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Interview Hindi

You never know whose eyes are on you: Anandana Kapur on her film about women detectives

On the sidelines of the 6th Woodpecker International Film Festival, Kapur speaks about her documentary that looks at women detectives and their lives in a refreshingly nuanced way.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Extra marital affairs. Missing persons. Corporate espionage. A newbie in her twenties, two mid-career entrepreneurs who don disguises and conduct stings, a freelancer who isn't shy of using sex, a corporate honcho whose phone never stops ringing, along with a retiree who battled prejudice to become India's first known woman detective – an intimate reflection on women in the business of intelligence, Anandana Kapur's film Jasoosni: Look Who’s Watching You makes you take a close look at our lives and the lives of those who are present, yet strive to remain unseen.

In a conversation with us, Kapur talks about the unusual subject of her film and its engagement with the detective form as well as gender perceptions. Excerpts.

Your film explores a fascinating subject as it is not just about detectives but women detectives. What is it that led you towards making a film on this?

When I was doing my previous film for Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT), [Much Ado About Knotting (2012)], we had encountered detectives who do due diligence on prospective grooms and brides and their families, so I was quite fascinated by the idea of how something as intimate as choosing a life partner becomes part of a surveillance network. That stayed with me for some time. We met a detective who was part of that film and he in passing mentioned how his wife was also a detective.

I kept thinking of this idea, because of other things that were happening in our country: women’s access to public spaces, crimes against them, what is a respectable profession. I have always been interested in women who have unconventional careers. So, I was wondering who are these women…that’s when the choice of the form came to me. I could have done a very shadowy, noir, scarlet lipstick kind of film but I deliberately broke that and that was a risk.

Some of the feedback I got in the initial stages was that this [film] does not show that [detectives in a conventional manner] and I said that I do not want to show that. We need to listen to these women. We need to recognize that their lives are as ordinary and as mundane as our's. That’s when the politics begins. 

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These women are striving so hard to be invisible…striving hard to be ordinary. That to me is fascinating in the psychology of these women. That we all do things, highlight our appearance — striving to be noticed in some way — but they [the detectives] have to strive to be invisible. So, those were the reasons why I thought I’d get into this.

It took me about a year to get to know these women….I told them why I was making the film, that we should see the women as they are. I think they all must have done background checks on me for sure! That’s how the film began. Some of them agreed to be part of the film but then backed out, in fact, the youngest detective I found was 17 and a half years old.

Are the women detectives engaged in solving crimes or more marital based detective work?

Everything from solving murders to missing cases to extra-marital affairs, pre and post-marriage surveillance, corporate espionage, political party snooping — every human relationship can be monetized and converted to data.

You say that every human relationship can be monetised and you spoke of surveillance earlier. Given the current circumstances in the world, we are all wondering about the level of state surveillance in our lives and the detectives in a way become the human face of that. I was wondering about how the women in your film view their profession.

For a lot of them, it’s a very pragmatic way of negotiating life — you must do due diligence if you find somebody whether you are hiring them, giving them your property. A lot of them have very fascinating ideas about what is morality. I pushed that a lot in my conversations with them.

In any case, people put women under surveillance a lot, that is the patriarchal gaze — kab gayi thi, kab aaye gi, kiske saath gayi thi [when did she go, when will she come back, with whom did she go] — those are the kind of questions asked to control women and a lot of them [women detectives] said that they [women subjects] are not as repressed as you think because in a lot of their cases we find that women have broken the bonds of marriage and are exploring themselves.

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So, they said that they had observed a turn where they are no longer tracking men but have men coming to us and saying that their marriage is in crisis. I found that quite fascinating because they [detectives] were trying to assure me that women are having a good time! So they don’t struggle with it [the morality] because they see women taking chances and doing things all the time, and to me, that is interesting because I thought that as people who are so closely connected with film and gender activism…are there pleasure points that we have missed out that these women [detectives] are aware of, about a woman’s existence…that was interesting to me. 
What was the biggest revelation for you while making the film, that you did not expect to find at all because you have explored the hidden lives of these women?

I think the fact that they are so many, are around us and we are completely unaware. And the whole point of their ordinariness. Which is why in the film, I have this treatment where they are part of the mise en scène and they reveal themselves as objects. That was a response to this realization that I am looking at an object but it could well be a person. They are that embedded in our lives and we just don’t realise it. To me that’s what’s shocking. 

There are several conversations that didn’t make it to the cut, but one of them said that she had to join a gym because she had to surveil somebody and you know, your gym partner could be a spy! This in one sense robbed the innocence from me but on the other hand it made me realise that you just have to live your life. You never know whose eyes are on you or what’s going to happen…you have to keep being yourself.

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Therefore, I scripted myself in the film as well…I had a huge question ethically — would I show footage that was shot of people? I felt that I could not do that. I could not use that footage as part of my story because I would be part of the violence which I am critical of in terms of what they do. So, I told each of them that why don’t you follow me, show me what you find out about me.

Finally, one of them even got into my house and was able to find out personal conversations that I had had in another city…we were flabbergasted. I couldn’t have done this narrative without bringing in the unease of the person who is being watched. Those were some of the ethical aspects that I resolved through the form. I wanted to understand the profession but I didn’t want to use the profession as a tool to further voyeurism.

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