What made you choose the text Mandi… the short story?
There was a very well-known short story writer from the pre independent times- Ghulam Abbas. After partition , he moved to Karachi and he had written a short story called Anandi. It is a very interesting story because it deals with how this so called moral brigade tends to deal with women. In this case there is this bordello in the heart of town, as you always have in the tradtional Indian towns, like Sonagachi, you have different places like Daal ki Mandi in Benaras and so on. So he had taken a situation where you have the city elders, (which means the municipality) who decide to get rid of their brothels and exile these people because they are bad for social morality. So they get rid of them, and the women are left in the wilderness but soon their business picks up and a whole city develops around them; this is the story in very simple terms.
Now there is an interesting back story to this, I don’t know how far it is true, but it was said that Ghulam Abbas had taken the idea of the story from Allahabad, which was his native town; and he wrote this because in 1928, Jawaharlal Nehru became the Mayor of Allahabad and his municipality councillors came upto to him and said “Sir, the house in which you were born is now a house of ill repute and you should get rid of this house, because you cannot be associated with any such thing.” Ofcourse Nehru laughed it off and did nothing about it, but it became the germ for this particular story. Nehru thought it was completely absurd, nonsense you know, clearly it didn’t make any difference to him and he didn’t believe in such sort of a thing because he was a liberal and a different sort of person. So Ghulam Abbas wrote this story and I was very interested in doing this as a film and I got an opportunity after I made two films for Shashi Kapoor- Junoon andKalyug, and soon after that I made a film in Bengal called Aarohan. After Aarohan, I got the opportunity to make this film and to me it was two things that made me do this film. One, because I just love this story as it’s an unapologetic story, you know as far as the women are concerned. They don’t need to apologize for what they are, clearly they are there because the men want it, otherwise they wouldn’t have been there, they’d be doing other things. So they have a legitimate business with a legitimate way of making a living, so there is essentially a feminist position. So I decided that I would make this film and I made it. For me it was a great experience because it was an ensemble film and I hadn’t made any ensemble films before and here I had all the bunch of actors who used to work with me at that time, who today are stars of one kind or another. It was a little ahead of its time when it released because the feminist ideas in India—I’m not talking about the American feminist ideas, for we have our own brand of feminism—was slowly taking shape, and the film came before that but later it developed a great cult around it, particularly when it went on to the video and dvd circuit and of course it keeps coming back on television quite frequently. So basically that was what it was.
Even in terms of sensibilities, it seems ahead of its times even now…
Well the fact is, it tells you how difficult it is to change a patriarchal mindset. Clearly if you look at the contemperory events that are taking place, and you have various political figures and you have so called Sants and Mahatmas coming out and making the most outrageous statements. So it tells you basically how difficult it is to get rid of this. First of all we are a heirarchical society and the Constitution allows everyone equality, but we are yet to achieve that. How difficult it is to achieve that (equality) can be seen with how we treat women, of what we think of women. I was quite fascinated by that little piece that Sudhir Kakkadr wrote and he quoted Gyani Zail Singh, who was our President at one time and he said about women Bhook ki cheez hai – a thing to relish, so the way, you know, women are objectified, you can never see them as your equal. In the history of mankind, patriarchy has been the longest with us, certainly all the religious texts have patriarchy; whether it is Hinduism or Christianity or Islam. The manner in which we relate to women, obviously the idea of equality is a very modern idea. It’s not an idea that’s been floating around for a long time.
In terms of timing, the film released in 1983 and it’s only after a few years we see that the gates of Ayodhya are being opened… then the Shah Bano case. In the film, we see an incestuous relationship between religion, politics and how the woman has to negotiate her way through these…
Because she’s also very political; she knows how to play politics, she has to. She’s clever enough to deal with the political side of it,she has to find her own way through these social barriers, because these social barriers themselves are so wonky. So clearly Shabana (Azmi), the lady who runs the brothel, has to be clever, she cannot be innocent because if she were innocent, you would simply feel pity for her. But there’s not pity, why should there be pity? She is her own person and she has capabilities which she proves.
I was watching a film with a friend, House of Tolerance by Bertrand Bonello, it’s a French film, set in the turn of the 20th century France, again a bordello and these set of characters- how they are negotiating their way through and their drudgery. It had a very claustrophobic setting in terms of the atmosphere. So my friend was wondering why can’t we have a very happy whore house film? And then we struck upon Mandi…
Because there is already a moral position. It’s already a very patriarchal position. You see women essentially as victims, but neither did Ghulam Abbas nor did I see them actually as victims, because they have to rise above their victimhood, if they don’t rise, they will perpetuate the system.
What is your take on that particular part of the film where Om Puri is shooting pornographic images?
It’s part of the business. See, they are catering to a whole group of men within a patriarchal society, so naturally they have to get the best deal for themselves.
