For the last three decades, Saba Dewan has been one of most
prominent voices in the sphere of documentary cinema in India. An alumnus of
the Mass Communication Research Centre of Jamia Millia Islamia, she started in
the late 1980s. Her first two films, Dharmayuddha (Holy War,
1989) and Nasoor (Festering Wound, 1991) responded to the rise of
communal politics. Later works like Khel (The Play, 1994) and Sita’s
Family (2001) document women’s experiences and narratives in deeply
personal ways. The films from Dewan’s fascinating trilogy, Delhi-Mumbai-Delhi
(2006), Naach (The Dance, 2008) and The Other Song (2009)
explored the lives and histories of female performers who survive on society’s
Her recent book, Tawaifnama (2019) uncovers the narratives of courtesans in north India and their histories. In 2017, Dewan’s post on social media against the lynching of minorities and Dalits gained tremendous response and culminated in the “Not in My Name” protest across different cities in the country.
At the time you were being trained as a filmmaker in the 80’s, most documentaries were either films of protest or advocacy films. This was also the moment when women filmmakers entered the sphere of documentary filmmaking. How did this influence you and your early work?
It had a huge influence. It was also the way Jamia MCRC was at that point of time. It was self-consciously built as a Nehruvian model. There was progressive politics, secularism and so on. But it was also the idea of cinema for change, which is not necessarily Nehruvian but, I think, being a developing country, we have carried this cross of having a utilitarian approach towards the arts for quite some time. Art had to be put to use for nation-building.
As students we had all the filmmakers at that time, from Anand Patwardhan to Deepa Dhanraj coming and showing their work. I remember genuinely feeling charged because I was a part of student politics through my undergraduate years, and here was a medium to protest injustice in new ways, to expose the hidden realities. That is the kind of filmmaking I gravitated to in the early period of my career.
Sometime later, the filmmaker in me started questioning things. I was being exposed to many other influences. But it was only much later, I think, that I started looking at exploring the form for what it is. So, it was not just about what has to be said, but more importantly how it has to be said. And then, as you start working, you realise that these aren’t actually two separate things.
So, yes, these documentaries through the late Seventies and Eighties had a profound influence. I remember two or three films that really made a difference to me, the way I began to look at things, were by women. They were completely different in treatment and style. There was ‘Kya Hua is Shehar Ko’, Deepa’s film. Later, I saw Nilita’s Eyes of Stone; that had a really profound influence. I was not exposed to this kind of filmmaking and its quiet intensity blew me away. When I met Nilita, I even told her that she had made me question the value of my own work. Then, there was Meera Nair’s Indian Cabaret. Of course, that was earlier; I was still a student.
At that time we wanted things in black and white. That is how documentary had come to us. So, the grays in Indian Cabaret left us uncomfortable. Don’t forget the documentary in that phase was didactic and moralistic. I mean, moralistic not in terms of sexual morality but in terms of a morality about truth, as if there was an absolute truth waiting to be delivered, or, to be shown.
Your first two films, Dharmayuddha and Nasoor, respond to the fraught communal politics of that time. While you were shooting these films, the emergence of right-wing outfits was only seen as fringe groups trying to find a foothold. What was your experience of shooting and editing these films then, and how do you look back at that experience from our current political context?
We shot Nasoor before we started work on Dharmayuddha because we had just graduated from Jamia, I remember, and this was 1987, and communal violence had broken out in Meerut. The city now has relative peace; it doesn’t erupt the way it used to. Through the Eighties and even Seventies, it was frequently convulsed by communal violence. So we went to Meerut and shot for a few days, I think, two days. Then we were stopped by police.
They said no shooting was allowed, etc. and they wanted our tapes. We were shooting on video tape. So, it was exciting knowing, “Ah! We have given them blank tapes”. And we ran from Meerut with our footage. We came back. It was the immediate aftermath; of course, yes, it had its value like the immediate reaction of people, especially people who had suffered.
There were some interviews but it was quite fragmentary in nature and we didn’t quite know how to work upon it. I mean, it could be a little 20-minute film. But we had a sense that that was not what we really wanted to do, because even in the two or three days that we had been there, there was some sort of undercurrent that we felt needed to be explored.
Anyhow, shortly after that, we started working on Dharmayuddha. Now, at that time, people used to laugh and say these are fringe groups and treated them like the loony right. That was the time of all this investigative journalism. So this was very much in line with that form of film making, being an investigative documentary filmmaker where, of course, you also assume certain identities. I think we were so young at that time and we looked so harmless—I presume we did—that they took us along everywhere. Actually, some of them were fond of us.
