Interview English Hindi

Feminism must not be rigid like organized religion: Filmmaker Disha Arora

The director of Women And Religion In India talks about gender, female experiences, religion and documentary filmmaking practice at the Woodpecker International Film Festival.

Prateek Rawat

Documentary filmmaker Disha Arora’s compelling and insightful film Women And Religion In India was screened at the 6th Woodpecker International Film Festival at the Siri Fort Auditorium in Delhi on 23 November 2018.

Arora’s film has been making waves for its exclusive focus on the voices and experiences of women from all over India, and the oppressions that the deeply religious social structure of the country exerts on their daily lives.

After the screening of the film, Arora sat down with Cinestaan.com for a chat about the inspiration, dilemmas and topicality of her film. Excerpts.

I have read elsewhere that you identify as a feminist. What do you think is the character of feminism in a country like India? Considering the variegated nature of feminism today – influenced not simply by racial differences, but also those of caste/class, urban/rural, collective/personal – how would you understand feminism in India? Has the making of this film transformed the ways in which you understand feminism personally and collectively?

I have always been a feminist, even before I knew the theory of feminism. Then, it was at the simplest level of challenging all interferences on my rights.

In 2012, when the Nirbhaya incident shocked the country, it also rattled me to the extent that I realized that the question of rights is not simply a personal one as it had been for me, but also a public, collective one. Thereon, I started understanding feminism as a movement taking root throughout the country.

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I believed that an organized movement of feminism was a largely urban phenomenon. But, when I started making the documentary, I started understanding the layers of feminism — that feminism must not be rigid like organized religion, that it moves in its own ways on the grassroot levels across the country.

Feminism doesn’t require bookish knowledge or cotton kurtas. There are many people who do not wish to be identified as feminists. They may change their minds or they may not. I believe that’s okay, because coming to terms with my feminism has been a journey for me, and it should be for everyone, whatever the result may be. Feminism itself must have the flexibility and scope of including everyone, despite the many differences that separate us.

The country needs to open up to the many conversations and dialogues on feminism across its several perspectives.

Since you mentioned the need for flexibility in feminism, what comes to mind is the question of choice raised in the film and across feminist debates. Choice is a complex frontier. Let’s take the example of, perhaps, the most controversial garment worn by women today – the hijab. To wear or not to wear, and the endless debate around it. To choose is an exercise of will, an action – a mode of resistance or submission. A lot of women in the film have drawn frontiers between right and wrong. They have made choices. You have made a choice, an act of resistance, by making and screening this polarizing film. How do you think choice itself functions for women and within feminism in the social order where they have to constantly live through and work with forces of patriarchy?

As you rightly said, there are so many parameters affecting women’s lives today. I believe that feminism should not come as yet another burden on these lives. It must not shift from following religious traditions to feminist traditions. It needs to be an individual decision. For some women, a hijab is oppressive and an outrageous symbol of the ludicrous fact that men cannot control their uges if they even see a single strand of a woman’s hair.

For the younger girls, the hijab is a liberating tool because their conservative families let them go to schools and colleges if they agree to wear it. We should let women be, a choice must be individual.

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For example, there is the whole debate on the reservation of compartment for women in the Delhi metro and the deployment of separation of genders to avoid violence. When it started in DTC [Delhi Transport Corporation] buses first, many women started going to college as travel became comparatively convenient and safe.

If a woman feels that a particular choice is not completely patriarchal or not completely feminist, but it helps her move forward in her journey as a human being, then that choice must be respected. The only condition I will attach to this is that if the choice that a woman makes stems from her understanding of herself as a lesser human being, then I have a problem. All choices must emerge from one’s understanding of oneself as an equal human being.

Absolutely. Coming to cinema, this is your first independent project, do you think of yourself as a documentary filmmaker? Did you always wanted to be one, did it happen over time? Do you negotiate your social-concern content with your aesthetic sensibilities?

Due to the geographical breadth of the project, it took me 10 months to shoot the film. I’ve made documentaries before for non-profits. Throughout those 10 months, I never called myself a documentary filmmaker. I kept calling it research [laughs]. It took a year of editing after that. When the film came together and I realized the value it held, I finally came to terms with my identity as a documentary filmmaker.

Another female documentary filmmaker once told me that it took her two documentaries to call herself a documentary filmmaker, while her husband started calling himself the CEO of a startup he had conceptualized the day before. The whole imposter syndrome and its gendered nature and how women doubt themselves — I feel that since I put so much value and effort into this and have shown it to so many people who have appreciated it, that I can confidently and truthfully call myself a documentary filmmaker.

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Since, it is an independent project, I feel I could have done a better aesthetic film, but for me a documentary is about its social content and I do not wish to distract the audience with beautiful shots. I appreciate good visuals in documentaries though. [Laughs]

How hard was the editing of the film, condensing 10 months’ worth of experiences into a 25-minute rational yet passionate, logical yet exhortative montage of female voices?

I interviewed around 200 women from all over the country. It took me four months to even begin the editing because I was not confident enough whether I could do justice to representing so many voices. It was a really time-taking process.

This documentary is actually made on the editing table. I had no idea what it was going to be when I was shooting. I tried to figure out the common elements across all the religions. I chapterized the film into patriarchal, constitutional and other parameters.

I wanted to keep it as diverse as possible. I wanted to put a product together where blame-games couldn’t be played between different religious communities. I also tried to avoid the dangers of being propagandist by focusing exclusively on one region or one religion. I didn’t want to get arrested. Rather make everyone angry, than make one group angry [laughs].

What kind of bonds did you form with the women featured in the film or the kind of female sphere you created/experienced along your journey? Getting women from remote parts of the country to share their thoughts and experiences onscreen would require creating a space of comfort and intimacy.

That is a very interesting question. I would say that I did not have to do much to create a bond. Firstly, I was travelling alone with my small DSLR so the absence of a huge setup led to less intimidation.

Secondly, being a woman myself, they felt it was a safe space and they could relate to me. My questions were related to their daily experiences of social and religious practices. Honestly, I did not have to work too hard.

Maybe, if I were a man, I would not have been able to make this documentary because a lot of these young girls and women would not have easily spoken to me. That is what surprised me during the shooting, that these women have so much to say and question. The group of college girls who expressed their issue with changing names post marriage were so forthcoming. It was a 40-minute interview and they readily answered all my questions. They are not even activists, just college students.

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So, women are thinking about their issues, even if they are not actively resisting the traditions being imposed on them. After a lot of interviews, the women would actually come to me and say that what I was doing was really nice, even if I asked them really difficult questions.

Finally, what are your concerns now? Do you want to take this further? Do you have more ideas or issues you want to deal with?

I feel like I still haven’t done a lot of justice to this documentary when it comes to its distribution. Filmmaking requires a lot of hard work and passion. Distribution is extremely challenging and I am learning it as I’m going. That is where I am going right now.

I want to make a Hindi version of the documentary through dubbing because if it doesn’t reach the communities, especially women, featured in this film, it is pointless. Once it goes through the film festival circuit, I will probably put in the public domain.
This is not an endgame. I want people to use it to begin conversations.

As for my next project, I want to work on issues of caste. I did not touch it here because it is a whole different ballgame. Other religions also have caste-based discriminations and how it affects women.

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