Saba Dewan is a documentary filmmaker based in New Delhi. Her work has focused on communalism, gender, sexuality and culture. Her notable films include ‘Dharmayuddha’ (Holy War, 1989), ‘Nasoor’ (Festering Wound, 1991), ‘Khel’ (The Play, 1994), ‘Barf’ (Snow, 1997) and ‘Sita’s Family’ (2001) and have been screened extensively in India and at international film festivals.
For the past few years she has been working on a trilogy of films focusing on stigmatized women performers. ‘Delhi-Mumbai-Delhi’ (2006) on the lives of bar dancers was the first film of the trilogy; the second being ‘Naach’ (The Dance, 2008) that explores the lives of women who dance in rural fairs. Both the films have been screened widely and have generated critical acclaim. The third and final film of the trilogy is ‘The Other Song’ (2009) about the art and lifestyle of the tawaifs or courtesans.
Sabeena Gadihoke is a writer, biographer and documentary filmmaker. Her film, Three Women and a Camera, has received several awards. She is also the founding member of the Mediastorm collective that has made several documentaries in the 1980-90s on gender and religious fundamentalism. Her area of work is on the history of photography in India. Her book, Camera Chronicles is based on India’s first photojournalist, Homai Vyarawalla. Sabeena teaches Video and Television Production at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia University in New Delhi.
The following conversation took place during Persistence Resistance, Delhi 2010.
Sabeena Gadihoke’s introduction to Saba Dewan
Having a look at all of Saba’s work again, was quite an amazing journey for me. It became a way of tracking what has happened in the documentary movement in this country over the last twenty years. If you look at her body of work, I think they are very significant because they mark out all the changes that have happened within the practice. The other very interesting thing that is happening with her films is that they also look at a certain trajectory of the women’s movement, and the way in which issues have actually changed over the last few years.
It would be interesting to discuss some formalistic issues that deal with the form of the documentary, issues to do with representation, with gender, sexuality and performance and all these are key issues that Saba’s films address.
Saba Dewan studied filmmaking at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, ’85-’87 and at that time the only documentaries that were screened were Films Division documentaries, in a large way. The reason I am saying this is because, I’m giving you a certain context: to put her work into context. When we started in Jamia Millia Islamia, there were really no documentaries for us to watch. We didn’t have the privilege and the access that one has today. We were hungry for whatever came our way, but I have to say that we were very lucky to have teachers and mentors there who actually allowed us to experiment.
Saba and Rahul (together they have made some of their early films and share a filmmaking history together) started their careers where the only references around us were films of protest. This was a moment in documentary where this was the only kind of films made.
So I remember all of us watching Anand Patwardhan’s ‘Bombay Hamara Shaher’ and being quite struck by the film. There were also Tapan Bose and Suhasini’s films, besides films made by Manjira Datta and Meera Dewan. These were the references around us at that time and this was the only way to make a documentary. So the content was the most important thing; you were reacting to a crisis in the state, you were reacting to issues that you saw around you, and those were the kinds of films you made.
Their first two films, ‘Dharamyudh’ and ‘Nasoor’, were actually reacting to a very fraught communal politics of that time. The ‘80’s were also a time when the only funding for documentary came from international agencies and NGO’s and I remember they made these two long series, one of which was on women and agriculture called ‘Invisible Hands, Unheard Voices’. I call these monumental films because they were this endless series of films and it required them to travel all over the country. I think something very important came out of that interaction at the grassroots and that politics and going all over the country and I hope we will pick up on that when we get into our questions.
In 1994, Saba and Rahul made a very different film. I am talking of Khel, one of my personal favorites, which to my mind has not been given enough attention. Khel, which means play, explored the psychic and inner worlds of women that had chosen a spiritual path. It was a film about women who were working outside of normative roles- women ascetics, women wanderers, women of the forest, Yoginis; there were many different names for these women. It was also looking for a certain kind of a forgotten history and in that sense, I think Khel is a very interesting film because it links up with her later trilogy, where you are also hunting for some kind of an erased history. So in that sense, there are similarities between Khel and the trilogy.
From her trilogy, The Other Song has got the first prize at the International Film Festival at Pusan, 2009. It is an extremely skilled film about the forgotten tawaif, the woman courtesan. But two films that actually became part of this journey before this film were Delhi-Mumbai-Delhi and Naach that led up to The Other Song. In some ways, if The Other Song poses the question, “What happened to the tawaif?”, these two films are actually the contemporary answer to that question; and yet, they raise many more issues.
In 1999, she made Bundelkhand Express about a labour train that would pick up workers and children from impoverished areas in Southern UP, and take them in search of work. In 2001, she turned the camera on herself with an intensely personal film, Sita’s Family that picks up some of the strains of inner worlds and exploring subjectivity that had actually started in Khel.
