The creation of anything spectacular often benefits from its humble beginnings. Be it a revolution, or a work of art. In the current times of treacherous political climate, artistic expression is a far cry, when everyday lives of individuals are stifled and silenced. How then can criticism about democracy be made commonplace, without any threat to one’s life, more so without playing to the gallery and engaging in futile propagandist overtures to regressive governance?
Enter Khushboo Ranka; writer, director and filmmaker from more than 2 years of hibernation well spent making the most awaited political documentary of the country, ‘An Insignificant Man.’ (Co-directed with Vinay Shukla)
I had the privilege of speaking with Khushboo for a little longer than an hour discussing her childhood, venturing into films, and now being the fierce voice of political filmmaking. It was a wonderful feeling listening to Khushboo elucidate her powerful thoughts about all things patriarchy, privilege and the politics of gender. Here are the excerpts from our conversation.
“I was born and brought up in Bombay, and I come from a very conservative, business family. My parents or my extended family have nothing to do with films, or politics for that matter,” was the premise that was laid out right at the beginning of our conversation.
A St. Xavier’s student who dropped out of her undergraduate degree because she got completely engrossed by the film that she made during that time. ‘Continuum,’ a 40-minute featurette in four parts was made in 2006. After a bunch of writing jobs here and there, she opted to pursue filmmaking in London, which again she had to drop out from owing to the fees being simply unaffordable. It is after this that she started working on the script of ‘Ship Of Theseus.’
When I asked her about what drew her to filmmaking, and her experience so far, Khushboo did not shy away from expressing the fear and self-doubts that struck her, just like it would strike any beginner.
“It was very difficult for me to come to terms with a lot of things which I have now retrospectively understood. Which is why it was after many years that I made my second film. Though I enjoyed writing the first one, its production was quite traumatizing. As a young woman, you are not aware of what sexism is or how the world operates on certain principles of prejudice, so you start questioning and villainizing yourself, it is very easy to get into that trap, initially. So, it took me many years before I completely got out of it, made friendships out of the circle, learn and understand things, and then come back into filmmaking with a new outlook. Not that everything suddenly got any easier, but I felt equipped to understand things.”
Often filmmakers find themselves to be telling stories that affect them in a certain way- some choose humour, some drama and some prefer showing a reflection of the society as it is. I probed Khushboo about the kind of stories that she has tried to bring to life through her films, “I am very interested in examining ideas that I find interesting at that point in time. In my cinematic growth, with respect to Continuum, it was just my adolescent fervour to pack in as much as possible into one film. It is largely defined by my fascination to tell a story, but on ‘Ship of Theseus, the idea had moved from telling stories that were reflective, existential and ‘human’ in nature,” she said.
While the technology of VR is catching up all over the world, one would think that India has not caught up to it much. Maybe because we do not see anything ‘mainstream’ in VR yet. Khushboo made a documentary titled ‘Right To Pray’ in 2016 produced by the Memesys Culture Lab. “This was the time when VR had not penetrated India much, and while I was urging filmmakers to make VR films, I would not have anything to show them in the form of a film itself. So I decided on a hunch to make a VR film about this particular incident where a group of activists was fighting for their right to access in temples and the sanctum sanctorum. Incidentally, this is the first VR film ever to be made in India which also made it to the Toronto International Film Festival.”
For the uninitiated, VR (Virtual Reality) films are extremely difficult to get right, mostly owing to the complexities of where to place the camera and the complete lack of control over where the audience would look. “There is no grammar associated with making a film in the VR canvas unlike your regular films, so we had to think a lot on our feet, and pre-imagine a lot on the editing process etc.” We then moved to discuss the challenges of having to constantly learn on the go and the grueling process of editing a film of this nature. One heartening thing I learnt was that ElseVR (part of Memesys Culture Lab), the mixed reality channel that creates commissions narrative nonfiction and journalism in VR format has had many women filmmakers to make films in the VR front.
It made me wonder about the stereotype of women being terrible with technology, and how ironic it is to learn that some of the most pioneering use of new technology has been employed by women. But then again, is it everyone’s cup of tea? Can you just go forth and make a VR film, is it that simple? “If you want to tell a story, unless you really need a medium like VR, or that if you cannot tell a story without it, don’t pursue it. The challenges extend even beyond accessibility to headsets, it extends to orienting yourself to this kind of form where you are going to choose where you are going to look. It is spectacular in the beginning, but your interest must go beyond the spectacular value of it,” she said.