So we got access to all these inner coterie meetings which, surprisingly, they allowed us to shoot. But I think that was also because… Don’t forget these were the Eighties that we are talking about. Video was not pervasive. People were still getting to know the kind of power that an image can have, because it wasn’t really there in that sense. And I remember that having this feeling—my partner Rahul Roy had it too; these are co-directed films—even at that time we had a sense that we couldn’t dismiss them because there was this calculated planning that was going on and they worked towards it.
What we could see and what we could understand was that they had been working for decades on this project. Now, of course, you look back and you realise it was pretty tame stuff compared to what we get to hear now, and what we are actually experiencing. They are working on something and things work out in a certain way for them.
We did Nasoor later because once Dharmayuddha was over and got some amount of attention, our cover was blown. The material for Nasoor was sitting with us at Meerut. It is an hour or an hour-and-a-half away; so we go over weekends and people would say, “Ab kyon aaye ho, ab to dange nahin hain; there is nothing to shoot here; these are peaceful times.” Yet the suspicion, the hostility was all there and probably a bit more heightened because of the last episode. One realised this was just the residue; it is building; and that is why the name Nasoor. It is like a festering wound; it only gets worse. So, Nasoor got done later, I think in 1990.
You then made a series of films on women across rural India.
Yeah, on women in agriculture. That was wonderful. The films were atrocious; but it was a huge learning experience for us, for me really, in terms of being in women’s groups in Delhi as a student of feminist politics. But I think it was only once I started working on that series that I began to understand the multiplicities of realities, of women’s realities. I also realised that my feminism was necessarily coming out of my experience as a city-based, fairly privileged young woman.
Coming to Khel, it travels through the Yogini
temple sites, documenting spiritual journeys of women living outside normative
roles. It also lays emphasis on women’s subjectivities in innovative ways for
Khel marks, for me, a departure. It was not a great film; it is an unfinished film. When I look at it now, there was so much that I would shoot differently, I would cut differently, all of that; so it is unfinished. But I think in my growth as a film maker, it marked a major point. And it was coming out of a lot of internal questioning; this was the period that I was going through troubled times, personally too; I was extremely dissatisfied with the work I was doing. And this is where I was questioning: as a film maker what kind of language did I want to speak in? I was looking at filmic language trying to find my voice, and all of those became really important considerations.
So I started work on Khel not thinking about the Yoginis at all. I knew Shanti through my work with rural women, from the women in agriculture series. We were going very often to Bundelkhand. Khel is set in Bundelkhand. That is how I got to know Shanti. She is part of the Samakhya Programme. Anyway, that shoot had not worked out, she was, in what I thought was a deep depression, because that is the only way I can analyse it; she was withdrawn; she was not communicating. But Shanti never left me; she stayed and maybe that silence and that brooding, found a residence somewhere; in fact, I myself had been fairly troubled; maybe not by the same issues, etc. but by the state of being.
That is how it became very important to know exactly something about Shanti, what was she mourning for; she was grieving for. I started going and visiting and in her good patches she was more communicative; she would talk and so on. That is how this whole idea of Khel came into being–female desires, female sexuality which stand outside the prescribed little space allowed for women.
Sita’s family is a continuation of a certain journey that started with Khel, also of a certain style of filmmaking. It also came out of being very troubled. And also, the great need to explore my relationship with my mother. So that was a very personal level. Also looking at middle-class women and their public space and the kind of negotiations that go into accessing that space and the roles they’re expected to play. The film is working at, well, several levels but more so at an intensely personal intimate level between me and my mother.
Opening it out to a larger canvas through my grandmother Sita’s story and her relationship with her children which is where modernity, the making of the Indian nation, the freedom movement, the participation of middle-class women in public spaces, all of that comes into play. The making of the film was actually relatively painless, in terms of writing and conceptualising the film. For Khel, I really had to struggle like a baby, babbling and trying to form my words, trying to find my language. In Sita’s family, I had found my voice.
Let us now talk about films from the trilogy Delhi-Bombay-Delhi, Naach and The Other Song. The first two unpacked the lives of female performers who are stigmatised and exist at the margins that then led to The Other Song, a search for the lost histories of tawaifs in India through the lost history of a song. What inspired the exploration of these stories, and more importantly of these women?