It’s a very significant film because it’s the first person film in the history of documentary in India where the autobiographical voice has always been a very submerged one. For various reasons, filmmakers have been very reticent, till recently, to actually talk about themselves and to turn the camera at themselves. It’s also a very important film because for a very long time, for similar reasons, non-fiction film was far more comfortable with exploring external realities out there, and not look at subjectivity, inner worlds and interiority. It’s also a significant film because it articulates silences about what cannot be spoken of, within ones most intimate experiences, which is, the family. And yet it is not a self-indulgent film, because it is one that is imbedded in a larger politics.
There are patterns that I see in Saba’s body of work- concerns about gender and sexuality and an interest in looking at women on the margins. Most of her films focus on a search for lost histories; many of them are structured around a journey, sometimes exterior, sometimes interior. These journeys are never romantic or nostalgic, they are always very fraught journeys, sometimes pleasurable, sometimes painful and yet, they are always very transformative in the kinds of insights they offer us about our presence.
Let us start with some of the early advocacy films you were making – Dharamyudha, Nasoor etc.; it was a particular moment of documentary filmmaking. How did that contribute to your work?
Saba Dewan: Well, Dharamyudha was actually one of the very first films that we made that came out when we had just graduated from Jamia. As has been the case with many of my films, I shot for almost five years and then I finally edit it many years down the line.
Actually, the first film I shot was Nasoor, but I couldn’t get a hang of it; I couldn’t figure out what to do with it, and so Nasoor was left on the backburner and Dharamyudha followed the course.
At that time, it seemed like such innocent times, because the Babri Masjid was still there, though it was very much a disputed structure. Vishwa Hindu Parishad was seen as part of a lunatic fringe, perhaps they still are (hopefully), but they were an obscure group that was trying to find a foothold.
What we did was that we followed these VHP leaders in their little hate campaigns, through the Kasbahs and the little towns of UP. I think we had a great advantage at that time, both of us were twenty-four and perhaps we didn’t look particularly serious, or maybe, we were thought of as too young and came across as impressionable. So we traveled everywhere with them and Dharamyudha was made. Of course, it wouldn’t have been done without the kind of support that MCRC provided for the making.
After that Rahul and I got involved in making a lot of these films for Jamia. We were the resident producers there, and also the resident travelers. There was also a huge project that came through from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research to document women’s role in agriculture. We were told of a conference that we had to attend on the impact of technology on the women workers in the agricultural sector and both of us were completely horrified! We couldn’t think of anything more tedious, boring and here we were basking in the glow of Dharamyudha and then to move to women’s role in agriculture! The point is, as films alone, those are immensely forgettable.
We made a whole series of films out of those. We just kept shooting and we traveled all over the country for that one year. As far as films are concerned, I don’t think they merit much discussion, but yes, they did very significant things. This was my first foray into rural India and for all my feminism (the level at which I understood and engaged in at that time), I realized that I had absolutely no clue; I had no clue what women in rural India faced. What were the issues of landless women? What were the issues of women engaged in subsistence economies, in tribal areas or the rice growing economies? I think, it was this thing of throwing these two kids into the wild and we just went along. We had a wonderful mentor at that time, not a filmmaker, Veena Mazumdar who is a dion of the women’s movement and who guided us along. I think the echoes of those journeys then can be seen in my later films. Because there are certain areas that I was to visit over and over and over again, say the Bundelkhand area, where I have done a lot of my work.
Bharat Jan Vigyan Jatha was yet another thing where they had these four jathas from different parts of the country and they would converge in Bhopal to mark the anniversary of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. We traveled with one such Jatha from Srinagar to Bhopal and had a lot of fun, but made a terrible film. But again, we learnt a lot. It was a real preparation for us in terms of evolving a sort of a political understanding of the many realities around us and to realize that there were multiple realities and one was always sifting through them. Of course, also culturally, it helped us in getting a sense of the huge country that lay before us.
The next film, Khel, made in 1994, marks a very sharp departure from this kind of filmmaking. I was struck by the similarities with a film like ‘Eyes of Stone’, which was a very significant film at that time, and that all of us had watched. It was one of the early films that were actually out of the political mode of protest kind of film that we had been used to. Both films in some way explore a certain kind of a feminist subjectivity, which a normative psychoanalysis or a rational science cannot explain.
So here we move away from the terrain of the rational, which we are kind of used to with our Women in Agriculture or even a film like Dharamyudha or Nasoor. You’ve got facts, you’re telling those facts and that’s it. But Khel is straddling this very interesting slippery ground where what is fact and what is not is all blurred. I am not talking about just in terms of the content, but also in the way its been shot.
Sabina Gadihoke: Talk about that journey and what it is that you were trying to do with Khel?
Saba Dewan: Khel actually came to me at a point when I was thoroughly bored of the work that I had been doing. I had been continuously working from ‘88 to ‘94, which is a good six years and I could list out many pages in my resume if I had to enlist all the films that I had done till that point in time. I don’t even remember all of them now.
There were loads of advocacy films, the educational ones, and all kinds of other films that Rahul and I worked on. I stand by them because I think they all helped. We got to know what was bad through our own work. It was an exercise; by doing shoddy work we got to know what not to do. That’s all very well in hindsight, but at that point of time, I was deeply distressed as to where I was headed for and what I was doing as a filmmaker.
