Documentary filmmaker Saraswati Kavula asks Sohini Chakravorty why it's only villagers who are always relocated in the name of development
The harsh rays of the mid-day sun bounce off the asphalt road leading to the campus of the Osmania University Arts College, which has witnessed many agitations in the recent months but looks forlorn at the moment. A few television crews are stationed on the campus, hoping for some action; while police and Rapid Action Force personnel are scattered all around, waiting to prevent any action from taking place.
Completely oblivious to their presence, she hops down from the auto rickshaw – dressed in a maroon kurta and a blue pyjama and carrying the trademark jhola. Wearing an easy smile and a self-deprecating sense of humour, she paves the way for an interesting conversation.
But Saraswati Kavula, the feisty documentary filmmaker, vociferous social activist, passionate photographer and a closet poet reveals her vulnerable side as soon as she arrives. She waves at the camera with a shy smile, “Even though I am a filmmaker, I get conscious in front of the camera.”
As we trudge along the road to find a suitable spot for a chat, she jokes, “I am sure you must have seen me near the Ambedkar statue. I am usually sitting there on some dharna or the other.”
She makes herself comfortable under a tree and begins to unfold her journey — from being a hotel management student to a farmer — peppered with anecdotes, anger and analysis. “I never scored high marks, so hotel management was the only option,” she says. After a few years of working in a five-star hotel and a bank, she had an epiphany during a trek to the Himalayas. She had found her true calling.
“I quit twice when I was working in the hotel. I realised that I didn't want to wake up every day with the feeling that I don't want to work. I wanted to be a freelancer,” she says. Though, as an after-thought, she adds that her corporate days not only taught her valuable lessons in stress and time management and but also the dignity of labour. She went to the UK to pursue a course in filmmaking, which was followed by a stint in commercial cinema. She did the costume designing and was the assistant director for Morning Raaga, starring Shabana Azmi and Perizaad Zorabian. In the meanwhile, she also worked for All India Radio and Doordarshan, and that's when she realised that making documentaries was her cup of tea.
According to Saraswati, growing up in Nalgonda district kept her glued to the ground realities of life. “When I was in the fourth standard, a politician's son was murdered because he did not see eye to eye with certain other local politicians. Incidents such as these were normal in our lives. That's why I can portray reality, when nothing is posed or set up.”
As a documentary filmmaker, she has travelled the length and breadth of the country and highlighted issues pertaining to the setting up of special economic zones and the coastal industrial corridor, pollution of the Musi river, illegal mining, and so on.
Saraswati discovered her passion for the preservation of environment during lessons on deforestation at school. “What I am wearing now is pure khadi. We need to create a mass space for handloom weavers. I have been called environmental terrorist, a tree hugger and what not, but people don't realise the internal genocide that is happening in the country. We are a part of the vicious rabbit consumerism. Do we really have the right to live by depriving someone else of theirs? With our model of development, we are systematically destroying our country's resources,” she fumes.
She insists that everyone should read Human Zoo by Desmond Morris. “Do you know the Chinese story about the fisherman who was happy with his catch of just one fish which he ate? When a fellow fisherman suggested to him that more fish will bring more money and happiness, he replied, ‘I am happy right now, why should I need more?' But we don't learn. Why do we need to change our cars every year? Why can't we have better public transport?” she asks.
“Decentralisation and living in self-sustained smaller communities will make all the difference. Measuring the economy of the country through GDP is not the right thing to do; we should instead have a Gross Happiness Index. I am not suggesting anything new, even people like Noam Chomsky have been saying that for quite some time. I am not anti-development. If the government approves setting up of a uranium plant in the middle of KBR Park or a nuclear plant in Jubilee Hills and displaces its residents to Warangal, I am ready to go with the plan,” says Saraswati.
“There are villagers living without electricity and even basic amenities like water. They never ask for more, but they are the ones who are asked to leave their homes in the name of development. We need to put ourselves in their shoes and ask some fundamental questions,” she says.
Saraswati has now taken up farming as a form of sustainable livelihood near the Nagarjuna Sagar Dam, where she also finds time to write poetry. “I like the simplicity in the works of Ruskin Bond and Fakir Mohan Senapati,” she says, adding that she hopes to get her works published someday.
“I was apprehensive about giving an interview, but how else will I be heard? A beginning has to be made,” she exclaims.
My Dear Gay Teacher
Saraswati Kavula's latest documentary My Dear Gay Teacher explores the life and personality of Hoshang Merchant who is a poet, professor at the University of Hyderabad and a gay activist. “It's the first time I have done a profile. There are so many aspects of Hoshang's personality that has never been explored before and hopefully have done justice to it,” she says. Her other movies include Behind the Glitter, Between the Devil and the Deep Sea, The Green Trap, Paradox City, Cutting off a Lifeline, Vision 2020, Playtime, Coast Under Attack, Seeds of Sovereignty.