Women’s narratives always interest me, even through my early films. If one were to look at the series I did on women in agriculture, it is their narratives really. At that time, it was unusual to have women assert their identity as farmers and talk about their status in terms of access to land. Before this, we only had experts telling us what women needed. For me, that was a conscious political choice and a personal one. You know, women interest me, women’s histories and women’s experiences resonate with me.
I didn’t start working with a trilogy in mind. I started working first with The Other Song except I hadn’t called it that yet. I was working on the story of the tawaifs. The Other Song and Sita’s Family came together for me during a phase that was troubled. Simultaneously, I was looking at middle-class women because of my own troubled relationship with my mother, and then tawaifs because if you look at 19th century women’s reform, there are two types of women they address, the middle-class, for whom the reforms are meant, and the public women, the tawaifs, sex workers and other women at the margins who had to be removed from public spaces. Reformed and removed.
Before I started Sita’s Family, I was doing some research on sex workers (not for a film) so I also in one of my field trips, met this group of tawaifs. I was rather shocked as till then I had only read about them in an academic manner. I didn’t think they really existed anymore. But they did. They weren’t practising, but till a generation back they were. So immediately after Sita’s Family I started work on the film on tawaifs because both ideas were working together in my mind. The tawaif film took so long because, first, for practical reasons, one can’t just go up to women and ask, “Excuse me, were you a Tawaif years ago?”. I’d get thrown out and for good reason. I was more tactful than this but people would have genuine reasons for not wanting to discuss this with me. And when I started forming contacts and getting to know people, it took me the longest time to find the form.
How was I going to talk about this? Would this be a conventional Discovery channel style of documentary on “the dancing girls of India”? Obviously not, so how is this story going to be told? That is how thumri came in, it was very fortuitous as someone came in and helped me with the research and then that became the foundation.
But it took me so long that I was getting lost, the research was taking forever. It’s not an easy film to research, it took me in many directions. That is how I landed up at Nautanki and Sonepur’s mela. I used to drive from Patna to Muzaffarpur for shoots, and this was a popular mela so I got there and that’s how the film Naach came to be.
As far as Delhi-Mumbai-Delhi was concerned, I’d heard and met some people who were from tawaif families and some of their daughters perform at the dance bars. So first I thought of approaching the subject through dance bars and then going into the history of some of these dancers. That didn’t work out. In a way, at these dance bars, I found this reinvention of the tawaif. She’s a completely dehistoricised figure, this romantic figure dancing away and there is a strange nostalgia about mujra. This figure, I felt, harks at a certain history, which is a very violent history actually of being purged.
What we see, in many of your films, is not just the women but also the men. Men looking into the camera, attempting to not look at the camera, looking at women unaware of the camera looking at them. In Naach, you shoot from the stage where the women are performing, turning your camera at the male audience. Is this the woman filmmaker rupturing the male gaze?
The point is that it had to come naturally. Because here I am, looking at the world of the dancers and in turn, they are looking at the world. Necessarily, the camera has to be placed from their perspective rather than at them. The camera also looks at them at certain points but that is at the performance that they are putting up. And you know because it is a calculated performance, because a lot of the times it is they who are looking at the world. And so that was obvious to me that that’s the only way that I would shoot. In Naach it is very apparent, there’s a performance being put up on the stage.
The decision to put the camera not looking at the stage but from the stage looking at the audience; also, from the stage it is looking at the stage itself. And that brings forth a very different kind of power dynamics, the camera becomes a part of the women’s space, the chorus dancers. I shot over two seasons, over two years. The owner of the mela at first was hesitant but then the camera became a part of the act almost. At one point, we realised we were like the little act accompanying the main performance. It’s obvious in Naach but even in my other films, that is there. This strategy is based and located in women’s narratives as they are the ones carrying the story.
Even though the trilogy enters feminine spaces inhabited by particular communities of women, there are certain characters that are always in the foreground, whom the camera attends to in detail. What is your method to select these particular protagonists?