And it is very interesting because Khel was very different from Eyes of Stone, but Eyes of Stone really was the catalyst. I saw it in ‘92 and was completely bowled over by it. I had never seen a film like that. And it depressed me beyond reason, I mean, I was completely depressed because I looked at my own body of work and it made me think and gave me that push that I needed.
I saw something that was so wonderful and was absolutely stunning. I have used it occasionally and I’ve taught script writing and I still used it; I’m still struck by what an amazing film it is.
It set me thinking about re-questioning my own positions. I was doing a film at that time on domestic violence and it was pretty much like the kind of things I had already done. Three case studies, one woman from an urban sphere, one from a rural sphere, one upper class, one middle class and one lower class, and you have an argument that is already worked out,. All segments were covered and points were being made. Not surprisingly, the Department of Women and Child Welfare funded it.
The film got made and had nothing to speak home about. But one of the women who took us on her journey but didn’t feature in the film was someone I had met in Bandha as a part of the other advocacy work that I used to do with Mahila Samka. Her name was Shanthi and she had a history of domestic violence and abuse. I thought, I’d shoot with her and include it as a part of this film.
We went there and I realized to my shock that Shanthi, who I thought I knew rather well, because I had met her over a couple of films that I had done in that area, just refused to be filmed. She just sat there. Now of course, if I were shooting with her today, I would have shot with her anyway. I would have just sat with her and shot that but I didn’t, because I didn’t know any better. I wanted action, I wanted interview, I wanted her to explain the situation to me. What had happened? I wanted that story; I wanted that story of domestic violence. I didn’t know better that there were other ways of telling the story and there were other aspects of this story, and that maybe, this was an exercise in deducing things that I was doing with Shanthi as a filmmaker.
So, I came back and I was very annoyed with her but something about her, and the few days that I had shot with her, kept bothering me after I went back. And subsequently of course, I just got obsessed about what was happening there. It was not a story just about domestic violence, I think; no story is. There are always so many layers, these are very complex terrains, and that is how Khel started.
It started by looking at a woman and her attempt to keep a certain space within herself autonomous, and the repeated intrusions and violent violations of that space. From there, it grew into a journey of looking into this Yogini cult and I didn’t even know much about that! Also documentaries have a lot to do with luck. These are things that I couldn’t have possibly planned.
So Shanthi happened and as luck would have it, she had this whole history of actually wanting to be a Yogini, or a priestess, to Baram Dev, to whom she had dedicated herself to since childhood. She didn’t want marriage; she was forced into it. It resonated to a great extent with the Mirabai story, or so I thought.
Then I started looking at other kinds of female spiritual experiences and that got me interested in the Yoginis. Yoginis in the Sanskrit texts led me to the Yogini temples in Bundelkhand, which I didn’t even know about. It was all working out so wonderfully, because no one knew about these temples, and there were some scholars who had done work on them and mapped them out.
I had been working on women and agriculture with coal tribal women who are from this whole Banda region as a part of my earlier project and for once, I sat down and asked them to tell me all about it. In Sanskrit texts, there are references to these Yogini’s as the forest dwellers. It was really fascinating because when I spoke to these Mahila Samakhya people, they said that they don’t want to encourage superstition amongst them because I kept talking about possession and what it is all about, and how they are seen in the women’s world view and in a religious context and so on.
And so, in bits and pieces the film came together and there was so much I didn’t know and I didn’t understand. So it wasn’t like Eyes of Stone; Eyes of Stone is looking at a classic thing in terms of working within the theory of oppression and looking at the woman and the way she has created herself. I don’t think Khel does that, because there are so many things about peoples’ experiences that cannot be understood or explained fully.
I think, as a filmmaker what interests me is just to have a glimpse of that; perhaps to start finding some parallels at an emotional level and to experience them. If I can convey that at some level, that feeling, through an image or a sound, that is where my skills as the filmmaker come in and not necessarily in being able to explain it, because I’m not probably equipped to do that at times.
Sabina Gadihoke: I’m not sure that you didn’t know how to explain it, but perhaps you realized through Khel that something’s couldn’t be explained through this rational framework. There are some of these subjective experiences that cannot be explained away by history or genealogy, in a rationalist kind of way.
Saba Dewan: Why was I choosing to move away from this neat happy world that I had, of funded films? I was considered a very good filmmaker within that circuit. Watching a film like Eyes of Stone made me realized how unfounded my claims to that could be. It was a really big shock because I had come out from a film school and had done rather well for myself, or so I thought.
Six or seven years down the line, I was in a lot of distress and even emotionally, I was not doing very great. At the same time, I was also trying to understand the emotional world of Shanthi. Just as my world could not be explained simply as a disappointment at my visions of grandeur, in terms of filmmaking because it was obviously more complicated than that, and there were of course many other issues which even I wasn’t aware of.
The fact that I couldn’t be sure about myself, and with all the therapy and everything in the world within the rationalist mould, didn’t give me any convincing answers, so how could I say anything definitive about anyone else?
