Award-winning filmmaker Sumitra Bhave talks about her early years as a social scientist and teacher and her journey from there to cinema with a social purpose.
Sumitra Bhave: Our films have won several awards, but most Indians haven't seen any of them
Kolkata - 23 Jun 2020 8:30 IST
Shoma A Chatterji
Sumitra Bhave, who has been using the directorial baton for more than three decades and has won several National awards, was recently bestowed with the prestigious Padmpani Lifetime Achievement Award at the seventh Aurangabad International Film Festival.
Bhave's directorial oeuvre has been achieved jointly with Sunil Sukthankar, a graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India. With one exception. For her previous film Dithee, Bhave went solo, and what a film it has turned out to be!
Bhave and Sukthankar have together directed 14 feature films, more than 50 short films, and television serials and telefilms, all of which were written by the former. Their films have received six international awards, 11 National awards and more than 45 state awards.
Their films have revolved around socio-political and economic conditions and hence are more relatable to all classes of society. The films have been screened for audiences at the grassroots in rural areas and at top international platforms on six continents.
Sumitra Bhave is a spirited woman who defines the generous sprinkling of salt in her hair with her intellectual and cultural life. She lives and works in Pune, a city she has become a part of, a city she chooses to set most of her films in. Bhave opened up about her cinema in a detailed interview. Excerpts:
How did it all begin?
After doing my post-graduation from the TISS [Tata Institute of Social Sciences] in Mumbai, I did a short stint with the Indian Council for Social Research followed by a UGC [University Grants Commission] fellowship to research Gandhian concepts of social work. I then joined the Karve Institute of Social Service in Pune and have strong nostalgia of having developed methods of indigenous research to study social problems that do not lend themselves to academia or scholarship. My favourite projects include one study of woman criminals and another on unwed mothers.
I taught at the Karve institute for a decade and worked extensively with women and gender as my subject of interest. It was my profession as a social worker that brought me to filmmaking.
You became an active social scientist then?
Dr Francis Maria Yassas, a UN representative working on similar lines of developing methods of indigenous research, inspired me to join Streevani, a women's organization in Pune involved in participatory research in and around Pune among women in urban slums. The fruits of this work took concrete shape in the form of a book titled Tava Chulyavar: Oral Life Stories and Self-Images of Women. Dr Yassas inspired me to try a visual representation of some of these stories on celluloid. And my life changed forever. I became a filmmaker with a social purpose.
Under the auspices of Streevani, I made my first docu-feature called Bai (1985), dramatizing the life story of a poor working woman living in a Pune slum, burdened with frequent childbirth and oppressed by an alcoholic and violent husband. The film was screened as part of the Focus on Woman Directors at Filmotsav '86 in Hyderabad, going on to win the President's Silver Medal for the Best Social Welfare Film in 1985.
You made a few short films under the auspices of Streevani, right?
Right. I then made Paani, moving from the individual to the collective, this time capturing real footage of the painstaking efforts of a group of women in a drought-prone area who succeed in bringing water to the village. Mukti was on drug addiction among Pune youths, followed by Samvad.
Why did you leave Streevani?
With the departure of Dr Yassas, I left Streevani to work independently with my young colleague, the FTII-trained Sunil Sukthankar. We made a short fiction film called Chakori which became a hit with the huge audience at the Mumbai International Festival of Documentary, Short and Animation Films in 1994.
What made Chakori such a timeless film?
Both the story and the subject were imaginative and socially triggered. Chakori, which translates as Wheels, unfolds the story of how the life of a village girl changes radically by the simple device of her learning to ride a bicycle. She learns it clandestinely at night, because the cycle is taboo for girls in the village. The expression of undiluted joy on her face as she rides away into the fields doubles up as an expression of freedom for a girl, deserted by her husband, burdened by domestic chores and oppressed through lack of education. This film made the rounds of festivals abroad. But by then, I wanted to begin a feature film.
Doghi (1995), your first feature film.
Yes. It was a story of two sisters. One of them is forced to go to the city to keep the home fires burning. She becomes a sex worker. But when she comes home to attend her sister’s wedding, their mother is very unhappy and embarrassed by her presence. But her sister stands solidly by her and fights on her behalf. Doghi fetched us 11 state-level awards and three National awards, including the G Aravindan award for Best Debutant Filmmakers of 1995. It ran to packed theatres in Pune, which was another surprise.
Yet, our first [feature film] in Hindi, Zindagi Zindabad (2000), was rejected by the Indian Panorama. Zindagi Zindabad was on AIDS and we decided to show the film to street boys, and those working in hotels, and we retained some of the slang used by such sections, since almost the whole cast comprised these very people.
