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The Books We Made review: Kali for Women gets its worthy place in the history of feminism 

Release Date: 01 Feb 2018 / 01hr 08min

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Suparna Thombare

Filmmakers Anupama Chandra and Uma Tanuku take us through the journey of the feminist publication formed during the women’s rights movements of the 1980s.

Anupama Chandra and Uma Tanuku take us through the journey of the significant contributors to the feminist movement in India in the 1980s and 1990s — Kali for Women, the publication house founded by Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon.

The Public Service Broadcasting Trust production explores the feminist publication house’s inception in 1984, its landmark books and their authors, challenges and its closure in 2003.

The documentary opens with Butalia’s room, which is overflowing with books. “I always keep books by women... always,” she says, while explaining how she decides which books to keep and which ones to let go. Images of books invariably appear throughout the film, sometimes tucked away neatly in a shelf and at times in the hands of the authors as they read lines from their own works.  

The story of inception in black and white footage; the founders' interviews generating nostalgia as they reveal their humble beginnings in a garage, the designing of the logo by Chandralekha, a dancer, and the lack of profits through most of the years. 

But it's really the first-hand accounts from feminist writers such as Nivedita Menon (Seeing Like a Feminist), Shaheen Akhtar (The Search) and Baby Halder (A Life Less Ordinary) that create the bigger impact in placing the work of Kali for Women in context of the social scenario of the time.  

The nuanced portrayal of their experiences establishes how the feminist publication came out of the feminist movement and the political context itself, and not from the mainstream publications — something that Ritu Menon does mention earlier on in her interview too. It is no surprise then that the lack of writing on dowry, which was a burning feminist issue of the 1980s, inspired Butalia to jump into publishing. 

One of the first breakthroughs for the independent publishers was Shareer Ki Jankari, a book on the female body, authored by 75 village women in Rajasthan, each of them finding their name on the book. The tabooed subject that involved showing naked female bodies was dealt with by an ingenious idea that there would be an illustration of a fully dressed woman on top, but lifting a flap would reveal the body parts and their functions. 

The English translation of Urdu writer Qurratulain Hyder's magnum opus Aag Ka Darya and the iconic anthology Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, edited by Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, also find a worthy mention. 

What works in favour of the documentary is that the makers never attempt to glorify the two protagonists of the story, and yet manage to lay out their humungous contribution to the feminist movement through a matter-of-fact treatment. And what makes this a rounded film is that Anupama Chandra and Uma Tanuku manage to get interviews of some of the most significant authors on the roster of the publishing house on their iconic books.

Through these interviews the filmmakers succeed in establishing that Kali for Women isn't just a company run by two women who feel gratified by their achievements, but a collective movement steered by joint ownership of all its female contributors from different backgrounds who made a huge dent with their writing and publishing. 

The Books We Made was screened as part of the National Competition section at the 15th Mumbai International Film Festival on 1 February 2018.