Well it’s a combination of many things in a documentary. It differs from documentary to documentary. Something like, say, The Other Song or Khel, those are heavily researched films. Obviously, what preceded the shooting was just spending a lot of time with people. As in The Other Song, the people who are in the film are people comfortable in front of the camera, talking about themselves, that is always a major factor. That too comes out of many things, it comes out of your personal relationship that you’ve developed. The person becomes increasingly easy sharing their stories with the camera. It comes out with films like Naach, where you’re shooting through, the camera rolled continuously. It would start rolling from the afternoon when the girls would wake up and then we’d shoot through. I ended up with hours and hours of footage. I first got interested in Sunita’s family, she wasn’t someone I shot a lot during the first round of filming. To begin with, her mother interested me, the mother-daughter dynamics, that really interested me. And that’s how I started shooting with Sunita, not because she was vivacious etc. She became uninhibited in the process but that was not the case in the beginning. We became friends and I hung out with her family. Also her mother took a liking to me and we enjoyed talking to each other, even though she was a difficult woman who had a very difficult life. The mother in Delhi-Mumbai-Delhi was a very quiet woman and very diffident, also because that family is first generation dancers.
So yeah, there are various people in the film for various reasons. There are also those who just thrust themselves into the film, who just love the camera. There are also the quiet ones that take time to open up. Yes, certain thematic things do get explored that you’ve thought of beforehand through certain lives. It also has to do a lot with who you are as a filmmaker.
Now there was this one character who was there in both films, Shammi. He was the world’s most irritating person when I first met him but he really wanted to be in the film. He first grilled me as to what I was doing, and figured it was something like the “discovery channel”. He said meri kahani, meri zubaani—my story in my words. And he ended up functioning almost like my production manager. He was the one who took me to dance bars, too, otherwise how would I shoot in a bar? Shammi would always say didi is our producer. But then I figured his relationship with the bar dancer which was very troubled and very fraught. She wasn’t doing well emotionally to begin with, and kept to herself.
Over a period of time she started opening up, and talking to me. Then she decided she would use the camera to make her point with Shammi and that’s what led us to a wonderful conversation set up by her. I mean not that she told me but she found an opportunity and she set up a conversation and only mid-way through the conversation I realised exactly what she had in mind. She had trapped him. That is when I realised people have so many reasons to be in front of the camera. There’s vanity, there’s attention, some desire for immortality and also to present your truth that you might find difficult to articulate otherwise, which she did.
Almost two decades since you first began your hunt for the lost stories of tawaifs who were an important part of the cultural fabric of north India for centuries, you’ve published a book called Tawaifnama. What was your experience of writing this book and how was it different from telling these stories through a visual medium? Were there things you did differently this time around?
Well, this is the most challenging work I’ve done thus far. Also, because I was working in a medium that I’m not trained in. I’m a filmmaker, so some of the things that come to me naturally are there as a given in filmmaking. For instance, narratives play a very important role in my films. And it’s not about the information these narratives give, it’s what they’re carrying, the memory, the experiences. I wanted to be able to convey that voice. But this was to be a book, so the challenge was how do I differentiate between my voice and the voice in which the story has been told to me, the way it was told to me.
It’s the emphasis, the description that was tough for me to translate. I didn’t want to sound “cute” because you’re translating literally from Bhojpuri, Hindi into English and so this “cuteness” comes into being in trying to go native. That challenge I was aware of. I wanted to give that sense of the power of that speech, a flavour of that speech which had been uttered to me in Bhojpuri, Hindi or Urdu and of course have my voice present too because I’m very much in first person in the book. Without always having to go into a quote, how do you organically let your story flow but also get a sense of the telling of that story. Like I’d said, for me, the telling of the story was as important as the story itself.
As filmmakers, over the years, we’ve learnt how to do that with more than one visual track in the films. We’re constantly working at layering a film. But as a first-time writer that was new to me. The way I saw it, this was also a book where the present was telling the stories of the past. These are all women located in the present and it should read as though they are telling us about the past. We should get a sense of who the teller of that story really is. What frame of mind are they telling the story in? All of that was as important as the actual story being told. And there’s a constant negotiation between the present and the past. Because the past comes to us filtered like that. So yeah, those were my challenges. I’m sure for people who are, well, writers, they’ve worked those things out, but I needed to struggle with these issues.
But a lot of times I worked on it just like I’d work on a film because it’s not that we don’t write films. We do. The Other Song I wrote a lot for and also certain films where you write about your plan to shoot like Sita’s Family, Khel etc. because those are ways in which you’re looking at a certain space and the visualisation of the space and the person in it. Maybe I wrote the book the way I would write a film; some people have told me that at times it reads like a cinematic description and perhaps that’s because it’s the only way I’ve been trained to write or describe things.
In terms of what I did differently, in The Other Song, I wasn’t concerned with hiding identities because the people I was filming were comfortable, they had seen the rough cut. They knew beforehand that they’d see the complete film and whatever they were uncomfortable with we’d drop. They completely owned up to the film, they were happy.