Sabina Gadihoke: What to my mind is so great about Khel is that it was actually able to translate some of the things you mentioned just now, at the level of form. I think there was a very interesting thing that was done with form in Khel. I am talking of this whole business of exploring the non-rational world, the world of subjectivity, the world of interiority, that you then pick up in Sita’s family later, a film that turns at yourself. I think, some of those attempts have been made very early on in Khel, so I want you to talk a little about that.
For instance in Khel, for the first time I see, which is not in Eyes of Stone actually, the use of constructed sequences, which was not being done in documentaries at all, so I just want you to dwell a bit on that.
Saba Dewan: There is no comparison between Eyes of Stone and Khel. Eyes of Stone is a wonderful film. But speaking of Khel in terms of form, has two very different approaches.
Eyes of Stone comes from the classical American observational approach and my work has never been observational in that sense. I use verité lot, but there is always my own subjectivity that has fore-grounded those films. I use a lot of ethnographies, but again those ethnographies are tampered with my own ethnography somewhere, which makes that negotiation very obvious. So, I would say that Khel in that sense is a mélange, because I didn’t know ‘o’ for observational and ‘r’ for reflexive at that time in my career.
I hadn’t read about all that. Rahul and I were just discovering the grammar for ourselves, and perhaps, because we didn’t know any grammar, we were free of the language of cinema and therefore, we could break the rules. For instance, in order to go into the world of the Yoginis, there are some images that have been used in the film, which I will never do now and I have never done again, because they are grammatically wrong. These kinds of hallucinations are constructed images which if I were to do today, I would try to root them or pin them into some reality, so that, there remains some kind of an echo of that reality. But I didn’t have such constraints of knowing better for Khel and so they were used, and I think they worked to some extent.
We also used narration with constructed images and a lot of music that I had only seen that in Films Division documentaries. I had then thought to myself if in my whole act of redeeming myself as a filmmaker, I might end up making a Films Division films!
But I think it did work because somewhere, it was just the point of that moment and the way things were happening to us, and there was so much that overtook us at that point. We had this great energy as filmmakers, and of the women that we were meeting. I always believed that Khel is a very tripped out film.
Sabina Gadihoke: The next film I want to talk about is a fun film, a wonderful feel-good film, about a group of adolescent girls being taken for a trek out of their immediate surroundings. I was struck by how skillfully it’s able to do something that is actually very difficult in documentary- it takes you through this range of emotions, so at one moment, it is fun and then suddenly there is a thread of eroticism somewhere and then suddenly, there’s a dark moment in the film. So was Barf just a film about a trek?
Saba Dewan: When I was making Barf actually, I was back in territory that I knew best; it was an NGO funded film. I was absolutely broke after Khel and it was in the making for almost three years, where this very minor part of it got funded but for the rest of it, I needed money.
This NGO, Action India, approached me and said that they have an adolescent girl program and if I would like to document it. But by that time I knew better, so I agreed, but on my own terms and I said, “lets make a real film out of it”.
They worked with the working class girls in these so called re-settlement colonies of Delhi, which were more like ghettos that were created during emergencies. Basically, the working class people were uprooted from main parts of the city, and put on it’s outskirts. So this film was looked at the issues of gender, sexuality and class.
I researched with them for a long time. I think, I invest a lot on research, always. I also procrastinate shooting a lot, but I really enjoy it when it happens. It is also a process of just being with the subject and absorbing it at many levels- reading, talking to people and all of that.
Barf was at one level about trekking because these girls had literally, never gone out anywhere. I had a series of workshops with them, as part of my research and I remember asking them what they would like to do if they had a free day (they were cooking, cleaning, looking after younger siblings and spending the entire day as stand by’s for their mothers) and almost all the girls said that they would like to just play, up in the snow fields. This kind of struck me a very Bollywood- Yash Chopra image; playing in these snow-capped mountains, and to me this was the essence of desire, young female desire.
I just wanted to capture a glimpse of this desire that gets fettered up or chained up so early in life and before one can even savor it or enjoy that sexuality. What is this image of playing in the snow? There is a child there of course, but it is also a strong fantasy.
So I came up with the idea of the trek because that’s what excited the filmmaker in me. I was, in a way, creating a verite situation for myself. I was just throwing the girls and myself into a situation that none of us knew, although we knew each other very well. So yes, it was exciting cinematically and it had a lot of possibilities and a negotiation of a reality, because none of us knew what was going to happen. It also became a metaphor; snow was the metaphor of reaching out for your desire.
Sabina Gadihoke: You use different kinds of strategies while making your films, so there is a little bit of observational, there’s constructiveness, there’s verité and all of that works with your films. This is, I suppose, more of a question about scriptwriting; despite all these strategies, there are still these moments in documentary that are so unexpected. In a way, you can go on scripting forever and yet there is this moment that happens outside what one plans.
In a film like Barf, how much of it had you scripted? How much of Barf could you tell would happen? How much of those unexpected moments did you anticipate and how much, as a filmmaker did you actually set up? When I say set up, I don’t mean actually stage them, but as a filmmaker did you hope to precipitate a certain reaction?
