Minnie Vaid's subjects are always close to her as also the cause. She talks about her experiences on making films on Binayak Sen, Satyendra Dubey and her upcoming project on the Muziris heritage

An underlying empathy is the essence of Minnie Vaid's documentary films. There is no deliberate attempt to become polemical but only a sincere attempt to understand people. She consistently strives to be clear-eyed, not trying to stack the deck for the audience but rather help them feel compassion and deeper understanding for the subject of her films.

In every documentary of hers, whether, ‘A Doctor to Defend,' (on Dr. Binayak Sen), ‘Satyendra Dubey: The Story of a Whistle Blower', ‘We Have a Dream' (on women's empowerment in Adilabad' or ‘Sacred Forests of Meghalaya: Wisdom From The Mother's Hearth' (on traditions of forest protection) Minnie gets so deep into the skin of the subject that one gets the feel that the film maker and the cause merge.

Muziris heritage

Minnie's new film, on the Muziris Heritage for which she did a recce and preliminary shoot in Chendamangalam and neighbouring places recently, will be a genre that she has not explored before. “This will be an exploration kind of film where one goes into the past even while analysing the present. I think it is going to be a challenging and interesting project. Though I have done a couple of films in Kerala before, this one is sure to be different,” she said in a telephone interview to The Hindu MetroPlus.

The project is piloted by Arowana Studios, Bengalaru, a brain-child of Prince Thampi and Unni Vijayan. “Unni has been my editor for 12 years now. He has just completed his first feature film, ‘Lessons in Forgetting,' based on Anita Nair's novel. Unni wanted me for this film and that's how I got in.”

A Punjabi, Minnie did most of her schooling in Pune, then Mass Communication from Sophia Polytechnic, Mumbai, followed by a press fellowship from Cambridge, before taking the plunge into journalism. She worked for nearly 20 years as a print and television reporter covering politics, social issues in rural India before deciding to launch out with documentary films on her own.

In 2000 Minnie started ‘Little Doc Productions,' a media company. In the recent past, she also worked for Mumbai Mantra, the media and entertainment vertical of the Mahindra Group. “I was creative producer here. My job entailed green-lighting projects, going through scripts, mentoring writers, production design including casting and related spheres of feature films like marketing and distribution. It was a good training ground. We had developed several good scripts. Some of the feature film acquisitions I worked in were ‘Acid Factory' and ‘Sorry Bhai!'”

And with the Mumbai Mantra experience behind her, Minnie is planning to launch her first feature film this year. “That's the only thing I have not done so far in my career. I'll announce it this year.”

Her heart, however, lies in making documentaries. Though she did many films for various television and media houses Minnie shot into the limelight with her powerful film, ‘A Doctor to Defend: The Binayak Sen Story.' Accompanying the film was a book (with the same title), which has now been translated into Malayalam, Tamil, Sinhala, with the Marathi version coming up very soon.

She was still working for Mumbai Mantra when she heard of Binayak Sen. But it took a year for her to really get involved with the idea. At the time Minnie travelled to Raipur, Binayak Sen was still in prison (Central Jail, Raipur) and she found herself in the midst of a protest march, along with hundreds of others. Minnie had to wait till Binayak Sen was released for her first meeting.

“He was reticent but cooperated once told about the dual book-film project. He told me very politely that he was averse to the idea of making him a hero as he was only a symbol of what was wrong in the country. I was not ready to take ‘no' for an answer. Finally, I asked him to give me a list of his friends and intimate associates whom I could talk to and once he did that, it became the starting point.”

Minnie created a film, etched the journey of this man from his Christian Medical College, Vellore, days to his work in the remote villages of Chhattisgarh. Through these conversations Minnie also provided a glimpse of what it was to live in a state affected by the Naxalite uprising.

Tougher project

“The Satyendra Dubey film was tougher. I was trying to paint a portrait of a man who was dead, someone whom I had not met. All we had were reference points. But the picture that emerged was heart-warming. The interview with his father was very moving. He was so utterly dignified. Do you know, he returned a compensation cheque saying all he wanted was justice? Both he and Binayak were brave people who follow the courage of their convictions.”

Minnie has just completed her second book – albeit a short one – on Irom Sharmila Chanu, dubbed the ‘Iron Lady of Manipur,' whose hunger strike begun in 2000 continues today. Minnie is moving on to other genres but such themes, people who stick to their beliefs, are sure to turn her camera their way.