It was exactly a year back, we spoke to Shyam Benegal on Mandi on its 30th anniversary. This time, a conversation with the protagonist of the film, Shabana Azmi, who was participating at the Kolkata Literary Meet. From Mandi to sex work to camera angles and a lot more. By Sayan Bhattacharya.
When you look back at Mandi today, what comes to your mind?
Absolute, pure, unadulterated joy because if you look at Mandi you will realize that it really had the best talent available at that time of parallel cinema, so even if there was somebody who was just speaking one line, that person was an actor. Whether from the Film Institute or from the National School of Drama, they were professionally trained actors. Acting is about reacting, so when you are working with professionally trained actors it is just a different level at which it operates. Shyam Benegal has this special ability of drawing actors together, he chooses his cast very, very carefully, invests in his actors and then, encourages them to give the best without necessarily very close instruction. But why I have always felt comfortable working with Shyam is because he has been in very many ways been my guru. You know, he was the first person I travelled abroad with, the first person I went to film festivals with, he’s the one that I got to learn from, you know as a young person when you go abroad you are only interested in shopping and looking at all the things you have not seen and instead here I was with Mr.Benegal, who would sit in the car and start asking questions about the city’s history, about its public spaces, so for a very young person that I was, at that time, it formed my ideas of how one looks at a new city, not only at its shopping malls. Then that has been a lasting influence on me.
Now with Shyam because I’ve had such a close relationship, I will take many more risks than I would, as an actor because I know that he will stop me from making a fool of myself. So I will take risks because I have confidence that he will stop me from making a fool of myself. And that makes it easier, when playing a character like Rukmini Devi of Mandi because she was an over the top character; she indulgences in hyperbole, she’s overdramatic, she’s a fibber and she does all of that, so there is a chance that it could be completely over the top and we had to make sure that we make her real. In the process what happened is that I went to three different kinds of brothels; one, I visited in Peelahouse in Bombay accompanied by Farooq Sheikh. And there I found that the girls were really dressed like wannabe film stars; they were wearing their hair, their make up, their clothes in a way which was like the movie stars of that time, and they were really young. Then I went to G.B. Road in Delhi accompanied by Ruksana Sultana, she was the mother of Amrita Singh, she was friends with the women there and there was a completely different kind of air, there was an old world charm about it; the tawaif tradition which was completely different from the Bombay place. After that with Shyam Benegal, I went to Harimandi in Hyderabad. And there it was a squalid little place. There was a girl of very short height, very fair, with no make up on her face, dressed in a plain green nylon sari with slightly golden-ish hair and if you looked at her you would never believe that this was the profession she’s involved in. There was a character sitting quietly in one place, and Naseerudin Shah’s character, Tungru, was actually based on that person. Shyam observed him carefully and put him into the film. Now that girl wouldn’t even meet my eye and she would speak with her eyes lowered. Then, suddenly she broke into a dance ofa film song of mine, Puja karungi teri from the film Fakira which is an almost devotional song to the husband. And she did such obscene movements to that song, that the whole concept of puja completely changed, and I was absolutely shocked at the change that took place, and then it was an act because after it finished, she went back to being the demure person that she was and then I started talking to her and asked why do you do this, and she took me at the back where her family stays and it was like a Hindi film story where she was looking after her entire family; her father had disappeared and her mother was looking after 8 children and that’s why she had taken to the profession. And so, my character finally, was based on these observations of three completely different kinds of brothels that I visited and that enriched my understanding of that character.
So then I came up with the idea of putting on weight and Shyam said if you can do it then it would be great and then I put on 12 kilos and then at one point during the shooting Shyam got so worried, he said that you better stop eating now because then you’ll tell me I’ve ruined your career and you’ll get only Nirupa Roy’s roles after this but for me it was such a pleasure because I was always working in films where I had to be perpetually on a diet and this time I officially had a reason for eating two breakfasts and three dinners
And you also had to put on weight for this film…
You know why I decided to put on weight was because I was very concerned that I was too young to play the madam of the brothel, that you needed to be an older person. Then I didn’t want to wear make up because our make up hadn’t developed so much at that time so I said that as a young person trying to look older, you will be able to tell that it’s artificial and I didn’t want that. So then I came up with the idea of putting on weight and Shyam said if you can do it then it would be great and then I put on 12 kilos and then at one point during the shooting Shyam got so worried, he said that you better stop eating now because then you’ll tell me I’ve ruined your career and you’ll get only Nirupa Roy’s roles after this but for me it was such a pleasure because I was always working in films where I had to be perpetually on a diet and this time I officially had a reason for eating two breakfasts and three dinners and all kinds of things and it was absolutely glorious (laughs). It was glorious because we used to travel two hours to the place where we were shooting and in the beginning, Shyam, had given a car each to Smita and me and rest of them would all have to go by bus and then two days later we gave up our cars and we went with the crew because they used to sing songs and we used to do antakshari and we used to do all kinds of things; so it was so joyous, it was so joyous being on that set. There were days when, literally, there was nothing for the actors to do but Shyam was careful to see that there was carom, there was badminton, there was tennis, and there were things that actors could do to play themselves.
