Gulabi Gang: In Conversation with Nishtha Jain
What does it mean to be a feminist?
This word has a tendency to conjure up several different images, and often times rather grossly distorted stereotypes of women with hairy legs burning bras and hating men (media fueled mythology, one could call it). Katy Perry rather famously stated, upon winning Billboard’s Women of the Year Award, “I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women”.
When did the word come to have negative connotations? Why is it such a controversial word to be associated with? It also seems fatally flawed that one must somehow acquire the status of being a feminist, that it’s different to the ‘more normal less radical’ endeavour of encouraging the empowerment of women, or that it requires some sort of “I hereby declare you a feminist” initiation process. Simply put, if one believes in the equal status and equal rights for both men and women, one believes in feminism.
This is a particularly relevant question in present day India given the barrage of social, psychological and physical injustices that are being inflicted upon women – in turn giving rise to several movements inciting women to speak out, take action and act freely. It is also a question that documentary filmmaker Nishtha Jain addresses in her award winning documentary Gulabi Gang – which tells the story of one such movement led by a group of women in Bundelkhand, central India, who call themselves the Gulabi Gang. These women – clad in bright pink saris and led by a woman named Sampat Pal – take matters of the law into their own hands, speaking out and taking action to fight atrocities committed against women in their district, an area marked by poverty and a distinctly patriarchal mindset.
The film has already traveled to over forty international festivals and gone on to win several awards, most recently an award at the Mumbai International Film Festival for Best Director. With its official theatrical release in India just days away on February 21st, 2014, I spoke with Nishtha more about her film and her approach to telling this particularly inspiring and powerful story.
Nirupama: What first inspired you to tell stories through the medium of cinema, and documentary film?
Nishtha: I have been a film buff since I was quite young. I often missed school to catch movies in the matinee shows like Roman Holiday or Casablanca. My mother was my accomplice on such days. But the movement towards making films was gradual. At first, I edited television documentaries, then went to study filmmaking at the film school in Pune. After I graduated in 1998 I’ve been making documentaries. And this was a conscious choice because I value my independence as a documentary filmmaker. In the last ten years I’ve had all the freedom to say what I wanted, in the way I liked. Of course today for a lot of filmmakers the freedom to make and share is pretty endangered due to fascist forces rising around us. Personally for me the time has also come to explore new grounds – but documentary remains my first love and I would love to keep on making them.
Nirupama: Tell me about your approach to documentary filmmaking – do you prefer to be a purely passive observer, a fly on the wall – or do you believe in actively participating in the events that unfold on a shoot, perhaps doing your part to get involved and shape events if you think it’s for the greater good?
Nishtha: It’s been a combination of observation and participation. I don’t like to intervene too much or stage things. But my earlier films were more designed. City Of Photos was largely scripted but it does have a lot of documentary moments. Gradually I’ve moved towards observation, but not ‘fly-on-the-wall’. I don’t believe in that concept. How can a crew with camera and sound equipment become fly on the wall? There is no such thing as pure observational camera. It can happen only with hidden cameras which I consider quite unethical unless it’s an exceptional situation that justifies the use. The fact remains that the presence of a camera does change things. For example, people will not commit crimes in front of the camera unless they enjoy immunity or are crazy. In most intense situations, people forget there’s a camera. They are engrossed in what they are doing. Also some people don’t care if the camera is recording, they are comfortable in its presence. I always like to establish my presence and the camera’s presence in the film – some of my films are quite self-reflexive. Sometimes it’s difficult to simply observe, say if someone is in need of help, I would forget filmmaking and jump in. I go with the flow and with what seems ethical. Also it depends on what style one adopts – documentary, docudrama or docufiction or a mix of these styles. I don’t prefer one over another because it’s not so much about ‘reality’ but showing a certain truth.
Nirupama: You’ve mentioned before you weren’t ‘in love’ with Sampat as a protagonist – why was this, and how did this shape the way you made this film, versus your past documentaries where you have been in love with your protagonists?