So in that case, Neena Gupta’s character initially objects to him shooting her photographs and later on when he sort of proffesses his love for her, she relents. So is she too trying to get the best deal for herself?
Not necessarily, love also enters.The fact is that love is a situation between equals, otherwise it’s not love.
In terms of research, what preparations did Shabana Azmi need to play the madam?
Shabana and I went to many bordellos to meet the madams, in Hyderabad particularly. We spent evenings, listening to performances, all that sort of thing. So she picked up a great deal of her ideas on how to play the part from that.
In terms of the relationship that she plays with Zeenat- the character played by Smita Patil, it seemed very ambiguous. Some critics say that it had at a lesbian connote…
You can read a certain amount of lesbianism into it or it could be a kind of mother-daughter protectiveness, she’s very protective of her. There are two aspects to it; she’s very protective and you could read lesbian ideas between the two; it’s upto you. It doesn’t worry me to imagine that there could be a lesbian relationship, but there’s certainly a great deal of protectiveness that she has.
There is an abolitionist discourse that sex work should be completely banned. Unless it is banned, trafficking cannot be checked. Around the Delhi incident, this is being discussed again… commodification of women. Whereas your film takes no such stand; sex work is like any other work…
The discourse is hypocritical because who causes it to happen? Who keeps it going? It’s only men. There is a certain kind of gaze that makes it that way, otherwise why should there be prostitution in the first place if there is no demand for it? There’s an unnatural relationship we have, like all patriarchal systems have a top down situation between men and women,where women are always seen as objects. The day that changes, it will no longer remain so. But then we’re asking for the moon and everybody thinks of quick fix situations, quick fixes don’t work, particularly in relationships of this kind.
Do you remember any interesting anecdotes on the sets of Mandi since you dealt with so many actors – there’s Pankaj Kapoor, there’s Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Neena Gupta, Soni Razdan, Ila Arun and this goes on…
Oh any number… when we were shooting the situation with the monkeys… The monkeys belonged to a madari, you know the one who trains them and earns a living. The mother monkey got very worried for her child as she was tied to a very heavy weight. So she charged all over the place. Shabana was caught into the act, you know it was one of those very extraordinary situations and then finally of course that madari came and he took charge but I still had one shot to do. In that shot, Naseer (Naseruddin Shah) had to take the monkey out from Zeenat’s room, carrying it on his shoulder, which he was willing to do. The mother monkey had still not lost anger, because she couldn’t see her child in difficulty and so while Naseer kept holding her on his shoulder, she kept biting his head. Once we shot, we had to get him to take Tetanus shots. (laughs)
So Shabana Azmi’s interaction with the monkey wasn’t a choreographed shot, it was actually happening in front of the camera?
It was meant to be choreographed but it didn’t really happen because the monkey was actually angry! (laughs)
Coming to Bhumika, Hansa Wadkar’s life and again a film which came sometime before the feminist discourse started developing…
You see Hansa Wadkar had written her autobiography which was being serialised in a Marathi magazine and finally it turned into a book, Sangte Aaikaa. Once the book was published, one of my senior partners said “you should read this” and I was like “I don’t read Marathi” , so he read it out to me and I was most impressed by her frankness because she had to make her way from very difficult circumstances. What I liked about her, again, was that she had risen above the victimhood, she was not going to behave like a victim and she was not going to behave like a long suffering soul. She wasn’t going to suffer, she was going to make her own way and that interested me a great deal and I felt that Smita (Patil) was going to be a perfect casting for that film, so that’s what I did. It was about learning to articulate feminism, wanting equality, learning to function independently, not always as somebody’s dependent because women have always been defined as dependents – classical definition, mother, daughter, wife, you don’t have any other definition. Man is never defined like that. Man by what he does, you know, what he’s achieved, but women are never defined like this, and she’s breaking out of that. And her breaking out of it also tells us something, that in the present state of affairs, her choice of independence makes her lonely. She has to learn to live alone. At the end of the story, that’s what happens, she won’t even want to live with her daughter, she has to live alone. However sad or terrifying it may be, that is the price of independence. It won’t come to you for free, there’s a cost involved because of the unequal society in which you live.
Throughout the film, we hear the radio… Nehru’s position on Kashmir and so on. Besides setting the timeframe of the film, is there a broader connote?
You see in a large world, there’s a large environment, there’s a smaller environment, there’s an even smaller environment and I am using all those environments on the soundtrack to create the world in that time because at one time you hear on the radio of Stalin’s death in 1953 and the different historical ocurrences you get, sets a certain kind of time. You know when you are living in a city like Bombay, what is happening in the political life… Then cinema, what’s happening in cinema, and then the different kinds of films that are being made, you know many different kinds of layers.You can look at from any point of view. One point of view which was very important to me was the way films used to be made. From black and white to early colour to later colour, because she’s part of that and her world is that. That’s an immediate world for her and her own relationships with her husband, her lover, the director, various people who look at her like an object. But she’s also very canny, she buys this great grand story about how in Bastar, the tribal people think the highest point at which to die is a sexual climax. So she enters into a pact of joint suicide with her. He’s doing this as a game, she’s doing this as a game too. They are playing a game of their relationship.There’s nothing wrong in that.