And now I’ll tell you something about Shyam, in fact, his was the only production house at that time that used to bother about this, when Shyam used to go anywhere to shoot, the first thing that he would do is build toilets. And I cannot tell you what a difference it made because at that time there was no concept of a vanity vans and so you really had to go behind a tree with a hairdresser holding a dupatta and saying, “Yahaan mat dekho!” and stuff like that, it was a very stupid thing that used to happen you know, but that’s what he used to do, he was very careful about that and very careful about ensuring that the food on the location is very good, so in every which way it’s a happy experience being on that set and then of course, the character herself had so much complexity that in spite of all her dramebaazi at the end, you would really feel for her.
Also, Mandi is a dark comedy, I think it also celebrates female agency, and it looks at prostitution as sex work. At the Kolkata Literary Meet session which you attended, the whole debate on whether prostitution should be termed sex work came up. There is such a lot of talk about abolishing prostitution. Do you agree?
Agree with what?
Sex work v/s prostitution…female agency
Why shouldn’t we aspire to our ideals? No, but if you don’t have the ideals, what do you work towards? So every decade or so, there is a new understanding like it was explained so clearly by Gloria Steinem and Ruchira Gupta that there was this belief that you should term it sex work and give it dignity and then they realize in fact, that led, particularly in the US, that led to a lot of rights being denied to them because this was considered not exploitation but something that was done out of choice and Ruchira actually worked with them and they said that this is something we are doing out of no choice, that we want options available. So it’s a question of decriminalising and delegitimizing, so there has been a turn around in the way that this is looked upon and I think what is very interesting in that Gloria said in that session is that you basically have to talk to the people themselves because they know the answers and she talked about this case in Africa where she went and realized that they were taking to prostitution because they couldn’t harvest their fields as the elephants were coming and eating it all up, so what happened was that said that they need electrified fences of around 3 and a half thousand dollars and she said that if she hadn’t spoken to them, then she would have never known that this is what would have been a solution. So, for women actually have agency, we need to talk to them, and find out from themselves and also make them aware of their ability to make a difference.
And now I’ll tell you something about Shyam, in fact, his was the only production house at that time that used to bother about this, when Shyam used to go anywhere to shoot, the first thing that he would do is build toilets. And I cannot tell you what a difference it made because at that time there was no concept of a vanity vans and so you really had to go behind a tree with a hairdresser holding a dupatta and saying, “Yahaan mat dekho!” and stuff like that, it was a very stupid thing that used to happen you know, but that’s what he used to do, he was very careful about that and very careful about ensuring that the food on the location is very good
When she was taking about this African experience, I was reminded of this pan Indiasurvey which which Nivedita Menon mentions in a book… the survey finds that a lot of domestic workers, because of inadequate income, they supplement their income with sex work, so that also brings up the question of fair wages for work and questions of agency…
When you are speaking to them, there is nobody there who says I am here because this is what I want to do. But there have also been instances where I have stopped and talked to streetwalkers. I was doing a film called Doosri Dulhan, at the time, and I got a group of streetwalkers to come and meet me. They said, that they leave from home, some of them had handicapped husbands, some of them had husbands or mothers who didn’t know, and everybody knows what the woman is actually doing, but there is a pretention that she is going for work. She would come in a nylon sari, with a mangalsutra, with no make up on her face and then she said, that once I’ve lost my shame, what choice do I have? What do you want me to do? Do you want me to give this up and start washing vessels in people’s homes for one hundredth of what I earn here? So it is a complicated question and I’m not sure that I know enough about this to actually have clear answers.
Coming back to Shyam Benegal, he was clearly a feminist filmmaker and to this day there have been very few filmmakers whose entire body of work has produced such complex portrayal of women. Why do you think that has been the case?