Saba Dewan: Scripting for a film always depends on the kind of film that is being made. The genres that I have worked with, have always been selected in terms of the way a story was unfolding with me. For a film like Barf, which was an exercise in verité, I couldn’t script it. What I did know was that, I knew all the girls very well and I knew what to expect from them while they were in Delhi but I didn’t know what to expect from them during the journey. I had no idea about how that would unfold.
There were so many surprises. Some of the great enthusiasts for this trip, were one of the first ones to sit down and bawl. I wanted to join them and bawl myself because had I known how difficult it is to shoot a trek for ten days! You walk for fifteen kilometers lugging all that equipment, I wouldn’t have thought of it.
Ashish, the sound recordist, had to walk with that boom and keep pace with everyone and I remember, one night, he declared that he would never shoot on a mountain again. It was really the toughest film, physically, that we had shot.
So there was not much that I could have anticipated or scripted. All I knew is that I had these expectations – a set of issues that I wanted to explore with the girls, as I knew their life stories. There were ways in which I wanted to pose these questions but I couldn’t even decide on the space where I could pose those questions, or for that matter, what would be a good time; these were the things I could not predict. I had not been there myself and I couldn’t afford a reckie for the trek.
Sabina Gadihoke: Even within The Other Song we see a very skillful use of ethnographies, oral histories, photographs, voices, recordings etc. and it is an extremely well structured, well-put together, highly controlled film. But here, there are those unexpected moments that are wonderful.
In some ways that‘s the film you probably started with when you were making Khel. It was almost at that time when the film was conceived and it took eight years in the making. I want you to talk a little about that journey that you went through before you actually completed the final film.
Saba Dewan: When I finished Khel, I was interested in looking at these feminine spaces, which I can’t say are autonomous. That’s a romantic notion and an ahistorical notion and I don’t think that I subscribe to that. They do stand on the margins of patriarchy, always negotiating this very thin possibility of a certain autonomy of experience, and it’s always a struggle. I was interested, at that time, at looking at the tawaifs.
Perhaps, its because I was also brought up in an all girls school. I have also gone to a co-educational school and college, but the all girls school was one of the happiest moments of my life. So, I liked exploring the possibility of all women spaces, but beyond the romantic or celebratory notion. They give immense possibilities to us as women, to explore power dynamics between women. If the men are out of it, how do women negotiate things and what would then, the flow of power, is like.
The Other Song was something that was in my head. At that time, I got a small grant to do a research on HIV-AIDS and women in prostitution. It was not for a film but more of a research report. This is where I met a few women from tawaif backgrounds.
I came to it after I finished Sita’s Family, and I felt that the time was right for me to do it. I gave in proposals for the research and got the grants for it in 2002. The issue that I was looking at was the relationship between the art of the tawaif and her sexuality. What are the issues related to the sexuality of the tawaif? How is it constructed? Is there something about that sexuality that is represented in the art? Do the arts reflect something? Do they show us something?
If Barf was punishing us physically, The Other Song was difficult in other ways. No one wanted to speak to me. I thought I was very good with people, and negotiating spaces and creating new spaces. But here, they had so much history of being stigmatized, why would they want anyone to come at their doorsteps and say I want to talk to you?
So it was just the act of building trust and getting them to talk to you, and then getting them to agree to being filmed that took very long.
Sabina Gadihoke: There is this very interesting way in which the characters move in and out of each film. Shammi, for instance, first appears in Delhi- Bombay- Delhi and then appears in Naach and then Naach in turn, introduces you to what will come in The Other Song because it’s already touching upon the world of the courtesan. So it in way leads clues that give off on what is coming up.
In some ways, the courtesan is one of the most over-represented characters we see today, even when we look at Bombay fictional cinema. We already know who the courtesan is, although it’s a lost history and erased history.
So you are dealing with an area where there is also an over representation of the city of Benares, which is probably, the most photographed city in India. As a filmmaker, you are then already coming against a block when you look at something that people already have a notion of. So in terms of representation, was there a particular way you were looking to represent this world, differently, or otherwise?
Saba Dewan: I think the issue of representation is something that I carried with me much more in the initial part of my research. Once I was within this world, I formed these friendships and relationships with a lot of the women who were also in this film. Then this issue was non-existent because the women I was negotiating with and the lives they were leading had references to Hindi films only in terms of certain things; in their repertoire, for instance, and the singing of Hindi film songs or the readymade clichés that they give to newcomers. (I had not wanted to do this, I am a victim of circumstance, all this nonsense was borrowed straight from Bollywood and given to unsuspecting journalists) Beyond that; there was no allusion to the Bombay film, in the fiber of their life. Their life doesn’t figure in these films, and that just shows that there has been no study on their ethnography.
So, I didn’t have to think about the terms of how to represent the tawaifs. I didn’t have to bother about that because they are what they are! Even in the photographs that I have, there is hardly any resemblance of these women with their straight proud looks, with say, Rekha. So they automatically took care of that issue, with their own persona.
