INTERVIEW Director Kundan Shah talks about the scourge of dowry and what prompted him to make Teen Behenein

R evolving around three sisters' suicide due to dowry demands, Kundan Shah's “Teen Behenein” is a cutting edge critique of the existing value systems in Indian society that result in the total debasement of women. The film is being screened in over a dozen colleges in Delhi. In a chat prior to the screenings, Shah reveals the dynamics behind the making of this path breaking film.

This film is a departure from your favourite genre of comedies and satires. What made you direct a serious film?

All my films have a serious undercurrent and this has been no exception. When Zee Telefilms and Sudhir Mishra approached me for the project, I was keen to deal with the subject of dowry as a scourge that is eating into the vitals of Indian society.

Also, the film is not morbid. In fact, it bristles with joi de vivre of the three siblings, even as they mull and debate the extreme step.

Theirs is not a sudden burst of despair that leads to the fatal step, rather a hopelessness and a lament at a lack of choice to escape the relentless oppressiveness and the bestiality of a society that does not value a human life, but, is concerned about the dowry price that a bride will bring and her beauty.

The film is very poignant and builds up to a climax without wavering. Did you meet the families of the suicide victims to understand the situation?

Yes, a lot of research went into understanding the entire psyche of the women, their fears and hopes and how despite being educated and dynamic, they were unable to get out of the oppressive, stifling social system. If you watch the film, these are young women eager to live and not filled with negativism.

However, I did not speak to the parents of these women, since they were too traumatised and I did not want to disturb them.

You have captured the vulnerability and helplessness of the women without any overtly feministic statement. How did you manage that?

The film opens with the quote from Anton Chekov's “Three Sisters”: Life for us three sisters hasn't been beautiful yet, we've been stifled by it as plants are choked by weeds. . . 

I wanted to depict the manner in which these spirited young women were pushed to the brink — the manner in which society subjugates them in myriad ways, making them dependent and vulnerable, and then their desperate bid to escape from the vicious exploitative cycle by deciding to take their own lives.

The three men who appear briefly in the film epitomise lust, greed and the exploitative bent of patriarchy.

The film juxtaposes this darkness against the stability and decorum that the women maintain in their lives even as they make a choice to embrace their death within the dank confines of their lower middle class tenement.

The openness of the terrace in their house mirrors their aspiration to be free spirits desiring to be in charge of their own destinies.

What forces them to take their own lives is the anguish and humiliation that their parents face due to their inability to marry the girls off with handsome dowries.

The loving parents who save every penny for their dowries are pushed to contemplating suicide or even wishing their children dead as there is no prospect of their getting suitable grooms.

You have managed to elicit fine performances from total newcomers. How did you do that?

The scenes were well-rehearsed and we shot it on a tight budget of Rs.60 lakhs. The luxury of having several takes and shootings spread over many days was just not there and the girls delivered admirably.

There is no use of flashbacks to recount their life story. And the narrative stills hold tightly. And the credit goes to these young actresses.

The film was completed in 2005 and has not seen the light of day. So that must trouble you.

Yes, a film like this needs to reach out to a wide audience. In a way, that is what Shekhar and I are attempting to do through these screenings.