Firstly, the yin and the yang have been perfectly balanced in Shyam, and I think for a filmmaker it is very important. Whether you are a male film director or a female director, it is very important that you have a balance of the yin and the yang because a completely male film is a different kettle of fish and I think for art and for film to have a certain amount of mulaymiyat, which comes from the feminine side of you is very important. Shyam is a deeply knowledgeable person, he is a very sensitive person, he has all the right values; which is why he is heralded as a trailblazer and even young independent filmmakers doff their hats to Shyam Benegal. If you look at Anurag Kashyap, he really salutes people like ShyamBenegal, who paved the way for more complex understanding, particularly of female characters. There was a definite difference between what was happening in mainstream cinema and what was happening in parallel cinema. In mainstream cinema, all the details are whitewashed; to make it not appear like a story based in a particular region. In the belief that because you have to cater to the lowest common denominator, you would then, if this is clearly identifiable as a family from Gujarat, then maybe Tamil Nadu will not be interested in it, maybe Punjab will not be interested in it. So Hindi mainstream cinema created a kind of alternative reality which was a kind of a Hindi film reality in which everything was larger than life and details were whitewashed. So the girl, the heroine, in the film was a Miss Nita, and the male was Mr.Vijay. They didn’t have any surname; they did not want to be located in a particular place. Parallel cinema did the opposite. It located its stories in many real places and histories and so brought out a completely different kind of complexity necessarily because of where it was locating itself and this is why there was a difference between these two.
Item numbers in Bollywood have become the favourite flogging horse since the Delhi rape incident, last year at Jaipur Literature Festival you made some very nuanced comments about voyeuristic camera angles. Now, all that agreed, but do you also agree with the fact that it is easier to point at item numbers than to talk about ingrained sexism within films. For instance, I was watching a trailer of this new film, where the lead actor, Varun Dhawan is telling Ileana de Cruz that, “I’ll Facebook you, I’ll Skype you, I’ll tweet you, and if nothing works, then I’ll poke you.” So, these dialogues, the way female characters are portrayed… it’s something fundamental and the very structures…
It is very embedded; I mean, how can you have a title of the film called, Hasee Toh Phasee. What is the meaning of that? And that’s what is being celebrated and nobody is even raising questions about it, I mean kya matlab hai, hasee toh phasee, what do you mean by that? And people, there’s no awareness about this at all, of course this inherent sexism and also in the way stalking is permitted in films.
In a film like Raanjhanaa for instance…
It is actually the story of a stalker. All this under terms like eve teasing is okay. You should abolish the term eve teasing because there is nothing innocent about eve teasing. It is pure and simple stalking and also, the strain has been that when the woman says no, it means yes. What is Raanjhanaa? Iska matlab kya hai? Of course, item songs become the flogging horse as you say, but the thing is, it is extremely important to sensitize the actors who are actually singing these songs, to make them understand, what the words are actually saying. And what is important is that a lot of the actors themselves are being made to believe that it’s a celebration of their sexuality. Now I think that’s wonderful, if you celebrate your sensuality, if a woman celebrates her sexuality, that’s fine, but that’s not what the item song is doing because of the way the camera moves. The business of film is the business of images and when you look at voyeuristic camera angles, and you look at fragmented images that a woman’s heaving bosom, her swinging hip, her gyrating navel, you are robbing the woman of all autonomy and making her surrender to the male gaze which is not the same thing as celebrating sensuality. Even a film that I did called Godmother, there is a song, “Raja ki kahani purani ho gayi” where the women are really celebrating, drinking and having fun and not doing it for the pleasure of men, they are doing it for themselves. Completely different from how item songs are done so, I mean how can I but not object to main tandoori murg hoon, gatkale alcohol ke saath. How can you sing a song like that? How can you sing words like that? How can we not be responsible as citizens? Like I am saying, you have to take a nuanced position on it because you can’t then make it the subject for the moral brigade to come over and say that this is allowed and this is not allowed. You see that is why you need more discussion and you need for practitioners to actually understand that the images speak a certain way as well. I give the example of Zoya Akhtar in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, this is Katrina Kaif, coming out of the water, she is in a bikini and the camera does not linger over her body but catches her in mid shot and so transforms it from being what it could have easily have been a sexually objectified, commodified thing into a woman who is doing her work because she is a diver. So it’s in your intention and if you’re not aware of your intention you better become aware.
So have you had conversations with any of the filmmakers, actors?
We’ve had conversations and there have been very strong opposite views that this is all nonsense to blame the film industry for it and of course one is not blaming the film industry for all the woes, but there has to be some responsibility that is to be taken and because we don’t want the moral brigade to take over, it is important that the change comes from within ourselves. We can’t sit in moral authority and judgment and say, you better do this. It should arrive from within the industry after a discussion takes place where people are allowed to say that we want to do this or they are free to say that they don’t want to do it. At least let it come from an informed choice. I am only in favour of informed choice so even if a heroine says, why can’t I take off my clothes, John Abraham takes off his clothes, he’s being objectified, he’s being commodified, then I say why should you look at that and aspire to be commodi f ied like that? So understand the difference between celebrating sensuality and being commodified, so all I’m saying is make an informed choice.