Samhita: The Script (2013) is the only self-reflexive period film in your career, I guess.
Yes, it is. To our great surprise, the film bagged the National award for Best Music Direction for music composer Shailendra Barve as well as Best Playback Singing for the song 'Palke Na Modo' rendered by Aarti Ankalikar-Tikekar. The film was produced by Subhash Ghai's Mukta Arts Ltd in collaboration with Ashok Movies Pvt Ltd and presented by mine and Sunil’s film production company Vichitra Nirmiti.
How do you divide the creative responsibilities between you and Sunil since you have been working together for 14 feature films now and most of them have won awards?
We have developed a strategy that makes our work smooth and automatic after so many years. I do the script, story and screenplay and dictate these to Sunil who writes them out. I do the casting and the art and costumes while Sunil is in charge of the technical crew, the actors and the liaison. Sunil also looks after post-production, music and lyrics. In fact, he has composed the background score for Kaasav (2017) and written some lyrics. We do not use any make-up for any of our actors in any film and they happily toe the line.
You do not work with stars either. Is it because of budget constraints?
(Laughs.) We neither have the ability to pay them high fees nor the space for the prolonged dates they need. We shoot on very tight budgets and schedules. Kaasav was shot in a single 18-day schedule at Deogarh in the Konkan region.
But let me tell you that many non-actors and small-time actors have become famous after they worked in our films. Then, we have had big actors actually wanting to work with us. Vikram Gokhale agreed to work in Ha Bharat Maza (2012) after just one phone call. Dr Mohan Agashe produced Kaasav and also worked in the film besides acting as an Alzheimer’s patient who walks away from his family following an elephant in Astu! (2014).
One of Atul Kulkarni’s best roles has been in Devrai (2004) in which he played a schizophrenic. Even the late Vijay Tendulkar worked in Nital (2006), about how society makes life miserable for people (especially women) diagnosed with vitiligo, a disease that creates white patches on the skin. The famous playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar played the main lead in Vastupurush (2005).
Kaasav, or Turtle, on depression among the youth bagged the top award for Best Indian Film at the National Film Awards. The citation states that this is “in appreciation of the perfect blending of an environmental behaviour and a personal one in a poignantly beautiful cinematic way”.
Depression among the young has become a raging problem today. So many young girls and boys, like my protagonist Manav, are attempting or committing suicide. Why? Are parents not aware of what their growing children are going through?
Manav is both depressive and regressive. He lives in a world of insecurity where he feels that he does not belong to anyone and no one belongs to him. He runs away from the hospital where he was admitted for a suicide attempt. He meets Janki who slowly creates a parallel support system around him which is non-judgemental and non-intrusive.
Why do you, as a qualified and experienced social scientist, feel that more and more young people are getting depressed?
Today’s youngsters are confused about values and cannot differentiate between right and wrong. They lived in a world that gave them space earlier on, so they did not feel alienated or lonely. Today, they need to redefine the concept of ‘family’. In Kaasav, we have tried to show how a ‘family’ grows when the ‘members’ care for one another without expectation. The unquestioned love that grows or sustains between and among family members forms the essence of the term ‘family’.
Your films always revolve around a social agenda and a message emerges from the film itself. Does this extend to Kaasav?
We are not very conscious about any message, but the subjects that interest us and attract us happen to emerge with a social message and so far, this has worked to the betterment of the film when it is ready for screening. I was an active social scientist. So social issues come naturally to me while Sunil is an FTII graduate and he is more rooted in the technicalities of filmmaking. We agree on a topic and work on the script. It has worked slowly but it has worked well. Yes, in Kaasav too, we are talking about the youth of today who are lost in the mire of trying to build relationships but cannot.
Yes. Though our films have won several international awards, 12 National awards, several National-level awards, more than 45 state awards and several state-level awards, most Indians have not seen any of them. Even when our films are released well, they mostly flounder at the box office. Our films never get the right kind of promotion and we get a very bad deal in distribution as well.
The Children’s Film Society of India, for example, turned down our proposal for a film, Dahavi Fa (10th F, 2002), on the education system and the rejection was not because they did not like the script but because their evaluation basis does not make sense. They ask you for a one-page synopsis of the film's story, based on which they decide whether to fund the project.
I wonder if a short summary of the film can ever reveal what kind of film it would be. There is no dialogue between the filmmaker and the script review committee. Despite all odds and a stringent budget, the two of us and a whole lot of our associates moulded from the movement for good cinema have managed to fight it out to sustain as filmmakers. As for funding from financiers, we believe it is possible to eliminate middle people and interact directly with audiences.