Benares however, was an issue. Every time I would shoot the ghats, there would be some two or three foreign crews who were also shooting there. In fact, I have used a shot in the film in which there is someone else shooting the ghats and I capture it in my shot. Yes, that did bother me and it is because of this that I was looking at parts of Benares that are not explored much. It’s a musician’s Benares, but a more humble one and that is why, I don’t have Azans in my film; they are an easy marker.
I tried to cover areas where population is largely of Muslim musicians, and these are not like the crumbling beautiful havelis of Benares. In the film, I have consciously chosen to show a side of Benares that is not often seen. It was also a way in which I was rupturing the whole text of Benares as this great Hindu city. The tawaif is always present in the great narratives of Benares, and there is no escaping that.
What I did do however, was to focus on how I look at this figure now. In the history of Benares, the tawaif has moved from being a Bai to a Devi and she’s been cleansed out and so we have the Khumris, to whom even the respectable gentlemen and ladies would listen to in their drawing rooms.
But these are the same women who sang songs that nobody wants to hear them now. In that sense, the history of Benares is being looked at in different ways.
Sabina Gadihoke: The voice-over again, plays a very interesting role. Going back to Khel, it is not a voice of certainty; it’s a very interesting way in which the voice is weaving in many things. I want you to talk a little about the scripting and here I mean, scripting in terms of the voice over.
Saba Dewan: I was not sure how I would frame it because the film took so long to be made; it saw four editors go through it. I would often run out of inspiration, run out of money and so on. It was very difficult for me to crack this one.
When you talk of representation, it was not the Bollywood representation that I was grappling with. It was simply that I had some very interesting characters, who were very strong and engaging, but was that enough? All these issues would literally block me out.
At that point of time, what was coming through was ethnography, and Benares .And looking at it seemed like I was making something for the Discovery Channel. At that time there was no voice over, and I loath voice-overs because I hate writing narrations.
I was so liberated in Delhi-Mumbai-Delhi and Naach because there was no scope for a voice over, because of the way in which I have shot it.
I think somewhere in the film, I was trying to get myself out, and getting my material speak to for itself. The point is that I didn’t want a voice over. The story that was coming to me was history- why did the tradition die the way it did? That was the point for which I was trying to look at ways of saying it.
I already had this story about Rasoolun Bai, as a part my of research, way back when I was just starting the film. A friend of mine at Jadavpur University, who teaches English Literature there and who is also an archivist, had spent a lot of time and found the original version for me.
I knew that there were so many songs that have been sanitized and changed as they went along. Some of it is a very natural process and it’s very organic, but some of these had politics attached to it; it was a deliberate attempt. Once that came about, there was no escaping the voice over, I had to do it.
Once I decided on the voice over, the other stuff of telling the story of cultural nationalism et all came in. I wrote many drafts where I first started with an attempt to do a third person ambiguous voice over, where it is not very clear if it’s the filmmaker or someone else, because I do feel very embarrassed and very shy.
But slowly, there was no running away from the fact that I was the one searching for it. I was the one who was all hooked up about this and so I had to talk about it. But it did end up sounding terribly self-conscious and dreadful. That’s when this conversation thing came up.
Over these years, what has sustained me, between finding the inspiration and money to do films, is all these wonderful conversations with my friends and a lot of wonderful people who became my friends along the way. All kinds of people, who I didn’t know before and who have really enriched this project.
In the voice over, we are constantly negotiating different realities, and therefore addressing different people. When I started off, I was thinking of it as a device; it was serving me well as a filmmaker. But when I started writing, I started enjoying myself and I started looking at it as if I was having a conversation with the tawaif.
This essentially becomes a film of lost desire and negotiating a very difficult arena of feminist history. It also looks at my history as a middle class woman and the histories of the other. It’s a very thorny terrain because we haven’t, at many times, alluded to morality and we are constructing the other in many ways – the other of the other actually; the woman herself is the other.
It eventually became a dialogue between a middle class woman and a tawaif, looking at two sets of histories. The demise of the tawaif then coincides with the emergence of the middle class woman.
In many ways Sita’s Family came trudging back into this film and in The Other Song, Sita comes back to the film.
Sabina Gadihoke: How important is it for you to implicate yourself in your films?
Saba Dewan: There is no running away from the self in any film. Even if it is a film on something as simple as clean water project. All those films in some ways are reflect us, in those points, and where we are. I firmly believe that every film is a clue to the soul of the filmmaker.
In my own films, it’s not a conscious film where I deliberately have to be in the film, because I already am in the film in terms of the way in which I do it. There are films like Barf and Naach or Delhi-Mumbai-Delhi where my obvious presence is not there but since (that is the problem that my camera person and my sound recordist always had) I talk so much with my subjects where I have these conversations that happen so many times, that I’m there. My presence is very much there and I act like a certain catalyst for those moments to even happen. Also, the encounters between the subject and the camera are in many ways documented in the film.
In films like Khel, Sita’s Family or The Other Song, I am present in a very obvious sense of the “I” but it is not as though I am absent in the other films.
Audience Question: Is there a definitive idea of the other or is that a vague notion?
