nnie Zaidi has explored numerous creative forms in her writing career: poetry, drama, fiction, non-fiction, journalism, even screenwriting. (Her scripts include two short films, Nafs and Sujata made in 2011, and Engine and Ek Bahut Chhoti Si Love Story in 2012, both f which she also directed.) During her journey, she has engaged deeply with the question of why women write what they write. This is also the subject of her documentary film In Her Words , which will be screened this evening as part of the Mumbai International Film Festival.
Funded by a grant from the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, it was shot over four months in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, and some villages of West Bengal. The research began in 2013, alongside Zaidi’s work on an anthology titled Unbound: 2000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing , which was published in May 2015.
With In Her Words , Zaidi examines ideas of authorship and scholarship from the lens of women’s history. It features conversations with publisher Urvashi Butalia, poet Arundhathi Subramaniam, historian Uma Chakravarti, novelist Maitreyi Pushpa, translator Sandhya Mulchandani, and writer-librarian Mridula Koshy, among other illustrious wordsmiths.
Having devoted much time and energy to this project, Zaidi now feels a stronger sense of being part of a tradition instead of a lone writer coping with the demands that writing can make on writers, and on women writers in particular.
“In her memoirs, Manikuntala Sen describes going to college where girls sat behind screens,” Zaidi says. “It took a long time before women of any religion would even face their teachers like male students. We have come a long way. And yet we still have schools that insist on separate staircases for boys and girls. Now, there is talk of segregating schools again, as if co-education was a bad thing. We are on a slippery slope. Our grandmothers fought very hard, clawing their way out of purdah and not being allowed to make choices. We must not fritter away our freedoms because we take them too much for granted.” The documentary pays homage to these foremothers, Mirabai, Muddupalani, Rashid Jahan, Qurratulain Hyder, Tarabai Shinde, and more.
“This film is not about identity or self-definition as ‘writers,’” Zaidi says. “It is trying to look at women’s rights, concerns and freedoms, as reflected in literature. Identity is a very fluid and contextual construct. Caste may be most important outside the household, for instance, but within a household, womanhood may be her primary identity. And sometimes, the opposite might be true. However, all the women in the film have written about the feminine and female experience of life.”
In Her Words includes many conversations about sexual expression. However, love and desire are spoken of mainly in heterosexual terms, aside from a reference to Suniti Namjoshi, whose writing embraces lesbian love, and another to Ismat Chughtai, who faced an obscenity trial for writing about sexual intimacy between a feudal lady and her masseuse.
Perhaps the most stirring segment in the film is one that features CS Lakshmi, who writes under the penname Ambai and also runs the Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women (SPARROW). Lakshmi recalls an unnamed male writer who said that he woke up every morning to open the window, and stories came to him flying like birds. In response to this, Lakshmi says, “It is a wonderful metaphor but the thing is that one should have a window to open. The family must allow a woman to stand by the window, open it, and wait for these stories to come.” The only men who appear in this film are Naveen Kishore, who has published Mahasweta Devi’s writing in English, and Kiran Nagarkar, who wrote Cuckold , noteworthy for its portrayal of Mirabai.
Zaidi has not merely strung together sound bytes from fellow writers at literature festivals. Her directorial vision is located in contemporary debates around women’s education, sexual exploitation, and access to public spaces. Her evocative use of music and painting produces a layered narrative that engages the viewer intellectually and emotionally. Poems by Mirabai, Amrita Pritam, Bahinabai, and Amir Khusrau have been sung for this film. Some of the artworks come from Radhaben Garva in Kutch, who documents the rural women’s movement through her paintings. Others come from Shareer Ki Jaankaari , a handbook on women’s sexuality written by 75 women from villages in Rajasthan. Most of the paintings that appear in the film were made by the filmmaker’s mother, Yasmin Zaidi.
“I was looking for visual material online,,” says Zaidi, “and was not satisfied with the more traditional representations I found, some of which were also problematic from the perspective of feminine history. For instance: depicting saint-poetesses as being loaded with jewellery or dressed in clothes, when their whole struggle had been towards rejecting the trappings of the material world. I did not think that they would want to be remembered that way, garbed in material ambition with all the signs of socially acceptable lives. I was looking for something elemental… Joyous, perhaps sensuous, closer to the spirit of their lives and works.”
In her Words will be screened at Doordarshan Kendra, Worli. Time: 6 pm
The author is a freelance writer
Zaidi’s directorial vision is located in debates around women’s education and access to public spaces