Talking about opportunities that women filmmakers abroad enjoy when compared to a regressive, developing country like India that oozes patriarchy in abundance, Khushboo brought up a pertinent argument – “I think it is a tough situation for women all over the world. Everybody finds it hard to break through the male bastion of filmmakers. It is not just sexual harassment and abuse alone, maybe some of us are lucky enough to have never experienced any of that, but casual sexism is something that you simply cannot escape from. Sometimes it is even more problematic because it is not seen as a crisis at all. It is not just a challenge of getting resources and manpower at your disposal, but it is about getting intellectual companionship and a congenial peer atmosphere. This is applicable not just to men but for women too. So I make an effort to identify these challenges and address them. In AIM, more than 50% of the crew was female – and I think only by this approach can the boundaries be broken.”
Why Arvind Kejriwal – I asked her, and how she maintained objectivity throughout by indeed showing him as an insignificant man?
“Why not Arvind Kejriwal, why not anyone, or why anyone at all? I think as long as a film has the potential to confront interesting questions and confront existing conflicts, those films must be made. What was interesting for me as a filmmaker was to follow a character that is not perfect, and he (Arvind) certainly is not. And I think you can make objectivity really easy and innate as long as you know that complexity is what enriches a narrative, and it genuinely enables good storytelling. So you seek out for those complexities, especially in a political story. That can only be achieved if we are as objective and as nonpartisan as possible.”
Co-direction isn’t easy – especially for projects that last as long as AIM – it definitely has taken them quite a bit of hard work to find a middle ground on individual creative discretions. Co-direction also comes with a lot of benefits, provided its roots are based on mutual respect. “It is very challenging because you are often at creative loggerheads. But I think I have learnt to articulate my concerns in a way that it is professional. I think this is very important for your growth as a filmmaker too, to be able to genuinely isolate the power games and the earnest need to tell a good story. Co-direction has made me learn that, and also to make a convincing/compelling argument as to why a certain decision should be validated,” she asserted.
While it is one thing to become invisible and stay inconspicuous throughout the whole filming, I did wonder how it must have been for them, especially while witnessing something that was a little delicate in nature. The sudden death of Santosh Koli incidentally happened during the time. In filmmaking, more so in documentaries, there is a striking pang of cognitive dissonance while capturing events, situations that might test the worth of one’s humanity. In a crisis situation, is it important to document it, or prevent it from happening? “Oh, you genuinely feel like predators, preying on someone else’s pain and tragedy. Sometimes it feels terrible but one has to grit their teeth and carry on. Which is probably why I have soon realised I do not want to make a documentary film ever again. You have such lofty opinions of yourself as a filmmaker and at such testing times, all those things just shatter and you find yourself to be this selfish and greedy kind of a filmmaker sometimes.”
About making films that are political in nature, do you consider this to be a genre (because one tends to get branded) or an extension of your affiliation towards the politics of our country? Can one just snap out and make a film about something rather ‘trendy’? Is a filmmaker tied to the genre they make most of their films about, is a question I often wonder about, and Khushboo broke it down quite eloquently. “Some people are tied to the genre, I am not. In India, it is a big challenge to make political films because people attribute an agenda to you. That was the greatest fear we had while making the film. We did not so much as worry about whether we are saying something anti-establishment, as much as we wanted to just make a film about a political party in an empathetic way. The only way to counter this is by making more films like this, like in the US where there is a tradition of making observational political films that follow leaders very closely, be it Kennedy or Clinton, without any prejudice or fear of backlash. And once enough filmmakers pursue it, the statement will become moot. The skepticism is definitely integral when it comes to making political films, but it must not overwhelm us into not making them at all.”
As we wound up our conversation talking about the current political scene in the country that is systematically booting caste and gender from its agenda, we took a moment to wonder where that leaves us, both as an entity of the system, as well as an artist with the power to question the atrocities of a fascist regime. While we both agreed how representation is the answer to almost everything, at least as the first step, there is so much work left to be done even by those who are privileged.
“What is also important is to not just stop with showing characters that are underrepresented, but also facilitate underrepresented artists from the marginalised communities. When we don’t tell stories of our lives, it ends up becoming very cringeworthy. For example, if a man makes a film about a rape victim, it gets turned into emotional pornography. You portray a victim in such a way as though they have no other identifier associated with them other than having been raped. In the west, marginalised communities are coming together and telling stories of tragedy, but also with a lot of humour. Humour is empowering and if you are able to make fun of your oppressor you topple the very thing they claim as the power they have over you – we must embrace that kind of humour. And nobody can tell the stories better than the person who has lived those experiences themselves.”
Now you can watch the film on youtube for free: