Shilpi Gulati, the documentary filmmaker who had won the National Award for the best Best Anthropological/Ethnographic Film with her film Qissa-e-Parsi, is now ready to wow us again with her latest film on addition, de-addiction and the rampant drug abuse of Punjab, ‘Taala Te Kunjee’. While a lot has been watched and debated about this epidemic through popular culture in the form of Bollywood films, this documentary provides a very intimate insight into the lives of drug users and the extent to which their lives have been taken over by the usage. In this interview, Shilpi talks in detail about her decision to make films, and the wealth of knowledge and experience that brought her so far. Read on…
Could you tell us about yourself, childhood, education and decision to pursue a film career?
I had never imagined that I would be a filmmaker one day. I was always interested in theatre and during my undergrad, in Delhi University I had started writing and directing plays. Once college was over, I joined pandies’ theatre, an activist group based in Delhi that I am still a part of. I was first introduced to the world of documentary films during my masters at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. Perhaps my engagement with storytelling began with theatre and found its logical progression in filmmaking years later.
What drew you to filmmaking – how did it all begin?
As a young 22-year-old, I was certain that I was broadly going to be associated with the field of media but pretty clueless about the area I wanted to specialize in. Before joining TISS I had completed a short stint at a public relations firm and was quite disillusioned by journalism as well as with the corporate world. I had enrolled in the Master’s program not knowing where it would take me. Once I was introduced to both practical and theoretical frameworks of image making I felt that I wanted to explore more so I continued. The environment provided by a social sciences institute has been a grounding factor for the kinds of films I make.
How do you go about funding your films? How important or available are grants and funding from agencies?
In the past, my films have been funded by Jamsetji Tata Trust, Doordarshan, Ministry of External Affairs and Public Service Broadcasting Trust. I have also been supported by non-government organisations and private commissioners. Since there are no structured mechanisms for finance and revenue generation for documentaries in India, fellowships and grants are extremely important for independent filmmakers. However it important to understand that every source of funding directly informs the politics and content of the films we make.
What was your learnings from making the national award-winning documentary ‘Qissa-e-Parsi’, meeting and interviewing so many people, absorbing in their culture – what has been your greatest takeaway?
I look at the National Award as a recognition of my work and as an opportunity for reaching out to larger audiences. As far as my understanding of the community is concerned, it has gone through several stages. Initially, I learnt to identify and reject the various stereotypes about the Parsis that exist in common knowledge. Over time, I began to realise the challenges of representing a community which is almost romanticized in India. It pushed me to re-look at the Parsis through a more critical historical lens in order to understand why the community enjoys its current status and reputation in India society. I also learnt to closely examine the correlation between women’s rights and inter-faith marriages that the Parsis continue to struggle with.
I think research is the backbone of any creative project and without a critical understanding of the field, it is impossible to make a thought-provoking film. Research is not a matter of data collection only, it involves a deeper emotional and political engagement with the social complexities of the subject and of course it demands a lot of time.
Can you talk about your film ‘Naach Bhikari Naach,’ how was it to document a film about the oppression of a different kind – familiar, yet a bit distant?
My co-director, Jainendra Dost and I first met in our Mphil class at Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2012. Both of us were practitioners who were initiating a theoretical inquiry into our respective fields – I was researching on documentary practice and Jainendra was looking at the folk theatre in Bihar. Our interaction over the last five years and a deep-rooted love for theatre lead us to collaborate on this film.
The film is about Naach which is the traditional folk theatre of Bihar. Having originated among the lower castes, male Naach artists dress as women on stage and are referred to as ‘laundas’. For a certain elite section of society, the word ‘launda’ is considered vulgar. And given the elements of cross-dressing and double-meaning dialogues, the performance tradition is often been considered a blot in the name of ‘Indian culture.’
It has been a great learning experience working on a performance form that belongs to the lower castes. It has made us question the very boundaries of social and moral conduct in society. Who has the power to define what is vulgar, why do certain things get stigmatized while others are considered high culture? In fact, in recent months, we have faced resistance to the title of the film itself. This is reflective of the extremely casteist society that we live in.
How do you approach a subject when you are co-directing a film with someone – what clicks, what are the challenges?
While co-directing a film, it is useful to maintain an insider-outsider perspective. For my first film ‘Dere tun Dilli’ which was based on the community that I come from, Divya Cowasji, my co-director would ensure that I didn’t get too emotionally carried away with the narrative. Similarly, for Qissa-e Parsi, it was my job to maintain a critical perspective on the community we love so much. It has been a similar experience with Naach Launda Naach. Over the years, I have realised that it is important to have extreme clarity on why the directors are making the film and to be on the same page with each other as far as the politics of the film is concerned. It is also important to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses and divide the work accordingly. Personally, I am a big fan of collaborative projects. There are several times when I am not sure of myself, extremely doubtful or simply overworked. I love the comfort of a team, including the sound designers, the editor, and the cinematographer, that can provide moral and emotional support to me.
What do you think about having more women in the crew – do you think a documentary is different from commercial cinema in terms of gender representation?
For me, it is important to see who has the sensibility to understand the context of the film that I am working on. The gender of my crew members does not matter. Within the documentary community, one sees a large number of women directors which is not the case with commercial cinema.
Could you talk about your latest film ‘Taala Te Kunjee?’ What persuaded you to make a film on this topic – how has your experience been?
About two years back I was invited by Hermitage, a rehab center in Amritsar to collaborate on a film project. At that time I had very limited understanding of mental health and in particular of addiction. So I started with spending time at the rehab, sitting through counselling sessions and conducting my primary research. I was lucky to have extensive conversations with Dr. JPS Bhatia, who gave me a psychiatrist’s perspective on the epidemic of drug abuse in Punjab. I also spent a lot of time with recovering addicts and their families who allowed me into their homes, shared some of the most traumatic experiences and helped me understand addiction from a very different perspective. Overtime it was clear to me that the film was not going to be a macro analysis of the drug problem in the state but about intimate experiences of recovery, about relationships and the everyday labour that goes into them. The film will always have a special place in my heart. Somewhere it transformed me as a person. It helped me shed some of the common stereotypes and presumptions about drug and alcohol addiction. But beyond that, and more importantly, it made me relook at myself, my past, my relationships in a different light.
What emotion or feeling do you want the audience to leave with, after watching your film ‘Taala Te Kunjee?’
What the audience takes away from the film is not in my control. I have tried to layer the narrative keeping different perspectives in mind. I hope it would speak to those who have seen and suffered from addiction in their family to someone who has nothing to do with it. I hope the film provides a fresh perspective on mental health in India
Where do you think the documentary and the independent genre of filmmaking taking the normal citizens towards? With a regressive political upheaval that looms over us – what space do filmmakers have to bring forth social change?
I am not sure if it is fair to burden films with the task of social change. I think independent filmmaking allows for alternative voices to exist and to have a dialogue on the complex realities that we live in.
What is your next project about – have you started working on one?
I have spent the last two years working on Naach Launda Naach and Taala Te Kunjee. I’m not planning to work on anything new at the moment and the outreach of two films is going to be a full-time job. I also need to pause for a while and reflect on my own practice as a filmmaker. In the meanwhile, I intend to return to my Ph.D. that I am writing on documentary practice in India.