{ Page-Title / Story-Title }

Interview Gujarati

Interested in the politics and poetics of the domestic space, says Sushma Khadepaun about her film Anita

The Gujarati-language short takes a hard look at the institution of marriage, patriarchy, women’s empowerment and marital rape, among other things.

Photo: Courtesy of Sushma Khadepaun's website

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Writer-director Sushma Khadepaun’s short Gujarati-language film Anita was premiered in competition at the Venice Film Festival 2020.

Starring Aditi Vasudev and Mitra Gadhvi, the film follows a non-resident Indian (NRI) couple, Anita and Vikram, that returns to India for a family gathering. The event proves revelatory for Anita as she is pushed to see her seemingly broad-minded husband in a different light and questions whether a geographical shift makes one leave one's prejudices behind.

An alumna of Columbia University, where she participated in the MFA programme in screenwriting and directing, Khadepaun mentors screenwriters at the Sundance Co//ab and is an adjunct professor at the department of cinema at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts.

Anita review: Shattering the construct of the independent, progressive NRI couple

Describing her reaction to the selection of the film at Venice, she said, “It was a completely different experience from what it would have been before the pandemic and it was surreal because it was the only film festival that happened in 2020 in-person, I believe, and miraculously, I was able to travel there. To watch it with the audience in the theatre was a great experience and one I didn’t expect in the year.”

Anita explores the institution of marriage, patriarchy, women’s empowerment and marital rape, among other concerns. The genesis of the short film lies in a feature-length film that Khadepaun has been developing for the past three and a half years. “The feature film follows Anita when she moves to the US and I wanted to explore the characters and the relationship between Anita and Vikram and that’s how the short came about,” she said, elaborating on how her own experience of having made the move from Surat to New York offered insights and points of enquiry for the film. 

“I wanted to explore this idea that when you leave, do you leave behind patriarchy and how does that affect us? It was also important to explore Vikram’s character as somebody who really believes he is open-minded and liberal, and what happens when you are pushed to a corner,” she said.

The foremost sticking point in the film is Anita’s desire to be a working woman. In contemporary times one does not think this would be that big an issue. Elaborating on this, Khadepaun said, "I think that in today's time, it’s more important to talk about people who believe they are no longer misogynist or [think] that patriarchy does not exist. I think they are more dangerous than, for example, Anita’s father in the film, who outright feels that his daughter should not work, as a way of protecting her almost, and says to Vikram, 'Aren’t you man enough to provide for my daughter that you need her to work?' I wanted to explore what happens when someone like Vikram, who believes that he is liberal, open-minded and unlike the previous generation, is pushed or questioned.”

While one feels sorry for Anita’s predicament, Khadepaun makes her a flesh-and-bones character and not a meek victim to whom injustice happens. Anita enjoys her NRI status, has a bit of a cocky attitude, and even shows off a tad that she has got a liberal husband.

Speaking about her character, Khadepaun said, “I was quite aware that I was writing a character who herself is very much part of this system and grew up in it. And when you grow up in that system, you stay a part of it. For instance, her mother and her sister are a part of it and don’t know any other way. And then there is Anita who has seen another way and therefore feels superior. So there is definitely that attitude."

The filmmaker also wanted to create a female character who is manipulative and willing to fight to get her way but not in typical ways. "She will not start a yelling match, but she will manipulate matters, she will get a spokesperson for herself, she will recruit people to do her bidding, and is willing to do whatever it takes to find agency," she said. "But at the same time, she says [to her husband], ‘Are you afraid I’ll make more money than you?’ and feels the need to play coy to reconnect because she has hurt his ego. This is because she is very much part of this system too.”

Anita’s situation is accentuated by the film's colour palette. “The warm colours, the orange hues of celebration and marriage and all that they represent were contrasted against the coldness of the film's subject and what happens to Anita, who is constantly trying to show that she is different from the other women," Khadepaun explained. "So, in the beginning, everyone else is in warm colours for the puja and Vikram and Anita are not because they have just arrived, she is in stark blue. And in the last scene you can barely distinguish between all three women as they are wearing the same thing.”

The film has been screened at several international film festivals, including the just-concluded Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, and won several awards, including the National Board of Review Student Grant award, and the Grand Prix: New Talents award at PÖFF Tallinn Nights Shorts Festival. Although most of it has been during a pandemic year when in-person screenings have been few and far between, the film has connected with audiences.

Khadepaun shared some of her experiences: “Responses to the film have been very interesting, sometimes unexpected or powerful. I am writing something from a very personal space. I’m also making something based on my own observations. You go in thinking 'I’m sure that women will relate to this or men will relate to the idea of what do you do when you are pushed into a corner'. What I did not expect was the pain and anger that so many women felt after watching the film. Marital rape is not a crime, as we know, in India and so many states in the US. I think somewhere it [the film] brings out something that so many women have experienced but never talked about or even allowed themselves to acknowledge. I can only assume this is what is prompting this reaction, but I could be wrong.”

Talking about the kind of stories that engage her, the writer-filmmaker said, “The stories I wish to tell often come from a personal space. I think they are schizophrenic in nature because I grew up in such a gendered household that I tend to write a lot about domestic spaces.

"I’m interested in the politics and the poetics of the domestic space, but I also like to write about very public, masculine spaces and put a woman at the centre of them because those are the other worlds I know. So if I did not want to be a homemaker like my mother, the only other alternative I knew was to be a businessman like my father. And I think that perhaps is why the stories that I want to tell are so opposite.”

Khadepaun is developing a few films which include a feature, Salt; a TV pilot set in the United States; and the feature Places I’ve Called My Own, which is a mother-daughter story set in Mumbai.

Related topics