But this particular family, in the book, had many considerations. And that to me was the biggest hurdle. Because it is easy to write about a protagonist who is dead but how do you write about someone who is still alive, how do you change her identity? And then it came to me that it’s not her identity alone, I’d have to alter everyone else’s too. And then it doesn’t end at simply changing names in such a close-knit community, you have to blur some particulars also.
In the first phase of writing I didn’t know how to address this while attempting to write an honest account. But the only way to write an honest account was by protecting her identity. Which is why some of the characters are composite characters, things have been mixed and matched. They’re being transposed in locations, their names are changed, the contexts are changed. So, one cannot identify them. I feel that also gave me leeway to write like fiction. Except that it’s not fiction I’m writing. This book, based on real interviews, had to necessarily be written using these elements and also by sometimes creating a different outline of a person.
Though documentary films have had a marginal presence compared to mainstream imagery, recently they’ve been receiving commercial releases and newer avenues of funding and exhibition. There is also censorship and heated public debates that follow. In this context, how do you see the future of documentary cinema in our country?
Through the 2000s, documentary did not occupy the commercial space and the space of the cinema houses. But in recent years, there’s been an explosion of not just documentary filmmaking but of documentary viewership as well. I remember in 2004, as documentary filmmakers, we had a campaign against censorship and organised this festival, Vikalp, in protest at the Mumbai International Film Festival. Our festival was right opposite the main event. So different filmmakers from across the countries who were part of the campaign started countering censorship by screening films. We started that as part of our political work. By creating these multiple fora across colleges, cultural groups etc. By 2008-9, we realised that we didn’t need to because we began to notice that this practice had caught on and across college campus festivals, films were being screened. We felt we didn’t have much to do there, we could just return to filmmaking. We realised the screening culture was growing autonomously, by itself, and there were many newer platforms to support it. I think the images were proliferating with a belief that documentaries need not fit a certain stereotype.
Recently, I see that I have been to so many programmes that are student film competitions where the entries aren’t only by film students. These tendencies predate this regime, because as we know all governments want to control the images that are put out. The authoritarian streak has always been a part of the Indian establishment. Of course, now it is far more pronounced. I think with their realisation of the power of the image, whatever they could control they’ve tried to control.
In recent days we’ve seen how difficult it has become to screen films even with a censor certificate. For the longest time, many of us didn’t even want censor certificates as an assertion of our right to freedom of expression. Then, some of us, like Anand felt we needed to go through the path of censor certificates, being able to access the instruments of the state while being able to say what we wanted to say. Now, regardless of whether you have the censor certificate or not, there’s no guarantee. Now we are dealing with mobs.
These extra-state actors are storming in and disrupting screenings. So even if you’re saying the police have to provide protection and that the festival has to screen the film, the fact is that there is no protection. So that’s a very different kind of censorship working on an entirely different level altogether.
The recent Not In My Name protests started with a Facebook post of yours coupled with an outpouring from several artists, activists, academicians and individuals. What started through social media as a response to the lynch mobs across the country also resulted in protests in Delhi and several other cities. How would you describe the political role of the image-maker or the artist in the present times?
I didn’t write the Facebook post from the position of a documentary filmmaker. I’m not just Saba Dewan, image-maker. In this context, we’re all coming from the place of being a deeply worried and concerned citizen. That, for the moment, subsumes everything that I am, a woman, a filmmaker etc. To be honest, the way in which the Not In My Name protests started was neither because I was a documentary filmmaker nor that I was appealing to people of my community alone. I was not. I didn’t even think the post would have any resonance. I wrote it because I felt like I needed to. I remember Rahul thinking that there won’t be more than fifty people who’d even come and join. And I thought, even if no one was to join us, at least we would have stood there with our two placards.
We were glad that it did find resonance. Coincidentally even for the first round of the Not In My Name protest, a lot of people in the arts responded. They were not necessarily friends or people we knew. Many were not even Facebook friends to begin with. A lot of other people who were not in the arts joined in and were involved in organising the protest, which is how we then began to plan the Artists Unite event. So Not In My Name continues but Artists Unite also comes through with us using our mediums to counter hate because art has the potential to speak to people in very subliminal ways.
It’s interesting to see how something can be said through a piece of music or through some images. You never know what will touch someone which is why the Artists Unite platform came into being. But if you ask me, at this point of time, everyone shares that duty equally, beyond the image-maker. What is important is that you’re willing to stand up against the onslaught.