Reality in close up

Award-winning filmmaker Deepa Dhanraj on how socio-political issues inspire her.

There’s something emphatic and understated about Deepa Dhanraj, the Bengaluru-based documentary filmmaker, who has been engaged with the form for nearly four decades now. Deepa’s work is an extension of her activism years, her films are about issues that have changed the movement of society, even if in a small way. She has made several films on education and health, apart from award-winning documentaries that includes ‘Enough of this Silence’ (2008), ‘The Advocate’ (2007), ‘Nari Adalat’ (2000), and ‘Sudesha’ (1983). Her film ‘Invoking Justice’ (2011) is on women’s jamaat in Tamil Nadu, which amidst much resistance has survived, and has over 12,000 members across 12 districts. The film, which has received much acclaim, has been screened at various festivals across the world. Deepa set up Yugantar, the film-making collective, that made films based on women’s issues.

Excerpts from an interview with the filmmaker, who will be one of the panellists at The Hindu’s Literary Festival Lit For Life in January 2017.

Film-making is an outcome of your activism. What were the compulsion for this transition?

Opposition to Indira Gandhi’s Emergency marked my political baptism. The women’s movement that arose post-Emergency was an exciting time it often felt that we were in a non-stop protest mode. Women were also part of civil liberties groups, which were investigating human rights abuses . Women in the non-formal sector, domestic workers and women working in the tobacco industry were organising themselves into trade unions. It was in this political context that I decided to move into making documentary films.

Yugantar was part of the vibrant socio-political atmosphere of the 1970s and 80s. Do you think Yugantar can happen today?

Why not? It may not take the form of a collective, but we see many initiatives that are exciting. A crucial objective of the Yugantar experiment was how we visualised the distribution process. To take our films to diverse audiences and create an engaged screening experience was vital. It was important to start conversation post-screening with women not only about the films but how it connected to their work and life. This was a gruelling task logistically.

Many civil society film movements, Pedestrian Pictures in Bangalore and Kerala, the Gorakhpur Film Festival Movement in U.P. and the Cinema of Resistance in Kolkata attempt to link independent filmmakers, films and social movements. Personally, I am challenged and nourished by these kind of collective screening experiences.

Can you share your experience of making ‘Invoking Justice’?

The first time I attended a meeting of the Tamilnadu Muslim Women’s Jamaat, I was completely blown away. Here were Muslim women who were believers, taking on men in the community, male Jamaats and clerics insisting that they behave lawfully and righteously. By demanding that they deserve the justice guaranteed by Islam they were posing a particular challenge to a corrupt judicial system.

Many things stood out for me while making this film, which I wanted to communicate. The Tamil Nadu Muslim Women’s Jamaat is the only women’s Jamaat in India that conducts hearings and pronounces judgements. With a membership of 12,000 women spread over 12 districts they want to be considered as an institution on par with male Jamaats. Their job as adjudicators is challenging. One the one hand, they have to deal with secular institutions such as law courts and police stations. On the other hand, they have to deal with petitioner’s families, the community and male Jamaats.

Despite being frustrated that Muslim women are denied the rights defined by Islam and those guaranteed by the Constitution, the Jamaat women move fluently between civil law and customary law, as well as manage to leverage both systems strategically.

What does it mean to be a film-maker? Can you trace your journey and talk about the present challenges?

Today, I feel, we are inundated with images, everyone is creating them. Personal images, images being produced by television channels, independent film-makers, mainstream fiction film, its endless. It’s hard to recollect them even a day later. Earlier for documentary film-makers it seemed enough to film the reality. However, now, when one is making a film about a public incident, what we find asking ourselves is how do we distinguish our images from the flood of similar coverage? Can we create images that can cause the viewer to pause and reflect?

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Printable version | Jul 8, 2020 3:46:43 PM |

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