Nishtha: There’s always the factor of chemistry and personalities. I had a very friendly and comfortable relationship with Lakshmi of Lakshmi and Me; a more playful relationship with Lakshmi Tripathi of ‘Call it Slut’. With Sampat Pal it was friendly at first, then conflicted, distant, respectful and now it’s more relaxed. Also being with Sampat Pal in the middle of all those conflicts was not easy. We hardly got any time to unwind, relax or just chat. It was always work and always disturbing, conflicted stories. We needed a lot of quietness before or after shooting to think, plan, visualise so we didn’t talk much while traveling. And we often spent hours filming nature. All of this helped us not to crack.
Nirupama: You’ve worked with the same team now for your past four films as well – can you tell me more, based on your personal experience, about the relationship between director and camera person on location, when shooting a film like Gulabi Gang?
Nishtha: I’ve worked with Rakesh Haridas on three films. Rakesh Haridas and I have developed a nice working relationship. We work closely and quietly. Sometimes we have differences of opinions at how we look at things but those discussions and arguments enrich our film. Rakesh always surprises, it’s a delight to look at the rushes, always better than I expected. I think both of us have immense patience, he even more than me. He combines three great qualities – an aesthetic eye, he’s technically sound and he’s a good listener.
I’ve worked with Niraj Gera in four films. He brings so much value to my films through his sound design. He works by himself first and then we sit together. He makes music out of sound taking the film to another level. Sound is so important for documentary especially the ones steeped in ‘harsh reality’. For Gulabi Gang, Niraj did an amazing job at location. Peter Schultz did the sound design. Peter had a more minimalistic approach which worked very well for the film.
Nirupama: In a documentary like this where you’re trying to depict events as realistically and close to the truth as possible – how much do you think your presence and the crew’s presence, is actually influencing the action, and the way the characters behave (for the camera)? In filming Gulabi Gang did you think that events may have played out differently without the presence of a camera crew?
Nishtha: Who knows what happens when the camera is not there. But the presence of camera didn’t change things so dramatically in our film. Most people were too caught up in their own troubles to really notice the camera or even if they did, they ignored it or forgot its presence quite soon. But the fact that we were present there perhaps pressurised the DIG police to come for investigation which he may not have otherwise. But who can say? Sampat Pal is too used to the camera, she’s herself most of the times, quite unselfconscious. The fact that we had vehicles did make it easier for Sampat to visit the dead woman’s mother and bring a resolution to the case sooner than it would have taken.
Nirupama: Tell us more about your recent MIFF award for Best Director? What does this represent for you?
Nishtha: The film had already won several international awards but this was the first in India for this film. The award was the recognition for the hard work put in the making of the film. I hope it will make people come and watch the film!
Nirupama: What are your observations of the Indian media and their coverage of India’s independent film culture? According to you – where is there scope for development?
Nishtha: The biggest problem is that not many people understand what goes into the making of a documentary. And there are not too many good critics around. So the filmmakers land up talking about their own films all the time. We not only have to make films but also teach people how to appreciate them. People are very used to the old style of documentary films where there is a clear message or where everything is explained. But when it’s a slice-of-life kind of film, and even if the audience enjoyed it, they will ask ‘What did you want to show or say with this film?’ or ‘What motivated you to make this film?’. The audience wants the filmmakers to help them articulate what they felt. I think it’ll take time because people are still used to watching films where the lines are clearly drawn between the good and the bad guys, and the point is to take sides. Today, a lot of films are delving into a more complex and grey reality, and are inviting viewers to take part in the journey and not be judgemental – so the viewer is left a bit flummoxed.
Nirupama: Tell me about your personal experiences making this film. Did you see yourself change as a person – before the film was made, and then after the film?
Nishtha: It’s been a long journey with this film, almost five years now. It’s been a great learning curve. Personally for me the biggest takeaway was the answer to the question ‘What does it mean to be a feminist?’ And the answer came from Sampat Pal. I didn’t ask her this question but just from observing her. Whether it’s for good or for the bad, she makes her own decisions. She’s not afraid of taking risks, exploring new worlds, of failure or of not living up to people’s expectations. This quality is inspirational because in our society the majority of women lack the courage to mould their own lives. First they get ruled by their parents and brothers, then by their boyfriends and husbands and then their children. Even the feminists amongst us face these tyrannies of dependence and we spend our lives constantly seeking approval from our families and peers.