Kavita Bahl, a journalist turned filmmaker has been making films since 1996. This three-time National award-winning filmmaker has been on a wonderful mission to bring forth untold stories of various communities to the world, on an investigative filmmaking style. She collaborates and co-directs her projects with Nandan Saxena, with whom she also conducts rigorous film training all over the world, under the banner of Top Quark Films. In this interview, she speaks about some of her latest films, her approach towards picking a topic and the way filmmakers must approach recognition and awards. Read on…
I love reading and I owe this to my family. I grew up with lots of books around me- what else can you expect from a family of teachers? I naturally gravitated towards both Hindi and English literature. This love-affair lasted for many years. I am a post-graduate in English Literature from Kirori Mal College, Delhi University.
College time was also a time of political awakening. The 80s was an interesting time in the history of India. The country was waking up to liberalisation and there was a lot of debate around it. I, too, was drawn into it. Finally, completed a course in journalism and joined Indian Express in 1992.
What drew you to filmmaking, why documentaries specifically? From journalism to filmmaking, was it a natural transition?
Can a fish go back – from a sea to a pond? After working in the north-east region of India, how could I report on trivial political matters in New Delhi? My two years in the north-east were life-changing years for me. I wanted to tell real stories of real people.
Journalism to documentary filmmaking was thus a natural transition. The art of telling audio-visual stories came into my life through my partner, Nandan Saxena. His being a filmmaker helped me complete my transition from telling stories with a pen to telling stories with a camera. The audio-visual medium is engaging and multi-dimensional. Often, in a village, you find people gathered around a TV set… The barrier of language almost breaks down.
The visual talks with you subliminally. It teases you to assimilate it within yourself and add a new layer of meaning to it.
Through filmmaking, you have openly addressed a lot of social issues, and lives of marginalised communities. Was there a specific defining moment in your journey that drew you into it?
In 1994-95, I reported from north-east India, for ‘Indian Express’. The experience challenged all that I had known before. I was thrown into this big cauldron of a struggle for identity and space in a democratic country which was constantly trying to yoke everyone together. That small corner of the Indian map from where very little news was reported even in mainstream media, came alive to me. I travelled extensively and tried to understand the diversity of my country. I understood that there exists a ‘point of view’ which even though it is not mine – is equally valid and should be respected.
I also understood that there are stories which need to be told- stories which are not scripted by me. Can I tell ‘their’ stories ‘with’ them… I always try to keep this spirit alive in my films.
Do you think cinema is a powerful tool for engaging in social justice activism? Have you seen tangible outcomes from the films that you have made, in terms of social change?
A moving visual is not less than hypnosis. Indians love cinema. It is absolutely crazy to see the kind of impact cinema has on people – in so many ways. For both its entertaining and cathartic value, it is a potent tool for engaging in social justice advocacy.
Our trilogy on farmers’ issues: ‘Cotton for my shroud’ (2012); ‘Candles in the wind’ (2014) and ‘I cannot give you my Forest’ (2015)- has been widely screened in India and abroad. Incidentally, all the three films have received the National Film Award. There is a constant demand for their language versions from farmers’ organisations. They are often screened at many forums.
An entire campaign was built around our film, ‘Hollow Cylinder’ by Centre for Civil Society. It is a film on the bamboo policy of India under which bamboo is wrongly classified as a ‘tree’. This has a huge impact on its cultivation and harvest of this ‘grass’. Our films are often used as teaching material, advocacy tools and research material by social scientists and scholars.
In 2014, ‘Cotton for my shroud’ was the headline film at World Investigative Film Week in London. In 2016, we (Nandan and I) were invited by the Monash University in Australia to screen our films and talk to the students at the Centre for Development Economics and Sustainability. The films acquire a life of their own. After a while, you just sit back and watch them travel.
In a world where all oppressions are interlinked, it might sometimes feel like a sticky wicket to talk about it from a privileged position – how do you navigate these personal hurdles?