Saba Dewan: The “other” is very much built into power structures. We are constantly “othering” others at various levels. People who are not like us, who don’t come from the same class or the same background, become the other. Within patriarchy, for instance, the woman becomes the other of the man.
It is the process where there is “us” and where we define what is normative and then, there is the “other” who defines what is different and what is exotic. Usually the other tends to be stereotyped because we cannot understand them completely, and so we take easy ways in which we can try to understand them and put notions of understanding on them. That is the classic process of othering.
So the tawaif is the other of the other; she cannot belong to us, because her sexuality is not that which patriarchy upholds, as being normal, for women. So she becomes the other.
We need to have that humility that there are spaces that need to be understood and validate those spaces because that is the only way in which there would be journeys to understand and negotiate those spaces, respectfully. Otherwise, we end up putting people in blocks and saying- I understand them because they have these certain popular characteristics.
Sabina Gadihoke: Documentary as a mode till recently was meant to do just that- to package everything for you and remove all complexity. In some ways when you are making films about real people and their multiple realities, how can you possibly explain it all in a box?
Saba Dewan: It is only when you admit that there are spaces of ambiguity and spaces of not knowing, maybe someone else will transverse those spaces. Otherwise if you have reduced everything to a Readers Digest form of knowing everything, then there’s nothing left to know.
Sabina Gadihoke: One of the biggest traditional debates in feminist film theory has been about homosexuality – the question of objectification, and commodification. This is an argument that is being used constantly, especially in the context of sex workers. Yet in Naach, there is a very interesting way in which this objectification is being turned on its head because what we are looking at in the film, is not the women so much as all those men out there.
Saba Dewan: In terms of the issues of objectification and the male gaze, that is a very obvious one that I had to deal with and negotiate with while working on performance and sexuality of the tawaif. Though the opportunity to explore that came to me through Naach where, when I started looking at the performance, I realized what was happening on stage.
The performance can be divided into two parts, where till twelve at night they have these group dances, in which all these girls dance in groups and after that, they have these acts where one or two girls perform.
What was very entertaining was the act that was happening in front of us and not on stage and so, we always shot from the stage. I chose to do that because I realized that this is where I could see the way these men react, and not just visually, although they are having a good time and they are drunk, but the point is that the girls are as much looking at them as they are looking at the girls.
What was very important for me, and also, what was very fundamentally linked to the construction of the concept of work desire and sexuality within tawaif sexuality is the notion of love and the game of love.
The girls talk about this whole aspect of playing a game; so there’s this whole idea of being in control and therefore looking at the men who are not in control. The girls are the ones who are constantly looking at the men and I thought it was very fascinating, given those discussions and the way those men were.
There would be this parallel performance that was going on every evening. The men’s reaction to these girls would be more interesting, because there were always new guys in the audience.
The first time we went there, we were only allowed to shoot from the point of view of the audience simply because if we were on the stage, their performance can get ruined. I remember one of the days, the audience hadn’t come in (they start trickling in by ten, but the girls start coming in at eight) that the manager realized the vast potential we held as an added attraction to the act on stage, because people were very interested in looking at the camera and at being shot. That was the new act up there!
There was Rahul and Ashish on stage, and I would be hovering in the wings and signaling and I also did move around a lot on stage.
Sabina Gadihoke: Is it a very comfortable thing to work with your partner? Documentary is so predicated on having great synergy with the person you are working with, especially in a verité sequence like this. So how does that work?
Saba Dewan: I think we are both very important to each other’s work, and working with Rahul as my camera is a very important contribution to our work. Now we joke that we we’ve known each other longer than our parents have known us; we’ve known each other since we were eighteen.
Seems like a cliché but like it is with all old partnerships, we know what the other person is thinking and we are also interested in what the other person is thinking. We also happen to be very good friends so that is important, because we talk a lot and there is a way in which he knows what I am thinking and what I want.
I have also become very lazy and I haven’t worked with other cameraperson, so I don’t know if I will be able to shoot a lot of what I have been able to shoot for many of my films. If one day, Rahul decides that he wants a better-paid job, I have no idea what I would do.
While working with a partner, the synergy is wonderful, but there are also many reasons why one must not ever work with your partner. And that’s why, Khel was the last film we co-directed because for a woman, I had a chip on my shoulder: I am a woman and therefore you don’t take me seriously. It was very important to be taken seriously, because you’re young and you’re trying to assert yourself and you’re not very sure as a filmmaker.
Now even Rahul had the same insecurities, but he would get taken seriously because he was a man. We both were figuring things out. He was the same as me in the lack of knowledge but he would still get taken more seriously because he was a man. That would create a lot of problems, which you would end up taking out on your partner. In that light we decided that it was best to go our ways and our interests became different.
We are a straight couple but I am always interested in women and he is always interested in men, and so I am sure that eventually there would have been a parting in our ways. And our styles are very different.
