This week, filmmaker Nishtha Jain will be screening two of her documentaries in Hyderabad — Gulabi Gang that narrates a complex story of feminism and City of Photos in which she leads us into dingy neighbourhood studios giving shape to small and large picture-perfect dreams.
Gulabi Gang has already been screened in international film festivals and Nishtha is working towards a mainstream release in India this February through PVR Directors Rare. Like many independent filmmakers, Nishtha too is fighting what she calls a losing battle — to find funds for her work and make some of her films trickle into mainstream space. Despite financial hurdles, she wants to explore stories of real people.
When Nishtha first heard of Sampat Pal and her Gulabi Gang in 2008, she was surprised. “This movement began in a backward region like Bundelkhand and the gang had 70,000 members in 2008. Now they are over 400,000. Most women are uneducated, have limited exposure beyond their homes and fields and come from lower strata of society,” says Nishtha, who was taken in by their organisational skills and how the women, led by Pal, questioned patriarchy.
The filmmaker shot for 45 to 50 days in Bundelkhand between September 2010 and February 2011, when the gang was 150,000-member strong and led by 13 commanders in different districts. It wasn’t going to be a simple story of revolution. Many women, explains Nishtha, were in different stages of understanding and exercising their rights. “The women I observed were in varied stages of consciousness and empowerment. There’s a difference between preaching idealism and putting it to practice. Some women of the gang had their own troubles at home” says Nishtha.
Nishtha observed the members of the gang taking up cases pertaining to dowry deaths, sexual assaults, women scorned for inter-caste marriages and beyond the boundaries of feminism, looking into day-to-day issues like non-issuance of ration and BPL cards. “The women were such a rallying force, travelling in unsafe areas armed with their lathis,” says Nishtha.
Initially, the gang came under flak for using the lathi. Though the women still travel with lathis, they do not give in to violence. “Women use the lathis for self-defence; older women also use them as walking sticks,” smiles Nishtha.
Her earlier films Lakshmi and Me and At My Doorstep drew viewers’ attention to people commonly overlooked — the dhobi, watchman, house-helps and garbage collectors. “I didn’t want these films to point fingers at certain sections; I wanted them to be self-reflective of how we take people for granted.”
City of Photos, on the other hand, steps into boxy neighbourhood studios. “We pass by such studios each day and don’t know how much comes out of these small spaces,” she says. As an extension of this idea, she also completed a film titled Family Album shot in Kolkata, tracing memories and stories behind family albums.
Now, Nishtha is working on three documentaries and a fiction.
(City of Photos will be screened today at Kalakriti Art Gallery, 6.30 p.m. as part of Krishnakriti Festival of Art and Culture. Gulabi Gang will be screened tomorrow at Annapurna Studios Preview Theatre, 6 p.m.)