India's wandering women with cameras

The feminist documentary film festival in Mumbai, ‘Wandering Women’, opens up questions of how gender identity in Indian contexts can be explored through film.

Priyanka Borpujari
9 September 2015

A young woman, raised in a conservative but loving family in India's capital city New Delhi, is left at the altar by her fiancé, who finds her boring after his stint working overseas. Regaining her composure, she takes off on the planned honeymoon to Europe, solo. It's the first time she has stepped out of her home without a chaperone, and through serendipitous adventures, she discovers her own joy, and her wings.

This is the premise of “Queen”, a Hindi movie released in India in 2014 and soon deemed a hit. For many, this was a “feminist moment” in Hindi cinema – Bollywood – even as the vast majority of movies continue to represent women as a singular homogenised species. On the other hand are movies that glorify violence at the hands of women, and are equally cheered.

So where could an appropriate representation of the living experience of a woman in India be found? It was towards addressing this question – and towards wondering the textures of feminism – that a two-day feminist documentary film festival called “Wandering Women” was held in Mumbai on August 15th, even as rest of the country marked the 69th year of independence.

An initiative of The Ladies Finger, a feminist online magazine, and hosted at the Godrej India Culture Lab, the event intended to explore “feminist documentary filmmaking which is fearless in its range of subjects. Fearless in its experimenting with forms of filmmaking and storytelling. Fearless in how it lovingly embraces all the different ways to be an Indian woman.”

wandering women film fest.jpg

Photo via the Wandering Women feminist documentary film festivalThe very fact that the event commenced with a “YouTube Party” – a compilation of about 10 online videos that have recently gone viral, as well as a promo series from a music channel from the early 90s, was testimony to the myriad ways in which women and men in India, and some of Indian sub-continent descent, have been pushing boundaries in engaging with issues that are of concern to the wide gender spectrum.

A video of a girl trying to pee in public on Indian streets – as men easily do – was a remark on the near non-existence of public toilets for all, and the difficulty it poses for women in particular. Another video was a vox-pop with male students at a college campus in a small town in India, where they were asked different questions about bras; another refreshing vox pop video had young women in Delhi talking about their own experiences of masturbation.

What followed was an eclectic collection of documentaries: a woman-led gang in one of the country's most backward regions in central India, a butch truck driver in Western India, the pinholes of freedom that women explore in the city of Mumbai, a group of female journalists in central India working together to publish a community-driven weekly newspaper, a subtle biographical documentary made in 1992 about one of earliest woman actors, a young photographer recording the aftermath of a painful break-up, and much more.

Also refreshing was the crowd in attendance. Indeed there were more women than men, but for a city with limited spaces for documentary film screenings and a regular crowd that frequent them, the festival brought together a diverse audience from different age groups, professions and interests. The discussions post some of the screenings went so far as to touch the nerve of questioning the idea of feminism: instead of an audience that knows too well about its political position, a frank questioning allowed the space for a dialogue without flaring tempers, to give voice to the spectrum of feminism rather than an atomic idea that could be unanimously and boringly agreed upon. 

Indeed, what was showcased in just the two days was a thin sliver of the variety of documentaries being made in India. Yet, there is no doubt that Indian feminism has played a significant role in the documentary film world. Journalist, author and art critic Deepanjana Pal attributed the anxiety and rage running through feminism in India to the lack of representation of women, and the lives they lead or wish to lead, in mainstream media.

“That we have a movie like 'Queen', which we are supposed to feel grateful about, says a lot about how mainstream cinema has failed in the representation of women. In 'Taza Khabar' (one of the documentaries screened, about a group of daring women journalists producing their own newspaper) the reporter Kavita is so excited to go out and work, that she taps men on the shoulders amid a crowd to make her way through. That is confidence that few would notice, unless the viewer is a woman who would know the experience of walking through a crowd of men. Instead, what we see in the mainstream cinema are glossy artificial homogenised images wherein every female actor is styled the same. If we don't know that such varied stories exists, then how do we create alliances of women, which is not a homogeneous group?” Pal wondered aloud during a panel she participated in during the festival.

Bishakha Datta, who made the documentary “Taza Khabar”, looked at the same idea in a different way: in the past, none of the women featured in the line-up of the documentaries at the festival would have been considered worth filming, and this broadening of subjects has been the contribution of feminism to the documentary film world.

Key to documentary filmmaking is the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject, and Datta lays significant emphasis on the possible role played by the subject in determining how s/he is filmed. “Technology has given us smaller and smaller toys to play with, thus giving us a chance to make more intimate films. How we explain this to people on the other side of this toy, beyond a mere consent form about how will the film be used, or how it might evolve later, is crucial,” she expressed. Similar is the difficult moment in a documentary like “Gulabi Gang” when one of the women who used to be part of the gang, considers it to be okay if her brother made decisions on behalf of his sister, and if he had to kill one of the sisters to maintain family honour. What is a filmmaker to do then, when the camera is rolling? 

As a researcher of sexuality politics, and literary and visual cultures in India, Navneetha Mokkil also wondered about the contribution of documentary filmmaking to feminism in India, starting with whether the cinematic medium allows for an engagement with feminism. “Feminism has changed over the decades, and how we understand this '-ism' has much to do with the images we associate with it, and the diversity of our visual-cultural narrative has a significant role in that,” she felt.

Datta knows this feeling too well, of feeling both liberated and constrained while wearing the “feminist hat”, because of political correctness. When she was making “In The Flesh” about three sex workers in early 2000, she wondered if she was making an anti-feminist documentary. “It took me some time to realise that my work was actually feminist,” she said, emphasising the inheritance from the complex legacy of feminism.

The many long shots of the highway are a metaphor to leave the space open to understanding “Manjuben”, the butch truck driver who neither calls herself a man, nor specifically identifies as a woman. In the words of Mokkil, “How do we work with the idea of feminism while allowing for a space where the idea could wander around? Those frames without a dialogue or anything happening in particular also gives her space, by not trying to hold her within a frame but letting her be.”

Perhaps in such a context does the title of the festival as “Wandering Women” hold weight. At the same time, a well-meaning thought and an attempt to seem progressive has only meant a slew of regressive mainstream movies in the recent times, which cheer for violence perpetrated by women towards men. In spite of that, Pal feels optimistic that Bollywood would even consider liberation of women as the primary premise. Yet, to assume feminist film legacy to be only “good women” is a serious problem. Perhaps documentaries provide layered contexts of people and their actions that are missing in mainstream fiction movies.

But what has also been nagging filmmakers like Paromita Vohra – whose documentary “UnLimited Girls” was screened at the festival – is the expectation from a female filmmaker to serve different causes; that labels of inclusion of various political statements have to be ticked. Along with that comes the burden of needing to change the lives of the subject of their work overnight: that a documentary made on sex workers ought to transform their lives immediately.

Perhaps this is why many women filmmakers would choose to introduce themselves as “a woman and a filmmaker” rather than “a feminist filmmaker”. After all, a work of art, like that of a fiction or a narrative non-fiction, is not a lecture on feminism or any other political views. These filmmakers aptly identified themselves as the “Wandering Women” of the festival, leaving the audience with much to wonder and ponder about.

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