Sabina Gadihoke: The issue that I am trying to raise with this film is that somewhere within the history of documentary, documentary got associated with the rational world of fact and the exterior world. Fiction then became the realm to explore subjectivity. In this light, Sita’s Family is a very important film because it’s a film that is not only talking about yourself where you are turning the camera on yourself for the first time, but there is also this attempt to actually explore very subjective experiences, for instance, this case of a crisis that you were perhaps going through.
It’s the way in which you talk about this subjective experience and particularly the way you shot it. The question I want to know about Sita’s Family is, what made you turn that camera at yourself? Because this is a film where you actually talk about own experience. And also, is this is a film only about yourself?
Saba Dewan: Sita’s Family came into being not as “Sita’s” family, but as the history of the middle class woman and women’s reform. Right after Khel, I became interested in looking at tawaifs. At that point, I was just tentatively researching for it, and I realized that there were reels of information on it. I then found a linkage because there was a history of the middle class woman that was emerging in the research at the same time when the history of the tawaifs was strained.
That it would be around my own family, is not something that I consciously thought of. My mother is a great teller of stories, so through my childhood, I had listened to stories of my grandmother and various other people and we used to enjoy listening to her and so there was this potential of telling this story. However, I had not realized that the history of the middle class woman and where I am coming from today, in a more interesting way would come out through my family.
In my films, there are all these ideas that circle in my head at various periods. So there was this time after Bundelkhand Express, which was not very good for me. Fraught with personal distress, I was forced to look internally to find answers and understand myself better. So all these issues with relationships and my mother and so on came up and I think it was very important for me to have a closure, to be able to not only understand my mother at an intellectual level but to also accept her emotionally because that alone would liberate me. Once I began to take these first steps towards that, the process of healing began.
I was out of work for almost two or three years and nothing else interested me. I only spent time looking at myself, so I became a very obvious subject. Now when I look back at it, it seems like it was part of therapy and self-healing, but I didn’t think it was conscious at that time.
Sabina Gadihoke: I think that even when you are thinking about yourself, you are actually embedding that story among a much larger history where it is not only a about yourself.
Saba Dewan: That I have to attribute to my robust middle class training, where you cannot be so self indulgent and there has to be some utilitarian purpose to everything. That has been the whole problem of the documentary also, right? In a country like India, we are a poor country, so this whole thing of the building of the nation state comes up, where all art has to have some purpose. So the poor documentary has to be burdened with purpose only.
Similarly with us also, there has to be a purpose to my delving with cinema. It is also more interesting, I know about myself and there is only so much about myself that you would be interested in. I am not coming alone, none of us do, and we are what we are because of the histories we carry. These histories are implicated in all kinds of complicated social structures and it’s all very interesting – I mean I am very interested in finding out the micro and the macro of it and looking at the larger structure, and figuring out how the individual fits into it.
So Sita’s Family is about myself but it is also a history of the middle class woman, and the double burden that they carry. On another level, it is also about questioning this facile thing of the belief that all women are bonded (sakhi sakhi) because you have to move beyond those clichés to be able to have a better understanding even in the women’s movement.
Sabina Gadihoke: This whole mother-daughter relationship is central in many of your films and that fractured edge is always there. But coming to the point you made on film being a healing process, I am wondering about the role that the camera would play in a film like this. There is an incredible climax and we know that the camera always intervenes but what role did the camera play in a sequence like that?
Saba Dewan: The camera happened to play a role similar to that in the making of a home video. In the last sequence between my mother, my sister and I, there was no one else there, except poor old Rahul! And he was already an insider, the fact that who was handling the camera made all the difference. I really don’t know how it would have turned out if it was someone else dong the camera. They were all very comfortable because, he is the son-in-law of the family.
Although people left to themselves, love performances and there was also my AD and my sound recordist, and still I think I was the most self conscious, it shows when I face the camera. I just can’t deal with the camera on myself.
My family was clearly reveling, at times, they would have the waterworks on (rona aa raha tha, kahaniyen yaad aa rahi thi) and they were clearly enjoying themselves.
I was just being a bit fastidious actually; I think it was very important for this particular family, I mean my mothers family. It has been brought up with a very frightening combination of a communist mother and an Arya Samaji father, which means that emotions are an indulgence. They thought emotion was a very irrelevant thing. In that sense, it was a very brave of them.
I have come from a very different generation culturally, where it is possible to share yourself with others but still protect yourself: we learn those boundaries. But for my mothers generation it is not so, so when I say performance, I mean that it was the first time they were actually sitting and grieving.
What they ought to have done many years back they were actually doing now. There is also a certain amount of liberation in that grieving.
Sabina Gadihoke: What now? From here where do you go?
Saba Dewan: I was taking a break most of last year and for the first time as a filmmaker, I traveled with my film and showed it around. No, I am doing something that I have never done before and which I am very frightened about- I am writing. I am planning to do some work on these journeys with the performers, with the tawaifs. These films are there but they are just part of the experience. Usually with documentaries, we all do a lot of research, but then we move on also, from film to film. But maybe for once, I have become unduly attached to my material and so I am writing a book on it now.
Sabina Gadihoke: We all look forward to it. Thank you for this riveting conversation.