When one starts on a film, one should leave a lot of baggage behind. Only then can one bond with other people and empathise with them. Films require a lot of ‘letting go,’ and I think it comes naturally to me. My ‘friends list’ (real, not virtual) has many of my films’ protagonists on it. Each film is like a fresh slate. A filmmaker has to learn to curb her/his impulse to start drawing on it. If we start scribbling immediately, we’ll end up limiting our imagination and also reducing the space for others to write on it. The answer lies in developing the art of listening. Of course, there will still be a lot of ‘me’ in my films…
How different am I from others?
I carry reflections of many experiences within me,
and they are not all mine.
I carry many voices within me…
voices I have heard during the course of my travels.
I carry stories within me…
some were told to me in whispers and some in songs.
How different am I from others?
While making films on social issues that disturb us, how do you maintain the sensitivity and objectivity intact?
For me, a film flows on its own and that is what I have to allow it to do. It is a ‘being’ which slowly comes into its own. Instead of being a gatekeeper, I have to be a facilitator. If I get involved, it happens because I am that kind of a person. A documentary is not an objective representation of things. ‘Objectivity’ and ‘sensitivity’ are within us. The moment you start treating them as ‘goals’, the film is reduced to a powerpoint presentation.
While the documentary is not a profit-making medium of arts, as a veteran filmmaker, how do you negotiate between staying relevant, and keeping a firm foot in the ground in terms of carrying on making films?
My films give me the power to dream and the courage to carry on. Doing commissioned work, teaching assignments, offering workshops- I juggle to make it work. ‘Quark Workshops’ has been invited by all major film festivals in India. But no one wants to pay. Film festivals want ‘free’ workshops, educational institutes want ‘free’ lectures, audiences want ‘free’ screenings… how does the film-maker pay her/his bills? When I look around and find many fine film-makers drifting towards teaching assignments and picking up jobs, I feel sad. Documentarians are historians of their times, but who cares?
But then I am a dreamer. Before I complete an ongoing film, my mind is egging me towards another one. There are many films on many timelines running simultaneously in my mind. I keep applying for funds in hope of a Santa Claus. Is anyone out there
What do you think about the dearth of avenues where liberal arts and feminism be a subject matter of discussion, be it in schools or city in general?
We have to start from our homes. We have to first assimilate the need for a dialogue within our family. Only then will it get integrated into the matrix of society. Women live on fringes even within the families. Only when the women start vocalising their needs and opinion shall this equation change. They have to be the change themselves.
Could you talk about the importance of recognition – in terms of awards or positive conversations/responses – what do they mean to you and the difficult topics that you choose?
In my practice of filmmaking, I have come to understand that awards help your film travel. That is it. As a documentary filmmaker, I have also come to understand that awards really do not belong to the filmmaker. A documentary is a collaborative process and not just an artistic oeuvre. If my film is able to talk to the audience… I feel honoured with their smiles, tears, a pat on the back, a warm hug… I consider them my awards… they mean a lot to me.
Could you talk about your latest film ‘Krishna’s Waiting Room?’ What would you like your audience to introspect on when they leave the theatre watching it?
‘Krishna’s Waiting Room’ unfolds in Vrindavan. Vrindavan is the city of Lord Krishna, a busy pilgrimage centre in north India. It is also home to thousands of widows who live on the fringes of the city and the society. Most of them live on the streets and some lucky ones find shelter in government-run and privately-managed ‘ashrams’.
Contrary to popular belief, all of them are not abandoned by their families. Some of them choose to walk out. Manu Ma is one such woman. Human relations are complex and multi-layered. If one chooses to just observe, one can understand many a thing about social equations and interpersonal relationships. The film tries to do this.
Many ‘Points of view’ come into play here- Manu Ma, her son, other women living at Vrindavan, the filmmaker’s own journey into this space as a woman. The narrative is as complex as life. There are many layers which intertwine and play out as the film progresses.
I believe that a film gets completed in the viewer’s mind. I set no expectation. I am often amazed by the response of the audience. Their reading of the film adds a lot to my journey as a filmmaker.
‘Cotton for my shroud’: Silver Lotus – Best Investigative Film / NFA–2011; [Headline Film: World Investigative Film Week @ London-2013] ‘Candles in the wind’: Special mention / NFA–2013; [World Premiere @Thessaloniki-Greece] ‘I cannot give you my Forest’: Silver Lotus – ‘Best Film On Environment’ / NFA–2014