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Telling women's stories

Shabnam Virmani's latest film on domestic violence is only one in a long line-up dealing with gender issues. KAUSALYA SANTHANAM talks to the filmmaker whose works deal with women's struggles at the grassroots level.

WOMEN who have been victims of violence and have been hiding under the veil of silence speak out against their husbands, the perpetrators. "Bol", eight one-minute films, made by Drishti Media Collective, Ahmedabad, is being telecast on major television channels in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Bengal to create awareness about domestic violence. When screened at an international seminar on domestic violence in Chennai, the film had the audience on their feet applauding the 30-year-old filmmaker Shabnam Virmani. The seminar was conducted by International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), a Washington-based organisation, which collaborated with Drishti in making the film.

Minimum time, maximum impact. This is what Virmani's films achieve. Like gunshots, the message "Say no to violence!" hit home. "Behind the silence of society, there lurks an acceptance that men have the right to use violence while women should accept and endure", says Virmani, co-founder of the Drishti Media Collective.

INCLEN survey (2000) shows that domestic violence is not something that happens far away to someone you do not know or that it takes place only in the lower economic strata. It occurs in one out of four middle class homes! "More than 40 per cent of married Indian women report experiencing at least one form of violence from their husbands ranging from a slap to excessive torture. Twenty seven per cent of educated middle class Indian women report the same." The findings were based on a household survey conducted in seven cities — Delhi, Bhopal, Chennai, Lucknow, Nagpur, Thiruvananthapuram and Vellore — which covered 9,938 married women from all sections of society. In the film, victims and their relatives voice their views and experiences while the man on the street tells us what he feels about it.

"We were not exactly deluged by positive male responses," says Virmani wryly, when asked how the men who appear in the film were short listed. She should be familiar with this for she has been making docudramas on women for 13 years. She has directed more than 10 films, which have focussed on women at the grassroots level depicting their strugglers and triumphs, the courage with which they confront patriarchy in their daily lives and the dignity with which they deal with continuous harassment and discrimination.

Virmani's films deal with how ordinary women tackle problems with common sense and courage and come up with inspirational portraits. VHS copies of these films are distributed to grassroots groups, institutions, NGO's and activists who screen them in different parts of the country for "gender sensitisation and awareness raising".

"My films are a response to women's need to articulate, nourish and defend and identity that imbues their life with meaning," says Virmani. "The focus of my work is to strengthen the women's movement in the country." Virmani began her career as a sub-editor in The Times of India in Jaipur in 1987. A few months later she made journalistic history when she filed the story on what happened in Deorala village, Rajasthan. "The news of how a young widow, Roop Kanwar, was burnt on the funeral pyre of her husband led to the ban on Sati being reinforced and this turned out to be a watershed in the women's liberation movement in the country."

Virmani might have made journalistic history but she decided to move away from the print media. "Perhaps if I had been a feature writer, things might have been different. But the desk job was stultifying," she says. The next year she won a scholarship to study Mass Communication at the University of Cornell, United States and this changed her perspective. She tried her hand at film making there and her 20-minute student film "Have a Nice Day," was a personal narrative of her alienation, as an Indian student trying to come to terms with North American culture Returning to India the next year, she located at Gujarat and learnt the craft of film making. "I was keen to engage in communication that would break down literacy barriers. Films seemed to be the best way of doing that."

"I have been influenced by being part of a burgeoning women's movement in the country," she continues. "In the 1980s, India was in a ferment. When I was in college doing my post-graduate diploma in the Times Research Foundation School for Journalism, New Delhi, Safdar Hashmi spoke to us and that was seminal. I had friends who read Simone de Beauvoir and I was influenced by films, such as Deepa Dhanraj's `Something like a war', which deal with the challenges faced by women in our society."

In 1991, Virmani co-founded the Drishti Media Collective at Ahmedabad, a non-profit group of media professionals "to support, document and strengthen grassroots struggles for gender justice, human rights and development." Says Virmani, "We work in partnership with the people whose lives, stories and experiences make the subject of our films. They are not reduced to passive objects of our creative process. They get involved in conceptualising its contents, writing the scripts, acting and making editorial suggestions. Most of my films have been conceived and scripted in partnership with women's collectives in Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. We help communities communicate an alternative vision and we believe this can be empowering" Apart from production work in video, theatre and radio, Drishti undertakes training and media planning for campaigns and events.

One of Drishti's most successful films is "When Women Unite". The film investigated one of the most extraordinary social uprisings in modern India, says Virmani. It was about the rural women's protest against State supply of liquor in Andhra Pradesh. The protest was sustained for three long years and eventually forced the Government to declare prohibition. "The film helped women struggling against violence in many other States to link experiences. Made in 1996, the film, like many of her works, won a clutch of awards at national and international film festivals. It was sponsored for a screening tour of 20 North American universities by departments of women's studies, South Asian studies and political science.

"When Women Unite" was a docudrama and I enjoy working on docudramas, says the filmmaker. "The docu fiction enables me to get many real women in one woman fictional character. It gives me a narrative structure. Memory and story telling seem to be two fundamental methodologies underlying my work. My film making process had essentially been redemptive acts of memory in which women have revisited their past."

"Tu Zinda Hai," which profiled the women activists of Ekta Parishad, a mass-based organisation working in the villages of M.P., explored the self perception of these women and was a salute to their spirit to survive the backlash of patriarchal structures whose authority they challenge — whether it is the violent husband, the greedy landlord, the liquor don or the government servant.

The experience of women panchayat leaders in Gujarat formed the basis of "Apna Avsar". "This is being used by NGOs to mobilise and inspire rural women leaders to join the political process and realise their potential." Rural women coming together to struggle for gender justice and to form a savings group formed the material of "Ek Potlun Beek Nu" (A Bundle of Fear") and "Umati Umang hi Danri" (Hopes Soaring High) while "Lesser Humans" depicted the lives of women night soil workers. Female infanticide, the evil of dowry, women's right to education and health are among the many issues that the filmmaker has dealt with.

How do men respond to the portrayal of these issues? "When you explore gender issues, women respond immediately whereas men respond defensively unless they are very open. Rural men will accept frankly that they beat their wives while the urban man might dissemble." Some responses can shock the urban viewer. A discussion with rural men or domestic violence elicited the "outraged" reply, "After a hard day's work, if we can't give vent to our frustration by beating our wives, what other option is there for us? Suicide?"

Does she feel defeated at such attitudes and the suffering rural women are subjected to?

"I do, sometimes," she confesses. "Then I draw inspiration from these women. One humbling thing I have learnt in these 10 years is if you are open to looking, you find along with the oppression, pain and tears, there is a good measure of resistance, humour, joie de vivre and laughter as well," says the film maker who has produced a set of literacy comic books for women and is on the governing board of Mahila Swaraj Abhyas, a network of over 60 organisations working on women's concerns in Gujarat.

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