and works with individual filmmakers too. I don’t believe it to be quite frank, I think people are just being polite and nice to me but after a while you tell yourself, maybe! It is not my film anymore, once the film is made, it’s the audiences’ film; they find something in it and that is a compelling reason to go on making films.
Brinda Bose: Can you talk a bit about Rishtey- how did that come about?
Manjira Datta: Well, Rishtey came about with MacArthur Foundation (Chicago). They rang me up about a producer who was going to make three films of the world for the Population Conference in Cairo. They are also involved in the corporate sector so made it very clear that they have to give me total freedom or they can consult other filmmakers, because I don’t want any disappointment with the project or any censorship for that matter. And sure enough, they produced scripts, but I refused to use that.
This scriptwriter had a whole bunch of material and he asked me, what I have. And I just had a press cutting. And that press cutting had shaken me up because it was about a mother who kills herself and her two grown up daughters. I wanted to follow this story and I asked these people to fund me for a year for this project.
They said that’s a big risk And how could they make a contract based on that. I said -simply on blind faith, if you had faith to come all the way to India and ring up some people who have seen my work, used my work, critiqued my work, and I gave them some names.
They came back and agreed and they gave me a one-year shooting lease, but the deadline was the Cairo Conference. This is in a sense an observational documentary. It is reduced to twenty-five minutes. This one year of unfolding of the story- from the time I see this story in the paper in The Pioneer and till the end.
Also, people ask me if I think of the audience when I make a film? I always tell them that I only think of myself! I am very self-centered. But if I don’t know something, and I am trying to understand it, obviously there are others like me, who are also trying to understand the society we live in.
Question: What I found interesting is an issue that is plaguing us all the time, a lot more even since this film was made. There has been much more in the press and there have been activist movements, yet we are not being able to make much headway in curbing it. This was a particular human-interest story about one case among many others that has various kinds of fallouts and effects about female feticide. But one thing that interested me about the film was not the case itself (a woman who was distressed about not living up to certain social expectations of not having a male child) but the attitudes of men. Looking at both her husband, and her brother, there is nothing that is objectionable or indicative of what lies below the surface. The husband’s case would be more obvious in terms of maybe he also wanted a male child, but he seems to be fairly innocent and sympathetic at this point. The brother is distressed at losing the sister. Was that a revelation to you when you were making this film as in the way in which the story unfolded while you were shooting?
Manjira Datta: Actually the entire film was a revelation to me, because suddenly I was that woman! It is not Lali Devi. Infact, I started identifying with all the reasons for which a girl child is not a good thing and I linked it up with my family and myself and it distressed me greatly. That’s why I didn’t use any commentary and I didn’t try to push it in any direction because truly, I did not know what was going to transpire.
And it seems to be accepted in our society; it’s okay. In my right, I have called it a society that believes in murder and suicide. Why suicide, you will say? Well, if the potential procreators are being killed off, then you do not want this lineage to continue. Although they do say that they want that male lineage to continue, so they want to kill the girls, if they want a part of some property. So the subdivision of property is to be done away with.
The lineage has to continue therefore and the male child is the central point of life and every procreation act. Now if that is so, and if you are killing off the women, how are you going to carry on? You are killing yourself! Japanese do hara-kiri, here in India we are doing another kind of hara-kiri. But there is no understanding of that at all; no discussion, even amongst the feminist academicians. They say- you are making it very complex now, we are just trying to fight dowry. But this is the central thread of this film, dowry! But it’s not as simple as “dowry”. Really you are murdering yourself, your progenitors or your progeny and you are killing part of your DNA. You are so proud of your DNA and your male lineage, but its nonsense. It is a horrific act you’re creating, you are killing yourself. The very land that supports you, you want to kill that land.
Now you want to kill women because they are “sub-species”? Is that the question in your mind? How can you say you have a very good understanding of the family in this country?
I see a lot of well known women activists who have written the status report, saying –well, one thing we are thankful about is having such good family relationships. And I say, stop that! That is a spiritual theory of India. Really? India is spiritual but it kills its female species! In Haryana, or rather in all of North India, the land is seen as the mother. So a 108-year-old man, whom I interviewed in Gurgaon, said that if we have sold our mother, how could we look after ourselves. What is our future? There can be no future for us!
It’s true; that is the depressing reality behind us and it’s high time that we start addressing it. We can’t just simply say we won’t take dowry and dowry is the reason and we don’t know exactly why people are doing it.
