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Interview Bundeli

Cinema is a medium that gives you voice, says actress-director Rukshana Tabassum

Rukshana Tabassum's short film Dammy examines the desire of a widower to change his sex to care for his infant child.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Rukshana Tabassum’s short film Dammy blurs gender identities by telling the story of a man trying to change his sex to become a mother to his infant child. In fact, the title of the film, a portmanteau, was coined to indicate this merging of the two identities of daddy and mummy.

Suman Basodia, played by Vikram Kochhar, is a young man living in rural Madhya Pradesh. His wife dies and his infant son survives. Although shattered by his wife’s death, the widower finds it difficult to care for his child who is desperate for its mother. To fulfil the child’s needs, he decides to do the unthinkable and tries to get a gender reconstruction surgery done. Suman’s innocent desire is not understood and he becomes entangled in a corrupt system that only wishes to chew him up and spit him out.

The unusual story, written by Jinoy Jose P, was brought to Rukshana Tabassum’s notice and she was immediately on board. The filmmaker said, “I had never thought anybody can come up with an idea like this, or that an idea like this can come to a man’s head! I called him [Jose] and wanted to know how he got this idea and he said that when he became a father, he realized there was a feminine side to me and when I would look at my sons, I would feel immense love for them.

"He said, ‘I wanted to look after them as a mother would, but I knew I had my limitations. I felt that motherhood inside me while being a father and realized that both the feminine and masculine genders are in everyone.’

"I am a great believer in that, that we all have both sides in us and circumstances sometimes bring out the masculine or the feminine. You cannot stereotype that a woman has to be a certain way and a man has to be in another way. It’s very fluid.”

With the concept and story in place, the team set about finding the exact place where the story would be based. “I started reading a lot about gender reconstruction surgery where people were talking about their experiences, about when they went to a hospital and the humiliation they faced," she said. "The fact that in a small town, someone had the guts to go to a hospital and ask to change the gender was a big deal.”

A still from the shooting of Dammy (2021)

Tabassum found the perfect location in Beltola, a small village in Seoni district of Madhya Pradesh. The village life there was out of the ordinary as the women would go to the factory to work and the men stayed behind to look after the house! “I thought this was so progressive, that too in a place that did not even have proper roads. It was such an amazing way to see gender equality there. So we thought that we could set the story in a place like this," she explained.

With the location, the director also wanted to explore the language and dialects of the place, choosing to shoot in the native Bundeli language. “I wanted to use a dialect that is not really used often, like Bundeli. I feel cinema is a medium that gives you voice. Every community has the right to tell their stories and the medium gives you voice, so I thought we should make a film in a language which is not the first preference to make a film, that’s why we chose the dialect.”

The authenticity of the performances in Dammy also came from small details of the place and everyday life that were woven into the film. “This film has been the most collaborative effort I have done so far," she said. "Initially we got the script and travelled to Raisen [district] and absorbed how the place is and picked up little details. For example, the idea of the child being put in front [of a bicycle] in a crate is something that I saw there. I thought it was so innovative. We picked up little references when we were in that place.”

Tabassum also chose to shoot in documentary style, without controlled sets, and many of the shots became a gamble in terms of what one would ultimately capture.

A Bharatnatyam dancer and actress, Tabassum is an alumna of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, and won the National award for Best Educational Film in 2019 for her film Apples And Oranges.

Her films examine various social issues. “I really like taking up films which I feel would address something which we are facing in society right now," she said. "The films that I pick up are ones that I connect to on a personal level. For example, gender equality or what Dammy tries to talk about, it doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman, you have the feminine and the masculine in you. Everything comes from the inherent need to voice what is going on inside me, the conflict. This medium gives me the voice.”

Tabassum is currently working on a feature which will be based in Assam against the backdrop of the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC). The film is not political but focuses on the human stories around that particular moment. “I realized that for the common man it is more important that they survive. It’s not about which party is doing what. At times, I think these concerns take a back seat when you are looking at a larger political scenario, so I want to talk about the other side of it.”

Dammy was premiered at the Indian Film Festival Stuttgart, Germany, in July and has been travelling to various festivals since. It was recently screened at the South Asian Film Festival in central Florida, USA, from 2–4 October. 



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