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Punjab isn't only about cheer, colour, singing and dancing, says Kaali Khuhi filmmaker Terrie Samundra

The filmmaker's 2009 short film Kunjo is an exploration of agency and gender through an incident in the life of a young migrant girl

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Terrie Samundra’s short film Kunjo (2009) is the story of a girl, Kunjo, a 12-year-old from Rajasthan, who spends her days begging in the streets of a village in Punjab.

Living on the margins of the village, Kunjo's life is very different from that of other girls her age. An unlikely friendship blossoms between Kunjo and a schoolgirl, Preeta, and Kunjo reveals her secret passion for storytelling. When Preeta betrays Kunjo, the latter must decide whether to accept it or stand up for herself.

The short film was made available from 19 June through 5 July by the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA) on its virtual showcase of films that were screened at earlier editions of the festival.

Taking this opportunity to revisit the film, Samundra said, “Part of me was nervous to have a film that was my thesis film [in the showcase], but I do really love that short film and I realized that there are a lot of people who have never seen it and it was interesting to revisit. I’ve had a really nice response to it and it was good to see that it maintains its relevance.”

Sharing her journey of making the film, Samundra said Kunjo drew from a lot of her own experiences as a child in that village. “I was interested in the idea of who gets to tell their story, who gets to hold the camera, who gets to be a filmmaker, and I was very aware of my privilege of coming into my village and saying I was going to make the film,” she said.

However, it wasn’t an easy task as she needed to seek permission from the parents of the kids in the film, build their trust and do theatre workshops, all with a minimal crew.

Although made more than 10 years ago, Kunjo remains a powerful and relevant exploration of the plight of migrants within the country, and within that of the agency of a young girl who fights back even though she does not have any support system.

Samundra said, “I think it [the film] is still relevant because we were able to capture all those nuances and layers of their lives because those young girls are very fierce and there is a lot more going on than them being victims, there are a lot of societal situations, and they have quite a bit of agency within themselves and that came out in the work we did.”

Samundra is currently awaiting the release of her Netflix Original film Kaali Khuhi, which looks at female infanticide in Punjab. “Kaali Khuhi is technically in the horror genre but very much a dark fairy tale and it’s very much my way of exploring my familial and generational gender violence trauma," Terrie Samundra said. "This deeply ingrained patriarchy is like a poison in our culture, but for me as a storyteller, with this story, I am very much tapping into my family’s story.

"I come from a family of almost all women. This is very much my mother’s story, her mother’s story... there has been a lot of history in my family revolving around gender violence trauma, so this is my exploration of that and I take creative liberties, obviously, because it’s a ghost story.”

Although her upcoming film is also set in Punjab, it takes a very different route from the singing, dancing and generally jovial disposition attributed to people of the state. Speaking about this, Samundra said, “There is this way in which outsiders depict Punjab in this very cheery and colourful way, which in many ways it is, but when we would go to the village, my memories were of staying up at night and being around the fire and there were always ghost stories. My whole life I grew up with these superstitions and ghost stories and the village was not the most cheery, colourful space. I wanted to explore something different than the way Punjab is normally depicted. So, it’s an exploration.

“Both stories are very personal. For Kunjo, I only had a crew of a couple of people. My entire family is in the film, the house is my house, that village is my village, a lot of my grandfather’s clan is in it, so... I like to keep things close, for now anyway.”

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