Chitra Palekar’s “Maati Maayi”, which launched the first Women’s Film Festival in the city, scores as an uncompromising indictment of social injustice. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN catches up with the director
Chitra Palekar spent her formative years on the stage, and trained herself in many aspects of film making. She acted in “Akriet” (Nantes Special Jury Award, 4 State Awards), scripted films (“Thodasa Romani Ho Jaye”, “Kairee”, “Dhyasparva”), television serials (“Kacchi Dhoop”, “Naqab”), worked as production designer, co-producer and assistant director in films directed by Amol Palekar. Her debut as director in “Maati Maayi” (Marathi), based on Mahashweta Devi’s Bengali story, is of a veteran in the field. “Maati Maayi” launched the first Women’s Film Festival in Chennai, organised by InKo Centre in association with National Film Development Corporation, National Film Archive, Directorate of Film Festivals and Sathyam Cinemas.
The death of all male relatives forces Chandi to take up the family job of gravekeeping. She is proud of discharging her duty – didn’t her untouchable ancestors give succour to the mythical Raja Harischandra? When, as a nursing mother, she is unable to bury children anymore, the village refuses to allow her to discontinue her grim task. Finally, she is ostracised and exiled as a ghoul feeding on dead infants.
Chitra’s film is not arresting in form. Few surprises in the visual compositions, the flashbacks are hardly subtle in treatment. The shrill song in key moments is out of place. Atul Kulkarni as Narsu cannot wholly shed his urban sensibility. But Chitra gets a powerful performance from Nandita Das and a credible child in Kshitij Gavande.
The shortcomings are overcome by the director’s deep sensitivity, strength of emotion, artistic conviction, and guts in her grim choice of subject. The film scores as an uncompromising indictment of social injustice. Slogans and manifestos are not needed for this intensely human document of suffering and empathy, recorded by an unsentimental eye.
Excerpts from an interview with the director.
How did you come upon Mahashweta Devi’s story? Any difficulties in turning the word into visuals?
Theatre director Usha Ganguly gave this story to me and said let’s do a play. I responded to it with my senses, not intellectually, and kept thinking of visuals. I saw the layers of irony in life and death. Death starts affecting Chandi when she herself gives birth. The challenge was to show Chandi’s breasts overflowing with milk without vulgarity or voyeurism. I feel this is a gender sensitive story that only a woman can write, and direct.
Why didn’t you situate the tale in the present instead of in 1959? Is it because you see progress since then?
We still read about witch hunts, dowry death, female infanticide. My recce before shooting showed me that villages had TV antennae, but nothing had changed. Or rather, they have changed on paper, by laws that cannot be enforced. When I screen this film in other countries, I explain that casteism exists in our country like racism in theirs, in forms less direct and more subtle. I wanted audiences to feel the distance of 50 years, and therefore be less disturbed while watching. That way, introspection will start when they go home. That’d be deeper.Have you made any changes in the story? Why did you opt for the realistic mode of the ‘70s and ‘80s for this film?
As I checked everything before the shoot I said, hello, the end should be different. Right through the film, the boy identifies himself as Narsu’s son as always in a patriarchal set up. At the end I thought he should say, “I am Chandi’s son.” Then I knew how to take the shots, show the gradual rifts and bonds, through compositions and reactions, not dialogue. This film is realistic because that’s the treatment needed for this story.Is it a disadvantage for a director to be an actor as you are?
I didn’t act out the roles for my cast. In fact, as an actor myself, I give my cast more room; I’m sensitive to their creativity. I hadn’t worked in a full length film since 1999. Technology and audiences have changed since then! My hands-on training with editors such as Mangesh Desai helped me overcome nervousness.
Marathi cinema seems to be doing well today. Are we anywhere closer to regional cinema being seen as national cinema?
No point in regional cinema making low budget copies of high budget Hindi films. It becomes national cinema when it reflects its own ethos and culture. The media talks about the changing face of Bollywood. Great. What about glancing at regional cinema? European films are being released with subtitles in multiplexes. Anybody to release regional films in other States?