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Interview Hindi

Poor families take loans of upto Rs2 lakh for a Mrityubhoj: Akanksha Sood Singh

Post the screening of Mrityubhoj – The Death of Feast at WIFF, the director spoke to Cinestaan.com about her film and the need to break away from traditions that are nothing but oppressive.

Akanksha Sood Singh and Rao Narendra Yadav

Ramna Walia

Akanksha Sood Singh, director of  Mrityubhoj – The Death of Feast, was intrigued by a news story in newspaper The Times of India on activist Dr Veresh Raj Sharma’s efforts to end the practice of Mrityubhoj in the Chambal region. Mrityubhoj is the thirteenth day feast organized for neighbors, relatives and villagers after the death of a family member.

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The film focusses on the story of a poor family, ridden by the massive burden of the feast, and in general points out to the predicament of the poor, who bound in societal pressure, social standing, and tradition, often create a life-long chain of debt.

Less than 200 kilometers from the cosmopolitan Delhi-NCR region of India, the film documents this gruelling practice that affects the poorest of the poor in the most backward regions of India.

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The film premiered at the 5th Woodpecker International Film Festival, and Cinestaan.com sat down with the director, Akanksha Sood Singh, to discuss her film.

You’re dealing with a lot of sensitive issues in the film — ritual, tradition, class, caste, gender — it’s a complex cultural matrix. It started with a news story in The Times of India, but when you began filming, did you realize the massive subject you were dealing with?

No, not at all. When I first read the article, in my head it was a very straight-forward documentary. For me, it was this man’s war with a custom. Nobody at the time knew what that custom entails. We all have our own versions of 13th day ritual after death, which varies depending on urban/rural area or community practices.

So, I understood it as simply a socio-economic issue from Chambal. Chambal is very close to my heart either way, I’ve travelled there many times. In my work as a wildlife filmmaker, I’ve filmed in Chambal. It’s a very backward area, and I knew that, but the extent to which it connected to the caste roots and the ramifications of it, didn’t occur to me initially. On paper, it was a very simple structure.

When I had to pitch the idea, I had to travel to Singapore with some footage so we shot a Mrityubhoj, a four-day pitch shoot. 

But that was a ritual organized by a rich family. At that time, we met people who told us that some of them had to take a loan for such rituals, loans as high as Rs1 lakh or Rs 2 lakh. That’s when the gravity of the situation started to sink in. Once it got commissioned, I decided to go back and find another Mrityubhoj. I went to Chambal about 6-8 times in 8 months and I talked to people who were right at the bottom of the social structure.

They had to come and attend the feast if the zamindar organizes it, but would a zamindar do the same? This is when we began to see the larger complications. Now, I wanted a poor family for the film. I refused to shoot the glitzy feasts done at the scale at which weddings are organized.

So that’s why you chose the Kushwa family?

We heard that there has been a death in a family a couple of hours ago and since it was late night, they couldn’t do the cremation that day. I went to them and told them that I wanted to shoot and highlight this very cruel aspect of Mrityubhoj and they agreed.

They simply said, 'you do what you want to do'. We started with the interviews to get everything in place and from then on, we decided to just shoot and assured them we won’t come in their way. I told them, I’m not going to say anything or ask you to do anything. We miked them up and just sat there and began filming.

And this approach is very interesting, this fly on the wall approach; with no narration, and using silence to convey meaning, where one feels like an observer. And then there are the aerial shots that seem to situate Chambal in a particular way. What prompted these stylistic choices?

Honestly, if you see my footage, it’s just coverage. I had three cameras, but we had no idea what we were doing. There’s a lot of waiting. In my head I had a structure. I wanted on an average 3 mins footage per day so with 39 mins of footage from the 13 days, I wanted to add to it another case study. I knew that I didn’t want to dictate it, the story can be told visually and through the use of music. I wanted to keep the conversations the way they were- in that dialect.

It was not easy, the shoot. Their livelihood requires them to start their day at 5am. From the morning till 4 in the afternoon, nothing happens. People come to mourn without notice.

On the 11th day, the men were out for the preparations and I managed to get the women alone. When they spoke. They spoke about hunting for a groom for their daughters. The other social rituals that would require for them to spend on dowry. So another loan. Men and women occupy very different spaces and don’t communicate about decision-making. There is so much in this, that one can just keep exploring.

There were other issues that came up, too, but one can’t just open an issue and leave them unexplored. It was a choice that had to be made on our part. I kept some parts, and left out other bits.

And you focus on the feast. Your camera lingers on the food during the preparation for the Mrityubhoj. It’s haunting and overwhelming...

It’s surreal, yes. One would expect that it would be very grand but it is very basic.

People start to trickle early in the morning and it goes on the whole day.

I’ve been a filmmaker for over 18 years, so, I didn’t want to disturb anyone, but people would come to see us shoot. The number of guests increased from an estimated 2000-2500 to 3000-3500 guests. It was chaos. The scale of preparation and what it took out of the family was enormous. Once the event was over, another cycle would begin. Their lives are haunted by the grandeur and social obligation expected from an event like this.

Woodpecker shows issue based films, like yours, that one often doesn’t know about. What do you think this offers you as a filmmaker?

See, it gives us a platform. We can put our work out there. Films like these usually get to tap a broadcast market. But because of broadcast regulations, for the first two years, my film couldn't be shown in India.

My film would be with Public Service TV Taiwan for the first six months, then it will go to NHK (Japan's broadcasting organization), then a Korean broadcaster, then Singapore. So for two years, my film won’t get rights in any other country till it finishes this cycle of travel. So, this is a very important platform.

Also, I met people at festivals, and elsewhere, who wanted me to give them a DVD. And I couldn't give them that. So, festival platform is immensely useful. What it does is that it creates a buzz and now I can take the film with me to Chambal.

I want to go on the road with the film and travel with Dr Veresh (Raj Sharma) for at least seven days. I want to show people that this is someone’s story, it has an impact. More than anything, it is important to take the film to those people. But thanks to festivals, I don’t just go with the film, I go with the press so there can be an impact.

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Woodpecker International Film Festival