In Rajasthan, there is a village where they found that there is no woman except old women who are about to die; they have killed off all the girl children in the last few years. Have you heard of such a story anywhere else? No! You will hear it in this most “spiritual”, “inspired”, “loving” India!
This is deeply disturbing. So all this went through my understanding. This film has set me back in my way, because you lose your self-confidence; your self worth is undermined because you are a woman. That’s done everyday, every moment of your time.
What is important to understand is that we have to examine this. Why will a mother kill her two daughters? You will understand why. She saw them as a liability in her family. I think gender has to be addressed in a major way.
Question: You also talked about something that leads to the other two films as well; the whole notion of property and where does this liability lie? You know, in terms of dowry and in terms of inheritance.
Manjira Datta: I was referring to another film called Present Times (Samakaal), which has been shot in West Bengal to critique the land reforms program post 1977. One of the startling things that came out of it seemed that women were never considered even. Though they were doing agricultural work, they were not entitled to land; not even joint titled owners.
Despite a lot of protest, till date they have only passed one notification. So when we shot that film in ’98, we found that there was incredible pressure for the land reforms. This was because families of girl children had no land, and if they did, a portion of that was asked for as dowry. So the land reforms today are like an unbalanced, unbridled, horrendous animal walking through West Bengal. It has encouraged dowry especially amongst the tribals, and amongst the Muslims and the film talks about this.
This search for looting land from women as part of the dowry never happened before. It happened only after the land reforms. So these questions were never addressed. When you bring about an imbalance in society, there will be repercussions.
The fourth film is about dispute resolution. Because of there are thousands of cases on dowry, harassment of women, polygamy etc. Polygamy here becomes a means of collecting as many pieces of land as one can get through each marriage. Accumulating capital has become a nasha (dope).
This is a very peculiar development of land reforms. Has it failed? No it hasn’t failed but it has failed in not taking women as an equal species.
Audience Question: Surely this is punishable by law. How do you see the law dealing with these issues?
Manjira Datta: It is punishable but nobody gets punished. Who implements the law in our country? How many people has Kiran Walia got punished in her in Hauz Khas market, South Delhi, which by the way has the highest rate of female foeticide in the country. Can you imagine? And I know exactly which doctors are doing it.
They are send pregnant women to evaluate how they are sneaking in and doing the abortion. Janak Puri is also notorious for doing it. In Hauz Khas, there are two women doctors heading nursing homes, and one of them is from AIIMS. It is an open secret but to find them red handed is very difficult and in the court of law you have to have evidence.
We had to persuade the brother to bring about an understanding of the family as a whole. He did not agree in the first instance till I got a call at from him at eleven thirty at night He said that his wife had explained it to him. He has three daughters and he said that he was very concerned for them. So his wife convinced him, the father-in-law also convinced him and he was very concerned but later on, as you see, the concern changes.
Another thing that I want to bring to your notice is that documentary film is not usually seen as something that can expose or develop a character. In this film I saw characters and personalities unfolding and this was fascinating for me to record and to edit. Frankly, it was only when I started editing that I realized that it is possible for a documentary to show a character unfolding.
The beginning as you see, is a little bit like a soap where each character is being established and frozen. Generally one does the beginning right at the end; nothing goes in a linear progression when one shoots or even when one edits for that matter, and suddenly I realized that it’s as near as a soap opera in style.
Question: Tell us what you are doing now? Are you working on a film?
Manjira Datta: I was hoping to finish a film, which I started in Canada. I stumbled upon a story there while I was sharing somebody’s room and my roommate suggested that since I had my research money, I should show how things are unfolding on that case. So I went to Vancouver where a lawyer took me to a case hearing of a 14-year-old Sikh girl who was killed by her own classmates. So I started shooting outside the court and following the case.
It’s been heavily filmed; it was on every channel in the west as a case of girl rage. Actually it wasn’t girl rage only; there were boys in it as well and they got condemned. Ten of them got jail, two of them got a life sentence. Now they are going to lift that stay order because there have been four unprecedented trials, as one of the offenders who got life sentence comes from a very rich family. The whole judiciary is changing as a result, in criminal cases and the jury system is being questioned in North America. There are many aspects to this story and it is still unfolding for me.
I could not actually carry on with the film because unfortunately, there was a stay order but the worst thing was that a friend of mine who was going to be my researcher became paralyzed suddenly. So she is recovering and we will try to pick up the strands. In fact, I have already signed contracts with the producer and TV station. So all these things happen when you make a documentary. The important thing is that you stay with it.
Brinda Bose: That is a big challenge, indeed! Thank you, Manjira, and all the very best for your upcoming projects.