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Interview Hindi

LIFFT India: In writing Parched, I was writing my story too, says Leena Yadav

Cinestaan.com catches up with writer-director Leena Yadav at LIFFT India 2017 as she talks about the film that changed her and her next project.


Sukhpreet Kahlon

Angry Indian Goddesses (2015), Parched (2016) and then Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017) are a few recent films that have talked about women’s experiences in different ways. All these films were recognized in the international festival circuit and there was a curiosity regarding these films before they were released in India. Do you feel that has helped in the reception of your film?

Not really in the reception but it definitely helped to get the films in the theatres. It contributed towards that. In terms of narratives, these films are still few and far between in terms of narratives about women’s stories. So, it created interest and buzz for people in terms of its release. But I don’t know how much the audiences know about the international circuit and newspapers aren’t really interested in writing about it. It’s only when one is in the fraternity that one knows about films that have won awards.

To be honest, as a nation we don’t really take pride in it. People have achieved some amazing things but we don’t even know about it. We only know about the box-office, that’s the reality.

But without the festival acclaim, we wouldn’t have had a starting point also since none of the films had a star. In order to have a conversation, one needs a starting point. Because of the way the conventional market works, there was a talking point with the festivals.

Talking about the conventional market, your earlier films Shabd (2005) and Teen Patti (2010) were very different in terms of content, but certainly mainstream in the choice of actors and treatment. So, what led to the shift and the move away from the big names in the industry? Was that a very conscious decision?

Well, I get asked this question especially by film makers, who say that we make films like Parched so we can work with the stars, but you’ve done films with the big stars and then done Parched! The thing is that I didn’t really find satisfaction in that.

When I first wrote Shabd, I thought it was a niche film because narratives like that weren’t being told at all. I’m very proud of both my films but somewhere I don’t think I reached where I wanted to reach as a film maker. This hunger was in me and I decided that I was not going to play by the rules on anything and I would get the best people for the job and it’s been the most satisfying journey of my life.

It has changed me completely as a filmmaker and as a person in too many ways. I got to work with the most enviable talent that one can imagine both in front and behind the camera.

Do you feel that the film would have worked so well had you chosen celebrity actors instead?

I can never say because I don’t know what works (laughs)! I wouldn’t have made the film that I made if I had worked with celebrities. They are too trapped in the image that they start serving to once it is created. I’m not blaming them. It has to do with the audiences. Audiences start expecting things from you and don’t accept change. For example, when Amitabh Bachchan changed his voice for Agneepath, the audience initially rejected it. So, somewhere it’s the whole system that’s responsible for creating a certain thing.

Would you say that the contemporary moment is a good time for films that focus on women’s experiences and stories?

Since we have had films that have broken through, it’s a really good time but there have been spurts in the past too and I hope this isn’t a spurt anymore and that it continues to consistently grow.

We can’t really say, we’ll have to see in the coming years. We’re being bombarded with so much content now that even in the mainstream, we need to take a tough look at ourselves as a community, as an industry and pay much more attention to content instead of set-ups like who’s starring in it or the genre driven films. We need to really focus on content and the production houses need to step in as well because there is really nobody who invests in content and that shows in our films.

As the director as well as the writer of Parched, what was the inspiration for Parched?

Actually, it was supposed to have been set in Gujarat as my research began in Kutch, but I didn’t want to really geographically locate the film because it’s really everybody’s story. But we needed costumes and I also feel that dialect helps in rooting a film so we created a dialect which is a mix of Kutchi and Hindi.

The film started as a dialogue with Tannishtha (Chatterjee). We sat down wanting to make something really small but high on concept. As we started discussing, I heard about some discussions that Tannishtha had with women in the village when she was shooting Road, Movie (2010) and I found that the conversations, especially those about sex were so honest and I could imagine having those conversations with my friends.

I thought that we are so judgemental that we feel that the problems lie out there and we are very progressive but actually it’s all so complicated. So I started off with wanting to make 'sex in the village' (alluding to the American comedy series Sex and the City).

So there are parts of 'sex in the village' in Parched but I wrote down a concept note. I was also conscious of the fact that I’ve never lived a rural life and didn’t want it be from an urban perspective. Though when I was writing I felt that it was exactly what was happening in Bombay (Mumbai) so I wasn’t writing their story, I was writing my story too.

I travelled and got many more stories but the film remained the first synopsis that I had written but got layered so much more. Increasingly, as I was writing, I also started feeling that this was very universal. When I sent the script out, for the first time I didn’t get script notes but people said that they knew a Bijli or a Lajjo, in New York, London etc.

It’s odd because the judgement happened here and made me think about ‘progress’. Progress is just us having learned to hide things better. It’s not just education that can bring about changes we need to change the conditioning, which is very deep-rooted. So it’s been a very interesting journey of learning too many things with Parched.

You’ve also looked at the economic empowerment of rural women in the film and the ending of the film wouldn’t have been possible without that. How important was it for you to highlight the importance of economic independence of rural women?

I used to find it very odd growing up that we would talk of women being housewives in an almost embarrassed manner. Why can’t we be proud of the women who take care of their families? Most of the Kutchi women are working in the handicrafts sector and the actual cash comes in through their work as the men are mostly truckers or animal herders.

But the women themselves feel that the men work so hard so it’s ok if they lose their temper sometimes. It’s the conditioning again. They have no value for their own work because they’ve been told that it has no value, despite the fact that they are getting money also.

I also came across an interesting legend in one community, which is almost like a Krishna story. There was a Dholi who came to the village and lived with them. Every evening he played the dhol, which started arousing the women and they started dancing, which brought to light their sexuality.

And suddenly, the women started participating and not just being passive in the act of sex, which started threatening the men and one day the dholi was hanged in the village and they (women) all committed sati with him.So I thought, if I have to do a modern interpretation of this, what is this dance? This dance is economic freedom. 

Parched had the support of Ajay Devgn, Lipstick Under My Burkha had Prakash Jha and Ekta Kapoor backing it. How important is it for the big banners to come in and support smaller and different films like your own?

Even a Lunchbox, despite having Irrfan Khan, had Karan Johar (backing it). I think it’s almost a responsibility that they have but I don’t think that they see it like that because everything that they are has come from cinema and it would be great if they in some way, served it back in the smallest possible ways.

Actually, it really needs the smallest steps from them to be able to do this but it’s an individual choice so I cannot say that they must support these films but ideally, they should.

What’s the next film that you are working on?

It’s quite a contrast. It’s called Rajma Chawal, which is all about men (laughs)! Well, not really. It’s a father-son story with a beautiful ensemble cast and the basic theme is generation gap and communication.

LIFFT India is not just another film festival but encompasses all the arts. How do you feel about the inclusion of your film as the opening film here?

I think this is an amazing platform and I really hope it grows. We get so obsessed with our own arts and craft that we’ve stopped keeping in touch with the other arts. There are other interesting festivals taking place as well, like the Kochi Biennale, which is such an amazing experience. I went there for the first time this year and I have to go back for it every time because it just expanded my brains. So with the possibility of interacting with people from different fields such festivals become very important.

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