In Her Own Image

Indian documentary celebrated
By Ameen Merchant

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A celebration of the Indian documentary film festival held at Pacific Cinematheque, September 1992, Vancouver BC

The background is grey. Not the grey that ambiguities are made of. Not dark by light. Like the first light of dawn chasing the night. A small opening, small but piercing, that challenges the rule of darkness. Not harsh but determined. Growing slowly, like a revelation, a new world view.

The light fills the frame. She stands alone. In traditional blackand white. Adorned and framed. Frozen and speechless. The pointingfinger louder than any word. The eyes focused on a different truth. Not arrogant. Not dramatic. Simple. And shattering.

It has taken a long time for this hand to rise: for this finger to point; forthis gaze to arrest.. The message is clear: Don't frame my narrative. Just listen. For a change. And then her voice takes over.

Opening Frame 1

Eyes of Stone Director: Nilita Vachani.

"There are many women available. It only takes a few thousand rupees to get another one. And I am a man. I can have another woman whenever I want."

A man's words. A woman's life.

Vachani takes us into this oppressive, patriarchal landscape by framing the life of Shanta (a name that means the peaceful and quiet—the irony!) by constructing her narrative with the voice of those around her—the helpless mother, the unconcerned husband...and the voice of Bhankya Mata, the goddess with the eyes of stone.

The rage beneath the frame scorches. The aridity of the Rajasthan desert and the desolation of Shanta's life merge to create a documentary of great loss and survival. Shanta's opportune possession by the spirit of Bhankya Mata provides an angry counter-text to systemic oppression. Her indictment of patriarchy through the words of the goddess, a language that is bold, cutting and liberating, is an unleashing of individual power.

There is no exoticizing in this exploration of ritualized healing. There is the agony of suppressed anger in every nuance. Vachani frames Shanta's narrative only to make it a part of a larger, feminist outrage, an identification from different womanly subjectivities. Vachani's may be a privileged gaze, a scripted, edited and re-recorded re-telling. And Shanta could be silenced again.

But this song is a chorus. Shanta is Vachani's Bhankya Mata.

Yes, frames within frames. Growing in number, gathering force, strong enough to exorcise and explode the Master-frame.

Opening Frame 2

Something Like a War Director: Deepa Dhanraj

A group of women sit around a white, larger-than-life paper canvas.

These are my hands, says one.
These are my legs, says the other.
These are my breasts, says one.
This is my womb, says the other.
This is my body, they say together.
This is creation.

Deepa Dhanraj's Something Like War is a hard-hitting expose of India's failed Family Planning Programme. With startling restraint, Dhanraj critiques the involvement of multinational institutions like USAID (United States Agency for International Development) in the testing of debilitating contraceptives such as Norplant, on the bodies of Third-world women.

The testimonies are haunting. "Birth control and population control are not the same thing," is the text that underscores every frame. The former is a woman's right and the latter, institutional might. The only commonality between poverty and population is that they happen to be words that begin with the same consonant. Third-world women are paying with their bodies to prove Malthus right. And Malthus was, after all, a man.

The testimonies are assaulting. This critique is a form of tokenization. An allowance by the institution. This is how all oppressive power structures redeem themselves. Dhanraj is aware of her co-option here. She is also aware that it will be some time before she is permitted to point her finger once again. Her narrative is funded by BBC's Channel 4. She is not uncomfortable in this irony. Yugantar, the name of her film collective alludes to that transitory moment between eras. Dhanraj knows that transition is an on-going process.

The reportage is ruthless. Every aspect of India's patriarchal family planning programme is unmasked. The bureaucrats, the doctors, the middlemen and women, the clients... Layer after layer Victim after victim. Frame after frame...

From the sophistication of Levi-Strauss' insight into the victimization of the weaker of the species by the strong, which opens the documentary, to the simple, straight forward and brilliant conclusion when Gyarsi Bai's question:

"But why are they so interested in me?" is raised in opposition to the words of the chairman of the Ford Foundation. Something Like a War is something of a turning point. As a call to women to take control of their bodies it is a narrative of empowerment.. .24 forceful frames per second.

Opening Frame 3

Kamlabai Director: Reena Mohan

What happens when an actress of silent films speaks?

Contra-diction. Accepted absolutes are challenged. Conventional history is fractured. Truth ceases to be singular. Re-vision

Reena Mohan's Kamlabai is a meta-documentary. A cinematically self-conscious re-construction of turn of the century Marathi stage and silent film actress Kamla Gokhale's life, which deconstructs official histriography and delights in the possibility of alternate truths and realities.

Here memories and facts merge. Here old sanctities are demolished. Here conflicting texts co-exist. Kamlabai's life is the story of one women's struggle against the social currents of her time. A story about voice. About silence. And voice again.

Still, life. Kamlabai's family stands around her Children. Grandchildren. Great-grandchildren. L to R. Front sitting back row standing. This is a photograph.You can almost hear the person behind the camera say, "Smile, please!"

Instead you hear the man sitting to the far right say something. Somebody from the top left recalls another incident. Kamlabai breaks many such frames.

The camera is a character here. Subversion has a face here. One woman's life constructed by another Yes, this is a kind of privileging. This is also historic denial. How many Kamlabais has history denied?

But what are you going to get from re-making my life? Kamlabai asks Mohan. One more version. One more chapter. One more volume.

To un-make history. To make herstory.

Yet this is a man's view of woman's work. But not a re-view. Not convention. Not co-option.

Celebration, yes.


I am grateful to Marilyn Iwama, Yasmin Jiwani and Scott McFarlane for sharing their views on these documentaries with me.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Ameen Merchant
Ameen Merchant is an author.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Britannia Art Gallery
Britannia Art Gallery
Bookhug Press
Bookhug Press
Plantation Memories
Plantation Memories
Alternator Centre