Documentary filmmaker Shiny Benjamin says that she wears the director’s cap to zoom in on unsung heroes and people with untold stories

Shiny Jacob Benjamin is not comfortable in front of the camera. Her ready smile fades, she fidgets and poses stiffly for the lens. She is used to calling the shots, behind the camera.

As a filmmaker, Shiny exposes the underbelly of a middle class society that sometimes turns a blind eye to the perils of the marginalised. But she does not confine her focus to the dark side of life. Her camera, in equal measure, captures many of its sunny aspects as well.

Posters of her works, many of which have won her several awards, are displayed on a steel cupboard in her den at her house in a quiet bylane in the city where the only ‘noise’ is that of birdsong from a lush mango tree in front of her house. While the photographer tries to find an interesting nook to click her, Shiny apologises for the state of her terrace garden just outside her den. Splashes of scarlet Bougainvillea adorn the slightly overgrown lawn while a pineapple struggles to catch the sun streaming in through the mango leaves that hide her terrace from the road below. “I have been travelling a great deal for my documentary on migration and the lawn has been quite neglected,” says the lady of the house.

“I plan to get all that done before I travel to Orissa and Bihar, again for a work on migration, this time on labourers, skilled and unskilled, from Orissa, West Bengal, Bihar and the North east who come to Kerala to earn a living,” she adds.

Many of her award-winning documentaries are on women and children. But the self-taught filmmaker insists that she does not want to be labelled as a ‘woman filmmaker’.

“I have concentrated on subjects that interest the filmmaker and mediaperson in me. For instance, Ottayaal, which was on Dayabai, a nun who left the convent to work with Adivasis in Madhya Pradesh, was inspired by a small news article in a regional newspaper,” she says.

A postgraduate in Malayalam, her fascination for the written word is evident in the small library in her room. In fact, it was her ability to weave words that brought her into the print media in the nineties. After stints in a couple of magazines and weekly supplements, Shiny joined Asianet during the heady days of the first private channel in Malayalam. Hands on experience familiarised her with the language of the camera and she also picked up tips from seniors in the organisation.

“Although I was then a newcomer, I was often told to make documentaries to mark occasions like World Water Day, Children’s Day and so on. That was how I took my first frames for Murivunangatha Ballyangal, a documentary on child abuse. Mazha (Rain, 2004) and Nizhalukkal, a case study of the sex scandals that had rocked the State and the plight of the victims, followed.”

When Murivunangatha Ballyangal won an award, she knew that she was learning the ropes of a new medium of expression. Although she moved jobs and channels, she did not lose focus of her ambition to make films on the marginalised. “While working in IndiaVision, I came across a member of the LGBT community in Subash Park in Kochi. During a conversation, I found that it was then a meeting place for sexual minorities. After a great deal of persuasion he agreed to talk about his life on camera. Eventually, he brought on board a number of his friends who were also keen to speak about their lives in the nether world. Avan (He, 2003) travelled with them into their lives, many of them tragic. It was a moving experience,” she recalls.

Shiny is now between documentaries. Translated Lives, her documentary on Malayali nurses who had migrated to Germany in the early sixties, has just been screened and she is still pleasantly surprised by the rave reviews she garnered. Come June, she will be flying to Germany to screen the documentary in Cologne.

Prior to that she has to meet producers to finance her next documentary and also do a fair amount of research for the film on migrant workers in Kerala. Shiny has already shot extensively in different places in Kerala, especially Perumbavur, to zoom into the lives of the labourers.

“I would like to go to some of these States where they hail from and shoot there along with some of the labourers we have spoken to in Kerala. The biggest hurdle is to get a producer. The next is to get opportunities to screen the film,” says Shiny.

In the meantime, she is catching up with work at home and hoping to spend quality time with her son, a student in Coimbatore.

“Although, I am working on migrant labourers, if something else catches my attention, I might pursue that and finish my pending work after that,” she says.

Work that will again have her hitting the road to throw light on the lives of people living away from the limelight. The lawn can wait…

Documenting society

Murivunagatha Ballyangal (2001) - Kerala State Special Jury Award for the Best Documentary.

Namukkum Avarkum Idayil (2002) – Kerala State Award for Best Documentary on Topical Issues

Mazha (2003) – Kerala State Special Jury Award for Documentary.

Nizhalukal (2004)

Avan (2005) – Kerala State Award for Best Documentary.

Bhagya (2006) – Kerala State Film and TV Award for Best Documentary

Ottayaal (2011) - National award in 2011, Laadli National Media Awards for Gender Sensitivity 2011-12.

Translated Lives (2014)