What kind of reactions did you receive after Bhumika was released?
Well, first time when it was released, it collapsed after the first two days. But in those days, you could release a film the second time and the third time. When it was released the third time in Bombay and released the second time in Ahmedabad, then the film came out tops. The film was originally released in 1977, when it was released again in 1978, it ran for a very long time and it did very well. So the film not only covered its cost but also became a subject of much discussion. It was an opportunity, you will not get with the films of today because the business has changed to such an extent that if your film has to do well, it means you have to do the first 3 days brilliantly. If it doesn’t, you’re done and even the theatre will not extend your booking.
There were cinemas that shared space with their screen times because in 1972/73 the Government of India, in order to save foreign exchange, reduced the number of imports of American films, which meant that there was a lot of playing time available in those theatres that used to exclusively show films from abroad. That audience was the kind that woud not normally go to see the standard Hindi movie or the standard local movie, which means anything outside of that, would get screen time because this audience would support that. So I came at that time which helped me a great deal because I had this audience in urban India and ofcourse the rural audience, of which I had not the foggiest idea. It’s only later that I discovered that my films like Nishant, Manthan and Ankush started to do well even in the tent cinema circuit.
Do you think that sort of space has completely shrunk today?
What has happened is today you have the corporates, you have the cinemas, they, in many ways, function as a cartel and when you have a cartel like situation, you have a problem, there’s no way you can deal with the situation like we used to. There are very few individual cinemas and when you make films, you need a support of one or another corporate entity or those who are near corporate entitites to put your film on show, otherwise people won’t even know that you have made a film. Today you have to spend a lot of money to promote your film and not just money, you have to get your actors to promote the film and everybody else, so it costs a lot of money to do that. You have to go from city to city, use a lot of television time, go to print media space to promote your film.
Coming back to Bhumika… In Bollywood, inspite of a lot of changes, women are largely either deified or commodified…
That’s part of the patriarchal system. If you want to be popular, you have to go with attitudes that are most commonly acceptable in the major society. So cinema, what it shows, essentially mirrors the society, the mainstream of society. So if you have a film like Dabbang 1 or 2, that has done extremely well , so what are they showing? The attitudes, the politics… Society’s acceptance is greater because you are going along a status quo and therefore people don’t wish to go beyond that.
We always loved to show women in light of sympathy. Sympathy is always associated with victimization. So by defining a woman as a victim and to bring in the sympathy factor, you are automatically changing the relationship. So, man becomes the protector, so this is the benign relationship, but in a malignant relationship, he’s a rapist and in both cases he is superior.
But the mass media also has a role…
Mass media always has a role in retaining the status quo. That’s its job! How else can you think, social unrest can be held in check? Otherwise you see in an unequal society like ours, there are many many points of unhappiness, societal unhappiness. Now obviously, there is a tempering factor, going with the tide. Look at the political parties. Who wants trouble, problem on their hands?
Recently, this Punjabi rapper Honey Singh’s performance was cancelled. Can banning be the solution to misogyny?
That’s an instant reaction. Banning can never be the solution, but a certain amount of regulation is necessary. Regulation in our case is largely necessary because as I keep repeating myself , we are an unequal society. You have to balance between the people who are powerless and between those powerful. You can’t go on supporting the powerful, you have to support the powerless also. Regulations are required for that reason.
But there is a lot of politics in the regulation as well… it opens up a pandora’s box.
That means that the regulation is not working effectively. You have to look at it as a process. You have to keep reinventing. It’s a churning. You can’t expect to have the same solution for everything.
On one hand, we regularly see skin lightening commercials and on the other hand, the Censor Board has problems with intimate sequences… so how effective is regulation?
Yes of course… there is a lot of hypocrisy. Fairness creams are freely advertised. But you also have to see, not everything is hypocritical. It is also about perceptions. If you are part of the establishment, you have a certain perception. And you have a prescriptive role, not descriptive. And a prescriptive role is about what you should be doing. Now whether it is being done in the right way or not is the subject of another debate.
Do you think if you were to make Mandi today, you would run into censorship issues?
But, today we talk of banning at the drop of a hat and here’s a film that is dark portrayal of religion and politics…
Well, you have a Gangs of Wasseypur. How was is it passed without cuts, with so many cuss words? It is not that nothing is changing. Things are changing. There are areas where there is change and where there isn’t any.
Finally, what’s your next project?
I am making a 10 part series on the making of the Indian Constitution.