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A Life Less Ordinary – Women with a Movie Camera.

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As part of the BFI series celebrating women in cinema and the London Indian Film Festival’s (LIFF) focus on women filmmakers, four South Asian female directors engaged in a lively discussion.

Despite the debate about gender labeling, I think it’s a celebratory moment to have four very diverse women being showcased in one festival.

In India, as in most industries around the world, the number of women behind the camera or other creative departments is abysmally low. And the need to have more numbers is being discussed globally.

Given this context,  it has been exciting to watch the films, diverse in genre, content and style.

Shamin Obed Chinoy’s Oscar winning Girl in the River is a documentary about a survivor of honor killing.

Seventeen year old Saba is shot by her father and uncle and thrown in the river when she elopes with her lover.

Miraculously she manages to haul herself out of the river, walk in the darkness to a petrol station and ask for help.

The sympathetic doctor stitches her split face and arm and amazingly resilient, she tells her story.

The police officer who identifies the spot where Saba was drowned, feels strongly that Saba should tell her story and not forgive her assaulters.  The father speaks from prison, full of bravado about protecting honour and that he could do this again to any of his daughters.

The mother sympathises but has no voice in the family set up.  We see Iqbal, the husband, young and wholly in love with his bride.  Iqbal lives with a larger family and has less resources.  But there is warmth and affection between the family members.

Saba’s resolve never to forgive them, is put to test when the community urges that there should be an amicable settlement. Giving in to elders’ wishes, Saba forgives them and both father and uncle are released.

Saba, now pregnant, returns home to reunite with her mother.

Shamin, feisty and humorous,  discloses that it took her a long time to find a survivor of  honour killing.  She started filming Saba when the latter was brought to hospital. Saba’s resilient spirit and refusal to play victim makes this narrative hold out hope.

Shamin talks of the importance of showing the film and the media attention it received after the Oscar win.  Funds raised in America were used to buy her land. A donor from Lahore built a house in her name.

There has been strong lobbying about the issue of honour killing which will lead to legislative changes in the near future.

Jugni, a lighthearted musical, revolves around the issue of grassroots folk music and its commercialization for Bollywood film scores.

Music producer Vibhavari ( Sugandha Garg) from Bombay goes in search of authentic sufi singers in the Punjab heartlands. She records a well known female singer Bibi Saroop ( Sadhana Singh) and her son Mastana ( Siddhant Behl) who has aspirations to sing for films.  Much of the drama revolves around city girl meets country bumpkin. But the soul nourishing music brings them together.

Back in Mumbai, Vibs splits with her old boyfriend and moves out to live on her own, now a free spirited firefly.  The folk experience serves as a catalyst for her growth, and the film opens wonderfully open-ended.

Director Shefali Bhushan draws from her own experience (as well as others like Sneha Khandelwal who scoured northern regions to produce the music for Anurag Kashya’s Gangs of Wassepur).  A simple love story with pleasant performances,  memorable with music by Clinto Cerejo features A. R. Rahman and Rekha Bhardwaj.

Director spoke about working economically, learning to trust her instincts about  the shots, the music or the edit. Speaking about the handful of women working in music technology and the exploitation of rural artistes in the music industry, she drew attention to severe lacunae in the much glorified Bollywood music industry.

Leena Yadav ( see review of Parched) spoke about the challenge of actors with different temperaments and how she has to deal with them individually.  With Parched she had time to prep with the actors and they also filmed in two versions, English and Hindi.

The international collaborators Russell Carpenter (DOP) and Kevin Tent (editor) worked with the English script and then slowly began to recognize Hindi dialogues. She remarked that the transition for each female character did not really hinge on the men. They arrive at certain points in their journey on their own.

Rinku Kalsy (For the Love of a Man) got interested in the Rajnikanth fanhood phenomenon while talking to a friend who had been posted in Chennai. Self funded and shot over five years, this fascinating documentary plunges into the adulation of South Indian audiences for their hero and leader Rajnikanth.

Born Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, Rajani is the biggest star in South India ( also the diaspora, a massive following in Japan with fan clubs around the world.) The premier of a Rajani film is preceded by a procession, fire offerings, ritual anointing with milk and honey on a giant cut out of the star.

The screenings (often held after midnight) have raving fans ( ranging from teenagers to older men) screaming  “He is God! He is our hero”.

Kalsy’s film follows four fans for whom the star has been an inspiration and a guide for moral values.  Most fans are from the slums and Rajani plays the uneducated rickshawpuller, menial worker, lately protector  (Thalaivar)  projecting an aspirational arch which his fans follow.

The close proximity of politics and stardom in Tamil Nadu explains the phenomenal iconisation and celebrations around stars such as Rajani. The fans are waiting for him to join politics and make life better for them. In the film there is a quiet entry for Rajani on his birthday as he steps out of his house to face the swarming crowds entreating them to be quiet and asking for their prayers.

Kalsy confesses she was not a fan of the star till she explored this fan phenomenon which cuts across social layers from the uneducated slum dweller, reformed criminal, small business owner, local leaders and young kids managing social network pages dedicated to their hero.

Kalsy says she was interested in the immersive “god worship” (collective prayer sessions, arati or ritual fire offerings, fasting,  cardboard idols and ( now) long flex banners of Rajani) and desisted from talking to the god himself for her film.

This lively discussion with the women filmmakers, each diverse in personality and work approach, at BFI (conducted by Nasreen Munni Kabir) will easily remain one of the highpoints of LIFF this year.

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