Now that girl wouldn’t even meet my eye and she would speak with her eyes lowered. Then, suddenly she broke into a dance ofa film song of mine, Puja karungi teri from the film Fakira which is an almost devotional song to the husband. And she did such obscene movements to that song, that the whole concept of puja completely changed, and I was absolutely shocked at the change that took place, and then it was an act because after it finished, she went back to being the demure person that she was
Fair and handsome cannot be the answer for Fair and Lovely.
Also not much is spoken about the position of female technicians like cinematographers, editors…
Because they are very few in number. In the technician category, there are very few. But there are quite a few ADs. The fact is that people prefer having female ADs because they are much more efficient and more committed so if you look at the television industry and if you look at the film industry, it’s just peopled with young women and girls.
How does the power dynamics play out there?
You see, forget about the power dynamics. The power dynamics is now in fact in the film industry quite wonderful because of the efficiency of these girls. They are really being looked at, particularly the ADs, with a lot of respect. What surprises me is in television, there are so many women writers, why isn’t that reflecting, leading to pushing women out of stereotypes. I have had conversations with women who are writing in television and they are saying that this is a fixed notion of mine and in fact it is changing. But what they are doing is in order to be accepted is that they are disguising change under what seems like a familiar scenario which production houses will put money into and within that, they are bringing about subtle changes and I don’t watch television enough to know whether that is true, but they are subverting the system, that is what the women writers are saying.
You had a brief stint there, you worked on a serial called Anupama, where you played this very strong, independent…
You see it was very interesting because Anupama I thought was exactly this, it was what looked like a traditional housewife in a traditional family and yet the issues she took up were very important issues, and she did it in what is not a rabid way but she did it within that system negotiating more space for herself. But I don’t know whether the serial didn’t work because it didn’t strike a chord in people or whether it was badly marketed because I was very surprised that it didn’t do well.
The business of film is the business of images and when you look at voyeuristic camera angles, and you look at fragmented images that a woman’s heaving bosom, her swinging hip, her gyrating navel, you are robbing the woman of all autonomy and making her surrender to the male gaze which is not the same thing as celebrating sensuality. Even a film that I did called Godmother, there is a song, “Raja ki kahani purani ho gayi” where the women are really celebrating, drinking and having fun and not doing it for the pleasure of men, they are doing it for themselves. Completely different from how item songs are done so, I mean how can I but not object to main tandoori murg hoon, gatkale alcohol ke saath.
Since you mention Godmother and sexuality, I think post the Supreme Court judgment on Section 377, could you revisit Fire? Was it a difficult choice for you?
Yes. See, I didn’t make an immediate choice. I took about a whole month to think about it and ultimately I did do the film because I believe that when you talk about the rights of minorities, it must mean all minorities. I felt that if you could empathize with these two women, then you could explain that empathy to the ‘other’, the ‘other’ religion, the ‘other’ caste, the ‘other’ gender, the ‘other’ race, the ‘other’ nation and that is what was required and I was absolutely convinced that Deepa would do it with sensitivity. Now, the thing is, I also figured that all of India’s audiences are not a monolith, that people would react in different ways and that’s what happened. Some people were deeply moved, some were very liberated, some were very angry, some were outraged, some were confused but people started asking questions. And I think that’s the maximum that a work of art can do. What it can do is sensitize you to create a climate of sensitivity in which it is possible for change to occur. Questioning is the first step towards owning up to an issue rather than pushing it under the carpet and pretending it doesn’t exist. So there have been criticisms of the film, there have been lesbians who have said that Fire seems to suggest that it’s because they are unhappy with their domestic situation they get drawn to each other. But the fact is that women can get drawn to women, as something that happens to them naturally and of course that is also a view. But that fact is that Fire opened up the space to talk healthily about an issue that we didn’t encourage earlier. Through all the choices you have made, you keep talking of social responsibility. How do you react to reports of actors performing in Uttar Pradesh against the backdrop of hungry helpless,people left in shelters after riots…
The thing is that I don’t know why actors are constantly pulled up but I think all of us need to be socially responsible. All human beings need to be socially responsible.
But actors are popular and visible… Yes. So you are going to be under scrutiny, when you are under scrutiny, then you better think about these things and if you’re not going to think about them, you will be forced to think.