Images that stand the test of time do so not just aesthetically, but they also open up our understanding of events or situations, years or even decades later. Kya Hua Is Shahar Ko? (What Happened to This City?), Deepa Dhanraj’s debut documentary made in the mid-1980s on the religious riots that ravaged her hometown Hyderabad in 1984, still looks very prescient, going by the history of communal polarisation that has spread across the country since then, and by how similar images are seen from multiple cities in contemporary India. It was one of the first documentary films from the country to carry such an autopsy of a riot.
In an interview with The Hindu, Ms. Dhanraj says the documentary began as an idea to study the reasons which attracted young men from different castes to join the Ganesh processions, a phenomenon of recent origin, which were followed by riots. But, it morphed into something else while they were doing it.
“While we were there, riots broke out. So, we just continued filming. Later, we abandoned our initial idea, and the film shaped up on the editing table. We looked closely at all the players involved and mapped out the events. We cannot talk about riots as spontaneous acts. We have to understand the context, the players, their agenda and what they stand to gain,” says Ms. Dhanraj, who is in the capital to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 15th International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (IDSFFK).
She sees her landing up in documentaries almost as an accident, after her literature and journalism studies, and getting a basic understanding of feature filmmaking, working in the sets of the likes of Pattabhirama Reddy and M.S. Sathyu. “These were fiction films, but it was a kind of education, though I would not recommend it to anyone to start learning about filmmaking in this way. It’s very tough, because what you learn is totally dependent on the project that you are part of, what the director’s vision is, and the kind of role you have been assigned,” she says.
Around the time, the Indira Gandhi government declared an Emergency, which was a political awakening for many young people from her generation. It was a period which also witnessed the emergence of an autonomous women’s movement, led by women who came out of mainstream organisations which were not receptive to the women’s question.
“It was at that time we thought about making films on women who have mobilised on their own, because their struggles were invisible. It was a modest intention, maybe even a little naive. We were filming what was happening and showing it to other women from the same kind of constituency, and aimed to start a conversation about their working conditions,” says Ms. Dhanraj.
In 1980, she formed Yugantar Film Collective with cinematographer Navroze Contractor (her partner who passed away recently), activist Abha Bhaiya and writer Meera Rao. The four documentaries the collective made on 16mm film set the tone for her later work. Maid Servant, on the unionisation of domestic workers in Pune, had its ripples elsewhere, with its screening inspiring the formation of the Bangalore Domestic Workers Union.
Her 1991 documentary Something Like a War which lays bare forced sterilisation and unethical trials of contraceptive medicines on poor women is an example of how her process makes it easier for the subjects to open up about their deepest desires and fears.
“It has to be about comfort and some sense of trust. It is not ordinary trust, but there has to be a political trust. These women were staying with us. They usually don’t have leisure time at home, saddled by a million jobs. So when they are in a place for a week, they can relax and there is a lot of laughter and singing. Women are very intelligent. I maintain this in all my films. If there is an atmosphere where they are free and relaxed, they will open up about their lived experiences,” she says.
Over the past four decades, themes surrounding the women’s question, caste, gender, law, education, working-class issues and subjects capturing the intersectionality of these have been a constant in her oeuvre.
“Today, so many subjects are difficult to make films on. But I also want to add a caveat that the documentary field is interesting now that younger filmmakers are experimenting with form, bringing personal styles and doing fascinating things. I really don’t have a style. For me, everything starts with the material on the ground, which will determine the form,” she says.
She feels that the lifetime achievement award should have been shared with Contractor, who with his “tender camera”, has made immense contributions to all her films. “He was extraordinary. The documentaries wouldn’t be what they are without him,” says Ms. Dhanraj.